David Murray: I Want to Talk About You

Tenor saxophonist David Murray puts his lush, Ben Webster-ish ballad tone to good use on "I Want to Talk About You," singer/composer Billy Eckstine's re-working of Erroll Garner's "Misty." Accompanied by a top-drawer straight-ahead rhythm section (John Hicks on piano, Ray Drummond on bass, and Ralph Peterson, Jr. on drums), Murray ratchets down his free jazz inclinations in favor of a melodic, relatively conservative approach. That's not to say he's simply running the changes; he makes his share of oddball melodic choices, but they're sensitively rendered and contextually sound. He walks the harmonic tightrope with focused assurance. His improvisation is finely nuanced, its twists and turns constantly surprising. John Hicks lends additional elegance, while Drummond and Peterson goad and submit in just the right proportion. A lovely performance.

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Jean-Paul Celea, David Liebman, Wolfgang Reisinger: My Favorite Things

The album from whence this track comes has the trio of Celea, Liebman, and Reisinger interpreting several songs written or made famous by such great saxophonists as Albert Ayler, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, and, in this case, John Coltrane. It takes guts (or gall) for Liebman—a saxophonist who's been so profoundly influenced by Trane—to record the master's "greatest hit." More than almost any other jazz musician, Coltrane made certain tunes his own ... "My Favorite Things," especially. Comparisons can be avoided only with conscious effort (although it certainly doesn't take an unusually insightful reviewer to point out either the essential differences or similarities between teacher and disciple).

Liebman subverts expectations by playing the tune on tenor instead of soprano, whilst the rhythm section renders a heavy, odd-time vamp that in terms of feel (if not composition) more resembles Coltrane's "Spiritual" (from Live at the Village Vanguard) than his original version of "My Favorite Things." Liebman is his usual technically astounding self, and he plays with characteristic passion and eloquence. Drummer Reisinger channels Elvin Jones fairly remarkably, and bassist Celea is a sturdy groove-maker. The music is well-played and inspired in its way. As much as this writer esteems Liebman, however, the group's very decision to approach such iconic material seems contrived and perhaps ego-driven. That perception gets in the way of the music—for this listener, anyway.

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Cecil Taylor: E.B.

Cecil back when he swung … well, not exactly, although bassist Buell Niedlinger and drummer Dennis Charles kick into a smokin' freebop groove about a quarter of the way into this track, forcing Taylor to deal with strict time. He does so in his unpredictably eccentric way, occasionally locking in with straight-eighth rhythms, but more often playing over and about the time, conjuring waves of asymmetrical, very fast, tonally obscure lines. In a Blindfold Test, he might be mistaken for Don Pullen—Taylor foreshadows the work of the younger pianist in the way he melds bop and free techniques. The swinging is framed by an out-of-time, gestural beginning and ending, making the performance something of a transition between Taylor's early, somewhat more conventionally-swinging work and his later stream-of-consciousness free-time explorations. Listening to this superb performance, one can imagine some Taylor fans wishing he'd not ultimately deserted the verities of explicit swing so completely.

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments


George Adams & Don Pullen Quartet: Dionysus

Three out the four members of the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet died in middle age: drummer Dannie Richmond in 1988 at age 52, saxophonist Adams in 1992 at 51, and pianist Pullen in 1995 at 53. As a result, the band had a regrettably short life. It was nevertheless one of the greatest jazz groups of the '70s and '80s. To a degree greater than perhaps any other band of its time, the group was able to cohere the various strands of jazz's development in creating a seamlessly modern music—state of the jazz art in all its multifaceted glory.

Drummer Richmond's tune "Dionysus" begins as a relaxed, quasi-latin vamp—almost a ballad. It gives the band ample room to stretch its collective imagination and build to ever-greater levels of intensity. On tenor, Adams carries the repetitive, quietly riff-ish melody; Pullen's increasingly dissonant accompaniment gains momentum on the bridge, and we're given a hint of the maelstrom to follow. Adams solo gets very "out" very quickly, as the rhythm section reacts in kind. Pullen follows, wasting little time on pleasantries. He digs right in—fingers, fists, forearms, and all. Richmond and Brown ground the performance while letting it breathe. The performance heats up and cools off naturally; the musicians are extraordinarily simpatico. That sense of common purpose shared by four gifted and unique musicians results in something special.

July 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Andy Milne & Benoit Delbecq: Divide Comedy

This is not your 'normal' piano duo. Sure, it's two Steinways, but there is also the ultra modern element of the “Dlooper.” I won't bore you with the details of things like Max-MSP, but let's just say that technology has a role to play here, however subtle.

The piece begins in full-on percussion mode, with both pianos sounding like huge kalimbas. Melodic fragments are then wound around the ostinato pattern. The angularity of the piano lines against the static rhythm is a beautiful thing. Thelonius Monk muses on Cecil Tayler is the vibe my ears get. The last minute or so is where technology comes into play. In a very organic way, the electronics take the notes and draw them out into infinity, like an aural version of contrails. Gorgeous.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments


3Play+: Bulletrain

I've been operating under the assumption that Bill Frisell was the head of the Jazz/Americana Intersection Association. While that idea still might hold sway, I was also fairly sure that Bill was the only person present at the meetings. Just imagine a guy sitting there in a metal folding chair, electric guitar plugged into a huge rack of effects. He starts out playing a slow, mournful take on "Goodnight Irene," which is slowly dissected and turned inside out, becoming something that Albert Ayler might have done if he'd traded his horn for a guitar and a pile of silicon.

Well, if this illusion holds, then 3Play+ have been hanging out in the coat closet during those meetings, too shy to come out and say "Hello." One thing is certain, they have been listening.

"Bulletrain" does not start from the obvious and play tricks with it. Instead, abstractions float around looking for cohesion: a guitar scrape here, a cymbal wash there, a horn poot above, a bass blurt below (I hate that I just typed that). This collection of random ambience does indeed pull in, slowly drawing the moans together into a kind of avant meditation. About a third of the way in, momentum begins to build and fragments of sound — piano, bowed bass, guitar, trumpet — fly off in all directions. Grenadier is flitting around madly as Goodrick comps under him.

With about nine minutes to go (we're talking over 20 minutes in total here), something amazing happens. The formerly "out there" piece of music transforms itself into a slinky and dirgy little blues. You might think that this would feel awkward but my ears disagree. There's just enough tension in the blues to make it seem like a musical commentary on the first half of the piece. Mick Goodrick's guitar begins the re-transformation process with about two minutes to go, and just when you think the blues is going to head back to splatteration, the intensity dials back, leaving just the right amount of unresolved tension.

I wonder if Bill knows those guys are in his closet?

June 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Henry Threadgill's Zooid: Tickled Pink

Zooid is Henry Threadgill's string-heavy group, comprising acoustic guitar, oud, cello, and drums, with tuba holding down the bass and Threadgill's alto sax and flute on top. The sound of "Tickled Pink" is an interesting composite—part classical, part bluegrass, part Afrobeat, part New Orleans-style funk. Threadgill's distinctive, slightly subversive way with harmony is ever present. He's one of the most Blindfold Test-friendly modern jazz composers—very easy to pick out of a musical lineup. The members of Zooid are well-chosen. On oud, Tarik Benbrahim plays with a funky, delightfully twisted lilt; his lines intertwine cunningly with those of guitarist Liberty Ellman, who brings his own wiry, peculiarly iconoclastic improvisational voice to the mix. Drummer Dafnis Prieto is consummately funky; cellist Dana Leong is an able melodist, and tubaist Jose Davila nails the grooves in a somewhat messy but effective way. Threadgill plays flute with a big fat sound and big fat ideas. A big part of Threadgill's appeal as a composer has always been his unusual choices of instrumentation. Seldom have those choices been less orthodox than this, to superb ends.

June 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Ahmed Abdullah's Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra: We Travel the Spaceways

Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah is as qualified as any musician living to produce a tribute to Sun Ra, having recorded some 25 times with Ra's Arkestra. "We Travel the Spaceways" was, according to Abdullah in the liner notes accompanying this album, the title of the first Ra album Abdullah ever heard, in 1966. In reimagining the composition, Abdullah gathers Ra alumni violinist Billy Bang, trombonist Craig Harris, and bassist Radu Oluwu Ben Judah, as well as a cast and crew that include bari saxophonist Alex Harding and the redoubtable drummer Cody Moffett, among others.

The tune is little more than a repetitive vamp, yet it provides ample material for spontaneous invention. Radu and Harding's funky, hard-as-nails bass/bari lines, and Moffett's constantly grooving, evolving and mutating drums form the tune's foundation, over which Abdullah and others intone the vocal theme, shadowed by Masujaa's slightly distorted guitar. Like the original Ra Arkestra, Abdullah's band is loose, energetic, and manifestly committed. The performance flags briefly in spots, but Moffett's drums—never less than exhilarating—are there to pick things up when they start to lag. Not as good as the original, but a worthy tribute to the master, nevertheless.

June 11, 2009 · 0 comments


Roscoe Mitchell: Nemus

"Nemus" opens the middle CD of a three-disc set of Mitchell solo improvisations: the first presents him playing a variety of instruments; the second comprises his alto sax work; the third his "percussion cage." Alto tends to bring out Mitchell's lyricism, and indeed "Nemus," while composed of intricate, asymmetrical lines that develop over its seven-minute length into a work of notable complexity, possesses an overall sense of melodic calm. Mitchell's tone has a lightly inflected, limpid cast. A slightly acidic edge mitigates the sweetness of his rather straight tone. The solo's construction is typically well-considered; Mitchell's gift for logical construction serves him quite well here. Devoted fans of solo free jazz sax—all twelve of us—will find much to admire. Certainly no one does it better than Roscoe Mitchell.

June 11, 2009 · 0 comments


The Julius Hemphill Sextet: Fat Man

Saxophonist Marty Ehrlich did jazz a public service by keeping alive Julius Hemphill's all-saxophone sextet after the great jazz composer/saxophonist passed away in 1995. Indeed, even before his untimely death, ill health had forced Hemphill to the sideline as a horn player, though he still maintained and composed for the sextet. "Fat Man" is typical of Hemphill's music for the band. It combines bop rhythms, dense harmonies, blues sonorities, and lyric melody in a surprisingly accessible strain of cutting-edge jazz. The group is exceedingly polished, sometimes to a fault; one misses the joyously rough edges that enlivened Hemphill's work with his previous all-sax band, the World Saxophone Quartet. Nor is his astringent, bracing solo style replaced by any of these fine yet rather less intrepid players. Still, the band interprets the music with palpable respect and a level of musicianship that's beyond reproach. Jazz composers have yet to catch up with Julius Hemphill. Until they do, such tributes as this will remain as fresh as the day the music was written.

June 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Kahil El'Zabar & David Murray: Groove Allure

David Murray is like pizza: there's good pizza and great pizza, but there's no such thing as bad pizza. Ok, may be there is bad pizza (ever eaten Totino's frozen?), but there really isn't any bad David Murray. At his best, Murray is the most audaciously creative and intense tenor saxophonist of his generation. At his worst, he's merely one of the most audaciously creative and intense.

On the scale of extant Murray performances, this loose, bluesy duo with percussionist Kahil El'Zabar can't be rated at the top, yet it nevertheless has much to recommend it. Recorded live at The Bop Shop, a jazz record store in Rochester, NY, this seems to have been El'Zabar's gig. He wrote the tune, his name comes first on the album cover, and he gets extensive unaccompanied solo space. Murray is uncharacteristically deferential to his partner, staying put within El'Zabar's conga groove without engaging in extended fireworks. When he does get wound up, it sounds a bit pro forma, a bit "let's cut to the chase." That said, it's likely only someone very familiar with Murray at his best would notice. El'Zabar is a spirited, spiritual presence; he sets down a multi-faceted rhythmic bed that stands well on its own. The overall mood is one of cool intensity with an emphasis on groove. Not gourmet fare, certainly, but plenty tasty.

June 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Keepin' Constant

NYC's Freestyle Music Series Presents Jazz's Cutting Edge When The Spotlights are Low

By Chris Kelsey

As all non-comatose jazz fans are well aware, New York City is without a major mainstream jazz festival this summer, which seems to have resulted in a boost of recognition for its yearly alternative jazz event, The Vision Festival. The annual avant-garde confab (which hits this week) once again features a huge selection of gifted free jazzers, raising the music's profile at a time when God knows it can use some raising.

Yet, as someone once said (and as I've been reading rather incessantly, lately), New York City is a year-round jazz festival. That certainly goes for free jazz; the Vision Fest gets the crowds in the summertime, but other dedicated musicians, promoters, and venues keep the fire burning the other 51 weeks.

Once such musician/promoter is Dee Pop, member of the free-jazz/roots-music trio Radio I-Ching, and longtime drummer for the punk rock band the Bush Tetras. For years, Pop has booked the Freestyle Music Series, a weekly event that features the finest leftward-leaning jazz artists from New York and beyond—including many if not most of the musicians who play the Vision Fest every year.

For years, the FMS convened on Sunday nights at the late, lamented CB's Gallery, the slightly upscale next-door neighbor to the equally-defunct punk rock mecca CBGB's, on the Bowery in the East Village. Pop shut down the series for a time in order to recharge his batteries (keeping free jazz alive on a weekly basis is an exhausting job). He eventually re-launched the series, finding a couple of temporary homes before setting down what is hoped are new roots on Sunday nights at Local 269, a Lower East Side bar on the corner of Houston and Suffolk Streets.

The last Sunday preceding the Vision Fest featured three acts for the usual ridiculously cheap five dollar admission: Radio I-Ching (drummer Pop, soprano saxophonist Andy Haas, and man-of-many-fretted-instruments Dan Fiorino) opened with a gritty stylistic mash up that drew on everything from Monk to blue grass to hard core. Bassist Joe Morris' trio changed the mood 180 degrees, with a set of swinging free bop of a nearly Tristano-esque bent, featuring drummer Luther Gray and the terrific Lee Konitz-on-acid alto saxophonics of Jim Hobbs. Finishing things was bassist Francois Grillot's French Contraband Quartet. The group (which also featured flutist Robert Dick, cellist Daniel Levin, and drummer Jay Rosen) utilized light and subtle textures in a thoroughly organic, earthy approach to collective improvisation.

The night's program was characteristic of Pop's catholic tastes and disparate approach to booking. It also—typically—featured several musicians who later in the week would take the stage of the Vision Festival. The difference is, the Freestyle Music Series happens every Sunday (venue willing), rain or shine. Festivals are great, but it's constancy on a smaller scale that keeps the music alive.

June 09, 2009 · 0 comments


Cecil Taylor: Idut

This nearly 15-minute-long track is performed by the Unit featuring longtime Taylor confrere Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, the underrated trumpeter Raphe Malik, violinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sirone, and the incendiary drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Chock full of the free-associative, ultra-intense free improvisation characteristic of Taylor, this music is nevertheless more organized than many another of his ventures.

The music is organized into loose but discrete sections, formed largely by small, motivic gestures played in an asynchronous fashion by the musicians. Ramsey Ameen's fleet, slashing violin lends the music a distinct "contemporary classical" feel, even if his phrasing is heavily jazz inflected. The extraordinary Lyons is as fleet and creative as ever, and Malik's rowdy trumpet puts a welcome edge on the overall group sound. Jackson is arguably the most compelling drummer Taylor ever employed. He's a force of nature, engaging the leader in terms of speed and intensity like few other percussionists.

As for the leader, he's in top form, creating torrents of atonal sound that, even though infinitely complex and decidedly not bluesy, still occasionally manage to invoke the spirit of Horace Silver. This is a great band—one of Taylor's very best, which is saying a great deal.

May 28, 2009 · 0 comments


Don Pullen: In The Beginning

One of the strongest, most intense and inventive tracks on an album chock full of them, "In The Beginning" combines ultra-fast freebop, out-of-time free improvisation, tango rhythms, and extraordinary solos to create a brilliantly conceived and performed work of jazz. Everyone involved is at the top their game. The horns shine in particular: alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is terrific, showing himself an able successor to Dolphy and Shorter; cornetist Dara proves himself a creatively malleable, exciting—even incendiary—soloist. Pullen, of course, is great, as are bassist Hopkins and drummer Bobby Battle. This is one of those times (rare, for this critic) when enthusiasm trumps analysis. "In The Beginning" is jazz the way it ought to be: original, intense, unmindful of limits—some of Pullen's best work, meaning it ranks with some of the finest piano-based jazz of the last half century.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Don Pullen: The Sixth Sense

The quartet that pianist Don Pullen co-led with tenor saxophonist George Adams in the 1980s was one of the finest jazz groups of that era, combining the best aspects of inside and outside playing into a seamless, organic whole. Pullen's efforts in that direction were not limited to his band with Adams, however, as this performance demonstrates.

"The Sixth Sense" is a North African-sounding tune in 6/4 with an attractive, mysterious melody built upon a simple, modal-sounding chordal structure. Fred Hopkins—surely one of the greatest and most underrated jazz bassists of all time—combines with drummer Bobby Battle to create an elastic, swinging groove. Cornetist Olu Dara and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison contribute fiery, articulate solos, but the track's centerpiece is Pullen's spot. The pianist's hyper-agile and bracingly intense solo is stunningly creative. Pullen's visionary style simply did not recognize a distinction between "out" and "in." In Pullen's music, everything is "in," made manifest by open-mindedness, self-confidence, and determination. His playing here is profound.

May 21, 2009 · 1 comment


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