Sunday, July 23, 2023

LP/CD Review: John Coltrane With Eric Dolphy - Evenings at the Village Gate

John Coltrane With Eric Dolphy
Evenings At the Village Gate

As these words are being typed, this album has been out for a little more than a week. I picked mine up on the day of its release and of course I had to get it on vinyl because it's good to get up every 15 minutes or so to turn over the record. If I didn't, I'd nod off during "My Favorite Things" and potentially wake up during "Greensleeves" and not know what was happening. (That's not a value judgement of the music; it's an assessment of what happens when I slouch down in a chair and relax while listening to music.) 

All joking aside, one of the many thrills of checking out Evenings At the Village Gate on vinyl is seeing how well the folks at Impulse! stay loyal to the original design of the label. Vinyl reissues in the '90s acknowledged it a bit, but outer circle was too narrow, the text was laid out differently and I believe the whole thing had a shiny gloss to it, unlike the early labels that really looked like thin paper. As you can see below, the label of Side One would make Bob Thiele proud. Those little "Impulse!s" look like they're dancing as they spin around your turntable. It gives me the same feeling of excitement that came when I found a used original copy of Live at Birdland and saw that layout for the first time. 

Of course, no one is buying a brand new, recently unearthed John Coltrane album for the look of the label. Or for the cover, which sports a grainy (or is it smoky) shot of Trane and Dolphy in action. (The picture in the gatefold is beautiful too; Dolphy is glaring at Trane with a look of awe on his face, as if he's saying either "Damn!" or "Woah!") The album's merit lies in the grooves. What's also important is when this particular bit of music was recorded too. 

No specific date is attributed to the five tracks, but "August 1961" is offered as a definitive time. The group had a residency at the Village Gate from August 8 through September 3, sharing a bill with Horace Silver and Art Blakey, a trifecta which in retrospect must have been like a bit of heaven, even if it was a bit of a standard at that time. (A month earlier, Coltrane had split the bill with 19-year old Aretha Franklin.) 

Elvin Jones (drums) and McCoy Tyner (piano) had secured their roles with Coltrane by this time, and Reggie Workman filled the bass chair. (Jimmy Garrison would take his spot by year end.) Eric Dolphy was a semi-regular member of the band, playing alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. Art Davis occasionally dropped in and played second bass with the group, helping Workman create a sound that built on the use of drones that interested their leader at that time.

Rich Alderson, the Village Gate's soundman, admits in the liner notes that he hadn't intended to record the Coltrane Quintet for posterity. He was merely trying to test out an RCA 77-A ribbon microphone, which he suspended from the ceiling, pointing it down at the band. Since the group didn't know the recording was happening - or if they did, they didn't let it affect their playing since it wasn't a professionally-recorded document - we get a sense of what the band was like on any given night when their only concern was getting the chance to do their thing. As with the recordings that everyone has digested over the years, the group is playing at a high caliber level.

One of the big surprises about the set  doesn't become clear until Side Four. "Africa," which takes up that whole side, is the only track where Coltrane plays tenor saxophone. He plays soprano saxophone on the other tracks. It might be nit-picking, but hearing so little tenor comes as a slight disappointment. At the same time, hearing the group play "Africa" in a club setting helps to make up for it. 

With Davis along to anchor the groove, everyone in the now septet gets to solo during the 22-minute track. Coltrane goes first, saying his piece is a rather concise manner before letting Dolphy jump in on alto. And jump he does, with his usual spikey enthusiasm. The biggest solo space comes after Tyner finishes and Davis and Workman take over. The duo moves fluidly around each other and the low volume at this point of the performance makes something very clear: There is no noise from the audience. No casual conversation in the back, not even the clink of glasses. Perhaps, as the accompanying booklet infers, this was one of the nights that the Village Gate was half empty, but nevertheless, it sounds like everyone in the room was lost in the music.

The album opens with "My Favorite Things" already in progress, with Dolphy in the midst of a flute solo. (I was hoping Tyner's dramatic intro would usher in the album.) When Coltrane comes in for a final soprano solo, he seems to be exploring the limits of what could work in this vamp, and gets a bit spiky himself in the process. Without giving too much credence to John Tynan, who would call Coltrane's music "anti-jazz" just a few months later, one can imagine a casual jazz fan getting baffled a bit by Coltrane's ideas that night. But the contrast between the tranquil groove of the song and Trane's forward vision is exciting to hear.

"Greensleeves" gets much more room (16 minutes) than the quartet's made-to-be-a-single studio recording offered. After a brief but soaring soprano lead, Tyner plays tension and release, toying with listeners as to when he'll go into the chord changes of the chorus. All the while, Jones drives the music along, never excessively but always with choice combination of fills, cymbal crashes and press rolls. The blend of Coltrane and Dolphy (here on bass clarinet) feels like two strands of the same vine working together. Dolphy can even be confused for Coltrane when he begins his solo. 

Even though his name was on the marquee, Coltrane still gave plenty of room to his bandmates. In addition of solo space, he let Dolphy have a showcase in "When Lights Are Low," a song the multi-reedist would be playing regularly in Europe in less than a month, as documented on the third volume of the In  Europe series on Prestige. This inclusion might be one of the most intriguing parts of the set, as it presents the most straight ahead composition of the album, which the group respects even as they adapt it to their futuristic vision. It makes the drive in the version of "Impressions" that follows it all the more contagious.

For a recording made with a single microphone, Evenings At the Village Gate has some pretty solid fidelity. Like A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle, it's a great Elvin Jones showcase since his performance stands out most prominently. But considering how often Jimmy Garrison gets covered up on numerous Coltrane albums, both studio and live, Alderson's RCA 77-A did a good job of capturing Workman and Davis. Perhaps the real hat tip should go to Kevin Reeves, who mastered the album.

By November of 1961, with Dolphy back from Europe, Coltrane and his associates would land an extended gig at the Village Vanguard. Workman stepped down to take care of his family and Garrison would take the bass chair, thus solidifying the group that is known as the Classic Quartet. At the Vanguard, Bob Thiele would have professional machines set up to record everything and release it on Impulse! (It would all eventually come out on a box set in the '90s.) Now we have a chance to hear what happened in the preceding months that came into full bloom during to that residency. In a way, this document is just as vital as what would follow. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

CD Reviews: Fred Frith/Susana Santos Silva - Laying Demons To Rest & Steve Swell's Fire Into Music - For Jemeel, Fire From The Road

RogueArt, the great French label devoted to adventurous music, has been prolific since its inception in 2004, but lately founder Michel Dorbon and his crew have been on a creative roll. Earlier this year, the Art Ensemble of Chicago released a two-disc concert performance on RogueArt, The Sixth Decade - From Paris to Paris, documenting the current large-scale version of the group. The trio of Mat Maneri, Joëlle Léandre and Craig Taborn play together on the new hEARoes. The label has also published several books, the most recent being Clifford Allen's detailed look at Matthew Shipp's work on the label, Singularity Codex

These two albums fall in with the latest batch of releases, chronicling a long-time master of free improvisation and shedding a bit more light on another who could have used some greater recognition in his lifetime.

Fred Frith & Susana Santo Silva
Laying Demons To Rest

A late friend once told me about a Fred Frith appearance at Penn State University which consisted of the great guitarist doing little more than manipulating two short wave radios for a whole set. At this point, I have no easy way of fact-checking that, but the mere possibility of it having happened speaks to the random, anarchic approach that Frith brings to music, even to this day. At 74, he continues to create at a pace that is almost hard to keep up with.

Laying Demons To Rest consists of one 41-minute track that captures Frith and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva live at the 2021 Festival Météo in Mulhouse, France. The two have worked together before, Silva having played with Frith on some of his Intakt albums, but this album comes off like an extended discussion. 

It's always interesting, at least to my ears, to hear how long it takes Frith to produce a genuine guitar-like sound in a free situation like this. True to form, he begins with some static and moves into some rapid noises that evoke burrowing insects. Notes eventually begin poking through and by the third minute, he's picking, while Santos Silva wails on her horn. The blend they create, which sounds pretty, at least for a moment, proves that they're working together, not two people who are merely playing at the same time. 

The power of a piece like this lies in the way the sound keeps shifting and how the duo reacts to one another. Frith taps a low E and adds some howling shards of sound to compliment the trumpet's melodies. Silva gets low and flatulent, albeit briefly. Frith makes the guitar sound like a kalimba, adding tranquility while the trumpet wails, as she's testing the space to see how such a sound will come across.

Frith is such a skilled player that it almost seems like blasphemy to think of him using effects pedals. Yet moments of organ sounds and looped backwards chords indicate that he isn't above such sound modifications, which add to the texture. Silva hits her mouthpiece percussively, and unleashes some rapid tonguing that sounds rhythmic. The performance has a slow wind down, where augmented trumpet arpeggios get interrupted by more organ-type noises, eventually heading into what feels like a droning, tranquil walk into the sunset. For those of us who weren't there, the music offers plenty of visual evocations of how this musical scene could have looked like to the audience. 

Steve Swell's Fire Into Music
For Jemeel - Fire From the Road

A cursory look at the discography of alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc (1946-2021) reveals that many, if not most, of his albums come from live performances with few taking place in a formal studio. It makes sense, as the saxophonist played constantly after returning to music in the mid '90s. This three-disc recording comes from as many shows in 2004 and 2005 with trombonist Steve Swell's Fire Into Music. William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums) complete the group. 

A more unified quartet might be hard to find and that becomes apparent on Disc One. It consists of one 55-minute performance by the band from 2004, live in Houston, Texas. Although it's listed as an improvisation (and from the announcements, it was their second set that night!), the track sounds like a composition at the start, with Moondoc and Swell playing a loose but languid and connected melody. Moondoc sounds slow and mournful, but not really sad. Swell knows right when to join him, and sounds perfectly at home blowing across the whole range of his horn. The rhythm section debates going into a set tempo but chooses to roll around freely. Everyone gets time to shine, including Parker, who uses a bow to conjure some rapid harmonics, and Moondoc, who reemerges later with a beefy sound that only slips into wails and squeals as punctuation for his deep lines.

Disc Two, recorded a week later in Marfa, Texas, includes a 31-minute slab of inspired improv bookended by two lengthy compositions. Moondoc's "Junka Nu" and Swell's "Space Cowboys" reveal how the band could balance steady, sometimes groove-based rhythms with harmonic liberty. Moondoc's rugged tone sounds like a kindred spirit to Ornette Coleman, sometimes feeling shaky even as it executes a more technical set of ideas.

As strong as the saxophonist and the always inventive Swell sound here, the rhythm sections almost steals the spotlight. Drake constantly creates ecstatic variations with the 3/4 rhythm in "Junka Nu" while Parker's solo sounds as close to a hard bop as he ever has. During the improvised track, the duo  swaps a 4/4 pulse for 7/4 briefly during the horn solos, as if such an off-the-cuff shift were as effortless as a blues vamp. The tumbling riff of "Space Cowboys" is equally enthralling. It's interesting to observe that the audience in Ballroom Marfa adds a lot of background noise during the set's quieter moments, but the band also receives enthusiastic cheers at the appropriate times as well. 

Eleven months later, Fire Into Music appeared at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario, and three tracks from that set appear on the final disc. Along with another strong version of "Junka Nu," they dig into two Swell compositions. "Box Set" begins in a fairly straightforward direction but shifts gears, with Moondoc sounding more tart and aggressive while the rhythm section evolves underneath. "Swimming in a Galaxy of Goodwill and Sorrow" gives the quartet a chance to cut loose and blow freely, before everyone lines up midway through behind Swell's muscular blowing, which really gets its place to shine on this track. Another multi-part piece, it works perfectly as a concluding statement to this strong document.