Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Daniel Blacksberg Trio, Perilous Architecture

Today, a refreshing return to No Business and their limited edition vinyl releases. Only 300 copies of trombonist Daniel Blacksberg's Trio doing Perilous Architecture (NBLP 76) have been pressed. Yet the quality of the music belies what will be its scarcity. I don't know much about Daniel save that he sounds very good here, burred and blazing, ranged out and acrobatic, free and idiomatically trombon-esque. He is joined by Matt Engle on contrabass and Mike Szekely on drums and they do well in a modern equivalent of "new thing" aero-sweeping.

Daniel supplies the compositional motival head structures and they fit what follows nicely, and vice-versa. This is unpretentious free blowing that comes at you like a palette cleanser, wiping out the residue of whatever you were listening to before and freshening you with something honest and real.

Now I could say more, but why? This is good blowing. No need to spell it out. Blacksberg and trio do it right. Bone lovers will grok! If you aren't a bone lover, you should be...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Post on Smithsonian Website for UNESCO Reissue Series

My UNESCO-Smithsonian review article just posted--on the music of the Kurds and of West Futuna. Paste the url in your browser to read. Thanks!

Robin Williamson, Trusting in the Rising Light

There is music that defies expectations. Music that presents itself beyond the categories one has internalized. Robin Williamson is like that. His is a kind of art song, at once folkishly Celtic (he is Scottish, actually), yet with sophisticated, very poetic lyrics and a singer-songwriter thrust. His fourth ECM album Trusting in the Rising Light (B0022100-02) brings all that home to me. I have missed the earlier ones. This one features Robin on Celtic harp, guitar, Hardanger fiddle and vocals. Mat Maneri adds his patented smarts on viola. Ches Smith appears on vibes, drums and percussion. So we have two avant prog jazz luminaries contributing their own ethos to the mix. The results are, after a period of acclimation, very rewarding.

Could I say that Robin Williamson is a folk-Scottish sort of Leonard Cohen? Not quite but in a way. A modern troubadour? That's a part of it. An avant folk bard? Yes. He was a founding member of the Incredible String Band. Perhaps that explains much once you recall. Yes, the quirky folkiness of psychedelic Zen madness is still there, much burnished over time, experimental yet elemental, rooted yet spiralling outwards into today and the future.

So that's it in a nutshell. This is an album to light your imagination. Song and poetics, earthy roots and avant reaching forward, all combine in ways that grow stronger the more you listen.

It is a happy program of song gems performed without pretense yet with great impact. A joy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP, Return the Tides

Rob Mazurek, cornetist, composer, bandleader, has increasingly introduced electronics into his music, to excellent effect (for those who dig that--and I am one). He lost his mother tragically in eleven days earlier this year, a victim of the cancer that takes a person unawares and devastates quickly. It was a profound shock to his sensibilities, as these things are. The music on his new album reflects the aftermath of loss in profound and overwhelmingly intense ways. This is Rob Mazurek and Black Cube SP, the Sao-Paulo based outfit with Rob on cornet and electronics, Mauricio Takara on drums and cavaquinho, Guilherme Granado on keys, synths and sampler, Thomas Rohrer on rabeca, electronics and soprano sax, Rogerio Martins on percussion, Rodrigo Brandao on voice and everyone else contributing their voices as well.

The album is Return the Tides (Cuneiform). It is a hugely despairing cry on one hand, an outburst of collaged grief, very thick and electronic, recorded very hot almost to the level of distortion. And yet as music and gesture it attempts a transcendance, a beyond state. Whether it quite gets there is no doubt a very personal matter with Rob and his loss. I cannot say.

It is very heavy, even for Rob, filled with an avant metal force that goes out to the universe. Rob is playing with searing heat and the band most definitely keeps up with him.

It is in a way a disturbing album. A cry. But an artwork that by transforming the intense feelings gets us to feel its representation in sound and understand. Perhaps it's Rob's most extreme statement to date. If I had engineered this date I am not sure that I would have mixed the outcome at these levels, but then that's part of the expression here. It's a distorted kind of anguish, and as expressive as anything I've heard recently. So for Rob it must be saying what he felt. Amen to that.

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Over Time, The Music of Bob Brookmeyer

Bob Brookmeyer, simply put, has been underrated for too long. It's not just as a valve trombonist, either. He wrote music that sounds as fresh now as it did then. If I am not mistaken my first brush with Bob as composer came via the charts he did as member of Gerry Mulligen's Concert Jazz Band, which in many ways was the precursor to the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band that began holding forth at the Village Vanguard on Monday nights with Brookmeyer a charter member. He left the band to do studio work on the West Coast but returned to the band as its musical director after Thad Jones passed.

Some of his compositions-charts were an important part of that band's repertoire in the '80s. Time went on and I lost track of what he was doing. But a new albums puts it all together for us, past and present. I speak of a special Vanguard Jazz Orchestra album devoted to the music of Brookmeyer--Over Time (Planet Arts 101413).

First off the band sounds phenomenal. Oatts, Smulyan, LaLama and Jim McNeely are all there and a host of others whose names perhaps I should recognize but I don't. Nevertheless the band is in crack form. They take on eight of Brookmeyer's arrangements ("Skylark") and compositions (the rest), some from a while ago, others so advanced and modern they could have been written yesterday.

There are times when Bob combines new music techniques with his completely idiomatic feel for big band; other times they are boppish and post-boppish. Always they have a flare.

It's all so good that I am slightly stunned. The combination of the completely fresh musicality of these works and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra's heated and superlative execution of same are such that I can only say, "listen to this one without fail!"

It's a corker and should remind us all of Maestro Brookmeyer's impeccable originality. I'll stop there.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Variable Density Sound Orchestra, Evolving Strategies

Guitarist-composer Garrison Fewell's Variable Density Sound Orchestra has made some excellent music in the past. The smaller ensemble heard in the album Evolving Strategies (Not Two MW911-2) has a particular resonance, in part because of the beauty of the compositions and their improvisational fulfillment, and in part because they are some of the last recordings made by the avant titans John Tchicai and Roy Campbell, Jr., both of whom were tragically taken from us not so very long after.

The band as a whole is every bit as good as the illustrious nature of the names. OK, perhaps bassist Dmitry Ishenku is not very well known, still he is very good. But then there is trombone master Steve Swell, who graces the session with his rangy expressions and a composition that stays long in the mind, "Mystical Realities," with a very groovy ostinato and a head melody that matches it. John Tchicai is on tenor and gives us two of his compositions and some beautiful improvisations. Roy Campbell reminds us why he is so missed on trumpet, flugel and flute. Reggie Nicholson turns in as always the right performance, with an impeccable feel and touch on drums. And then there is the leader, Garrison Fewell, with his very smart guitar freedom and exemplary compositions.

These are players at the peak of modern avant jazz and they perform accordingly. Whether collectively or singly they come through with sterling utterances that could serve as models for what the state-of-the-free-art is all about today. The compositional frameworks are both sophisticated and down-home at the same time, reminding at times of what was so exciting about the work of AACM artists in the first years of their blossoming (and after, surely).

It's an album you grow into each time you hear it, so that by now it is a recent favorite for me. It is that good and so much worth hearing and having. Get it!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Fred Hersch, My Coma Dreams, Jazz Theatre, DVD

The true artist is one who can take all the experiences life has to offer, the peaks and the lowest traumatic events, and transform them into pure poetry. Jazz pianist-composer Fred Hersch shows us how artistic expression can turn darkness into light, adversity into transcendence. His jazz theater work My Coma Dreams gives us in no uncertain terms the triumph of the human spirit over life-threatening illness.

The entire multi-media jazz theater work is now available on DVD (Palmetto 2175) and it is a profoundly moving experience to see and hear it. The story centers around Fred's bout with HIV /AIDS and a life-threatening septic infection he contracted in the course of his struggles. The condition necessitated a medically induced coma which he endured in a near-death state for a long period of time while hospitalized. That he survived to regain his full self-hood personally and musically is nothing short of a miracle and the story brings it all to you in no uncertain terms.

The jazz theater work involves of course music--Fred at the piano with a largish chamber ensemble of jazz players and a string quartet, with vocals and a master narrative by Michael Winther. There are visuals key to the drama projected onto a backdrop behind the musicians and narrator. The theater work comes together as a total media experience.

Essentially the work combines the narrative of the events leading up to hospitalization, the coma trauma as experienced by Fred's partner, by Fred himself in his moments as a conscious being and then the series of dreams he had while unconscious. The dreams are singular and strange, involving imagery and events of a surreal nature. Except for the opening dream of the weavers, they are played out instrumentally with text and imagery on the projected backdrop filling in the context. The weavers dream sequence involves a beautiful song sung by Winther, accompanied by the ensemble.

Winther excels in his role as dramatic enactor of Fred and his partner's heartfelt, loving anxiousness during the external and internal sequences of events. The music is quite beautiful and just to have Fred up on stage playing wonderfully gives the entire drama a consoling aspect. Yes, he survives and listen, he is playing very beautifully, as well as he ever has.

In the end the totality of the drama leaves you with hope, though through it all are the moments of despair that you experience yourself with harrowing realism. Yet the dreams and the music counter the trauma with genuine poetic beauty.

It is a landmark work, a Fred Hersch masterpiece that conjoins with Herschel Garfein's excellent "libretto" and staging to create gripping drama and a feeling for the mysteries of life and death.

To say it is a tour de force is to understate. The DVD is out this November 25th. You must experience this! Sales of this DVD will in part go to benefit the work of Treatment Action Group, an independent organization concerned with the treatment and cure of the AIDS affliction. You can order it directly from (copy and paste this URL into your browser).