Friday, February 25, 2022

The Cookers Came to Pittsburgh and Lived Up to Their Name

The first time I heard the Cookers live, I couldn't see them. It happened at the Detroit Jazz Festival, around 2012. The group was playing on one of the stages that's built into the ground, with concrete seats. The steps to get to the stage were mobbed with people, making it next to impossible to file in. But the sound of the group was flowing upwards and felt so powerful, I was tempted to just stand there, staring at a concrete wall, just so I could soak up the music. That's how tight the group was. 

A band with two saxophones, two trumpets and rhythm section might lead one to assume the Cookers are a thrown-together band of veterans, playing hard bop classics they all know. Don't you believe it. The Cookers are a unit. Sure, they might dig into tenor saxophonist Billy Harper's past and pull out a song or two that he played with Lee Morgan in the early '70s, but for the most part this group is living in The Now. 

Along with Harper, the Cookers consist of David Weiss (trumpet), Eddie Henderson (trumpet),  Donald Harrison, Jr. (alto), George Cables (piano), Cecil McBee (bass) and Billy Hart (drums). All of them are leaders with vast discographies but what they create together sounds especially huge. On the subject of huge, their arrangements last Saturday at Pittsburgh's New Hazlett Theater often made the four horns sound twice as big, due to the way they spread the harmonies between them. 

The first set opened with Harper's "The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart," the title track of their 2016 album which has several movements before its author started to stretch out on it. He was tonguing a lot of his lines, but managed to throw in some staccato thoughts and low honks. He might have gone for a chorus or two too long, but it was great hearing him again. Weiss followed, with Cables almost stealing the whole spotlight after him. The pianist might be better known as a support player (he appeared on a lot sets with Art Pepper, among others) but his left horn pounded out chords with the type of authority that makes you want to explore more of his own work as a leader. 

Things continued with McBee's "Peacemaker." I forgot to note which trumpet player soloed but my guess would be Henderson and my notes indicated how he created suspense with some good valve squirts and stop time. When the group reconvened before Harrison's solo, the horn sound felt especially big. Harrison too used the stop-times of the tune to create more drama. 

A few people in the audience were bothered that Weiss didn't mention Billy Hart in his between-song announcements. It wasn't that he was overlooking the drummer; he simply hadn't soloed yet. But people were noticing Hart, especially during tunes like "Croquet Ballet," where he pushed everyone hard. Cables again sounded especially beautiful on this tune that appeared on Lee Morgan's last studio album.

The second set opened with Cables' "The Mystery of Monifa Brown," which again highlighted the sound of the horns and the power of its author's pedal point playing. The break between sets seemed to really energize Harrison, who was really fired up, nearly leaving his fellow saxophonist in the dust. 

Harper's ballad "If One Could Only See" came next, but the saxophonist wasn't the featured soloist on his tune. The glory went to Henderson, who delivered a solo heavy on detail, especially in the unaccompanied obbligato, which drew several sounds of approval from the audience in between phrases. Finally, all the love for Billy Hart was acknowledged in a reading of Freddie Hubbard's "C.O.R.E.," which gave the drummer ample space to blow the lid off things and brought the evening to a glorious finale.

The show was presented by Kente Arts Alliance, who - as I've tried to say either in print or on this blog  - has presented some high caliber shows over the last 15 years, the likes of which aren't usually seen in Pittsburgh. There is a lot that happens here in town when things are safe, don't get me wrong. But the profiles of the people that Kente brings are pretty huge and pretty adventurous. (To name three, they've brought Pharoah Sanders, the late Randy Weston and the late Hugh Masekela, the latter of whom started a dance party with his music.)

This was the first show that Kente has been able to present since the pandemic put the kibosh on live shows. For many in the audience it was their first time they'd been to a show in ages. (My pal with me hadn't been to a show since 2019!) Everyone was cool and committed to the safety restrictions required for the show, and getting everyone together was almost like a community reunion that night. The band even sold all the copies of their new album (Look Out!) during intermission.

But I can't help but agreeing with Kente's Gail Austin when she was remarking about the MEASLY ticket cost of $20. (My adjective, not hers.) That's right - $20 for two hours of music by seven A-list players. I realize people might still be cautious about going out - and it was damn cold that night too. But a show like that is something you really can't afford to miss. So, Kente has two shows coming up in as many months - Charles MacPherson on March 19 and Vanessa Rubin and Her All-Star Octet on April 9. Mark the calendar. We need more community happenings like this.

Friday, February 18, 2022

CD Review: James Ilgenfritz + Brian Chase + Robbie Lee - Loss and Gain

James Ilgenfritz + Brian Chase + Robbie Lee
Loss and Gain
(Infrequent Seams)

Sometimes when writing critically about improvised music, detecting a good performances seems akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous 1964 assessment of obscenity: "I know it when I see it." When I hear it, that is. 

Sometimes good musicians can produce bad free improv. Sometimes unskilled musicians have a knack for creating a rich combination of sounds. I've also seen some musicians who think a steady diet of everything from Derek Bailey to Charles Mingus makes them a good player, but that's another cranky post for some other time.

Describing free improvisation in non-musical terms can evoke the spirit of the performance, but it's also just as likely to generate an eyeroll from this writer if things go too far. Too often I've read notes that seem so intent on not writing like some stodgy jazz critic that it comes off more like a Dr. Seuss-meets-a-musical-astrologist take on things. Yes, I know you don't want to say that a sax player merely blows one overtone like crazy, but talking about the universe and vibrations can get flowery as well.

In the notes to Loss and Gain, bassist James Ilgenfritz discusses the dynamics that come into play when three musicians get together and improvise. Rather than getting self-absorbed or high minded, he speaks realistically, pondering how a dialogue will unfold, and how discussions (or lack of them) can impact the performance. Listening to your fellow performers is key here, because it helps you to figure out how to react and it determines where the sound will go.

Ilgenfritz, Brian Chase (drumset) and Robbie Lee (saxophones, recorders, flutes, electronics) came to Pittsburgh in 2018, two years after Loss and Gain was recorded. (See a few words about that show here.) They performed at the Mattress Factory in a space with hardwood floors and high ceilings. The setting added to the performance because it made the acoustic music resonate and sound richer. Chase (also of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and a player on Jessica Pavone's recent Lull) played with restraint, making sure not to overpower his bandmates. And Lee had some wild looking recorders that he played.

The trio had already sharpened their listening skills when they went into the studio to record this album. Composing credits on the tracks are given to all three, save for "Happening." That track appears around the mid-way point and gives Chase sole credit, which means it might be the one that was composed - or at least planned - in advance. 

Without looking at the disc player, one track often flows into the next. Only one reaches beyond five minutes ("Happening") and another doesn't even last two minutes. Hearing free improvisation in short segments can be intriguing, leaving you to wonder if editing cut a track short, or if the band's thought at that moment was complete. In "Holding Tight," Ilgenfritz puts down the bow and plucks what almost seems like a response to Lee's cooing recorder. Chase's cymbals ping in the background, disappear and then reappear constantly. Then it's over, after just 2:35. Is that it? 

Maybe it's just a lead-in to "Happening," which, like a few other pieces, recalls (to my ears) the drones of "2/2" on Eno's Music for Airports. Recorder and bowed bass work so closely here that it can be hard to separate them. If their tones don't mesh, it feels more like one of them is implying a resolution to what the other guy is playing. The drums come and go, again, adding color to the sound.

Up to this point, the album has felt a bit subdued. Lee plays recorder most of the time on the early tracks, focusing on long tones. It adds a warm feeling to the sound, contrasting with the bass, which sometimes feels like it's on the edge of something more tense.

On the second half, Lee brings in some clarinet and sopranino sax which sonically, if nothing else, makes this feel like free jazz. "No Answer" features the latter reed, and some rumbling from Ilgenfritz, who sounds like he's playing the five-string bass he brought to the Mattress Factory (or else he engaged in some detuning). In the comically titled "Wwwbwwwwb - In between," Chase creates a steady pulse that adds to the low bowing and recorder dialogue. When they wrap up with "Finally (After)," it's Ilgenfritz's turn to pluck a snaky vamp. It's not really bluesy, but the way the cymbals and flute navigate the bass line, it sounds like some new blues. Or maybe it's just another way that these three lock in to each other's minds.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Bryan Murray & Jon Lundbom - Beats By Balto! V2

Bryan Murray & Jon Lundbom
Beats by Balto! V2

The final night of Winter Jazz Fest 2020 - the last WJF that could be experienced in person - featured that year's artist-in-residence, drummer Mark Guiliana, at the venue Nublu with several friends laying down some heavy grooves. A lot of bass and lot of drums - and a lot of people in the sold-out crowd were moving to the rhythms. 

I had just caught the tail end of a show at Nublu's second floor, where saxophonist JD Allen tore up the joint with some exquisitely detailed lines, fired up by just bass and drums. Despite missing most of his set, he still bowled me over. Going from that to what felt like a techno show with live instrumentation was a little bit of a let down. The Guiliana show  - which in retrospect was pretty cool - could have so much more with someone like Allen blowing over it.

Bryan Murray and Jon Lundbom understand, and they've created just such a musical monster on Beats by Balto! V2. The name comes from Murray's alter ego, Balto Exclamationpoint, which in turn comes from his mutant creation, the balto! saxophone, an alto fashioned with a baritone mouthpiece, held in place by toilet paper which creates a slew of bent multiphonics. In addition to being a saxophonist, Murray also knows how to create some serious beats. Facebook's "Jam of the week" has featured his creations extensively. Lundbom is a guitarist who leads several groups, including Big Five Chord (of which Murray is a member). 

The first Beats by Balto! album (2019) came about when Murray sampled tracks buy Big Five Chord. Lundbom, who had moved to Austin from New York, composed new music to go with the beats. While it sounds like a novelty, the horn work by Murray and Jon Irabagon (also a member of Big Five Chord) forged a connection between serious grooves and free improvisation. 

The new album takes things even further. In addition to Irabagon (who plays five different saxophones, plus alto clarinet), Murray (who plays four) and Lundbom, it includes appearances by bassists Moppa Elliot (whose Hot Cup imprint released Big Five Chord) and Richard Mikel, guitarist Nick Millevoi, trombonist Sam Kulick and keyboardist Matt Kanelos. 

This group isn't the only one merging loops with improvised jazz but the end result has an organic life to it that bites a lot harder than most other hybrids. "Battalions" is a reworked BFC song, but the displaced saxophone lines, the reversed guitar solo (Millevoi) and the beat blend so well, it becomes hard to separate the live from the loop. "Beat Like This" has a slinky groove and, following Murray's tenor solo, a mezzo-soprano solo by Irabagon that runs double-time over the rhythm section.

What's most exciting about the album is the way the crew repeatedly adds different surprises to the tracks, never relying on a set formula. The guitar in "Tears and Fists" has a high lonesome twang to it, with a subtle chord change underneath that takes to the tune beyond a riff. The saxophones fade-in to "Ex Machina" implies one rhythm, but once the beat arrives, they've tricked the ears, since they're playing on the off-beat, not the One. The slinky "Enter!" delivers some smooth funk, eventually giving way to a smoky 'bone solo by Kulik that has some off kilter sax and guitar adding color commentary. The album's three interludes also get a bit heavy and cut-up, with "Weak Sauce" sounding like something John Zorn would appreciate. But even there, Murray knows his limits and keeps them to a couple minutes or less.

Free jazz skronk is not what gets people onto the dancefloor, but maybe it's time has come. The horn melodies on Beats by Balto! V2 deliver ear candy, and the beats are pretty irresistible. Once that wins people over, some wailing solos can just make the kids gyrate even more.