Friday, October 29, 2021

CD Review: David Leon - Aire De Aqua

David Leon
Aire De Agua

In the weeks just before Aire De Agua came out, David Leon had already landed on my radar for his flute performance on Jason Nazary's Spring Collection album. His debut album as a leader, however, finds him sticking strictly to alto saxophone with a set of varied originals.

Debut albums often serve as the place where a musician introduces themselves by saying a good deal, either stylistically or as a soloist. To that end, Leon comes across as something of an anomaly. He doesn't sound tentative in the least, but he doesn't want to say too much. The eight tracks are short. with concise solos. Several of them have surprise endings, foregoing a closing theme in favor of letting a solo serve as the final word  Leon is more than willing to step backward or, in the the case of "A Hug Every Day" step offstage altogether and make sure the rest of the band gets equal time. It gives the music a bit of intrigue that offers a counterbalance to a few instances where the ambition outweighs the execution.

Leon's writing sometimes feels rhythmically free, with some element of structure keeping everything grounded, with allusions felt to the classics. The rapid, clipped melody of "Strange and Charmed" recalls the stop-start urge of John Coltrane's "Sun Ship," while "First You Must Learn The Grip" begins like a bebop homage before it jumps the track into a world that includes some reed shrieks and an authoritative piano solo from Sonya Belaya. 

Thanks largely to Leon's desire for everyone in his quartet to get equal emphasis, Belaya repeatedly deserves her attention, from the free, hornless "A Hug a Day" to "Bluest Blue," in which the way she strikes the keys has an emotional impact, and coaxes Leon back to take some deserved space. The two also play a melody together in "Horrible, Horrible Service" that eventually splits into separate melodies that each utilize bassist Florian Herzog and drummer Stephen Boegehold.

Although this rhythm section deserves its own space, the title track could have benefited from more of Leon, who limits himself largely to melody line, "Expressive Jargon II" gives each player a simple set of notes or beats which they repeat with slight variations. At seven minutes, it's the album's longest track and the least successful, feeling more like a chamber music experiment that needs some other element to liven it up.

Those details aside, Leon comes across as a performer well on the way to developing a unique voice. Crisp on some tracks like Lee Konitz, but just as willing to flutter- and slap-tongue the reed amidst some enjoyable squeaks a track later, this debut reveals a lot of his ideas are being put to work already.

Monday, October 25, 2021

CD/LP Review: John Coltrane - A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle

John Coltrane
A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle

When the first Beatles on the BBC set was officially released, it was a revelation to hear "new" versions of their songs after considering their original studio releases as the only versions out there. Granted there are live recordings of the Beatles playing the songs. Thanks to YouTube (which didn't exist with the first BEEB set appeared), it's now easy to find concert performances by the band. But these recordings can't touch the sonic quality, precision or excitement of the studio sessions the band produced in those early days,. Not merely because of all the screaming that overpowered the band either. To put it another way, live segments give you a show, while Live at the BBC gives you a band performance. And once you hit Revolver, well there is only one version of each song.

A similar feeling came to mind upon hear John Coltrane's A Love Supreme; Live In Seattle. The four-part suite is considered the high-water mark in his extensive catalogue. So much has been written on the work, especially over this past week, that there's no need to restate its backstory here. Anyone unfamiliar with the whats and whys of A Love Supreme is encouraged to enter it into Google or, better yet, find a copy of Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, which offers a great deal of insight into the recording and keeps the reader excited throughout. Suffice to say, this piece of music - in which Coltrane devoted his faith to God (though not a specific one) - has taken on a sacred quality in and of itself.

Once he recorded the album in December 1964, Coltrane rarely played the suite live. One performance, at the French jazz festival at Antibes in July 1965, was finally released in 2002, presenting an extended take on the piece to an audience that responded in some parts with boos. He also reportedly played it at a fundraiser for a Brooklyn church, which was not recorded. Only a select few people knew that when Coltrane set up at Seattle's Penthouse in the fall of 1965 that A Love Supreme was performed in its entirety on his final night, and that his friend Joe Brazil recorded the performance and held onto the tape until his death in 2008. 

The Antibes performance definitely added a new perspective to A Love Supreme, but in some ways, a jazz festival seems like the obvious place that Coltrane would revisit such a landmark piece. Hearing it in the intimate confines of a nightclub, the forum where Coltrane did most of his evolving as a musician brings the music down to the rootsy level  As Kahn says in one of the album's essays, "This was not just message music, it was community music." (Italics are his.)

That feeling comes early in "Acknowledgement," the first movement of the suite. Anyone used to the studio version's opening gong crash, followed by the tenor saxophonist's declarative four-note fanfare might be surprised by the casual launch at the Penthouse. More surprising is that the band doesn't immediately go into the tune. Quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison is joined by second bassist Donald Rafael Garrett, who bows while Garrison plucks. They intertwine, not getting in each other's way, adding an earthy groove that eventually morphs into the three-note vamp. Coltrane doesn't re-enter for several minutes, letting a relaxed mood take place. When does join in, the band raises the dynamics, showing that its time to get down to business. Nearly three times as long as the studio version, this "Acknowledgement" reveals a little more grit, and not just because Pharoah Sanders is along for the ride.

The two-microphone set up gives the recording a stereo separation that was naturally created by the stage but it also pushes Coltrane down in the mix. He can be heard, but he's definitely getting edged out by drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner. Even Pharoah Sanders, who had just become a member of the Coltrane band following the sessions for Ascension a few months earlier, can't wail and shriek over Jones thunderous drum kit. That night the group was also joined by alto saxophonist Carlos Ward. He solos during "Resolution," playing with a hard tone that somewhat recalls Eric Dolphy (making him a good addition to the group) but playing in a completely different melodic area. The final section of his solo seems to quote or draw on a disparate melodic form that almost pulls the music in a more straightahead melodic direction.

Coltrane would engage in a deeply cathartic chant of "Om" during his stay at the Penthouse during "Evolution" which appears on the posthumous Live in Seattle album. .(Another posthumous album, Coltrane's Om, was recorded that same weekend as this Penthouse engagement and included Joe Brazil on flute.) But A Love Supreme didn't involve any verbal incantations, such as the chant of the suite's title during "Acknowledgement." Surprisingly, he doesn't even solo in part three, the raucous "Pursuance," after stating the theme (which had shown up in his "Acknowledgement" solo, incidentally). Instead, he lets Sanders and Tyner take over. After the younger tenor saxophonist unleashes a stream of wails, the pianist creates his own tidal wave of music that must have been mind-blowing to everyone in the room. Maybe Coltrane decided he couldn't follow Tyner and decided to step aside. 

Jimmy Garrison's bass solos were probably one of the few times during a set that the audience was able to hear him clearly, due to the velocity going around him. His solo after "Pursuance" provided a respite from the frenzy and this version has more edge and electricity than his studio performance. Garrison's signature strumming technique appears but he also plays with more focus that retains the feel from what occurred prior to it.

Likewise, "Psalm," the piece built around the poem that in the gatefold of the original album, moves with more passion and drive, without giving into the temptation to add some wails to the scene. (Sanders and Ward don't participate here either.) 

The moment that takes A Love Supreme off of the altar and into the hands of the people (so to speak) comes in the final moments of the performance. After Coltrane finishes his final statement and the audience applauds, the bassists keep on going. One of them asks, "Is that the end," to which Coltrane replies, "It better be! It better be, baby! Yeah!" 

The fact that the one of the most revered pieces of jazz music can end ambiguously, with the mighty John Coltrane casually calling one of his bandmates "baby," proves that this music could be revered and admired from a distance, but it was not so holy that  it couldn't be lived in and revisited and reshaped. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Matthew Shipp Live in Cleveland + CD Review: William Parker/Matthew Shipp - Re-Union

The last eighteen months has really magnified the importance of live performances to me. (That much should be obvious from the last few posts that have appeared here, regarding Bob Mould and James Brandon Lewis.) So if a Matthew Shipp performance in Cleveland coincides with a day off from work, with no Pittsburgh stop on this tour, it's clear that a road trip is in order. Which is exactly what I did yesterday. 

The Bop Stop, the non-profit jazz space that looks a lot fancier that its status might imply, was the locale for the show. Arriving on the early side, I was determined to get a seat where I could see Shipp's hands as he performed because he has a signature approach to the piano and it adds an extra element of excitement when you can see it happen. However, next time I need to remember to find a seat that places me at more of a 90-degree angle from the piano, in order to see both hands clearly. 

A Matthew Shipp set, especially a solo one, consists of a continuous suite, figuratively speaking. One tune flows into another with plenty of improvisation coming amidst all of it. Snatches of melody might sound familiar, recalling one of his many albums or from a previous show. When a standard theme pops up, it might also seem like one he's recorded before, even if you haven't heard it. As he plays, Shipp looks a bit like he's in a trance, completely devoting himself to the music, knowing exactly where he wants to go next, or where his improvisation will take him. That all happened last night.

Decked out in blue jeans, a blue shirt and a pair of Reeboks, Shipp frequently moved both hands over the keys in a rapid manner that almost looks like he was dusting them off. But instead of gathering clustered keys together, both hands were interacting, sometimes one right on top of the other, sometimes with the left hand playing a snatch of a boogie idea while the right developed little cells of melody. Occasionally it felt tense, but that tension was always followed by release.

His newest solo album, Codebreaker (which will be released officially next month), there aren't as many thundering bass note jabs that often punctuate Shipp's work. He has admitting feeling more introspective, channeling the feeling of Bill Evans (of whom he is a fan). That delicacy was often in place last night. At the same time, he maintained an edge, frequently locking onto a mid-range chord, hammering away on it several times for a different kind of emphasis. (The tune in question might have been "Green Man" from Codebreaker, though I can't say for sure.) 

When he played the Matt Dennis standard "Angel Eyes" (which appears on the Russian-released album Creation Out of Nothing), he used the entire keyboard to reveal the full drama of the song's lyric. (When done right, this song is a very blue tale of heartbreak.) In the final chorus, his left hand built up a march that made it even more ominous - until the bridge restored the lightness of it. 

A similar approach came up during the old warhorse "Yesterdays." He constructed lines with several staccato jabs, moving through melodic fragments of all shapes and sizes. Another piece later in the set sounded a bit like "Meditations For Moses," a piano solo that Charles Mingus created spontaneously on Mingus Plays Piano that had a groove to its opening line. But that could be me reading into it. 

Following his set, Shipp took part in a Q&A with Matt from the Bop Stop, taking questions from the audience. When asked about how his set is constructed the pianist described how one tune "is like your crazy uncle, one is like your annoying aunt that no one likes,' and how the set is a way of "trying to balance everything out."

William Parker - Matthew Shipp

Before hearing that Shipp was playing Cleveland, I had plans to review Re-Union, the recently released set of duets with his longtime friend and collaborator William Parker (bass). Like Shipp, Parker is having a particularly fruitful year in terms of albums. AUM Fidelity released Painters Winter and Mayan Space Station earlier this year. And both friends appear with drummer Whit Dickey on the Village Mothership set, which TAO Forms released last week.

As far as duets go, though, this is the first that Parker and Shipp have done in over 20 years. The last time they teamed up, the year was 1999 and the album was DNA (notable also because it was the first time that Shipp said he was going to stop making albums). Having worked together in the David S. Ware Quarter and Roscoe Mitchell's Sound Factory, these two already have a deep rapport. 

Re-Union evokes the famous story of Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus getting into a deep conversation backstage before playing a set. Realizing that it was time to play, one told the other, "Let's continue this discussion on the bandstand," understanding that, even though they were adhering to changes, the music they played was much deeper than that. 

This recording took place in a studio rather than on a bandstand but the discussion still runs deep. The title track begins with the pianist and bassist playing what almost sounds like a groove, already deep into the conversation. Throughout its 22 minutes, things pull apart, with one player unleashing a rapid string of notes while the other holds back, then doing the same thing while the first one steps back. This alone is worth the admission price, but the nearly hour-long set includes "The New Zo" (a nod to a previous duet album) and "Further DNA" which both feature some uninhibited bowing by Parker. "Song of Two" gets a bit more contemplative, perhaps leaning on that lyrical side that Shipp explored on Codebreak and at last night's show.

While it might be hard for some to determine where to start with all the albums both players have released this year, Re-Union ranks as one of the mandatory picks.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet at Alphabet City - What A Couple of Nights!

September 2021 marked the 17th year that City of Asylum staged a Poetry and Jazz Forum. What began as a one-night event that brought exiled Chinese poet Huang Xiang and saxophonist Oliver Lake together for a performance has grown in recent years to a month-long series with music and poetry comingling in CoA's brick and mortar space Alphabet City. This year's installment wrapped up last week with one of the most incredible performances I've witnessed in several years. 

I don't say that lightly either.

James Brandon Lewis' Red Lily Quintet released Jesup Wagon earlier this year. This tribute to the life and work of George Washington Carver will likely end up on a lot of Best of lists in a few months. (Click here for a review of it.) On September 28, Lewis and the Quintet performed several tracks from the album at Alphabet City. The following night, he and cellist Chris Hoffman performed duets and accompanied three poets reading their works.

Before the Tuesday night set began, Lewis told the audience he wasn't the leader of the band. "I'm just a vessel." He also added that, thanks to the pandemic, this was only the second time the quintet had been able to play this music live. That being the case, everyone played like they had stored up a wealth of energy and musical ideas and couldn't wait to let them out. 

The set started with "Chemurgy," named for a movement George Washington Carver spearheaded in the 1930s to find industrial uses for renewable resources. The melody, with a phrase or two similar in a way to Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" featured William Parker starting off on the gimbri, creating some low melodic interplay with Hoffman's cello. The rousing coda had Lewis blowing some low wails while cornetist Kirk Knuffke answered in his upper register. 

Throughout the set, Lewis went deep into his horn for complex solos that combined the visceral frenzy of free jazz without ever forsaking a melodic foundation. It reminded me of some of the masters of tenor saxophone I've heard on recordings and live over the last 30 years, but there's no sense in namedropping here. Lewis is clearly his own person, driven by the desire to get these ideas out of his head and into his instrument. 

Drummer Chad Taylor was pushing things along, responding to the other players and challenging them to take it higher. It was clear there was electricity onstage. During Knuffke's solo in "Lowlands of Sorrow," Lewis leaned his head back and wailed. It wasn't for attention. He was caught in the moment. My first thought was - Okay, good to know it's not just me feeling this way. "Arachnis" was a rather melancholic ballad, but the rhythm was so energetic that it felt uplifting. And Lewis' solo could have continued all night and it would have been just as powerful. 

I almost didn't make it to the Tuesday night show but a scheduling mishap opened my evening, so I jumped on it. In retrospect, it was a lucky break because the Red Lily Quintet's set was the most moving thing I've seen since Mike Reed premiered the set of music that became the Flesh and Bone album at the 2017 Winter Jazz Festival. (Click here for info about the release of that music.) If I had missed the show last Tuesday, I feel like I would've missed the boat on a great leap forward in music. I've gone online telling people to put all their stock in Lewis and that evening was proof positive of that. He has an individual, fully-matured voice. 

William Parker, James Brandon Lewis and Kirk Knuffke,
from the video screen on the corner seating area at Alphabet City

The morning after the Red Lily show, I went online talking up Lewis, giving that night's set a hard sell. Usually such praise never gets a reaction but I wasn't pleasantly surprised at the end of the Wednesday show to discover that I was seated next to a guy who went to school with me, from about 3rd grade on, and whom I hadn't seen since we graduated 30-plus years ago. He and his wife checked it out based on my endorsement, which was really cool to see.

It would be hard to follow Tuesday night, but Lewis and Hoffman really got into the feeling that night. Lewis added his own spoken word pieces to the music, full of verbal snippets that recalled the quick burst of Beat poets with modern observations and concern, no doubt fueled by the past 18 months. Taking a title from his own album, the saxophonist put words to An Unruly Manifesto, a personal declaration inspired by similar ones put forth by poets like Ted Joans and other musicians. 

Lewis was modest to the point of self-deprecating about his own literary work but there were passages where his words hit hard. "Self-Doubt of a 21-Year Old Reed" expressed a musician's uncertainty: "Not II-V-I enough...Not MFA, BFA or 'street' enough." Another featured the moving observation, "W is for War, not 'When Will This End.'" Hoffman held down the foundation on a lot of the music, plucking his instrument, walking fast and bowing some heavy double-stops. Lewis did plenty of speaking, but his still let his horn do the lion's share of the talking, for most of the set. Like the night before, it was an ideal balance of explosive honks and reflective lines.


For the second half of the show, Lewis and Hoffman accompanied readings by Joel Dias-Porter (seen above), Danielle Obisie-Orlu and M. Soledad Caballero. All three are strong writers, with Dias-Porter creating as especially compelling piece called "El Magnifico," which recalled the day in his youth when he heard about Roberto Clemente's death. The musicians interacted with the readings very effectively, holding back to elevate the words and not overpower them. The way each piece ended, with words and music concluding in tandem, proved there was effort put into the word, rather than merely improvisation behind them. 

The evening concluded with a tenor/cello reading of "Even the Sparrow" a Lewis original commissioned by the Jazz Coalition which the quintet had also played at the end of the previous evening. As things wrapped up, Abby Lembersky, the City of Asylum Director of Programs, told the audience - which included online viewers - that she hoped that everyone got something from the month's programming that they will take with home them. Two words can sum up the feeling on that idea - no doubt.