improv

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

ON TRANSCRIBING JAZZ AND THE REWARDS REVEALED THEREIN

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There are many lessons to learn from transcribing your favorite jazz musicians. It turns out that I’ve been on a saxophone transcribing binge lately, which I hope will not go away too soon. Or better still, I hope it will effectively become part of my day-to-day practice routine if I can put in the time and energy.

As any musician knows, jazz is a lifelong apprenticeship in many ways. You’ve got to learn the trade through hard work and patience and that’s that. Instrumentally speaking, it’s always been about intent listening, copying the masters, and incorporating whatever exciting or relatable stuff into one’s creative imagination. Your most insightful theory books on bebop harmony or modal language, however valuable they may be, have nothing on delving into someone’s creative mind and going through the spur-of-the moment process.

Now, I have to admit, the task has always seemed daunting to me, and the whole notation process so unforgivingly tedious. Time is tight, there’s so much stuff to practice, so many things that need work, errands to run, groceries to pick up, hell, a life to live, why bother to break down Coltrane’s solo on, say “Body and Soul”. Sure, it’s unbelievably searing, beautiful and just absolutely fantastic but you’re never going to sound like him. But here’s the flip side that hit me like a ton of bricks recently. Deep listening is worthwhile, and the consequences are profound.

You have to hear the music first, to absorb it thoroughly into you brain and body so that it becomes your natural pulse. And then, you write it down if you want to keep it on file for later use. You might want to go back to it later on, and that’s where notating the notes comes in. But other than that, it’s the hearing that matters. When you start being able to sing a phrase and internalize it so much that it feels like you created it in the first place, the rewards are pretty amazing. Before you even come to that point when you want to break it down and analyze the heck out of it, you want to hear the thinking, the vibe, the intuitive process, you want to feel and breathe as one with the improviser. To achieve that, you have to listen hard, very intently, over and over again.

As a bass player, transcribing 40 seconds of a saxophone solo makes life very challenging but worth living! It pushes you way out of your comfort zone and forces you to reach the limits of your own physicality. Of course, the immediate payoff is that you build your chops, get around this cumbersome instrument more easily and develop your articulation in a very exhilarating setting. For a few seconds, you play the trumpet like Miles Davis, piano like Thelonious Monk, and saxophone like John Coltrane. Except, you’re doing that on bass, not the easiest instrument for big intervallic jumps and fast runs. Delivery, hand speed, left and right arm coordination, intonation, rhythmic foundation, time feel, all of these are brought into sharp focus and any sloppy move will get you thrown off track in no time. It’s an ordeal to get it right.

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to cop Coltrane’s opening statement/solo on “Resolution”, from the classic A Love Supreme record. What the hell has gotten into me? Why not pick a bass solo? There are so many inventive bass players these days to get ideas from. Well, the title is self-explanatory. I wanted to get “inside” that resolution. As an atheist, Trane’s love anthem to God has always moved me profoundly. That deceptively simple line, stated three times after Garrison’s rumbling double stop bass intro, has such an uplifting power it can get you out of your chair on the crappiest day.

Try to nail a saxophone phrase on upright bass without stumbling and see how that feels. I dare you. Before you know it, your hands are racing around the bass and tendinitis is just around the corner if you don’t hold your horses. Believe me, my sporadic morning jogs are a joke compared to the sweat I’m burning off on this. It took me about 10 hours of intense listening and practice to figure out Trane’s phrase right after the opening statement. Another 5 hours to be able to play it through, and that’s still a little choppy. About four seconds of music and countless hours of deep listening later and I’m still debating what fingering works best for that line. To my credit, I’m not using any phone app or transcription computer software that can slow down a piece of music for analytical purposes. So I plug in the headphones and listen, pause, go back, play, pause, listen, over and over again. And I haven’t written one note down yet.

What I think I’m doing though is that I’m tuning into the idea, the intention, the pulse, the drive, the rhythm, the tone, the feeling. The soul. In other words, I’m slowly starting to speak Coltrane’s language, much like I learned to write and speak English. I heard it, liked it, and decided to learn it. Ultimately, the goal is not to break out your Coltrane phrase on your next gig to impress your peers– though it may come up unwittingly – but to channel your influences beyond the natural parameters of your instrument. I doubt I will ever get through the entire Trane solo without impairing my chest and hands permanently but attempting and somehow managing to get a few bars down satisfies my soul beyond words. It’s not just about bass. It’s not just about virtuosity. It’s about expanding your creative horizons by incorporating something apparently impervious to imitation. To use a linguistic analogy, it feels like you’re piecing together a sentence in a language you don’t master yet. When does the sentence begin? When does it end? Is there an ascending or descending pattern in the tone? What kind of verbal process is used here? Do we have a relative clause that links disparate ideas together with well-placed commas, a kind of question and answer phrasing or do we hear a linear movement propelled by one powerful phrasal verb? How does the discourse (the melody) lay in the rhythm? It’s a tighly cohesive band. Everything is organically and beautifully integrated. Stunning. As I fumble my way through Coltrane’s “Resolution”, a melodic line based on an open-ended Eb minor scale, I discovered, I’m exploring a variety of fingerings I didn’t think were possible on the bass. Here’s another reward right there. I get to explore new territory on the fingerboard. Whether or not I will ever use those fingerings again in my own playing is unclear. It will probably depend on how many more hours of diligent practice will be needed for them to feel natural or make sense for one particular song that requires fast and clean execution. But beyond all that, what started off as an ear training exercise has become a more noble endeavor. I’m blowing fragments of a saxophone improvisation by one if not the greatest creator on the instrument, but I’m doing it by pushing air through weathered wood with my fingers.

The greatest lesson – or more accurately the most compelling reminder – I get from this workout is that to play fast successfully, you have to slow everything way down in your mind and body, be able to hear the punctuation, adjust your heartbeat to a snail’s pace, catch your breath in the little silences and imagine you have all the time in the world. For lack of a greater purpose, that’s enough to make my day.

 

The eternal John Coltrane quartet on Resolution

 

PS: My shot at Trane’s opening statement will probably appear on my Low Spectrum Instagram page when I have 40 seconds of listenable bass music together. Check back soon if you’re curious.

Scott LaFaro, poet of the bass

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It’s anyone’s guess what more bass genius Scott LaFaro would have achieved had he not died in a car accident at the age of 25. In fact, what he did achieve in a 7 year time span when he switched over to bass from saxophone remains extraordinary over 50 years later. I’d like to toss around a few ideas about why Scott was great and why his voice is probably more underrated than music popular wisdom has it.

What I hear most clearly in Scott’s playing is a profound sense of urgency that his early accidental death makes even more fateful. LaFaro was an unrelenting workaholic, as Bill Evans remembers in the priceless interview track from the tribute album Pieces Of Jade. Oh boy, and it shows! In my humble opinion, what LaFaro brought to jazz bass playing is comparable to what John Coltrane brought to the saxophone, or Mozart to orchestral music. Consider that the guy had only played the bass for 7 years when he performed so magnificently with Bill Evans and Paul Motian that one night at the Village Vanguard! The three performance nights captured on the albums Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Portrait in Jazz and Waltz for Debby are unanimously considered as a paradigm-shifting watershed for the evolution of the jazz piano trio. Scottie was at the top of his game, inspiration gushing out of every pore of his skin. Were attendees of that show on the night of June 25, 1961 aware of what was going down there? I’d be curious to see who were those people who jingled their glasses that night at the Vanguard. Anyone tracked them down?

But however influential that trio was and is it’s a little trickier to think of more than a handful of genuine continuators of Scottie’s virtuosic style. Let’s lay out its main characteristics.

Scott LaFaro rarely walked his bass when accompanying Bill Evans and when he did, he incorporated a kind of triplet feel into it that created a unique propulsion around Paul Motian’s spacious beat. When soloing – including on ballads – Scott rushed into sixteenth (very fast) notes right from the start of his improvisation, going for broke, as if music didn’t wait, and he had to pour it all out before it was too late. Listen to him on Gershwin’s beautiful waltz My Man’s Gone Now. On that tune, the trio are seamlessly locked in, Scott dances with Bill in telepathic interplay, leading the steps with a deeply warm bass tone while Paul Motian graces the dance with subtle brushwork on the cymbals. The musical chemistry here is still a shining and inspirational example of what three musicians can achieve when they are riding the same wavelength in the moment of performance. What still makes my jaw drop when I listen to Scott is his phenomenal command of the instrument, a facility that lets him play ridiculously fast lines like a saxophonist and still delineate the melodic and harmonic arc of the songs. While most great soloists tend to build their solos progressively, gathering steam and progressively building drama with more and more notes, Scott is already barreling ahead from the start and apparently needs no warm-up.

I never got around to transcribing LaFaro’s solos and keep that practice on an occasional basis anyway. But I recently stumbled on videos by bassist Phil Palombi – who put out a book of LaFaro transcriptions – and today decided I’d give a shot at “Gloria’s Step” from Sunday at the VV. Holy s…So here’s the deal. If on your first attempt you get past the first 8 bars after an hour’s worth of intense practice, you are either a monster I will NOT stoop to talk to or you have been drinking way too much coffee today and your brain will fry anytime soon. Be careful. Seriously, how does a normal person think of hitting an Eb three octaves high on the fingerboard hardly two measures into the solo? Nailing that note is hard enough but the movement across the strings that precedes it is the real torture here. I almost broke my wrist before I could do it properly. Yet LaFaro does that all the time and doesn’t seem to sweat too much over it. Granted, the legend has it that Scott had his bass set up with lower action (strings close to the fingerboard) than the norm. And he had the greatest instrument to support his musical appetite, a large-shouldered 1875 Abraham Prescott bass that played evenly across the registers and strings with no dropoff in volume or tone clarity. A bassist’s wildest dream. The story of Scottie’s bass – which got severely damaged in the same accident and was restored by luthier Barrie Kolstein – can be found in a video online and will definitely satisfy bass geeks and LaFaro enthusiasts. Still, no other bassist could have made it sing that good.

To me, Scott is a kind of bel canto singer with killer jazz chops to match. Another major characteristic of Scott’s playing and one that might have left a deeper mark on today’s musicians than his hand speed is his tendency to omit the downbeat or play delays and accelerations within a 4 beat or 3 beat measure. Motian picked up on that immediately and sort of acted as the discreet yet conducive gel that tied it all together. The effect on the ear is pretty devastating as the time-keeping duties conventionally reserved for drums and bass are reinvested with a more flexible quality. This new elastic relationship with time created a contrapuntal texture that Bill Evans reveled in as it gave him new spaces for modal explorations. Also, this new relationship with time introduced a variety of rhythmic displacements in the fairly conventional  context of piano, bass and drums, inspiring generations of rhythm sections to mess around with time even when  playing simple pop song forms.

No wonder Bill Evans couldn’t play for months after Scottie’s death and changed bassists 3 or 4 times afterward. It’s an odd irony that the first albums with Motian and LaFaro are called The Bill Evans Trio featuring Scott LaFaro when you consider how dominant and assertive the bassist sounds on these tunes. On his own composition, Gloria’s Step, mentioned above, Scott almost steals the show from Bill Evans, complementing every phrase with a variety of fills that makes you wonder if he’s not soloing over Bill’s solo…

Though Scott LaFaro is usually considered as one of the greatest bassists of all time, and a ground-breaking one at that, few have treaded a similar path in “mainstream” modern jazz. Gary Peacock’s ornamental and lyrical approach to the bass is probably as close as anyone has gotten so far. But to me, Scott LaFaro will always be in a league of his own, a Promethean poet of the bass that must have had a lot more to say.

Scott LaFaro appears on four landmark albums with Bill Evans and Paul Motian, recorded between 1959 and 1961:

Live at the Sunday Village Vanguard, Portrait in Jazz, Waltz For Debby and Explorations.

He can also be heard in different contexts, such as on Hampton Hawes’ For Real album and Ornette Coleman’s The Ornette Coleman Quartet. Thre might be others I am not aware of.

PS: For those who can’t get enough of Scottie’s bass playing, check out Phil Palombi talk about him and play his solos on the restored Prescott bass.

Nice work.

BEYOND JAZZ RECORDS

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Put it this way: if jazz is dead, it does a great job resuscitating. The deluge of releases by a groundbreaking cast of emerging and accomplished talents is so astounding it makes records reviewing feel like a Sisyphean task. Everywhere you turn, a new gem sprouts. Yours truly has learned it the hard way. Whenever I get around to reviewing a new favorite of mine, I realize it has already been extensively reviewed, blogged about and shared on social media on a massive scale. And a month ago…Fair enough. At least the music does get talked about. But it is really the place where it’s happening? At its core, jazz is live music. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, this is an important no-brainer to keep in mind when evaluating the quality of this music.

My point is this. No matter what label you want to put on it – and there is no shortage of post-bopisms out there – there is something about the essence and evolution of jazz that transcends its documentation on record. And that is the element of surprise that’s anchored in the art form and that appears so blatantly when you go hear musicians perform live. You can hear that on albums of course, especially the live ones. But at best they’re only a one-night snapshot of a much more eventful process, a process of mutability that doesn’t have anything to do with studio production but instead with the varying levels of inspiration and interaction happening during a collective performance. How does the drummer choose to drive the music, are they playing behind, on or ahead of the beat? How fast does the band react if one member stumbles? Is the piano comping during the sax player’s solo? Does that interfere with the solo? In a good or bad way? Is everyone improvising collectively in the moment or taking solos in turn? How effective is the drum and bass connection? Etc. On records, whether or not the wrong notes, the skipped beats, the fluffed starts, the misunderstandings in the form, the solo overlaps, and the whole range of unpredictable twists and turns will be left in the final mix is a matter of production discussion. Oftentimes, producers choose the polished sound over the rough edges of human imperfection. Pick an old classic from the 60s and enjoy all the kinks. It’s really fun and educational to hear the masters fumble their way through their art and get away with it. It humanizes their artistry. Has Miles Davis’ enormous contribution to jazz ever been questioned because he played wrong notes? Put on any record by Miles from any period and there is at least one big glitch, often intentional in his case as the man was reportedly temperamental.

I’m no nostalgist for a bygone era I wasn’t even born to experience. I didn’t go hear Coltrane and co stretch out for 35 minutes on “My Favorite Things” in a smoke-infested club or Monk breaking into dance during bass solos. In a sense, yes, that era of jazz is gone. That nighttime club culture is dead. Replaced by a lounge-oriented culture that too often misrepresents the art form as background mush it never was and never will be. So there’s solace in having this music available on tape as it provides a time capsule of a bygone era, in all its glorious and occasionally embellished mythology. I also acknowledge the invaluable sonic and graphic contributions that definitely helped sell jazz to the general public. The bulky catalogues of original and reissued Blue Notes and Impulses are the treasure trove of the art form. Thank you Rudy Van Gelder for acknowledging Elvin Jones’ genius with that beautifully crisp ride cymbal.

Like most aficionados, I love Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme or Money Jungle and consider them sublime works of art in their own right. I cherish my copies like the collector’s items that they are. But at the end of the day, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Compare those records with their recorded live renditions when they exist and it’s not even the same music. Consider this: how many nights have the masters played amazingly well to utterly inattentive audiences and produced music that makes their resulting albums look like tepid rehearsals? Records have a way of taming down the music sometimes. At any rate, they will never convey the full picture of the precarious art of live improvisation. Don’t get me wrong, they need to exist and be heard – and the Internet has helped tremendously to make them more widely and easily accessible – but if there is still such a thing as “jazz”, it’s happening on the bandstand, not in the museum.

Enough ranting. You got the point.

For your interest, let me give you two examples to illustrate what I’ve been rambling on about. It occurred to me on a train ride recently. On “Evidence” off the live album Monk At the It Club, drummer Ben Riley finishes his solo after which time Monk is supposed to restate the theme (the melody if you prefer). That’s how classic jazz is done. Head-chorus-head. Well, what Monk plays at this critical moment (the song please!) is the melody of another Monk tune, “Straight No Chaser”. When I heard this I almost jumped off my seat with laughter. I could just imagine the band exchanging puzzled looks and wondering how in the world they are going to take the tune out. Luckily they segue back into “Evidence” pretty seamlessly. Phew! Now, put on the blues “Sid’s Ahead” from Miles Davis’ Milestones. And pity the poor Paul Chambers, who, along with Philly Joe Jones’ indestructible hit-hat shuffle, has been bravely chopping down thumping quarter notes like a diligent lumberjack through Miles, Coltrane and Cannonball’s solos respectively, wondering when the hell he will be able to take his spot. He tries repeatedly, and sure enough 12 more bars follow. Listen to how he almost makes it, at the 8:10 mark, and shoot!, it’s not now yet, Paul! Jazz can be merciless.

These examples may sound esoteric, anecdotal and not even funny at all to the uninitiated, but they’re at the core of what makes this music so engaging and unpredictable.

So yes, today’s major jazz artists release well though-out, nicely produced records by the ton but the sad truth is they are not selling! Sure, we have to keep those albums coming and people need to keep buying them. But if today’s jazz performers have any chance to survive in an increasingly competitive market, with young kids coming out of schools with kick-ass chops, there needs to me more venues to hear them perform. The masters of the past had a tough time living off their art, for different reasons. It’s always been hard. Today is a different kind of hard. Ideally, we should check out the music live and buy the records afterward. What a peculiar irony that jazz seems to be everywhere, except where it should be. On a bandstand. We only need to look a little harder to find them (the bandstands!).

References:

Thelonious Monk, Live at the It Club (Columbia), “Evidence”

Miles Davis, Milestones (Columbia), “Sid’s Ahead”

For contradiction’s sake, here is a short list of albums you and I should be checking out now:

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Three, River Run Thee (Constellation). Jazz is clearly a reductive term for the multi-talented artist. Matana Roberts keeps weaving her “panoramic soundquilt” on her third installment. A fascinating agenda.

Vijay Iyer Trio (with Stephen Crump and Marcus Gilmore), Break Stuff. No drawn-out soloing here. But a potent rhythmic machine that keeps pushing ahead.

Mark Turner quartet (with Avishai Cohen, Joe Martin and Marcus Gimore) Lathe of Heaven (ECM): Same drummer, very different music. Cohen’s trumpet is the perfect lyrical match for Turner’s approach.

Matthew Shipp Trio (with Michael Bisio and Whit Dickey) To Duke (Rogue Art)Haven’t listened to this yet. But looking forward to hearing the trio’s deconstruction on the jazz master.

Steve Lehman (with Mark Shim, Drew Gress, Tyshawn Sorey, Jonathan Finlayson, Jose Davila, Tim Albright, Chris Dingman), Mise en Abîme (Pi Recordings). Don’t ask me what spectral harmony is. I’m clueless. But I’m curious to hear their take on Bud Powell.

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

Mr Ahmad Jamal still going strong at 83.

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That was a gamble.  Presumably, every music fan feels the same way when attending a concert by one of their aging heroes. Is he/she going to do justice to the countless hours of passionate listening I’ve dedicated to them or is it going to be the just a sad and disappointing swan song that will send me rushing back to their early catalog for reassurance’s sake?  I’ve probably worn out the Ahmad Jamal 50s trio records more than a person in their right mind should. When Mr Jamal – the man deserves this distinctive title – stumbled over to the piano last night, I started getting worried. A concern that evaporated five seconds into the first song as Mr. Jamal’s fingers rippled up and down the keyboard like rushing water, tossing off power chords with disarming abandon and throwing vamps at Reginald Veal’s bass which happily picked them up. Drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena complemented the fierce rhythm section, which was tight as can be. That concept where bass and rhythm assume a large part of the melodic duties leaving the piano to build momentum with off-kilter runs and timely ostinatos is Jamal’s signature style, going way back to his pioneering trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier. To hear it 60 years on with even more interaction between the players was pretty thrilling. Starting off with Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”, the almost uninterrupted set mingled standards and a couple of new originals of Mr Jamal’s. The old neoclassical Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris provided an ideal, though unusual, setting for Mr Jamal’s ingrained sense of drama. Like a classical conductor improbably admitting to be on a James Brown kick, Mr. Jamal pointed up when signaling transitions or turned around to Veal, Riley or Badrena to distribute solo space. Short and to the point, these collective improvisations never strayed too far from the melodic core of the songs but showcased the group’s amazing cohesion and tight adherence to the master’s concept. Drummer Herlin Riley really blew me away, dancing around his set with balletic grace and an infectious groove that was hard to believe. I had mixed feelings about the merits of percussions in Mr Jamal’s recent music but, admittedly, they contributed another layer to the potent rhythmic mix. Why the percussionist decided to growl and act like he was walking offstage at one point remains a mystery – funny though – but he served the music well.

At 83, Mr Jamal lives up to a well-deserved reputation as a pure-class musician and performer. At a time when that generation of veteran musicians is becoming scarce, that’s pretty good news . And thank you to my beloved girlfriend for setting up a fund drive for these pricey tickets. Definitely worth it.

New album “Saturday Morning” is out on Harmonia Mundi/ Jazz Village

Recommended listening:

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Alhambra and Blackhawk Performances

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Pershing Lounge 1958

Ahmad Jamal Trio, Complete Live at the Spotlite Club 1958

Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile

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Continuing the bold agenda initiated on her previous Coin Coin Chapter 1 Gens de couleur libres, Matana Roberts’ follow-up is an impressive and exciting album. Though it builds on the seminal first chapter, this sequel finds Roberts upping the ante and engaging an even wider spectrum of musical and historical milestones to explore her roots as an African-American woman.  The alto saxophonist and multidisciplinary sound artist has defined her artistic statement as “panoramic sound quilting” and this patchwork quality is even more intriguingly articulated on this new chapter, suggesting a deep-seated desire to piece together the tapestry of the African-American experience through both microcosmic and personal lenses. Coin Coin is the nickname of an inspirational freed slave, Marie Thérèse Métoyer, as well as what Roberts grandfather called her “for fun”, she says. As on Coin Coin 1, Roberts addresses the issues of appropriation and female empowerment with a very unique talent for storytelling. The haunting howl of Pov Piti (Coin Coin 1) has erupted into multiple vocal reverberations on Coin Coin 2, with Robert’s incandescent alto propelling the narrative forward.  While jazz is still a prominent part of this project – and Roberts’ improvisations and composition skills cannot be faulted – it is only one piece of the ongoing story, one that incorporates African 6/8 beats (“Thanks be you”), the blues (“Responsary”), funky New Orleans undertones (“Spares Of The World”), sacred music, communal chant (“Woman Red Racked”), and even the tenor voice of an opera singer. Throughout, Roberts mixes in her own voice in the form of fragmented narratives and spoken word based on family lore and African-American history. There is a sense that the story cannot be told in one big outpouring but needs future editing to patch together the “quilt”. “There are some things I just can’t tell you about”, she intones obsessively throughout the album.

“Invocation” leads off the suite, a Coltrane-tinged-circa Meditations-Ascension symphony of canon-like motifs coming together and apart over the churning rollercoaster of the rhythm section. The operatic tenor voice of Jeremiah Abiah, present from the start, is probably the most adventurous innovation on an album that straddles the secular and sacred lineages of African-American music with hard-edged commitment. Once you get past the oddness of hearing a music style that seems antithetical to the spiritual and labor roots of that culture – well, opera and jazz turn out to be a surprisingly successful marriage.  It also speaks to Roberts’ “avant-garde” sensibilities, which seem to center around the expression possibilities of the human voice in the context of orchestrated improvisation. Each song segues into the next seamlessly, with all the musicians bouncing around the melodic content, interacting with each other or contributing their own instrumental voice to the story. “Benediction” picks up the mood established by the opener “Invocation”, rounding off the album on a meditative and highly spiritual note. Part of a projected 12-part series, Mississippi Moonchile is a thrilling waystation along Matana Roberts’ fascinating journey, one that solidifies her place as an accomplished modernist and nonpareil artist.

For more detailed analysis of the album, I recommend buying The Wire’s October issue, which contains a full-length interview of Matana Roberts and, presumably, an insightful review of the album. I need to get that.

The album is out on Constellation Records and streaming on The Wire’s website.

Personnel: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone, vocals, conduction, wordspeak), Shoko Nagai (piano, vocals), Jason Palmer (trumpet, vocals), Thomson Kneeland (double bass, vocals), Tomas Fugiwara (drums, vocals), Jeremiah Abiah (operatic tenor vocals)

Also on Constellation:  Coin Coin Chapter one, gens de couleur libres.