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.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Stan Getz Blindfold Test

From May 10, 1973, Stan Getz takes Down Beat's "Blindfold Test." Dan Morgenstern tests Getz with tracks by Chick Corea, Dexter Gordon, Lee Konitz, Miles Davis and even a track by Getz (from 25 years earlier). More vintage magazine articles are available here.

Down Beat Magazine 1973


Saturday, January 07, 2017

Straight Horning: Steve Lacy - Clinkers

Larry Gushee Pioneers of Jazz the Creole BandOn Friday I spent some time at the Harold Washington Library writing some emails and working on future blog post ideas. Steve Lacy’s Clinkers (HatOlogy), a live solo recording from 1977 in Switzerland, got three or four spins across the day. While a lot of the time it was accompanying my work, I did dedicate my attention to each individual track at one stage or another over the course of the day (and a little more on Saturday).

The opening couple of riffs from “Trickles” bounced around my head the rest of the evening (the opening of "Coastline" is bit of an ear worm too). Lacy’s style of composition is as personal as his improvising and his tone is second to none. The horn's entire range (and beyond) sparkles with flexibility, color variance and dynamic shifts. Although I listen to Lacy on a regular basis, even when I take bit of a break his music travels with me. As is the case with other favorites of mine (such as Billie & Prez, Connie Crothers, Richard Tabnik, Lee Konitz, Hayden Chisholm, Lennie Tristano) the music has been absorbed in a way that it is always with you. 

And while Clinkers may not be the solo album I would recommend to someone new to Lacy (although that would depend on where they were coming from), I do enjoy hearing him explore some of the outer reaches of the soprano. My mind is a little fuzzy, but it was probably through Lacy that I was introduced to this type of approach to the saxophone. But now that I think about it, I did hear Evan Parker for the first time right around then too, so he likely crossed the line first in my mind, but Lacy had a more immediate impact.

Anyway, It wasn’t that long after I heard Lacy playing solo in the flesh (from memory, he played Ellington & Monk tunes) that I listened to my first solo recording of Lacy’s - Hooky (thanks Craig!)... another live recording. I remember being a bit baffled by pieces like “The New Duck." Not sure how they fit into the music of studying, it stayed on the back burner. But I remained curious, and a little later on I checked out Weal and Woe (thanks Goose!) another live recording... I think there's a pattern here. And now, all these years later, Clinkers and pieces like "Micro Worlds" and "Duck" are more comfortably digested. While I used to focus on trying to make sense of the "odd" sounds coming from his horn, these days I marvel at the way he incorporated them in with conventional playing to create a unified piece.

When it came time to take a break from the computer, I turned to the Larry Gushee's Pioneers of Jazz: The Story of the Creole Band. This has been on my reading list for a while now. Even though I only read the introduction and opening chapter, I have a feeling that I am going to enjoy the rest of it. However, it will have to wait as I'm currently in the middle of another slice of jazz history from later on in the century - more on that later.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Return of Sonny Rollins

In the January 4, 1962 issue of Down Beat, Bill Coss announced the return of Sonny Rollins from a two year hiatus. Click on the image to view PDF of the full article (sorry, it's a bit on the dark side). More vintage magazine articles are available here.

Down Beat Magazine Bill Coss

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Wayne Shorter's Blue Notes

Earlier in the year I picked up a collection of Wayne Shorter's recordings for Blue Note and I have been working my way through them ever since. Note: for those that want the liner notes, this set isn't for you.... you can probably pick up all the individual reissues used for about the same price as this set.

JuJu and Speak No Evil got some heavy rotation in the early 2000s and I have returned to them on fairly regular intervals over the years. My knowledge of Night Dreamer, The Soothsayer, The All Seeing Eye, Adam's Apple and Schizophrenia came from listening sessions at the public and university library (along the way I must have missed Etcetera). Spending more time with them this year has been time well spent.

I was surprised by how many of the tunes from Night Dreamer seemed familiar to me. Either I must have listened to that album more than I realized or perhaps in the years following I've heard others playing songs like "Black Nile," "Virgo" and the title track. Or maybe the stickability of the tunes is testament to Shorter's ability as a composer. Of these, I was least familiar with The All Seeing Eye. It's an interesting work and I can think of a couple of friends who may enjoy the writing for five or six horns and rhythm (a line-up I don't really associate with Blue Note or music of this era). I remember thinking to myself, "I thought the pianist was Herbie?," then double checking the liner notes and being pleasantly surprised as I couldn't recall him playing like he does on "Chaos."

While I know some people who don't really care for Shorter's tone, I find it quite appealing (although I do prefer his Shorter's more recent soprano tone to his early years on the straight horn). There is something about his tonal inflections that remind me of the way Warne Marsh colored individual notes and I think this contributed to my initial attraction to his playing. In fact, this may even be my favorite element of his playing.

Purchasing this set was an in-the-moment decision and the motivating factor was the last three albums - Super NovaMoto Grosso Fein and Odyssey of Iska. First, because they are early examples of his soprano work and, secondly, because when people speak of Shorter's Blue Note era these albums don't get a mention (no doubt due to anti-fusion sentiments that are part of the jazz world) and this makes me curious. Someone leant Super Nova to me a while back and I had forgotten the dense quality and intensity of some of the tracks. He sticks solely to soprano here and I need to get around to comparing the tunes he recorded with Miles that also appear here. I had heard one track from Moto a few years back (thanks Paul) and I remember it sparked my attention but I never followed through checking out the album. Both Moto and Odyssey have a similar vibe with the music slowly unfolding. The unhurried, wandering, exploratory quality appeals to me. I don't listen to a lot of music of this ilk, so these last three albums have made a refreshing change of pace. For those after some adventurous and exploratory music or fans of early(ish) fusion, make sure you check out these albums.

All this talk and I haven't mentioned any of the sideman, and lets face it, they're not light-weights. Joe Chambers, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter make regular appearances (on 4, 5 and 6 albums respectively), Freddie Hubbard is on form, Elvin Jones is superb (Joe Chambers also caught my ears) and James Spaulding contributed some fiery playing. Aside from a smattering of sideman appearances in the 60s, I've never really checked out his work.

This set is a reminder of just how much contemporary jazz (as soloists, accompanists, compositionally and the approach to ensemble playing) owes to the music from this era. I'm looking for to delving into more from Shorter when I tackle the Plugged Nickel box set in the new year.