Thursday, June 29, 2023

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Ensemble - The Other One

Henry Threadgill Ensemble
The Other One

As we get older, we have to leave things behind. Sometimes we simply outgrow stuff, while at other times, we are forced abandon physical things out of the necessity. Henry Threadgill noticed this as people left New York City during the COVID epidemic. They left a lot of remnants of their lives on the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, where Threadgill lives, and the accumulation of it said a lot to the composer/musicians about people and consumerism.

These ideas fueled "Of Valence," the 61-minute piece that makes up his latest album, The Other One. (The title indicates that it came from the second of two live performances at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, in May 2022. "One" came from the first night.) The original performance incorporated not just a 12-piece ensemble but video, paintings, electronics and Threadgill himself singing and accompanying himself on the piano.(The latter element, sadly, is not part of this album.)

Threadgill does not perform on The Other One, acting instead as a conductor of the ensemble, which includes musicians who have appeared in his other projects (cellist Christopher Hoffman, tubaist Jose Davila, pianist David Virelles, drummer Craig Weinrib) as well as newcomers to his oeuvre. Along with a couple bassoonists, three more strings and three saxophonists, they create a swirling sound that often moves in short sections, yet still maintains a steady flow.

The piece consists of three movements. The first and third appear in sections on the album, with two sections or sub-sections usually appearing in one band. Movement II stands as one 16-minute track. Since the sections run anywhere between 33 seconds and six minutes, the music is best appreciated by avoiding little more than a cursory glance at the breaks between bands and finding the flow between them. 

After Virelles' skipping chords and bright lines slowly get a bit foreboding, with sprays of dissonant notes, the saxophones (one tenor and two altos filling a role that Threadgill might normally occupy) enter, echoing each other before the whole ensemble joins in by Section 4, with the bassoons initially leading things. Everything seems to happen quickly, with the pauses between sections emphasizing the brevity. Despite the often quick cut-offs or change in mood, the momentum continues between each section.

At first, Movement II seems to slow things a bit, with the strings moving atonally, breaking down into scrapes and soft screeches. But one-third of the way in, the alto saxophonist Alfredo Colón or Noah Becker (it's not clear which) joins them to create a rich dreamscape. Hoffman, Sara Caswell (violin), Stephanie Griffin (viola) and Mariel Roberts (cello) play their parts while listening to playbacks of their heartbeats - a hat tip to the piece's dedicatee Milford Graves - and the varied tempi can be felt just shy of the seven-minute mark. What begins open and free ends with more of a groove as well. Weinrib eventually joins in and, as this movement fades, the alto locks into a vamp, one of the few moments where the piece has a more conventional element.

After that, Movement III feels more charged up. There are shorter moments with violin interludes, but it also contains passages where the saxophones add a bluesy, tart growl to the scene. Virelles gets a few spots too where he reprises the feel of his earlier passages without repeating specific melodies. A brief section with bassoon and piano adds to the dynamic of the piece. 

It's no wonder the last 30 seconds of the disc feature applause and Threadgill thanking the audience repeatedly for their reaction. The composer has again found a way to make something complex feel deeply fascinating. Turning 79 this year, the Pulitzer Prize winning Threadgill continues to work at a prolific rate. Right as The Other One appears, his memoir Easily Slip Into Another World, co-written with Brent Hayes Edwards, has also been published. 

Monday, June 26, 2023

CD Reviews: The Nu Band - In Memory of Mark Whitecage & Renual

The Nu Band
In Memory of Mark Whitecage - The Nu Band Live At the BopShop

The Nu Band

(Not Two)

Thinking back on the Nu Band's return to Pittsburgh last year, one of my favorite phrases comes to mind: joie de vivre. In referring back to the post that I wrote following that show, I saw that I used that old stand-by to describe their set, so I'm not imagining the level of enthusiasm that was on display that night. One can't help but admire a group of musicians in their 50s and 60s still traveling the US by van and putting everything into the music, regardless of the turnout. (You can tell me how great a pop star is for the big show they can put on  - and I won't disagree with you - but the people who really deserve kudos are the ones that do it on a small scale repeatedly and seem grateful just to have the opportunity.) 

But this isn't a place for soapboxes. This is a place to talk about two recent discs by the Nu Band that capture their music and celebrate their legacy. In Memory of Mark Whitecage salutes the late alto saxophonist who played with the band until his passing in 2021. The seven tracks come from a 2018 set at Rochester's BopShop, and include Whitecage, bassist Joe Fonda, drummer Lou Grassi and trumpeter Thomas Heberer (who replaced original trumpeter Roy Campbell, Jr. after he passed in 2014). 

The album celebrates Whitecage's distinct voice, beginning with "Prayer For the Water Protectors," a meditative piece on which he plays Diné flute, a Native American wooden flute. Then he switches gears in "Five O'Clock Follies" with a very Ayler-esque line of heavy vibrato before he and Heberer take off on a rapid melody. Like much of their music, it has moments of pure freedom; "Christophe and Ornette" even has a brief passage where the players wail vocally. 

But even when things get loose, the Band can easily snap back into a steady boppish pulse. This often comes from bassist Fonda, whose crisp tone often acts as the connective tissue between free and foundational. On that topic of connections in the music, "Dark Dawn in Aurora" (written by Grassi) has one telling moment during Heberer's solo. Playing a quarter-tone trumpet, he bends one phrase in a manner that sounds damn close to the attack Louis Armstrong often used when he twisted a similar idea. It might only be a fleeting moment, but it makes you wonder what might have happened if Pops  sat in with someone like Ornette Coleman. The track, and the album, conclude with another unhinged solo from Whitecage, sending him out in glory, assuring that he will always be remembered.

The Nu Band recorded Renual exactly one week after their 2022 Pittsburgh set, fresh off their tour and it shows in their performance. With guitarist Kenny Wessel assuming the second "horn" spot following Whitecage's death, the music has a different dimension, adding electricity and effects to the sound. If the original lineup could be seen as part of a lineage that goes back to Ornette Coleman's original quartet, it's important to remember that Wessel adds to that, having been a member of the saxophonist's Prime Time band during the '90s.

In addition to presenting a well-oiled machine, Renual continues to show the strength of all four as composers, with each musician contributing two pieces. Fonda's "Brown Bagging It" straddles steady vamps and open spaces ,with Heberer going from grit to wails throughout. Grassi's "The Unnecessary Correction" finds him thundering all over his kit as his comrades move together on the theme, Fonda digging into some feral bowing. 

The 12-minute "Snowclone" is a real tour de force. It opens with an extended testimony from Fonda, in a tone that feels bright and completely engaging. From there it goes through a growling Heberer section to a free-flowing showcase for Wessel. Grassi again plays all over his kit without ever sounding too heavy. Both of Wessel's contributions, "Notewise" and "Numerants" have angular, stop-start themes that play up the band's hard swinging qualities.

Even though Renual came from a studio session, it retains the same kind of electricity that could be felt on the BopShop gig. Both albums present solid, varied sets of music. 

Friday, June 09, 2023

CD Review: Lina Allemano Four - Pipe Dream

Lina Allemano Four
Pipe Dream

In these current times, when keeping a band together can be nearly impossible, Lina Allemano Four serves as a glowing example of tenacity, having been together for 18 years. Trumpeter Allemano resides in Toronto, the home of the quartet, which includes Brodie West (alto saxophone), Andrew Downing (bass) and Nick Fraser (drums). She also spends a good deal of time in Berlin, involved with several other projects, which she has documented prolifically. (Info on some of them can be found here.)

Allemano used the blend of her trumpet and West's alto to fuse an Ornette Coleman Quartet sound with brainy, quasi-AACM compositions on previous albums like Vegetables (2021). Pipe Dream is made up of a four-part suite, complete with solo interludes, along with three stand-alone pieces that employ more of a chamber group approach in the writing. Sometimes it takes a while for the quartet to jettison from the containment of the written parts towards the freedom. But the way they interact, as both a group and in horn and rhythm sections, always offers a payoff.

Anything can happen in the music, as proven by "Banana Canon" which begins with the two horns trading octave leaps and melodies, casually volleying ideas back and forth, and eventually blowing over a two-chord groove. (The digital version of the album includes two alternate takes, one being "Banana Canon" which adds even more drive than the master.)  The title track is based on a theme by Prokofiev and also has a open, free improvisation style to it, which Downing (playing arco) and Fraser practically dominate.

Allemano penned the Plague Diaries suite in the early months of the pandemic as an emotional response to the lockdown and the way it impacted people. Movement titles like "Trying Not To Freak Out," "Doom and Doomer" tell part of the story. In "Longing" the horns use a descending line as springboard, blowing freely while the rhythm section provides again gives the music a strong drive. "Hunger and Murder," two things the trumpeter noticed during that time, moves like a funeral procession for several minutes before things come to a boil, with Allemano putting the gravel in her tone, and her bandmates contributing to the tension. 

Fraser opens "Doom and Doomer" with an ecstatic free solo that sets the tone for the suite's final movement. His multi-directional playing continues through most of the piece, accompanying and nearly overpowering equally manic solos from Allemano and Ross. Like the events that inspired it, the piece doesn't come with a neat resolve, just an ending. 

Throughout the album, special mention should be made about the pliability of Ross's tone. In addition to his original solo voice, he blends with the bowed bass in the canon-like opening of "Trying Not To Freak Out," using a reedy sound that comes off like a flute. In "Doom and Doomer," his attack resembles guitar strings, albeit briefly. When combined with the leader's tendency to go from pensive to bright to vicious on her horn, this frontline continues to reveal their power that can build after you've played together for close to two decades. 

Thursday, June 01, 2023

CD Reviews: Joëlle Léandre-Zurich Concert & Brandon López-vilevilevilevilevilevilevilevilevile

Joëlle Léandre
Zurich Concert

Brandon López

All alone onstage, or in the studio, the sounds that a bass can produce might feel familiar. The low rumbling open E (or the even lower C, if the instrument is equipped for that). The blend of the D and G strings together, created a heavy double-stop if an A is played on the latter string. It might evoke thoughts of Jimmy Garrison hitting those pitches in a solo or two; or Charlie Haden running up the neck in "Ramblin'." In other words, it might recall someone else's performances. 

Yet there are times when a performer strikes those same notes, but the results bear more than just those pitches. You're hearing a performer and their personality coming through the instrument. That was the feeling that happened when I put out Zurich Concert, the March 2022 performance by prolific French bassist Joëlle Léandre. She begins by bowing the instrument, creating deep textures which even briefly feel like hard rock riffs, as well as overtones that howl. But Léandre's technique sounds completely original and vital. In the second track (all are titled "Zurich Concert" with a number delineating each band), it sounds like she might be utilizing two bows, since she sustains low notes while producing quick scrapes in the upper register simultaneously. 

Next, she vocalizes along with her instrument, as if she and the bass have become one connected being. The fourth track feels almost like a tone poem, as Léandre creates some high, bowed overtone drones, which continue as she taps on both the frame of the instrument and the strings, eventually adding more visceral chants. Track 5, the one track to clock in at double digits (13), begins with the one chance to hear some plucking, before she explores more harmonies and rising dynamics that eventually bring everyone back to earth. 

Léandre has a prolific output - at least 200 releases, according to the liner notes, and that doesn't count an even newer release on RogueArt with Craig Taborn and Mat Maneri. Zurich Concert feels like the best gateway into her world, offering an understanding of why a bassist has recorded so much. Now I'd like to find footage of it. 

Zurich Concert consisted of five separate pieces (whether they were improvised or not), with breaks between for applause and moments for Léandre to catch her breath. Conversely, vilevilevilevilevilevilevilevilevile, the solo album by Brandon López feels like one continuous performance, banded into eight tracks which flow into one another. The bassist - already building a big C.V. thanks for work with the New York Philharmonic, John Zorn, Gerald Cleaver and poet Fred Moten - changes the way he approaches the instrument with each track. 

"LikeTheEdgeOfAMachete" starts the album with some searing bow work, with guttural vocalizing underneath. "Piri" follows, more than half of its six minutes devoted to López playing his frame percussively. When he does pluck the strings, he first produces the petulant sound that Charles Mingus utilized in "What Love," as he chewed out Eric Dolphy. As López heads into the lower register, the force he exerts might snap the strings. The final strike offers a great segue into "Billie" which is all pizzicato. Full of dynamic shifts and accents that leap forward, it feels like a realization of what the bassist was alluding to up to this point. 

It doesn't feel right to say that López merely repeats himself in several of the following tracks, but many of them tread the same ground as earlier cuts. "RealBadVibes" follows "Billie," returning to the bow for more frenetic overtones. A singular version of that title, with spaces between the words, concludes the album, with a very similar arco attack.. The Spanish translation of the opening track's title, "como el filo del machete," also offers a bit of a continuation from its precedent. The title track branches out further and "PonceNewYork" like "Billie" delivers some the albums highlights, with both hands on strings, hammering and moving rapidly. 

Taken as a whole, vilevilevilevilevilevilevilevilevile (that's "vile" repeated nine times, if my eyes are correct, although the press kit states that the proper title appears to be 125 repetitions of the word) offers myriad examples of the chops López displays on his instrument. If the individual tracks come off more as technique showcases than separate pieces, that's probably because it wasn't made that way. Anyway, it moves quickly enough that only the listeners who wandered into this recital accidently might be alienated.