Friday, June 29, 2018

NZ Jazz: Lucien Johnson + 5 - West of the Sun


Lucien Johnson + 5: West of the Sun 

Johnson (ts) Lex French (trpt) Nick Van Dijk (trb) Jonathan Crayford (p) Tom Callwood (b) Chris O'Connor (d) 2016
New Zealand Jazz
I still find it tricky writing about recordings when I know many of the individual's involved (whether they be teachers, colleagues, friends... or all of the above as is the case here). As a result, this post almost got put on hold - but here it is!

I've known Lucien almost 20 years. When I started music school it was immediately clear that he was one of the better musician's around (and he knew what that place was about). I remember being blown away hearing him play Warne Marsh's solo on “All The Things You Are” (from the Copenhagen trio recordings) and his and arrangements and compositions were always interesting. He spoke his mind (and ruffled some feathers) but I always found him approachable and a great source for listening suggestions (it was Lucien who encouraged me to check out Steve Lacy).

Although Lucien hasn't recorded a ton, there is plenty of variety in his output - The Night's Plutonian Shore, Stinging Nettles, Captain Blood (I haven't heard the latter in ages) are all very different. So was it a surprise to see his latest recording change things up again and feature three horns and rhythm section playing six original compositions? Not really, but it didn't disappoint either. The opening track, “Clarion Call,” set the mood for the album and grabbed my attention. West of the Sun appears upbeat on the surface, but a darkness also is present, a combination that drew me in from the beginning. 

As with Jim Langabeer's Secret Islands, I found Lucien's choice of personnel was really on point. The sextet is comprised of players that I've heard live quite a bit and they meld together here to form a very cohesive unit. Chris O'Connor has long been one of my favourite drummers on the NZ scene and he doesn't disappoint. He gets a little room to move on the closing track, “Zapata,” but other than that, he's quite understated. However, the taste and groove is always there. Supportive and creative – it's hard to ask for more than that. 

It would have been nice to hear a little more from Nick Van Dijk as his playing mines deep and captures the essence of “Asturias.” His solo features a reaching lyricism, not a quality I hear all that often but one that I find very appealing. There have been many occasions this past month when I have looped this solo. I'd love to hear Nick get oppourtunities to be able to stretch out in this manner more often.

Lex French's tone and playing during the obbligato over the tenor and trombone on “El Cid” fits the vibe of the piece to a tee. His solo work is strong across the album and I enjoy the contrast between the tenor and trumpet in terms of color and feel. Both play some slinky lines but Lucien tends to be a bit more laid back and perhaps Lex is a little more notey. 

Sometimes I find Tom Callwood's tone is a little ampy but I enjoy his playing. “Asturias” opens with Joe strumming solo bass and he does a fine job of setting the mood. His accompaniment during Jonathan Crayford's solo on the title track hits the spot. The piano solo itself is very tasty and a study in not overstating things. Fans of jazz in New Zealand need no introduction to Crayford and it will come as no surprise that his playing is top-notch. I know he was an important part in Lucien's development so it's nice hearing them recording together. His playing here was a reminder how much I need to give a listen to his two trio albums on Rattle (more to add to the list!).

Lucien's woody, dark tone with some buzz and ring to the edges really slots into the overall vibe of the album. His solos are strong throughout as he creates weaving lines with some nice bolder melodic interjections that grab your ear. The title track (with its stripped down line-up sans trumpet and trombone) features a very mature solo that flows on very nicely from Crayford's solo. It's expressive ballad playing with no need for lots of flash – he cuts things back to the bone. The “lazy” opening phrase of his solo on “El Cid” puts a smile on my face, and it leads into a well-paced solo. His writing is also very strong and he utilizes the instrumentation to bring a depth of sound to the ensemble passages without weighing things down. It's been refreshing listening to a three-horn front line. They get a nice blend and the shout chorus between the tenor and piano solos “Light Shaft” is a very nice touch.

I was pleased to see West of the Sun amongst the finalists for Jazz Album of the Year. In my book, the LP length is a bonus as it's a great length for listening and remaining focussed. So head over to Bandcamp and pick up a copy. If Lucien has any vinyl left I might have to grab one next time I see him.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Straight Horning: Bruce Ackley Trio - The Hearing

Bruce Ackley Trio: The Hearing (Avant)

Ackley (ss) Greg Cohen (b) Joey Baron (d) 

Bruce Ackley has very much flown under my radar. Outside of the little I've heard from ROVA, this is the first album I've heard from Ackley. And after a little digging around this appears to be his only release as a leader (are there others?). I may be late to the party, but thankfully The Hearing has been getting plenty of airtime since picking it up back in May. 

Soprano Saxophone Jazz
The album was produced by John Zorn who, not for the first time, enlisted Greg Cohen (b) and Joey Baron (d) – a Zorn house rhythm section of sorts perhaps. A couple of other Zorn produced discs in my library featuring this pairing include Misha Mengelberg's No Idea and Lee Konitz's Some New Stuff and then there's Masada (I'm sure there are others too). It's a really solid pairing – swinging, creative, supportive, interactive and flexible. You can't ask for too much more really. It's a testament to their ability that the album locks right into place – I wouldn't have picked that they hadn't played with Ackley before.
Soloistically sometimes Baron is a little bombastic for me... but it's only a minor complaint and in some ways it matches Ackley's spark - and it's not out of place on pieces like “Serf Music.” Cohen's double stops on “Clear Blue Sky” grabbed my attention. He doesn't overdo it - a couple times during melody and one phrase during his solo – plus he plays very nice walking lines and melodic solo too.

The exuberance of “Out of the Box” brought Monk to mind - when I read then liner notes (I always give the album a listen first) it mentioned Herbie Nichols was the inspiration. “1, 2 and Radical 3” has a mysterious vibe. Baron shows he is much more than bombastic with lots of subtle changes behind the more dominant bass and soprano. Solo following the melody features lots of shorts phrases, pecking and jabs and some flurries, register leaps, and melodic variation. The head of the energetic blues, “Juggernaut,” has pointed feel due to Ackley's clipped articulation. But things smooth out a bit during the blowing but the energy remains throughout. I liked Baron's shift in sound/texture as he accompanies Cohen's solo before employing some trademark Baron power during the trades. Mr Mood” is a bit more reflective/introspective. There's almost a stream of conscience type thing going on, with ideas, direction and colors changing phrase to phrase yet somehow it all ties together and is very much in fitting with the melody. I couldn't help thinking of Wayne Shorter. There's plenty of interaction between the trio and at a push it could be my favourite track on the album. On the full-throttle, busy, up-tempo burn of “JT”, Ackley moves into the outer regions via the upper range. There two sides to “Syndrome”, a buoyant march that opens the work and then a more outwardly reflective (yet still inwardly driving) for the rest of the piece. I expected that they would reprise the march at the end but they don't and it really wasn't necessary. “Serf Music” features Ackley utilizing a chanter-like effect over arco bass and drums (playing a quasi-surf feel at times... Or is that the tunes title playing on my mind?). The chanter effect contorts and distorts with the addition of multiphonics and altissimo as the piece progresses. Cohen's intense arco playing really sets up the vibe of “Actual Size”, and locks in with Baron's dry cymbal for some swinging bass lines while Ackley generates an exploratory feel while still maintaining the swing. Rounding out the album is the mid-tempo “Ivan's Bell” features an angular melody that is still somewhat lyrical, and the melodicism remains for Ackley's solo. 

Ackley is definitely coming from the Lacy realm but expresses his own personality from within that sphere. He has a full-bodied, solid, robust, flexible, bold, pure soprano sound. There's evenness across the range and a he finds a nice combination of darkness/spread and focus. Ackley plays with plenty of energy and spark (slightly manic quality at times, but appealingly so). There is a probing quality to his playing that really enjoy. I think some of it is due to his time feel and busyness of his playing - he can be quite notey at times. One word that always came to mind as I listened to this was “exploratory” - like Lacy, Ackley is an explorer. 

Fellow soprano saxophone enthusiasts/fanatics, do yourself a favor and dig into The Hearing.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Recent listening: Some Ornette and Bley

Experiencing Ornette ColemanNew Zealand Music Month had me listening to a lot of jazz from back home, although towards the end of the month I started listening to selected tracks from a bunch of Ornette Coleman albums. I've been working on the melodies of "Jayne" from Something Else!!!! and "Humpty Dumpty" from This is Our Music. "What Reason" from both of the Sound Museum albums has been getting airtime (both of these albums deserve more of my attention). Ornette on Tenor is the Atlantic album that I have listened to the least, so that has been played a few times over the past week. The hook-up between Jimmy Garrison and Ed Blackwell is superb and it made me want to hear more Garrison with Ornette - coming in the form of New York is Now! (I don't have Love Call...yet). Also tickling my fancy of late has been some Paul Bley - a player never out of rotation for very long. This time round it's been a smattering of tracks from Paul Plays Carla and the Complete Savoy Sessions 1962-63. Not pictured are Song X and Tone Dialing which is where this little blast of Ornette began after I caught myself singing "Kathleen Gray" couple of times and decided to learn it. Accompanying on the train ride to work has been Michael Stephan's Experiencing Ornette Coleman. It's a pretty easy read, not a lot of new information, but it's interesting to read another take on Ornette. I'd be interested in reading Stephen Rush's Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman. And as it turns out, it's at the public library too, so that will likely be next on the list.