Friday, 25 January 2008

Aki Takase and Rudi Mahall...

After the Max Nagl posting, I've been on a bit of a German New Jazz retro-trip this week. Of course Nagl is not German, and his Viennese chamber-jazz mannerisms are all a long way from the FMP sound, but a loose association is probably enough. Manfred Schoof, Hans Koller, Bernd Konrad, Peter Brötzmann, Günter Sommer, and even the sometimes barely musical flatulence of the great Albert Mangelsdorff have all been listened to recently. Alexander von Schlippenbach is another name I cold reel off, but let's face it, that isn't a very easy name to reel off without a fair bit of practice.

Schlippenbach comes to Tyneside in March as part of a quartet led by AMM drummer Eddie Prévost. No prizes for guessing I'll be there, and a bit like the Keith Tippett gig last Autumn, I'm already on a bit of a mental countdown waiting for it to happen.

As it happens I've just finished reviewing a CD by Brötz, but as it hasn't yet been published by the magazine it would be pretty bad etiquette to post it here now. We'll just have to settle for a lukewarm review of an old CD by Rudi Mahall and Aki Takase. There's a Berlin connection, and also a Schlipppenbach connection. I'll see what I can do to keep the theme going...

The Dessert
LEO (LR 370)

Head In, Head Out; Apple Cake; With Egg; Panna Cotta; Ear In, Ear Out; Purity And Sweetness; Another Sausage Roll; Creme Au Caramel; Granatapfelsirup; Voskresenie; Raskaz; Black Puddding 2; Pirodjok; Anekdots 1 to 4.

Rudi Mahall (bcl, cbcl); Aki Takase (p).
Recorded December 2002.

Takase and Mahall belong to that faction of the Berlin free music community that is rooted in jazz rather than non-idiomatic improvisation. An earlier outing by the duo for Enja Records paid homage to Eric Dolphy, whilst this offering consolidates and refines their close rapport as they pay homage to, the dessert!

Admiring Ellington and Monk in particular, Takase remains open to external influences such as serialism and the aforementioned free improvisation scene. Rather like her partner Alexander von Schlippenbach, her broad sweeps can mistakenly lead inattentive listeners to mark her as an acolyte of Cecil Taylor (who belongs to an altogether more distant orbit). Mahall extends Dolphy’s legacy with a harsh an abrasive sound that is now unmistakably his own, pushing the music to further extremes than Takase’s recorded collaboration with David Murray.

Most of the desserts dished up here are decidedly bittersweet - appealingly playful melodies violently writhed apart in a relentless forward surge. ‘Panna Cotta’ is one of the few desserts they linger to savour, the others being given something of a fast taste treatment. Interestingly, the four free-improvisations (or ‘Anekdots’) at the end of this disc cohere in a manner rarely found in the genre, perhaps the result of the harmonic and composerly basis of the duo’s approach to music making.

A good duo is always the most intimate form of musical dialogue, and Takase-Mahall move convincingly from passages of chamber-esque poise into realms of pointillistic violence without ever losing their connecting thread, My big reservation is that the material is too unvariegated, initial delight soon giving way to feelings of nauseous indigestion if it’s all listened to in one sitting. A rich dessert best consumed in small portions, but none the worse for that.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, June 2003)

Friday, 18 January 2008

Max Nagl with Bernstein, Akchotè and Jones

I've been listening to a lot of hatART releases lately - mainly Ellery Eskelin, but a fair bit of Dave Liebman too - and it set me wondering why I never seem to get anything from the label to review. This is the only one I could find, and whilst it's pretty decent I wouldn't call it a classic.

I remember once seeing Akchotè playing in a record shop in New York. Crouched at one end of the room he played some pretty far out solo guitar music, nothing like the tightly regimented music demands of him here. This is one of those dry takes on old jazz that everybody from Mike Westbrook and Franz Koglmann to The Vienna Art Orchestra seem to have recorded for Werner X Uerhilinger's iconic imprint.

Worth a listen if you can still find it, and with so much of today's music increasingly uninspiring I'd almost be enthusiastic to hear the more recent live CD by the same group. Almost...

MAX NAGL with Steven Bernstein, Nôel Akchotè and Brad Jones
Big Four
hatOLOGY (585)

Big Four; Teahouse Tango; Cats And Dogs; Long River; Mona; Dwarf; Reader Advisor; Lullaby; Squeeze Me; Horseradish; Muggles 2000; New Viper Dance; Lullaby Remix.

Steven Bernstein (t); Max Nagl (as); Nôel Akchotè (g); Bradley Jones (b).
Recorded December 2001

A few years ago, this new disc by Austrian saxophonist Max Nagl would have been given the tag ‘PoMo’ for its bold take on tradition. In truth it is really an extension of the post-Giuffre chamber jazz that hatHUT records have long been identified with. Think of Franz Koglmann’s A White Line and you’ll know the terrain we’re in. What is intriguing about this particular group is the way in which such potentially conflicting voices bend towards the greater need for a disciplined group sound.

The project is a contemporary take on the music recorded in Paris in 1940 by Sidney Bechet’s Big Four. Bernstein (playing conventional rather than slide trumpet) plays Muggsy Spanier without either parody or loss of identity, the already earthy declamatory style heard in Sex Mob being perfectly suited to the challenge. Nagl’s own Dolphy-esque sound is given free rein throughout, and only occasionally does the music sound a little too self-consciously retro.

There are far more rough edges than in the more austere music of Koglmann, largely due to the impressive Brad Jones, whose authoritative bass stretches time and harmony at will, and is the music’s pulse. Akchotè’s chameleon-like career covers many bases, but his role here is the most shocking I’ve heard so far simply by because it is so conventional. He plays in a fluent post-Jim Hall style, only occasionally throwing in a few shards of noise to add tension and remind us that this is new music.

Two titles survive from the original Big Four’s small recorded legacy (‘Lazy River’ and ‘Squeeze Me’), but it is fair to say that the spirit is maintained in the remaining Nagl and Bernstein originals. The final track is a remix of the album’s most lyrical piece ‘Lullaby’, startlingly enhanced by dubby echoes and thunderclaps straight out of King Tubby’s Jamaican studio circa 1976. Not even this jolt sounds out of place, so thorough is the new Big Four’s overhaul of classic material.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, December 2002)

Monday, 14 January 2008

Mark Soskin...

After the disappointment of the ski-jumping being rained off just as the second round got underway at Valle De Fiemme last Saturday, I've understandably been quiet for a few days. It ended in spectacular style, Norwegian jumper Björn Einar Romoeren leaving the jump table with only one ski, landing hard on his pelvis 50 or 60 metres down the hill. Who ever heard of ski jumping being rained off? That's global warming for you.

First round leader Tom Hilde (Norway) ended up the victor of the shortened event, Four Hills winner Janne Ahonen only managing to come in fifth. Gregor Schlierenzauer clearly didn't like the wet conditions, finishing 6th and falling further behind compatriot Tommy Morgenstern in the overall standings.

This CD has nothing to do with ski jumping, although it was recorded on the shores of Lake Geneva. Leaving aside a few phonecalls from Leo Feigin (of Leo Records), it happens to be the only review I've ever written where I actually got some feedback direct from the artist. Soskin hunted down my email address from the magazine and wrote me an appreciative 'thank you' letter.

A nice touch, and feedback is always good. I've even enjoyed some of the negative feedback posted here on this page. As Chris Blackford used to say at the beginning of every issue of Rubberneck, I cater for everybody, and some people like to discover mistakes...

Homage To Sonny Rollins
White Foundation (WF233)

A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square; Airegin; Valse Hot; Tell Me You Love Me; Oleo; Reflections; Someone To Watch Over Me; H.S.; Tennessee Waltz; Time Remembered; Soulful Sonny; CD-Rom interview with Mark Soskin.

Mark Soskin (p).
Recorded 6/03

On the face of it, taking a pianist influenced by Debussy and Bill Evans to a Bösendorfer Imperial located in a grand salon on the shores of Lake Geneva is not the most likely of scenarios for a tribute to saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins. Yet Mark Soskin has impeccable credentials, occupying as he did the piano chair in Rollins’ band for some 15 years from 1978 onwards.

This collection is drawn from a marathon five hour recording session organised by Swiss resident producer, patron of the arts and owner of that salon with the Alpine aspects Jeremy White. All of the material is either composed by or closely associated with Rollins, though the homage suggested by the title may be a little disingenuous given that the saxophonist’s trademark blend of wry humour, audacity and gritty truculence are largely absent. Soskin’s tribute is more personal and oblique, perhaps shaped by the sonically perfect qualities of the recording space and the availability of such a regal instrument.

The opening ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’ is pure French impressionism, and its evocation of birdsong via upper register trills would have pleased that great composer-ornithologist Olivier Messiaen. Even such pieces as ‘Oleo’, ‘Airegin’ and ‘Valse Hot’ stop short of being low down or dirty, and are instead deconstructed and re-framed in new and unfamiliar ways. Perhaps the strongest connection to Rollins’ music is the way that Soskin takes pleasure in avoiding the obvious.

In the end, each piece is so absorbing that the incongruity between these improvisations and their dedicatee hardly matters. The pianist’ attack on the up-tempo selections such as ‘Oleo’ steers the recording away from chamber-jazz introspection, but when sensitivity is needed, as on Monk’s ‘Reflections’ or ‘Nightingale’, Soskin always improvises something heartfelt and out of the ordinary. Requiring studied concentration to extract it s many nuances, this recording shouldn’t let you down if you happily accept the rigourous demands made by the often austere and forbidding world of solo piano music.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, April 2004)

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Winter Sports...II

My first posting of the year was rather surprisingly one dedicated to the sport of ski-jumping. Captivated by the annual Four Hills series, I felt compelled to write about this most improbable sport. I can only speculate as to how it ever became a sport, but suspect it was the unexpected product of a skiing accident which saw the unlucky skier thrown off course and into fee-fall, only to make a perfect landing some 200m later.

After two rounds of the competition, 17 year-old Austrian sensation Gregor Schlierenzauer looked set to take his first title. His masterful display at Garmisch left Janne Ahonen, Tommy Morgenstern and Micky Neumayer struggling to match his style and distance. The third round, due to take place on his home hill at Innsbruck last Friday, was cancelled due to high winds, denying him the chance to extend his overall lead in the series as many had expected.

Innsbruck being cancelled, attention then moved to Bischofschofen, where an extra event on Saturday was added to the one scheduled for Sunday. Technically I suppose you'd have to call it the 'Three Hills' this year, but with the four round format preserved, each competitor had the same number of jumps as ever to rack up a decisive points tally.

It was the veteran Finnish competitor Janne Ahonen, a winner of four previous titles, who took the hastily re-scheduled third round. Morgenstern came in second, with a below par Schlierenzauer only managing to finish fifth. "This hill really suits me," said the laconic but until recently out of form Ahonen, who won his last World Cup event on the same hill two years ago. The result left the series finely balanced for Sunday night's thrilling finale.

Perhaps the result of too much pressure being placed on his young shoulders (being tipped for success on the pages of Afric Pepperbird is a lot to live up to), Schlierenzauer failed to make the cut for the second round with a somewhat short effort. A disappointing end to this promising jumper's 2007/8 series, but barring the kind of accident you could only possibly sustain in a sport like ski-jumping, he'll be back next year stronger and wiser.

After seeing the young Austrian fail, Ahonen must have found it hard to believe his luck. He was just one jump away from winning an unprecedented fifth title, a result which would move him ahead of the legendary Jens Weissflog. A cool head was required, and the Finn held his nerve to win for the second time in as many days on the Bischofschofen hill. For the record, Norway's Anders Barden beat Morgenstern into second place, though the Austrian still retains the overall lead in the season-long World Cup series.

Ahonen was fairly downbeat in his assessment of his performance. "I don't know what happened exactly," he said, in what must have been a thrilling post-event interview. "It just became easier and more enjoyable to jump."

A master of understatement, not only did Ahonen win that unprecedented fifth title, he also scored the highest ever points total for the series - 1085.8. A little confused perhaps, I'm sure he went home with a smile on his face nevertheless...

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

CDs of the year...2006

Right, after waffling on recently about how Greg Osby's Channel Three ended up in both my top 10 from 2005 and 2006, it seems like a good idea to look at the rest of the '06 contenders.

Taking at face value my statement that this list is in no particular order (absolute rubbish, as Thomas Chapin is not at the top by coincidence!!), I can even rest a little easier about my embarrassing oversight. It might be a little harder to rest easier about any top 10 which includes a CD by Christian McBride, but this surprising set of jam-band style material was a big hit with me. more fun than the Luther Vandross covers, eh Christian?

Andrew Hill left us shortly after this list was published, and anybody who has read the latest issue of the magazine will see that I made his classic album Compulsion my re-issue of the year for 2007. Jazz doesn't get much more vital than that, and in hindsight I think I was definitely wrong to exclude the enigmatic Time Lines...

TOP CDs 2006

New Releases:
Thomas Chapin/Ride (Playscape)
Terje Rypdal/Vossabrygg (ECM)
Greg Osby/Channel Three (Blue Note)
Christian Scott/Rewind That (Concord)
Bennie Maupin/Penumbra (Cryptogramophone)
Calvin Keys/Vertical Clearance (Wide Hive)
Vijay Iyer/Blood Sutra (PI)
Christian McBride/Live At Tonic (Ropeadope)
Nels Cline/New Monastery (Cryptogramophone)
Jerry Bergonzi/Tenor of the Times (Savant)

Grant Green/Live At Club Mozambique (Blue Note)

I thought this may be a struggle, but looking back at the small percentage of the total new releases from 2006 that I’ve actually heard, the list pretty much chose itself. As is always the case for me, listenability comes before any judgements about whether or not a work is ‘important’ or otherwise significant, hence my determination to speak up for Grant Green’s much maligned gem. By the same token, Nels Cline’s take on Andrew Hill beat Hill’s own impressive ‘Time Lines’ into the list (welcome back Charles Tolliver...). Not necessarily in any particular order, my top 10 gives a good indication both of where I’m at, and in a wider sense where jazz is at currently. All in all, pretty healthy I’d say!

Fred Grand

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Greg Osby...

After the recent posting in which I declared this CD to be best new release of 2005, I thought it was only right to now put up the actual review.

I went on at length in the earlier posting, almost apologetically, to give the many reasons why my opinion should be taken with a pinch of salt. Listening to this CD again this afternoon, it remains fine music and as good a representation as any of how today's best jazz should sound.

Whatever the vagaries of my subjectivity, you can't afford to miss it. My 'tune in to Channel Three' remark in the closing sentence is nothing more than 'hack' writing at its worst. More 'viewer discretion' was clearly required.

Worse still, the same CD also appeared in the top three of my 'Best of 2006' list. I may go back to my 2004 list - perhaps it's there too despite being recorded in February to March 2005?

Clearly I need to get my act together and focus on the basics in future - that includes knowing which year we're living in, although I've always been skeptical of absolute certainties in this area, with so many calendar systems competing for authenticity. Personally I've always been attracted to the simplicity of the Julian Calendar and am at a loss to understand why so many people gainsay Caesar.

Still, a focus on the basic isn't bad for a New Year's Resolution, is it?

Channel Three
Blue Note Records (7243860672 2)

Mob Job; Vertical Hold; Viewer Discretion; Diode Emissions; Fine Tuning; Please Stand By; Channel Three; Test Pattern; Miss Ann.

Greg Osby (as/ss); Matt Brewer (b); Jeff “Tain” Watts (d), (Feb to March 2005).

As one of today’s pre-eminent jazz musicians, any reviewer tackling a new recording by Greg Osby is assuming a pretty onerous set of responsibilities. It wasn’t always that way, his early M-Base experiments distinctly polarising critical opinion and appealing to a far narrower fan-base. Although sympathetic from the outset, I was always more of a Steve Coleman man. It is fascinating to reflect just how differently both men have subsequently developed without either having abandoned their shared angularity. Osby, it is fair to say, has moved closer to the centre, tackling the jazz tradition from a more expansive, though avowedly uncompromised, platform. His is now the more acoustic music, and the relative neo-trad of recent projects St Louis Shoes and Public oozed maturity and poise.

Channel Three takes those same qualities further, and the piano-less format adds fresh openness to the music. Still ordered in the very much familiar Osby style - spiky themes, oblique lines and post hip-hop grooves - Channel Three could almost be the perfect distillation of his career to date. Compositions by Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy bookend seven new Osby originals, all given titles inspired by the world of broadcasting.

A fast romp through “Mob Job” shows that Osby isn’t afraid to tackle his elders on their own ground. The sheer length and logic of Osby’s lines and his many personal glisses all confirm what a smart and individualistic player he‘s become. Moving into his own compositions I’m struck by just how much his M-Base experiments continue to inform the present. Now in his forties, Osby seems to be unshakeably set on a course of continual self-renewal, refining his style whilst retaining identity. The title track is the most overtly backwards nod, deploying electric bass and wordless vocals to sound remarkably like the Osby from 1989’s Season Of Renewal (JMT). “Please Stand By” is a structured burnout with the magnificent Watts, iron logic never allowing the slightest hint that things may careen out of control. The tone poetry of “Diode Emissions” and the off-kilter swing of “Miss Ann” show an equally confident voice emerging on soprano. “Test Pattern” pits his majestic alto against a muscular locked groove and could only be the more ebullient latter day Osby.

This trio must be his most flexible and expressive vehicle to date, and, at the risk of sounding like a commercial break, you should tune in to Channel Three now to avoid missing something extremely important indeed.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, January 2006)

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Winter Sports...

With the cycling season still some way off, and little inclination to watch any football, I've revived my interest in ski-jumping over the last few days. Let me clarify - I've no interest in actually throwing myself off the side of a mountain just to see how far I can travel. There is nevertheless something graceful, crazy and even theatrical about the sport. Above all it is sport in a very pure form - man against man, each knowing exactly what they must do to win with very little in the way of technological advantages to assist.

In ski-jumping, distance isn't everything. You can clear 140 metres, but if your style isn't right a rival jump of 135 metres may outscore you. Competitors firstly must qualify for the main event. Qualification secured they then jump in a sequence of head-to-head pairs. The highest scorer from each pairing goes through to the second round, with five 'lucky losers' (the highest scoring losers) joining them to take the total number of jumpers in the second round to 30.

Rather like an individual time trial in cycling, the best scoring jumpers go last, piling on the pressure as they know precisely their target. Failing to achieve the right combination of both distance and style in the second round, the score being aggregated with the first round tally, spells defeat. Clear?

At the moment we're two rounds into the prestigious 'Four Hills' competition, a series which tests the sport's elite on the most famous hills in Europe. Based on a series aggregate, victory goes to the most consistent jumper. Sunday's even from Obertsdorf in Ausria was won homeboy by Thomas Morgenstern, who narrowly outscored 17-year old wunderkind Gregor Schlierenzauer, also an Austrian. It was good to see veteran Finn Janne Ahonen (winner of four previous Four Hills series) finishing third on the podium, and the revamped Obertsdorf hill looked resplendent in the evening blizzards. Ahonen prevented an Austrian 1,2,3 and looked like he was coming back into some kind of form at last.

Today the circus moved to Germany and the famous Olympic hill of Garmisch-Partenkirken. Ahonen set the hill alight with a new hill record of 139 metres in the first round. He lost heavily on style however, barely managing to hold together his 'telemark'. With all of the big guns evenly spread behind him, the second round looked perfectly poised, a major feat required by anybody hoping to topple the Finn.

An amazing feat was exactly what we saw. With a jump of 141.5 metres, exceeding the official length of the hill, Schlierenzauer lost nothing in style and stormed to overall victory. With the next round taking place at his home hill in Innsbruck on Thursday, he must be favourite to consolidate and extend his overall lead. Home favourite Michael Neumayer looked good finishing third behind Ahonen, but perhaps the biggest surprise was that Morgenstern failed to make the podium. Morgenstern remains second overall in the series thanks to his Obertsdorf victory, however, and you can be sure he'll be breathing down young Schlierenzauer's neck in the last two rounds.

I never though I'd be opening 2008 with a round-up of the day's ski jumping results, but life sometimes takes unexpected turns. Whether this piece is to be taken seriously or just a technical exercise to keep me amused, I'll leave to you to decide.

Happy New Year to my remaining reader(s)!!!