Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Mo' David Breskin: Kris Davis, Ben Goldberg, Mary Halvorson

One of this year's pleasant surprises has been the realization that two of my favorite records of 2016 -- Nels Cline's Lovers and Mark Dresser's Sedimental You -- were produced by the same man: poet/journo/record man David Breskin.

Lovers was the culmination of a series of Breskin-produced Cline albums that, to these feedback-scorched ears, represent the guitarist's very best recorded work. But Breskin was primarily known to me as the man who, as both Musician scribe and producer, helped to bring Ronald Shannon Jackson's music to prominence back in the '80s. Besides producing Shannon's breakthrough albums Mandance and Barbecue Dog, which highlighted the titanic drummer's abilities as a composer, Breskin also did the honors for Pulse, on which Shannon played solo drums and declaimed poetry; Smash and Scatteration, a guitar synth-heavy encounter between Bill Frisell and pre-Living Colour Vernon Reid; Strange Meeting, a meeting of minds between Shannon, Frisell, and Melvin Gibbs (under the rubric Power Tools); the Albert Collins feature, "Two Lane Highway," on John Zorn's film noir homage Spillane; and a series of albums for Zorn and Frisell's longtime drummer of choice, Joey Baron.

As a producer, Breskin does much more than merely capture what went down in the studio. Through extensive pre-production discussion and planning, he helps artists to clarify their concepts, then presents their work, when possible, with materials -- packaging, liner notes, videos -- that engage visual and tactile senses to provide, as he says, "the best delivery of the album/concept." And he continues to work with interesting, multifaceted musicians.

By now, the daring pianist-composer Kris Davis, whose work has invited comparisons to Cecil Taylor, has a dozen releases under her belt as leader (including two with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog), but she's never been heard to as good advantage as she is on the Breskin-produced gems Save Your Breath and Duopoly.

On the former, released on Clean Feed in 2015, she leads an octet -- Infrasound -- that includes four (count 'em, four!) bass clarinets as well as guitar, organ, and drums, playing material that was performed live after only two rehearsals, one on the day of the show. Some of the charts employ progressive rock dynamics, and drummer Jim Black combines the instincts of a rocker with the anarchic spirit of Han Bennink.

On the latter, released on Pyroclastic this year, she plays an original or standard and a free improvisation with each of eight duet partners: two guitarists, two pianists, two drummers, and two reedists, none of whom she'd recorded with before. (My faves: pianist Craig Taborn, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore -- both new names to me -- and clarinetist Don Byron. You'll have your own.) The duets were recorded "live" in the studio, with no rehearsal or post-production fixage. The resultant tracks appear on the disc in a "symmetrical, palindromic sequence" with the duet partners paired by instrument, and "what [Breskin] calls a 'mobius twist' in the middle," so the partners' improv pieces appear in inverse order to their composed ones. These highly intentional encounters form a seamless unity, and the accompanying DVD provides a fascinating window into the performers' process.

Together, these albums show the depth and breadth of what Davis is capable of: now oblique and minimalist, now mysterious and foreboding, now turbulent and roiling, always challenging and rewarding.

One of Infrasound's clarinetists, Ben Goldberg -- also a participant in Cline's 2006 Andrew Hill tribute, New Monastery -- has an incandescent CD/double LP of his own that Breskin produced back in 2013. Orphic Machine, a 2015 Royal Potato Family release, would have made my "best of" list for that year, had I heard it then.

Goldberg composed a song cycle with echolalic lyrics about poetry that were drawn from an academic treatise by the late man of letters Allen Grossman and sung by the ethereal violinist-vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat/Sleepytime Gorilla Museum). Behind a three-horn front line, the accompaniment is suffused with the textures of Kenny Wolleson's vibes and chimes and Myra Melford's piano, and anchored by the tandem of bassist Greg Cohen (Masada/Ornette Coleman) and drummer Ches Smith (Mary Halvorson), with Nels Cline contributing two of his finest recorded solos ever. On "Care," Cline manages to invoke the spiky spirit, if not the pentatonic letter, of vintage Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, while on the title track, he unleashes his full electronic arsenal in a face-melting sonic apocalypse.

Goldberg and Breskin also collaborated on Short Sighted Dream Colossus, a scintillating trio disc with guitarist John Dieterich (Deerhoof) and drummer Scott Amendola (Nels Cline) for which Breskin provided conceptual and design input. Goldberg's work has done as much as his fellow klezmer enthusiast Don Byron's to affirm the clarinet as a jazz instrument, and his compositions on Orphic Machine occupy a space where fans of pop, classical, and jazz can all find something to enjoy.

Since emerging from Anthony Braxton's tutelage a decade and change ago, guitarist Mary Halvorson has stayed busy, with a plethora of appearances in contexts as disparate as the improv trio Thumbscrew, a solo guitar opening slot on tour with Melvins frontman King Buzzo, and Marc Ribot's Gamble and Huff tribute project, the Young Philadelphians, not to mention a discography massive enough to rival even Cline's.

Since 2008's Dragon's Head, she's showcased her burgeoning composer's chops on a series of recordings for Firehouse 12 at the helm of an ever-expanding group built on the foundation of bassist John Hebert and the aforementioned drummer Ches Smith. On her latest offering in that series, Away With You, which Halvorson co-produced with Breskin and Firehouse 12 honcho Nick Lloyd, she's up to an octet, which includes Susan Alcorn's molten-silver pedal steel for added piquancy. The compositions are darkly ruminative, with multi-horn polyphony that's occasionally reminiscent of Andrew Hill's '60s heyday, and the leader's six-string prowess takes a back seat the ensemble sound.

As I type this, Breskin is at work on Halvorson's next album, as well as one by bassist Chris Lightcap that will feature Cline and keyboardist John Medeski. Stay tuned...


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