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.

What one heard in 2019

In 2019, one heard a lot of music across multiple genres. Aside from intently focused or plain distracted home listening, one spent a considerable amount of time listening to music on headphones while commuting to and from work. Even though one definitely discovered new and engaging music in 2019, one was unable to come up with a top ten list of favorite albums actually released in 2019. Maybe one is not too big on year-end lists anyways. Be that as it may, one hopes you readers out there find your groove in this random selection and take a listen to some of the music.

January confirmed one’s relatively new interest in electronic music and its interactions with jazz, namely Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music and Brad Mehldau’s Gabriel. One was reminded that one had liked (for the most part) and been pleasantly surprised by their collaboration on Mehliana a few years back, an album of kindred spirits.  

February was bass month as double bassist Larry Grenadier released his first bass solo album The Gleaners on ECM, a musical event – one being a bass practitioner – one just couldn’t miss that one and had to dig deep into it once it was available. Though a longtime devotee, one was impressed with the scope of Grenadier’s bold project and how well he delivered on that promise. Bass is not just beautiful. In those hands, it approaches the transcendent.

In March, one went on a John Coltrane transcribing binge but mostly indulged oneself in idle listening to favorite masterpieces, including A Love Supreme, Sun Ship and Transition. One was reminded – if one needed to be reminded – of the lasting and timeless qualities of this divine music. French quartet Flash Pig also put out a great record in 2019, with the appropriately titled Year of the Pig. In March, one also dipped into the Carpenters for a week and wondered why the innocuous schmaltz of saccharine pop still somehow appeals to one’s ears. One assumes it’s about the harmony and Karen’s angelic voice.

April saw a deliberate urge to acknowledge women artists and feminize one’s male-centric Spotify downloads. As in most art, there are just as many great women in music as there are men but it takes twice as much effort to track them down online. One particularly enjoyed listening to guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, pianist Kris Davis’ discography as leader and sidewoman, Angelica Sanchez on drummer Chad Taylor’s Circle Down album, and Angelika Niescier’s New York trio. On the more swinging front, one appreciated (and still does) the work of bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux. One has probably forgotten a few more.

In May, one was turned on to singer Gabriel Kahane, about whom one knew nothing. Kahane has written some poignant songs, as epitomized by his Book of Travelers album, where he accompanies his short stories on piano. In May, one also set out to fill a gap in one’s knowledge of Stravinsky’s ballets russes. Accordingly, one listened and daydreamed to various renditions of Appolon Musagète, Firebird, and The Rite of Spring. One also checked out Tim Hecker’s follow-up to Konoyo, namely Anoyo, and enjoyed the ride.

What the hell did one listen to in June? Not knowing where to look, one assumes one played one’s musical obsessions on a loop. Somehow one only remembers listening to Armand Hammer’s Paraffin on a crowded subway ride, wondering how to search for good hip hop when one has lost touch with the state of rap these days.

One highlight of July has to be a drive through Pennsylvania’s pastoral countryside with very dear friends, and that moment when Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest came on. Just perfect. One thinks one revisited Eric Revis’ City of Asylum and Crowded Solitudes at some point that month.

One is positive one listened to music on a daily basis in August. But one is equally positive one didn’t discover anything new or catch up on any new release. One probably kept the same music on rotation. With Bach’s cello suites and keyboard inventions a comforting touchstone.

September flew by but one really enjoyed the Stranahan, Rosato Zaleski trio’s Live at the Jazz Standard. What a great chemistry these three have. In a different style, one latched on to the trio of Reid Anderson (of The Bad Plus fame), Dave King (same) and Craig Taborn and their outfit Golden Valley is Now. Wow, one sure didn’t see that one comin’!  And so one had to review it here.

In October, the highly awaited Activate Infinity by the Bad Plus came out. The second one since Orrin Evans replaced Ethan Iverson on piano. Up there with everything they’ve done so far. October also brings the Fall season and – out of nowhere – Ivo Pogorelich playing a selection of Sonatas by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff came on the radio. One immediately checked out the full album. A timely and inspired offering.

In November, one reveled in the power of the bass, as one would. One stumbled on the duo of Scott Colley and Benjamin Koppel. Their album How to get there is as good as this kind of dialogue can get. Also, one got to listen to Chris Speed, Chris Tordini and Dave King’s Respect For Your Toughness (reviewed here) a lot. One saw this trio live and vividly remembers it. One will definitely look out for the next adventure.

In December, one chanced upon Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry, as performed by the Vox Clamantis ensemble (ECM) and was sucked into its choral beauty. While one listened to other music that month, this one probably tops anything else in peacefulness and lyricism.

Of course, one took some detours through some old-time favorites and heard a lot more than is featured here. But off the top of one’s head, this is it.

Who knows what one will be listening to in 2020?  How weird can the pronoun “one” get?

Respect for Your Toughness

The history of the saxophone trio may not be as well documented on record as that of the piano trio. Undoubtedly though, there is no shortage of all-time classics gracing the genre’s continuing story, from Sonny Rollins’ Village Vanguard 50s recordings to this new and delightful offering by the Chris Speed Trio. On this 10-track album, the trio lets loose with freewheeling blowing and honed-in chemistry, keeping things stripped down and tight.  Chris Speed has a lithe tone that almost sounds “classical” in its delivery despite the sinuous lines he plays on the tunes. The two other thirds of the trio, namely drummer Dave King and double bassist Chris Tordini, complement the sound with a deeply anchored foundation that’s propulsive and engaging throughout. The album starts off on a quiet note with “Can this be love?”, Speed weaving his way around the melody with sparse lines moving along in fits and starts, King and Tordini embracing the spaciousness of the mood with subtle rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint. Notice how Tordini casually restates the melody at various points “under” Speed’s brooding soloing. Soon enough, “Attention Flaws” kicks the mood up with drums and bass locked into a solid groove that Speed is only too keen to build on. Credit must be given to King and Tordini for having an infectious beat that keeps the music firmly grounded and loose at the same time. “Helicopter Lineman” has a driving vibe somewhat reminiscent of Joe Henderson’s tune Inner Urge, swinging hard and reveling in tension and release. The record has an immediacy that may equally please the modern jazz fan and the layperson.  Ranging from the subdued to the exploratory, the album packs in many nice tunes, oftentimes simple sparse melodies with a compelling rhythmic figure. “Taborn to Run”, presumably an homage to fellow musician, pianist and composer Craig Taborn is a case in point. King builds a very busy and fast beat while Tordini lays down a slow motif against it, allowing Speed to dance around those, picking up ideas from both.  “Yard Moon” sounds like a rhythm changes tune naturally bent to the purposes of a modern-day odd-meter vehicle. Well done. “Transporter” is a fitting coda. The melody sounds like an indie rock tune from the 90s, played here like a gentle ballad, each instrument fading out to silence. With no song exceeding 6 minutes, the band does get a story told on each track and has enough space to develop ideas as a collective.

An unpretentious and inspired record by a great trio.

Respect for your toughness is out on Intakt Records.

Check out their previous albums Really Ok and Platinum on Tap.

Other notable contemporary saxophone trios for your consideration:

Fly trio (Mark Turner, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard), JD Allen trio.  

Classic saxophone trio albums:

Sonny Rollins, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note,1957)

Lee Konitz, Motion (Verve, 1961)

Ornette Coleman, Golden Circle, Town Hall 1962…