Paul Motian: 9 x 9

An unusual take on collectively improvised free jazz, featuring an amped-up Bill Frisell and two aggressive, stylistically similar tenor saxophonists, Joe Lovano and the late Jim Pepper.

Drummer/composer Paul Motian's rubato melodies are loosely rendered by the saxes and guitar, beneath which Motian and bassist Ed Schuller concoct an amorphous, out-of-time rhythmic and harmonic platform. In his solo, Frisell is as rock-ish as he was inclined to get, adopting a metallic guise with generous helpings of distortion and delay. The saxophonists are hard to tell apart—certainly Lovano was not as distinctive in the earlier '80s as he later became—but both contribute creatively to the demoniacally agitated ebb and flow. Of course, Motian is in charge of that; his simultaneously riotous and self-contained manner of playing incites with intelligence.

Free jazz—especially the kind that steers clear of regular pulse—has in the main been the province of acoustic musicians. Frisell's rock-inspired playing goes far in defining this group's unconventional sound. It's as welcome as it is atypical.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Paul Motian: The Story of Maryam

Drummer Paul Motian has always had infallible taste in saxophonists, going back to his early records as a leader. Here his sax savvy is in evidence twice-over, with the inclusion of the late Jim Pepper on soprano and Joe Lovano on tenor.

"The Story of Maryam" is a gentle, Latin-flavored waltz that features most notably guitarist Bill Frisell's quasi-detuned, dynamically-varied electric guitar atmospherics and the two nimble saxophonists exchanging the sing-song melody—one improvising while the other solos. Pepper and Lovano are garrulous, engaging players, and they work wonderfully together. Motian has always struck this writer as being more intriguing when playing "out" than when playing straight time, but his unusual, snare-laden approach works nicely on this. He's one of the unique instrumental voices among modern jazz drummers, regardless of the context.

A refined version of this group—his trio with Frisell and Lovano—became one of Motian's best and longest-running bands. This performance provides an opportunity to hear an earlier, expanded version of that ensemble. It isn’t quite as compelling as the best of the music made by the trio, but it has its own not insubstantial charms.

May 21, 2009 · 0 comments

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Borah Bergman and Roscoe Mitchell: Riding the Crest

"Riding the Crest" is fraught with drama. The ambidextrous free jazz pianist Borah Bergman plays extremely fast and convoluted melodic lines in each hand—often in opposition to one another—while soprano saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell adds his still more streams of linear complexity on top. Mitchell employs circular breathing and Bergman needn't take a breath in any case. Consequently, the resultant music is a tempest of swirling textures without pause. Both men are well capable of understatement, but there's none of that here. This performance represents both at their virtuosic peaks, creating music defined by the extraordinarily swift manner in which they present an abundance of ideas, as well as the ferociousness of their delivery.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Borah Bergman and Roscoe Mitchell: At Any Given Moment

Of the many pianists who've adopted jazz-derived free improvisation as a mode of expression, few if any have as distinctive a style as Borah Bergman. Initially inspired by the legendary pianist Lennie Tristano, Bergman nevertheless developed a voice wholly different from his model, conceiving a manner of non-tonal improvisation that draws little from the bebop that formed the basis of Tristano's music. Bergman is a free-associative improviser, operating outside the realm of swing and jazz harmony in a manner essentially invented by Cecil Taylor. Bergman possesses massive chops, yet he's not afraid to rein them in. Indeed, reticence is a crucial aspect of his music.

Roscoe Mitchell is a good foil for Bergman. Not only is he fond of leaving space between phrases, he generates an illusion of space through the use of long, sustained tones, often separated by intervals greater than an octave. This 17-minute track begins gradually and takes time building momentum, although a palpable tension is present from the outset. The dramatic arc rises and falls naturally; there is no single huge climax, but rather several smaller ones that are thrown into relief by the surrounding quiet. The musicians' choice of notes might imply a contemporary classical influence, but the phrasing, articulation, and inflections are pure jazz (albeit of the very free-est variety). First class stuff by two masters of their craft.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gebhard Ullmann: Kreutzberg Park East

This is the music that plays during the freaky scene in the movie when the spirit of Albert Ayler and his crazy cousins come back to inhabit the instruments lying around on the practice room floor. A priest is summoned to perform an exorcism. Midway through the procedure, there's a lot of blood and other miscellaneous body fluids coating the floors and walls. The horns fly into rage-filled ascending passages. The door flies open and in walks Anthony Braxton. He takes one furious look at the poor man of the cloth, says nothing, and then points back down the hallway. As he passes through the door, the instruments rise up and execute a furious unison passage that's full of staccato bluster. Celebrations take place in the form of a trombone/drums duo, a sax/bass duo and, finally, one last low tone.

Braxton knows a good thing when he hears it. So does Gebhard Ullmann.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments

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Nicholas Urie: Bad Girl?

People can find inspiration for art in some surprising places. This happens because creative types tend to see relationships between objects that seem quite unlike. Nicholas Urie's use of human speech as source material isn't exactly new. For example, Steve Reich created "Different Trains" from pieces of conversation overheard on train trips between Los Angeles and New York. Ah, but just look at the title the CD. Yes, the basic ingredients did indeed come from Internet dating sites. The song's title "Bad Girl?" doesn't exactly telegraph this, but the lines "I am familiar with the forms/Of female discipline" do get you closer.

The song opens with Christine Correa's pure voice singing a proud ascending passage: "I am a forty-two year old/Good looking and sexy..." The band kicks in with a sort of naughty march and we're transported directly into a horny and desperate Broadway play of the mind. I mean that in the best possible way. Urie's stellar ensemble is quite malleable, equally comfortable with both that thematic march and the swingin', straight ahead jazz that's played later. Oh and there's some bump & grind burlesque right near the end as Correa gets down to business, singing about "good ol' fashioned discipline" and "spanking fun." Hmmm, a cold shower might be necessary after this track.

May 20, 2009 · 1 comment

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Archie Shepp: Cousin Mary

Archie Shepp's first Impulse album comprised four tunes by John Coltrane ("Syeeda's Song Flute," "Mr. Syms," "Cousin Mary," and "Naima") plus one Shepp original ["Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)"]. The minor blues "Cousin Mary" is a pretty straight-forward jazz tune, and Shepp gives it a pretty straight-forward treatment—arrangement-wise, at least.

After a quick reading of the head, Shepp gets down to business, improvising a gruff, vocalic tenor solo that spends a great deal more time going against the grain of the fast tempo than it does engaging it. Shepp's lines are smears of paint across the canvas of steady pulse—a country blues solution to an ultra-modern puzzle. Flugelhornist Alan Shorter follows with an economical solo, heavy on chromatics, moving around and about the beat in a manner similar to Shepp's. John Tchicai goes a step further, breaking the pulse into shards with his self-enforced lyricism (and bringing the rhythm section along with him), before reconnecting with the swing and generally complicating matters in his own ingenious way. Bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Charles Moffett create at a high level, connecting well with one another and the horns.

This is an inspired performance—one that pays heartfelt tribute to the album's dedicatee, yet at the same time suggests further idiomatic growth.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Archie Shepp: Rufus (Swung, his face at last to the wind, then his neck snapped)

Archie Shepp got his deal with Impulse largely through the good graces of the label's star attraction, John Coltrane. Fittingly enough, Shepp's first album for the company was a tribute to his sponsor. The album consists of four Coltrane tunes arranged by Shepp, with "Rufus" his sole original. Coincidentally or not, the tune is arguably the album's most interesting composition. The performance isn't too shabby, either.

"Rufus" consists mainly of a start-and-stop freebop melody played in a shaggy unison and harmony by Shepp on tenor sax and John Tchicai on alto. Bassist Reggie Workman provides a harmonically ambiguous backing, and drummer Charles Moffett accents the discontinuous melody, leading into a solo section taken at a very quick tempo. The whole thing is rather loose and unkempt, but it suits the group's purposes very well, allowing the horns maximum harmonic freedom while providing a hard-swinging, nearly boppish platform for improvisation. Soloing first, Tchicai floats over the cooking rhythm section, combining long, finely-shaded lyrical phrases with intricate, convoluted episodes. Shepp's solo spot is more energetic and hard-swinging; he's more inclined toward extremes of volume and inflection. Tchicai's limpid strategy contrasts and complements Shepp's earthier approach wonderfully. Workman is very good, and Moffett displays the same spontaneous, roughhousing style that made him such an effective drummer for Ornette.

Perennially underrated, this is perhaps the best track from one of the great '60s free jazz albums.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Albert Ayler: Four

"Four" isn't the Miles Davis tune, but a 20-minute-long collective improvisation by pianist Cecil Taylor's trio with alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Sunny Murray, augmented by the tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler. A week after this performance, this same Taylor group (minus Ayler) would record the influential Café Montmartre sides that have been released in many guises over the years, perhaps the most well-known being the 1976 Arista Freedom issue, Nefertiti, The Beautiful One has Come. As far as this writer knows, this track had it's first legitimate release as part of the 2004 Revenant boxed set, Holy Ghost, a massive undertaking that notably documents some of the more obscure aspects of Ayler's career.

Ayler's presence on "Four" adds a rough, primal edge to Taylor's music. Ayler's country blues- and gospel-tinged manner highlights the essential elegance of Taylor's bop- and classical-influenced style. It's a fascinating and largely successful admixture, though one finds it hard to imagine the two men sustaining a partnership for long. Alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyon's serpentine, Stitt-Meets-Ornette style is a much better match for the pianist. As for Ayler, he was the most un-tempered of jazz musicians; he sounded better when playing with musicians who could better accommodate his playing-between-the-cracks approach. Still, this a remarkable document—bracing, if curious in what it reveals about the differences between two of the great free jazz musicians of that or any other time.

May 19, 2009 · 0 comments

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Albert Ayler: On Green Dolphin Street

A refutation to the common misconception that Albert Ayler had no foundation in the fundamentals of modern jazz performance, "On Green Dolphin Street" has the tenor saxophonist playing a standard tune with a bland, generic bebop rhythm section. That he does so in an idiosyncratic yet not totally off-the-wall manner shows that his eventual rejection of traditional mores was done with ample knowledge about what he was rejecting. Ayler's approach to playing this tune is something like Eric Dolphy's. He runs roughshod over the changes at times. Other times, he treats them with careful—and even gentle—consideration. He plays impossibly fast, with a huge, occasionally guttural tone. Concurrent with this, Ayler was experimenting with the hymnic, free-associative style that he later made famous; this shows us another, perhaps equally compelling direction his mature music might've taken.

May 18, 2009 · 0 comments

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Sex Mob: Sign 'O The Times

It used to bother me that Prince went out to Vegas. Of course, this makes no sense. The hot & nasty purple one in Sin City? It doesn't take dream logic to make that idea work! It also used to bother me that Prince had become a practicing Jehovah Witness, but only because I figured that would mean he'd have to drop material like "Darling Nikki" from his live set.

As a listener, it can pay to make the attempt to separate the artist from the art. No matter what you think of Prince the man, there can be no denying that he has written some hot & nasty funk over the years. Yes, put that picture of the little guy in those assless pants out of your mind, because his music throws a long shadow.

Just ask the guys in Sex Mob. Better yet, give this steaming version of "Sign 'O The Times" a listen. With Kenny Wollesen doing a little second line shuffle under Tony Scherr's wicked bass lick, and with guest organ player John Medeski adding to that initial conversation, it seemed that Sex Mob intended to put the tune in slow burn mode. Wrong! The horns come in and play the head before transitioning into the full-on freak & shriek. Medeski keeps up the tension later on as the band takes that signature funk line and elongates it while Bernstein and Kraus shout it out over the top. Great stuff. It's proof that funk and free(ish) jazz are not that far apart, and that you don't have to go to Vegas to get freaky.

May 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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John Coltrane: Afro Blue

The stories vary about how and why John Coltrane decided to begin playing the soprano. Most accounts give Steve Lacy at least some credit, which makes sense, in that when it came to the soprano in modern jazz, Lacy was the only game in town in the late '50s and early '60s. However, Coltrane didn’t mimic Lacy any more than Lacy mimicked his first inspiration, Sidney Bechet. Indeed, Coltrane didn't even mimic himself, but instead developed a soprano style distinct from his tenor style. Coltrane had first recorded on the soprano in June 1960, and his breakthrough performance on the instrument—"My Favorite Things"—came later that year, but he'd clearly reached a new level on the horn by the time this was made. The Afro Blue Impressions version of "Afro Blue" follows the more famous Live at Birdland version by about a month, and it's arguably as good if not better. At their best (which was pretty much every time they took the bandstand), Trane and his rhythm section were like a hurricane wrestling an earthquake. They generate that kind of power here. On soprano, Coltrane's chops were astounding, of course, but it’s the song-like nature of his playing—especially in the horn's upper register—that is particularly affecting. This is Coltrane at the height of his powers as a soprano saxophonist, and it reveals an amalgam of originality and spirit that's seldom been matched, let alone surpassed.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Roscoe Mitchell: Music for Trombone & B Flat Soprano

The initial free jazz successes of the late '50s and early '60s were centered mostly in New York, where musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and others lived and developed their new music. New York's monopoly on the avant-garde didn't last long, however. The experimental impulse spread to other jazz communities across the world. In Chicago in the mid '60s, a second major U.S. scene sprung up, as musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis (in the company of Muhal Richard Abrams, Phil Cohran, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, and others) founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. More so than the New Yorkers, members of the AACM combined elements of 20th-century European-derived art music with jazz, resulting in a unique and altogether innovative stripe of improvised music.

Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis both turned out to be among the most adventurous of the Chicago crowd, their music blurring anything resembling a barrier separating jazz and experimental classical music. This track—a trombone/soprano sax duo—is representative of their intrepidness. A jazz sensibility suffuses the phrasing of both Lewis and Mitchell, yet the spare instrumentation, spiky melodic contours, and creative use of silence bespeak an admiration for contemporary classical compositional techniques. Mitchell is probably best known for his work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, yet it's often quieter projects like this that show his subtle instrumental concept to its best advantage. While he obviously owes a debt to Coltrane, Mitchell's soprano work is nevertheless unique, and in some ways can be considered an advance on both Coltrane and Steve Lacy. His use of dissonant, widely-spaced intervals is almost Webern-esque. His concentration on the more acute aspects of tone production has parallels in the work of Lacy, yet Mitchell's approach is his and his alone. Lewis is as distinctive and attentive to detail.

This music is finely-wrought, yet deceptively strong—like a spiderweb spun from piano wire.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Wayne Shorter: Super Nova

It's hard to remember a time when Wayne Shorter didn't play at least as much soprano sax as he did tenor, but he came to the smaller horn relatively late, at age 35: after playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; after recording most of his early Blue Note masterpieces; and after making his mark with the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the mid '60s. It wasn't until late 1968 that he began recording on soprano, first with Miles (on the In a Silent Way sessions), and later on this title track from his own 1969 Blue Note album.

Shorter might have found the soprano late, but he hit the ground running. Based on a slight, endlessly transmutable motiv, Shorter's lissome soprano solo seems to throw into relief the quickness he always exhibited on tenor. Everything seems sped up here—the tempo, the horn's sound, Shorter's remarkably precise manner of articulation (something that would become ever more pronounced over the years). Backed by a smoking rhythm section, "Super Nova" is a highly-chromatic music that eschews conventional bop or even modal harmonies, yet retains the explicit swing element. The soprano's small size allows it to be played at higher velocity, making it the ideal horn for Shorter and younger hyper-agile freebop players (Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman being two of the best) who would fall under his spell over the next thirty-plus years. Few of those younger players would ever capture the same air of spontaneity, however, nor would they evince as much originality as Shorter, who would remain one of the dominant voices on the horn for decades to come.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Keith Jarrett (featuring Jan Garbarek): The Windup

Beginning in the '70s, some of the most consistently interesting soprano saxophonists could be found in Europe. One of the first and best was Jan Garbarek. Initially inspired by the expressionist tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, Garbarek recorded with composer/theorist George Russell in the mid-to-late '60s. By the mid '70s, Garbarek had evolved into a disciplined, post-bop melodist, recording a series of fine leftward-leaning albums under his own name for ECM. However, some of his best—-and jazziest—work came as a member of pianist Keith Jarrett's "European Quartet," with whom he recorded this track. "The Windup" is driven by Jarrett's gospel-ish piano vamp and drummer Jon Christensen's chattering snare, which lead into a cheerful odd-time melody played by Garbarek on curved soprano. Garbarek's sound is less like that of a straight soprano than it is the musette sometimes favored by saxophonist Dewey Redman. Nasal in character but full-bodied, it's one of the most distinctive soprano sax sounds in all of jazz. After Jarrett's solo, Garbarek enters unaccompanied. His solo is almost Ornette-ish in character. Singing and melodic, strongly rhythmic but harmonically unfettered, it's a joyful sound, not least because of its sheer individuality. Not many soprano saxophonists took the route suggested by Garbarek here, which not coincidentally adds to the music's appeal.

May 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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