Monday, June 30, 2014

Recent Listening: John Surman

John Surman is a player I have been meaning to check out for a while now. I’m not only interested in his soprano work but also the fact that his music crosses from the jazz realm into the “what do you call this?” abyss.

The Spaces In Between (ECM) – Surman (soprano/baritone sax, bass clarinet) and Chris Laurence (bass) joined by the string quartet of Patrick Kiernan, Rita Manning (violin) Bill Hawkes (viola) and Nick Cooper (cello). Very melodic playing at times blurs the line between improvisations and composed material. Overall the feel is unhurried, melodic and somewhat introspective. There’s almost a suite-like feel to the album with the pieces flowing together well – just as I felt it was getting a bit bogged down things picked up again. It was fun trying to pick which instrument Surman would play on each track as I listened to the introductions. Recorded in 2006 at the St. Gerold monastery in Austria, which I believe is where the Bley/Phillips/Parker album Sankt Gerold was recorded (also on ECM).

In The Evenings Out There (ECM) This one is usually listed under the leadership of pianist Paul Bley but the other musicians – John Surman (baritone/bass clarinet) Gary Peacock (b) and Tony Oxley (d) – share credit on the album spine.
The album mixes things up over the 12 tracks with solo (4 by Bley, 2 by Peacock, 1 by Surman on Baritone), duo (Peacock/Oxley, Bley/Peacock, Oxley/Bley) and 2 quartet performances (Surman on baritone and bass clarinet). The recording has a very open feel, there’s plenty of space for the musicians to play, listen and react – free and melodic. As usual when I hear Bley I wonder why I don’t listen to more from him. It would have been nice to hear a bit more from Surman. Apparently the pieces here were recorded at the session in 1991 that resulted in Adventure Playground that was released under Surman’s name – I’ll have to check that.

Fragments (ECM) 
Another from Bley, is time with Bill Frisell (g) and Paul Motian (d) joining Surman (4 tracks on Bass Clarinet 2 each on Baritone and soprano and sits one track out). Of the nine tracks, there were a few that I had heard before (Frisell’s “Monica Jane” Carla Bley’s “Seven” and “Closer” and Annette Peacock’s “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”). Quite a mellow set with Surman’s “Line Down” being the odd-one-out, but it does provide some contrast. Strong individual voices yet the quartet come together and work well.

The Biography of Rev. Absalom Dawe (ECM 1994)
This is the first solo album I’ve heard from Surman – he has recorded a few dating back to the late 1970s. The horns (baritone & soprano sax, bass clarinet, some alto clarinet too) get a pretty even spread across the album. Most of the tracks utilize some form multi-tracking with Surman accompanying himself on one or more horns or synth, although there is space for unaccompanied playing. Overall this one didn’t grab me as much as the discs with Bley, but there was still plenty to like (I could take or leave the synth parts). I feel like I’ll warm up to it – the second listen was better than the first. ”The Far Corner’s” did give me a chance to hear his soprano tone on its lonesome (aside from the ever-present ECM reverb).



Under the leadership of Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem comes Thimar (ECM, 1997) with John Surman (soprano sax/bass clarinet) and Dave Holland (bass).
The album has an unhurried feel to it. The occasional (and very subtle) vocal from Brahem (on “Qurb” for example) adds a little extra of color to the fairly stripped-back feel of the album. Surman divides his time pretty evenly between two horns – four on bass clarinet and five of soprano (including an unaccompanied feature on “Wagt”) and he sits two tunes out. It would have been nice to hear him play some baritone too. At times his soprano summons an “eastern flavor” – not surprising considering the material. There is one composition each from Holland and Surman – the remaining nine are from Brahem.

Surman gets a rich tone on both baritone and bass clarinet and there’s a buzz to his soprano tone that I enjoy. He’s a melodic player with a sense on drama. Not someone I hear mentioned all too often but well worth checking out. I’m looking forward to exploring some more – perhaps some of his earlier work and the other session with Bley/Oxley/Peacock.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Moers Festival: Not Fast Enough

Earlier in the week I listened to this captivating set of music from a quartet led by pianist Julia Hulsmann at this years Moers Festival (with excellent audio and video to boot).
Julia Hulsmann Theo Bleckmann Hayden Chisholm
Not Fast Enough - photo courtesy of the Moers Festival website
The quartet, name Not Fast Enough, showcases work by Emily Dickenson, Margaret Atwood and Walt Wittman set to music by Hulsmann. I have no knowledge how much (or if) this group (with Theo Bleckmann voice/electronics, Hayden Chisholm alto sax and Moritz Baumgartner drums) have worked together much but they have a fine ensemble sound – well balanced in terms of sharing the load. Bleckmann’s use of electronics is creative without being over the top - check out the stretch at 29:45-30:45 on Margaret Atwood’s “Faster.” I enjoy Hayden's tonal flexibility, he's so expressive and full of subtlety. A sound that is breathy and round and at times there is some edge to his tone - maybe more than in the past (could be the recording too). His solo on Dickenson’s “I Think The Root Of Wind Is Water” is a gem (The tune starts at 16.58 and Hayden’s solo starts at 21:30). His playing throughout is a pleasure to listen to - be sure to check him out.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee

Ran Blake & Jeanne LeeFree Standards: Stockholm 1966 (Fresh Sound)
Earlier this year I picked up Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano and soon after, Free Standards. My introduction to Blake’s work came via recordings from the 1980s and 90s.

Clocking in at 73 minutes, the album is comprised of 25 previously unreleased tracks including Blake originals (“Vanguard,” “Galziation”), standards (“Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Ja-Da,” “I’ll Remember April”), bossa-nova (“Corcovado,” “Desafinado”), a couple from The Beatles (“Ticket To Ride” & “A Hard Day’s Night”) and originals from the session’s producer, Kjell Samuelson (all of which Blake plays solo). Lee is present on 10 of the tracks with Blake taking the rest on solo.

Even early on Blake’s sound is quite striking, percussive, dark and brooding, crystal-like clarity, utilizing a wide range of dynamics and the entire span of the keyboard. I enjoy the blend he and Lee achieve and the duo presents plenty of surprises for the listeners. I haven’t heard much from Lee (Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill being the only thing I can recall). I found her inventive approach to the melodies along with her tone very listenable. For those interested in hearing a piano/vocal duo take tunes to a different place, this pairing could be you your alley. I must check out their first album together.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Lee Konitz: An Image

Lee Konitz with Strings: An Image (reissued on Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre)

Last semester I took a class about “West Coast/Cool/Third Stream.“ The class led me to revisit this album recorded back in 1958. Although there are a few standards (“Round Midnight,” “I Got It Bad” and “What’s New”) on the album they don’t fall into the cheesy “jazz with strings” category, there is the three-part “Music For Alto Saxophone and Strings” (this does incorporate the rhythm section) and the seven-part “An Image Of Man” (just Konitz and strings – including Billy Bauer). The album has quite a sparse feel, openness to it... uncluttered. Bill Russo’s writing throughout keeps things interesting and Lee sounds great on it - I’d forgotten how great... very lyrical and the recording captures his tone wonderfully. The Russo/Konitz combination is a good one  - they both have plenty of common ground. Aside from both being students of Tristano, when the two were with Kenton they used to hang out listening to string quartets from Bartok, Debussy and Ravel. This album made a big impact on me when I first heard it (around 1999/2000) – it had been ages since I listened to it and I’m glad I got back into it.

While I’m on the subject of Konitz, a few of his album featured in the “The Top 50 Alto Sax Recordings of All Time” from Jazz Times (June) with Motion, Live at The Half Note, Subconscious-Lee making the list. Konitz was also singled out by Phil Woods (Jazz Nocturne), Jaleel Shaw & Miguel Zenon (Motion), Grace Kelly (Live at Half Note) and JayBeckenstein (The Lee Konitz Duets) in their lists of favourite alto sax albums.

There was no place for Konitz in Down Beat’s “80 Coolest Things In Jazz Today”... not even in the “Living Masters” category.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Workshops and Masterclasses

I came across a list of workshops and masterclass I have attended over the years. Most of these took place at NZSM. It is not a complete list but I decided to add a few brief notes from what I can remember from them.

Evan Parker Steve Lacy
These two were separately involved in the 1999 Wellington Jazz Festival (the masterclasses were at The Space). At the time I knew very little of both artists (I had heard a couple of recordings of Lacy (Reflections and Evidence from memory) and something by Parker) and at first was a little disappointed neither played but soon found what they had to say was very interesting - I have no idea if these sessions were recorded but I would love to hear what they had to say now that I'm more familiar with their work. I enjoyed their concerts too - Parker's second set (a duo with Richard Nunns) was later released on Leo Records.

Mike Nock - I wrote a little on this one here.

Bernie McGann Trio (2000) He spoke very highly of Art Pepper (particularly the album Meets The Rhythm Section) but I don't remember much else from this session. The trio played a tune or two and there was some Q&A.

Frank Gratkowski (August 2009)When I attended music village an added bonus was the presence of Frank Gratkowski. One afternoon Hayden Chisholm handed the baton to Frank for a session. Frank spoke of his experiences in music, aesthetics, music he listens too, work he has done, played recordings etc - fascinating stuff. Here’s a short feature on Frank that Hayden produced & filmed in the village square of Agios Lavrentios.

The Thing (Mats Gustaffson, Paal Nilson-Love, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten) This one was hands-on practical and very inclusive. The trio had everyone up playing as part of an improvising ensemble. We moved around the circle playing solo improvisations, duos, trios and eventually everyone all in. The emphasis was on making music. A fun session.

Root 70 (Nils Wogram, Hayden Chisholm, Matt Penman, Jochen Rueckert)(2007) Another very hands-on session. There was an emphasis developing a balanced ensemble sound (something Root 70 definitely achieve). At one stage there were about eight horns playing background riffs behind a bass solo (on a blues). The message - if you cannot hear the bass you're playing too loud. We also had a crack at playing trades on one of Root 70's odd-meter tunes. Hayden invited 5 or 6 sax players to get together before the sound check the following day for an extra session. Here he introduced ideas that I would explore further during his annual workshop in Greece.

Steve Coleman (circa Sept 2009) This was part of Coleman's ongoing series in NYC at the Jazz Gallery. Not surprisingly rhythm was at the fore - lots of clapping. A few people played - trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, a pianist and a guitarist. Coleman played a rhythmically altered “All The Things You Are” unaccompanied and sounded very nice. It was an interesting session but I felt well out of my depth! These sessions are well worth attending but only going to one (as I did) is probably not recommended. 

Dave Douglas (2002) Talked about busking on the streets of NYC and a little about his time with Horace Silver. Silver stressed to him the importance of voice leading, which Douglas demonstrated playing over a II-V-I progression, gradually adding to the complexity of the line while retaining the same 7-3 voice leading between chords. Another topic covered was using a metronome. He demonstrated by playing “All The Things You Are” with the metronome clicking in different places, such as every 5th beat and on up-beats.

Adam Simmons(circa 2003) One of the only things I remember from this was him singing the praises of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Vinny Golia - On the subject of his large ensemble, I remember him saying that many of the members were involved in contemporary classical/new music fields and he felt they were better suited to the demands of the written music as well as improvising in his large ensemble. And that many jazz players were boxed-in stylistically and it didn't fit with the group.
He told a great story from when he was into the music but not yet playing (he was a visual artist before becoming a musician and some of his work was featured on album covers - Dave Holland/Barre Phillips Music from Two Basses for example). One day he was walking (somewhere in NYC) when he heard a saxophonist practicing. Liking what he heard, he stood outside the apartment and listened to them going about there work. After awhile, the music stopped and out walked Archie Shepp. He came straight over to Golia and asked “Are you a saxophone player?” (Thinking Vinny was outside trying to steal his chops!), Golia replied “No, I’m a painter,” and Shepp was cool with that.
I must admit, there have been a couple of times when I've been walking around the city and stopped outside an apartment to listen to someone practicing.

Jon Gordon - I don’t remember much from the masterclass itself (scales in all intervals, II-V’s). However, following the masterclass I spoke with a few of the sax students at NZSM. The previous day they had private lessons with him and he had covered the same stuff in both - they were not impressed. Lesson learned - try and get your lesson with a visiting artist after the masterclass!

Gordon Brisker came through school twice a few years apart (early 2000s). Each time he handed out and ran through the same handout. I keep it but it is back in NZ - from memory it included some sound work, a scale routine and II-V-I licks.


Mike Brignola - Usually I try and take something positive away from masterclasses etc. In this case it was very hard to do. If there was one, it was that he mentioned/demonstrated overtones. The session ended with people sight-reading saxophone quartet charts. It didn’t seem as though there was much preparation.

Bob Mintzer - I've been to a couple from Mintzer (both in the late 2000s)
Composition/Arranging - he put across a simple message. When he was young, there was very little in the way on books etc. Play something and if you like it, write in down. If you don't like it, change it. That, and ask people questions - he said they (jazz greats and more experienced players) never really answered the question he asked but he learned something regardless.

Saxophone - making up your own little melodic ideas and playing them through all keys. It could be based on something you have transcribed or adapted from a classical ├ętude - he recommended Eugene Bozza “Caprices” and Sigfrid Karg-Elert studies. He demonstrated something he took and adapted from Michael Brecker There's an article on his blog that deals with the subject. A more detailed article is online somewhere but after a quick search I couldn't find it - it could have be in JazzEd Magazine.

Pat Crumly (2001) He was leading the Ronnie Scott legacy band tour of New Zealand. Aside from him recommending you fry your spices when making a curry(!) I don't really remember the workshop. The first notes he played as a warm up for the concert was the "CMAR lick." This was a lick we had to learn for our improvisation class (along with a bunch of other stuff from Jerry Coker's Elements of Jazz). I was sitting with a few saxophone playing friends and we all cracked up - our teacher turned around smiling and gave us the thumbs up (Hi Colin!).

I have managed to get along to a few of the masterclasses held at PM Woodwind, the first being Ernie Watts. This was on before I re-launched the blog. It struck me when he said something along the lines of (I'm paraphrasing) - If you know all the scales that go with all the chords you can't play a wrong note - I don't know what to say about that…. I guess it's one way to look at things. Someone has posted video of the masterclass here.
I wrote about some of the other masterclass held at PM Woodwind -  Bob Shepard (Here) and David Liebman (Here) and Chris Potter (Here). I also got along to Jeff Coffin's masterclass but I either didn't take notes or I have misplaced them.