Barrett Martin: Shapeshifter

The music of Barrett Martin can be tough to pin down. Go ahead and listen to his work with the rock band Screaming Trees. Then check out Tuatara. Sure, it's something of a stylistic leap from the former to the latter, but if viewed as a transition, it illustrates the wide-ranging extent of Martin's interests and hearing: his “big ears.”

Martin's solo recordings have leaned more toward the multi-faceted pallet of Tuatara — music that's cinematic and draws from many sources, often within the confines of a single composition.

“Shapeshifter” indeed proves my point, starting out with a pensive segment lead by two melodic instruments (piano, vibes) telling a reserved story in waltz time. But then the band launches into high energy Latin jazz mode and we're treated to fabulous solos by Dave Carter on trumpet and John Rangel on piano. Martin and bassist Chris Golden really dig in to the groove here. By the tune's end, the mood has gone back to the more reserved and searching, this transition seeming less abrupt and perhaps even more appropriate now that the whole story has been revealed.

September 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Charles Mingus Sextet: Fables of Faubus

When Jaki played with Charles Mingus’ group in 1964, Mingus gave him a long, unaccompanied solo on “Fables of Faubus,”, and Jaki liked to interpolate James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (The Negro National Anthem) within it. Anyway, what is profound about Jaki's rendition of “Lift Evry Voice” here is that he was performing the song in the mid-sixties in Europe. Protest music. Jaki made a big deal about segregation, and for good reason. Once segregation was abolished, he was so happy that he could sit anywhere he pleased. We talked about this during our lessons. It was clear that Jaki was politically motivated to make statements through his music. My band, as do many other bands, performs that song as a statement of the future. It’s still needed—as was widely publicized recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, the African-American Harvard professor, one of the most distinguished scholars in the United States, was arrested for "breaking into his own home.”

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Eric Dolphy: Bird's Mother

“Far Cry” is from a special record, Far Cry, by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little. The first time I played this tune, I was in high school. I remember listening to Jaki's comping on the melody and realizing that there were so many ways to accompany someone. Jaki's solo moves so effortlessly and rumbles through the changes with more shocks of sound than actual phrases. I remember him saying that he and Eric Dolphy liked to talk in large intervals, like 22nds and 18ths, rather than 4ths and 3rds. They really had a special chemistry, and this is special music. Also, for a hip-hop head, a rapper, Del The Funky Homosapien, sampled a phrase in the bowed bass solo by Ron Carter.

September 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Julius Hemphill: Sixteen

After leaving the World Saxophone Quartet the year before, Julius Hemphill had a fulfilling 1991, one of his last productive years before the onset of the illness that would soon take his life. By 1993, Hemphill could no longer play following heart surgery, and he died in 1995. However, in 1991 Hemphill won two Bessie Awards for his dance compositions for both The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Promised Land and Long Tongues: A Saxophone Opera. During that year, Hemphill also recorded the first album by his all-saxophone sextet, and also resumed his rewarding musical relationship with the masterful cellist Abdul Wadud, with whom he had not recorded since two dates n the '70's.

The track "Sixteen" vividly exhibits the close interplay between Hemphill, Wadud, and drummer Joe Bonadio (the latter had performed in the orchestra of Long Tongues). The piece starts out with Hemphill playing the stair-stepping theme with ample space left for Bonadio's lusty fills. The altoist quickly enters his solo, backed by Wadud's accompaniment that shifts continuously from walking bass-like lines to plucked accents and bowed patterns. Hemphill never veers far from the blues-based foundation that prevailed in so much of his playing. He changes tempo and intensity of attack frequently, as he freely but explicitly examines the initial thematic material. Bonadio's drum improvisation is tonally nuanced and thoughtfully constructed. Wadud's catchy pizzicato vamp launches his own extended statement, which alternates between walking lines and oblique motifs, with the essence of country blues lurking not far from the surface. Hemphill returns with more blues-drenched phrases supported by Bonadio's backbeat, before evolving into less grounded microtonal exploration leading up to the reprise.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Rashied Ali: Theme For Captain Black

The first James Blood Ulmer record I bought came from a little record/book store in a generic strip mall (Wait, isn't that redundant?) Anyway, I had no idea what to expect. The man on the cover was playing a hollow body guitar and looked thoroughly engrossed in his task. Hey, it was in the jazz section, must be jazz, right?

Very quickly my conception of jazz began to change. That record dipped jazz in a funk steambath, the same technique used by Miles...but I didn't know that yet. Heck, I bet I hadn't even heard Kind Of Blue yet....or Coltrane! Yet despite my lack of jazz knowledge, it was obvious that this Ulmer guy had something going on. His sound was a roiling mass of barely contained energy. The funk and jazz worked with and against each other to torque up the sonic karma.

Rashied Ali knows all about torqued up music. His post-Elvin work with Coltrane is legendary. On this track it's gratifying to see Ali come full circle, revisiting material from his old Phalanx cohort, Mr. Ulmer. With horns taking the lead melodic roles (instead of the guitar), this version has more bop sensibilities than the original. My ears say the highlights are Ali's incredible, far-reaching drum solo and Lawrence Clark's busting-at-the-seams tenor solo that follows. Ali avoids (as usual) the pulse and comps his ass off underneath Clark. Beneath the squall, there's a lot of beauty — for my ears, one of the defining characteristics of free-ish jazz.

August 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Alex Harding & Blutopia: The Calling

The title (and lead) track on baritone saxophonist Alex Harding's The Calling is a moving—if unfortunately incomplete—prologue/introduction to some very fine music. The first of the tune's two parts is a rubato, minor-key dirge over a bowed pedal point in the bass, specifically reminiscent of John Coltrane's "Spiritual." Pianist Lucian Ban strums the piano strings and limns the modal harmonies, drummer Nasheet Waits provides portentous cymbal and tom-tom rolls, percussionist Andrew Daniels sets an independent course on congas, and Harding renders the sustained, rising-and-falling opening theme with guts and sensitivity, before setting a gritty ostinato that forms the basis of the tune's forceful, latin-tinged second half. The band leaps wastes no time in reaching a very high gain of intensity, again reminiscent of mid-period Coltrane, especially A Love Supreme. While the band's approach isn't distinctive, the strength and conviction with which they play is commendable.

Harding is one of the best young baritone saxophonists. His sound is huge, varied, and expressive; his manner spontaneous, his ideas—while certainly owing to Trane—are original enough to call his own. Overall, the music's biggest flaw is the premature and musically nonsensical fade that cuts off the band in mid-flight, leaving one with a definite sense of incompleteness. The abrupt ending sabotages (not fatally, but noticeably) an otherwise powerful performance.

August 04, 2009 · 0 comments


The Revolutionary Ensemble: Ism Schism

The combining of European-derived classical compositional and performance techniques with what is essentially a mode of folk music (albeit one supremely sophisticated in its own right) is a big part of what's so compelling about free jazz. "Ism Schism" seems to acknowledge as much, both in title and construct. The composition itself employs triadic, nearly Mozart-ian harmony and melody as a platform for extemporization. After bowing the song-like head, bassist Sirone plays a pizzicato solo (an effective contrast, by the way), largely maintaining harmonic simplicity and making reference to the melody while engaging in all manner of energetic, free-rhythmic interplay with drummer Jerome Cooper. Violinist Leroy Jenkins joins in just over halfway through, whereupon Sirone steps a bit further outside. Jenkins is unafraid of consonance, although his drunken glissandi, bent pitches, and non-tonal embellishments are a long way from anything Wolfgang Amadeus might have envisioned possible. When melding classical and jazz, free jazz musicians frequently invoke a post-Schoenberg-ian language. The Revolutionary Ensemble's unusual adoption of a pre-Romantic influence—enhanced by the soul and grit that is their artistic birthright—makes for a happy change of pace.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Available Jelly: Lovelock

Saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Moore's composition "Lovelock" is a small tour de force, a five-minute-twenty-nine-second non-sequential voyage through jazz history. The tune is a time machine that drops off the listener at spots along the historical continuum, from post-bop to avant to swing, with a side trip to '20s New Orleans. It's remindful of the affectionate stylistic remembrances to which Charles Mingus was prone—a nod to the past that nevertheless remains steadfastly anchored in the present. Moore's band, Available Jelly, comprising two reeds, cornet, trombone, bass and drums, is well-configured to address everything from Dixieland to free jazz. They do so with spirit and great skill, rendering Moore's compositional quirks with the right balance of precision and abandon. The soloists are superb, especially the two saxophonists, altoist Moore and tenorist Toby Delius, both of whom build an edifice of hyper-modernity (extended techniques, assiduous avoidance of tonality) on a solid foundation of jazz styles past.

July 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Jacob Garchik: abstract/01

"abstract/01" is an amalgam of jazz and contemporary classical music—a four-and-a-half minute piece in which the ratio of improvised-to-composed elements is obscure to the point of being almost immaterial. Trombonist Jacob Garchik's non-tonal opening melody, while presumably composed, is rendered with a quiet yet palpable spontaneity that morphs seamlessly into improvisation. Garchik plays sustained, thoughtful phrases with a tone as smooth as milk chocolate. Similar to the overall performance itself—which blurs the line between composition and improvisation—Garchik's solo seems to combine conscious decision-making with a seat-of-the-pants impulsiveness. Drummer Dan Weiss and pianist Jacob Sacks are both sensitive interpreters of Garchik's spacious concept, often responding to the trombonist's choices in tandem. The music rises and falls in brief episodes, giving the impression of being almost wind-blown. Abstract, to be sure, and very attractive in its willfully translucent way.

July 28, 2009 · 0 comments


The Vandermark Five: Outside Ticket (for John Gilmore)

Ken Vandermark dedicates "Outside Ticket" to the longtime Sun Ra tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. It's an apt choice; the tune's swinging, medium tempo, metrically shifting solo section provides the sort of deceptively simple platform over which the hard bop-schooled Gilmore could best exercise the far-flung modal style that characterized his artistic maturity—an "outside ticket," indeed. In general, Vandermark uses modality as his artistic starting point, so a piece like this is particularly relevant to the foundation of his overall style. Vandermark's solo here is an exercise in spontaneous development and emotional intensity. His rhythmic sense is ungainly, his harmonic palette static, but his imagination is sufficiently broad (within rather distinct boundaries) to obscure most shortcomings. Trombonist Jed Bishop contributes solid solo and ensemble work, while bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Daisy create a dynamic, continually evolving rhythmic underpinning. As is so often the case with Vandermark's music, the hard-edged performance makes up in soul, commitment, and raw creativity what it lacks in terms of subtle gradations of expression.

July 28, 2009 · 0 comments


Alice Coltrane: Ptah, the El Daoud

Alice McLeod Coltrane was essentially a bebop pianist who had even studied with Bud Powell in Paris in 1959, but she then became greatly moved and influenced by the music of John Coltrane, which she first heard on record (Africa/Brass) in 1961. She met Coltrane in 1963 at Birdland in New York while the pianist for Terry Gibbs opposite Trane's quartet, married him in 1965, andreplaced McCoy Tyner in his group in 1966. Just before his death the following year, John helped Alice land a recording contract with his label, Impulse!, and her second album, Ptah, the El Daoud, featured the delectable and perhaps only such pairing ever of the highly individual saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson.

The stirring 14-minute long title track is dedicated to the Egyptian god Ptah, "the beloved" (the El Daoud). The somber march-like theme is played by the two tenors, and is elevated by Coltrane's forceful chords, Carter's penetrating bass lines, and Riley's sharply struck drum accents. Henderson employs urgent cries, circular phrases, heated tremolos, and serpentine runs to flesh out his solo. Sanders in turn ranges from meditatively spacy to passionately intense, with dissonant raspy wails and a mindset more in keeping with very late period Trane than was Henderson's, although Sanders' phrasing is as much thematic as it is abstract. The pianist has played reverberating chordal patterns behind both tenor soloists, and her own improvisation is laden with pulsating arpeggios, possesses a rolling momentum, and is similar overall in texture to her spiritual harp and organ playing. Riley's finely sculpted, understated drum solo precedes the theme's fervent restatement.

July 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Maria Neckam & Mika Pohjola: Wenn es dunkel wird

It is perhaps appropriate that this stark, minimalist endeavor hovering somewhere in the musical ether among third stream, fusion and impressionism, would reside exclusively in cyberspace. Das Wörterbuch, a collaboration between Austrian expatriate singer-composer Maria Neckam and acclaimed Finnish pianist Mika Pohjola, is available only in digital download format- a growing trend which makes musical experimentation more economically feasible but is still somewhat in the awkward “early adapter” stage.

Maria Neckam has never played it safe, especially with her writing and her vocal interpretations, but with Das Wörterbuch this New York-based artist is really flying without a net. She has found the perfect improvisational partner in Pohjola, whose earlier piano-vocalist duo outings included Sophie Duner, Lina Nyberg and Jill Walsh. With fearless abandon, Neckam and Pohjola roam freely through a series of spontaneous, contemplative modal sketches, occasionally coloring completely outside the lines. Not for the uninitiated, but definitely worth a listen.

Neckam’s composition, “Wenn es dunkel wird” (roughly translated, “When it gets dark”) is compelling, taking the listener across a mind-field of introspective rumination. With a bit more structure than some of the other tracks on this release, it is a reasonable jumping-off point for those who are just sticking their big toes into the chilly waters of the avant-garde; to an open mind already swimming in its currents, the Weillian imagery of this piece opens into a dreamy, existential garden shrouded in the encroaching fog of twilight.

July 12, 2009 · 0 comments


David Eyges: The Captain

Probably the best-known jazz musicians to have performed on cello have been Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and Dave Holland. However, they were all bassists first and foremost. Few full-time jazz cellists have developed name recognition anywhere approaching that of the four aforementioned, although the casual jazz fan might know of Erik Friedlander, Ernst Reijseger, Hank Roberts, and Abdul Wadud. Wadud and the more obscure David Eyges emerged in the '70's and helped pave the way for the increasing number of jazz cellists that have followed. The group Eyges led with altoist Mark Whitecage played music that brought to mind the alto-cello pairings of Eric Dolphy and Ron Carter, and Julius Hemphill and Wadud. (Eyges himself later had similar collaborations with altoists Byard Lancaster and Arthur Blythe.)

The title tune of Eyges's debut recording, The Captain, draws on influences ranging from country blues to Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Eyges and Whitecage take the theme in a relaxed unison, bringing out its funky down-home properties, while at the same time bassist Ronnie Boykins' steady ostinato adds a nearly dirge-like quality to it. Meanwhile, Jeff Williams' drums are propulsively filling in the spaces with extended patterns that almost seem to serve as a substitute for a comping piano. Cello and alto then improvise collectively, but very harmoniously as well. Eyges's arco attack alternates between rich long tones and rapidly executed tremolos, and Whitecage simultaneously relies on terse, bursting phrases that are sometimes yearning, sometimes exultant. This music holds up quite well some 32 years later.

July 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Archie Shepp: Hipnosis

This writer has never been clear on the malady that caused Archie Shepp's musical decline in the 1980s. Apparently dental problems were to blame, which makes sense when one views video of him playing in recent decades, his tenor mouthpiece wobbling precariously in what has to be an unproductively loose embouchure. Whatever the problem, it seems not to have manifested itself in the '70s, when he did some of his best work. "Hipnosis" presents Shepp in the company of his excellent band of that period, with bassist Cameron Brown, pianist Dave Burrell, percussionist Bunny Foy, and drummer Beaver Harris.

The 26-minute tune features an inexorable, inexorably-shifting Latin groove over which Shepp blows freely and passionately for better than half its length. Shepp's tenor sound is electric, spewing sparks like a downed power line. Unlike his contemporary and fellow tenor-playing abstract expressionist, Albert Ayler, Shepp often molded his wildest and craziest phrases to fit a groove. He does that here to great effect. Trombonist Charles Greenlee's solo follows Shepp's. It's rather bland competence stands in sharp contrast to Shepp's brilliance. Drummer Beaver Harris, percussionist Bunny Foy, and bassist Cameron Brown keep the beat ever-changing without losing it's essence. Pianist Dave Burrell is a superb team player, managing to be endlessly creative in a wholly supporting role. This is a tenacious, gripping performance.

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Fred Anderson: Hamid's On Fire

Tell us something we don't know, Mr. Anderson. Drummer Hamid Drake's a regular Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. He can't be extinguished, and anyway, we wouldn't want to even if we could. The polyrhythmic vamp that follows his sharp-edged, free-time opening solo has more facets than the Hope Diamond. Bassist Tatsu Aoki's insistent repetitive bass line serves as an anchor for Drake's rhythmic superabundance, as the equally intense Anderson draws upon infinite reserves of energy and inventiveness. The piece morphs into a driving swing, as Drake further proves himself master of jazz's time/space continuum, and Anderson demonstrates why he's everyone's favorite neglected free jazz sax-playing elder statesman. Aoki's bass sounds suspiciously electric, so purists might look askance, but then again, purists never get too close to the flame, do they?

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments


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