Monday, 23 February 2009

Joe McPhee, Curtis Clark and, erm, Laurie Holloway...

Normal services begins now. Postings of reviews published during the last decade will be coming at you thick and fast, with more words about more music than anybody will be able to handle. And to show that I mean business, here's another one of the 'Fast Taste' round-up columns. The idea is to collect together about 15 or 20 birds-eye views of new releases not deemed important enough for a full review, but worth bringing to the attention of readers nonetheless.

Some of the music is truly dreadful, and last time I was asked to do the column I was sent almost 50 CDs and still struggled to select enough for the review. Of course there are some gems hidden away here, Curtis Clark and Joe McPhee being the two standouts. Both deserve to be in every serious collection. I also enjoyed reviewing the Laurie Holloway disc, but for very different reasons. It's perhaps a reflection on the nature of the task that I've almost no recollection of ever hearing any of the releases reviewed here. The music that matters to me is another thing altogether, though. Just try stopping me from being excited about the re-issue of this...!!

NOEL AKCHOTE - Sound II (Winter & Winter 910108 2)
The French guitar maverick returns to Winter & Winter for another special project, as radically different to its predecessors as you’d expect from such a restless musical explorer. The “Sonny” in the title is Sonny Sharrock, and although not a composer of any great note, several pieces from his repertoire that clearly bear his unique stamp are covered. We also get a series of short improvisations infused with his spirit but offering a more personal perspective, with Akchote’s guitar being subject to various degrees of de-tuning. Images of Deep South share croppers adorn the lavish booklet, and unexpectedly there is a pervading air of acoustic Americana which somehow manages to link Sharrock to John Fahey. Impressive.

ARI AMBROSE - Waiting (Steeplechase SCCD 31560)
For a man in his early 30’s, Ari Ambrose is not at all what you might expect. Bypassing free and modal jazz, he makes a beeline to the great tenor players of the ‘30s and ‘40s, managing to accommodate little beyond pre-modal Coltrane. Now up to his sixth album as a leader for Steeplechase, he continues the patterns established on earlier outings, interpreting well-worn standards such as ‘East of the Sun’, ‘Without A Song’ and ‘Everything Happens to Me’ in the style of everybody from Lester Young to Don Byas. Interestingly, it is Ambrose’s own compositions that make the most impact, suggesting that a more fruitful source of inspiration for future recordings could well lie within.

JAMIE BAUM - Moving Forward, Standing Still (OMNITONE 15206)
Baum is a New York based flautist/composer operating in that peculiar area where jazz meets contemporary composition. This, her third release, is billed as a work inspired by Stravinsky, Bartok and Ives, amongst others. You might expect a pretty dry and solemn affair, but a cast of some of the city;s brightest contemporary improvisers, including Tom Varner, Drew Gress and Ralph Alessi, manage to steer the project away from anything too rarefied. Baum’s shape-shifting compositions, for all their apparent complexity, all have an underlying swing, melodic roots, dramatic tension and bags of space for the ensemble to cut loose. Quality stuff.

HAN BENNINK with Curtis Clark and Ernst Glerum - Home Safely (FAVORITE 1)
Really a Curtis Clark date, Home Safety is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in a long time. All twelve compositions are from the US emigre pianist’s pen, and the surprise is that both Bennink and Glerum stick to exactly the kind of script they’re usually all too happy to lampoon. Hints of Red Garland and Bill Evans are filtered through modernists such as Kirk Lightsey and Stanley Cowell, all seamlessly absorbed into Clark’s vocabulary. Bennink largely uses brushes, whilst Glerum’s fat bass binds the trio together like glue. Authentic and sincere mainstream jazz, more shocking than any number of tired Bennink pranks could ever be. The only pity is that it’s taken ten years to surface on CD.

TIM BERNE’S BIG SATAN - Souls Saved Hear (THIRSTY EAR 57151)
As Tim Berne gets older his gargantuan compositions seem to be getting shorter and his soloing increasingly concise. Big Satan, a raucous trio consisting of Berne, guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Tom Rainey, represent the rowdy side of Berne’s personality, and this new release is to my ears even more brutal than the formation’s 1996 debut. Ducret and Berne Scribble aural graffiti over Rainey’s remarkable drumming, which somehow controls the chaos. The pieces are relatively short, and the trend set on recent releases such as ‘The Shell Game’ and ‘Science Friction’ towards a more accessible and groove based music is temporarily reversed in this old school bloodbath. Not an easy listen, but would you ever expect that from Berne?

KENT CARTER STRING TRIO - The Willisau Suites (1984/97) (EMANEM 4105)
The string trio is a format increasingly returned to over the years by improviser and composer Kent Carter. The combination of bass, violin and viola offers a rich tonal palette fully exploited by his chamberish works. Recorded some 13 years apart, both performances share many common features. Although appearing to be heavily scored, Carter's compositions are primarily concerned with developing a coherent musical architecture to incorporate structured improvisation. The bulk of the disc is from 1984 and heavily features Carlos Zingaro’s soaring violin. Owing more to Bartok than Braxton, this work could even prove to be too straight for many improv die-hards. Interesting, but I’d be hard pressed to call it enjoyable.

‘PAPA’ JOHN DeFRANCESCO - Walking Uptown (SAVANT 2060)
‘Papa’ John DeFrancesco once again calls together the clan for another dollop of steaming hot organ jazz. John is a fine player much under the spell of Jimmy Smith. For this date his more famous organist son, Joey, is limited to cameos on trumpet and electric piano, whilst guitarist Johnny Junior adds rich-toned pickings very reminiscent of the great Melvin Sparks. The family is extended to include saxophonist Tim Warfield and drummer Glenn Ferracone, who both get into the spirit as if born in a juke joint. Selections include the classic ‘Sunny’, Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ and a skirmish with Muddy Water’s ‘Mojo’ that to my ears sounds more like ‘High Heeled Sneakers’. It may not break new ground, but boy is it uplifting!

LAURIE HOLLOWAY - The Piano Player (UNIVERSAL 9867548)
With a long career in entertainment that includes spells on cruise liners, session work, TV music, accompanying many singers and musical direction of stage productions, Holloway now sets out to play some straightforward jazz. The pianist is no newcomer to this arena, having rubbed shoulders with many of the greats of the music, from Clark Terry and JJ Johnson to Stephane Grappelli. Sadly this is the kind of jazz-lite that would go down well , dare I say it, on an ocean liner. Twenty tunes, including a reprise of his original theme tune from ‘Beadle’s About’, are all played with little or no interpretation. I’ve no doubt that Holloway could do more were he to take some basic risks, but this is so polite it’s almost gruesome.

Ibarra and Dresser are two of the most respected improvisers on today’s scene. Both possess masses of technique, imagination, and distinctly composerly sensibilities. ‘Tone Time’ simply bristles with collective interplay. Throughout the session the two are continually listening to one another, working with rather than against one another. Ibarra has an arsenal of percussion alongside her standard kit, and Dresser often carries the lead instrument duties via nimble use of the bow. Rhythmic blocks, melodic motifs and even shuffling grooves are the raw material. Fifteen finely wrought miniatures, rarely anything less than absorbing, proving that improvisation can be fun.

Whilst Noel Akchote has taken a circuitous route in paying homage to his subject, Lagrene opts for the more well-worn path. As the name of the project suggests, the disc is a return to his duties as keeper of the Django Reinhardt flame. He largely resists the temptations of his youth to dazzle with technique, playing measured and authentic solos on both acoustic and electric guitars. The quartet may feature no violin, but Franck Wolf’s saxophones are a more than adequate foil to Lagrene. The title-track is of course the Denzil Best classic, and elsewhere a mixture of Reinhardt pieces, standards and originals remaining true to the idiom can be found. No surprises, but the flame continues to burn brightly in Lagrene’s dextrous hands.

JOE McPHEE - Oleo (hatOLOGY 579)
I seem to recall this 1982 session being released as ‘Oleo & A Future Retrospective’ in its earlier incarnation, but whatever the title you give it, it’s the self-same music. McPhee is joined by Andre Jaume, Raymond Boni and Francios Mechali in what is a smaller than average Po Music formation. Po Music was a philosophical method of improvisation based on the theories of Edward de Bono, and it seems to have died a death with 1990s ‘Linear B’. Although Boni’s effects rack sounds quite dated at times, nothing can disguise the great beauty of this music. ‘Oleo’ is the jazziest offering in the Po Music series, and also the one that strips McPhee’s process down to its barest essentials. Rarely has chamber jazz sounded better than on this seminal work.

JAMES MOODY - Moody & The Brass Figures (MILESTONE/OJC 1099)
With the exception of one piece taken on flute, this 1966 gem is primarily a showcase for Moody’s dark, muscular tenor. The core quartet of Kenny Barron, Bob Cranshaw and Mel Lewis are augmented on five pieces by a small brass ensemble arranged by Tom McIntosh. Sometimes recalling Gil Evans’ collaborations with Miles, most obviously on Gershwin’s ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’, the charts are strikingly unfussy and effective frameworks for Moody. Highlights include the opening ‘Smack-A-Mack’, which has a ‘Sidewinder’ like backbeat, and an unexpectedly free-floating rendition of ‘Au Privave’. A classy production that could easily stand with the best Oliver Nelson or Gerald Wilson from the period - enough said.

GERARDO NUNEZ - Andando El Tempo (ACT 9426 2)
Another helping of world-jazz from the label that seems to do more for this relatively new sub-genre than any other. Andalusian Gerardo Nunez is an acknowledged flamenco master, but this release is not the guitarist’s first foray into the world of jazz. The pieces are as melodic and rhythmically daring as you’d expect whenever flamenco is played, and special guests including saxophonist Peric Sambeat and trumpeter Paolo Fresu add jazz-cred. Don’t expect the blues, but Nunez’s improvisations do from time to time bear a fleeting resemblance to the gypsy jazz tradition. What impresses most is his unwillingness to compromise his own style, forcing others to seek out the common ground between musics. Unlikely to please purists from either camp, this nevertheless deserves a better fate than falling unceremoniously between stools.

A Londoner currently making a living on the ultra-competitive New York scene, alto and soprano saxophonist Will Vinson will probably be little known outside of the capitol. His angular compositions and unusual harmonic and rhythmic sense superficially resemble Greg Osby. Vinson is in fact far more of a magpie, appropriating elements the wider jazz tradition and combining them into a less schematic approach than the M-Base great. A young New York quintet that includes pianist Aaron Parks (who doubles on Fender Rhodes) and guitarist Sandra Hempel, tackle eight Vinson compositions very much from within the contemporary mainstream. A satisfying debut as leader, but a tad more individuality is required to make Vinson truly stand out from the crowd.

FRANK WESS - The Frank Wess Quartet (PRESTIGE/OJC 1103)
This 1960 recording was originally released as part of Prestige’s ‘Moodsville’ imprint with the intention of providing sophisticated ‘easy listening’ that didn’t compromise the jazz. As you’d expect from a leading light in the reborn Basie band, each performance is delivered with emphatic authority. From the outset the lights are low and the temps slow. Wess carefully selects seven ballads, taking four on flute and three on tenor. Pianist Tommy Flanagan is in his element in this type of setting and enjoys a generous allocation of solo space. Standouts include the blues ‘original’ ‘Rainy Afternoon’, in which the influence of Ben Webster looms large, and a neat arrangement of ‘Star Eyes’. Basking in the full warmth of the legendary Van Gelder sound, this is a thoroughly worthwhile reissue.

SPIKE WILNER - Late Night : Live At Smalls (FRESH SOUND FSNT 187)
Michael ‘Spike’ Wilner is a pianist who has paid a lot of dues in a short space of time. He has worked as house pianist in venues such as the Village Gate and Smalls, studied with notables including Harry Whitaker, Kenny Barron and Walter Davis Jnr, accompanied amongst other Jesse Davis and Maynard Ferguson, and even found time to forge a career in jazz education. Here he gets to be boss, leading his quintet through a varied programme of originals, as well as three pieces by Ellington and Strayhorn. The accent is never far away from the blues, and his hard-swinging group includes saxophonist/flautist Ian Hendrickson Smith and guitarist Yves Brouqui. It won’t set the world on fire, nor will it disappoint. Quietly impressive.

Fred Grand
(Jazz Review, December 2004)

Friday, 20 February 2009

Steve Grossman Quintet in Newcastle...

The rather flat and ambiance-free zone that is the Corner House Hotel provided a pretty apt setting for this gig in so many ways. I went with few illusions, knowing that the Grossman who breathed fire with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Stone Alliance in the '70s was a thing of the past. I had my points of reference in the form of those dreary records he made for Dreyfus Jazz in the '90s, and even a gig I saw him play in Glasgow around a decade ago. That night he kept it tight and smouldering, backed by John Hicks, John Webber and Idris Muhammad. The Grossman of that event was a rather gaunt and sickly looking man, looking for all the world like he'd just been released from jail or demobbed from the military, wearing an ill-fitting suit and appearing in desperate need of daylight. The music though needed little stimulus.

I thought it only right to let Louise hear another former Miles Davis sideman, after the Scofield gig we enjoyed last year. Surely it would be great to get so close to such a legend in a such a small performance space? In some ways, yes, because the venue lends its self well to getting up close to the music. Yet for the most part, I was pretty underwhelmed. Grossman is certainly a man who has had his share of health problems. The fast lifestyle during his peak years in the '70s brought with it the usual addictions, and more recently his physical health has been challenged after an accident left him with three badly damaged vertebrae. The Grossman who stepped out to perform in Newcastle last night looked physically as though he was in much better shape than he'd been in Glasgow, but musically his powers had waned considerably. The Glasgow Grossman soloed at length and with lots of fire, whilst the Grossman of last night had the kind of frayed-about-the-edges sound of the late Lester Young and at times you'd even call him stuttering.

The material was hardly fresh either. The first set consisted entirely of bop and early hard bop standards, pre-modal and very, very chordal. To my ears, attuned as they are to almost nothing but free and modal jazz, it came as something of a shock. The second set at least saw the group, basically a quartet led by exciting British trumpeter Damon Brown, warming up and gelling as a unit. By the end of the night they managed to move into the '60s and tackle a modal 'tranish inspired piece ('Take the 'D' Train'), and even the bop somehow seemed to have a bit more spark (Monk's 'I Mean You' was nicely done). Interestingly Brown stuck entirely to cornet, an instrument rarely used in modern jazz by anybody other than Nat Adderley and on the face of it another retro nod. Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan (Joy Spring and Ceora were both part of the set) were Brown's main touchstones however, and both he and drummer Sebastiaan De Krom were for the most part in inspired form and took it to the limit.

Although I love hearing the electric piano in jazz, particularly the Rhodes, I detest modern digital pianos. Once upon a time the Corner House had an old upright, but these days a little Roland digital seems to be on hand whenever a piano is needed. It sounded flat and did Robin Aspland few favours. I know that the economics of providing a decent piano work against most promoters at anything other than concert hall level, but I find it sad when somebody like Grossman visits that there needs to be so many musical compromises made. A shadow of his former self with very little to distinguish him musically, this seemed almost to rub salt into the wounds. That said, I wonder why he's stepped back from the heady music he once made to settle into comfortable mainstream blandness? Younger guys like Eric Alexander do it so much better, and much as I love those Grossman landmarks of the '70s I find it sad to see him like this. Even a Steinway wouldn't have rescued this one.

The musty surroundings, the music of yesteryear, and a one time 'legend' well past his best and clearly in some discomfort whilst performing all came together with a poignant but surely unintended synergy. I'm sure there's a story to tell about the sheer hell Grossman goes through to hold it together and perform, but listening earlier to Stone Alliance at their brilliant best, and to Terra Firma, I have realised that I need to be selective in the memories I keep of this extremely important but for some time lost in the wilderness post-Coltrane voice.

On the plus side it was good to get out, see a full house for Jazz North East, see lots of familiar faces lapping it up, and also to have at least the chance to see somebody of this stature performing on Tyneside somewhere other than at The Sage. I don't know whether to pleased that the audience loved it, or despair at their lack of critical discernment. Yes, let's be charitable...

Fred Grand.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Eric Boeren Quartet...

If anybody is left out there, sorry for the lengthy gaps between posts! As devoted followers of these pages and transient rubberneckers alike can't fail to have grasped, life has been disrupted lately by a house move. We've been 'moved in' to the new/old house for over three weeks now, but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you were to take a look at the sheer volume of life detritus still waiting to be unpacked.

Priorities are everything at a time like this, and my CDs are all accessible, the Macs are networked, and the bike is set up in the garage on the static trainer. The cat is back to three meals a day and the wardrobes are filling up (though not with my clothes). We'll get there, and life is getting easier. A very welcome distraction came last Friday in the form of another of Paul Bream's 'On The Outside' series. It was an early return for our stroopwafel munching buddy Wilbert de Joode, playing bass in what could loosely be described as an Ornette Coleman tribute band.

Nominally led by trumpeter Eric Boeren who shared frontline duties with eccentric Amsterdam saxophonist Sean Bergin, the real star of the show was however drummer Paul Lovens, drawn into a jazz context whilst still maintaining his finely honed persona as Aachen's oldest naughty schoolboy. The group's language was very much based around the classic Coleman quartets and trios of the early to mid-'60s. Themes were played precisely and literally before improvisation and deconstruction took over. There was never a time when anybody strayed too far from home, the controlled shapeshifting of the group offering listeners the kind of soft end experimentation accessible to larger than usual numbers.

Perfect, had the room been capable of holding large numbers, and had large numbers shown an inclination to attend on what was a bitterly cold evening. The tiny room was full of period character, as well as bohemian characters, and there was nothing in the evening's music that left me with any feelings of doubt or disappointment. At times Lovens' explosive propulsion bordered on the ridiculous, exaggerating his accents with thrilling lunacy. I've only ever seen him play hard core improv in the past (Schlippenbach Trio), and this came as a breath of fresh air. You could easily imagine Han Bennink doing this kind of stuff, but much as I love him I was glad it was Lovens whose humour is more deadpan than slapstick.

Boeren had a certain amount of charisma without really being a convincing leader. His trumpet lines for me were just a little too convoluted to make sense. Bergin on the other hand showed vast reserves of musicianly skill, and Wilbert played the whole gamut and had a massive role in shaping the directions of each piece. Anybody who hadn't read the flyers might well have thought that this was his band.

Great music, good coffee, a Friday night out for Louise on Newcastle's jumping Quayside, and with this being an exclusive UK show it was also another feather in the cap for my friends at Jazz North East. Next week they've got Steve Grossman, a man who has been pretty much invisible since his stints with Miles and Stone Alliance. I saw him over a decade ago with John Hicks and he played up a storm that night, so I'm sure I'll be reporting back. For now though I'm still thinking about those crazy guys last Friday. I bet they drank the ferry dry on the way home the next evening...