Saturday, June 03, 2023

Noah Howard - Quartet To At Judson Hall Revisited (ezz-thetics records, 2023)

Noah Howard is an unjustly neglected alto saxophonist whose small discography has still managed to influence generations of avant-garde jazz musicians in the United States and Europe. This remastered reissue collects his first two albums as a leader for the ESP-Disk label. His debut album, simply titled Noah Howard Quartet, was released in January 1966, as was the live album At Judson Hall, recorded in October of that year. The first album is a tight four-track record, clocking in at nearly one and a half hours. In addition to Howard on alto saxophone, there is Ric Colbeck on trumpet, Scotty Holt on bass, and Dave Grant on drums and percussion. While the music of the Howard band is free and exploratory, it doesn't quite have the blast furnace heat of his contemporaries, Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders. The band develops melodies or themes for each performance and uses them as jumping-off points for complex interplay and improvisation. "Henry Street" features some exciting back and forth between the alto saxophone and trumpet while the bass and drums agitate underneath. Holt's bowed bass playing adds another dimension to the overall sound that is most impressive as well. The band returns to collective improvisation to round out a very successful performance. A darker theme introduces "Apotheosis," with long tones of saxophone and trumpet gradually opening up and the group developing a stark and potent group interplay, working very well as a unit. They take this notion further on "Apotheosis Extension I," which has a vibrant opening for swirling saxophone and trumpet and more pronounced drumming. Howard isn't afraid to fly far into the upper register to make a point, though he uses this talent with taste and precision. Rapturous collective free improvisation between the band members allows the music to take flight in a grand fashion, with another excellent feature for bowed bass. "And About Love" is a type of ballad, played with depth of feeling and patience by the trumpeter, with spacious plucked bass keeping the open feel of the performance intact. For the Judson Hall performance, Colbeck remains on trumpet with Dave Burrell on piano, Catherine Norris on cello, Norris "Sirone" Jones on bass, and Bobby Kapp on drums and percussion. There are two lengthy pieces, beginning with "This Place Called Earth," which opens with some fine melodic bowed bass and saxophone playing, setting the scene. The cello joins the music for added texture, and then the rest of the band falls in. A nicely woven section for piano, drums, and the string instruments takes place, forming complex but fascinating results. The music ramps up to a swirling multicolored section that works quite well, with the full band working together. The follow-up track is "Homage to Coltrane," which eases in with the stringed instruments creating an interesting drone. It's a lengthy opening, but it sets up an unusual rhythm from Kapp, which gives the horn players room to move and establish themselves. Colbeck makes the most of it with a taut and well-articulated trumpet solo over droning strings and interesting percussion. The tempo becomes fast for Howard's solo, where he is supported with heavy percussion and uses it well to create a squalling free jazz saxophone solo that demonstrates that he has the talent to play with anybody on the scene. The rest of the band follows his lead, building to an all-hands-on-deck collective blowing session that is thrilling to hear. This album is an excellent introduction to Noah Howard's music, with critic Art Lange adding well-written liner notes that put the music in historical context. It is done with ezz-thetics usual level of quality and should satisfy any curious listener. Quartet to at Judson Hall Revisited -

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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Henry Threadgill - The Other One (Pi Recordings, 2023)

This is a beautiful quasi-classical work from multi-reedist and composer Henry Threadgill, someone who has never been afraid to experiment or to push the edge of modern music to its logical conclusion. The music on this album consists of a three-movement composition entitled "Of Valence" that was the musical component of a wider multimedia exhibit recorded live at Roulette in Brooklyn during May of 2022. The twelve-piece group has a unique instrumental set-up, consisting of three saxophones, a violin, a viola, two cellos, a tuba, percussion, piano, and two bassoons. "Of Valence" is dedicated to the influential percussionist Milford Graves, who passed away in 2021. The piece was inspired by Graves’ fascination with the human heartbeat and its application to music. This can be heard most definitely during Movement II, where the string players play their parts while listening to a playback of their own heartbeats as recorded previously by a cardiologist. The music contained in the suite is very impressive and flows naturally from the composer's pen to the presentation and ultimately the improvisations of the musicians of the ensemble. The range of textures, from the depth of the cellos and tubas through to the violin, piano, and reed instruments, covers an extensive range and builds a wide screen for dramatic storytelling. Movement 1, sections 1–2, is anchored by solo piano in a spacious setting with saxophones entering at the end and a full group sound developing on the succeeding sections, leading to tasteful horns and strings. Sections 5-7 pick up speed nicely, developing a kaleidoscope of ever-changing music colors, first centered on the saxophones and then on the strings, swooping and swirling, developing a fantasia of sound and color. Section 11 brings an interlude for a drum solo before the Movement 1 finale for light strings, with tuba holding down the bottom and bassoon probing the middle section. Most of Movement II is a long 16-minute performance with some stark and forthright saxophone soloing amid a bed of strings, a lengthy section for slow hypnotic string development, and strong saxophone framed by strings and drums. The cells of music within the wider piece develop and subside, stretching the atmospheric strings and saxophone to the point of near silence. The music rebounds as Movement II wraps up with Sections 12 A-B as a feature for violin and soprano saxophone. The suite concluding Movement III is a series of very short sections, combining for a sweeping evolution in sound. Section 14 in particular features some wonderful playing from the horns and drums, with the tuba providing the bass function as the music glides to a graceful conclusion. The Other One -

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Thursday, May 25, 2023

Dave Douglas and Elan Mehler - If There Are Mountains (Greenleaf Records / Newvelle Records, 2023)

Dave Douglas and collaborators create a thoughtful and patiently constructed album where clear, well developed compositions meet considerate and attentive playing to considerable success. The band consists of Douglas on trumpet, Elan Mehler on piano, Dominique Eade on vocals, John Gunther on saxophone, clarinet, and bass clarinet, Simón Willson on bass, and Dayeon Seok on drums. Eade in particular has a beautiful, classically "jazzy" voice, taking her time with the poems and haikus that Douglas and Elan Mehler have set to original music. This is professional, adult music with nothing to prove, where the melodies and themes are brief and thoughtful, and the solos are pithy and concise. The music grabs attention right away, with Eade’s vocals articulated clearly and weaving through the opening "If There Are Mountains," setting the tone for the rest of the album. The arrangement of voice and quintet works quite well, making for an elegant and refined album. Gunther's playing is also noteworthy, gracefully moving between saxophone and clarinet, swooping unexpectedly over rolling drum accents as the whole band comes together with excellent interplay. His light and hollow-sounding clarinet and Douglas's punchy brass push forward the music, bringing a sense of drama and intrigue to the proceedings. This was quite a personal project for Mehler, who stated in the liner notes that he had wanted to work with Douglas for some time, and it marks a successful entry in both men's catalogs. If There Are Mountains -

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Tuesday, May 23, 2023

George Coleman - Live At Smalls Jazz Club (Cellar Live Records, 2023)

Saxophonist George Coleman has had quite a career. Over eighty-eight years, he's been a soulful young lion out of Memphis and a bridge saxophonist in the great Miles Davis quintet before finally emerging into the spotlight from the nineties on as a revered elder, bandleader, and sideman of value. This album was recorded at Smalls Jazz Club during the spring of 2022 with a fine mainstream backup band, including Spike Wilner on piano, Peter Washington on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. They sound very tight and locked in, playing a nice selection of standards and the occasional swinging original composition. "Four" harkens back to Coleman's time with Davis, with the band moving through the languid theme and then stretching out faster, with the rhythm section playing a strong role in the track's success, pushing Coleman forward and engaging him to improvise at speed for some time. The soulful romp "At Last" seems particularly geared toward tenor saxophone and piano, with Coleman adding quick boppish asides and Wilner providing steady workmanlike accompaniment. The standard "My Funny Valentine" provides another chance for lengthy reflection, with piano and saxophone stating a dark toned version of the familiar melody. Bass and subtle brushes enter after a few minutes, leading to an impressionistic rhythm section feature and a graceful conclusion. "Blues for Smalls" is a real highlight, with the group digging in and truly enjoying themselves, Coleman at his best, playing with added fire and bravado, while the rhythm team keeps the pace lively. George Coleman is a survivor, and you can hear the evolution of postbop jazz saxophone beneath his fingers. Aided by a supportive cast, he adds another solid effort to an admirable discography. Live At Smalls Jazz Club -

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Thursday, May 18, 2023

Natural Information Society - Since Time Is Gravity (Eremite Records, 2023)

The Natural Information Society is a band that seems to me to be the logical extension of the music that Don Cherry was creating in the 1970s. They humbly explore the sounds of different cultures while simultaneously maintaining their avant-jazz roots by creating several lengthy improvisations of varying hue and texture. This version of the band is an eleven-piece unit led by Joshua Abrams on guimbri and bass, and their music was recorded live in two locations during the spring and summer of 2021. The improvisations also embrace forms of minimalism based on repeated stratified rhythms and layers of instruments. The guimbri, which Abrams plays throughout the album, is a three-stringed lute made of wood covered in camel skin. It is perfect for creating the sort of hypnotic, slowly evolving music that is performed on this album. The band also folds in other influences, from free jazz to drone-based outsider music; everything is available, creating a sound of unique depth and immediacy. This unique combination of instruments, improvising in a long-form manner, is quite something to behold. The guimbri, along with the more traditional jazz instruments, create the sensibility of a multiethnic collaboration. This music fits solidly in that tradition of Ornette Coleman free jazz: nobody’s soloing, everybody’s soloing, and the collective and communal nature of Cherry’s solo work. But really, this album transcends any one individual and takes the creative energy of all of the musicians to develop a clear and distinctive kind of music that is thoroughly compelling and memorable. Since Time Is Gravity -

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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

New York Art Quartet - Revisited (ezz-thetics records, 2023)

For a band with a relatively short career consisting of a few albums and a late reunion, The New York Art Quartet was quite influential. The group was made up of John Tchicai on alto saxophone, Roswell Rudd on trombone, Lewis Worrell or Reggie Workman on bass, and Milford Graves on drums and percussion. Free jazz was growing in stature in 1964 when they recorded their first self-titled album for Bernard Stolman's ESP-Disk label, the home of many of the idiom's emerging stars like Alber Ayler, Phoarah Sanders, and Sun Ra. The New York Art Quartet were different, though, and aptly named for playing free jazz artistically, not simply creating blowouts. Collective improvisations were key to the group's identity, but where the Ayler groups may raise the roof with their improvisations, this group took a more measured approach with gradations of texture and sound. You hear this on the opening track "Short," where beautiful bowed bass playing underpins patient horns and percussion. Leroi Jones (soon to become Amiri Baraka) provides a poem for "Sweet/Black Dada Nihilismus" that is still shocking in its violent imagery. The band plays a serious sounding and lengthy improvised section after the poem that carries forth the weight of the issues of which he spoke. "Rosmosis" has a strong drum solo before a tight fanfare theme, the long run time allowing for lengthy and explorative solos, trombone and golden toned saxophone over hyperactive drumming, and an unaccompanied bowed bass solo. In turn, "No. 6" burns fast and hot, with everybody contributing to the boiling mixture of instruments. The growl of the trombone and the cleaner sound of the saxophone meld well, with brief bass and drum sections and an exciting full band ending. The group's second album, Mohawk, was released the following year on the Dutch Fontana label, opening with "Rufus 3rd," begun by Workman's nimble bass solo and the insinuation of the theme with very interesting rhythm and saxophone. Bounding bass and drums become deeply connected as the sound grows, creating an interesting and intriguing performance. "Mohawk" has a mysterious collective theme, demonstrating how the group's music has grown, becoming deeper and more complex. It evolves into a four-way conversation at a relaxed and thoughtful pace. "Banging on the White House Door" is a little more strident, more indicative of the free jazz of the time. The sound loosens and becomes a bit lighter and more spacious with complex percussion, while blustery trombone and light saxophone fly over rolling drums and percussion for a multi-layered performance. A choppy theme sets the stage for another version of "No. 6," creating exciting sweeping waves of sound that carry the performance along with motoring bass and drums. The album ends with "Everything Happens To Me," a rare standard, where a nice melody is developed for evocative saxophone and bowed bass, with Graves' rattling drums gradually pushing the music farther afield. This was an excellent re-issue, drawing attention to an important and influential band with a remastered recording and new liner notes. New York Art Quartet Revisited - Squidco

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Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Peter Brötzmann / Majid Bekkas / Hamid Drake - Catching Ghosts (ACT Music, 2023)

The 2022 Jazzfest Berlin performance by milti-reedist Peter Brötzmann, Moroccan singer and 
guembre player Majid Bekkas and drummer Hamid Drake was a fortuitous event. The music sounds ancient and modern simultaneously, as if you could have heard it while traveling early Muslim trans-Saharan trade routes or at this year's Vision Festival. There are four tracks on the album, two of which are quite long, where the three musicians perform rousing collective improvisations that sum up a powerful and extremely successful performance that transitions from a well recorded concert to a timely album release where the overall effect is quite hypnotic. Brotzmann and Drake have been playing together for many years, so their musical dynamic is simpatico, but Bekkas is the wild card, one that really makes this recording unique and distinctive in the discographies of both Brotzmann and Drake. His instrumental playing serves to further the rhythm of the music, working with Drake to push the music forward or chop it up into unexpected pieces. His voice is an extraordinary instrument all its own in both volume and pitch, making a superb foil for Brotzmann even at full bellow, creating a multi-cultural delight that proves that the malleability of jazz and improvisation truly knows no bounds. Brotzmann himself is remarkably inspired, deeply focused in this situation, playing long brisk and deep tones that integrate very well with the strings and percussion and the voice of Bekkas which has such a yearning and reaching cadence. But full-on free jazz isn't the aim of the recording, and indeed, the subtleties that the musicians are able to achieve and explore throughout the concert, with complete open-mindedness and respect for culture, make this a most successful and worthy release. Catching Ghosts -

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