Sunday, September 17, 2017

Straight Horning: Jane Ira Bloom - Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson

Last week it was a fairly new release, this week it’s a new release - Jane Ira Bloom’s
Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson (Outline). I’ve been looking forward to this one for a couple of months now. It features her long-time collaborator Bobby Previte on drums along with pianist Dawn Clement and bassist Mark Helias (who also have been in the Bloom orbit for a number of albums now). 

While I’m not super familiar with Bloom’s output (I have 3 or 4 albums and heard her once live about 5 years ago), I know there are certain things to expect - her signature soprano tone that is full of depth (as usual she doesn’t overdo the electronics), attention to detail, a tight ensemble sound (I enjoy the blend of the soprano and piano - not easy), and a nicely produced album.

Jazz and Poetry Emily DickinsonThat being said, I’ve had a harder time getting into Wild Lines than I did with previous album, Early Americans. But I think it has less to do with the playing, than it does with the album as a whole. One thing that was appealing to me about Wild Lines was the spoken word aspect featuring the work of Emily Dickinson. However, I wasn’t expecting 2 discs - the first being instrumental, and the second featuring the quartet augmented with Deborah Rush’s recitation of Dickinson. Each disc features the same pieces, albeit in a different order. Cool…double the music, lots of listen and comparing different takes.  Not quite. Rather than featuring totally different takes many of the pieces on the instrumental disc are essentially the same minus the vocal. For example, the pieces “Emily & Her Atoms” and “Alone & In a Circumstance” both feature the same music on each disc with the poetry spoken over the piano introduction. They are not all like that - “Dangerous times” features two different performances and I thought this would have been the standard approach. Even Bloom’s trademark solo rendition of a ballad (“It’s East to Remember” in this case) seems to be the same take on each disc.

It gave me the impression that the words were tacked on, spoken over an arranged/composed part of the music…. and then the band takes over for the rest of the piece. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way improvising while the poetry is spoken and as such, the spoken portion does not feel completely integrated into the performance. As I continued listening I started to feel that the words were acting as a preface to the music (or in the case of “Big Bill,” an afterword), and it started to work for me. But then why have the instrumental disc?  Could it possibly be for something a bit more radio/middle-of-the-road jazz audience friendly? Then why include the second disc with spoken word? I found this quite a distraction, and spent about as much time (maybe more) pondering this as I did enjoying the music. And that’s a shame as I am enjoying the performances. It’s maybe a little more composition orientated than I like, but Bloom sounds excellent - her tone is full of subtle shifts in color, vibrato, pitch, and dynamics. “Big Bill” appeared on her last album, Early Americans. And it’s nice to hear someone revisiting to one of their own tunes. It seems these days that standard procedure is to record 8 or 9 tunes for a specific project and then the tunes are shelved. Rarely are they tackled on later recordings (which feature another 8 or 9 new tunes), which may make harder to associate a set of tunes with an artist. But that's for another blog post.

Had Wild Lines come with only one disc (preferably with the spoken word), I think I would have quite a different listening experience over the last few days. But now, with my initial confusion out of the way, I can just relax and listen to the music.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Straight Horning: Steve Lacy - Free for a Minute

Steve Lacy - Free for a Minute (Emanem)

First up, many thanks to one of my readers for giving me the heads-up on this new release. The 2-disc set contains re-issues of the albums Disposability (trio with Kent Carter & Aldo Ramano) and Sortie (with Enrico Rava added to the trio), and two previously unissued sessions including the soundtrack for the (unreleased) film Free Fall and an early quintet recording. Free for a Minute documents a fascinating period in Lacy’s career as he moved from playing tunes into free improvisation, looser forms, and his own compositions.

Disposability (1965) is as an extension of his work from the 50s and 60s and contains pieces by Thelonious Monk, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor. It’s also the beginning of this transitional period, featuring the earliest works written by Lacy to date (“Barble,” “M’s Transport” and “Chary”) and a free improvisation (“There We Were”). It makes for a nice combination of the familiar and charting new territory. 

From a quick peek at Lacy’s discography Sortie (1966) appears to be the first album featuring his own compositions exclusively, or are they? The reissue liner notes state that they may in fact be excerpts from longer free improvisations (and the original notes refer to them as free improvisations too). It’s still early days, and perhaps some closer listening could bring forms/composed material to light, but I’m leaning towards the free improvisation line of thinking (and if it is, Sortie pre-dates The Forest and The Zoo). Either way, I like the blend and rapport he has with Rava on this searching set. 

I hadn’t heard Paul Motian and Lacy together so Free Fall (1967) grabbed my attention. Comprised of 13 short improvisations that Lacy assigned certain limitations, Free Fall is at the quieter end of the spectrum and perhaps is more varied than some of the other free improvisations on the two discs. It’s rare to hear the entire quintet (Lacy, Rava, Karl Berger (vibes/piano) Carter & Motian) playing at once, and when they do it's less dense than on Sortie.

The high energy blowing on The Rush and The Thing (1972) features an early incarnation of what became one of his main working groups - the quintet with Steve Potts, Irene Aebie, Kent Carter, and Noel McGhie (it was a few years before Oliver Johnson took over the drum stool). “The Rush,” as its name suggests is surging, intense, and full-throttle blowing. “The Thing” begins less dense but is still abstract and lively as it builds into frenzy. The second part has clearer movements with sections for duos, solos, quiet movements, and collective improvisation.

Emanem have put together another really strong package. They have released some nice stuff lately... eventually I will get to writing a little about Cycles - another Lacy 2CD set they released this year (or was it 2016?), and there's more SME too. But for now, if you are a Lacy fan Free For a Minute is a fascinating listen. 

Friday, September 08, 2017

NZ Jazz: Mike Nock - Vicissitudes

Today kicks off a series of posts that will focus on jazz by New Zealand artists. There were a few motivating factors behind the series. I’ve enjoyed putting together the NZ Music Month posts over the last couple of years and wanted to build on them; reading (and re-reading) Jazz Aotearoa and Norman Meehan’s New Zealand Jazz Life; picking up a handful of albums when I was back home earlier in the year; and probably a touch of homesickness too. But perhaps the main driver was simply getting more familiar with the music and artists from back home.

It’s amazing how little emphasis was placed on jazz from NZ during my years at music school. It was rare to talk about NZ artists and records, and I only recall playing one composition by a Kiwi in three years of combo classes (there were some big band charts but no real emphasis there either).

Although I attended a lot of live music, I didn't buy many NZ albums …. and oddly, some that I did went missing along the way - C.L. Bob, Syzygy, Mark de Clive Lowe among others that I’m slowly re-acquiring. 15 years ago there was little interaction/collaboration between the scenes in various cities and I wasn’t very aware of what the NZ scene was beyond Wellington. It was rare to have musicians from Auckland playing in Wellington (and even rarer to hear musicians come up from the South Island). Thankfully, due to the work of the Creative Jazz Club in Auckland, and now the newly formed Wellington Jazz Cooperative, and OrangeStudios in Christchurch, it seems like things are changing.

I thought it was appropriate to start with something recent by the first jazz musician from New Zealand I was aware of - Mike Nock.

Mike Nock: Vicissitudes (Rattle Records)

New Zealand Jazz
I like the variety that comes with Mike Nock. He keeps the listener on their toes (ears?), as you never know what the next album will bring. This was very much the case with Vicissitudes - the 2016 album that pairs the Mike Nock trio [Nock (p/e.piano/synth) Brett Hirst (b) James Waples (d)] with the NZTrio [Justine Cormack (violin) Ashley Brown (cello) Sarah Watkins (piano)].

Four fairly brief collective improvisations open the album and I found myself starting the album over a number of times just to focus on those pieces. They have an improvised chamber music quality and are my favourites of the album (even if sometimes they seem a little unfinished). It gives the album a curious opening, and by default, they serve as a multi-part introduction to the six-part “Vicissitudes.”

I had to look up the definition of the title - a change in circumstances or alternation between opposite or contrasting things. Given that the work has origins in providing some solace to post-earthquake Christchurch, and it features the paring of jazz trio and classical trio, and improvised and composed music, it’s an appropriate choice.

Possibly due to the focus on composition and/or the addition of the string trio, I find the suite lacks some of the rhythmic vigour that I like in Mike’s music. My initial thought was that a “carefulness” dominated the playing, but now I’m more inclined to get a warmth and soft feeling coming through the piece. Although, there are still times when I catch myself waiting for things to take off and I have to remind myself it’s just not that type of work. The uplifting quality never smacks you in the face, but simmers just below the surface and I fell that makes things more interesting.

The use electric piano has yet to win me over. However, I find that the synth works pretty well, so I think it’s the tone of the electric piano rather than an aversion to the instrument itself….there’s something muted and soft that seems to disagree with me.

The album ends on a solo rendition of “El Testamen De Amelia” (which Nock recorded back in 1999 on The Waiting Game.. a fine duo record with Marty Ehrlich). And even though this track was recorded at an earlier session, it fits seamlessly into the flow of things and nicely rounds out the album. Vicissitudes, may not have totally hit the spot for me, but it has provided me with some fresh listening this past month, and that's always a positive.

Monday, September 04, 2017

In Conversation with Dave Liebman

David Liebman was featured in the October 11, 1973 issue of Down Beat. This is from right around the time he recorded Lookout Farm for ECM. Liebman has a vast discography and I find he overdoes the tribute album thing, so I tend to pick and choose what albums of his I purchase. As I was wrapping up this post I reached for his duo album with Marc Copland, Bookends (HatOlogy) and listened to "Blue In Green." They make a fine duo and this piece hit the spot - Copland has a warm touch and great sense of harmony, and Liebman displays his more mellow side.

And while we're on the subject of duos.... back in June I picked up The Fallout of Dreams (Rogue Art) from the Downtown Music Gallery. During August I finally got around to giving it a few listens. It features Liebman on soprano/tenor/flute/piano/drums alongside poet Steve Dalachinsky (with pianist Richie Beirach joining them on a couple of tracks). If you are interested in jazz/improvised music with spoken word, The Fallout of Dreams is definitely worth a close listen.

Click on the image to view PDF of the full article. More vintage magazine articles are available here.

Fallout of Dreams Steve Dalachinsky Jazz Poetry

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Straight Horning: David Liebman - The Tree

David Liebman: The Tree (Soul Note) 
Solo soprano saxophone, 1991

Solo saxophone recordingsAlthough Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner predates this album by a few years, The Tree was Liebman’s first truly solo outing. No overdubs, just solo soprano.

The concept album (along with the tribute album) is bit of a specialty of Liebman, and I think he over does it. The Tree features 12 improvisations (each in the 3-5 minutes range), with the components of a tree used as a conceptual framework for the improvising. Liebman moves from the “Roots,” to the “Trunk,” “Limbs,” “Branches,” “Twigs,” and “Leaves” and then back through the cycle in reverse.

As usual, tone is the first thing that grabs my ear. There’s plenty of buzz to the sound (in the middle register especially). It’s definitely something I associate with Liebman’s sound from this era, but it is particularly apparent on this recording. The conceptual framework of the album works, as the structure brings enough variety to keep things interesting, while Liebman’s trademark chromatic lines and fiery approach to the horn bring continuity to the work.

“Roots” - the less dense of the movements features wider intervals
“Trunk” - snaking lines increasing in boldness
“Limbs” - up-tempo lines moving to breaking point (with the occasional grunt or two)
“Branches” - more lyrical approach with a bit more breathing space, combines approaches of the previous three tracks and hints at things to come.
“Twigs” - airy sounds, trills, and flourishes intensify moving towards leaves.
“Leaves” - wailing altissimo and multiphonics (I think it was Ron McClure who coined the “pet store on fire” phrase when describing Lieb playing this way).

I can’t say Liebman is my favourite soprano player, but as a soprano saxophonist I do enjoy listening to him on the straight horn. It’s a case of enjoying hearing someone who can really play the instrument but not really connecting aesthetically.