jazz

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

Elegy for Charlie

Like jazz, the satirical press is about the unbridled expression of individual freedom, the right to comment on the times without pandering to the lowest common denominator. Charlie Hebdo might have been the closest thing we French people had to a totally free press. A bunch of talented libertarian pacifists who were not afraid to laugh at absolutely everything, as everything can and should be laughed at. Their over-the-top cover cartoons were not only hilarious to those who appreciated that kind of in-your-face, no-holds barred humor, they brilliantly and comically measured up to the horrendous excesses of this time and age. Of the 12 casualties, cartoonist Cabu was probably the most famous, a jazz fan with a penchant for the swing era. Though I tended to take issue with his rejection of post-swing jazz, his love for the music and its freeing appeal, was genuine and heartfelt. I’m looking at some of the strips he made about the jazz musicians he loved. On one of those, Count Basie is sitting dejectedly on a cloud, with a rock band raging behind him. The balloon above says: “It ain’t swinging in heaven, guys”. Well, I hope he and the others can dance with him now.

Another Charlie was not afraid to speak out. In this extended version of Fables of Faubus, an eminently political anthem, Mingus and his band go all out, quoting the past and looking ahead, from “Yankee Doodle” to Chopin’s funeral march. The song seems to be an appropriate elegy for those who died at Charlie Hebdo. Let’s take a listen.

Henry The Great

Photo credit: Hans Harzhelm

Photo credit: Hans Harzhelm

Admittedly, I have a tendency to cover bassists a lot on this blog. The main reason might just be a click away if you go to the About this blog page. Rest assured, though, if you are getting tired of low frequencies, I will probably be writing about a few pianists in a future post that has yet to be given a relevantly unifying theme and some personal motivation. Stay tuned.

The story of Henry Grimes is undoubtedly an astounding one. That it made its way into the New Yorker’s Goings on about town section  is even more surprising. That kind of story is usually bounced around from music fan to music fan with varying degrees of authenticity and embellishments. However, The New Yorker rundown goes straight to the point about Grimes: Once renowned bassist whose impressive credentials range from Sonny Rollins to Cecil Taylor disappears from the scene for 35 years, spirals down into hard times, is widely believed to be dead and later tracked down by a fan and given a green-finished bass by fellow bassist William Parker. I haven’t listened seriously to Henry’s recent music but it seems like he keeps a hectic gigging and touring schedule. I wonder how often he brings out his “Olive Oil” bass on gigs, and more importantly, what it sounds like. It’s not hard to imagine that an accomplished musician who once had to pawn his bass never to get it back (how heart-breaking is that?), has some powerful statements to make now. What first appealed to me about Henry’s sound is the gritty yet precise quality of his articulation no matter if he plays a blues, an uptempo tune or totally free.

On the five recordings I own featuring Grimes on bass (McCoy Tyner’s Reaching Fourth, Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, Roy Haynes’ Out of the Afternoon, Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador, Sonny Rollins’ amazing live bootleg in Sweden (with master drummer Pete LaRoca and a particularly inspired Sonny), his presence is devastating. His tone has a Mingus-meets-Garrison vibe that drives its way into your ears and stays there.

However incredible Henry Grimes’ story is, it highlights a continuing pattern in all things artistic. The most revered artists/musicians can rise or fall almost overnight, the most committed to their art know that they can’t afford to take recognition for granted. That precariousness makes their art even more fascinating.

 

Making swing matter

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

Photo credit: Chuck Stewart

There is a common phrase in jazz: swing. The concept carries such a powerful charge that musicians often gain the respect of their peers based on their ability to swing. Listening to Orrin Evans’ awesome Flip the Script (Posi-Tone, 2012) has me digging through the jazz continuum for possible definitions. The swing era is long gone but jazz heads can’t get enough of the phrase. So, what does swing actually mean?

When jazz reached its heyday in the 40s, swing almost defined the music entirely. People literally swung to what was still then dance music. Big bands led by Duke Ellington or Count Basie pulsed with a wild but controlled energy that solidified swing into a potent and unassailable force. You either swung or you didn’t, because “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

As the swing era faded away and bebop broke ground, laying the foundations for a wide variety of future developments, swing lived on, crystallizing into its definitive statement, the classic 4/4 beat. The propulsion you hear/feel when walking bass and hit-hat cymbal lock in on the upbeats always makes me think of a train charging full steam ahead. I’m aware of the cliché but the metaphor holds up. Unsurprisingly, examples of railroad-inspired songs or records abound:  Take the A train, Blue train, Soultrane, you name it.  When that engine gets going, there is a sense that the journey could last forever.  One quintessential incarnation of that subtle association is the great Ahmad Jamal Trio (with Israel Crosby on bass and Vernel Fournier on drums) in the 50s. With such a hard-driving team, Ahmad has a lot of room to run over the keyboard or throw off sporadic splashes of melody whenever he wants to. Listen to and watch “Darn that Dream” here. Ben Webster looks bemused but he’s having a good time (at 3.05). You just can’t derail that kind of train. It is rock solid.

At a deeper level, though, swing is the way musicians articulate their feelings about the music, their signature takes on popular songs of the day or past. When Billie Holiday lags “behind” the beat, that’s swing. When Monk hits the same chord over 20 times on Little Rootie Tootie or inserts long stretches of silence into his off-kilter lines, that’s swing. Oscar Peterson’s left-hand powerhouse swings. Miles Davis’ pristine delivery swings. It is hard to think of a musical feature that is more distinctive and yet open-ended than that.

Today, swing is sometimes unfairly associated with conservatism in jazz. In fact, some people do lament the demise of swing and feel that all these odd time signatures or rock-tinged inflections that are now standard practice in modern jazz are corrupting the essence of the music. I totally disagree. Jazz, by nature, has consistently drawn from all kinds of music. Sure, the swing age is over but so is World War 2. There’s nothing to regret. In fact, I would argue that the spirit of swing is still going strong in some of the current music. Free bassist William Parker released an album dedicated to Duke not too long ago, and it doesn’t sound like your grandpa’s dusty Glenn Miller 78. Snippets here.

There are so many ways to play four beats in a row, that’s the beauty of it.

By the way, I have been listening a lot to pianist Orrin Evans lately. It’s hard to overstate how much of a swinger his latest CD (Flip the Script, Posi-Tone Records) is. It is a kind of swing that tips its hat to tradition while offering engaging vistas for contemporary modern jazz. Orrin is a case in point of how to rejuvenate swing and take it to uncharted places. Listen how these three guys (bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards) go at the burner “Flip the Script”. Each time the 4/4 beat kicks in, your head switches to nodding mode when you didn’t ask it to.

Flip the script is aptly titled. On this ten track cd, the band deliver a cohesive set that has all the makings of a “classic” record engaging with tradition but without sounding burdened by it. The opener “Question” plays fast and loose with time while sticking to the underlying 4/4 swing metric. “Clean House” is ¾ gem with a nice catchy melody that reminds me of Coltrane’s “Afro Blue”.  “Big Small” is a very slow blues that trudges forward like a good ol’ mule that knows exactly what its final destination is. The Tynerish intro to “A Brand New Day” leads to an epic exploration of “modal soul” (I just thought that up), if such an animal exists. The songs don’t stretch out over 6 minutes but the playing is tight throughout. I won’t comment on the other songs. Just flip it on the player. It’s refreshing to hear swing tastefully incorporated into and contrasted against a larger agenda of modern music. As long as swing maintains that pendular flexibility, there are many reasons to go along for the ride.