Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A bunch of good jazz records

What better way to spend Monk's birthday than listening to a bunch of good jazz records?

To peruse a copy of The Wire or Signal To Noise is to be astounded at the fecundity of the contemporary jazz scene. While the economies of scale may have diminished dramatically, and the search for a new heroic innovator in the classic mold has proven a dead end, the field is dotted with creative artists who have taken the freedom of the '60s and '70s as the starting point for an exploration of the territories that jazz-rooted music (whether composed, extemporized, or a combination thereof) shares with modern classical and experimental musics.

The Portuguese Clean Feed label -- a veritable Iberian Blue Note of the still-young Millennium -- continues to maintain an astonishingly full release schedule, which one hopes is indicative that someone is actually buying their product. With the arts funding that makes Europe a more congenial environment looking to be in even more potential jeopardy than usual here in these United States, it's within the realm of things possible that the birthplace of jazz could, within our lifetime, cease to be its creative center.

Paradoxical Frog's Union is the second outing by a trio consisting of pointillistic pianist Kris Davis, ruminative saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and world-beating drummer Tyshawn Sorey. All three of them compose, and the confluence of their thought-streams creates some peaceful, Zen-like soundscapes with just the right undercurrent of unease. The disc's best moments come when Sorey puts down his beaters and picks up his melodica or trombone to create some wind polyphony, as on Laubrock's somber, elegiac "Masterisk" or his own Feldmanesque "Repose."

On Wires and Moss, her third outing as a leader, pianist Angela Sanchez steers a quintet that includes Marc Ducret's quicksilver electric guitar, Tony Malaby's muscular tenor and soprano, and the ever-responsive rhythm team of Drew Gress (bass) and Tom Rainey (drums). Her compositions range from the inexorable forward motion of "Loomed" to the pastoralism of the appropriately-entitled "Feathered Light" to "Soaring Piasa," which winds its way through a succession of moods, starting out with great arco swoops from Gress, giving way to lyrical abstraction from Sanchez worthy of Hancock or Corea when they were still young and hungry, which in turn leads into a slow, graceful ostinato for Malaby to flow over. The title track starts out as a feature for Ducret on guitar-as-percussion-instrument-slash-sound-effects-generator -- a veritable avant-garde "Eruption" -- before the Malaby enters, weaving the searching theme through a maze-like accompaniment. The ensemble's interplay is riveting, but it's the composer's intelligence that structures and guides the proceedings.

Aurora is, to my knowledge, unique in the Clean Feed catalog: a vocal/piano album, teaming Portuguese chanteuse Sara Serpa with her former Berklee instructor, the Third Stream pianist Ran Blake (reprising the role he played with vocalist Jeanne Lee on their 1962 collaboration The Newest Sound Around). The sound they make together is unadorned but rich in detail, evocative but not maudlin. Serpa's delivery is pure-toned and clear, and she attacks her notes head-on, without over-emoting them to death. Blake's accompaniment is spare and supportive, free from obtrusive flourishes. Highlights include "When Autumn Sings" and "Love Lament," two songs written for Abbey Lincoln by the shadowy and mysterious R.B. Lynch; Margo Guryan's "Moonride," originally recorded by Chris Connor in 1958; and Billie Holiday's signature song "Strange Fruit," which Serpa boldly tackles acapella. Blake shines on his solo feature "Mahler Noir," which draws equally on the influence of 20th century classical music and film noir soundtracks.

5 Frozen Eggs is a reissue of a 1996 recording by guitarist Scott Fields that was originally released on the Music and Arts label. On it, he's joined by longtime Anthony Braxton pianist Marilyn Crispell, his fellow Chicagoan Hamid Drake on drums, and bassist Hans Sturm. Fields' compositions are introspective and impressionistic, with episodes that sound improvised but are in fact through-composed. Guitar-wise, he usually occupies some of the same sonic space as John McLaughlin did circa Extrapolation (before discovering Sri Chinmoy and distortion), his tone astringent, his ideas abundant. On "Little Soldiers for Science," Fields dirties the sound up a bit, his lines juxtaposing crazy intervallic leaps and glisses with hammers and clusters of notes. The other musicians swirl around him like a sorcerer's spell.

More on the experimental tip, the double CD The Nows documents a 2011 duo tour by percussionist Paul Lytton and trumpeter Nate Wooley, during which they performed with guest artists from the various cities they visited. The first disc, recorded at John Zorn's stomping ground the Stone in New York, opens with 35 minutes of "Free Will, Free Won't," with Wooley zipping around in his upper register like the shade of Dizzy Gillespie, then settles down to a sparring match between the trumpeter's burry, overblown lines and Lytton's lightly handled but staccato percussion array. As Wooley descends into a lower register, Lytton matches him with timbral changes. Lower Manhattan eminence Ikue Mori adds Varesian computer-generated squiggles and squonks to the mix on two tracks. Rather than just playing "our thing with added electronics," Lytton and Wooley respond to her input with empathy, melding their sound to accommodate the new element. On the second disc, from the Hideout in Chicago, Windy City avant godfather Ken Vandermark seamlessly blends his multiple reeds into the duo's flow.

Not on Clean Feed but also hailing from Portugal, saxophonist Rodrigo Amado's current outing is a live set from the 2011 Jazz Ao Centro festival in Coimbra, with trombonist Jeb Bishop, a Vandermark familiar, joining Amado's Motion Trio. Over three long pieces, the four musicians conduct an improvisational dialogue in the mold of classic free jazz and free-bop. Their interaction flows like a river, now meandering, now roiling.

On Cousin It, Israeli pianist-composer Maya Dunietz -- who also sings and conducts, but perversely doesn't have a website (Myspace doesn't count) -- leads a trio with bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble. She makes masterful use of dynamics and isn't afraid of negative space as she and her musicians sketch in light and shade. Edwards and Noble follow her with a delicacy of line and economy of motion that are rare in any music. Edwards' arco bass sounds like a horn in places and Noble plays with the restraint of a symphony percussionist. A beguiling listen. Funny artwork, too. (Cop via Hopscotch Records.

Speaking of minimalism, Seattle-based drummer Paul Kikuchi has done a lot of work with electro-acoustic ensembles, specializing in spatial performances. But the self-titled LP from the decade-old Empty Cage Quartet -- their sixth release -- finds him in a more traditional jazz setting, in the company of trumpeter Kris Tiner, reedman Jason Mears, and bassist Ivan Johnson. Tiner and Mears provide the structures that serve as Empty Cage's jumping off point. In places, their unisons and contrapuntal lines recall early Ornette Coleman ballads or the duets Eric Dolphy played with Mingus and Richard Davis, but all the musicians work together like spontaneous composers to realize their creative visions. The recording captures the resonance of each instrument beautifully, and the pressing is immaculate. (How appropriate that this fits on my shelf right between Ellington and Eno.)

Now, where's my copy of "Ruby My Dear" with Coltrane?


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