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.