Sunday, February 21, 2010

Curtis Clark's "Taagi"

Saw Dennis Gonzalez perform with Yells At Eels at J&J's Pizza in Denton last night (where I also performed with HIO) and got copies from him of pianist Curtis Clark's new album Taagi, which was just released on NoBusiness Records out of Vilnius, Lithuania. Dennis reminded me that I'd written the liner notes for the disc, which I re-read last night. One of the better things I've written lately (well, last summer) in my opinion.

The piano trio is a time-honored jazz institution. Trio recordings have been among the most commercially, as well as artistically, successful in the music – one need only think of Ahmad Jamal’s Live At the Pershing, Erroll Garner’s Concert By the Sea, Bill Evans’ Portrait In Jazz, or Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle. Pianist Curtis Clark previously added to the canon with 1994’s Home Safely, in the company of Dutch master percussionist Han Bennink. For this outing, he’s joined by a pair of fiery young brothers from Dallas for a cross-generational meeting of minds.

Clark was born in Chicago in 1950, began playing and composing while living in Los Angeles, and became a protégé of pianist-composer-bandleader Horace Tapscott. As a teenager, he once tried to convince Ornette Coleman to hire him, even though Coleman hadn’t employed a pianist in years. Moving to New York in the ‘70s, Clark performed and recorded with fellow California expat David Murray, appearing on the tenor titan’s acclaimed 1982 album Murray’s Steps. Relocating to Amsterdam in the ‘80s, Clark worked with musicians including saxophonist John Tchicai and drummer Louis Moholo -- both featured on his 1986 album Letter to South Africa – as well as Bennink. He’s released recordings under his own name for Nimbus West and Favorite Records, and currently resides in Portland, Maine.

Taagi – which takes its title from the Apache word for “three” -- is his first trio recording with bassist Aaron Gonzalez and drummer Stefan Gonzalez. The brothers grew up in an environment that encouraged creative endeavor; their father is trumpeter-poet-visual artist-educator Dennis Gonzalez. They mastered their instruments early and have performed in contexts that include mariachi, hardcore punk, and experimental music as well as jazz. Besides collaborating with their father in the group Yells At Eels, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, they’re also part of Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes’ award-winning Humanization 4tet.

Recorded on successive nights during May 2009 performances in Dallas and Austin, the album opens with the Austin performance of “Joy/Blessings,” a suite that was a highlight of the band’s sets. Starting out, the pianist’s lyrical abstraction is laced with gospel and blues gestures. When he’s joined by the brothers, Aaron unleashes flurries of pizzicato notes while Stefan flows like a rushing river, shifting seamlessly from brushes to sticks midway through the piece. On the Dallas version, also included here, Clark gently and lovingly essays the “Joy” theme, adding a soupcon of dissonance, but not in a way that interrupts the melodic flow. Then the brothers play together as though a single intelligence guided both their hands.

Another suite, “Water Colors/New York City Wildlife,” begins with Clark in a mood of Debussian contemplation before the brothers make their entrance, Aaron shadowing Clark’s melody while Stefan churns away like Rashied Ali behind Coltrane. Stefan’s brush and cymbal work here is particularly deft, while his crisp attack in the second half of the piece recalls Roy Haynes and Alan Dawson. The title track begins as a three-way conversation before Aaron solos to good effect, his big, dark sound lending weight to his lines. When the theme emerges, it’s a waltz -- another reason for the title, perhaps? – which Clark begins exploring with odd groupings of notes that recall Monk, shifting to chordal interjections that are as harmonically rich as they are rhythmically spare.

The closing standard, “Beautiful Love,” is a big band chestnut from 1931, recorded by Bill Evans on Explorations 30 years later. While the trio’s approach to the tune isn’t as oblique as, say, the one Cecil Taylor took to “What’s New” at the Café Montmartre back in ’62, Stefan’s syncopations and Aaron and Curtis’ explorations are as far a cry from Evans’ reflective-but-swinging approach as that version was from Wayne King’s original. Steeped in tradition, looking towards the future, Curtis Clark and the Gonzalez brothers set a new standard for improvisational dialogue. Listen.


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