album review

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 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 the 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.

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…

Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus

Activate Infinity, The Bad Plus

A caveat is in order: a little search through the archives would probably reveal that yours truly is heavily biased in favor of the band and has possibly reviewed every single album since the blog was started. This one had to be covered here…

Activate Infinity comes hard on the heels of Never Stop II, released in 2018 with Orrin Evans replacing Ethan Iverson on piano, and given the watershed lineup change the trio experienced, it’s just mindboggling that they all continue to be such prolific composers. Not to mention that every new album comes with a hectic schedule of worldwide touring. These guys just never stop.

Kicking off with Reid Anderson’s “Avail”, the album suggests the trio is in top form. Strong melody, infectious beat, tight interaction, and that signature style combining rhythmic agility and a well honed sense of drama. Exhilaration is all over the record as the band tackle their own material forcefully, going for broke, pushing and pulling, surprising themselves – hear Dave King’s “Oh” at 2:51? – and always embracing the song.  “Slow Reactors” picks up steam as the trio explores the underlying gems of this cinematic theme.  Storytelling seems to be a popular word in the journalistic world these days. Well, this band has consistently excelled at it, often telling memorable stories in the span of a few minutes. How great to find that drummer Dave King’s “Thrift Store Jewelry”, which originally appeared on their 2007 Prog album, made it onto this one. Pianist Orrin Evans brings his soulful touch to the proceedings, and makes it clear he had been a fan of the trio a long time before he actually became a fulltime member. On “The Red Door”, you’re taking a jaunty ride in the country but before you know it, the tune you were humming along to hits a bump and you’re riding down a rollercoaster, full of sharp turns and wild loops. “Looking In Your Eyes” takes things down a little bit, a quiet rubato theme meanders through a peaceful land, a welcome break before Dovetail Nicely takes over, a well-titled vehicle where all the parts fit nicely together, bass, drums and piano in lockstep, navigating the classic Bad Plus tempo shifts. The thing about The Bad Plus is that everyone seems to be holding the steering wheel, hitting the accelerator, jamming on the brakes, swerving past the obstacles, they’re all monitoring the situation collectively. “Undersea Reflection” is a case in point. The hardcore fan will possibly be reminded of tunes like “Anthem for the Earnest” from their 2005 Suspicious Activity album, except that the production here is closer to what the band sounds like live. What a great choice to finish off with “Love is the Answer”, an oldie from the band’s very first album, revamped with better production here if you ask me. Bassist Reid Anderson’s lyrical tune unfolds with simmering intensity, leaving space for his beautiful tone to shine in the solo spot. 

Maintaining such a high standard of quality and creativity after over 20 years is a rare achievement. Few bands, regardless of genre, have done it. Somehow, The Bad Plus always defies expectations. If anything, love may be the answer.

Buy the album here on their Bandcamp.

Massive Threads, Kris Davis

Massive Threads, Kris Davis

Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis has carved out a singular path on today’s jazz/free music scene. Having released a dozen records in various instrumental configurations, the composer nurtures a deeply ingrained attraction to sonic exploration, and, more specifically,  the tonal variety her instrument is capable of. On this solo album from 2013, the pianist takes a deep dive into freewheeling abstraction, breaking down ideas and melodic motifs, embracing silences as springboards for improvisation, and basically seizing the chance the solo format offers to bounce off of her own improvising. The album hovers between cumulative improvisation where simple ideas grow into sprawling deconstructions and introspective takes on familiar standards, such as Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence”, slowly dissected and reconfigured into a new vehicle that still stays true to the rhythmic fragmentation of Monk’ tune. “Desolation and Despair”  probes the depths of silence, sprinkling in high notes that come as percussive punctuations over the dark chords in the low end. Kris Davis has made her mark as a jazz and avant-garde music performer and composer, and this album feels like a condensed meditation on her impressive career at that point. It’s about weaving together those “massive threads”  resulting from multiple collaborations with like-minded peers – Craig Taborn, Ingrid Laubrock, John Zorn, Tony Malaby, Tyshawn Sorey to name a few –  and bringing out a voice equally inspired by Cecil Taylor and Claude Debussy.  The eponymous “Massive Threads” is a shining example of that, stringing together several moods seamlessly, and exploring the full range of the piano along the way. Apocalyptic clusters segue into a melody that gradually shifts down the low register and back up. “Dancing Marlins” kicks off like a tentative rain patter,  stumbling along in fits and starts but somehow dancing to its own pulse. The pianist does not refrain from repeating high-pitched notes for contrasting effect and it just feels right.

The opening track is called “Ten Exorcists” and does sound as if conjured up from a trance ritual, building up from epileptic drum-like patterns into cascading ripples across the keyboard. While the pianist utilizes some extended techniques  – essentially hammering and tapping –   the music remains anchored in structured forms and song-like durations.

There is a certain humbleness to this project as the composer/pianist takes on a wealth of music and draws from it the elements most instrumental in her continuing creative growth. Her most remarkable achievement on this solo opus is her ability to connect the dots between extremely different musical universes.

The appropriately titled “Slow Growing” closes out the album on a quiet and suspenseful note, never really developing but suggesting more adventures to come. An important and certainly underrated voice.

There have been quite a few albums since Massive Threads. Check out her website and enjoy the videos. https://krisdavis.net/

Here is an EPK for Kris Davis’ upcoming album Diatom Ribbons, out on October 4th. https://vimeo.com/344184099

Suggested listening for a quick introduction to her work:

Duopoly, Good Citizen, Paradoxical Frog, Massive Threads, Octopus (duo with Craig Taborn), Rye Eclipse, and a host of greatly titled albums

Golden Valley

Reid Anderson, Dave King, Craig Taborn, GOLDEN VALLEY IS NOW

This is a godsend. Good music, like all things good, defies easy categorization. That the music on this first album was composed by such maverick figures as Reid Anderson and Dave King – of The Bad Plus fame – and like-minded composer/pianist Craig Taborn, immediately catches the music lover’s attention.  To top it all off, the three Midwesterners have known each other since they were teenagers, so getting together to make and release a first album at this particular time feels like a long overdue no-brainer. It’s coming out now for a reason. It took 25 years to come to be.

Bassist Reid Anderson is on the electric bass and electronics for this album, an appropriate choice for the rock-ambient soundscape unfolding across the ten tracks, and an ideal companion to Craig Taborn’s array of acoustic and electric keyboards. Dave King plays both acoustic and electronic drums, and fans of the versatile drummer will no doubt recognize his deft touch on the kit.

So, what shenanigans did the three friends forming this triumvirate pull this time?  In a nutshell, music that sounds immediately familiar, poppy, accessible, and yet so unclassifiable.

The opener “City Diamond” sets the tone for an album that meshes pop catchiness with jazz braininess, and before you know it, you’re nodding your head to its simple melody,  glossing over the broiling rhythmic foundation of Anderson and King, tossing curveballs left and right.

“Sparkles and Snakes” sounds like an 90s indie rock anthem Sonic Youth could have written while jamming out during the making of their Dirty album. Minus the shifting time signature and Taborn’s electric guitar-like synthesizer.

When it comes to acknowledging and embracing your musical roots regardless of genre and synthetizing them into a full-fledged offering a quarter of a century later, this comes close to perfection. Having grown up in the same cultural and musical environment, the three friends have a common ground to explore and do so with unrestrained enthusiasm and a keen sense of composition.

On the spacy slow-burner “This Is Nothing”, the music simmers out of a dream, plodding along to an unmapped destination. Taborn’s seemingly detuned organ-like keyboard keeps the mood spooky and vibrant at once.

The album has an enveloping quality that takes the listener on a dreamy adventure but not one where the brain just goes to sleep. Arguably all the tunes are hooky in a pop kind of way, but they all have a specific shape and unlikely foil that makes them more than what they seem to be on first listen. You’d expect no less from three experienced musicians equally at ease with jazz improv, 20th century classical modernism, alternative rock and what not.

“Polar Heroes” is a testament to these musicians’ surreal capacity at stacking blocks of sound and paring them down to their essential core. The song remains airy while building up momentum all the way through.

Now “You Might Live Here” is quite something. It has the kind of definitive inevitability that will make you wish you had grown up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, – small town America where three kids playing out of their garages somehow envision a path toward quality music. King’s four-to-the floor beat and Anderson’s even-note bass line bring to mind mainstream 80s pop dance music and make it sound actually lovable, eroding the strongest biases you may have against the 80s sound. Don’t hold back, eat your cotton candy and go for a joy ride.

For music that pulls on such a wide variety of influences, the album is tied together by a unity of vision and purpose: the fun of making music with your friends that celebrates common roots and textural diversity. On “Hwy 1000”, King’s Aphex Twin-style skittish drumming powers the layered motifs down a Californian – in fact Midwestern – road stretching away into the distance. You’re zipping along, windows down, but as usual, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the trip.

I have not read any reviews  for this album as I didn’t want to be influenced in any appreciable way. If you somehow stumbled on this post, here’s my recommendation on a long commute, or just any time of the day. Play this album through and just enjoy the vibe. Golden Valley, wherever you are, some talented musicians picked up on your hidden treasures. It’s about time.

Tim Hecker, Konoyo

Tim Hecker_Konoyo

Tim Hecker, Konoyo

By no means I am a knowledgeable expert on electronic music. In fact, I often think to myself I might have been missing out on important music in the last decade or so by disregarding the genre. Luckily, being a jazz nerd and musician, I am used to getting my ears pulled in the unlikeliest directions. And that’s exactly what happened when Tim Hecker’s new album Konoyo popped up on my radar. I’ve been sort of keeping track of the electronic music composer since I discovered his iconic Ravedeath album a couple of years ago. In many ways, this new opus is a confirmation of all the sonic qualities that have appealed to me in this music. A gritty soundscape of rough edges, full of fuzzy overtones, echoing blasts of seemingly abyss-born organisms, and most intriguingly, an orchestrated conflation of ancient traditional instruments and modern-day synthesizers.

Here again Hecker pulls off the difficult feat of making digitally processed music feel somewhat natural, and well, “acoustic”. His is an eerie world full of mystery and unidentifiable ghosts blasting in from the deep recesses of the ocean, earth, space, you name it. Whatever Hecker is looking for in his sonic excavations, there is certainly an elemental drive guiding the process, a sonic quest for music beyond music. Titles like “In Mother Earth phase mode” or “Death Valley” point to the deeper strata of our planet and whatever rumbling manifestations may inhabit them.

As on his previous offerings, Hecker seems to straddle an aesthetic divide that leaves the listener wondering what kind of musical world he or she can relate to. If you could imagine a symphony orchestra somehow performing on the ocean’s floor, you may be able to hear remnants of violin and brass sections oozing out through the murk. In fact, Hecker convened Gagaku musicians for this project, an ancient Japanese ensemble consisting of multiple flutes, drums and a pipe organ improvising to Hecker’s bandleader instructions and synthetic inputs. In contrast to the previous albums, the results seem a little more stark, as if all the multilayering process that defines the composer’s previous albums has been pared down to the elemental.

The opener “This Life” sets the tone for the ensuing variations around one major theme. On this faux-LAPD police siren choir, a skeletal melody surfaces and soon blends into a clangorous chorus of metallic drones and washes of synthetic static fading in and out. Every time anything remotely resembling a theme is offered, the composer undermines it, canceling any risk of singable catchiness.

On “Death Valley”, ancient Japan seems to drift by on a timeless American road trip gone wrong. Instruments feel like they literally drop from the sky against Hecker’s enveloping ether.

“Keyed Out” seems to have a kind of double bass tuned twenty octaves lower than its range and then explores a mesh of percussive strings, harp-like harmonics and reverberating flutes.

“Across to Onoyo” brings the album full circle. Here a whale song morphs into a sawmill-like ambiance in freeze mode. Of course, there is something ethereal and perhaps indulgingly dark at times about this music but repeated listens will always unlock new sounds to listen for and uncharted destinations to let the listener’s mind wander in.

There is something unpredictably poetic in how the tracks string together apparently unmatchable sound sources, as on “Mother earth phase”, where a cello drone naturally emerges from the preceding synthesizer buildup only to fade back into the abyss. Or consider this, the track called “Is a rose petal of the dying crimson light?”, arguably a good title for a song teetering on the edge of disappearance.

To be honest, I found myself drifting out several times at first – this is not your average I’m going to have this song stuck in my head all day kind of music – but I guess it’s the point of good ambient electronic music. When you’re about to give up, something unusual and heartwarming draws you back in.

Tim Hecker, Konoyo (Kranky, 2018)

Merely this, and nothing more

cover

Ghosts, by nature, are hard fellows to get hold of. Their presence can be haunting and pervasive but good luck catching up with them over coffee. They seem to be here and not here at the same time. A revered musician among his peers, pianist Craig Taborn has played on so many recordings by himself and other jazz/avant jazz musicians that the “ghost” moniker some of his friends sometimes refer to him as seems to be a bit of an overstatement. The man keeps a low profile and doesn’t seem so much interested in cranking out albums for self-promotion’s sake as in experimenting with various musical settings that fit his eclectic aesthetic inclinations. So when Taborn does put an album out, you’d better catch the ghost while he’s around because the music is likely to deliver on and defy your expectations.

One would be hard pressed to define the basic characteristics of ghost music. ( And now the Ghostbusters theme is stuck in your head, I’m sorry!) On his recent quartet release Daylight Ghosts, Mr Taborn displays his penchant for ethereal yet deeply grounded music. The composer/improviser is arguably one the few voices in jazz who can successfully bridge the gaps between such polar opposites as underground Detroit techno, contemporary classical music, Midwest punk rock, Sun Ra and free jazz, without the listener realizing immediately that those influences are actually there. As on his previous albums, the composer favors the transient spaces where the music seems poised to go in one direction and ends up going the other way. His deep involvement in intricate rhythms, shifting time signatures and heavy intoxicating grooves is all in evidence here. For this endeavor he convened a fitting cast of like-minded friends featuring Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on double bass and electric bass and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion. This modern jazz album has all the makings of a spacious ECM record straddling the worlds of classical modern music and contemporary chamber-like jazz. Taborn’s voice is particularly strong as a compositional presence, his piano playing often geared toward arranging the music at key transitional spots and setting heavy left hand bass grooves to shift gears between the sections of a song. The 9 tracks flow together in one seamless suite of through-composed themes, free-form blowing and recurrent patterns picked up by each instrument at various spots. With such titles as “Abandoned Reminder” , “The Great Silence” or “Phantom Ratio”, this is the work of a major jazz composer who strives and successfully assembles apparently disconnected elements into one cohesive piece of music. The opener The Shining One sets the tone of the album. Speed states the serpentine theme once, Lightcap steps right in to provide a contrapuntal groove and Taborn builds on the thematic material before Speed reenters and states a longer version of the theme in unison with Taborn.  And then they all move into collective improvisation. This process pervades the album and works well as it gives a creative opportunity for the musicians to steer their instruments from their usually prescribed roles. Bass and drums have no monopoly over timekeeping and the beautifully crafted melodies segue organically into improvised sections where the collective whole is greater than the sum of its parts. On the title track “Daylight Ghosts, Taborn locks into a 5/4 meter groove that he maintains throughout the last section of the song while a new theme surges on top and carries the song through. Evidently, Taborn enjoys this compositional idea as it occurs repeatedly here as well as on his much recommended trio albums, especially Chants (with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, 2013, ECM) “The Great Silence” has Speed fluttering around on clarinet like something out of Prokoviev while the others come in and keep things simmering and sparse under the surface.

Nothing gets too intense on this album as ghosts are not the boisterous type. However, the subdued intensity is there, lurking in those melodic fragments and beautiful silences. “Ancient” starts off with a short bass solo leading into a collective cat-and-mouse chase, finally building into a techno-like anthem gone off-kilter. “Subtle Living Equations” is a feature for Taborn’s beautiful harmonies floating in an enveloping ether. “Phantom Ratio” brings the album full circle, Speed intoning a brooding chant as if coaxing over the other musicians, ghosts in their own right. Taborn obliges with a techno-ish groove on a spooky synthesizer, later joined in by King and Lightcap complementing the rhythmic foundation with unexpected counterpoint.

It is unlikely that this quartet will ever perform this music on stage. After all, you can’t just call ghosts and expect them come right in. But be sure to get this album and another favorite of mine, Chants on which the song “Speak The Name” has been driving me crazy for months and I can’t seem to fully understand why it is so good.

Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts,  2017, ECM

Craig Taborn   Piano, Electronics

Chris Speed   Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet

Chris Light   Double Bass, Bass Guitar

Dave King    Drums, Electronic Percussion