Saturday, September 30, 2017

NZ Jazz: Space Case - Retrospective

Space Case - Retrospective (ALMA/CDMANU)

One of the things I like about this series is that it will lead me to albums I may normally pass by. I can’t say I’m much of a fusion fan, but if I skipped Space Case while undertaking this listening project I would be missing out on a significant group comprised of some the veterans of the New Zealand jazz scene - Murray McNabb (keyboards) Frank Gibson Jr. (d/perc) Kim Paterson (trpt/flugel) Brian Smith (ts/ss) Bruce Lynch (b). Andy Brown replaces Lynch after the first album. No doubt I will be encountering these names again (and again!) as the series continues. They weren't strangers to fusion - Brian Smith was a founding member of Ian Carr's group Nucleus, while Kim Paterson and Murray McNabb were part of the Frank Gibson Jr. led Dr. Tree (I plan to get to that eventually). Also, trumpeter Claudio Roditi bassist Ron McClure appear on two tracks on the second album.
Frank Gibson Jr Murray McNabb Brian Smith Kim Paterson Andy BrownThis 2-disc set combines Space Case One (1981), Space Case Two (1983), and Space Case Three (1985). The fusion of Space Case comes from the meeting of funk, latin, and jazz streams, with little in the way of the rock. It’s quite a clean, slick sound rather than some of the raw, exploratory examples from the beginnings of fusion. About half of the tunes are by McNabb and Smith with the rest from the other members of the group (although none from Paterson). The exception is the final track of the set - Wayne Shorter’s “Delores.” Production aesthetics aside, some of the tracks sound a bit dated ("Knight," "Funk City"), but I find this less of a problem on the more hardbop-esque pieces (such as “Paratutu,” “Beaver Fever,” “J.C.A,” “Number Two” etc.). Hanging with the album this month has caused a few of the tunes to stick in my mind and I‘ve caught myself singing "Recurring Dream," "Brothers," "Southern Excursion" and "Number Two" on a number of occasions.

I may been displaying my saxophone bias, but initially I felt Brian Smith was the standout soloist (“Knight,” “Boat People,” “Paratutu”). His soprano tone is a bit nasal on the first album but it fills out later on, with the tone on "Beaver Fever" being a more pleasing to my tastes. The nasal quality is something I hear in many soprano tones from this period (and earlier in the 70s) - I'm not sure how much this was to do with conception, if it was a by-product of the recording process, or a combination of both. 

Kim Paterson has some nice moments too - lyrical at times, more fiery at others. I particularly enjoyed his flugel playing in duo with Gibson on “Delores,” his fleetness on "Albert," and the fire on "Southern Excursion" (all from the final album). Side note: Brian Smith recorded the album Southern Excursion around that same time. I'm not sure if it has been reissued but I’ve added it to the list.

I had heard a bit about Murray McNabb but wasn't very familiar with his work. I found his playing as a soloist somewhat underwhelming, lacking the assertiveness of his bandmates. I dug his sneaky "Miles"/Milestones" quote during Paterson's solo on “Paratutu.” A few years later “Recurring Dream” would reappear on Song for the Dream Weaver, McNabb’s trio album with Ron McLure and Adam Nussbaum, and I'm interested to hear how he fares in that setting (I will get to it eventually).    

Frank Gibson’s playing is creative, high energy and on the money throughout the set. It’s that busy approach common in fusion that I don’t really care for, but he does it really well. In fact, from an instrumental standpoint, Gibson is the dominant voice on these three albums. As this series progresses I will be hearing a lot more of the Gibson-Andy Brown pairing.

Although I had watched a video on youtube of Space Case performing on "Nock on Jazz," I was expecting things to be a bit more fusion-y than they ended up being. And while many jazz projects can be short lived or one-offs, it's nice to hear the same group (pretty much) develop over three albums. I would put down Space Case 1 as the most fusion-y. Space Case 2 straddles the first and third albums and in 1983 it was a finalist for jazz album of the year - they lost out to Rodger Fox (I'm currently compiling a list of the winners and finalists - stay tuned for more). Space Case 3 is less fusion-y than the previous two albums. Could this be a reflection of the "Young Lions" thing that was happening in the 80s with acoustic jazz becoming fashionable again?

It’s great that these albums have been reissued but it would have been even better had they included facsimiles of the original covers and notes too. Now someone needs to put together Fourth Way and Sustenance retrospectives ASAP!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Mike Nock - Pacific Way feature, 1993

Recently I’ve have been listening to a couple of Mike Nock albums - Vicissitudes from 2016 (which I picked up while I was back in New Zealand) and Climbing from 1979. Climbing was recorded during a fertile time for Nock - In, Out and Around (1978), Talisman (1979), Ondas (1981), although I don’t rate it as highly as those… plus there’s Magic Mansions and Succubus from which I’ve only heard the odd track or two on youtube - all very different albums. But variety is something I associate with Mike. More recently there’s the 2014 Suite SIMA (octet), Two-Out (duo playing standards) and Beginning and End of Knowing (duo playing free improvisations) from 2015, and now the trio plus string trio of Vicissitudes (that I wrote about earlier this month).

Those of you who took a trip on Air New Zealand during November 1993 may have stumbled upon this article as you perused the airline’s Pacific Way magazine. More vintage magazine articles can be found here.
New Zealand Jazz

Monday, September 25, 2017

Straight Horning: John Coltrane - 1961 Village Vanguard

soprano saxophone
This week I had been listening to some Sam Newsome and an album of his was planned for this post. Then, as it was Coltrane’s 91st birthday yesterday, I decided to get out of the apartment and listen to some Coltrane and make that the subject of today’s post. It was all going to plan until I placed the disc into the computer and my CD player decided to stop working (I tried the old faithful “turn it off and back on” to not avail). So there was no Coltrane on soprano yesterday - but there is today.  

I came to the Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings around mid-1999, and it’s a recording I can clearly remember listening to for the first time (the library strikes again!). It was a period when I was listening to a lot of Eric Dolphy, that’s what led me to it, and that was where my focus was directed. But today it’s the straight horn that has my attention.

If you are interested in Coltrane but haven't got around to these recordings, you are missing out. 
It's an early incarnation of the "Classic" quartet with Reggie Workman on bass. But Jimmy Garrison is there also (and would soon take over the bass spot), plus there's the addition of Eric Dolphy (as/ along with Ahmed Abdul-Malik (tanpura) and Garvin Bushell (cor anglais and contrabassoon) - although the latter two only appear on a couple of tracks each, they add a different color to the ensemble sound. [side note: in addition to this recording with Coltrane, Bushell looks to have recorded with a range of artists including Mamie Smith, Gil Evans, Jelly Roll Morton, Chick Webb, Slim Gaillarrd and more.]

Usually when it comes to Coltrane, it’s just a few tracks here and there - rarely an entire album. The last time I pulled out this set was to listen to the 3 versions of “Chasin’ the Trane,” and before that it was a handful of the soprano tracks. Today, I listened to more than my normal fill of Coltrane in a single seating - all of the soprano tracks, and make up half of the 22 tracks in the box set:
Disc One: “India” and “Spiritual”
Disc Two: “India,” “Spiritual” and “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise”
Disc Three: “Greensleeves” and “Spiritual”
Disc Four: “India,” “Greensleeves,” “India” and “Spiritual”

If only there were soprano versions of “Chasin’ the Trane” and/or “Impressions” from this gig, but he seemed pretty set on using certain horns for certain tunes. On all but the first version of “Spiritual” he plays the opening theme and first solo on tenor, then switches to soprano to solo again and take the song out. Maybe one day I’ll spent some time hanging with “Spiritual” for some tenor/soprano contrasts and comparisons.

Recorded more than a year after My Favourite Things and his first studio session on soprano, The Avant Garde, he’s more confident on soprano on the Vanguard recordings and (almost) pushes it to breaking point. “Greensleeves” seems pretty tame when listening to the versions of “India” from either side of it on disc four. And maybe it's “India” that opens disc four that is my favourite of the soprano tracks from this collection. The jury is still out because I haven’t heard his entire soprano output, but so far I would pick “Chim Chim Cheree” from The John Coltrane Quartet Plays as my favourite Coltrane on soprano with the Vanguard recordings running a close second. Although, I’m not sure that it is based solely on his soprano playing - the live energy, and a slightly unpolished quality of the Vanguard performances are also contributing factors.

I definitely prefer Coltrane in small doses, but I’m open to recommendations, in particular recordings that feature his soprano playing. I’ll get to Sam Newsome next week, and in the meantime .....I hope he doesn't mind being bumped by Coltrane.

Monday, September 18, 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.

Monday, September 11, 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. 

Saturday, September 09, 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.