Sunday, July 16, 2017

Some Weekend Listening - Duke & Mingus

This weekend I finally made the trek up to Bob's Blues and Jazz Mart. The store is fantastically chaotic. There's stuff everywhere and you feel like you're on a treasure hunt (I was enjoying browsing so much that it never occurred to me to snap a couple of photos). Bob was spinning Johnny Cash the whole time I was there (and answering the phone.... "Bob's Blues, Jazz and Johnny Cash Mart").
Charles Mingus Tijuana Moods The Clown

Although it was very tempting to splash out, I restricted myself to one album - Duke Ellington: Piano in the Foreground (Columbia). The 1961 date with Duke's rhythm section - Sam Woodyard (d) Aaron Bell (b) (Bell is replaced by Jimmy Woode on the bonus tracks recorded at a 1957 session) - features the trio playing some lesser-known originals (at least to me) along with a few standards.

The pace throughout is ballad to medium with nothing racing along but there is still plenty to keep the ears engaged. One thing that stood out was Duke's use of space, the pacing, and general economy of his playing. Of the six bonus tracks from the earlier session I found the two takes of "All the Things You Are" a little flowery but the four tracks "Piano Improvisation" (no. 1-4) kicked things along to round things out.

Aside from Money Jungle, I really wasn't familiar with any other Duke piano trio recordings. And due to the scarcity of his trio work it's worth while picking up....  actually "Summertime" is worth the price of admission alone and "Springtime in Africa" hits the spot on a quiet evening in.

Perhaps due to listening to Ellington put Charles Mingus on my mind, so I pulled out Tijuana Moods to be I was reminded I haven't listened to this album nearly enough. Compositionally it's interesting (which shouldn't come as a surprise) and the soloists are on form too. It seems Mingus had a knack for drawing out something a bit extra from those who played with him. Although I have the expanded edition with various takes etc, I concentrated on the 5 tracks that formed the original release.

During one of Hadi's heated solos it dawned on me that I am unaware of work outside of that with Mingus. I'm not sure I'll go seeking it out, but the realization made me a little curious. The same is true with Bobby Few. I know his playing alongside Steve Lacy, but other than that.... nothing. I may need to track down some of Few's albums.

While listening to "Tijuana Gift Shop" something reminded me of The Clown, so I gave that a spin too (just the title track which was recorded a few months before Tijuana Moods). The late 50s was a fertile time for Mingus (and it would continue into the 60s). Considering how much Mingus I have listened to (and enjoyed) over the past 18 years, I don't really feel that much has been absorbed into my own playing.... or if it has it's on a level that I'm unaware of.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Solid Fun: Gunter Hampel & Christian Weidner

I started listening to Christian Weidner shortly before meeting him in Greece during my 2009 travels. As I picked up his albums over the years since, I ran into a mention of Solid Fun - a duo with vibraphonist/bass clarinetist Gunter Hampel. I added it a few watch lists and kept an eye out for it in record stores (when I remembered). I finally ran across it (along with a couple more Lacy albums) in early June while browsing the Jazz Record Center. I was particularly curious about this release as it was recorded when he was about 19 years old, with 7 of the 8 tracks coming from a single concert in 1995 and the last piece is from a live performance the following year. There's almost ten years between this recording and his first date as a leader, the 2004 trio album Choral. 

Solid FunEarly Bird, Coltrane in the navy, Konitz with Claude Thornhill, Warne with the Canteen Kids etc....it's always fascinating hearing recordings of players earlier on in their development. What's similar, what's different, and would I pick them if I didn't know?

Although I consider myself pretty familiar with Weidner's recordings and quite confident in picking his playing, Solid Fun would have had me stumped. The tone is full but brighter, more conventional with a buoyant touch. The playing is busier - put it down to youthful energy - without the sense of space and pacing that I enjoy in his playing. There's an exuberant blues element that maybe somewhat overdone and I don't really hear in his playing these days.

There are a couple of spots that hint at his more mature sound - the way that he plays some notes, the phrasing and with that the tone I associate with him became more present (if just for a fleeting moment) - but even with repeated listening it is pretty well buried.

And I almost forgot to mention that in addition to alto, he plays tenor on a couple of tracks. It's not a horn I associate with him and although I had seen some live videos of Weidner on tenor with Kurt Rosenwinkel (I think), I do not remember them well enough to make any comparisons. I'm not sure if it's because I'm used to him on alto, but I feel that the smaller horn is a more natural voice for him.

While I don't place Solid Fun up there with his more mature works as a leader (or sideman), its been an enjoyable and fascinating listen. If there are other recordings between this and Choral I would be keen to give them a listen too.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

NZ Music Month: Root 70 - Luxury Habits

Root 70: Luxury Habits (nWog Records)
Nils Wogram (trb) Hayden Chisholm (as) Matt Penman (b) Jochen Rueckert (d)

The latest album from one of my favorite groups arrived in the mail last week. Luxury Habits is the 8th album by Root 70 (9th if you include Heaps Dub… but that’s a different thing really).
NZ Music Month New Zealand Jazz

As far as contemporary jazz groups (i.e. active during my time) go, Root 70 is one of the two that I have listened to the most (the other being the Connie Crothers Quartet). One similarity between the two is the long-standing relationships between the members. A difference is repertoire. Whereas the CCQT drew from a relatively small body of works and recorded the same pieces on multiple occasions, Root 70 record new pieces with each album. As usual Nils takes on the bulk of the composition duties. Jochen contributes one and it very much fits the vibe of the album.

After a few themed albums based on standards (On 52 ¼ St and Wise Men Can Be Wrong), blues (Listen to Your Woman), and an album with strings (Riomar), Luxury Habits recalls some of Root 70’s earlier releases and I couldn’t help thinking of their first three albums while listening this week. I didn’t make any side-by-side comparisons but I plan to. Initial impressions are that some of the youthful exuberance has refined over the years.

There’s still plenty of energy though and the balanced ensemble sound continues to be a highlight for me. It’s all the more impressive in that they don’t play together as a unit all that often (although Matt and Jochen play together a bit in other groups), but they only come together as Root 70 a couple of times a year  - in fact they just wrapped up a tour this week. Listening to Nils and Hayden makes me realize how underutilized the trombone/alto front-line pairing is. And I'm sure I've said it before but…. the combo of Matt and Jochen is one of my favorite rhythm section pairings - a great balance between the tradition and the now (plus the Root 70 albums always seem to capture Matt’s bass sound so nicely).

There’s plenty to digest and I’m looking forward to give Luxury Habits plenty more attention.

And that wraps up NZ Music Month for 2017. I the meantime, add to the NZ jazz listening list two releases due out in June on Rattle Records -  Reuben Bradley Trio's Shark Variations and Jim Langabeer's Secret Islands (it's rare these days that someone is under-recorded, but Jim definitely is!). And for those wanting more from Hayden, the second Slowfox album has just been released. 

You can read previous NZ Music Month posts here: C.L. Bob and Bleakley/Crayford/Donaldson and Lucien Johnson.
New Zealand Jazz

Friday, May 26, 2017

Miles Davis Blindfold Test

Down Beat split the Miles Davis "Blindfold Test" over two issues (June 13 &27, 1968) giving Miles plenty of room to share his opinions with Leonard Feather . Click on the image to view PDF of part 1 and part 2. More vintage magazine articles are available here.


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 expressive, yet thoughtful, 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.