CHES SMITH – INTERPRET IT WELL

On Interpret it Well, drummer/ vibraphonist/ composer Ches Smith brings together three high-caliber improvisers for a refreshing take on minimal alt-jazz that is actually a lot more accessible than this oddball labeling suggests. With guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Craig Taborn, viola player Mat Maneri on board and himself on drums and vibes, Smith could probably not have made a bad album. As it turns out, this one no doubt delivers the goods with inventiveness, compositional flair and a deep sense of clarity honed during the pandemic hiatus. Constructed from the most barebones material, the songs develop into full-blown extrapolations that move along with cumulative power and consistent logic. Take the opener “Trapped”, a repeated pattern is first played by Taborn as Frisell, Smith and Maneri rove around to set the mood. A very simple idea that doesn’t evolve into a melodic tune but builds up enough low-key intensity to stand on its own. The title track, borrowed from the script text of artist Raymond Pettibon’s ink drawing of the same name, encapsulates the logic at the core of the album. The opening statement played by Smith hands out the script for the musicians to follow before fading out into kaleidoscopic free-wheeling improv. Taborn then ushers in a new theme inadvertently, and true to form, excels at building drama from repetitive grooves that never feel repetitive.  Frequently acting as the bassist of the band, his persistent vamps work as melodic or harmonic signposts that make the music gel. In that regard, Frisell is the perfect partner in crime for these sonic explorations, bringing out a full array of guitar sounds to the mix. By the end of the song, they’re all rocking out pretty hard and, weirdly enough, you didn’t see that coming.

About the album, Smith says: “I like a lot of music where nothing seems to be happening.” There is actually a lot more happening on that record than the composer would have us believe. Evocative, brooding and intense, the music seems to hover around in a transitional zone that all the protagonists are happy to embrace and contribute their signature style to. However minimal and skeletal the material, it gives the musicians ample room to push and pull the songs into many directions while staying on script. The multi-sectional “Mixed metaphor” is a case in point. Guitar and viola mesh particularly well, almost sounding like one instrument in the first part of the tune. Like Frisell’s, Maneri’s sound brings a spaciousness that feels right for these open-ended tunes, and he can also stretch out with disruptive power when the time comes. “Morbid” is expectedly subdued and atmospheric, a fitting prelude to the busier mood pervading the next track “Clear Major”. Collective deconstructions are interspersed within the various sections of this seemingly complex tune and the quartet navigates these rugged roads with a keen sense of dynamics. Frisell takes it out with crystalline overtones against Smith’s reverberant vibes.

It is to Smith’s credit that he picked out the right bandmembers to interpret his compositions where, well, interpretation is the key point. Alternately quiet and vibrant, the overall mood of the album is one of suspension and equilibrium that allows the musicians to shift gears in a heartbeat within the songs while avoiding abrupt transitions. Listen to the delicately layered “I need more” to hear what I mean.

“Depart” brings the album full circle, a variation on the structure and mood of the opening track. Pettibon’s cover art illustrates the vibe of the music well. Where is that railroad track going as it intersects with the sea? Is a storm brewing out there? By offering music focused on the journey rather than the destination,the quartet convened by Ches Smith builds an entrancing sonic universe. Do not miss out on this important recording. Interpret It Well drops May 6th on Kris Davis’ cutting-edge record label Pyroclastic Records. Many thanks to Ann Braithwaite for sharing it with me ahead of its release.  

Ches Smith  – drums, vibraphone

Craig Taborn  – piano

Mat Maneri  – viola

Bill Frisell  – guitar

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BADBADNOTGOOD

Yes, you read that correctly. And capitals all the way. When it comes to funny band names, this one is probably as mischievous and attention-grabbing as it gets. It’s still a mystery why the algorithms of the Internet took so long to nudge that band up on my radar. But at the end of the day, it speaks to the genre-bending quality of the music the band has offered so far. So, what is this band? To say that BADBADNOTGOOD is a Canadian instrumental trio (originally a quartet)from Toronto with jazz, hip hop, rock, electronic, you name it, influences feels somewhat reductive and may underrate music that, granted, borrows elements from all of the above, but crafts a distinctive and alluring sound that transcends the strictures of genre. Jumping back and forth between their 2016 album IV and their new one Talk Memory (2021), I am stunned to hear how many musical styles the band has been engaging with without sounding like a smart fusion band. Both albums exude an explorative aura that is compelling enough to keep the listener on their toes and a catchiness that is trippy, cinematic and enveloping.

By their own admission, the bandmembers are not a jazz band per se in the sense that musical prowess and the continuation of tradition is not the driving force of their creative process. However, all four members display a musicianship and a group cohesiveness only well-trained musicians shaped by focused listening and practicing can pull off, a very jazz thing indeed. It’s actually what makes their music so engaging and relatable. They don’t seem to care much about what genre their music will naturally fall under, embracing instead all their influences with deep knowledge of specifics and lineage. Their multiple collaborations with such diverse artists as rapper Ghostface Killah and saxophonist Colin Stetson demonstrate a willingness to cross-pollinate styles to build a sound that feels close to their eclectic sensitivities. That collaborative spirit has been a trademark of the band and Talk Memory continues this narrative arc as it brings in a host of guests and celebrates form and collective harmony over virtuosic displays.

The opener “signal from the noise” starts off ominously, building like something out of an indie rock record on Constellation Records, soon erupting into a fuzzed-out guitar jam that brings the melody back for the last section of the tune. Here Leland Whitty’s twittering saxophone line provides a clave-like pulse as the embers of the fire smolder away. It is possibly Whitty’s multi-reed facility and improvisations that place the album in jazz territory more decidedly but again, the chops are ancillary to the overall vibe and work as a stylistic means to an end. On that note, all musicians deserve credit for their understated yet potent contribution to the overall sound. The string arrangements blend particularly well with the band’s aesthetics and their affinity for lush expansive soundscapes reminiscent of 70s funk-rock film scores. On “City of Mirrors”, the drummer’s tight beat dances in lockstep with the washes of strings very effectively, a timely lead-up to what is possibly the album’s high point, “Beside April”. Detroit jazz drummer and hip-hop producer Karriem Riggins guests on that track, laying down an unshakable groove that is the perfect foil for the epic finale. In fact, the whole album feels very suite-like, one song leading seamlessly into the next like different scenes of a movie. A few words about IV, which I probably like just as much but deserves a full review by someone else than yours truly. “Time Moves Slow” is so infectious in its message and delivery it will give you chills. “Running away is easy, it’s the living that’s hard,” sings Samuel T. Herring on the chorus as Chester Hansen’s gritty bass line rubs it in. Drummer Alex Sowinsky brings a tight and cohesive groove that makes the music gel and never overplays. I mean, how good is that snare drum on “Speaking gently” or that 5/4 beat on “Confessions Pt II”? Similarly, Hansen’s razor-sharp playing commands attention on both albums but don’t take my word for it. Check out the details, it’s all in there.

No doubt, hip-hop is the dominant force on both records I’ve listened to and presumably all their output but it’s the writing and how fluidly they navigate multiple musical streams to create solid songs that make BADBADNOTGOOD so damn GOOD. I’ve got some catching up to do.

BBNG is now:

Leland Whitty – soprano and tenor saxophone, flute, guitar, bass (“City of Mirrors”, “Open Channels”), piano, synthesizer

Chester Hansen – bass, guitar (“City of Mirrors”), piano, organ, synthesizer

Al Sow – drums, percussion

Matthew Tavares – keys (former member)

Listen to IV and Talk Memory and buy their music here:

https://badbadnotgoodofficial.bandcamp.com/album/iv

https://badbadnotgoodofficial.bandcamp.com/album/talk-memory

Heart-Shaped Box (Nirvana Cover)

“Fistula” by Kurt Cobain

This started out as a bass vamp I was shedding on and forgot about years ago. It turns out to be a double bass and acoustic guitar tribute to Nirvana’s glorious tune by two long-time friends in confinement. That’s how unpredictable music can be. Kudos to my friend Julien Ledru for rising to the challenge.

Dan Blake, Da Fé

If it wasn’t for its title, which relates to the question of faith in our own ability to effect positive change and references the “auto da fé” from the Spanish Inquisition era, saxophonist Dan Blake’s new album would still be a fairly bold artistic statement. Urgent times call for urgency in music and the saxophonist is outspoken in his ecological and social activism. “If only we could STOP and listen”, he writes in the liner notes. This unabashed call for a spiritual and political awakening translates to music of great intensity within the parameters of straight-ahead contemporary jazz.

Pianist Carmen Staaf’s rumbling impressionism on the opener “Prologue-A New Normal” introduces the lush and textured soundscape that unfolds throughout the album’s 9 tracks. “Cry Of The East” is a 3/4 modal tune whose apparent sense of luminous serenity suggests darker undertones and a grittier reality.  It’s probably hard to dispute the Coltrane influence kicking off the intense “Like Fish in Puddles” but two minutes in the tune veers off into a whole new universe layered with Moog and Rhodes interpolations.

“The Grifter” moves along at a fitful and menacing stride, all musicians deftly negotiating the stop-and-go curve balls tossed their way. That rhythmic jaggedness is a common thread running through the album and it showcases Blake’s compositional gifts. “The Cliff” is particularly engaging in this regard, with all the improvisors happy to dance around with the odd meter vamps. Each song has a distinctive beat that gives it character and an angularity that feel purposeful and in sync with their political subtext. “Dr Armchair” blazes through in 3 minutes, a high-powered prelude to the polyphonic tapestry of the following title track. Interesting use of electronics gives “Da Fé” a spacy and multilayered quality recalling eerie moods found on some of Wayne Shorter’s 1980s albums, here recast in a more hip setting.  East meets West in this spooky landscape, Blake’s soprano soaring above the molten drama building “under” him. That is possibly what sets this music apart from other similar recent jazz endeavors: while being a largely acoustic effort, the additional synths and saxophone multitracking don’t feel obtrusive but blend cohesively into the mix, lending the songs an atmospheric quality that makes the album gel.

“Pain” starts off with a wailing but subdued soprano dirge over the almost liturgical and organ-like resonance of Genovese’s Fender Rhodes. A theme inches its way in around 2:00, gaining momentum by simply roving around itself.

However intense the tunes are, Blake doesn’t need long forms to unspool his message. Most tunes keep to a song-like duration (by Jazz’s standards!) and the fitting mood to match. The “Epilogue: it heals itself” closes out the set on a suspenseful and hopeful note, an instrumental choir suggesting the silver lining behind the turbulence.

We are burning. While Dan Blake’s soprano may not have the kind of searing incandescence his elders expressed in the 60s and 70s, his Da Fé is a cohesive and uplifting album that deserves our full attention.

Da Fé is due for release on March 12, 2021, on Sunnyside Records. Keep your eyes peeled.

Dan Blake: soprano and tenor saxophone

Carmen Staaf: piano, Fender Rhodes

Leo Genovese: Moog, Prophet, Farfisa, Six-Trak, Fender Rhodes, Piano

Dmitry Ishenko:  acoustic and electric bass

Jeff Williams: drums

Matthew Shipp Trio, The Unidentifiable

Matthew Shipp’s music can be hard to describe, even for his die-hardest fans. That The Unidentifiable was released in 2020 is arguably as much a comment on the ongoing worldwide predicament as a last-ditch effort to somehow define his idiosyncratic art. On a personal note, I’ve gone through phases with Shipp’s music. Way back in the mid 2000s, I was initially attracted by his off-kilter, percussive, Monk-ish, Cecil Taylor-ish, Duke-ish swinging free jazz concept. Catching him live with fellow bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver also left a deep impression. But over the years my interest waned and some of his records started to feel a little redundant (to me). Before I knew it, he had gradually fallen off my radar.

The Unidentifiable feels like a reality check. This trio pulses and breathes like a full-grown living organism. The songs cycle through the whole spectrum of the piano trio configuration, weaving together a tightly knit fabric that leans toward the avant-garde as much as it nods to iconic past incarnations. True to form, the pianist seems content to pound out a groove and stick with it throughout the song, working through its permutations as bass and drums keep the fire going. “Phantom Journey” is a resplendent case in point, the drumming intro of “Trance frame” setting the tone for the ensuing nuanced conversation. Even at his most tuneful, Shipp’s universe eschews the conventional and both longtime bandmate Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker seem to embrace this unpredictable agenda head-on, particularly Bisio who provides in-the-moment counterpoint as if second-guessing Shipp’s ominous explorations. The title track swings hard, kicking off with a modal opening that brings to mind McCoy Tyner’s sound with the John Coltrane quartet, except that the blowing here doesn’t spring from a powerful melody but a fragmented motif that bounces around the trio like a fireball. Bisio’s concise solo is strong and to the point, interspersed with audible breathing as sole accompaniment. Any Shipp record has an aura of mystery that can sometimes feel overly dark and sinister. But those same qualities often serve as an impetus for a genuine and interactive conversation. “Regeneration” has a Latin feel that one is not too accustomed to hearing in Shipp’s playing. It stands on its own and adds a timely contrast to the track list. The closer “New Heaven and New Earth” is classic Shipp trio music, slashes of arco bass, cascading streams of thunder across the piano’s register but also a lighter touch on the keys when required. The trio builds up quite a ruckus on this one but eventually, it’s Baker’s nimble brushwork that takes the tune to its subdued coda. As usual, a foreboding mood pervades the album, one that makes Shipp’s continuing journey both disquieting and captivating. A record for our time.

Matthew Shipp              Piano

Michael Bisio                  Bass

Newman Taylor Baker  Drums

Laura Palmer on lockdown

Here is what happens when a bassist is locked down and gets obsessed with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks show. This “bass cover” was made with a double bass, a 3-octave keyboard and a H1 Zoom recorder. No samples were used in the making of this track (no animals were harmed either!). I apologize to all the sound perfectionists out there for the rough editing. I tried to get all the parts to line up and nearly lost my mind over it. Thank you Garageband though. But most importantly, thank you Mr Badalamenti for creating this simple and haunting piece of music in the first place.

Eric Revis – Slipknots Through A Looking Glass

Described by fellow bandmember and employer Brandford Marsalis as the “sound of doom”, Eric Revis’ sonic signature is undoubtedly recognizable for anyone who will listen. What’s even more remarkable is that he applies that deep sound to every musical situation – regardless of genre – he is involved in and, and more importantly, on his own albums where his dark propulsive bass tone sounds like it could pull apart the earth’s crust. His is an organic, elemental sound crafted from years of digging into the strings and serving other people’s visions in the most powerful and personal way.

With his new album “Slipknots Through A Looking Glass, Revis continues to reconcile his various musical influences and experiences, skillfully layering the loose energy of rock, the slick beats of hip hop and funk, and his own distinctive avant-garde take on the jazz continuum.  Inevitably, the album has an explorative vibe that demands our full attention.

“Baby Renfro” encapsulates Revis’ compositional style from the get-go. Locking into a tight groove with pianist Kris Davis’ percussive jabs and drummer Chad Taylor’s funky stutter, Revis is leading the charge with burning power. The tune gains momentum by fits and starts as the saxophonists’ unison lines happily tumble along around the bassist’s fierce ostinato.

The bassist has a knack for creating textured soundscapes that ebb and flow on a moment’s notice as on the abstract “SpAE”, a themeless tune performed by the minimalist choir of bass, prepared piano and mrbia. Much like a practiced DJ, Revis seamlessly splices the different sections of the tune with commanding presence, his sturdy vamps wrapping ominously around the reverberant polyphony.

“Earl and the Three-fifths compromise” has a cinematic aura of mystery that runs through the various sections of the tune, giving the improvisors ample space to navigate the open-ended forms before moving into the through-composed parts.

“Shutter” barrels full steam ahead, exuding a visceral punk rock-ish energy driven by a massive rock beat that will make your head spin. McHenry and Jones’ voices complement each other very well, creating a cohesive heavy unison that makes the song gel. Jones delivers a timely searing solo complete with wails, honks, and screeches. 

“ProByte” is a beautiful canon of a tune that allows Jones and McHenry’s tenor and alto saxophone lines to dovetail and intertwine, with Davis coming in halfway through with sheets of rippling impressionisms. Throughout, the bassist holds everything down with the sheer force of his rumbling lines.

The three iterations of “Slipknots Through a Looking Glass” work as atmospheric bass interludes on which the distant seagull-like wails of the saxophones seem to conjure deeper strata of sound yet unexplored.

On “House of Leaves”, the opening free form section feels like a pause, a suspenseful time suggesting all hell might break loose at any moment but never quite does. Instead, Revis’ bass crawls out of the dark to set the pace, circling over this sparse landscape like a hungry vulture.

McHenry’s “When I become Nothing” brings a more subdued touch to the set, a graceful ballad that reminds this listener of certain moods found on Paul Motian’s later works.

“Vimen” possibly comes closest to what one would refer to as “free jazz”, a musical terrain that all musicians are well versed in and enjoy engaging with. The song starts off with bass and drums building up a blaze in free time, inspiring Davis to fly across the keyboard with serrated runs, McHenry and Jones taking their cue from there.

One of the many strengths of the album is that despite the pervasive and compelling presence of the bass – whose entire range is superbly recorded – this is somehow not a bass-centric album in the strictest sense. Rather, it is an album that features the bassist’s compositional outlook, one that draws from multiple sources to deliver a musical statement of the highest caliber.

Slipknots Through A Looking Glass is out on Pyroclastic Records.

Personnel: Eric Revis: bass; Bill Mc Henry: tenor saxophone, Darius Jones: alto saxophone; Kris Davis: piano; Chad Taylor: drums, mbira; Justin Faulkner: drums on tracks 1 and 3

https://ericrevispyroclastic.bandcamp.com/album/slipknots-through-a-looking-glass

Tomoko Omura, Branches Vol.1

Violinist and composer Tomoko Omura has released a record of songs that deliver on a tough challenge: merging the traditional music of her native Japan with the hip grooves of contemporary jazz. The band features a quintet of like-minded peers, with Jeff Miles on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, Pablo Menares on bass, Jay Sawyer on drums, and herself on violin.

Endeavors like this can be somewhat of a gamble as any fusion style in any genre or art form can be. Blending the most refined ingredients doesn’t always lead to jaw-dropping experiences. It’s probably a matter of personal taste or an acquired taste.  At the end of the day, you know someone might just tell you in perfect Lebowski fashion “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Much to yours truly’s astonishment, Tomoko Omura makes Japanese folklore sound like it’s always been part of the American “jazz tradition” and songbook. This has to do with the quality of the writing and the tasteful arrangements she brings to these unorthodox (to my Western ears) melodies. Make no mistake, nothing on here breaks with the longstanding parameters of the jazz quintet and the music remains grounded in that tradition. “Moonlight In Vermont” is the lone standard cleverly placed at the top of the album. Underpinned by odd-meter polyrhythms, the song takes on a newly engaging quality that sets the tone for the next tracks. All bandmembers get a spot to show off their improvisational talent but, as the title suggests, this feels like the beginning of further explorations ahead.

Zaleski’s musicianship is pure class, understated but stripped down to in-the-moment creativity. He’s blowing over “Revenge Of The Rabbit” like he’d eat that for breakfast, but there is a sense that these songs call for conciseness and restrain. “Three Magic Charms” has a meditative quality, its pretty melody dancing on the slow-burn groove provided by bass and drums.  Hearing the violin in that setting is refreshing as its sustained, bowed and plucked notes contrast with the darker rhythms building “under” them. “Return To The Moon” is a case in point. “Konomichi” closes out the set on a tightly interactive note, the musicians seemingly enjoying their trading moments before taking the tune to its epic finale. Spot on.

Track list: Moonlight in Vermont, Three Magic Charms, Revenge Of The Rabbit, Return To The Moon – Intro, Return To The Moon, Konomichi.

Personnel:

Tomoko Omura – Violin

Jeff Miles – Guitar

Glenn Zaleski – Piano

Pablo Menares – Bass

Jay Sawyer – Drums

For more information about Tomoko Omura’s Japanese inspirations and to buy the record, it’s over here:

http://www.tomokoomura.com/merch/branches-vol-1-autographed-cd

PS: In a completely different style and vibe, you must check out Eric Revis’ new album Slipknots Through a Looking Glass. This will rock your world.

What is to be done?

On these three extended tracks, the trio of saxophonist Larry Ochs, guitarist Nels Cline and versatile Detroit-born drummer Gerald Cleaver put structured improvisation through a metal-meets-free jazz wringer, for lack of better characterization.   Starting off on an ominous note, the music feels like a controlled experimental rock jam performed by seasoned free jazz players. It’s dark, grooving, exploratory, and never really settles on one mood but mixes it up as it goes along. Cline brings a sonic palette to the table – loops, pedals, effects – that makes the music both forward-looking and anchored in the far edges of the genres it channels. The opener “Outcries Rousing” sets the agenda for the ensuing improvisation. This is a world of smoldering ashes and throbbing ruin. Nothing here gets unbearably loud though the three improvisors create a lot of intense momentum as they go from whispered rumbles to searing jams. “A pause, A Rose” finds the trio reassessing the damage done in slow motion, building to new horizons while looking back to spooky 70s Sun Ra. Cleaver is happy to keep the grooves simmering under the surface, never really locking into a steady beat but suggesting more chaos is coming. The third and concluding track “Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend” is almost self-explanatory. Blasts of fuzzed-out guitar and saxophone coughing honks stumble and dovetail as Cleaver’s drums orchestrate the demolition in subtle lockstep.

An enthralling performance for our troubled times.

What is to be done is out on the impeccable Clean Feed record label.

Bill Frisell, Harmony

      

Guitarist Bill Frisell has carved out a singular path in the jazz world, consistently sticking to his roots and American folk influences while establishing himself as a fixture on a plethora of recordings by jazz’s most idiosyncratic players, from Paul Motian to Andrew Cyrille. For an artist whose distinctive music is equally informed by The Beach Boys and Thelonious Monk, commonality lies in a deep commitment to and love of the song regardless of the strictures of genre.  

On this debut album for Blue Note as a leader, Frisell has assembled a quartet of long-time collaborators, namely Hank Roberts on cello, Luke Bergman on vocals, guitar and bass, and, the featured instrument, Petra Haden’s vocals. This collective is called Harmony. The singer’s lead vocals infuse this eclectic canon of songs with poignant delivery and an amazing ability to nail the deep core of each tune. Roberts and Bergman sometimes complement Haden’s voice with unison singing, making this a de facto harmony singing chorus, as on the heartfelt “God’s Wing’d Horse”. The album kicks off on a subdued note, an eery voice choir segueing into the duo of Frisell and Haden (yes, the late jazz bassist’s daughter) on the haunting “Everywhere”; though technically, the guitarist doesn’t use his vocal cords but plays his heart out with his signature spacious guitar strings. Comprising 8 original songs of Frisell’s and 6 covers culled from the folk, Americana and jazz repertoire, the album flows so seamlessly together that all the boundaries of genre seem to break down from the second these voices blend. Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” is the lone jazz standard on the album and it gets a sparse and straightforward treatment by Frisell and Haden as if the song’s rich harmony didn’t need any more embellishment.  “Honest Man” is the dreamy prelude to the folk song “Red River Valley”, rendered in a cappella harmony, Frisell laying out completely. For that matter, however inevitably present on the album, Frisell’s spacious guitar doesn’t so much drive the band as it traces the contours of his musical soundscape, one that encompasses the American folk traditions he cherishes and pushes them into present-day explorations. A case in point is Peter Seeger’s “Where have all the flowers gone”, which closes out the album with adventurous harmony, drawing previously undiscovered jewels from the tune. Frisell’s unmistakable touch on the guitar roves around the songs in understated accompaniment. It’s probably one of the most striking takeaways from this album made by an iconic guitarist who chooses not to make the guitar the focus of his album. An album released on one of the most iconic jazz labels of all time.

On the album trailer video accompanying the release of Harmony, a good eye will probably notice the camera panning across Frisell’s bookshelves on which an impressive record collection (8’08) sits, neatly divided into genre sections. One of those is labeled “Weird Shit”. This is arguably as good a musical category as it gets. Isn’t it?

The Harmony quartet is Bill Frisell on guitars, Petra Haden on vocals, Hank Roberts on vocals and cello, Luke Bergman on vocals, guitars and bass

Check out Bill Frisell’s album teaser:

Selected listening:

Jazz: Small town and Epistrophy (with bassist Thomas Morgan), Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul, Motian (Nonesuch),

Folk/Americana: Music Is, Guitar in the Space Age, and a lot more.

As a sideman: I have the room above her (with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian), The Declaration of Musical Independence (Andrew Cyrille quartet), and a lot more.