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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Straight Horning - Evan Parker: As the Wind

In addition to his solo saxophone recordings, I'm a fan of Evan Parker's quieter outings such as his duo with Richard Nuns, Rangirua, and the two trio albums with Paul Bley and Barre Phillips, Time Will Tell and Sankt Gerold Variations. The recently released As the Wind, fits the bill nicely and has been getting a fair bit of airtime. [As an aside: I have never been able to get into his work with long-time collaborators Barry Guy and Paul Lytton or as part of Alexander von Schlippenbach's trio].
Toma Gouband Mark Nauseef
Evan ParkerAs the Wind (PSI Records)

I'm very happy to have stumbled upon this while browsing the shelves at Dusty Groove. It was the line-up that raised my curiosity levels -  Parker sticks to the soprano throughout nine free improvisations with Toma Gouband (Lithophones) and Mark Nauseef (Percussion). 

The music is never too busy with space playing an important role in the album. It is music that is not in a rush and has an open and airy presence. Flurries of notes punctuate periods of sustained sounds. Surges of sound retreat as quickly as they appear. At times I couldn't help but think of Gagaku or the Shakuhachi. It's a marvelous feeling to be immersed in a recording to the point, no longer aware of the specific instruments being played, you just bask in the sound.

The air sounds, microtones and multiphonics are not just played for show and flash. And lets not forget clean notes... Parker has a great clean soprano tone but it's something that is not often mentioned. I'm really enjoying the sound of this album. Not only does it showcase the many subtleties of the individuals but also the wonderful blend of the trio is beautifully captured. 

I don't get the feeling the trio is trying to do something new. In fact, it feels like they tap into something quite ancient, perhaps even primitive. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but it makes for compelling listening as another year rolls around.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Cannonball Adderley: Two Blindfold Tests from 1965

Cannonball Adderley takes Leonard Feather's Blindfold Test for Down Beat magazine. This one was split over two issues (December 16 & 23, 1965) with tracks from Lucky Thompson, Paul Desmond, Marshall Allen, Wayne Shorter, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Rollins and more. Click on the image to view PDF of both articles. View more vintage magazine articles here.