Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Catching Up With ESP-Disk' - Albums by Painted Faces and Allen Lowe

A few new releases from ESP-Disk' arrived in the mail recently. Before I get to them, I want to do some quick takes on a few things that the long-standing label released a little while ago. 

Painted Faces
Normal Street

Painted Faces is the performing and recording moniker used by David Drucker. Though he hails from Florida, he has no connection to THE Painted Faces, a short-lived '60s garage band who coincidentally hailed from the same state. Drucker has been a resident of New York for over a decade now as well.

Normal Street not only continues ESP's crusade to keep rock weird, it continues in the spirit of everyone from the label's early sound pioneers like Cromagnon to artists like Jandek, who turn on the tape and let things flow naturally. Whatever happens becomes the end piece, with extra trimmings added on top as they go. If the players are still warming up (the guitar and guest harmonica in "Paranoid Dollhouse") so be it. "An American Werewolf in Ridgewood" begins with a wall of guitars that recall Eno's "Here Come the Warm Jets." The vocals sound like J. Mascis wandered in, though it also feels like we might be listening on a radio that will collapse into static if the antenna is moved just a few inches. (Anyone who grew up listening to low-watt radio knows what I mean.)
No two tracks are alike. In fact, the first half of one track might be completely different from what happens at the end. "Xea" almost feels like an epic, starting with distorted piano and vocals with delay effects before other voices (protesters?) overpower the song, eventually ending up with droning bass. The electronics that hum in many tracks also recall early Throbbing Gristle.

It's unclear whether underground or college radio still functions with the same purpose of previous decades, which motivates DJs to play the strange and unusual releases, hoping to both unnerve and blow minds of listeners. Normal Street (named for an actual street near a DIY space in Worcester, Mass.) belongs in that category of albums. Maybe this isn't casual listening but the sounds on this record can reel you in, wondering who the hell this is, leading you to keep listening to answer that question and to find out what will happen next. Take this record and play it. For everyone

Allen Lowe
America: The Rough Cut

In The Dark

A composer, author, guitarist and saxophonist, Allen Lowe know a lot about a lot. He's not afraid to let you know either. And if your perspective doesn't jibe with his, watch out. A quick look at his Facebook feed indicates that "cantankerous" might be an understatement when it comes to his opinions on certain topics. I once felt compelled to reach through the screen and backhand him after he went after some friends of mine - who he hadn't met - when they opined on the subject of Art Pepper's salacious memoir. (To his credit, Allen later apologized.)

This is not to say that Lowe thinks everyone is wrong and that his is the final word. He's just very passionate about what he does and thinks. Even if you get rankled by his rants ("No mention of Jo Jones in the recent Max Roach documentary?! What's wrong with people!"), anyone with a lick of sense can walk away saying, "Well, the man has a point."

Lowe is also the type of composer who doesn't let things like major surgery or insomnia get in the way of his muse. In fact, it virtually opened the door to a wealth of productivity in the past couple years. Along with throat cancer surgery, he had a cancerous tumor removed from his sinus, which left it hard for him to sleep. (In another example of not holding anything back, a thumbnail picture of his post-surgery face appears on America: The Rough Cut and it ain't pretty, bless his heart.) But in the move that should motivate all of us to pursue our visions, he penned four discs worth of music that ESP released this year.

America: The Rough Cut, Lowe explains in the liner notes "is my statement not only on American music and American song, but also my commentary on the way American musicians of all styles handle that old time music and those old song forms." Most of it features the leader on tenor or alto saxophone, along with guitarist Ray Suhy (who also plays banjo), bassist Alex Tremblay and drummer Kresten Osgood. 

Although he doesn't attempt to chart the entire history of American music, Lowe cooks up 13 tracks that follow a trail blazed by all manner of blues, country and jazz forefathers, blowing with a gritty, vast line of tenor ideas, bolstered by Suhy's often vicious, fiery fretwork ("Blues In Shreds," Metallic Taste"), making the latter a player who should be heard more often. In "Cold Was the Night, Dark Was the Ground," Lowe picks up the axe himself but although he references Blind Willie Johnson in the liners, his vocalizing sounds more a bad Tom-Waits-on-a-bender voice. (That's probably going to draw some Lowe wrath.) The album closes with "At A Baptist Meeting," a 2014 live recording of a band with a five-piece horn section including alto saxophonist Darius Jones and the late trombonist Roswell Rudd, who leaves us some beautiful growls. The sound (band and recording) makes a dramatic shift with this finale but the piece is worth it.

In The Dark is textbook Lowe: three discs of music with his sprawling tenor lines in company with some strong fellow horn players: Aaron Johnson (alto, clarinet), Ken Peplowski (clarinet), Lisa Parrott (baritone), Brian Simontacchi (trombone), Kellin Hannas (trumpet). Lest anyone forget, Lowe was voted 2021 Artist of the Year in JazzTimes (the same month in which the magazine ran my feature on him) and this album offers plenty of evidence why he deserved such that recognition. His writing is heavy on detail with unexpected turns in melody, and he knows how to score his works for a larger group. (Not all of the horns play one each of the 30 tracks; each disc sort of divides different sections up, with at least a few of them joining the leader each time.) 

At times, I can't help thinking of Mingus Ah Um or Blues and Roots while spinning In the Dark. Not that Lowe is trying to be Mingus, but like the bassist, he's drawing on familiar forms and using them as a springboard for new ideas. Playing in a more straightahead style is not a crime, unless a player thinks that by playing in that way, it alone will carry them. Lowe understands that it's crucial to make it count - in other words, to bring something new to the table besides reverences. Of course, if a wild label like ESP is the label releasing the music, one can't expect a staid set of swing either.

Part of his approach involves irreverence, with titles like "Out To Brunch," "Innuendo In Blue" and "Do You Know What It Means To Leave New Orleans," but that's only the start. For every clever title, he also has ones like "Goodbye Barry Harris" and "Memories of Jaki," which get reflective in the best way. He and Johnson work so well together that it's sometimes easy to miss one passing the solo baton to the other. At other times, it's quite obvious, like when Johnson incorporates some Dolphy-esque bite into his playing, which includes at least one moment when he throws in the Classic Dolphy Alto Line (anyone who's listened to even a small portion of the late multi-instrumentalist's work should know the mangled melody). 

As good as both of these Lowe albums are, listeners would be well-advised to snatch up his forthcoming epic, called  A Love Supine. I discussed the album at length in my JT piece, as it features an especially strong set of original material played by a powerful band (many of whom show up here). But its release was back-burnered in favor of these two. Supposedly, it's still in the ESP hopper, with a album number and all, so hopefully it will appear sometime soon. 

In the meantime, there is plenty to explore here, with all three of these albums presenting both ends of the ESP-Disk' musical spectrum

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

CD/LP Review: James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet - For Mahalia, With Love

James Brandon Lewis/ Red Lily Quintet
For Mahalia, With Love

It's the time of year when the in-box is flooded with email requests to keep albums "for your consideration" when nominating albums for Grammys. I'm not, nor have I ever been, on any committee that had the (dis)pleasure of picking nominees for such things, but those folks hoping for a nomination don't want to leave any stone unturned, so the missives keep coming.

Among the pleasant surprises in the emails were requests to remember James Brandon Lewis' Eye of I, which came out earlier this year on the not-exactly-jazz imprint Anti-. That album, with its groove-based tunes from the tenor saxophonist and a guest appearance by ex-Fugazi members now in the Messthetics, is truly a worthy contender. But as good as that album is, Lewis has returned to the New Release bins with his Red Lily Quintet for an even deeper release, paying homage to the First Woman of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson.

Most of the album consists of traditional gospel songs connected to Jackson. But "Sparrow" opens the album boldly with a Lewis original ("Even the Sparrow") combined with the traditional "His Eye Is On the Sparrow."  The rubato opening sets the bar high for the rest of the set, introducing the way Lewis' tenor combines with Kirk Knuffke's cornet, with a solid foundation from William Parker (bass), Chad Taylor (drums) and Chris Hoffman (cello). 

The group stretches out on most of the tracks, taking classics "Swing Low," "Go Down Moses" and "Wade In the Water" for journeys that last close to nine or ten minutes each. Although they have the prowess to turn this material into fire music, this is not merely a set of gospel themes that cue free blowing once the head has been played. "Calvary" with a steady drone from the strings, seems to fuse the gospel with Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." The interaction among the quintet during this track in particular fully establishes their reputation as one of the strongest groups around.

Lewis' utilizes his throaty tone, with occasional wails, but he also digs into the music for rich melodies. In the opening to "Swing Low," he virtually offers his own accompaniment, adding quick low register notes to the theme, almost like a congregant expressing approval during a sermon. In "Go Down Moses," Parker takes a solo that begins with the melody out of tempo while Taylor plays a bit of boogaloo. Before thing are done, Parker has hit a vamp that drives things home. Throughout the session, he and Hoffman work skillfully with each other, never muddling the sound; Hoffman splits his time acting as a third horn too.

The first pressing of For Mahalia, With Love, both on CD and LP, also includes "These Are Soulful Days," a six-part piece that features Lewis together with the Lutosławski Quartet. The group hails from Poland, where the commissioned piece was recorded in 2021, at the Jazztopad Festival. The majesty of the writing comes across immediately during "Prologue - Humility" when the saxophonist's warm tone blends with the lush sound of the strings, who use a simple melody to rise up around him. At least one of Mahalia Jackson's pieces from the previous album reappears here as well.

While jazz composers sometimes use strings for harsh, visceral clashes of tone, Lewis finds a good balance between ostinatos (creating interesting stereo effects with pizzicato during one movement), rich jazz voicings and the sonic power of a chamber quartet. Of course they aren't above some wild tangents either, as the nearly 12-minute second movement indicates. Just when things seem to be laid back, Lewis really jolts the ears with the brusk "Epilogue - Resilience" which features rapid bowing over his tense blowing. It's presents a strong compliment to the previous disc.

Whether or not there is a Grammy in his future, the performances on this album, like Eye of I, proves that it should be a part of everyone's 2023 purchases.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

CD Review: Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz - Ex Machina

Steve Lehman & Orchestre National de Jazz
Ex Machina
(Pi) www.pirecordings.com

Any Steve Lehman recording always make some sort of sonic advances in the world of alto saxophone. His astounding technique (where speed and clarity are represented equally) and original approach toward composition yield fascinating results, whether he's sitting in a car blowing solo (the COVID-era EP Xenakis & the Valedictorian) or working with a  trio, octet or the international rap/improv group Sélébéyone.

But in all of his releases, bigger seems to work better with Lehman. As strong as his trio work is, for instance, the work that's grabbed me the most has been on albums like Travail, Transformation, and Flow and Mise en Abime. With these larger groups, he expands on his ideas of tonalities and soundscapes a little more, creating a wild backdrop for the solos by him and bandmates like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. This pattern continues with Ex Machina, a collaboration with France's Orchestre National de Jazz and its artistic director Frédéric Maurin. The 14-piece ensemble joins Lehman, Finlayson and Chris Dingman for three pieces by Maurin and six by the saxophonist.

The ONJ incorporates interactive software in the music along with live instruments, so that the soloists draw reactions from the electronic sounds, ultimately adding to the performance and blurring the sonic lines between the players and software. For every moment where a tuba cuts through the fray or the reeds create a bizarre upper register harmony that sounds like a real-time version of what Frank Zappa once did with speed manipulation ("Jeux d'Anches"), there is a passage that could either be Lehman revisiting some of the sounds he conjured on the Xenakis disc, or a computer-manipulated version of him (the intro to "Ode to AkLaff," which goes on to salute drummer Pheeroan akLaff).

"Los Angeles Imaginary" sets up the relationship between players and electronics early on. Pianist Bruno Ruder plays an ostinato that changes shape slightly every fourth time, while drummer Rafaël Koerner maintains a metronomic beat that meets Ruder every few passages. After this gets established, an otherworldly chord drops into the fray, sounding exotic and eerie, and hard to trace in origin. Finlayson, Lehman and tenor saxophonist Julien Soro get involved in some rapid fire exchanges, not only working together with the multiple layers behind them but virtually playing double-time on top. Everything fits together, like clockwork and sounds very lifelike.

After Lehman's multi-hued tracks, the two pieces penned by Maurin which appear at the end of the album lack some of the drive of the previous pieces. Maurin's "39" opens the album with some exciting dark textures that Lehman and bassist Sarah Murcia dig into. Later the two-part "Speed-Freeze" begins strong with some gruff clarinet from Catherine Delaunay but slips into an atmospheric mood where it stays for nearly nine minutes, punctuated by little more than a recurring line.  The second half, which comes in a separate, eight-minute band, kicks in a little more, but it feels like there could have been more orchestral low end to anchor Fabien Debellefontaine's baritone saxophone.

"Le Seull" which also comes in two parts, features a lot of crescendos mixed with sustained notes, low in volume and pitch. Things coalesce a little more in the second part, Maurin using the entire ensemble to create a rich layer of sound. Even if it doesn't have the impact of the previous tracks, it still feels like Lehman and Maurin have made some serious leaps in the world of orchestral jazz improvisation.

Friday, October 06, 2023

CD Review: SLUGish Ensemble - In Solitude

SLUGish Ensemble
In Solitude

The term "sluggish" should not be confused with "plodding." The latter term can refer to music that moves at a slow pace with no sense of direction or deliberation along the way. The former term, which in this case drops a letter from the spelling as it defines this group, indicates an approach that slows things down to a point where minor details suddenly become major. 

Steven Lugerner (bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, alto flute) leads the SLUGish Ensemble, who have released two other albums prior to In Solitude. The six piece band includes two keyboardists (Javier Santiago on piano and Steve Blum on synthesizer), guitar (Justin Rock), bass (Giulio Xavier Cetto) and drums (Michael Mitchell). Lugerner, 35, serves as Faculty Director of the Stanford Jazz Workshop and has performed with a long list of jazz heavyweights, from Albert "Tootie" Heath to Myra Melford. His other ensemble, Jacknife, plays the music of Jackie McLean.

With a list of jazz bonafides like that, Lugerner heads down a completely different avenue with SLUGish Ensemble, creating music built on a sparse sound more closer to indie rock than jazz. The approach recalls some work by Jeremy Udden's Plainville group, who also got a lot out of simple settings. But while Udden's work often felt like a soundtrack to scenes of Middle American landscapes, Lugerner's approach is more urban. The seven tracks, in fact, were inspired by walks through his San Francisco neighborhood during the pandemic. 

Cetto and Mitchell set up a groove in "Del Sur" and they barely deviate from it. In fact, five minutes go by before the bass lines gets some variation. Everyone gets some solo space, always returning to the bass clarinet melody. "Portola" is also built on riffs, with everyone layering on top of it for variety. Lugerner swtiches to baritone here, sounding more like a tenor initially because of the range and economical batch of notes he chooses. 

By "Moraga" the repetitive quality seems like it might be wearing thin, until guitarist Rock steps in. His clean sound is the foundation for some sharp rhythmic lines and movement across the range of the fretboard. It keeps things lively while also making the band sound like a strange collision of the CTI and Matador labels - creating ambience and basic grooves. 

"No Justice No Peace," which is dedicated to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbury, creates tension first with Lugerner's aggressive bass clarinet and then Santiago's feverish piano. What's interesting is the way both soloists pull this off without disrupting the flow of the rhythm section. Similarly, towards the end of "La Bica" the baritone sax and some background noise seem to conjure a busy street scene. When the music ends and the sound of sirens are all that remains, it's clear that sound collage wasn't imagined.

In Solitude is yet another album brought to us by the lockdown of the pandemic. But the loneliness many felt during that time is something Lugerner reshapes into a feeling of solitude, "the acceptance of being on your own and being at peace with it." In that peace he has found a way to appreciate his surroundings and use them as inspiration.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Sam Rivers Centennial Concert in Pittsburgh

Monday, September 25 marked the 100th birthday of the late great saxophonist/ flutist/ pianist/ composer/ loft activist Sam Rivers. Many articles appeared about his legacy in the days leading up to it, from the New York Times on down, and a few concerts and events happened in different cities over the weekend prior to the big day. But Pittsburgh appears to have been the only place to stage a centennial salute and performance to Rivers on the actual day of his birth. 

With the Sam Rivers Archive now being processed at the University of Pittsburgh, bassist Dylan Zeh and saxophonist Derek Bendel (full disclosure - a good friend of mine) have started putting together a set of Rivers music, with a recording project coming soon. The two of them have a regular trio with drummer Ross Antonich; last Monday they were joined by flutist Trē Abalos, because you should have a flute when playing Sam Rivers music, since he often switched to that instrument, mid-performance, from tenor saxophone.

Before the Rivers set started, Matt Aelmore and Vicky Davide opened the evening with a set of free improvisations. Aelmore started out on trumpet while Davide played flute. The combination of the two started off sounding spare and gentle and built up. At first it was purely acoustic, but after awhile Davide looped a few flute lines which gave the music a little texture and shape. She also used some extended technique like just blowing air through the instrument without hitting pitches. It added an earthy almost sensual feeling to the sound, and avoided turning it into an avant hat trick. 

The duo switched it up a bit too, when Aelmore picked up his bass guitar (which he plays with Emily Rodgers Band, among others) and Davide switched to what looked like a penny whistle or a wooden flute. When they were done playing, it felt like they had just warmed up and could've gone on another 15 minutes or so. Maybe next time.

A big question looms at a performance like this - What Sam Rivers tunes will the group play? Will there be discernable compositions or quick ideas, following by unique free blowing? Dare the group try to pull off one continuous piece for a set, like Sam did on album like Streams in the '70s?  Well, I was pondering these questions.

Zeh explained during the set that he grew up in Orlando, Florida, where Rivers lived out the last fruitful years of his life, leading bands of various sizes and writing prolifically. This, after many years of living in New York where his RivBea loft was a flagship locale during the loft jazz scene of the '70s and music happened almost non-stop. 

Three of the group's pieces came from Rivers' debut, Fuchsia Swing Song. They launched into the set with "Cyclic Episode" which has a strong, forward-pulling melody line. Without a piano to guide with chords (Rivers had Jaki Byard on his recording) the Zeh group was liberated a bit but still kept to the changes. Throughout the set, the blend of Bendel's tenor and Abalos' flute created an otherworldly sound, nearly making the latter instrument sound more like a set of vibes. 

Although most of the set featured compositions, Zeh and Bendel played a tenor/bass duet that was built on/inspired by "Cascades" from a 1976 album by Rivers and Dave Holland on IAI Records. (They did at least two for that label, and both had tracks with water-based titles.) Like the rest of the set, the duet proved that these guys have been working on this material in earnest. It didn't go off into rabid free territory, instead carving their own ideas from what Sam and Dave once did. Nor did it drag on. Everything had a sense of economy to it. 

But everyone still had plenty of room to stretch out. Abalos, who Zeh told me later does not usually play jazz or improvised music, seemed a natural at it. Antonich played with a laid back swing that still has plenty of drive; I'm pretty sure it was "Sprung," one of Rivers' later compositions recorded with his Orlando trio, in which he really kicked it hard. Zeh also got plenty of solo space, balancing sharp thoughts and groove. Bendel was in the hot seat, since he was playing the role of Rivers, in a way. But his performance delivered a good balance of brawn and twisted melodies. 

I could've gone for a second set. In fact I was hoping they might play a little more. Aside from that, the only distraction came from a photographer who took pictures throught the whole set. With a flash. I don't expect a photographer to be like Teenie Harris, taking one shot and being done. But jeez, oh pete, that flash was a bit much during the 60-minute (at least) set.