Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gary Burton, Seven Songs for Quartet and Chamber Orchestra, Music by Michael Gibbs, 1973

ECM has reissued some of its back-catalog gems in deluxe new editions for CD or connoisseur quality vinyl LPs. One in the series I actually never heard when it came out, so I thought it would be good for me to cover it and I hope bring some excellent music to the blog from an era that now seems distant, yet is filled with some seminal jazz, projects that may be somewhat ignored by certain folks yet well deserve a hearing.

The album at hand is Gary Burton's 1973 Seven Songs for Quartet and Chamber Orchestra, Music by Michael Gibbs (ECM 1040). If I am not mistaken Gibbs and Burton attended Berklee School of Music at the same time in the early sixties. They came to know one another and appreciate each other's considerable talent. Gary had performed Michael's music on records before, but the Seven Songs project was their most ambitious collaboration to date.

The Gary Burton Quartet with Mick Goodrick on electric guitar, Steve Swallow on electric bass and Ted Seibs on drums formed the core group around which was arrayed a chamber orchestra composed of members of the NDR Symphony Orchestra Hamburg, conducted by Gibbs.

The music contains one short piece by Steve Swallow ("Arise, Her Eyes"), the rest Gibb works. "Throb" was well known from an earlier album, the rest I believe were recorded here for the first time.

Gibbs' arrangements for the orchestra are quite stunning and set off the quartet's playing in ways that give greater sonance to both. Burton's excellent vibe tone melds with strings particularly well. Yet it is equally true that the entire quartet plus orchestra create a sonorous whole that in the hands of Manfred Eicher's production vision outshines what either of them might do on their own.

The songs, the treatment-arrangements and the performances all come together for a remarkably absorbing listen. By the end of 1973 the idea of a "Third Stream" may have been cast aside, yet perhaps ironically some of the most successful ventures in combining classical and jazz were either in the works or yet to come.

Most certainly this album constitutes one of them. It is extraordinarily beautiful music that loses nothing with the years that have intervened. It sounds as fresh and central as if it were done yesterday. Hear Seven Songs!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Michael Vlatkovich Quartet, You're Too Dimensional

The West Coast jazz scene continues to be vibrant. It may not make headlines over here in the east, but there is vital music being made there. Michael Vlatkovich, trombonist and composer, has certainly been one of the important voices for some time now. He returns with a quartet lineup on the recent You're Too Dimensional (pfMENTUM 077).

In addition of course to Michael V. there is Jim Knodle on trumpet, Phil Sparks on acoustic bass, and Greg Campbell on drums and a very respectable French horn.

The music is modern in the free-composed vein we expect from Vlatkovich. He is one of the free trombonists at the top of his game out there and that is clear from the new album. Jim Knodle adds a vibrant second voice in the front line, with an inventiveness that complements Michael's both in terms of solo utterances but also in a two-way improvised polyphony at times--three-way when Greg Campbell takes up his French horn.

Phil Sparks does riffs with good variations at times when the music has a rock-funk rhythmic underpinning and can walk well, free zone, put down rhythmically and noteful foundations that set things up nicely. He can solo with interesting and effective results. Greg Campbell propulses the band with a nice feel from the drum chair (or rather the throne, as drum manufacturers call it).

Some (not all) of this reminds slightly of M-Base and/or Dave Holland's band of some years ago when they did contrapuntal funk. But only referentially, not in some imitative way.

Vlatkovich sounds limber and up. The compositions stimulate and the band swings, rocks and frees up in nice ways. This may not be his best album to start out with if you do not know his music, but it satisfies and shows him once again a critical member of the West coastal jazz coterie.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Frank Wess, Magic 201

Tenor sax and flautist Frank Wess defied nature by living to a ripe age while still managing to sound great. Like all such things though it could not last forever. And so he passed last year. Fortunately what were I presume his last recording sessions produced a wealth of material. We covered his Magic 101 album here on its release. (See the June 20th, 2013 article). Now we have Magic 201 (IPO 1025).

As before there is the sympathetic piano of Kenny Barron and the tasteful drumming of Winard Harper. On this session Rufus Reid takes the bass slot and added is guitarist Russell Malone. These are the right folks for Frank and he responds in kind.

Wess was always key, especially when with Basie, as a swing-to-bop stylist that was comfortable in either camp. These later sessions bring that home to us forcefully, and in addition remind us of his lyrical side. Listen to the solo flute version of "The Summer Knows" and you hear that. But the blues and standards recorded here also remind us of the beautiful tenor tone he had. Perhaps no living artist except Scott Hamilton remains to channel the sound, and not in quite the same way.

It's primo late Frank, which means nothing in the way of 16th-note runs (not that he did very much of that even in his youth), but just a perfect, direct, unfaltering blowing-at-you classicism.

Goodbye Frank Wess. And thanks. From all of us.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Paul Stapleton, Simon Rose, Fauna

One of the good things about doing these blogs is hearing music you never would have purchased on your own--because, who knows? When the music turns out to be excellent it gives you a leg up on what's out there.

That's how I feel about the rather obscure new release by Paul Stapleton and Simon Rose, Fauna (pfMentum 074). Stapleton plays something he calls a bonsai sound sculpture, with various sounding devices plucked, hit and whatnot--a pitched and unpitched percussion and stringed conglomerate. Simon Rose is on baritone and alto saxes.

Their duets are entirely out-avant. Rose sounds especially good on baritone. Stapleton makes all matter of sounds.

What counts is that there is a Zen ON quality to be heard in the phrasing, sequencing, and silences. These guys have that extra-sensory antennae that allow them to think in mutual blocks of sound and more sound.

It works and works and works. That's rare! If you like zoned-out improvisations...you will definitely go for this.

Highly recommended.

Bud Powell, Birdland 1953, Three CD Set

Of all the jazz pianists of the mid-20th century, it could be argued that Bud Powell was the most influential. He was there as bebop arose, creating a style of playing for himself that entirely fit with what Bird and Diz were doing on their instruments. He pioneered and excelled at using the left hand as comping vehicle, with rhythmically vibrant jabs that opened up the rhythm section to swing in a more exposed, more advanced way, with harmonic spellings that also opened things up for Bud's spectacularly inventive horn-like right hand (or for that matter other soloists in their own segments).

He and Monk were the most important piano trend-setters of their time and of course Monk took Bud in hand early on and helped set him free musically.

When Bud was on the mark he was a dazzling, burning force that was virtually unmatched among those playing the new kind of jazz. Unfortunately he was not always so inspired. Mental illness and other, sometimes social afflictions increasingly got in the way. As his life went on those periods became more and more frequent. Though there are recordings from his later period that have the fire (but not always the razor-sharp technique) of his peak years, they were not typical.

In 1949-1953 he was an all-devouring monster of style and invention. The Blue Note and Verve recordings from that period say it all. But there was more. In 1953 Bud was released from the mental institution that incarcerated him and proceeded to triumph in a 20-week stand at Birdland, the major NY jazz club of the era. Fortunately for us Birdland regularly broadcasted live sets on a prominent local station and so there were a good many Bud Powell Trio sets captured during that time.

They have made the rounds on various, mostly obscure labels at various points. Now there's a really excellent three-CD set containing most of those Powell broadcasts, aurally cleaned up to sound as close to high fidelity as you will get. Birdland 1953 (ESP 4073) has arrived, and we are all the better for it.

What first strikes you when listening to it all back-to-back is that it documents that long stand thoroughly, with the ins-and-outs of repertoire and the shifts in personnel and moods. Russ Musto in his liners gives us an excellent run-down of it all. I will give you a very brief idea here.

It's the trio throughout, with occasional guests of high importance. The trio most certainly lived or died by virtue of Powell's inspirations (and most certainly lived on these sessions) but things were greatly helped along by the drumming of Roy Haynes and Art Taylor, with Sonny Payne appearing on one set in a less impressive way. The bass chair had Oscar Pettiford in the beginning, Franklin Skeets on one set, and then Charles Mingus for a good deal of the music, followed by George Duvivier and Curley Russell. Needless to say Pettiford and Mingus are a particular gas to hear and with the cleaned-up audio you really CAN hear what they are doing.

Bird, Diz and Candido make brief but excellent guest appearances, a highlight of which is Bird quoting Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues" trumpet cadenza at some length!

But this is about Bud and he is in great form a great deal of the time. He plays the standards and pop tunes that he favored in those days, sometimes in multiple versions, for example "Embraceable You". Then there are the bop numbers that you might expect, like Bird's "Ornithology". But the most remarkable music to hear live in this setting involve Bud's own compositions, versions of "Budo", "Parisian Thoroughfare", "Un Poco Loco", "Dance of the Infidels", and "Oblivion"!

Listening to these broadcasts carefully again in the vastly improved sound quality of the set gave me all I love about prime Bud, and woke me up to things I haven't paid enough attention to. I was almost surprised to hear some of the block chord things he was doing then, even in up-tempos. They are extraordinary. You must hear it all!

Here is Bud unleashed, aged 28, a fully formed genius. Even if you've had or have some of the old LP releases of these sets you will want these in the improved audio.

It is essential Bud. And that means it is essential jazz. Essential music!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Abdullah Ibrahim, African Piano, 1969

ECM had a good idea of re-releasing some of the gems in its back catalog that have been hard to find in recent years. Each release can be had as a deluxe vinyl LP or regular CD. The beautiful album African Piano (ECM JAPO 60002 3743552) by Abdullah Ibrahim is one of them. It is a 1969 live performance at Jazzhus Montmartre, Copenhagen. And it is an album that lays out the artistry of the master South African player-composer in all its glory.

If you don't think Ibrahim was a seminal force in the music from then on, listen closely to this recording. He gives us the rooty-yet-advanced style that impacted the scene in full-blown form. As much as Horace Silver and the initial "funk" movement allowed the music to re-embrace its down-home gospel and blues roots, Abdullah Ibrahim did something analogous with his re-routing of those roots into the African center of its initial existence.

So we get a full set of some of his trademark sounds in the pure setting of a solo piano performance. The in-and-out of his expression blended naturally together, just as Duke Ellington's piano style did beginning in an earlier era.

And like Duke, Abdullah sounds as timeless as ever here.

This is indispensable music, played definitively. If you don't have it, you should. I am glad I do.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Jane Ira Bloom, Sixteen Sunsets

It's a jazz cliche to say that the hardest thing for a soloist to do is to play a ballad. There is some truth to it however. You are left with yourself and the song, your artistry and the need to devise a way through it that does justice to both.

Jane Ira Bloom is not the first of course to put together an entire album of such things. John Coltrane comes to mind with an especially sublime offering. Yet here we are these many years later and most certainly the last word has not been said, the last note has not been played in this realm.

So we have Jane Ira Bloom's Sixteen Sunsets (Outline 141). Jane comes to the forefront on her soprano, accompanied by an excellent set of musicians in Dominic Fallacaro (piano), Cameron Brown (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums). They do what they should and do it well. The set is a mix of standards and originals, all in a balladic mode.

Jane Ira Bloom comes through beautifully here. She is and has been an artist of a huge stature, an original, a master of the soprano and the sounds she wishes to make with it. She is the sort of player that should be easy to identify in a blindfold test, because she is a school of one.

Throughout her by now long career she has consistently moved forward as an artist. Today she appears before us fully bloomed. Listen to "I Love You Porgy" and what she does with it.

This is straightforward artistry. It neither sounds modern nor does it sound trad. It is in the ballad tradition of course, yes. But beyond that it is Jane Ira Bloom speaking to us honestly, directly, with little to intervene except the recording and production process.

It is masterful Bloom we have here. A triumph. It will appeal to those who know as well as those who do not know her, jazz, or whatever else confirmed adepts take for granted. But it pleases us too, because it is very well done indeed. Don't neglect this one.