Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Film: Thomas Chapin - Night Bird Song

Thomas Chapin was one of my musical heroes when I was getting deeply into jazz in the 1990's and his death in 1998 was a shocking loss of one of the most interesting and joyful voices in progressive jazz. This documentary film goes a long way in demonstrating to people who might not be familiar with his work what a protean voice he was on saxophone and flute, and that he was an original composer to boot. He recorded a remarkable series of albums for the Knitting Factory label, each one one audaciously adventurous than the last, anchored by his legendary trio with Mario Pavone and Michael Sarin, one of the finest working groups of the post-war era. Whether playing in the trio format, or adding strings or brass to augment them, the music has a sense of spiritual discovery with each recording, a sensibility that wasn't forced, but one that came from the sheer act of creation and improvisation. As the documentary shows, he embraced the idea of jazz as a "big tent" as Jackie McLean, one of his mentors would put it, anything from swing through free jazz was fair game and was played with equal grace and fire. He was the bandleader for the Lionel Hampton big band for many years in the 1980's and further demonstrated his mainstream jazz credentials with albums for Arabesque and Brazilian jazz experiments. The film is able to take a holistic view of his life and career, moving through his years at music school and then interweaving footage of him in concert, especially some electrifying trio music from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1995, with revealing interview segments with friends and colleagues. There is a very touching interview with his wife, detailing how they met after he stopped her in her tracks while playing flute in Grand Central Station, and then his lengthy trip through Africa, through to his diagnosis and eventual passing away from leukemia. But this isn't really a memorial film, it is a celebration of a remarkable musician and person who made the most of his incredible talent in the short time he had available. Thomas Chapin Film Project

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Harriet Tubman - Araminta (Sunnyside, 2017)

Named after the hero of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman consists of Brandon Ross on guitar, Melvin Gibbs on bass and JT Lewis on drums. On this album, they are joined by the legendary trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and it was an inspired invitation, making this a strong and vital album. "The Spiral Path To The Throne" opens the album with bouncy fuzz distortion, creating stark relief for the trumpet's soaring sound, focused by light subtle drumming which opens space for trumpet and electric guitar accents. The group creates a wide spectrum for trio and trumpet, developing fast tempo and pushing hard in the final minute, with a ripe guitar solo leading the way. Bass and drums create a fractured funky rhythm for "Taken," with strong trumpet lashing and prowling, using the space to develop a strong track that has shards of guitar, blasts of trumpet and an unusual rhythm that anchors it all. Smith's tone and technique allow him to fit in and thrive, developing a real rapport with the trio. "Ne Ander" has wild overdriven electric bass and guitar with crushing drums clearing the way for Smith's trumpet. Thumping rhythms and unrestrained guitar and effects create a very hot trio improvisation, stratospheric music, improvising through cosmic jazz as Smith rejoins and blasts the music to new heights with an epic trumpet solo. They head for home with snarling and distorted bass and guitar with a thudding beat, framed by sparks and swirls of trumpet. There is a respectful opening with golden tones of trumpet on "Nina Simone," slowly filling the space with melancholy sound, stark yearning trumpet framed by subtle electronics and cymbals. This is a tribute created on its own terms, thoroughly modern and as mysterious as the dedicatee. "Real Cool Killers," named after an excellent Chester Himes novel starts out in an appropriately noirish fashion before unleashing gritty bass and drums with smears of distorted guitar piercing the air around them, playing loud muscular power trio music. There were definitely some more avant-garde things at play, but the music remains very accessible. Smith returns on the fast and exciting performance "President Obama's Speech At The Selma Bridge" with stoic trumpet and fast paced drumming unfolding into a powerful statement with strong guitar and bass along for the ride. There is a definite electric Miles vibe here, with Ross firing off Pete Cosey level blasts of guitar, met with sections of throbbing bass and drums. "Sweet Araminta" concludes the album on a thoughtful note, opening space for electronics, deleting a reflective coda for what has come before. This was an excellent album of wildly exciting music that combines many aspects of modern music, and focuses them into a concentrated and powerful set of performances. Araminta - amazon.com

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Max Johnson - In the West (Clean Feed, 2017)

Bassist and composer Max Johnson has had a wide ranging musical career, performing with luminaries from the jazz, rock and bluegrass world in addition to developing an excellent series of albums as a leader in the progressive jazz vein. This album has a very interesting setting, featuring Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, Kris Davis on piano and Mike Pride on drums. Pulling from a disparate variety of sounds, this group moves through four diverse compositions, beginning with "Ten Hands," which builds in a suite like configuration, continually shifting the focus of the music and its inherent improvisation as it develops and expands motifs as well as solo sections and duo pairings within the overall structure of the piece. Whether it is percussive piano, droning steel guitar and bowed bass or a rattling drum feature, the music remains vibrant and colorful. "Greenwood" uses a large amount of space and takes its time in development, bringing about a spontaneous creative environment with spare piano framed by light guitar, bass and drums. There is a sense of freedom and drive that is further advanced by the performance by increasing volume and adding complex rhythm, with touches of piano notes and chords meeting ropes of steel guitar and shimmering cymbals before fading back to a quiet conclusion. Piano and percussion percolate and flutter against the steel guitar on "Great Big Fat Person" eventually opening the music to a wide range of ideas. Subtle but complex themes are built and extrapolated upon, and interesting details brought into the foreground. Drops of golden sounding guitar accents the frenetic pace of the piano and drums leading to a powerful collective improvisation. “Once Upon a Time in the West” is the only non-original, having been composed by Ennio Morricone for the classic western film of the same name. Here the song is re-arranged by Johnson, but it retains the dynamic and cinematic outlook, over an impressive twenty-one minute length. Incorporating mournful bass bowing which leads to an excellent free sounding improvisation where all the instruments are deep in conversation. This track also resolves itself over several sections, such as ones for spare piano or bass and others for the full band, and builds to a large and wide ranging soundscape. The group is able to evoke the huge landscapes and wide vistas of the American southwest over the course of the album, drawing on the rich musical, cinematic and artistic history of the area to develop a compelling statement. In the West - amazon.com

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Interesting links 8/13/2017

Rolling Stone re-examines the impact of The Beatles on the crimes of Charles Manson and his Family.
Hank Shteamer reviews the early to middle 1970's work of Deep Purple.
AAJ features an interview with modern jazz musician Craig Taborn.
Henry Rollins takes a rueful look at his burgeoning record collection.
Phil Freeman takes an interesting look at the 1970's recordings of pianist Keith Jarrett.
Jim Knipfel reflects on the music of Sun Ra.

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tyshawn Sorey - Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings, 2017)

Drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey carves a very interesting path on this album, investigating the areas in which jazz improvisation, classical music and modern composition mingle. He is joined on this album by Cory Smythe on piano, toy piano and electronics and Chris Tordini on bass, and they make their way through this shadowy music with tact and dignity. "Cascade in Slow Motion" is the opening track, featuring subtle and spacious percussion using both brushes and sticks, along with spare piano and bass. The music waxes and wanes, but retains an air of mystery throughout. The concept of space and comfort with it are the hallmarks of the second performance, "Flowers for Prashant" which blurs the line between composition and improvisation, and melds them together allowing the music to develop its own language and cadence. Tordini's bowed bass matches the quiet, soft piano which uses slow tumbling notes that probe at the silence, creating motion that lingers just beneath the exterior. Smythe's piano rings and reverberates moments of crystalline beauty which fracture and disperse the path of the music, storing potential energy, and then releasing it to open into a deeper meaning. "Obsidian" develops eerie strokes of sound, and mysterious subtle manipulation of the music with electronics adds a new dimension to the proceedings. Dark piano chords, skittering over the keyboard and scattered percussion allow the musicians to investigate a wider musical soundscape. The group is able to use repetition to build the tension in the music, which is a hallmark of Sorey's music that goes back to his first album, That/Not, which used aspects of minimalism and non jazz techniques. This music utilizes a wide array of percussion, combined with judicious use of electronics to explore a wider textural soundscape, allows for flexibility in interpreting the music, which develops into a faster undercurrent of anxiety with thick bass and alarming chords focused by circling rolls of the percussionist which succeed in building an ominous sense of foreboding.  "Algid November" and "Contemplating Tranquility" are each massive performances that investigate the nature of silence and quiet within the music. It sounds like the instruments are in a large empty room and trying to close the gap between them. This is an apt metaphor for the music as a whole, a deeply meditative experience that allows ideas of deep substance to be conveyed with the utmost restraint. Verisimilitude - amazon.com

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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Sun Ra and his Astro-Infinity Arkestra - My Brother the Wind, Vol. 1 (Cosmic Myth Records, 1970/2017)

The new Sun Ra webpage on Bandcamp is an embarrassment of riches, with dozens of the bandleader's albums for streaming, downloading and ordering physical product. The first album on the list is My Brother the Wind Part One, recorded in 1969, released the following year, and containing some of Sun Ra's earliest experiments with the Moog Synthesizer. This is a small band recording with only Ra, John Gilmore on drums and tenor saxophone, Marshall Allen on alto saxophone, piccolo and oboe, Danny Davis on alto saxophone, alto clarinet and drums and Gershon Kingsley programming the Moog itself. The recording is fascinating, running the gamut from electronic experimentation to free jazz and everything in-between. "My Brother the Wind" is a spacey performance with Ra probing the textures and possibilities of the instrument. Things get stronger in "Intergalactic II" with squalls of saxophone placed against Ra's kneading of electronic notes and chords. He has a unique conception of the instrument, taking it in a vastly different direction than progressive rock groups like ELP and King Crimson or composers like Wendy Carlos. The fractured electronic bells and chimes of "From Nature's God" are framed by Allen's piccolo getting a light and airy sound with subtle percussion from Gilmore. This would lead into the sprawling track "The Code Of Interdependence" which begins with Ra exploring the nature of the instrument, trying different approaches pushing it into electronic overdrive. Subtle percussion focuses the experiment, while reed swirl around the performance. The music gets progressively wilder as the group locks into a groove and the reeds are able to make solid statements over the keyboards and drums. Ra holds a massive sustain note that pierces your brain and then goes to town improvising against his own tone, blasting out sounds of future video games as Gilmore thrashes the drums. This is where the original album ends, but this expanded edition adds almost thirty more minutes of music, beginning with two takes of "The Perfect Man" with slick keyboards and saxophone and a functional drum beat. These are compact and well contained performances, but the real treat is the nearly eighteen minute version of "Space Probe" which stands with "Atlantis" and "The Magic City" as one of Ra's most exciting long form works. He's got the machine working for him now, bending it to his will and blasting off laser sounds into the cosmos. The other musicians stand down and he is able to get a wide range of fantastic textures and color from the instrument, and seems giddy at the possibilities, building massive swathes of sound from the patches available on the synthesizer. This is a fascinating and at times astonishing album. Sun Ra takes the Moog and creates thoroughly original music that is extraordinary and completely his own. My Brother The Wind, Vol. 1 - Bandcamp

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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Matthew Shipp - Invisible Touch At Taktlos Zürich (hatOLOGY, 2017)

Matthew Shipp is one of the most reliably exciting pianists in the world regardless of how he chooses to record, and this excellent album is another example of his mastery of the solo piano format. This album was recorded live in May of 2016 at the Taktlos Festival and features a concentrated burst of improvisational vigor. One of the most interesting aspects of Shipp's piano style is how he makes the most of the entire length and breadth of the piano, juxtaposing cascading runs with powerful low end depth charges. It makes every performance unique and allows him to draw on a vivid palate of sound. "Intro Z" begins with a gentle and melodic opening, that slowly gathers pace, developing themes and improvisations and gradually working them into the overall improvisation, changing the tactile nature and temperament of the music. The music becomes complex and fleet of foot, expanding the improvisation into a focused core. "Pocket" is a short concentrated burst of musical energy, with Shipp rippling across the keyboard, punctuating his light runs with booming bass chords. This leads to "Gamma Ray" with its deceptively gentle opening subsumed by crashing sounds and urgent clusters of notes. He makes the most of changes in dynamics, with the spaces that in-between the musical poles. There is a lush opening to the standard "Tenderly" which is a surprise, but Shipp finds much to use within this song, stretching and pulling at the various threads of the music until something interesting begins to emerge. The music develops a sharp-angled tone, with an edginess that cuts and slices where very low tones are suddenly present in the music throwing the lighter portions into sharp relief. There is an urgency to "Monk's Nightmare" that takes the percussive piano attack of Thelonious and uses it to develop reverberating blasts of chords, moving into a relentless current of sound that is very exciting to listen to. Motifs and lines of though carom off one an other in a dynamic fashion, as the music spools out making it the longest track and centerpiece of the album. There is a crystal clarity to "Blue in Orion" with notes hanging in space like stars in the sky, mixing melodic lines and improvisations, before the music evolves into "It" which features cascading avalanches of notes punctuated by dramatic silences. Matthew Shipp stays true to his own style, no matter what the musical situation, and this is a powerful example of music that channels the spirit of exploration and a personal philosophy of continuous growth, allowing him to bring his inner strength of character to forefront. Invisible Touch At Taktlos Zürich - amazon.com

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Saturday, August 05, 2017

Roots Music - Last Kind Words (Clean Feed, 2017)

Proving that music is truly a universal language, the Italian group Roots Music delve deep into the history of American blues and jazz and create an exciting and contemporary sound that honors the originators while taking a thoroughly modern approach. The group consists of Alberto Popolla on clarinet and bass clarinet, Errico De Fabritiis on alto and baritone saxophone, Gianfranco Tedeschi on bass, Fabrizio Spera on drums, with guests Luca Venitucci on organ, Luca Tilli on cello and Antonio Castiello providing dub effects. The music is mixed between classic delta blues reinterpretations and free jazz works by blues influenced composers like Julius Hemphill. "Down the Dirt Road Blues" and the title track "Last Kind Words" dig deep into the fertile soil of early blues replacing the otherworldly vocal moan and cry of men like Charlie Patton or Blind Willie Johnson with starkly emotional saxophone and clarinet playing. The sound is raw and earthy, with supportive playing from the rhythm team, it allows the whole band to use the universal language of the blues to excellent effect. Moving into modern jazz, they tackle one of saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill's most storied performances, "Dogon A.D." Deftly mixing their impressive free jazz chops with Hemphill's blues influenced signposts, they create a fine version of intense and provocative music. Also covered is saxophonist and composer Marion Brown, whose “November Cotton Flower” is given a lengthy exploration by the band with the addition of piano filling out the sound even more as the rhythm section develops an mysterious shifting setting to the music and joins into an excellent collective improvisation with the horns. Both Hemphill and Brown were from the American deep south and they were well versed in the traditions of the blues, bringing that experience to the wonderful avant-garde jazz they created during their careers. Castiello is the secret ingredient to the final piece on the album, "Bermuda Blues (Quasi Dub)" which suggests further avenues of roots music for the group to explore in the future, perhaps delving into Jamaican reggae or dub on future albums. But on this particular track, the band dives deeply into a gutsy free blues improvisation with the core quartet improvising a spiraling and swaying performance that Castiello gently alters and tweaks as the track progresses. This isn't some sort of gimmick, it works quite well and adds a further dimension to the band's style of playing. This was a very successful album of blues based modern jazz. The musicians are clearly deeply schooled in the history of jazz and blues, but what emerges in not a stale academic exercise, but a heartfelt and passionate performance. Last Kind Words - amazon.com

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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Ken Vandermark / Klaus Kugel / Mark Tokar - Escalator (Catalytic Sound, 2017)

The music on this excellent album was created by a highly combustible trio consisting of Ken Vandermark on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Mark Tokar on bass and Klaus Kugel on drums and percussion. This album was recorded at the Alchemia Club in Krakow in May of 2016 and begins with "13 Lines" which blasts hard right out of the gate, with Vandermark's expressive saxophone holding court with the elastic bass and drums. They proceed into an epic blowout of collective improvisation, moving massive slabs of sound and developing a hypnotic gaze. There are long low tones of reed to open "Automatic Suite" which moves through several layers, swirling with gentle percussion and chimes giving way to shrieks of clarinet, with fractured rhythm refracting the music in all directions like a funhouse mirror. Vandermark moves back to tenor saxophone as the music deepens like an industrial machine that grinds relentlessly forward. The music becomes fast, deep and muscular, punctuated by growls and roars of saxophone. Supportive bass and drums are simpatico with the torrid saxophone, cracking like a weak levee and allowing a massive wall of improvisation to pour forth. "Flight" develops a very interesting texture with raw toned bowed bass sweeping across the landscape of the music, with saxophone joining at a similar pitch creating an alarming and unnerving sound. The trio comes together to create a fascinating mix, investigating the universe of free improvisation at light speed. Thick and fast bass and drums fuel "Rough Distance" with Vandermark adding a low and guttural saxophone which steams ahead full bore. There is a gleeful exchange of ideas, led by deep bellows of gruff saxophone, and the music is wild, yet coherent as the drums and bass open a fascinating rhythm which results in cascading waves of sound engulfing the listener. The finale, "End Numbers," has more abstract bowed bass with percolating saxophone and drums. They gradually develop a drone that makes excellent fodder for the impending burst of improvisation. There is a rich textural sound with raw peals of saxophone, that builds energy through repetition. The group builds to a rippling improvisation, reveling in the freedom of choice that is available. Everything flows organically as the music gradually proceeds to its conclusion. There is great empathy between the musicians themselves, and between the group and the music on this album. This is one of the most exciting album that I have heard this year, there is constant joy to be found in the bracing interaction of these musicians. Escalator - Bandcamp

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Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Ambrose Akinmusire - A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 2017)

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is a well regarded musician on the modern mainstream jazz scene. He has been patient in building his craft, recording sparingly and not jumping into fads or judgement. To record a live album at the Village Vanguard is a daunting task, since it is the club where John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins among many others recorded some of their finest material. Like those men, he is the sole horn in this band, but he is buoyed by this group that features Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums. "Maurice and Michael (Sorry I Didn't Say Hello)" is an interesting way to open the album, showing a thoughtful sense of social consciousness, and allowing the music to speak for him, developing from a spare and well paced beginning to a more active section for full band improvisation and the leader's solo. Akinmusire has a nice tone to his instrument, often thoughtful and meditative, but willing to be brash and loud if the music calls for it. The more open ended nature of the music allows the band to weave complex textures on "Brooklyn (ODB)" where tight communication and deep listening are critical to the execution of the music. It is another lengthy performance that begins deceptively slowly and quietly with spare piano. Harris takes this opportunity and runs with it, developing a faster and more frenetic pace that opens up the music for the remaining band members. The leader plays long tones of brass over the sound, making for an inviting creative atmosphere. The music resolves about four minutes into more conventional rhythm section with trumpet. Akinmusire's solo statement is powerful and self assured, pushing through the air around him, and taking full control of the situation. You hear muted blast of trumpet, but also low register growling as he makes the most of the possibilities inherent his instrument, before the group comes back for a strong conclusion. One of the lengthiest pieces on the album, "Trumpet Sketch (Milky Pete)" opens with a soft solo statement on trumpet, carefully placing the notes as if he were displaying artworks in a gallery. The rest of the group jumps in after a few minutes, demonstrating their ability to create in real time, taking an idea introduced by one of the members and and using it to craft a memorable performance. Akinmusire pushes the band forward nicely with some very well articulated trumpet plating, and they rhythm section obliges, taking a fine trio feature and further developing interesting rhythmic ideas. They are very impressive in nudging the tempo even faster with Harris romping over the keyboard, and the bass and drums giving chase. The trumpet re-enters, improvising over subtle percussion and bass, playing tightly never sounding forced or heavy handed. Akinmusire develops a trumpet / percussion dynamic is excellent and they really challenge each other as supercharged trumpet phrases and lashing drums arise in an appealing go for broke improvisation, recalling done of the famous horn and drums battles of the Vanguard's past, and giving the music an edgy character that makes it one of the highlights of this very solid collection of live modern jazz. A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard - amazon.com

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