Stefano Bollani: Orvieto

The Italian jazz piano tradition is especially distinguished, with artists such as Enrico Pieranunzi, Franco D'Andrea, Dado Moroni, and Giorgio Gaslini having set the standard, over a period of years, with an impressive body of work. Despite the quality of their music, however, these artists are still mostly forgotten when American critics vote in their various polls and hand out "best of year" honors. But Stefano Bollani, the relative youngster here, is proving harder to ignore, and even the jingoistic reviewers who seem to root invariably for home town talent need to pay attention to this exemplary pianist from Milan, whose improvisations are so fresh and untethered to the conventional. Once again on this track from his 2009 CD Stone in the Water, Bollani puts together the whole package. His touch is clear and crisp yet with almost no unpleasant bite or aftertaste, none of the brittleness one hears in so many of his peers. He works with bass and drums and never tries to dominate them, yet he doesn't need to, given the forcefulness inherent in his method of understatement. He brings an advanced sense of rhythmic phrasing to his music, but never tries to show off with eccentric displacements. Instead he lets the intentionality of his melodic lines find their own paths, based on musicality not licks. Probably his only limitation is the audience—can they dig an artist who does not resort to flamboyant methods and flashy tricks? Only time will tell, but count me in as an admirer.

November 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Egberto Gismonti: Sertões Veredas

When jazz musicians compose orchestral works, so many things can go wrong. Often the artist's distinctive personality disappears in the translation into complex scores; or the influence of models from classical music overwhelms the jazz ingredients; or—perhaps the most common problem—the rhythmic vitality, so essential to jazz music, is missing in action, either because it never made its way into the notation or due to the inherent difficulty in getting symphonic players to assimilate a groove outside their previous experience. "Symphonic jazz" may not be a oxymoron, but its success stories are as rare as steak tartare.

But Egberto Gismonti's Sertões Veredas avoids the pitfalls, and emerges as a masterpiece of classical-jazz cross-fertilization. I'm not sure if this has any connection to Gismonti's subtitle—a "Tribute to Miscegenation"—but clearly the music itself has a lineage that spans several continents. This artist has shown his versatility in past outings, and I still can't decide whether I admire Gismonti more as a guitarist or as a pianist. With both instruments, he has developed an exciting, highly personal style—furthered by his exceptional skills as a composer. His talents are equally evident in this massive work, comprising seven movements and some seventy minutes of music. It is to Gismonti's credit that he has been able to translate so much of the creativity and visceral energy of his solo and combo jazz performances into this string orchestra work, where he sits on the sidelines, not even showing up as guest soloist or conductor. The mood shifts, the textures, the counterpoint . . . indeed, the sheer confidence and scope of this piece demand respect.

Even so, it will be hard for fans to "place" this work in the context of a career that is already so broad. I sometimes wonder why Gismonti's name doesn't show up more prominently in the various polls and nominee lists when awards are distributed. Certainly his versatility, which refuses to be pinned down to a single instrument or style, contributes to this sad state of affairs. Sertões Veredas will not make it any easier for those who need a pigeonhole in order to appreciate an artist. Yet for those who value music for its vitality and not its kowtowing to the accepted categories, the arrival of this recording is an event to celebrate.

October 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Bobo Stenson: Send in the Clowns

The blend of Bobo Stensons pensive delivery of this famed melancholy melody and the freely moving, pulsating bed of rhythm that Jormin and Motian provide bears one of the more striking opening tracks in recent memory. As the melody unfolds and casts a gradually darker shadow, the dynamic variation intensifies, with each player choosing their own space to claim temporary headship before recoiling to concentrate on mood and texture. The spontaneous rhythmic output ranges from quick bursts, as evidenced by the perfectly poked-out bass line at 1:18, to extended runs, exemplified by Motians web of polymetric thoughtfulness from 1:32 to 1:42, at once intensely daring and elegant as only this drummer can supply. Far from your typical get through the head mentality in order to usher in the improvisation, this four-minute extended statement of Send in the Clowns proves that, when in doubt, melody is enough.

October 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Anouar Brahem: Stopover at Djibouti

The most striking aspect of Manfred Eicher's work as a producer may be its very invisibility. On his projects, the music invariably seems to define its own terms. Nothing is forced or contrived, and each song is given room to breathe. Other labels, in contrast, come across as heavy-handed in imposing concepts or jumping on fads or tinkering with the proceedings. The music arrives in your CD player or iPod with lots of baggage and a "story" straight from the marketing department.

One could hardly imagine Anouar Brahem showing up on a release at Verve and Concord, yet at ECM he is very much at home with a conception of jazz fusion that crosses centuries rather than genres. This absorbing track from The Astounding Eyes of Rita is a case in point. You could try to define the ingredients in familiar terms. The horn lines could, with different accompaniment, fit into a hard bop chart. The textures here would work on a soundtrack for a big budget film. The oud makes sense as one more flavor in the global village jukebox. But mix them together here, and the result is sui generis, a personal statement rather than a packaged deal from the entertainment industry. The pulse on "Stopover at Djibouti" sometimes superimposes a fast triple meter over a more deliberate duple pulsethis gives the song a chance to soar or float depending on which path it takes. At certain moments one could envision a dance arising from the sounds, but just as easily imagine them inspiring languor and a profound meditation.

In other words, this is music that doesn't jump on trends. Then again, it might just start one. And wouldn't that be something?

October 08, 2009 · 0 comments


Jan Garbarek: Milagre dos Peixes

Given a five year lapse since his last ECM leader date, In Praise of Dreams, any Jan Garbarek recording is a significant event on the European jazz scene. But the double-CD Dresden is an especially poised project which comes closest of any of Garbarek's releases to capturing what this artist can do in live performance. Here he is joined by one of those cross-border bands that are increasingly common in Europe these days. In this instance, the Norwegian saxophonist is supported by French drummer Manu Katché, German pianist Rainer Brüninghaus and Brazilian bassist Yuri Daniel. The song of choice is also Brazilian—Milton Nascimento's "Milagre dos Peixes"—but this is really music that travels without baggage or security checks. When pianist Brüninghaus unleashes his solo, there is more blues than bossa in his conception, and Garbarek proved decades ago that he can impose his own musical personality on any piece, whether working alongside Keith Jarrett or the Hilliard Ensemble. This is the longest track on the double-CD release—a thirteen-minute workout—and like the best of Garbarek's work, it comes across more as a ritual performance than the cover version of a song. I have long thought that jazz players could learn from visual artists, who realized decades ago that a distinctive personal style is more important than the demonstration of technique. Certainly Garbarek has no shortage of technique—Stuart Nicholson recently sent me a tape of his work as a teenager which is stunning in its hard bop workout over the changes—but he is also one of the grand stylists of the horn, as this new release will confirm again to the delight of his fans whose five year wait is over.

September 29, 2009 · 0 comments


John Abercrombie: I've Been Overlooked Before

John Abercrombie has long been a distinctive guitarist, but he utilizes a distinctive approach to his compositions as well. Many of his songs appear to be more like clusters of connected chords, not conventional progressions. In that regard, many of Abercrombies creations, such as Ive Overlooked Before, follow closely the original modal concepts first widely introduced in Miles Davis Kind Of Blue, especially Flamenco Sketches. As Davis did for that consummate exercise in modality, Abercrombie creates a mood for Overlooked more than he does a melody. Each musician contributes to the mood in specific ways: Feldmans violin provides the harmonic chords, Morgans bass bleats out notes that signal the direction of the song and Barons drum produce shadings and texture (and vaguely, the beat).

Abercrombie is liberated to fill in the colors, which he does with imagination and grace. Its a peaceful and floating piece, and it could be easy to overlook the shapes being developed by the four musicians, but a close listen underneath the surface reveals the perspicacity that comes from Abercrombies highly nuanced artistry.

September 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Holland: Life Cycle-Resolution

By the early 1980s, bassist Dave Holland had already cut his teeth with a whos who of jazz superstars including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz. In the late 1960s, Holland began to play the cello while working with the group Circle. In 1982, he released the album Life Cycle, his first album of unaccompanied cello compositions. As the last section of a five-part suite, Resolution is a brilliant example of the capabilities of the modern unaccompanied cello.

Holland begins the piece with an exciting arco passage that calls to mind the compositions of an early influence, Bla Bartk. The arco phrase comes to a sudden halt at 1:05 where Dave switches to pizzicato without losing any intensity. The pizzicato passage easily segues into a bluesy section beginning at 2:39 where Holland fully evokes the textures of the blues with the simple addition of minor thirds. The song captures more emotions than entire albums can, with the cello being the instrument to accomplish such a feat.

September 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Miroslav Vitous: Variations on W. Shorter

The forward-thinking bassist from Prague recreates the spirit of the original incarnation of Weather Report, if not the actual songs of that early era of the seminal jazz-rock band. A more accurate title for this tune might be Variations On Nefertiti, the Wayne Shorter song famously recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1967. Quotes from the hypnotic, circular melody are interspersed throughout this performance by all musicians except Cleaver, but no one ever quite completes the circle.

As it was during WRs 1970-72 period, this band tears down the walls separating the rhythm section and the front line, with each performer assuming equal parts in a musical democracy pioneered by that incarnation of WR. Cleaver never keeps time, instead using his kit to provide waves of percussion that melds into the tapestry of the tonal instruments. Vitous himself plays with randomized vigor, oscillating between plucked and bowed bass at multiple points throughout the track, and without causing any disruption.

The spare, murky sound produced by Vitous group is a far cry from what his old group later became, but what it lacked in structure and groove, it more than made up in freedom, direct communication between players and unpredictability. That holds true even when Vitous recycles an old song from his ex-bandmate that wasnt originally conceived to be used in that way.

August 13, 2009 · 0 comments


John Surman: Haywain

In 1992, Surman and Abercombie teamed up with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson for Abercrombies exceptional November platter and the album began with the free-from group improvisation The Cats Back. Seventeen years later the two Johns combine with DeJohnette and Gress taking Erskines and Johnsons place for the Surman-led Brewsters Rooster. And once again, the saxophonist and guitarist lead an ensemble through a composition thats conceived largely on the spot, Haywain.

This one begins and ends with DeJohnette, who is better than just about anyone else behind a drum kit at applying his available tools at the right moments in the right measures. He listens closely to the exchange Surman and Abercrombie are having and detects even the slightest mood changes and responds accordingly, including the point of peak intensity erupting just before the five minute mark. He does all this while simultaneously synchronizing his hi-hat to Gress rapid runs.

Thats not to diminish the contributions of the others; Surman, Abercrombie and Gress are playing telepathically, too. The drummer, however, pushes Haywain out to its substantial potential.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Andy Sheppard: La Tristesse Du Roi

A fifteen minute jazz performance is much like a fifteen round boxing match. The participants can't lay it all out in the first roundotherwise they won't last the distance. Or, if they do, they risk leaving the audience behind, worn and exhausted. Instead, the great performers learn how to pace themselves, adjust to the flow, and wait for their right moments. Andy Sheppard and the aurally aware unit of musicians he has assembled for his outstanding Movements in Colour compact disk do just that on this track. The opening several minutes is mostly muted sound pastels that only gradually come together into a musical heartbeat. The rhythm section coheres perfectlyEivind Aarset, the Bill Frisell of Norway, proves again that he really deserves to be better known in the US, Andersen solos with guitar-like fluidity, and tabla player Kuljit Bhamra carries the pulse with such life that no trapset is needed or missed. But Sheppard is the vital ingredient, playing with spirit yet never with abandon. Often he stays in pentatonic and diatonic territory, but his solo is a gem. He draws the listener in more deeply with each passing minute. The rest of the CD matches the promise of this opening track, and the disk is likely to make my "best of the year" list.

July 06, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: Seven

A profoundly beautiful composition by Carla Bley, brought to life patiently and selflessly by Paul Bley, John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian. Listening to this feels a bit like entering a slow-motion dreamworld where the laws of physical reality (such as gravity) are flexible and open to creative reinterpretation. Sublime. It reminds me of a quote by Charles Mingus: "Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity."

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: Line Down

An intensely dramatic piece from the quartet of Paul Bley, John Surman, Bill Frisell, and Paul Motian. The individual solos here are of great, of course, but what really has me in awe is the unbelievably synergistic group dynamic. Listen to the comping by Bley and Frisell during Surman's solos, as well as to the way that Motian's drumming propels and connects everything. There are also a number of times when no one person is soloing, and everyone is working together collectively to build tension instead. The ending is especially haunting; I get chills every single time I hear it.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Paul Bley: Closer

A masterpiece. Bley starts by creating these crystalline sound structures which hang uncertainly in the air and gradually fade. Some might say that he's using a lot of space and silence, but it seems more precise to say that he's playing with duration and decay. Later in the track, a number of unexpected and beautiful things happen: a singing baritone melody emerges in the left hand; a shimmeringly watery interlude follows; then the rhythm slowly grows more insistent and is punctuated by some Henry Cowell-esque extended piano techniques; next, the bottom drops out and there is a disorienting passage where his left and right hands search for one another in the upper register; finally, the questioning melody from the beginning returns. To me, this is alchemy: improvisational solo piano music distilled to an essence.

June 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Cyminology: Niyaayesh

Of the many hypocrisies associated with the record industry, the examples I find most dispiriting come when label execs brag about their devotion to finding talent that is "fresh and different" . . . and then continue to release wannabe CDs that jump on every passing fad. This "sheep pretending to be lions" attitude is almost de rigeur at certain echelons of "the business" these days. Fortunately we still have Manfred Eicher, who really does present music that breaks out of the mold, and has done so with commercial and artistic success for forty years.

Cyminology is a case in point. This band, led by Cymin Samawatie, a German vocalist of Iranian descent, defines its own sound. Benedikt Jahnel may be a jazz pianist, but his conception resists pigeonholing; his keyboard work unfolds like a musical cinema, with narrative force rather than standard jazz phraseology. Bass and drums provide flashes of color, and (unlike so many American jazz bands) don't push and prod the musicthese players realize that they are the music. Their sound is constitutive not catalytic. And Cymin Samawatie situates herself so far from what passes as jazz singing that you could waste a month of your life trying to construct a genealogy that gets you from Ella and Sarah to her ritualistic immersion in Persian texts.

If you are looking for music that reinforces your current tastes and fits neatly into the jazz rotation on your iPod, you are advised to pass on this track (and the entire As Ney CD, for that matter). But if you believe that jazz is not a stockpile of phrases or a "historic style," but is a spirit and openness to the possibilities of sound, then this music is required listening.

June 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Dewey Redman: Dewey Square

Joshua's dad flaunts his bebop chops, with just a hint of the harmonic and rhythmic freedom that once served him well as a member of Ornette Coleman's band. Redman is joined by bassist Mark Helias, who even at this relatively early point in his career was a fine player. He has an exemplary sound and sense of swing. Equally resourceful is pianist Charles Eubanks. His playing is steeped inbut not necessarily chained tothe straight-ahead. Redman's cohort from the Coleman band (as well as the cooperative Old and New Dreams) Ed Blackwell fills the drum role with swinging panache. As for Redman, he's incapable of resorting to clich, even over such a set of ho-hum changes as this. His sound is big and lissome; he swings hard and draws upon his profound imagination to invigorate the idiom. Not the greatest Redman, but a worthy sampling of his more conservative side.

May 28, 2009 · 0 comments


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