Tuesday, May 31, 2022

CD Review: Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double - March / Brandon Seabrook - In The Swarm

Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double

It's no exaggeration to say that Tomas Fujiwara wrote the book on two guitar/two brass/two drums music. But that's directly related to the fact that there wasn't such a book written prior to Triple Double's self-titled debut in 2017. The group charted territory that explored the possible combinations of players in duos and trios with an array of sonic results.

Since that release, the band (Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver on drums; Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitar; Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet) has grown from a first-time blend of like minds to a group that, through Fujiwara's writing, has figured out the best ways to bring those voices to together. 

The music on March seems to be based as much on the written work as much as the very distinct improvisations that all the musicians will produce. "Wave Shake and Angle Bounce," to offer a good example, lets everyone cut loose at the start. Seabrook is up front, though that perspective could be all relative. The theme does sound like a march, with Halvorson bending notes while the brass blows passages behind her. Eventually the lines are again blurred between who is actually soloing or whether it's a group improvisation. Then the guitars revert to a rhythmic role, so as not to get in anyone's way.  

On their debut, each guitar/horn/drum trio was split between the two channels, making it a little easier to tell who was doing what. Not so this time. Of course, it's easy to tell Halvorson's hollowbody tone and bent pitches from Seabrook's quasi-psychedelic wailing, which starts to sound like Sun Ra's electric keyboard in reverse ("The March of the Storm Before the Quiet of the Dance"). Bynum and Alessi can sometimes be more of a challenge. though Bynum is likely the gruff one of the two. 

Cleaver and Fujiwara occasionally get into a friendly tussle but they also avoid excessive clatter and instead feel like one large trap kit, powering the music. While "Docile Fury Ballad" does not live up to its name until the final minutes of echo-heavy guitars, "Silhouettes In Smoke" does feel docile, with Fujiwara moving to vibes that work beautifully with layers of melody from the trumpet and cornet.

The only let down of March comes with "For Alan, Part II." Like its forerunner on the debut, the track features Fujiwara and Cleaver in a duet that pays tribute to Alan Dawson, who had been the former's teacher. Part one included audio excerpts of Dawson giving pointers to young Tomas, but Part Two is all drums. And it goes on for 17 minutes. Interesting layers of traps appear in the piece, such as when a steady pulse exerts itself and doesn't seem to be the work of either drummer. When the duo reaches a lull around the seven-minute mark, it feels like that might have been a good time to stop because the remainder lacks a strong dynamic push. "For Alan, Part II" comes at the end of the album so it doesn't disrupt the flow of a strong album.

Brandon Seabrook
In The Swarm
(Astral Spirits) astralseabrooktrio.bandcamp.com/album/in-the-swarm

Oddly enough, the last time Triple Double was reviewed on this blog, it was paired with another album that included Brandon Seabrook. This time, Album Number Two features 2/6 of Triple Double: the guitar slinger - and banjo slinger on a few tracks - and Cleaver. The album might be credited to Seabrook but Cooper-Moore and Cleaver contribute just as much to the session, and could just as easily equal top billing.

Throughout the album Cooper-Moore, who handles low end bass parts on his hand-crafted Diddley Bow, and Cleaver, on drums, function in a unique way as a rhythm section. While Seabrook plays freely on his own, the other two sound simultaneously like they're in step with each other and splitting apart at the same time. The effect creates an interesting pulse to the music that is built on flexibility. 

All the music was created spontaneously by the trio, but Seabrook edited them into "songs." Cleaver also added some electronics. The post-production work adds a level of intrigue to the flow, such as a section in the title track when two additional banjo tracks - one in each channel - compliment the strings flailing away in the center. 

Throughout the album, the mood shifts from ambient to free skronk to no wave. The latter style is felt in "Seething Ecitations," in which the opening rumbles could actually be distorted voices or drop-tuned, trashy guitars. "Subliminal Gaucheries" begins and concludes with some terrestrial drones, abetted by sustained notes courtesy of a bowed banjo. As things unfold, it sounds like a couple different songs are spilling onto one another, but the feeling has a sound not typically associated with Seabrook - beauty. 

But it wouldn't be a Seabrook album without some serious mayhem, and the feral banjo strumming in "Adrenaline Charters" delivers plenty of that. In between, the trio creates some free psych-funk ("Vibrancy Yourself") and closes the album with 69 seconds that captures them rocking out in their own way ("Of The Swarm").As a final statement, the track seems to imply, "Tune in next time. There's more where that came from."

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Remembering Judy Henske

Most people who check out this blog probably already got wind of my latest entry for the curated blog The Gullible Ear. For those who didn't, let me explain.

My dear friend Will Simmons (one of the catalysts behind The Eagleburger Band, a lively marching band) enlisted a bunch of friends to each contribute to a blog in which each week is devoted to one song. Not everyone limits it to a single song, and I've been a bit guilty of that myself. But it's a fun read by a bunch of folks who love to share music.

When Judy Henske died last month, I didn't take to this blog right away to pay homage because I think other deadlines were looming. A little more time passed and I thought this woman with the fabulous voice would be a perfect subject for my next GE post. 

PS If you did just stumble upon the link to the Judy tribute for the first time, please leave a message to let me know. 

Friday, May 20, 2022

CD Review: Nat "King" Cole - Capitol Rarities (Vol. 1)

Before we launch into the review, a story....

Don't skip ahead even if you think you know where this story is going.

When I first got wind of Nat King Cole's Capitol Rarities (Vol. 1), I wondered if it might include selections from the massive Cole boxset that Mosaic released in the early '90s. That was arguably the biggest set that the mail-order label had released, aside from the three-volume collection of everything on the Commodore label. The Cole set featured everything his trio recorded for Capitol on 18 CDs or 27 records. If I remember correctly, the purchase could be spread over three monthly credit card installments for a total of $270, before shipping. That was a lot of dough in 1991. 

Of course it sounded like a beautiful package but even then I thought, that's a helluva a lot of music in one box. I had yet to get a CD player when it came out so the thought of playing 27 records seemed like an impossibility, even if I hadn't been a crazy college student. 

Over the years, as I started acquiring more Mosaic boxes - some bought, some as review copies - the Nat set still seemed out of reach, in both cost and scope. Maybe when I retire, I'll have the time for it. In getting an answer to my question - Capitol Rarities does not dip into the Mosaic set - it was mentioned that all that music is now available for streaming online. It's a nice thought, but it's kind of like having a cassette dub: all the great music, sure, but none of the details that you come to expect and relish from a Mosaic set. I'll still have to wait.

Then last month, after I posted my review of Mosaic's Lennie Tristano set, a friend mentioned online that one of the Exchange shops had some used Mosaic boxes for sale. Of course I had to check it out, so I went in, expecting to see huge price tags on things I already have. But there was the Art Blakey set of the 1960 Jazz Messengers. More sets were on the shelves in the back of the shop, I was told. So I went back and saw this..... 

I almost regret having the guy in the shop remove the price sticker because that $270 set of 18 CDs, which still goes for that much and more online.......... was a mere (relatively speaking) $125. Typically, price is not something I crow about when I get a good deal, but that was unbelievable.

And just to give some idea of how massive a box it is. here's another view. Remember, it's about 12X12, if not 13X13.

I considered doing a blog post a day for each disc in the set but that seemed unrealistic. It also might get old after awhile. Besides, how many different things can I say about five versions of "She's My Buddy's Chick" without just lifting from the liner notes? 

So far, I've listened to eight discs. 

Now onto our new release.
Nat King Cole
Capitol Rarities (Vol. 1)

Nat Cole recorded a huge amount of music during his lifetime, so a large portion of it could be considered "rare," unless you're actively digging through crates of old Capitol 78s. In that way, the title of this collection refers to the fact that these 14 tracks that have been previously released but are hard to find, anywhere other than the original pieces of plastic (or shellac) that first contained them. Five of them are available for streaming for the first time. 

Capitol Rarities (Vol. 1) culls material from different periods of Cole's career, rather than attempting to be the first set in a chronological series. This overview points to another aspect of the singer/pianist's output - not everything he produced had the thrilling precision of the King Cole Trio. He recorded a lot of hokum too. It's not all that appears on this set, but that is a fairly good way to describe "Tunnel of Love," a tale of the efforts he has to take to woo his sweetheart, complete with the Ray Charles Singers (no connection to the singer/pianist who would start out emulating Cole), serving as a Greek Chorus that plays up the corny couplets that rhyme "custard" and "mustard," as well as "coaster" and "toaster."

Three tracks feature Cole's wife Maria in duets with him. "Get Out and Get Under the Moon" casts the couple in close harmony in front of a later version of the Trio and Pete Rugolo's swinging chart. Future collections should include more of this. The other two tracks with Maria are novelty numbers. "Hey Not Now! (I'll Tell You When)" uses the title as a stop-time punchline in yet another song about Nat's failed attempts to make a move on his sweetie. "It's the Man Every Time" plays on the men-like-to-cheat/women-like-to-spend-money stereotypes with lesser results. 

Some of the more interesting moments of the set come with songs that contain an undercurrent of social commentary. In the dramatic "My Brother," Nat could be singing about the easygoing ways of his siblings Freddie or Eddie. But the surprise ending finds Cole saying that "a guy who likes to see his neighbors get along with one another... is the kind of Joe I'm mighty proud to know/ for you're the one I call my brother." For 1950, when it was recorded, it's a powerful message and the smooth Cole delivery hasn't lost any edge.

"The Magic Tree," one of the tracks available digitally for the first time, and "Early American" both mix metaphors about budding relationships with, in the latter, the optimism that must have been brewing this country following the war. The mention of "the first Thanksgiving" might ring hollow in these modern times, but the lyrics are involved enough that it can overlooked. Cole might have been hoping to latch onto another major holiday when he co-wrote "Easter Sunday Morning" but it lacks the narrative that he immortalized in "The Christmas Song." 

While the use of strings is often considered synonymous with music that's more flaccid and lightweight, it's important to remember that Cole took to them adroitly. Thanks to arrangers like Rugolo and Nelson Riddle, the warm Cole pipes made the backgrounds lush rather than mush. Tracks like "The Day Isn't Long Enough" and "My First and Last Love" come off like ballads with weight. "Roses and Wine" might not be the strongest song, but Cole's spoken intro creates a captivating aura that opens the album and lifts the proceedings.

The vocal choruses provide more of a challenge. But even at their most cloying, at least the Alyce King Vokettes (helmed by one of the King Sisters) never gets as bad as, say, Nat's Wild Is Love concept album. That one should remain rare. 

Overall, Capitol Rarities (Vol. 1) shows how a consummate artist can make even so-so material sound strong. Maybe there will be a new life for some of these songs. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

CD Review: Stephan Crump - Rocket Love, Michael Bisio - Inimitable, Michael Bisio & Matthew Shipp - Flow of Everything

Ain't no solo recital like a bass solo recital. It can be a sprawling mass of noodly lines or it can be a sumptuous soundfest, alternating between arco and pizzicato sounds. For that reason, here are two solo bass albums by two consistently strong bassists in modern jazz, each forging an individual path on the instrument which nevertheless keep the roots of that path in their playing. Following them is an album where the bassist and his partner in arms get into several deep discussions.

Stephan Crump
Rocket Love

Bassist Stephan Crump's c.v. could fill this entire space; some of the more significant parts include the Vijay Iyer Trio and Sextet, his Rosetta Trio and the Borderlands Trio with Kris Davis and Eric McPherson. In person, he's a physical player, becoming one with his instrument as the music develops. Anyone who has seen him in action, seemingly electrified by the sounds he produces, would expect that a solo bass album will be a pretty active experience.

Rocket Love didn't start out as yet another pandemic byproduct, though the quarantine did contribute to it. Crump had already planned to launch a subscription series of solo recordings in February 2020 that would produce a monthly release of one original and one standard. Within a month, he had plenty of time to devote to the project.

The album begins and ends - a coda notwithstanding - with "Lament (Part I)" and "Lament (Part II)" the only tracks that feature overdubbed bass parts. While slow and heavy, the bowed instruments create a rich sound that might be lamenting but which still sounds beautiful in the process. 

Four of the eleven tracks are covers. The title track comes from Stevie Wonder, one of Crump's first musical loves. While it's naturally stripped down in this setting (the original was a little overdressed with slick strings), Crump maintains the song's catchiness, singing along and emphasizing the off-beats of the groove.

The presences of off-beat hooks continues in some of the originals. "Groove for Stacey Abrams" goes beyond a simple riff with a funky melody that does indeed sound groovy. "Enough" alternates between rhythmic tapping on the bass's bridge and a slinky melody. A bowed quarter-note rhythm takes root halfway through "Whoof" that feels infectious in its simplicity and rich delivery.

Crump takes some interesting liberties with a few of the other non-originals. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan," originally slow and deliberate, feels brisk in his hands while Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica" gets stretched out and slowed down a bit. "It Never Entered My Mind" is taken pretty naturally, to ensure the lyrical quality of the ballad comes through.

Michael Bisio

Unlike Crump, Michael Bisio dipped his toe into the solo bass setting with Travel Music, a 2010 performance released in 2020. As a long-standing member of Matthew Shipp's trio, Bisio's performances with the pianist take off immediately, adding a framework to the array of chords and lines, with the occasional whacks at open strings adding some enthusiastic punctuation to the sounds. The moments during a set where Shipp takes a break are just as exciting as the duo or trio moments, because it puts Bisio's strong tone and blend of delicate and heavy playing in the foreground.

Inimitable begins boldly with "Quintessence," a 15-minute manifesto of sorts that blooms from a simple line into an elaborate oratory that keeps flowing the entire time. Some of the tracks focus on specific techniques of the instrument but they don't simply lapse into technical displays. "New One" features some arco work, beginning with harmonic scrapes and moving rapidly through the whole range of the instrument. "Small Things Interrupted" gets a lot of mileage by simply hammering on the neck of the bass like it's a percussion instrument, while "Henry's Theme" is plucked, with a line that sounds like an extended soliloquy due to the way it uses the space between phrases to emphasize its bends and twists. "Renew One" features both an exquisite bowed melody to begin and some plucked lines with sustained vibrato.

The album includes two non-originals. John Coltrane's "Wise One" was originally a pensive ballad of sorts, but Bisio avoids a ponderous mood here, moving forward at a steady pace, with a brief double stop section that could be a tribute to Trane's longtime bassist Jimmy Garrison. "I Fall In Love Too Easily" comes as the biggest surprise, a set-closing standard which posits that, for all of his work playing free and wild, Bisio knows how to dust off an old standard and make it personal. 

While the sound of one instrument can be spare, it never limits the opportunity to unfurl some beautiful melodies, and both of these albums offer strong proof.

Michael Bisio & Matthew Shipp
Flow of Everything
(Fundacja SÅ‚uchaj) www.fsrecords.net

Matthew Shipp has a new piano trio album coming out next month on ESP. But before the ears get caught up in that album, it felt like a good time - and this, a good spot - to check out Flow of Everything, a series of duets with his right hand man, Mr. Bisio. 

Hearing opener "Flow" in close proximity with Inimitable, it's tempting to wonder if Shipp is taking on the role of accompanist to the bassist. Naturally, that's overthinking it. All writing credits on the album are given to both players, presuming that everything was created on the spot. But Shipp begins with some heavy chords, while Bisio leaps around behind him, in contrast, proving that the focus can shift between the two instrumentalists. 

Last year, Shipp's Codebreaker album found the pianist moving in a more meditative direction than his past work, and that feeling continues here, where Bisio moves along with him. "Go-Flow" contains one the best examples, and a new high mark in the duo's work: Shipp thoughtfully picks out a chord sequence, thinking about a ballad. Meanwhile Bisio's bass sings harmonies in the background. The brief "Everything" is a more compact version of this concept, but "Go-Flow" is the one that must be heard, arguably the most delicate thing they've recorded so far.

"Of Everything" presents another new wrinkle for the duo: their take on a hard bop blues, complete with a funky piano line, some walking bass and some Monk-like trills, that latter which repeats itself a tad too often, though. (A quick one of these Monk-isms popped up earlier in "Flow," disappearing before it had a chance to wear out.) While the format might have been implied at the outset, it's not clear how close the duo sticks to it. But the melodies they explore maintain the sense of fun they seem to be having, so structure be damned. 

Hearing this reminds me of how much I miss seeing these guys in person. Hopefully that long hiatus will come to an end soon. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Nu Band Comes Back to Pittsburgh

The Nu Band hasn't come to Pittsburgh since 2004. At that time, trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr. and alto saxophonist Mark Whitecage were in the band, along with drummer Lou Grassi and bassist Joe Fonda. (Campbell passed away in 2014. Whitecage died last year.) That evening got off to a rocky start because the building on the Pitt campus that was supposed to house the show was already in use. Some scrambling happened but another stage was found pretty quickly. (While all that was going on, I was interviewing Grassi for a JazzTimes profile, about my second or third assignment for the magazine.) 

This past Monday, May 9, a new Nu Band (to us at least) made its way to Pittsburgh. Technically, they were across the Mon River in Millvale, but that's close enough. Grassi and Fonda (the latter a visitor to the city in other musical projects in more recent years) were back, along with trumpeter Thomas Heberer and guitarist Kenny Wessel. The restaurant Sprezzatura served as a great setting for the music (note the backdrop in the photos) with great acoustics for the group.

The Nu Band is a cooperative group where all four of the musicians bring in compositions and no one serves as a leader, de facto or otherwise. The four of them exude a great sense of camaraderie as they're playing, quipping to each other between songs, revealing how genuinely pleased they seem to be with each others' company in addition to what they create together. During "Numerants," the final song of the set, after Wessel and Heberer had soloed, Fonda started digging into his bass. But first he looked over at Grassi and said, "Oh yeah, we'll do a little duet." This type of thing probably happens onstage frequently with improvisors, with the idea being expressed non-verbally. The fact that Fonda said it out loud, for all of us to hear, speaks the joie de vivre the band created onstage.  

It was hard to get a good photo of Wessel because he kept bobbing back and forth while he was playing, swaying to the sound of the music. The guitarist had played with Ornette Coleman back in 1992 when Prime Time came to the Carnegie Music Hall. (He also appeared on the Tone Dialing album.) My memory of that evening was a guitar tone that sounded heavy on chorus, like it was coming through a Roland Jazz amp. This week, Wessel played with a sound that combined a richer, dreamy tone (somewhat like Bill Frisell) with the occasional dip into a high lonesome kind of twang, all of it coming with a vocabulary of bent notes and great twisted fragments of melody.

The contrast between Wessel and Heberer gave the music some of its most fascinating moments. They dug into some colorful dialogue together, blending the rounded sound of the guitar with the anything-goes tone of the trumpet. Heberer (also a member of ICP Orchestra, to name but one group that brought him to town before) played all over the horn, including the sub-bottom range, where he growled like a trombone. He squeezed notes until they were reduced to static. At one point, the static kept coming even after he removed his lips from the mouthpiece. (I never figured out how he did it, though he might have been using his voice and tricking us the whole time.) 

Seeing the band again brought back memories of what made them compelling 18 years ago. Their free improv is always exciting, lifting off the ground with enthusiasm, but it's also surrounded by strong writing that can move from freewheeling into a vamp that swings with the slyness of a Mingus piece. Or it can go through several sections, in which Fonda starts off on flute (as he did at the top of the second set), through passages where all four seem to be playing the melody without ever sounding rigid and Grassi quickly shifts from mallets to brushes before there's time to really notice. 

Grassi's flexibility played a big part in what slayed me on Monday too. As someone who has spent time playing Dixieland as much as he's played free music, his approach to his kit really incorporates that wide scope into what he plays. When he played more straightahead, there was a serious amount of drive to it, when he was free, it felt electric. I only wish I could have gotten a shot of him cradling his crash cymbal after he repeatedly struck and muffled it during a solo.  

Fonda, the ever-effusive MC at various points during the two sets, frequently thanked the audience for their enthusiasm. I was going to say the pleasure was all ours but the four musicians seemed to be have as much fun as the small but devoted crowd did.