Wednesday, July 20, 2022

CD Review: Tyshawn Sorey Trio- Mesmerism

Tyshawn Sorey Trio
The releases of John Coltrane's Ballads album and Thelonious Monk's Plays Duke Ellington were both considered, to some degree, ways to make both of these bold individuals palatable to a greater audience. Familiar tunes could draw in listeners who might not be ready for their own music. While that might really have been Orrin Keepnews' thinking with Monk, it has been debated back and forth whether the Coltrane session was really the idea of the saxophonist or his producer Bob Thiele. 

More than half a century later, it doesn't really matter. They're both good albums. But today, when a musician digs into the "classic" jazz repertoire, it's still often seen as an attempt to cater to a wider audience rather than an attempt to reexamine some past works and add a new signature to it. 

But when you're talking about Tyshawn Sorey - drummer, composer, band leader, Doctor of music who knows his way around a piano and trombone too - one would be a fool to make such an assumption. Sorey calls himself a post-genre artist, meaning his music transcends genres. I've said at least once that he's creating music for which we don't really have accurate descriptions yet. (Here's a sampling of what I've covered on this blog.

To discover that Mesmerism finds Sorey (on drums) leading a trio through chestnuts like "Autumn Leaves" and "Detour Ahead," along with works by Horace Silver and Duke Ellington might come as a surprise. But rest assured it also comes with the same depth that fuels the good Doctor's original works.  

Sorey is joined by pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. He's worked with the latter before but this marks his first collaboration with the pianist. Mesmerism came together in an afternoon, meaning the musicians didn't have time to overthink the music, but to dive in and listen to one another. The trio doesn't deconstruct the music, although they do stretch in different ways. 

Silver's original "Enchantment" had an exotic feel, coupled with a standard hard bop drive. Sorey, Diehl and Brewer give it a laidback funky feel. It's not a smooth funk, but it has an easy groove to it. "Detour Ahead," which was closely connected to pianist Bill Evans, gets drawn out in a rich 14-minute epic. None of that time is wasted, however. Diehl plays with a lyrical feel that blurs the lines between choruses, making it easy to loose track of time. Brewer also gets a solo early in the piece, and he also steps up in "Autumn Leaves." Along with some time changes in the opening and closing choruses of that song, the bass solo gives some drive to the wistful tune.

Conversely Sorey never demands any solo space throughout the whole album, not even trading fours for tradition's sake. For a player who can make the most angular time signatures swing hard, this is his most deliberately laidback set. But laidback doesn't mean subdued, as his accents really inspire Brewer in "Autumn Leaves," eventually kicking up the mood when Diehl returns.

Motian's "From Time to Time" gets the biggest remodeling job, as the group breaks it down into individual lines with wide gaps between them. Lasting just less than six minutes, its time goes as quickly as the lengthy "Detour Ahead." Ironically, Muhal Richard Abrams' "Two Over One" might be the most straight ahead piece of the whole set, though it retains a unique stamp in Sorey's drum part, which plays across the toms a lot. 

The album closes with "REM Blues," which Duke Ellington brought to the Money Jungle session with Max Roach and Charles Mingus in 1962. It only appears on the CD and streamed versions, which makes a strong case for hearing the album in that format. The downhome groove of the song, with an appropriately loose quality in the band, feels like the ideal way to end the album. It has a familiar, lived-in quality to it, but it doesn't settle for being a simple homage to the master. This version is just as much about Sorey, Diehl and Brewer as it is about Duke.

For someone so committed to developing his own compositional voice and getting his own work out to the public, Sorey took a bold leap in trying his hand at classic jazz. Not everyone could pull off such an artistic gear shift. But a post-genre artist is built with that kind of flexibility. 

Monday, July 11, 2022

CD Reviews: Lisbeth Quartett - Release / Punkt.Vrt.Plastik- Zurich Concert

Lisbeth Quartett

Alto saxophonist Charlotte Greve has been involved in a number of musical projects both in her new home of Brooklyn home as well as her birthplace of Germany. (Her native country recently lauded her with the Deutscher Jazzpreis Artist of the Year award.) Her Lisbeth Quartett project began a dozen years ago back home, with five albums already to their credit. Release arrives after a five-year hiatus during which the saxophonist worked on a few other projects. 

Greve chooses her lines thoughtfully, as if she's in the midst of a deep meditation. She might not blow hard or cut loose, but she can wail, sliding easily into the upper register of her horn. Pianist Manuel Schiedel locks in with her on "Le Mistral" where both peel off rapid lines in unison with ease. Greve follows with a solo that begins in short clusters of phrases that become lines that float away gently. If her playing sometimes feel spare, she balances things with a strong, crystal-clear tone. It might contrast with the swampy inspiration for "Bayou" but that two-movement track offers one of the highlights of the album.

After launching "Bayou" with splashes across his kit, drummer Moritz Baumgärtner deliberately shifts between backbeats and offbeats during the second part of the piece, to keep things unsettling. In "Arrow" bassist Marc Muellbauer practically solos beneath Schmiedel's piano solo, which pushes the energy along and without making things sound too busy.

The loose, flowing quality of the Lisbeth Quartett sometimes evokes Paul Motian's work as a leader, an observation I noticed on Greve's album with Vinnie Sperrazza and Chris Tordini. This comes in to play during "Full Circling" where Greve repeats a series of circular five-note lines as the rhythm section unfolds, piano and bass eventually joining her

"Outro" closes the album with the saxophonist alone, her lines echoing off a mountain top behind her. (Could it be a siren call to ECM? The group would sound right at home on that imprint.) It's a fitting sign-off but much like the title track, which precedes it, there feels like something more could have come from the group - more of a climax or, to extend the meditation idea, more insight as a result of that reflection. Nevertheless, the time away has done nothing to keep these four from developing strong interactions, which often feel gentle on the surface, but driving and intense beneath the surface.

Zurich Concert

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik started out as a 2018 album by Kaja Draksler (piano), Petter Eldh (bass) and Christain Lillinger (drums). But two albums later, it's safe to say that the album title has become synonymous with this band of feisty European players. I've listened to a bit of their other two albums in a noble but futile attempt to keep up their label's vast output. Hearing the live Zurich Concert set indicates that it's time to go back and do a dive into their previous releases. The fire started onstage at unerhӧrt!-Festival provided the perfect blend of manic Euro free improv, along with the knack at keeping a groove somewhere at the heart of it.

"Body Decline - Natt Raum" (two separate compositions by Eldh, played together) presents a good example of the trio's cohesion. Draksler begins slowly in leaps up the keyboard and eventually Eldh starts pedaling a steady line. When Lillinger joins in with a ride cymbal groove, punctuated by a fast set of rolls, the pianist begins twirling over them until all three of them finally come together in a section that isn't quite 4/4. The way they play, it sounds like they're not even sure of a time signature but they're having fun tripping up over it. The sense of esprit de corps can be heard more apparently in other tracks on the album, when members of the band burst out in a laugh in the middle of a performance.

The speed and visceral feeling of the music might account for the first part of the band's moniker, as they feel like a punk trio. Tight editing makes everything run together like a suite, not even leaving space for applause. All three compose individually for the group, with Lillinger submitting more than half of the album. Moods vary with each piece, ensuring that the band never stays on one idea long enough to wear it out, not do they embark on any Cecil Taylor-esque excursions for too long either. 

To that end, it should be noted how distinct Draksler's performance sounds throughout the album. Even at her freest, she knows exactly where she wants her fingers to land. At several moments during the set, she gets a sound out of her piano that resembles bells, with pitches bending slightly. Equal mention should be given to Eldh too, who is equally versed in jerky tense lines ("Nuremburg Amok") and angular leading lines created when Draksler feeds him chords ("Amnion"). 

All the compositions on Zurich Concert appeared on both of their previous albums, but as Alexander Hawkins states in the liner notes, things transpired onstage that were much different than what happened in the studio. This is a great place to start for those who haven't heard the trio before. 

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

CD Review: Miles Okazaki - Thisness / David Virelles - Nuna

It's been a while since I've written about releases from the Pi Recordings label. 2021 was an especially fruitful year for Pi as it marked its 20th anniversary and released albums by Henry Threadgill (the first artist released on the label back in '01), Snark Horse and Steve Coleman. The Snark Horse release was a six-disc set by the duo of keyboardist Matt Mitchell and drummer Katie Gentile, along with many friends. That, and the other two artists' work were pretty intriguing efforts that involved some head-scratching and deep listening, the qualities I've come to expect from the label. The following albums are much more recent though they both came out a few months ago. Now it's time to put down some thoughts about the sounds on the discs.

Miles Okazaki

Miles Okazaki's last few albums for Pi (including this one) have incorporated the myth of the trickster,  a scalawag from literature who thrives on disrupting the norm and breaking taboos. Like many bands, the title of their first album, Trickster, has become synonymous with Okazaki's quartet with Matt Mitchell (piano, Fender Rhodes, Prophet-6), Anthony Tidd (electric bass) and Sean Rickman (drums). 

As a side note, a different kind of trickster might have been afoot in the production of Thisness. When the disc was placed in my laptop player, all titles appeared in Chinese symbols. When translated through an online system, they all read "How to be a great office worker," or "How to become an excellent office worker." The question becomes, Is the trickster toying with us, or does Okazaki's music improve inter-office skills? 

It should be also be noted that the guitarist came up with actual titles of the four tracks after they had been recorded, all of them coming from successive lines in a poem by Sun Ra, "The Far Off Place."  The music was composed in a manner that evoked the Exquisite Corpse game that was invented by surrealists, in which one artist made a drawing and folded the paper downward so only a little bit could be seen and would give the next artist only a vague cue on how to proceed. Each artist did the same thing, leading to a work that combined several disjointed but entertaining illustrations coming together. 

The writing and the sound of the band make Thisness quite the surreal performance to drop in on. Tidd's fretless bass takes the sound back to '80s electric jazz, all slippery and tight. It's not smooth but it feels like it could be, as it blends with Okazaki's clean guitar lines, played on a Gibson ES-150 "Charlie Christian" model. Rickman often plays  his kit like he's trying to stem the tide, sounding skittery while Tidd is getting funky ("I'll build a world"). 

Like an exquisite corpse image, things change in the middle of each song, sometimes gradually, sometimes radically. What was loose and flowing at first suddenly gives way to a 4/4 groove, though Okazaki keeps things choppy before grooving in his own way ("In some far off place"). Rickman sets up a beat in some hard-to-pin-down cluster that seems to total seven in the track "years in space" and the band makes it swing with authority. When that foundation eventually morphs, so too does Okazaki who sounds like he's switched to acoustic guitar.

Despite that fact that a lot happens in all four of these tracks, the music never sounds complex for complexity's sake. Even when Mitchell snakes in on a keyboard countermelody or sounds emanate from Okazaki's "robots" which are programmed to join the improvisation, the music has an organic feeling to it. When the final track, "and wait for you," folds up with barely a climax, it feels like a conversation that could have continued on, in great detail.

David Virelles
(Pi Recordings) see above or

David Virelles compiled a list of 35 pianists in the liner of Nuna that inspired him to create the 16 tracks. The roster starts with Johann Sebastian Bach and ends with Geri Allen, including Ethopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Alice Coltrane and Vladimir Horowitz to name just a few. It's a fascinating list equaled only by the range of the music that Virelles plays on the album, largely unaccompanied. Actually the music exceeds the intrigue of the list, to be honest.

The Cuban-American pianist doesn't single out any of his predecessors for a direct tribute, realizing that would oversimplify things. There are elements in many of the pieces that come from them, a flourish here, a percussive attack there, a low chord resonating thanks to the damper pedal. The overall effect of the music sounds both infectious and challenging, where the source becomes secondary to where Virelles takes the music.

"Spacetime" starts out not at the piano but with the marímbula, a wooden box with metal keys which is often used in Cuban changüí music. It kicks things off boldly, while emphasizing the percussive quality of the instrument Virelles typically plays. Among the 14 originals, two tracks come from composers in Santiago de Cuba. While the bright melody of "Cuando Canta El Cornetín" sounds like it might be an interpretation, it also has the feeling of a Bach invention.  "Germania" has a similar feeling. Percussionist Julio Barreto joins Virelles on three tracks, adding more nuances to a set already full of them. His entrance in "Ignacio Villa" - halfway into the piece - works as a clever move to elevate the music further.

None of the pieces on Nuna sound like spontaneous works. They all come off like compositions, some with room for improvisations but all of them well-formed. Few last more than five minutes, making the album like a vast program of what the modern pianist can do with a fertile imagination. 

For that reason, Villa should be required listening for all college freshman piano students. They don't need to learn how to play it or play "spot the influence." Instead, they should get to know it. Live in it. Ponder how Virelles came up this music. Then use their version of that process to develop their own voices.