Clean Feed Records
To begin with, Marty Ehrlich Rites Quartet is led by the Minnesota-born altoist who spent his formative years in St. Louis, where he was mentored by Black Artsts Group members Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake before attending the New England Conservatory and studying under Jaki Byard. The debt to Fort Worth expat Hemphill is freely acknowledged on Things Have Got To Change, with Ehrlich and Co. essaying three of his compositions, including the monumental "Dogon A.D.," a blues-drenched theme in 11/16. Drummer Pheeroan Aklaff has performed with Ehrlich since the '70s. Trumpeter James Zollar is equally effective on open or muted horn, while cellist Erik Friedlander is particularly noteworthy, soloing with deft, guitar-like pizzicato lines on the opening "Rites Rhythms." Among Ehrlich's compositions, the lovely, elegiac "Some Kind of Prayer" particularly shines.
Ze' Eduardo Unit's A Jazzar - Live in Capuchos is a concert recording by a bassist-led Portuguese trio whose previous releases include homages to Portuguese cinema, musician-activist Jose Afonso (whose "Grandola" is the subject of an extended extemporization here), and animated cartoons (the most familiar to American ears probably being their deconstruction of Danny Elfman's theme from The Simpsons, also included here). The musicians' approach is often playful and humorous in the same way that, say, Ornette's music can be, and Ze' Eduardo's deep song on bass recalls Charlie Haden's. At other times, he and his bandmates -- tenorman Jesus Santandreu and drummer Bruno Pedroso -- can be dark and intense; they're always adventurous and engaging.
More minimalist in intent is Pieces of Old Sky by the Samuel Blaser Quartet, a New York-based crew led by a Swiss trombonist. Blaser's an expressive instrumentalist who's absorbed the influence of players like Albert Mangelsdorf (dig his growls and use of multiphonics on "Mandala") but really shines as a composer; his writing is as interestingly knotty and impressionistic as Andrew Hill's, displaying the influence of modern classical composers. His best compositions -- the 17-minute title track, for instance, or the aforementioned "Mandala" -- unfold slowly but deliberately, giving the players ample opportunity to interact within their structures. His accomplices here include Todd Neufeld, an Abercrombie-esque guitarist with a warm, fuzzy, and occasionally dissonant sound, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who's probably best known for his work with pianist Vijay Iyer. Sorey's drumming is reminiscent of early Tony Williams, when the teenage Bostonian was was still playing like a composer and hadn't yet succumbed to being a mere virtuoso; just listen to the way Sorey shadows the leader's line on "Mystical Circle."
Also currently based in New York, drummer Harris Eisenstadt is proud to be Canadian -- so much so that he's dubbed his new band and album Canada Day, after the Great White North's version of the Fourth of July. Eisenstadt's a thoughtful composer as well as a thunderous trap-kicker; his record has an Out to Lunch/Point of Departure feel, anchored by Chris Dingman's vibes (recorded with magnificent presence and clarity by Michael Brorby at Brooklyn's Acoustic Recording). On the opening "Don't Gild the Lily," trumpeter Nate Wooley's muted smears and long tones emit enough harmonics to sound almost like an analog synth; he and big-toned tenorman Matt Bauder are agile and inventive improvisers, but the standout in the ensemble just might be bassist Eivind Opsvik. Eisenstadt's "Kategeeper" is somewhat reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's theme from The Untouchables.
Nobuyasu Furuya Trio's Bendowa is an anomaly -- a set of explosive free improv played by a Lisbon-based Japanese reedman and his Euro (Italian?) rhythm section. On tenor, Furuya moves a big column of air to get a burry, braying tone a la Archie Shepp in his Four for Trane period. On flute, can be introspective, almost Zen-like -- reflective, perhaps, of his youthful sojourn in the kitchen of a Buddhist temple -- or fiery, singing through his instrument like Roland Kirk. On bass clarinet, he's plaintive and searching, only rarely begging the inevitable Dolphy comparisons. Furuya switches between axes the way Sam Rivers used to in his '70s small groups, but within a more concise format (the tracks here average about nine minutes). Behind him, Hernani Faustino on bass and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums back their leader to the hilt, whether he's whispering or screaming. They alternately expand to fill every interstice in the music or recede to leave space that throws each sonic event into bolder relief.
Twentysomething Lisbon pianist Julio Resende's Assim Falava Jazzatustra is an eclectic effort, propelled by the kickin' tag team of bassist Ole Morten Vagan and drummer Joel Silva. The infectious "Sakatwala (Progressive Kuduro for My Family)" -- an example of the hybrid African/Afro-Caribbean '80s style that originated in the former Portuguese colony of Angola -- is nearly as danceable as Henry Threadgill's "Try Some Ammonia." On "Ir e Voltar," Manuela Azevedo sings Resende's opaque melody over shimmering piano chords that bristle with menace. Like The Bad Plus essaying Nirvana, Resende takes on Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" as a solo showcase, then follows it with a number ("Boom!") that utilizes heavy rock dynamics. "Caixa Registadora," on the other hand, grooves like a classic early '60s Blue Note funk jam, while "Jazz.Pt" (named for the local Downbeat equivalent) pays homage to the freebop side of that classic label. Resende's is a distinctive, if developing, voice.
Speaking of internationalism, Alberto Pinton's an Italian-born reedman who lives in Sweden. On Chant, he leads a quartet that includes two, count 'em, two baritone saxes. (One of the tunes is a fitting dedication to Hamiet Bluiett.) Pinton doubles on clarinet, his collaborator Jonas Kullhammar on tenor. The two hornmen and the rhythm section (Torbjorn Zetterberg on bass, Kjell Nordeson on drums) have played together in various combinations and contexts; here, they lay down a set of nasty freeblow that's equal parts composition and invention. Of course, what sounds like a blast from a mid-'70s Lower Manhattan loft is really a natural outgrowth of the Euro free jazz scene that's thrived since the mid-'60s. (But thank Ayler, Cecil, and Ornette for visiting Scandinavia back then, yo.) These guys have a nicely self-aware sensahumour, too; one tune's entitled "How Much Can You Take In One Evening?" The somber tone poem "Let Ring" features Nordeson on vibes is a surprising dynamic shift that grabs the listener's attention.
Weightless is a cooperative group that brings together a pair of Britons (saxophonist John Butcher and bassist John Edwards) and a couple of Italians (pianist Alberto Braida and drummer Fabrizio Spera). All four are veterans of the Euro free music scene: Butcher has played with Derek Bailey and in the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Edwards with Evan Parker; they first performed with Spera and then added Braida to make a quartet. Their collective improvisations on A Brush With Dignity teem with inspiration and energy and are not for the faint-hearted. In "Centri," for example, different episodes feature the pure organic sounds of strings, skins, and reeds, as well as surreal space sounds that seem electronically generated but are actually produced by using extended techniques on the same instruments. "Vista" ventures even further outside the realm of tonality. The most challenging listen of the discs reviewed here, A Brush With Dignity is also among the most rewarding.
Finally, Two Kinds of Art Thieves is the debut as leader of Charles Rumback, a Chicago drummer with strong avant-jazz, alt-rock, and electronica credentials. Rumback's quartet boasts a two-sax front line that includes altoist Greg Ward, whose work I recently dug on About Us by Mike Reed's People, Places and Things (on 482 Music, another label that's doing yeoman work in documenting contemporary creative music). Ward and tenorman Joshua Sclar play the same kind of intertwining contrapuntal lines that he and Tim Haldeman did on the Reed disc, although here it's in a more ruminative context. Rumback's often on mallets, providing punctuation or percussive undertones more than pulse for his compositions. The cover art of a gaggle of business-suited Asians facing the sea is appropriate; the music on Two Kinds of Art Thieves evokes the oceanic feeling one gets regarding an overcast sky that native Chicagoans must get to experience often.
All in all, then, a worthy stack of discs from a label whose output is notable for its consistent quality, and further proof (if more is needed) that rumors of the "death of jazz" have been greatly exaggerated.