Saturday, February 01, 2014

Some good jazz records

It seems that in 2014, jazz is become a repertory music, with every style that ever existed being performed (with the possible exception of the smoove Boney James variety, which thankfully seems to have receded into whatever mists bad music recedes into after it's worn out its welcome) and with its own set of adherents. The most creative current practitioners seem to be equally influenced by free jazz (not the fire-breathing freeblow of heroic soloists, but the more cerebral, group- and composition-oriented work of the AACM tribe and the more forward-looking '60s Blue Note releases), European free improvisation, and modern classical music (Cage, Feldman, Riley). Performers and recordings of this ilk are as plentiful as garage-rock bands that sounded "like the MC5" were a decade ago, before I lost that thread.

The Clean Feed label out of Lisbon is a leader in this trend or movement, but I was pleasantly surprised last week to receive a package which originated in my own city of residence -- Fort Worth, Texas, Where the West Begins. It turns out there's no-fooling avant-garde label, Nuscope Recordings, that's been operating here right under my nose since 1998, with an impressive roster that includes artists of the caliber of Evan Parker, Fred Van Hove, and Tony Oxley. Fourth Landscape, the shiny silver disc I received, is a collaboration between trombonist Samuel Blaser (who last impressed this listener with a collection of modern interpretations of Baroque pieces), pianist Benoit Delbecq, and drummer Gerry Hemingway (a familiar of Anthony Braxton and a Guggenheim Fellow in his own right). The music they make is quiet and reflective, including scored sections that blend seamlessly with improvised interludes. The label's pristine sonic and visual presentation recalls the look-and-feel of classic '70s ECM records.

A 2013 release I didn't manage to hear until the end of the year was Matthew Shipp's Piano Sutras, a solo recital from the pianist whose last release was the exhaustive trio exploration Art of the Improviser. A few years back, Shipp told an interviewer from the sadly-defunct publication Signal To Noise that Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter should retire. Here, he reimagines Shorter's "Nefertiti," as well as Coltrane's "Giant Steps," in a program otherwise devoted to his own compositions. Shipp, whose background includes conservatory training and studies with Coltrane's teacher Dennis Sandole, as well as a long stint in the David S. Ware quartet and collaborations with Roscoe Mitchell and DJ Spooky, is his own guy, aware of the tradition but not bound by it, and is developing his own language on the instrument in the same way as Kris Davis is in hers.

Speaking of Roscoe Mitchell, the circular breathing champion, Art Ensemble of Chicago founder, and national treasure has a new record out, the confusingly titled Duets with Tyshawn Sorey and Special Gues Hugh Ragin. (Actually, "solos, duets, and trios" would be more accurate. Anyway...) Mitchell's recordings, going back to Sound from 1966, have aged better than lots of wilder, less compositionally-focused freeblow, and these collaborations with the prolific young drummer-pianist-composer (and fellow Morton Feldman fan) Sorey and Houston-born trumpeter Ragin (who's played with both David Murray and Maynard Ferguson) show that age has not diminished his adventurous spirit. Mitchell plays percussion and "small instruments" as well as reeds, but his acrid-toned alto remains his signature axe. There's nothing here as challenging as, say, the opening salvo of Nonaah with its jarring repetitions -- or maybe time has just caught up with Mitchell. Of the three recordings considered here, this one has the most dynamic variation and ultimately, holds the most interest.


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