Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NZ Music Month: Lucien Johnson - Stinging Nettles

Johnson/Silva/Sato: Stinging Nettles (Improvising Beings)
Lucien Johnson (ts) Alan Silva (b) Makoto Sato (d) November 2006, Paris. 

Lucien was a year a head of me at music school (and light years a head of me as a musician!). Although back then he had the reputation of being a bit surly (probably because he wasn’t shy of sharing his opinion), I got a long with him quite well and enjoyed his playing too. He was a great source for album recommendations and made sure I checked out Steve Lacy.

NZ Music Month Norman Meehan
A couple of years ago I remember seeing that this trio had an album slated for release on HatArt. The release never happened and I forgot about it until I bumped into Stinging Nettles earlier this year. While I’ve heard a bit from Silva (initially via Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler recordings), I was unfamiliar with Sato until now.

Considering that Lucien met Silva at the recording session (he and Sato had been playing together for a bit before the session), the trio works really well together. They may burst out of the blocks on the title track but the album is not all just crash and bang (neither is the title track for that matter). Throughout the album there are moments of fire and reflection, melodicism and abstraction, as each improvisation takes its own shape. There’s a lot of listening going on.

The short phrases of  “Abora” give the piece lots of breathing room before a quiet drone emerges to round out the track. The rhythm section maintains a broken time feel throughout “Copper Sky” which has quite a pointed or jumpy start. As the piece develops Lucien mixes up longer phrases with distorted held tones and short bursts. 

“Family of Silva” gradually unfolds. Solo bass opens the piece, Lucien adds a delicate, economic, melodic approach, the drums eventually join in and the trio create an swing feel with a nice push and pull between bass and drums without sacrificing forward momentum. “Pieces of Eight” features high register wails from the sax and arco bass throughout as the drums rumble beneath, while the quiet, minimal “Ice Shelf” finds another side of abstraction via high register arco bass, spacious use of cymbals, and a whispering, breathy saxophone. The fire returns on “Burnt Fingers.” Flurries of notes from the sax, unexpected changes in pulse from the bass, and clattering drums (not a bad thing….it was the only word I could think of!) give the listen plenty to tune in to.

The album wraps up with “Rhyme nor Reason” which has a wandering quality that appeals to me - unhurried but going somewhere. Lucien paces himself well really well and hints at a melodic fragment throughout, bringing continuity to his improvisation. One thing I spent some time focusing on this week is Lucien’s varied tone color - subtone, distorted growls, altissimo, brightness/darkness, throaty resonance, clean, dynamics and shifting vibrato - something I want to work on a bit more in my own playing.

Lucien is featured in Norman Meehan’s book, New Zealand Jazz Life, which I have been re-reading in bits and pieces this month (the chapters on Jim Langabeer, Anthony Donaldson, and Lucien). Lucien speaks about the impact Alan Silva had on him and, as always, has plenty of other interesting things to say too. I particularly like his idea that arts funding should be to directed to areas with more long term benefits like building the community and audience (such as funding venues that can host many artists over a period of time rather than one-off projects that quickly fizzle out). It’s a good read - check it out!

The chapter on Lucien is subtitled, “Jazz is not music for ambience.” This could not be more accurate in the case of the thoughtful, yet expressive, music on Stinging Nettles

You can read previous NZ Music Month posts here: C.L. Bob and Bleakley/Crayford/Donaldson
NZ Music Month

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

NZ Music Month: The Truth Isn't Always Ornamental

Bleakley/Crayford/Donaldson: The Truth Isn’t Always Ornamental (Rough Peel Records)
Patrick Bleakley (b) Jonathan Crayford (p) Anthony Donaldson (d)
I stumbled across this 2016 release quite by accident a couple of months ago.

New Zealand Jazz
There is a slightly hypnotic feel running through the 1st four tracks. It leads to continuity while each piece still retains its own flavor. “Dots” features an ostinato from the piano that is maintained through as the solo buildings in intensity with lines of clusters. The flow created by rhythm section is superb. There is another repeated groove on “Bruno’s Tom Toms.” This time the piano holds firm as the bass bows over the top of a slightly sinister feel. The ballad “Street of Dreams,” features the drums bubbling away and building throughout the piece while the bass pedal makes you wait for resolution as the piano ruminates with sparse lines and plenty of sustain. It’s very collective approach rather than soloist and accompanists. The aptly named “Wall of Jazz” bursts out of the blocks and just keeps going - the trio is unrelenting. At times on this track (and some of the others too) Crayford’s phrasing brings to mind Lennie Tristano.

“Pink” is on the brighter side mood wise. The vibe is very familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I kept thinking, “I know this… oh wait… I don’t.” Maybe there’s something about the piano that occasionally reminds me of Paul Bley, and perhaps Mike Nock too. The hypnotic feel present on the first four pieces fades as the rhythm is more broken up (it hints at a return towards the end of the piece as the bass pedals and the piano plays a short repeated figure) and once again it’s a very collective approach to trio playing.

The relaxed swing of “Departing Souls” is broken up with interjections from the drums. It keeps you on your toes and brings something different to the table (as Donaldson tends to do). Possibly the most “straight ahead” track is “Ornamental” and, courtesy of a fade out, it is frustratingly short. It may be a little more conventional playing than what I usually associate with Donaldson, but I’m really enjoying his playing across the entire album. The meditative “Tinalaca” frames the album with the return of the hypnotic quantity. The piece unfolds with a pedal, plenty of sustain and some timely fills from the drums. It wouldn’t be out of place on an ECM album.

There are no composer credits (it's hard to tell if there are tunes involved or if the trio is freely improvising - but I like that!) or recording date. The bass lacks some clarity and at times the overall sound is a bit “boxy,” but the recording does capture the live vibe (at Happy in Wellington) and if anything, it makes you hone your attention a little more. While the 38 minute length is refreshing, it was a little frustrating that some of the tracks fade out. But it left me wanting more, and that’s not a bad thing. These are minor complaints, and nothing that has stopped me from enjoying the music.

The Truth Isn’t Always Ornamental will likely be overshadowed by Crayford’s two trio albums on Rattle Records, Dark Light and East West Moon (both with Ben Street and Dan Weiss), but it offers something a bit different while still maintaining plenty for everyone swing, ballads, groove and collective playing.

Last weeks NZ Music Month post on C.L. Bob can be found here.
New Zealand Jazz

Monday, May 08, 2017

NZ Music Month: C.L. Bob

As it is NZ Music Month, I'm going to try and write a little each week on some NZ jazz albums that I have been listening to. Stay tuned for more.
I'm kicking things off with the self-titled release from C.L. Bob (Yellow Eye) - Steve Cournane (Drums) David Leahy (Bass/Trombone) John Bell (Vibraphone/Trumpet) Nils Olsen (Sax/Clarinet) Simon Bowden (Guitar).
NZ Music Month

Recorded in 1997, I stumbled upon C.L. Bob's self titled album sometime the following year. I'm not sure how I knew they were a NZ group (maybe I'd seen an article in the paper or heard something on the radio) but that was the motivating factor of my purchase. Somewhere along my travels the album was lost/borrowed/misplaced and recently I reacquainted myself with it (good ol' discogs) after many, many years apart.

I got to hear various incarnations of C.L. Bob live many times around Wellington up until I headed to the U.S. I can't remember if I saw this particular lineup live but I'm almost certain I heard them before they added a second guitar to the front line - so it's a possibility. I think I only heard them play material from their third album (The Great Flash) - released not that long after I returned from the states - on one occasion, and the band seemed to dissolve not long after that.

It's very much a collective effort with composition duties and solo features spread evenly throughout the band. As with their later work, the first album from from C.L Bob is quite an eclectic jazz album infused with touches of fun ("Cartoon Donkey"), break beat ("Transitions"), rock ("Endings"... add it to the fun category too), avant grade ("Spike"), and ballads ("Jane"). It comes together as a whole and works pretty well and definitely points towards areas they would develop on the two albums that followed.

At the time, hearing them live was an enjoyable night, hanging with friends and listening to a good band. I studied with Nils for about six months and it's always good to check out what your teachers get up to outside of lessons. I don't recall this music ever reaching me on a deep personal level though, and if anything, listening to C.L. Bob over the past week or so has been a somewhat nostalgic experience. It has been fun giving it a listen with fresh ears and had me thinking about some other ensembles from around that time featuring C.L Bob personnel. There was a trio (I forget the name....Bertha?) featuring Nils (bass clarinet), Steve (drums) and guitarist Chris Williamson (who by then was part of C.L.Bob) who drew repertoire from the songbook of Monk (and Mingus too if my memory is holding together). I would really like to get my ears on the album by Sanctus Trio (John on vibes with Chris O'Connor & Patrick Bleakley).

Be sure to check out Steve Cournane's bandcamp page for digital versions of the C.L Bob albums plus plus a few other recordings.
new zealand jazz

Monday, May 01, 2017

Matthew Shipp: To Duke

Matthew Ship Trio: To Duke (Rogue Art)
Shipp (piano) Michael Bisio (bass) Whit Dickey (drums) recorded June 2014

I admit that I'm usually a bit suspicious of tribute albums, but the little I have heard from Matthew Shipp gave me the feeling that this album would be worth picking up.

Michael Bisio Whit Dickey The album features four pieces from Shipp alongside seven works by Ellington and his associates. The trio takes these songs to places they haven't been before and the album is full of interesting, unexpected twists and turns as melodic fragments or rhythms are seized upon and developed or cast aside. It's a very collective and interactive approach to playing as an ensemble (rather than head/solos with accompaniment/head). At times Shipp's melodic reconstructions, Dickey's rhythmic coloration and Bisio's counterpoint leave the impression that they are taking three different routes to the same destination.

The surging, runaway "Take the A Train" feels like it is not going to make any stops until finally winding down in the final minute. In between moments of dense chordal movements, uptempo swing and even a section that I could hear as part of a video game soundtrack, there are times when "Satin Doll" comes off as sounding relatively conventional. Bisio tackles "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good" solo and as the piece opens there's a nice little salute to Charles Mingus. Dickey is featured throughout Shipp's "Dickey Duke" (I couldn't help but think of Frank Zappa's "America Drinks and Goes Home".... "Caravan with a drum solo? Right...yeah, we'll do that").

It's a testament to the compositions that they can withstand such flexible approaches. The improvisers deserve credit too as they approached these pieces in a fresh way - exploring the pieces without having to rely of gimmicks, such as elaborate arrangements or odd-time signature workouts (unless you consider the free approach with which they tackle the pieces itself a gimmick).

While Shipp has his own distinctive approach, he is coming from the Ellington lineage (I'll include pianists such as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, Misha Mengelberg as part of that tradition.... who else am I missing?). This left me thinking, what are characteristics of the lineage?.... density, space, attack/articulation, a bittersweet quality, and personality - something to ponder. This album demonstrates a quality that Matthew Shipp shares with the likes on Monk, Nichols and Taylor: the ability to refer to tradition without rehashing it. Also, I hear some reminders of Connie Crothers too (check out the brief album-opening "Prelude to Duke").

Steve Dalachinsky contributes some nice liner notes too. His inclusion of some Bob Kaufman was particularly apt..... "the revisited soul is wrapped in the aura of familiarity."

Although I purchased this album on a whim, To Duke did not disappoint.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Withdrawal

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Withdrawal
Kenny Wheeler (trp/flugel) Paul Rutherford (trb) Trevor Watts (as/oboe/flute/voice) Evan Parker (ss/ts) Derek Bailey (g) Barry Guy (b/p) John Stevens (d) and pretty much everyone plays percussion. Recorded in September 1966 and March 1967.

Oh, what a year does. Compared to Challenge, this album is more in line with the music I associate with Spontaneous Music Ensemble. For my first run through I didn’t read the liner notes, which is a pretty common approach for me when listening to an album for the first time. However, in this case it was encouraged by a power cut that had me don the headphones and listen along with the glow of my computer screen (until it dawned on me the reason it was so dark was that the curtains were closed).

Emanem John Stevens
The first four tracks were recorded as the soundtrack for a film from which this album draws its name. The music moves slowly with arco bass underpinning the (mostly) sustained sounds and flurries from the horns. The flurries build and the drums become more present as the overall sound becomes far denser. Kenny Wheeler sounds more confident than on the group’s previous outing, although I’m not really hearing things in terms of soloists and accompanists but rather listening to the overall group sound (which is quite distinctive and cohesive). The opening of “Part 1C” sees the horns and drums ramp things up and the arco bass (which sounds great) emerges as the dynamics drop (was it there all along?) and the horns trade phrases and lock in with held notes.

“Part 2” opens with very high arco and a dialogue between Wheeler and Watts (on alto, up to this point he had mostly been on oboe). When the drone returns to the low register the rest of the horns enter while remaining quite sparse in their approach. Eventually the drums are added, though just momentarily, before the dialogue between Wheeler and Watts returns although with the ever-present drone of bass. Throughout the proceedings it is interesting to hear Parker taking such a back seat, with his contributions not nearly as prominent as the other horns (especially Wheeler and Watts) and a nice reminder that artists rarely, if ever, hit the scene fully formed. The arco bass, and to a lesser extent the glockenspiel, provide continuity throughout the work and while the bass may be somewhat repetitive, I feel that it worked and I didn’t tire of it.

Two questions remain: 1) would I have guessed it was soundtrack music had I not read the back cover? And 2) has anyone seen the film? I wouldn’t mind seeing it.

Next up are the three movements that comprise the “Withdrawal” suite. Straight away there are a couple of noticeable differences. First, Barry Guy is no longer only droning on bass and second is the addition of guitarist Derek Baily. My ears readjust and I realize that the trumpet is now muted and the glockenspiel (or are they vibes? …. I think the latter - probably played by Parker and/or Watts as I’m not hearing much/anything from them) has a more active roll as do the drums (“Sequence 1” ends with a drum solo). All of these factors contribute to creating a very different texture than was present on the soundtrack recordings.

The texture continues to shift on “Sequence 2” with Watts opening on flute, Stevens focuses on the toms and Guy at the piano (combining strumming with more conventional playing). The brass enter along with some very tasty (and rather quiet) guitar from Bailey. Stevens shifts focus to the cymbals as Watts begins singing into his flute and Guy moves onto the bass with an approach that is similar to the soundtrack recordings.

“Sequence 3” keeps the energy levels higher, although I’m not feeling as if people are overly playing. Steven’s is busy at the drums and his playing over the arco bass brought to mind Haden and Higgins on “Lonely Women” (although completely different!) as the horns play hits together. In contrast to the first two “Sequences” this piece is much shorter and I feel ends before it really has had all it can say but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The final four tracks that make up the suite “Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours,” might be my favourite of album. The group moves together as one and the pieces unfold naturally at a nice pace. For me, one of the strengths of this suite conciseness of the movements - between 4-7 mins each - enough time to let things develop without dragging. What exactly is composed and what is improvised? It’s hard to tell really, but I like the ambiguity (apparently each piece is based around a particular texture).

Emanem has put together a nice package with some background notes, full instrumentation listing and photos from the soundtrack recording session some live concert shots.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Friday, February 10, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Challenge

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Challenge (Emanem)

Having heard a smattering of their recordings, I’m finally getting around to listening to Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit more carefully. I figured starting at the beginning is probably a sound move. Challenge, recorded in March 1966, is a fascinating album as it captures SME in its formative stages. In fact, had this been a blindfold test I may not have been able to pin point it.

John Stevens Trevor Watts Evan Parker Kenny Wheeler
This incarnation of SME features Kenny Wheeler (trpt) Paul Rutherford (trb) Trevor Watts (as/ss) John Stevens (d) and Bruce Cale and Jeff Clyne (splitting the bass duties).

There are moments that hint at the freer approach that was to come (the collective playing on “End to a Beginning”) but for me the music still fits comfortably into the “Free Jazz” mode with composed pieces by Watts, Rutherford and Stevens, soloists with accompaniment, some collective improvising and a rhythm section swinging - nothing particularly unconventional for the time. And that’s not a criticism, the music remains engaging throughout and I feel they create a solid ensemble sound. It’s thoughtful and dynamic music. 

“E.D’s Message” opens the album and it doesn’t hold back with plenty of high-energy output from Trevor Watts - perhaps the boldest solo voice on the album, although Rutherford has some nice moments too such as on “After Listening.” The rhythm section comfortably moves between time and a more textural approach. At times things get pretty busy but Stevens sounds assured throughout and is a very responsive accompanist. There are a few nice arco spots from Cale too. It’s funny how something pricks up your ears. For me, it was Stevens’ cymbal work on “Travelling Together” - a whispering shimmer that moves to a bell pattern just as the piece seemly comes to an end before the drum solo takes flight. Wheeler still seems to be finding his feet in this setting and is somewhat more tentative than the others with maybe just the occasional hint at his mature style. He gets a bit of room to move on “After Listening,” which features solos from the each of the horns. A standout from this track is the superb accompaniment of Stevens and Cale. They manage to lock in with each soloist, creating music informed by the soloist rather than relying on rote accompaniment.

There is something familiar about some of the pieces and I struggled to put my finger on what it was. As I continued to listen throughout the week I was reminded, on more than one occasion, of the Bobby Bradford/John Carter Quartet. I guess there are some similarities…. bass and drums with horns (in this case three rather than two) and a post-Ornette vibe that is present at times - but I’m still not sure that’s what it is. [Side Note: I’m not overly familiar with the Bradford/Carter group, eventually I might get to a more in depth listen to them as well.]

For the final track on the disc, Chris Cambridge (b) and Evan Parker (ss) join John Stevens and Trevor Watts. Recorded in April, 1967, “Distant Little Soul,” is moving towards what I hear in my mind’s ear when I think of SME - exploratory (rather than experimental) group improvisation at the quieter end of the spectrum.   

So far, this is the earliest recording of Parker’s I have heard and the distinctive voice he developed is still in its infancy. It’s fascinating hearing players early in their career (Bird with Jay McShann, Lee Konitz with Claude Thornhill etc.) so for fans of Evan Parker this track is worth the price of admission. Withdrawn contains some Parker from around the same time… I’ll be getting to that album next.