Friday, August 28, 2015

Eugene Marlow with the Heritage Ensemble, Hallelujah! Jazzy & Classical Piano Variations from the Hebraic Songbook

As I travel down the road of musical life I have begun to see clearly that there are two major poles in New York Jewish jazz. There is on the one hand of course John Zorn, and then there is Eugene Marlow. Both go about things in different ways, but neither are to be missed.

Eugene Marlow and his Heritage Ensemble show us their special approach once again on their 5th album, Hallelujah! Jazzy & Classical Piano Variations from the Hebraic Songbook (MEII). For this volume Eugene arranges a wonderful choice of well-known Hebraic songs for solo piano, jazz trio and quartet, giving it all a modern twist and allowing us to appreciate the vivid artistry of Marlow the pianist.

The solo piano tracks have a sort of classical-meets-jazz wholeness. The trio numbers swing very nicely, whether in a Latin mode or otherwise. Though the personnel is not listed on the album I hear most definitely Bobby Sanabria on drums in there, and as usual he is a knockout.

It all has a special emphasis on Eugene Marlow the rather brilliant piano stylist. His transposing of the Jewish melodic modality into a modern zone works beautifully here as we have come to expect.

The more intimate emphasis on Hallelujah! is welcome and moving. These are some of the most beautiful songs in the folkways of Hebraica and the arrangements only serve to heighten that feeling.

A program of great worth is what you get on this one, highlighting the interpretive brilliance and pianistic excellence of Eugene Marlow. Kudos!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Clocks and Clouds, Luis Vicente, Rodrigo Pinheiro, Hernani Faustino, Marco Franco

Those of you who follow these musical blogs regularly will get a good exposure to the Portuguese avant jazz-free-new music scene, which is substantial. The post up for today continues that coverage with the album Clocks and Clouds (FMR CD371-0214), a vibrant seven-part journey to free realms with a quartet of very capable players. You might even say that this quartet in Portuguese terms is a sort of all-star lineup. These are names you may recognize, in other words. Luis Vicente is on trumpet, Rodrigo Pinheiro plays piano, Hernani Faustino is on contrabass and Marco Franco plays the drums.

The quartet has excellent chemistry throughout. Each plays a coherent and creative role realizing the spontaneous collective improvisations that make up the program. As in the best of these sorts of outings all four are very aware of what the others are doing at any moment and they respond, not necessarily in kind, but with contrasting complemental phrases.

All four are fully developed musical personalities. Luis wide-ranging and maybe puckish, Rodrigo fully pianistic and filled with multi-noted ideas, Hernani making full use of the huge range of timbres and attacks to give his bass both textural and pitch-specific insights into the mix, Marco making of his drum kit a multi-voiced symphony of free percussives.

Clocks and Clouds follows the wind with the best kind of creative immediacy. The quartet can and does go to many realms of sound possibilities, alternatingly noteful or sparse, mysterious or matter-of-fact, energy-soulful or other-worldly.

In short this is a very successful free outing from four masters of the art. Words can take you to the starting track, but then the music speaks for itself, eloquently and artfully.

Grab this one and get a good earful. It's an excellent example of Portuguese avant today.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann, A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America

Kurt Weill wrote some of the most lyrical and compelling songs of the last century. Many of them have entered the repertoire of jazz though the years, as done in many different ways by some of our greatest artists. I won't rehearse a list here, you need only to think of "My Ship" or "Mack the Knife" to think of some iconic versions.

Julia Hulsmann, her quartet and vocalist Theo Bleckmann enter that fertile territory with a special album centered around Weill gems known and less-known. The album is entitled A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America (ECM 2418).

The program generally concerns itself with Weill's American period but also with a song written about America while he was still in Europe, the "Alabama Song." It further gives us songs written by Julia to the poetry of Walt Whitman, who was a Weill favorite. So we get the songs "A Clear Midnight," "A Noiseless Patient Spider," and "Beat! Beat! Drums!"

The idea of jazz realizations of art songs is at the forefront. Note the quartet of Hulsmann on piano, with her sophisticated voicings and brilliant but brief solo moments, Tom Arthurs on trumpet and flugel with a sort of post-Milesian lyricism, and the very subtle and introspective presence of the rhythm team of Marc Muellbauer on double bass and Heinrich Kobberling on drums. They make fine music. Marc Muellbauer arranges four of the songs and does a very singularly great job.

The tempos tend to be slow to allow vocalist Theo Bleckmann space for his deft articulation of the lyric content in a retrospective mood. He sometimes nicely substitutes alternate melody tones in a particular song, which gives us something uniquely different and, once you get used to it, quite artful. He is very musical, subdued and almost starkly concrete in the most excellently moody way.

There are songs in the mix that are not well-known, like "Your Technique," "River Chanty" and "Great Big Sky," all done in special ways, satisfying; then there are the very well known songs such as "Mack the Knife," "September Song," and "Speak Low." The stunning arrangements and performances put the music in a special place, whether it is Weill, earlier or later, or Julia's Whitman songs.

It is a contemporary noir-atmospheric Weill album with the very appropriately inspired performances of Bleckmann, Hulsmann, Arthurs and the rhythm team. It makes for music that creates a world you enter at first tentatively, then with increasing appreciation as you hear the music again and again. It is not a greatest hits sort of album, surely, but it affords us an even greater appreciation of Weill with obscurities as well as standards, all unveiling a sort of new take on Weill through its special musical reworkings.

It is very ECM in its atmospherics yet it is also an album like no other. Stunning! It seems to fit a mood today. Weill could brilliantly capture a gestalt, a zeitgeist, certainly, but he is given a great lift into the present on this outstanding offering. Fabulous!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Chicago Reed Quartet, Western Automatic, Mazzarella, Rempis, Williams, Vandermark

From Dave Rempis and his Aerophonic label comes another satisfyingly advanced project, a saxophone quartet, more specifically the Chicago Reed Quartet and their album Western Automatic (Aerophonic 009). It is a worthy gathering of four great avant reedists from Chicagoland in a program of eight composition-improvisations.

Joining Dave Rempis on alto, tenor and baritone is Nick Mazzarella on alto, Mars Williams on sopranino, soprano, alto and tenor, and Ken Vandermark on clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor and baritone saxes. Each contributes two compositions.

If you think of the Rova Sax Quartet on one hand and the World Saxophone Quartet on the other, the Chicago Reed Quartet perhaps gravitates towards the edgy qualities of Rova, yet also has the soulful demeanor of World Sax. That is only a rough approximation to give you an idea of what you will hear. The music stands on its own, ultimately. They do not sound like either as much as they sound like themselves.

For all that we get sounds that are robust and full, avant in their expressive thrust, filled with structural-compositional significance and improvisational excellence, both collectively and individually. There is always a good deal going on that brings out the collective and individual personalities of the artists. There is a tang and classicism to the music that somehow strikes me as being exemplary of Chicago style these days, something of course present in much of the original AACM outings, but then extended and worked through anew today as well.

Each work has its own compositional touchpoints and so we hear a spectrum of possibilities that keeps the ears and attention focused in great ways. All who appreciate virtuoso energy saxophonics will find much to like and a good deal of form to fit it all into as well.

It is an essential recording for anyone interested in sax ensemble avant jazz, certainly. This is a group to be reckoned with, and the album maps it all out for us so that in the end we have an offering of substance and, yes, soul! I hope they can come together often and do more. Meanwhile get this one!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Jerry Granelli, Gtrio+3, What I Hear Now

Drummer-composer Jerry Granelli has has made his mark on the music world for many years, as a member of Vince Guaraldi's most acclaimed band, as an in-demand session man, an educator, a force in jazz styles both mainstream and outside, as an artist with more than 20 albums as leader or soloist since the latter 1980s.

His latest provides an excellent balance between his drumming and his composing-conceptualization. What I Hear Now (Addo 030) is an evolution of his Gtrio with Simon Fisk on 3 string bassetto and Dani Oore on tenor and soprano, together for a number of years. Now it is a matter of the Gtrio +3, with the addition of Mike Murley on tenor, Andrew McKelvey on alto and Andrew Jackson on trombone.

There is a strong resonance of the four horns as a unit minus a chording instrument. It leaves bassist Fisk and drummer Granelli an aural space where they can articulate rhythm and counter melody freely and creatively. The four horns form contrasting blocks both in terms of collective and individual improvisations, and as a compositional choir that partakes of the looseness of collective freedom but structures it with excellent motives and harmonic movement.

There are moments now and then that remind me in the use of space of the later Paul Motian groups that had multi-tenors. Not that the music sounds like his so much as the entrances of the horns against the rhythm have a pronounced dynamic quality, and in their deft interweaving of the composed and the collectively improvised.

The four horn players are each significant to the total sound and what individual soloing that happens is very good. But it is a contrapuntal overlap of the four that stands out. Jerry Granelli has a strong sense of what he is after and gets a near-ideal balance between horn quartet and rhythm duo and the various, always interesting blends the band gets.

The compositions stand out as very original, the drumming as special and smartly free, the band as very cohesively together as an memorable musical entity.

What I Hear Now is neither entirely out, nor inside in any formulaic way. It is good jazz, original music, something you should by all means hear.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Buster Bee, 1978

Oliver Lake and Julius Hemphill, with Hamiet Bluiett and David Murray, founded the monumentally landmark World Saxophone Quartet in 1977. They came up with compositions that brought the music forward with a combination of pre-arranged structures and brilliant improvisational interactions. Early that following year, in 1978, Lake and Hemphill went into the studio in Toronto to record a series of duets that gave us a more pared-down, intimate view of their music, just the two of them on various saxophones, improvising around some of their choice compositions.

The result was the album Buster Bee (Sackville 3018), which has been available in CD format for some time now but still speaks readily and strongly to us in the present.

They both were in peak form, doing as founding members of the St. Louis collective BAG what the important Chicago artists in the AACM were also doing: creating a new series of chamber and larger group musics that showed music lovers an ambitious, non-commercial striving after an avant jazz serious about advancing and extending forms and freedoms into a truly classic Afro-American art form. It of course was much about what jazz had forged previously at its best but now with both collectives a very conscious effort was being made to achieve self-determination and accelerate the creation of improvised music as first and foremost an art, rather than an entertainment per se.

Buster Bee was one of many small chamber efforts being recorded in those days, but along with a handful of sterling examples by Mitchell, Braxton, Lacy and a few others it was especially successful.

The success comes out of the close-knit sympathy of both players towards one another and their collaborative musical vision. Soul and structure, testifying and scaling high walls of sophisticated musical forms come through fully on these six composition-improvisations.

A relaxed, intense yet open two-way dialog is what this album puts forward so imaginatively and consistently. Both come through as master improvisers who can craft compositional foundations that encourage both artists to create significant musical statements in real-time.

All of it speaks to us as freshly now as it did then. If we mourn the untimely loss of Hemphill on hearing this, we also rejoice that Lake is still with us, sounding great.

This is the real deal. A classic from an era that sometimes gets insufficient credit for the high-art innovations it spawned, for changing the focus in the music and opening us all up to the very many possibilities the improvisatory arts have to offer us. Yeah, so listen to this a few times and you will feel very good, I think.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Universal Indians with Joe McPhee, Skullduggery

The teaming of avant titan Joe McPhee with the trio Universal Indians was an inspired idea that bears excellent fruit in the live 2014 Antwerp recording Skullduggery (Clean Feed 328). It is music with some of that classic "new thing" exuberance. It is music that Albert Ayler would have loved to be a part of!

McPhee is on saxes and pocket trumpet, John Dikeman on saxes. The two form an imposing front line with some beautifully in-your-face avant testifying. Jon Rune Strom on acoustic bass has a huge presence in the music both in the solo realm and in the ensemble. Totlef Ostvong's drumming is chargingly extroverted and always interesting.

The vehicles are collective compositions with some thematic guideposts now and again that may well be spontaneous but all the better for all that.

Both McPhee and Dikeman are in fine solo form and work in tandem together particularly well. It is great to hear Joe stretch out in flat-out free context. Truly this is a kinetic four-way blow out, infectiously forward moving and ecstatically satisfying for those who move on the free-way of uninhibited expression.

A fabulously out set! Need I say more?