Sunday, April 17, 2016

Things we like: Don Pullen, Yves Theiler Trio, Tahiti with Doc Strange

1) Spurred on by my buddy Phil Overeem, I've gone on a dive back into the catalog of Don Pullen, a favorite ivory-tickler and, like my other fave, Jaki Byard, a Mingus alumnus.

Pullen first came to light in the mid-'60s with Giuseppe Logan, playing knuckle-busting clusters and glisses that elicited Cecil Taylor comparisons which Pullen claimed were unwarranted. After years in eclipse backing singers and playing in organ trios, Pullen re-emerged with Mingus in the early '70s and was part of the quintet with tenorist George Adams that recorded the two Changes LPs -- arguably the titanic bassist-composer's last great work. After breaking the seal on his solo career with the sterling Solo Piano Album on tiny Canadian indie Sackville, Pullen alternated challenging albums for Italian labels Horo and Black Saint (my favorite being the explosive Capricorn Rising quartet date with Sam Rivers and the ruminative solo Healing Force) with more commercial efforts for Atlantic (adding session guys on electric instruments and percussion, as was their wont with artists like Pullen, Don Cherry, and even Mingus during the fusion decade).

Through the '80s, Pullen co-led a quartet with Adams that also included Mingus' long-serving drummer Dannie Richmond until his death in 1988. In the late '80s, the group signed with the revived Blue Note label, and it was for them that Pullen recorded his last series of albums, at the helm of a trio and his African Brazilian Connection. Pullen's "late period" was characterized by elegiac lyricism, as heard in his compositions "Ah George We Hardly Knew Ya" and "Ode to Life," that could have been inspired by Adams' death in 1992 and his own 1994 diagnosis with lymphoma, which took his life the following year. Less astonishing than Taylor, as versatile as Byard (but less humorous), Pullen might just be the most consistently moving of the three.

2) The saxophonist Dave Liebman is reputed to have told Miles Davis, when Miles chided him for leaving the trailblazing early '70s Davis band to play styles that Miles had abandoned in the previous decade, "You might have played that music already, but I haven't." Or words to that effect. It's as good of a response as any to the periodic jeremiads one reads (particularly online, where complaint is the lingua franca) regarding the dearth of innovation in jazz since the aforementioned decade (which I find as odious as the periodic ancestor-bashing one also reads -- usually by jealous people with an axe to grind). But it needn't be so.

It's always a thrill to stumble upon a young musician, influenced by but not in thrall to tradition, who's managed to forge an original expression out of the old idioms. One such is pianist-composer Yves Theiler, born  Zurich, 1987, who leads a trio with bassist Luca Sisera and drummer Lukas Mantel on Dance in a Triangle, their second outing as a unit. As a leader, Theiler is confident enough to feature his men prominently on the lead-off track, "For Bass." Drummer Mantel is definitely a player to watch -- as likely to borrow ideas from his previous career as a hip hop DJ as he is to careen off into orbit like Tony Williams circa Filles de Kilimanjaro.

Theiler's compositions have the formal elegance of Herbie Hancock's, as well as more funk and grit than European jazzers often possess. For proof of the former, dip a toe in the title track, where Theiler plays electric piano; for the latter, dive into the mutant fatback R&B groove "Book of Peace." Theiler's technique is impeccable, but never flashy or showy, always serving the demands of the piece first. Every note he and his well-balanced group play demonstrates a rigorous musical intelligence.

3) Back when he was still with the group PPT, rapper-producer Tahiti was always threatening some big conceptual stroke. Their album Denglish, f'rinstance, was sort of a Daisy Age take on Swinging London, although its best moment was a song dedicated to Tahiti's mother. The group fragmented, with Tahiti and Pikahsso reforming under the moniker Awkquarius and becoming part of the creative team for the Trap House Youtube TV show.

Now Tahiti and another Trap House collaborator, rapper Doc Strange, have an EP, Sindrome, that's due for digital release May 31 on Sanction Records, the imprint of producer-engineer Ty Macklin's Alpha Omega Recording Studios. (Macklin also performs under the moniker XL7; Tahiti and Doc Strange both appeared on his 2015 single, "Don't Get It Twisted.")

Sindrome is nothing less than a 27-minute hip hop opera about alien abduction, replete with a no-fooling narrative arc, allusion-rich wordplay, an anti-hero protagonist ("Villan"), Dark Side of the Moon sonic signifiers ("Astounding"), outer space sex ("Making Love"), hubris ("So Special") followed by tragic denouement, with the hero in the hands of a government that seems more malevolent than the aliens ("Syndrome").

Most valuable players include guitarist-keyboardist Taylor Pace, bassist John Cannon (who died of cancer in 2015), and vocalist Shaniqua Williams. Standout track "What Is You?" dissects hip hop's (and America's) obsession with identity and ethnicity, with an insidious hook line: "Where I'm from, boy, I'll tell you / They'll walk up and straight ask you...'What is you mixed with?'" You might well arsk. (I'll post a download link when one is available, so watch this space.)


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