Monday, 16 May 2011

Fast taste, slow read...

One of the features I used to love in Jazz Review was the Fast Taste column. I don't think I did it more than three times, but receiving a box full of 30-40 CDs and choosing about 15 to encapsulate in just a few words was a very different type of challenge. How often do you see Cecil Taylor and Paul Whiteman reviewed in the same column? Sadly the column is no more now that the magazine has morphed identities, although we do still do brief reviews of single discs in Jazz Journal.

Back to the present, and my new release of the moment, even displacing Matthias Eick from his lofty pedestal, is the Nils Økland's latest disc on ECM. Just over an hour of concentrated beauty, and the perfect marriage of Scandinavian folk music and contemporary classical composition. The label is in fact having a great 2011, and I'd also highly recommend recent releases by Julia Hülsmann, Marcin Wasilewski, Iro Haarla and Colin Vallon.

On that positive note, here's my last ever Fast Taste from August 2008. The Michael Adkins disc wasn't actually in the box, but Michael contacted me diredtly after stumbling across this page and after hearing the disc and loving it I was happy to slip it in anyway.

Apologies to those who have contacted me recently offering CDs to review - I've just been so busy that I couldn't possibly have taken on any more work. Things are starting to quieten down again now, and perhaps I'll get round to exploring some new sounds soon.

JULIAN “CANNONBALL” ADDERLEY Live In Italy 1969 (Gambit Records 69289)
Numerous releases culled from radio footage and concert archives of the Adderley brothers’ quintet with Joe Zawinul are available, and often there’s little to choose between them. Most offer at least one version of ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ and ‘Walk Tall’, capture the leader’s loquacious banter between tracks, and balance acoustic and electric instrumentation. This disc actually presents two concerts just days apart, but despite the title only one was actually recorded in Italy. Standout track is ‘The Scavenger’, which flirts with modal chaos, and whilst the remainder is firmly in line with expectations, it’s a nice document of the group in a period of musical transition.
Prior to having my interest piqued by Rotator, I knew nothing of Canadian tenor saxophonist Michael Adkins. With a full-bodied sound, thoughtful oblique phrasing and an intelligent use of micro-tonalities, Adkins’ voice lies somewhere beyond Joe Lovano. The thrill of hearing Paul Motian at his most expansive is to a large extent Adkins’ achievement, the drummer seemingly spurred on by the inherent drama of the music. Motian adopts its confident swagger through many points of disintegration, and no storm is too turbulent, yet the patterns are never predictable and an underlying calm enigmatically remains. Pianist Russ Lossing and bassist John Hébert complete a highly responsive quartet, and if you like melodies with your freedom, you’ll need to hear this.

CHET BAKER with DICK TWARDZIK The Complete 1955 Holland Concerts (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10334)
A very young Chet Baker obligingly corrects the program notes to announce that Dick Twardzik will be playing the piano this evening, not Russ Freeman. Given the short career of the almost mythical pianist, the discovery of these tapes comes as welcome news even 53 years on. Drawn from performances in The Netherlands on consecutive days, it hardly matters that some of the material overlaps. Baker’s sound is as fragile and bell-like on the ballads as the pianist’s is heavy-handed and blocky, but together they made a great pairing. Twardzik died in Paris of a drugs overdose barely a month later, and Baker’s announcement that “…we hope to be back in a year or two...” was, with hindsight, wildly optimistic. Variable sound quality, but an invaluable document.

CLIFFORD BROWN Four Classic Albums (Avid Jazz 2CD AMSC950)
The stream of un-copyrighted material currently being re-issued is something of a mini-thread in this column. Challenging times undoubtedly lie ahead for the major record labels, which stand to see former Crown Jewels disappearing unless they can compete on quality and price. Here is a case in point – four great Clifford Brown albums from the mid ‘50s, collected, crisply re-mastered and sold perfectly legally. For the record we get Brown & Roach Inc., Study In Brown, Jam Session and odd man out New Star on The Horizon (a 1953 date with Art Blakey on drums). Original artwork is a little small, but the liner notes survive intact. Such historic music should need little comment or introduction to such a discriminating readership, and suffice to say that if you don’t yet own all of the material, this release deserves serious consideration.

A laminal and very organic post-AMM soundworld, this is not the kind of release you immediately associate with latter day ECM. Extended techniques include piano preparations, scraping percussion, flutter-tongued clarinet and even some ‘just’ intonation banjo. There is a hypnotic, almost ritualistic quality to the way in which tension builds and releases. My over riding impression is of an unsettling journey through one of Caspar David Friedrich’s dense, dark forests. Dans les Arbres is both an album and a group title, so I suspect the effect is wholly intentional. Intriguing and unsettling in equal measure, this should satisfy fans of ‘new’ music and ‘improv’ alike.

KENNY CLARKE Telefunken Blues (Jazz Track Records 940)
A mix & match package offering two complete albums with original covers and liner notes. Telefunken Blues comprises two sessions. The first prominently features the vibes of Milt Jackson, and with Percy Heath’s bass we almost have the MJQ. Frank Morgan’s searing alto and Walter Benton’s fruity tenor alter the dynamics however, with outstanding results. Basie-ites Frank Wess, Henry Coker and Charlie Fowlkes bring a lighter swing to the album’s B Side, whilst the remaining music was originally released as The Kenny Clarke-Ernie Wilkins Septet (1955). More of an arranger’s date really, but Klook’s unaccompanied ‘Now’s The Time’ still sounds right out there.

GRAHAM COLLIER Down Another Road/Songs For My Father/Mosaics (BGO Records CD767)
Independent label BGO has virtually cornered the market for quality re-issues of material from what I regard as the ‘golden era’ of British modern jazz. Here we have three complete albums spanning the years 1968-70, and a subtle shift can be traced in Collier’s music over the course of the two CDs. Post-bop explorations of freedom and structure are the starting point, dallying occasionally with rock before finally acquiring a greater open-endedness of form on Mosaics. Harry Beckett, Stan Sulzmann, Alan Wakeman and John Taylor are all generously featured, yet even with their considerable talents it is the music’s Euro-centric re-examination of sounds from across the Atlantic that leaves the deepest impression. So many options exist for the musicians, and Collier’s urgent musical structures make the perfect frame. Delicious.

WAYNE HORVITZ GRAVITAS QUARTET One Dance Alone (Songlines 1571-2)
Along with Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz is one of the great exponents of ‘Americana’ in contemporary jazz. In this, the second Songlines album from his Gravitas Quartet, his fascination with melding improvisation and through composition is further explored. Peggy Lee’s cello and Sara Schoenbeck’s bassoon add both texture and counterpoint, whilst Ron Miles’ plaintive trumpet states folksy themes and splutters into abstraction with equal alacrity. More spiky than its predecessor and with fewer typically Horvitz-ian pieces, this is nevertheless a quietly impressive addition to an uncommonly individual body of work.

CAROLYN HUME Gravity and Grace (LEO RECORDS LR515)
This is British pianist/composer Carolyn Hume’s fifth outing for Leo, and to my ears her most satisfying yet. A haunting series of meditations, the pairing of Hume’s rich, brooding piano with the classically trained voice of Sonja Galsworthy and the cello of Oliver Coates creates what could easily be a suitably elegiac soundtrack for a classy Claude Chabrol mystery. Minor key and spacious, there’s an economy and grace recalling the best ECM New Series crossovers. This is contemporary chamber-jazz with a magnetically irresistible luxuriance.

JOE McPHEE with Paul Plimley & Lisle Ellis Sweet Freedom – Now What? (hatOLOGY 602)
Discerning readers will probably own this1994 landmark already, but its re-issue is nevertheless worth bringing to wider attention. A beautifully crafted and highly personal take on Max Roach’s Freedom Suite (1960), three under-sung talents operating on the cusp of free-jazz and improvised music create something truly heartfelt and poignant. There’s a far greater connection to the tradition here than in much of McPhee’s work, and the questions he poses, both musical and metaphorical, are clearly as relevant as they were for Roach. ‘Triptych’ makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, and the faster of the two takes of ‘Mendacity’ should meet anybody’s definition of swing. If you only ever buy McPhee disc, make this the one.

ZOE & IDRIS RAHMAN Where Rivers Meet (Manushi Records CD004)
An exploration of colliding cultures, Where Rivers Meet may come as something of a surprise to listeners only familiar hitherto with Rahman’s trio. In essence it’s simply a more explicit statement of her dual heritage, expanding the instrumental palette and making viable jazz vehicles from Bengali source material. Idris Rahman, her brother, gets equal billing, and his pithy clarinets are at various times augmented by the voices of other Rahman siblings. The modal stasis and the influence of traditional Raga forms bring echoes of the more transcendental moments from Alice Coltrane’s Impulse! works of the early ‘70s. Where Rivers Meet is an impressive statement from one of Europe’s rising stars.

FRANK ROSOLINO Let’s Make It (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10331)
Trombonist Frank Rosolino is legendary for all of the wrong reasons, his tragic personal life overshadowing considerable prowess as a musician. A leading light of the late ‘50s West Coast jazz scene, these two albums from 1957 and 1958 capture him at his peak. The Frank Rosolino Quintet sees him fronting a group with Richie Kamuca and Vince Guaraldi. The pianist adds a marvellous piquancy to the date, and Kamuca’s soloing and counterpoint is the essence of ‘cool’. Harold Land and Victor Feldman come in for the 1958 session, and the more varied selections and arrangements make it slightly the more interesting date. An original in every way, full justice is done to Rosolino’s much feted ability to get around the horn using wild intervallic leaps and astonishing agility. Impressive.

CECIL TAYLOR Jazz Advance (Fresh Sounds FSR-CD 485)
One consequence of the march of time is the advancing frontier of non-copyrighted material ripe for re-issue. Here we have a seminal classic that should need no introduction, lavishly re-issued under the nose of Blue Note with reproductions of the original artwork and liner notes. Such audacity can’t ever be as shocking as the impact this music still holds, straddling traditional jazz and the as yet uncharted territories ahead. Fresh Sounds add three live tracks from Newport 1957 (originally issued on Verve), making it pretty much a definitive edition. Even if you never travel any further down this progressively difficult road, no serious collection should be without such a bona fide milestone as Jazz Advance.

HIROMI UEHARA Hiromi’s Sonicbloom – Beyond Standard (TELARC CD83666)
Post-fusion reconstructions of jazz standards are a dime-a-dozen, usually needing a high degree of artistic judgement to avoid collapsing under their own portentous weight. Few such worries for young Japanese pianist Hiromi, who brings largely fresh approaches to such evergreens as ‘Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise’, ‘Caravan’, and even ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’. Not unlike latter day Chick Corea, she abounds colour and energy and avoids sounding musically moribund. David Fiuczynski shares the solos, and although he’s the kind of testosterone oozing axe-man I normally avoid, his vulgarity is a strangely pleasant foil for Hiromi. Sonicbloom – how apt!

PAUL WHITEMAN King of Jazz 1920-27 (Timeless Historical CBC 1-093)
It’s sadly ironic that one of the earliest popularisers of ‘jazz’ in the United States should be a white man called Whiteman, who rarely played with anything more than a jazz veneer. The ‘King of Jazz’ certainly embodied the complex racial politics of the ‘Jazz Age’, and this selection offers a useful taster of his work. Musically credible enough for ‘long-hair’ collaborations with George Gershwin (Whiteman actually played at the premiere of Rhapsody In Blue in 1924), it’s also true that numerous famous employees, from Bix Beiderbecke to Jack Teagarden, were stifled by the syrupy dance-band-cum-tea-room arrangements heard here. Bouquets to Timeless though for such a well presented survey of music with massive historical significance.

LESTER YOUNG Jazz Giants ’56 (Lonehill Jazz 10330)
I already own a Verve release of this late Prez monument, but now courtesy of controversial label Lonehill Jazz it resurfaces with similar artwork and extra material. The label may at other times have taken advantage of Andorra’s relatively lax 25-year copyright protection loophole, but this music falls outside of the more general 50-year period in any event. Coming from Young’s last great flush of creativity, there is something especially moving about the brittleness of his sound on the ballads. Although much of the emphatic authority is gone, it’s great to hear him front a hard blowing septet that includes Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson and Jo Jones. The extra material is the sprawling 27 minute ‘Funky Blues No. 2’ from a 1954 Norman Granz Jam Session. The group features Eldridge alongside precocious young admirer Dizzy Gillespie, but strangely not Prez.

Fred Grand

Monday, 2 May 2011

Up In NEON...

It was good to get out for some more top quality live jazz last Thursday night. This time it was Stan Sulzmann's NEON, a truly co-operative quartet (sans contrebasse) with acres of space for these supremely gifted players to weave their own webs. Almost co-led by vibes-man Jim Hart, at least in terms of its public face, the presence of Tim Giles and Kit Downes is also crucial in shaping the music's sometimes crab-like motions. Internal duos and trios hung mobile-like within tight, overarching structures. The group's improvisations were never predictable and always supportive of the overall objectives of each piece. Never cliched or trite, new life was even breathed into Monk's 'Bye-Ya', a piece which has be played so many times over the years (in a generally linear way).

Pity my short interview/profile of Stan & NEON didn't make it in time for the latest Jazz Journal, but if it's in the next edition then the chances are they'll still be on their protracted and episodic mini tour. Like many others, I'm enjoying the continuing rise of EDITION RECORDS, and readers of Jazz Journal will know that the latest Phronesis disc was my pick of the year. I've also recently given good write-ups to Neon's Catch Me and the new Marius Neset, and I'd love to do something more on Dave Stapelton's outfit in the near future.

An unfortunate quirk of timing - read on - means that a London trip clashes with the Edition Records showcase at this year's Manchester Jazz Festival. Buoyed by the highly enjoyable back-to-back gigs of last week, I rashly took the plunge and spent a small fortune on a couple of tickets for Keith Jarrett's London show in July. It's still a massive wrong/regret that to this point I've never seen Jarrett perform live, and I'm really quite glad to be putting that little niggle to bed. With Peacock and De Johnette the improvisations should reach rarefied levels, and there's always the potential for an artistic tantrum if anybody dares to cough, or even breathe. Hopefully Louise's sore throat will have cleared by then.

I'll sign off with another review from the archives...

The Moutin Reunion Quartet
Sharp Turns
Nocturne/Blujazz (NTCD 4501)

The Speech; Kuki’s Dance; Trane’s Medley; A Good Move; Time Apart; Two Hits on the N.J.T.P.; A Blue Dream; Sharp Turns.

Bonus DVD: Take It Easy; Echoing; Bird’s Medley; Surrendering; Something Like Now.

Rick Margitza (ts); Pierre de Bethmann (p, elp); Francois Moutin (b); Louis Moutin (d).
Recorded March 2007 NYC and DVD shot live in Chicago, January 2007.

Despite their relatively tender years, Parisian twins Francois and Louis Moutin have both done the rounds in jazz, playing with an illustrious roll-call of regional and international figures, from John Abercrombie to Albert Mangelsdorff. Because they’ve been in such heavy demand their paths haven’t always crossed, and this quartet, founded in 1998, was their very own musical ‘re-union’.

The group’s aim is to unite many aspects of jazz’s past with the present, and both ex-Miles Davis sideman Rick Margitza and pianist Pierrre de Bethmann have been present from the start. Although playing mainly original compositions, the tunes nevertheless fall into a fairly generic space somewhere between Atlantic and Impulse! period Coltrane. Everybody from Branford Marsalis to Tommy Smith has explored this sound over the years, and the best exponents always bring personal touches and embellishments to stand them apart from the crowd. The Moutins choose tightly-drilled fusion unisons and locked-groove vamps as their signature, and Margitza’s affinity for Coltrane via Brecker is perfect here, heard to great effect on standout tracks ‘Kuki’s Dance’ or ‘A Good Move’.

Unadulterated acoustic jazz predominates, and sometimes only the subtlest of tweaks, such as the wordless vocals in the fadeout of ‘The Speech’, offer clues to the brothers’ back-to-the-future intent. Pieces such as ‘Trane’s Medley’, a meticulously arranged walk through a selection of the master’s better-known pieces featuring just Francois and Louis, offer not a trace of ‘cross-over’. ‘Time Apart’ is a ballad framing a beautifully virtuosic bass solo from Francois, and Margitza plays an unaccompanied coda that is either breathtaking or a student’s étude, depending on your standpoint. The electric piano on ‘Two Hits’ is a less subtle gesture towards a younger jazz constituency, but unlike Sleepwalker, a Japanese group who strip down and reformat the same era with more heart-on-the-sleeves, the Moutins occupy a curious limbo. Great virtuosity abounds, but sometimes the music sounds so airbrushed that barely a figurative hair is allowed to fall out of place.

Ultimately Sharp Turns has the potential to unite several generations of listener. My copy was a special limited edition dual format CD/DVD. Concert footage shot in Chicago prior to the recording of the album shows that in a live context this band really do let their hair down. Although the main album is solid enough and won’t disappoint, it adds little to the previous three. Ultimately I found the concert footage far more engaging, and fans should act quickly and get it while they can.

Fred Grand