Thursday, October 23, 2014

Wadada Leo Smith, The Great Lakes Suites

There seems little doubt about it in my mind, trumpeter-composer-leader Wadada Leo Smith continues to be one of the guiding lights in the new jazz today. He is doing some of the very best work of his career and it continues to delight. The new one, a return to a horns and rhythm group setting after several seminal large group works, brings us a series of pieces he calls The Great Lakes Suites (TUM CD 041-2 2-CDs).

Wadada creates a quartet of some very heavy players. There is of course Wadada himself on trumpet, Henry Threadgill sounding great on alto sax, flute and bass flute, John Lindberg on double bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

The first thing you notice, something that puts a strong foundation under the music, is the wonderful free-time drumming of DeJohnette. We've heard far too little of it in recent years and it reminds us how good he is in this zone. He still is a master at it. That adds much to the proceedings. John Lindberg prevails as a heavy on arco and pizzicato. And then Henry and Wadada sound better than ever.

The compositional frameworks go beyond head-solos-head form. There are motives the band gets into during the improvs that are pre-conceived. Where composition leaves off and improvisation begins is a fluid thing and it gives the freedom of the players an inherent structure that catapults the entire sequencing onto a higher plane. Yet as we would hope the improvisations are no less masterful.

It's an extended look at a master quartet and a master composer-conceptualist meeting on common ground and creating some exceptional music.

Outstanding! And so of course very recommended. Wadada is a leader in the widest sense. He keeps the music alive in the most vibrant way.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lucky Peterson, The Son of a Bluesman

Lucky Peterson is a triple-threat blues artist--fiery guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist. He comes front-and-center on his album The Son of a Bluesman (Jazz Village 2-LP 33570038.39).

It's a grooving, full-blown production of Peterson, together band, and backup vocalists. His early experience with his father as blues artist and club owner and subsequently in the bands of Little Milton and Bobby Blue Bland gave him the catalyst for a vibrant urban style that also reaches way back to the roots on the album at hand. Originals and covers give us a complete picture of the artist, a bright spot in the blues world today, the real thing. So we get Bland's "I Pity the Fool" in a hot version, "Funky Broadway", "I Can See Clearly Now" as well as grits and gravy soul and roots.

Lucky's guitar playing has dramatic presence, he sings with true soul and gives us a complete modern blues package. The music has a contemporary sound in terms of production values but underneath it all is the read deal.

Lucky has it! Give this one a listen!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Sackville All Star Christmas Record, 1986

Perhaps it is characteristic of the collector mania that I sometimes am prey to, but when in the past I glanced at the Sackville Records catalogs and listings, I would often mumble "What the h?" when I saw listed an item entitled The Sackville All Star Christmas Record (Sackville 3038). With Delmark's involvement in distributing and reissuing choice Sackvilles comes, directly from Delmark in a recent promo package, that very album, available on CD, and palpable in my greasy mitts! "I'll be d_mned!" I exclaimed, or something like that.

So I've been listening and thought I'd post on it early enough that you have plenty of time to get it for the season if you are so inclined. It's a cool record with a nice twist. Needless to say it covers holiday music of the sort you might expect ("Santa Claus is Coming to Town", "Silent Night") but then some welcome others you might not expect: like Bessie Smith's "At the Christmas Ball" and "Old Time Religion".

And it's not just the what, of course, but the how that sets it apart. First, to start with, one who was (for me) the unknown factor--the younger (then) sax player by name of Jim, Jim Galloway. He plays soprano here, sounding like something somewhere between Sidney Bechet, Rabbit Johnny Hodges and, perhaps a stretch, Willie Smith on soprano. He is a surprise gas--and fits right in with a beautiful trio of swing vets, Ralph Sutton on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Gus Johnson on drums.

Everybody sounds great. But Ralph Sutton steals the show at that late date with all the punch and drive of his stride-swing style, which is killer here.

It sets off the Christmas cliches so they sound completely fresh because this is old-style jazz played with fervor and conviction.

If your world demands Christmas musical fare or you just play it because you want to be festive, to observe the season in the manner of the ancestors and all the reasons one does this--and get jaded with the commercialization and endless reiteration of horrible adaptations of "Jingle Bells" and such already filling our ears on TV ads, here is a perfect antidote. Here is a Christmas album you'll love even if you are Jewish, Zoroastrian, or any manner of faith! It has an old-jazz beauty and swing that will make a convert of you. I am sorry, I mean a jazz convert. The rest is up to you and your faith and/or beliefs. Happy Holidays early!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Blue

The jazz world is in a bit of an uproar over the new album by Mostly Other People Do the Killing (MOPDTK), Blue (Hot Cup 141). If you don't already know, MOPDTK recreate here the entire Miles Davis classic Kind of Blue, reproducing all the notes the original band played on the released takes--not only the heads, but all the solos, all the rhythm section utterances.

That people have reacted so strongly, with or without hearing the actual recording, is a sign that MOPDTK have treaded on sacred jazz ground, so to speak. My first reaction initially was anger and vexation, to tell the truth. Then I stopped myself. "Why?" I have found MOPDTK one of the very most important of new groups in jazz. I've gotten a kick out of the reproduction of classic cover designs but found always that the music takes tradition and makes something new of it, no matter what period is channeled. So what is it about Blue that caught me off guard?

One of the answers that first comes of course is that jazz by definition involves individual expression, that both rhythm sections and soloists have great latitude in what they play, typically. Kind of Blue and that first version was all about soloing on more or less modal forms. Miles, Trane, Cannonball, Evans or Kelly, Chambers and Cobb gave the album its classic quality by taking the wonderful compositional ideas there and expressing themselves with spontaneity. All jazz does not have to have continuous improvisations--and it still can be jazz. But this is copying. And of course that's the point. But then is it jazz?

MOPDTK do not go here for self-expression, though they surely could have and done a wonderful job had they wished, playing their own version. Instead they try to recreate the original EXACTLY, or that's how we experience it.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Kind of Blue was not singled out as the holy of holies, the "greatest jazz album ever made". In fact when I was at Berklee (1971-2) the album was acknowledged and respected, but the album everybody was concerned with then was Bitches Brew, the Miles iconic foray into electric and rock forms. The need to name "the world's greatest jazz album" simply wasn't a concern. With the rise of Neo-Trad and its very vocal narrowing down of what they considered "legitimate" (electric jazz like Bitches Brew and free-avant jazz in general were considered mostly illegitimate) suddenly Kind of Blue was enshrined as the one greatest achievement in jazz.

As wonderful as the album is, the attempt to create in it the jazz equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth was unfortunate, perhaps. The public has no time for anything and if they only want one jazz album, just like maybe they only want one classical, the "authorities" needed to choose it. I don't think this ultimately is good for jazz, and maybe not even for classical, in that there can never only be one and the reaction is to have large segments of the listening public with no time to waste coming to own Kind of Blue and/or Beethoven's Ninth and nothing else.

So at this point Kind of Blue has been sacralized. Miles and Coltrane, too, are the closest thing to jazz deities as you are likely to find. The (deserved) reverence for these two masters is near worshipful. Like a holy book in an organized religion, Kind of Blue is a kind of holy text, for the jazz community one among many, to part of the world the only, the highest of the high.

So, one reacts in one's gut with, "What? How can these guys have the temerity to reproduce the album note-for-note? Do they imply that they themselves are on the plane of Miles and Trane?" Well I think that surely they weren't about that with this album. What they were about is much more complex.

First of all there is the factor of conservative reification. As someone with an involvement in jazz since childhood on many levels, I can see that the changes in the distribution and transmission of jazz have had a dramatic effect since the '50s when I was tangentially exposed, then into the sixties when I really started listening, and eventually, playing (primarily as a drummer) the music. The new recordings were the point certainly in the sixties. Moving to the next step was in the air. New jazz artists and evolving styles were given much attention.

Sometime in the early seventies the reissues started become a big factor, as more and more looking backwards became important. All jazz people generally speaking have done this, have developed a good grasp of the history. But as things evolved in that period there was more and more an emphasis on what had gone before, even to the extent that the present, new jazz masters were subject to questioning or even ignored. There came a point where many people felt that the best jazz was in the past, that what was most worthwhile was already done. With that came the rise of jazz repertoire. Jazz at Lincoln Center did and does a good bit of recreating Duke or other classic jazz artists. At the same time Kind of Blue was more and more enshrined as the ONE.

As a young up and coming jazz artist today your training involves in a big way assimilating some of the masters and their techniques. Jazz programs in music schools often stress the ability to play past forms of the music before you develop your own style. Sometimes it results in players who don't seem to have a personal sound or style. In the past players were exposed to classical music and learned jazz on their own or through mentorship and bandstand education. The new education stresses a certain homogeneity and a pantheon of players and techniques to be learned.

Take all this and throw MOPDTK into the maelstrom. Here are five exceptionally talented young players, subjected to all the inertia of the jazz scene the way it has evolved. How do you develop a personal sound and get recognized when the world is saying "there can be nothing new"? That Kind of Blue is the perfection, the end-all of the music? Well in previous recordings they have taken the past forms of jazz and made them their own, in part, but changing the music as they did so, adding a very personal element, originality. To turn to Kind of Blue now and recreate it exactly is a new move. It is a comment, a gesture, a statement.

So what are the results? An uncanny duplication of sound and style of the original. It is an impressive achievement, just to channel both Trane and Cannonball so successfully takes real musicianship, and Irabagon does it to perfection. Peter Evans and Miles you could say the same thing of, and so forth down the line.

And now this disk calls forth the pontification from authority, as can be expected, but this time you get all kinds of spins. The jazz community, judging by social media, has responded vocally and in some cases angrily. This is not what jazz is about, they say, some of them. Jazz is about soloing and playing in your own style. They are right. Some reviewers--and I try not to read them right now, but this I have heard--give the album a big thumbs up. Some say it is only doing what classical music has been doing. But classical music at least today does not have the recorded example of, say, a Mozart symphony that they try and get exactly right, to copy it verbatim. They bring to the written score varying interpretations and that's why there continue to be so many recordings and classical listener-collectors who have sometimes many different recordings of the same piece. The point is in part authenticity but also in part the stamp of personal artistry in each performance.

MOPDTK have striven for the opposite in a way, to reproduce the album as exactly as they could. Listening you hear sometimes a slightly more lyrical twist now and again, but it is very subtle. They nail the original almost completely. So much so that I ended up comparing the recorded sound versus the old Columbia Studio's sound, which was in many ways a tad more alive--Columbia engineers and that studio recreated the Miles sound in audio with an incredible flair. So maybe the actual sound of the mastered new MOPDTK is the most obvious difference.

What stands is the remarkable brilliance of the channeling. This was no easy exercise. And a true love for the original record and musicians comes through too, very clearly. If they are making fun it is NOT of the music. In some ways they seem to be saying, "look jazz world, if all you want to do is talk about the past and the great masters, where do we fit in? OK, you just want Kind of Blue and to hell with what comes after? Well, here it is then, note-for-note!"

Given all that, should you go out and buy this record? Should I as a so-called critic "rate" it? This record is amazing but by rating it I pretend that this is a new trend that should be or shouldn't be incorporated into how we think of jazz. I won't rate it. If you buy this one, it should not be because it is something new. It is most emphatically something NOT NEW. And that may be the point of course. I will say that hearing it a number of times makes we want to go back to the original, that it fills me with wonder about the brilliance of the players and their solos, of the album as a whole. I will file the album not under MOPDTK, but next to the original. If you buy it, it is to experience the chill of uncanny reproduction. But really that's all.

It is a statement, a protest maybe, about the state-of-the-art today. I have no doubt that MOPDTK will go on to make breathtaking original albums after this. This is something they had to do and I applaud their nerve. But I do not then say, go get it. People will, no doubt, do that out there, just because it is Kind of Blue. Otherwise you may not need to, really. MOPDTK this is not, other than in name. This cannot be a trend. It's great but not for the reasons we seek out jazz first-hand. It is a great gesture. It shows remarkable musicianship. It isn't something that forwards the music except in the form of a protest. That's how I feel.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jorrit Dijkstra's Pillow Circles, Live Bimhuis Amsterdam

Jorrit Dijkstra and his ensemble Pillow Circles performed a very lively, absorbing set at Amsterdam's famous jazz venue Bimhuis on March 5th, 2011. Fortunately the "tapes" were rolling and captured the band in good fidelity. The result is available on Driff Records as a download-only release

The ensemble gives us very hip versions of eighth Dijkstra works, which themselves are substantial. The ensemble's lineup for the evening was Jorrit Dijkstra - alto saxophone, tin whistle; Jasper Blom - tenor and soprano saxophones; Ilja Reijngoud - trombone; Tanya Kalmanovitch - viola; Raphaƫl Vanoli - guitar, electronics; Paul Pallesen - guitar, banjo; Jason Roebke - bass; Frank Rosaly - drums.

Driff does us a real service by making this music available. It is outside, spanning in its large complexities and filled with individual soloing of note and a group collectivity that is rather mind blowing.

For the modest price of the download you can hear some excellent modern avant jazz. I will simply recommend you do so! That's enough because you can audition the music on Bandcamp. It's important music, to my mind.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Black Top with Steve Williamson, No. 1

Like the bear in the woods, no, make that the tree, just because you don't hear something doesn't mean it isn't worth hearing. Black Top is a good example. They have been together since 2011, propelling forward with a free avant music that I am glad finally to hear. The new album has the matter-of-fact title No. 1 (Babel Label). The group is a duo, multi-instrumentalist Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas. For their new album tenor and soprano sax work is nicely provided by Steve Williamson. This is London-based music, avant freedom with a kind of New Yorkish edge.

The occasional tape loop and real-time interaction combine for a live program that generates genuine excitement. They call on some tribal pan-African influences via marimba and percussion, wide-ranging pianism with a flair and some great sax work. Some of it grooves with that steady-state regularity but unpredictability that keeps it out of the programmed formula realm.

What's especially nice here is the unexpected quality of their free explorations. The artists don't play what you tend to hear these days, in that there is a propensity for memorable inventions that have their own structure and logic, more so than a "completely" open, multi-lane freeway approach would dictate.

It's the avoidance of avant cliche that keeps your ears in an expectant mode. The band delivers. They are more inclined to listen to each other and construct blocks of inspiration out of the responses and gestures. Not to say that there is anything wrong with a multi-independent avantness, of course. Just that they are slightly less "new music" oriented in that way than some other bands. And also of course that can only work if the instant-compositional inspiration happens. It does.

For a thorough hoot I would recommend you hear this one. Black Top is happening! You can grab No. 1 at the following BandCamp link:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

John Coltrane, Offering, Live at Temple University, 1966

New unreleased John Coltrane surely is an event. Such is the case with the 1966 concert Offering, Live at Temple University (Resonance Impulse B0019632-01 2-CDs). And yet from what I gather, there are those who disapprove. (I try not to read anything on a recording before I review. In this case social media reacted to some of it and I was drawn in.)

By the time we now live, 2014 at the moment, it has become clear that the avant garde in music will not likely become a universally appreciated phenomenon. Late Coltrane is a part of that and as such has had detractors from the very beginning. The unfortunate militancy of Neo-Trad from the '80s on, against all free-avant and electric forms of the music, has only heightened that tendency by officially sanctioning it.

The fact is, though, Coltrane in 1966 was a part of something that included his music and quite a few others as well. Sure the times were turbulent and the music reflects that. But whether in response to that or not, there was a musical movement in full-flight that started with Ornette Coleman's breathtaking entrance into the public ear from 1959 on and grew as artists such as Albert Ayler took things a step further. "New Thing" is what it was called by some. The music gave primacy to expression, a more or less universal disregard for set chord changes, a loosening of the pulse in the direction of "free time", where there was periodicity but symmetrical patterns in 4/4 and the like were avoided for a more open rhythmic stance.

Trane of course was at the top of his game, in his first stylistic incarnation, when all of this started happening. His response was, after his various tenures with Miles and Monk, to open up to "modality", and via the classic quartet of Trane, McCoy, Garrison or Workman and Elvin to extend the polyrhythmic possibilities of swing and head for a more expressive open stance.

The formation of his last band was the next step in his gradual embrace of New Thing avant garde jazz. He dreamed one night that he was going to play sax like Albert Ayler, and the gradual movement toward more overt expression was a part of that. Rashied Ali replacing Elvin Jones gave him drumming that had a regular forward drive but no set patterns that would imply standard swing, though Rashied certainly swung in his own way. The open stance of Alice Coltrane's piano replaced the recurrent patterning brilliance of Tyner with something more open-ended, corresponding to what Rashied was doing. Adding Pharoah Sanders as a second, very caustic and turbulent sax exponent put the finishing touches on what Trane was after. It was all deliberate. It did what Trane wanted it to do--to allow him to embody directly the New Thing ethos.

The wash of rapid rhythmic pulsation from Rashied allowed Trane complete freedom to play with ferocious intensity or beautiful rubato rapture. Alice opened things up harmonically so that all notes were possible, though that doesn't mean the music was ever atonal. Trane got the harmolodic logic of Ornette, that you could modulate anywhere tonally in your playing and the band might follow or modulate elsewhere, so long as a pitch center remained whether stated overtly or not.

So that's where Trane was when he stepped on stage at the large auditorium at Temple University on November 11, 1966. His new band had been playing for a while and the roles of each musician pretty much had gelled. Regular bassist Jimmy Garrison was for whatever reason not on stage that night (actually he had quit the band for a time. Thanks to Sabir Mateen for the clarification.). Instead Sonny Johnson fills the bass chair. Alice, Pharoah, and Rashied were very much present. Then there were several hand percussionists added and a few guest spots for lesser known local saxophonists. Both groups add something to the ambience.

The concert, fortunately, was recorded for broadcast by the local college station. They seemed to rely on one microphone with a possible second as a spot mike but it was apparently mixed down to mono on the spot. The result, taken from the master tapes made at the time, is very clear audio, but not always entirely balanced. At times the rhythm section is less audible than they should have been. But the positive side is that Trane and the other saxophonists are put at times in stark relief. And that means you can really hear what Trane was playing that night, close up.

The repertoire consisted of expanded versions that stretch out very nicely. "Naima", "Crescent" and "My Favorite Things" from earlier times; "Leo" and "Offering" as new numbers.

Now those who find this album not to their liking either don't understand or don't appreciate late Trane. It is perhaps an acquired taste, and if you don't like "free jazz-new thing" you probably won't get with this last phase of Trane. What he might have evolved into had he lived is speculation. What he was doing then was entirely consistent with where Trane had been and the very personal way he transformed himself and his band into a "free" ensemble. This is late Trane fully flowered.

There are some really ravishing examples of Coltrane's tenor in full bloom here. He can be frenetic, yes, as can Pharoah, but he can be beautifully rubato, almost as an extension of what he worked at on the unaccompanied tenor cadenza on the Impulse version of "I Want to Talk About You" from years before. Untrammeled now by a more geometrically explicit rhythm section, he can and does play atop the free rhythm washes with very lyrical, very expressive brilliance. Listen especially to his work on "Naima" and "Crescent" and you will hear it. The band in Japan had moments where Trane unleashed a lyrical storm in similar ways, but this recording puts him right at your front door, so to speak.

If you are a confirmed hater of the later Coltrane I don't see how this will change your mind. Except maybe this heretofore unfamiliar recording (albeit available in lower quality bootlegs for a while but never with the completeness and pristine original master sound) will cause you to listen more closely.

This music is not a mistake. It is not a degeneration. It is not even a transition. True, there is Trane here doing something a little different than on his very last recordings, such as Interstellar Space, but these are concert length expositions of some prime works, and so there is a different pace, a stretching out. It is fully developed Coltrane at a peak. It is a revelation for the master himself and his playing. It is John Coltrane as he was on November 11, 1966. And that cannot be replaced.

Get this one!