cd 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.

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

CHECK THE RHIME

lowtheory

Wow, this is a heavy throwback. I have been compulsively nodding my head to this classic hip hop album from the 1990s, wondering how in the world I missed this gem back then. Stripped down to rap vocals, bass, drums and an eclectic range of samples seamlessly fused into the mix, this album is probably as close as a jazz album as hip hop can get. In fact, jazz is overtly referenced and utilized in many ways. First of all, consider the presence of the upright bass, which graces the songs with thumping warmth and power right from the opener “Excursions”. From the start, you know you’re not exactly on conventional rap territory. The bass line here, in all its glorious simplicity, is actually, well… not that simple. Once I had it figured out on my upright, I decided the time signature was a weird kind of 4/4 (5/4 + 3/4), and left it at that.

Released in 1991, Low End Theory is an important document of a decade that saw rap come into prominence and blaze its way into mainstream culture. In that way, I’m stunned that its agenda seems so far removed from the nascent gangsta rap of the time. If there is any message here, it has to do with the aspiration for honesty and soul-searching, as on songs like “rap promoter” or “butter”. Sure, rapper Phife Dawg expresses black male frustration with “good girls (that) are hard to find” but also his desire to see them embrace their natural looks and not tinker with their appearances: “If your hair and eyes were real, I wouldn’t have dissed ya, but since it was bought I had to dismiss ya”.

Though not as aggressively political as say Public Enemy in the late 80s/early 90s, the band can be credited with compelling takes on a variety of important issues, including the very business they were getting gradually involved in: Show Business, track 6.

Filled with memorable grooves, there isn’t a weak point on an album that addresses social and personal issues with cutting rhymes and tight beats. “The infamous date rape” is a gritty statement on a subject rarely tackled in any genre.

The way the rappers trade lines and pick up their flow after the breaks brings to mind the very jazz practice of trading fourths or, more generally that of interactive improvisation. Even the samples, largely borrowed from jazz and funk, act like timely punctuation marks.

Rarely has the lineage of jazz been so clearly celebrated on a non-jazz record. On “Jazz (we’ve got)”, the standard On Green Dolphin Street serves as the chorus for the rapping verses. The band even invited jazz bassist Ron Carter to lend his funky voice on “Verses from the Abstract” (how many records of jazz or any genre is Ron Carter NOT on? ). Also, the natural sound of the drums here is particularly pleasing to this listener.

This is obviously a bass-heavy album I had to stumble on at some point. In another life, I wish I had come up with the title Low End Theory, as any bassist would, I guess. More broadly, any fan of music will recognize the multiple qualities of an album that is one of hip hop’s greatest milestones.

A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (Zomba, 1991)

PS: check out Vijay Iyer on The Star of a Story, a cover of the Heatwave song sampled on the Quest’s “Verses From the Abstract”

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

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As nearly 2 years worth of blogging have presumably demonstrated, wellyouneedit loves The Bad Plus. I remember that moment of epiphany when I stumbled across These are the Vistas (2003) playing on the headphones in the deserted jazz section of my local record store. On their 10th studio album, Inevitable Western, the genre-bending trio bring their nonpareil mix of low-brow complexity, constantly reinventing themselves and transcending the confines of musical categorization. As bassist Reid Anderson brilliantly summarized in a recent interview, « at the core, we’re jazz musicians and we’re improvisers, but don’t consider we have to make our music sound like jazz necessarily. We try to bring a strong energy to what we do. »

Point taken. I would even argue that this band, by deliberately steering clear of the well-trodden path, does great justice to the perpetuation of the artform on their own terms. The Bad Plus celebrates the timeless appeal of jazz as a freeing process, a way to make improvised music culturally relevant in any time period. But I digress…

Consisting of 9 songs, the album features all the trademark elements of Bad Plus music: Tuneful deconstructions, collective improvisation, tight interplay, multisectional songs, catchy melodies played over intricate and changing meters, and plenty of drama. Try “Self-Serve”, the third song. Sure, drummer Dave King pounds out a solid 4/4 rock beat at times but the song is driven by the band’s signature stop-and-go motion, fits and starts that give the song an offbeat and layered quality. They make it sound so natural and yet at every listen you’re scratching your head and wondering how in the world can anyone hear music that way.

“Gold Prisms Incorporated” gets the classic epic anthem treatment, a rollicking train charging through the wild west, picking up multiple variations and rhythmic displacements along the way. As often in The Bad Plus funhouse, repetition is the tricky vehicle for motivic improvisation. At 2.42, Iverson’s solo begins on a folkloric note, gradually building away from the initial melody as King and Anderson continue to restate it underneath. Soon enough, King and Anderson lock in with Iverson’s syncopated left hand line – the new melody in progress. And bang! At 3:48, the new motif takes over, the story reaches its apex, played in unison as King chops the beat to smithereens. After the storm blows over, at 4:25, Anderson’s bass introduces a nice simple vamp soon picked up by Iverson that takes the song to its logical conclusion. That’s a pretty eventful train ride right there in 6:28 minutes.

“Epistolary echoes” is a fun merry-go-round, with hand claps and a toy piano thrown in for good measure. Bass and drum seem very happy to chase each other as Iverson tosses off Cecil Taylorish clusters, seeking a way out of the jungle. Luckily, there is always one.

After 15 years of intense touring around the world, the band has developed a habit of honing their songs live. Studio albums come about as a documentation of an ongoing process, each new album seemingly picking up where the last one left off. A funny game if you want to indulge your Bad Plus fanhood is to try to match songs from various albums and notice their similarities in conception. That’s where cohesive art comes in. It’s an oeuvre in and of itself. If one really wants to come up with a catchall adjective to define this music, cinematic seems to be the operative word. Structurally, it is hard to dispute the narrative arc of these songs, which all have their own story and mood, revealing their drama in suspenseful sections. Just imagine if “Mr Now” had been the A-Team theme music in the 80s? Of yeah, I can so much see Mister T storming out of a burning truck over that frantic piano line. Sorry…

“Inevitable Western”, the title tune, is the fitting coda to this thrilling movie. After the brainy comedy, the action flick, the epic western and everything in between, it’s time to take things down and revel in some Bad Plus melancholia.  Introduced by Anderson’s gorgeous tone, Iverson’s ballad smolders gently and showcases the pianist’s compositional talent and command of the jazz and classical canon, right down to the very filmic last note.

In this fast-evolving and increasingly complex age where nothing seems to make sense anymore, these consummate musicians make complexity somehow make sense. In that way, they are in my book one of the most compelling soundtracks to this early 21st century. Nobody sounds like The Bad Plus. Nobody.

The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western (OKey, Sony Music Masterworks)

Full discography here: http://www.thebadplus.com/discography.php

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Intergalactic Beings

Intergalactic_Beings_Cover

Among the many gateways to appreciating jazz, science fiction doesn’t come to mind immediately. Yet the theme has been consistently documented on record, from Ornette Coleman’s aptly titled album Science Fiction to Sun Ra’s cosmic explorations. You name it.

On Intergalactic Beings (FPE Records), composer and avant-flutist Nicole Mitchell continues to explore the work of African- American writer Octavia Butler, here focusing on the perpetuation of humans through interaction with benevolent and life-saving aliens. In this futuristic scenario, humans are recovering from nuclear war and have been abducted by and forced to breed with extraterrestrials to survive as newly regenerated forms.

Wait a minute, what’s that got to do with music? Let’s take a listen to find out.

Consisting of flute, tenor sax, bass clarinet, trumpet, sralai thom, violin, cello, electric guitar, bass, percussions, drums and vocals, the album offers a richly layered soundscape full of textured dynamics and phantasmagoric storytelling. From the stuttering motion of the opening “Phases of Subduction” to the closing “The Inevitable”, the music unravels its mysteries in a complex spool of interweaving lines fraught with eerie darkness. The track “The Ooli Moves” is a trance-like dance introduced by the unison line of bass and violin that gradually builds into a haunting maelstrom plodding along with burning urgency. After the first motif fades away, a fuzzed-out bell-like guitar interlude brings in the second motif and there’s a sense a transformation has occurred. “Transformation is inevitable” warns vocalist Mankwe Ndosi and the well-chosen titles match the transient quality of the songs, each of which seems to evolve through various shape-shifting phases. On “Dripping matter”, for example, a honking wail of guitar, violin and horns seem to drift in and out of the dripping rain soon pierced by Josh Abram’s cavernous bass tumbling along in the oozing murk. The song segues into “Negotiating Identity”, which has oenomatopeic vocals – the post-mating language? – a serrated freeform sax solo which blends into the initial wail returning to close out the song. In this experimental setting, Mitchell’s flute takes a back seat for much of the album except for a compelling solo on the closer “The Inevitable”. Not taking anything away from the leader’s instrumental chops, her art, at least on this album, has more to do with the organic unity the album achieves in its 9 multi-section songs, balancing improvisation and composition in a rigorously structured and challenging narrative. In the liner notes, Mitchell explains: “by musically illustrating the process of fear, resilience and transformation with Intergalactic Beings I created sonic experiences to confront the listener.” And confronted we are. These songs are full of raw energy, alternating exploratory ensemble playing with alluring thematic statements reflecting the composer’s deep sense of form. “Resisting Entanglement” is a shining example of that. A little daunting in scope at first, the rewards of the album will amply reveal themselves after a few listens and a couple of trips in outer space.

Intergalactic Beings is available on the FPE record label. Many thanks to FPE founder Matt Pakulski for hipping me to Nicole Mitchell and the Matana Roberts connection.

Personnel:  Nicole Mitchell: flute, composition; David Boykin: tenor sax, bass clarinet; David Young: trumpet, sralai thom; Jeff Parker: electric guitar; Joshua Abrams: bass; Avreeayl Ra: percussion; Marcus Evans: drumset; Tomeka Reid: cello

Cool video of “The Ooli moves”

https://vimeo.com/fperecs/oolimoves

 

Listening to silence. Dave King’s “I’ve been ringing you”

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As one third of The Bad Plus, Dave King is known for his high-powered drumming and phenomenal precision, fitting qualities for this leaderless trio that makes telepathy seem like a walk in the park. King’s versatile drums are so integral to the band’s organic chemistry it’s hard to imagine the drummer lending his voice to other musical adventures. Yet, he maintains a hectic musical schedule, playing in 8 bands of various styles and configurations.  To great effect.

On his new record under his own name, “I’ve been ringing you” (Sunnyside), King hooks up with fellow Minnesotans, pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Billy Peterson, and makes quiet but intense music. The album consists of 8 songs, including 7 standards tastefully reconfigured for the 21st century and infused with a dark introspection. The record documents King’s deep reverence for the jazz tradition and showcases his impressionistic talents when playing songs in a more “straight-ahead” format.  The choice of slow tempos on all the songs emphasizes the meditative mood that permeates the album, which would not be out of place in ECM’s stylish catalogue. In fact, King’s subdued drumming, not so much playing time as messing with it, sounds to some degree like an inspired continuation of the late Paul Motian’s work on Manfred Eicher’s prestigious label.

The opener “goodbye” (Gordon Jenkins) sets the mood, a spacious meditation that never seems to start and actually sounds all the better for it. Carrother’s eerie voicings are an invitation to daydreaming appropriately highlighted by Peterson’ discreet pedal-point commentary and King’s soft touch on brushes and whale songish waterphone. The band continues with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, a respectful rendition that honors the melody by roving around it and stating it in various permutations. As on the rest of the album, that particular song is a striking example of cohesive collective improvisation, drums and bass rumbling along with Carrother’s ghostly lines, constantly interacting with piano.  Cole Porter’s “So in Love” is introduced by King”s crisp  crackle and features a resonant solo by Peterson, a new name for me that shines throughout the record. Clocking in at 38:45 minutes, the album delivers on a bold agenda, one that finds King reassessing his well-deserved place alongside today’s preeminent jazz improvisers. While the music remains consistently calm, it is executed with an intensity suggesting a brooding storm. There is no mushiness in the way the trio addresses the standards here. Listen to how “If I Should Lose You” gradually emerges from Peterson’s cavernous glissandi, taking shape along meandering lines, picking its way through the murk, with King latching on to piano and bass every nanosecond.  The title song  and only original that bookends the record is the perfect coda of this suite, picking up where the opener left off.  With winter only a couple of months away, it’s a record you might consider playing on a cold snowy day, huddled up under the quilt or late at night, lights out on any given day. Having said that, what will sound like a singular take on familiar territory to the hardcore jazz fan will always sound a little esoteric to the casual listener.  But if anything, the record will hopefully resonate with anyone who enjoys the strange intensity of silence.

Dave King, I’ve been ringing you (Sunnyside, 2012)