Thursday, March 31, 2022

CD Review: Melissa Aldana - 12 Stars

Melissa Aldana
12 Stars
(Blue Note) 

Some tenor saxophonists have a drive that pushes them to higher plains, never allowing them to stop and revel in the latest accomplishments. John Coltrane practiced obsessively, shaking the foundation as he went and looking ahead to create another seismic wave. Sonny Rollins also practiced a great deal and told this writer in 2000 that he was "still some distance from realizing my musical ideal." 

Melissa Aldana might not be in the leagues of those giants yet, but a similar drive seems to have taken hold of her. The 33-year old saxophonist is profiled in the April 2022 issue of downbeat. Early in the story she laments the way she feels after a performance, going from a beautiful experience of playing to a feeling of emptiness once the horn has been packed up. Presumably, Aldana would rather keep going, playing and exploring at length. One can imagine Coltrane might have felt the same way too. 

12 Stars, her debut for Blue Note and sixth album as a leader, came into being during the pandemic, a time when Aldana, like many people, felt paralyzed with fear. She explains in the liner notes that, during this time, she began studying tarot and how it related to numerology. The title refers to what appears in the crown worn by The Empress, who symbolizes concepts of creation, motherhood, nature and the universe. While it's not a concept album per se, these theme shape mood of the music.

For the album, guitarist Lage Lund came on as producer, band member and co-writer on all the tracks, save an interlude. Pablo Menares, who has played with Aldana since their days in Chile, returns on bass. Sullivan Fortner (acoustic piano and Rhodes) and Kush Abadey (drums) complete the lineup. 

As much as the album seems fueled by exploration and search, it doesn't always have an underlying feeling of tension and release to it. Lund smooths out some of the edges, production-wise. In particular Abadey's performance seems to be softened a bit, even when it sounds like he's trying to push the group. 

But this is not to say that the album is too subdued. It just requires a deeper listen to see where Aldana is going. Her solo in "Intuition" includes a section where she runs up and down the middle register of her horn, figuring out exactly where she wants to land. She shows a similar scrutiny in "Falling," running through a series of low notes to examine which one will take her forward. It leads to an upper register cry. Though throughout the album, Aldana uses the upper notes in unique ways, by both shaping the direction of a melody and as a way to cap off a solo without merely using it as an exclamation point.

12 Stars includes a lot of hidden qualities that take some time to reveal themselves. "Los Ojos de Chile," written as a tribute to demonstrators in Aldana's home country who were shot in the face with rubber bullets at protests, doesn't rest easily on a steady time signature. It has an extended, rather complex line and some sonic tricks from Lund that sneak up during solos. Similar sounds appear in "Falling," while "The Bluest Eye" uses some wild backwards guitar noise in its coda. The gentle "Emilia," inspired by a dream about a daughter that Aldana does not have (at least not yet), climaxes with a recording of Lund's daughter singing, adding to the dreamy quality of an already alluring piece. Here, Fortner switches to Rhodes, gently adding color to the soundscape, though he could have been brought up in the mix a bit. 

Melissa Aldana continues to grow with each album she makes and 12 Stars is no exception. What will be interesting to see is how this music sounds in the live setting. (A date to appear at the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival is already on her website.) It feels very much like a studio project that could generate sparks onstage. Being on Blue Note could also offer her to flexibility to stretch out and take more risks on future projects. Hopefully in light of all that, she's feeling less empty after a performance these days.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

CD Review: Cook/ Coursil/ Gale/ Robinson/ Tintweiss - Ave B Free Jam

Cook/Coursil/Gale/ Robinson/Tintweiss
Ave B Free Jam

It appears that Steve Tintweiss might be sitting on a treasure trove of historical free jazz recordings from the late 1960s. The bassist, who appeared on albums by ESP-Disk' artists Patty Waters, Burton Greene and Frank Wright, has started releasing some of these tapes on his Inky Dot imprint  which began with a live performance of his group Purple Why, from two 1968 concerts. Now he has unearthed a 79-minute free blowing session recorded in a Lower East Side apartment. One can only imagine what the neighbors thought of this uninhibited wailing that emanated from the room.

The group assembled on that day included Tintweiss, drummer Lawrence Cook (also a Purple Why member), trumpeters Jacques Coursil (who played with Sunny Murray and Bill Dixon) and Warren Gale (fresh from an ESP session with Zitro, later to do a 360 and join Stan Kenton) and clarinetist Perry Robinson, the latter playing bass clarinet rather than his usual B-flat licorice stick. 

The music is banded into 21 untitled tracks, with breaks coming somewhat arbitrarily at sonic shifts, which was done for the convenience for radio or playlist construction. During track 10, the sound cuts off, presumably at the moment when the tape on Tintweiss' Tandberg deck ran out, and a similar break comes towards the end of the program. But for the most part, the album features a continuous performance. 

Fans of New York Eye & Ear Control, the film soundtrack of free blowing recorded the Albert Ayler Quartet and a few friends in 1964, might find some similarities with Ave B Free Jam. Like that session, ideas flow freely and themes are eschewed in favor of constant group improvisation. But unlike that ESP release, this album features much better sound quality. Granted Tintweiss gets a little buried in the left channel and Robinson's bass clarinet is no match for the trumpets. But things sound extremely crisp for a home recording. 

While NYE&EC feels pretty chaotic, the five musicians on this disc still play together rather than simply playing at the same time, even at its wildest. They don't really give each other breakout points, although the sixth track does feature one of the trumpeters alone, laying down some fast, inventive lines. Both Coursil and Gale stick to a melodic context rather than fast peels of notes that go for quick energy. A few moments occur when the group feels a little more subdued or - after the break in the recording - they explore something akin to counterpoint. Robinson sounds as if he's still getting acquainted with the new instrument, wailing and growling behind the brass. 

The session could be faulted for a lack of tension and release. (Right before that tape cut-off, drummer Cook is working towards a climax with some machine gun snare fills). At the same time, this music wasn't being recorded for release. It simply captures a group of friends interacting and discovering the possibilities of where this kind of music could go. That is the best way to appreciate it all these years later. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Recapping Shows by Charles McPherson and Michael Formanek Drome Trio

Without even taking the pandemic into consideration, I've missed too many live shows due to work schedule conflicts or lack of planning or the inability to escape the gravity force of home. Last week was NOT going to be one of those weeks. On Thursday night, I made it down to Kingfly Spirits and caught nearly all of the music from Jeff Berman's BLINK project. Then on the weekend, I hightailed it out of work to a show each night. Saturday night, alto saxophonist Charles McPherson played at the New Hazlett Theater. On Sunday night, Michael Formanek's Drome Trio breezed into Alphabet City.   

Here are their stories.

While rushing from the parking garage to the Hazlett, I left my phone in the car. At first I figured it was just as well because I didn't need to keep checking it during the show. It wasn't until I sat down that I realized there'd be no pictures either. Hopefully the following words will make up for that. 

One of the things I like about going to a show presented by Kente Arts Alliance - aside from the music itself - is the welcome the audience always gets from either Gail Austin or Mensah Wali, the organization's directors. This time, it was Mensah's turn to get everyone excited with a few choice words. "In the beginning, there was the Word," he said. "And the word was Bird." Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, he explained, was someone who studied that word. In fact, in the film Bird (like it or not), McPherson provided the alto parts for the film's protagonist. Not to mention those 14 years he spent with Charles Mingus.

At 82, McPherson is still blowing with plenty of power. While soloing, he stood very still, letting his fingers do all the work. When he and  his quintet played "Just Friends" it was no overplayed standard. He tore into some double-time lines, winding up at the top of the horn's register, evoking Eric Dolphy in a way, in terms of rapid ideas and adventures with harmonic choices. 

Throughout the two sets, McPherson pulled out some bebop classics, including "Cherokee," "Embraceable You" and "Old Folks," the latter title not describing any of the players onstage, especially him. Everyone played as if they knew they had to add something new to songs we've all heard many times. Their arrangement of "Nature Boy" was taken in tempo, with a piano vamp from Jeb Patton that gave it a hard-bop-meets-bossa-nova feel. 

But the music wasn't merely familiar works either. They opened with "Seventh Dimension," a McPherson original that drew a little bit from "The Sidewinder" (in the opening vamp) and "Well You Needn't" (in the melody). They also played "Delight" from Jazz Dance Suites, a 2019 album that came through a collaboration with his daughter, a dancer in the San Diego Ballet. 

The frontline was shared with trumpeter Terell Stafford, whose volume almost overshadowed the boss. He often took the lead on the themes, with McPherson adding counterpoint, and his solos were on fire throughout the evening. McPherson's son Chuck was the drummer, and bassist Nathan Pence rounded out the group. There were a few moments where the rhythm section didn't seem like they were completely in sync with the horns, which could very well have been a sound/mixing issue. But it didn't detract from the set, overall.

The next night, I knew I'd miss a bit of Michael Formanek's Drome Trio since the show was beginning right as I was clocking out of work, but I knew whatever I saw would outweigh the late arrival. And if the length of the track on their new CD is any indication (27:00), I still got there during the first tune of the set, "Tattarrattat." Drummer Vinnie Sperrazza (above) was in the middle of a solo that evoked the song's title, a James Joyce term for a loud knocking on the door. (It's also a palindrome, a theme that ran through the set.)

The next piece featured Formanek playing a solo that sounded both funky and angular at the same time. Chet Doxas (on tenor for this one) started off playing smoky long tones that later turned into fast runs up and down the horn. Sperrazza, at one point playing with only one hand and still filling out the sound perfectly, toyed with playing a 4/4 beat but changed back to something a bit more open. So much happened that it was hard to tell if they were playing sections of a bigger piece or playing solos over a structure. Regardless, it flowed beautifully and I was feeling glad that I didn't miss this night.

Another highpoint of the set was "Gone Home," which was written in homage to people who have passed on in recent times. Formanek played a beautiful chord - or was it a double or triple stop - across the neck while Doxas, on soprano, helped the piece sound like a free spiritual. Sperrazza, who often looked as excited by his bandmates' performances as the audience did, played a few passages just on cymbals, which fit perfectly to create the mood for the song, something that reminded this writer of Paul Motian, a guy who did as much with a ride cymbal as some drummers do with a whole kit.  

Both those shows required patrons to wear masks and it seemed like everyone complied. If we can keep be sensible, maybe we'll be able to leave the masks at home before too long. In the meantime, be safe, be smart and come on out to shows. We miss you.

PS The Formanek Trio's album is Were We Where We Were on Circular File Records

Thursday, March 17, 2022

CD Review: Josh Sinton - b.

Josh Sinton

On Josh Sinton's last solo album, krasa, his instrument of choice was the contrabass clarinet. Some sections of the album sounded like punk rock guitar noise, since Sinton used some pickup microphones and ran them through some amplifiers. b. finds him returning to one of his primary instruments, the baritone saxophone. He has released some solo baritone tracks before, but Pine Barren was a split disc, shared with the Caveat Trio. This album features 10 tracks of pure Sinton.

Stop me if I've said this before, but solo reed albums can be appealing for the way they zero in on musical techniques that can otherwise be missed in a group setting. Method of attack, multiphonics and even the use of silence take on greater significance when all ears are focused on a single horn. At the same time, the performer's sense of direction can be under greater scrutiny. If an improvisation seems to wander, or if different tracks come off sounding merely like displays of various techniques (altissimo here, overtones here, reed squeezing next), that becomes clear too.

I mention all that because Sinton does not fall into any of those traps. Even when he devotes seven minutes to simply blowing air through the big horn, never registering notes, the piece maintains some level of suspense, even if it doesn't exactly pay off. While the remaining tracks vary in shape and dynamics, they all come off like fully realized ideas. 

Although each has a clinical title ("b.1.i" through "b.1.iv" followed by "b.2.i" through "b.2.v" which gives it the feel of a record even though it's a CD), most of the tracks sound less like pure improvisation than compositions with some sense of structure. The early tracks especially feel like they could be pieces played with a group responding to Sinton's angular lines ("b.1.i"), lithe tone and balance of silence and melody ("b.1.ii") or ballad feeling ("b.1.iv"), the latter which doesn't get lost as he sneaks in some overtones.

The second half of the album gets more visceral, most notably on "b.2.iii" which conjures volcanic eruptions akin to Pharoah Sanders, with some adding vocalizing underneath, a la Dewey Redman. It can be a challenge to hear it, and Sinton realizes that. He varies his attack as the piece moves on, again ensuring that the performance is more about the music (or "sounds," in this case) than it is about mere delivery (or "chops"). He also follows this onslaught with a piece full of quiet long tones which often comes off like gongs or gamelans. 

b. offers a wide range of emotions from gentle to jarring, which might also lead to some head scratching between tracks. But when that happens, just turn up the volume for answers.

Friday, March 11, 2022

CD Review: Julieta Eugenio - Jump

Julieta Eugenio

Jump might be Julieta Eugenio's debut album, but it sounds nothing like the work of a beginner. The tone that emanates from her tenor saxophone almost immediately reveals a player with a mature, rich sound and a full arsenal of melodic approaches. As it turns out, this kid isn't exactly a kid after all. Born in Argentina, where she studied Jazz Performance, she has lived in New York City for nine years, attending the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Rather than rushing to release an album, she took time to make sure she had something to say first. The wait was well worth it.

Eugenio is all-business and ambition on Jump. That much is clear by her band's personnel. She plays in a stripped down trio with the equally fluid and inventive bassist Matt Dwonszyk and the catalytic drummer Jonathan Barber. That instrumentation  requires a lot from all the participants. Everyone here plays with sharp focus that gives the music room to breathe but never lets things get too open. If the instrumentation evokes other tenor trios past - from Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson to Melissa Aldana and, perhaps, JD Allen - that's a good thing. But Eugenio only has time to tip her hat to her tenor predecessors and peers before staking out her own territory.

Jump consists largely of originals by the saxophonist. "Efes" is marked by angular tenor lines, which lead to a solo where quick phrases alternate with extended ones that flow over several bars. Dwonszyk makes a bold move in his solo, quoting Monk twice - "In Walked Bud" closely followed by "52nd Street Theme." The act of quoting can be a slippery slope these days, but the takeaway here is how deftly the bassist squeezed (squoze, that is) both lines into small spaces. 

Tenor and bass go it alone on "Crazy He Calls Me," one of two non-originals in the set. Dwonszyk's slow, sensual walking offers a great company to Eugenio's smoky delivery. "Flamingo," another chestnut, albeit not one that is usually brought up too often, brings Barber back into the fold, with what sounds like hand drumming giving the tune a slight bossa nova feel. 

The remaining originals move in various directions, from the tense "La Jungla" (with a solid 6/8 bass ostinato) to the sensual "For You" (where Eugenio's phrases evoke a vocalist holding tight to a lyric) and they all make lasting impressions. It will be interesting to see what direction Eugenio takes on future releases and performances. Although the cover shot of Jump might make her look like she has pop star aspirations, her sound says otherwise. The confidence on display in her playing is clear, and will very likely net her some spots on some Year End lists.