Sunday, January 17, 2021

Book: Universal Tonality - The Life and Music of William Parker by Cisco Bradley (Duke University Press, 2021)

This is a well researched and written biography of the great American bassist, composer, bandleader and social activist William Parker. Parker is the descendent of people that were enslaved against their will in the southern United Stares, and the author makes a valiant effort to track his genealogy from the Middle Passage through to his birth in the Bronx in 1952. Parker grew up in a loving household that scraped to get by with both parents working as the economics and demographics of their neighborhood changed around them. Music was one constant at the home, especially inspiring young William who had a near synesthetic reaction to music, art and poetry. Gravitating to the bass Parker was initially self taught, then getting excellent opportunities to learn through doing as the loft scene opened up in New York in the mid-1970’s. He made just enough money to keep going, but played constantly at venues like Studio Rivbea, Ali’s Alley and the Ladies Fort. Gentrification brought an end to the loft scene in New York at the turn of the decade, but by then Parker was presented with a major opportunity, to play with pianist and iconoclast Cecil Taylor. By the 1980’s, Taylor had finally gained some hard fought respect for his innovative approach, and this allowed Parker to play with the maestro around the world in a wide range of musical configurations for over ten years. As his time with Taylor moved to a close, Parker began to establish himself as a bandleader, and the author takes an interesting approach by taking each of Parker’s groups and following their progress through time, rather than taking an overarching chronological overview. Taking its name from a beautifully written manifesto of Parker’s, the band In Order to Survive was the first of his bands to have an overt political stance, while his first large ensemble, The Little Huey Creative Orchestra performed and recorded widely with a regularly shifting cadre of musicians, incorporating Parker’s poetry and texts into the music. He made a key ally in percussionist Hamid Drake, whom he met while playing with Peter Brotzmann. Drake would anchor many of the small groups that Parker would turn to, building trios and quartets and some mesmerizing duet recordings. The only drawback is that Parker has been so prolific that the latter half of the book can turn into a numbing scroll of names, dates and recording sessions. A solid discography of Parker’s recordings as a leader is a big help in guiding the curious listener toward recordings of note. Overall this is long overdue respect and praise for one of the finest and hardest working musicians of the post-war era. William Parker is a national treasure, as this book is a testament to his perseverance. Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker - amazon.com

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Prezens - xFORM (Screwgun Records, 2020)

Prezens consists of David Torn on electric guitar and loops, Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Tom Rainey on drums and Craig Taborn on keyboards and electronics. Named after an album that Torn recorded for ECM in 2007, the music is a giddy amalgam of free jazz, fusion, progressive rock and ambient electronica, creating a roiling hour long performance called "xFORM." There is form here, this isn't just a free for all, but the musicians are free to subvert and deconstruct that form as they see fit to create music that has a clear impact. The music ebbs and flows like a series of waves, with the improvisation, invention and re-invention never ceasing. Fast sections break over the land in a tsunami like fashion with torrents of abrasive electric guitar and caustic saxophone scouring the earth below. Kinetic percussion and electronics add to the visceral force that is achieved by this band when they are at their height. When the wave isn’t at its crest, the band is equally interesting, providing haunting soundscapes that wouldn’t be out of place in Blade Runner or a modern day rain drenched film noir soundtrack. Longer tones of guitar and electronics make for very appealing atmospheric sections within the performance, as the saxophone adds gritty ambience and the drums add nervous percussion. This was an excellent album from a uniquely talented band, one that is able to pool their energies and instrumental prowess to create an hour long narrative that never lags and is continually full of surprises. xFORM - Bandcamp.com

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Muriel Grossman - Quiet Earth (Dreamlandrecords, 2020)

Saxophonist Muriel Grossmann, originally from Austria though now based in Ibiza has carved out her own space, playing and recording with jazz greats, and also releasing several fine solo albums on her own Dreamlandrecords Label. On this album she plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophone along side Radomir Milojkovic on guitar, Gina Schwarz on bass, Uros Stamenkovic on drums and Llorenç Barceló on organ. "Wien" opens with a sense of spiritual reverence, resolving to rather swinging quartet section. The music has a soulful touch that gradually grows more potent, then a twanging guitar solo breaks out proving an interesting touch to the music, slide guitar rarely used in jazz and Milojkovic uses it to great effect here over simmering organ and cymbals. There is a subtle organ and cymbal percussion interlude, after which the saxophone returns with aggressive drumming reprising the theme. A slinky guitar and  fast complex bass rhythm opens "African Call," with Grossman developing a lighter faster saxophone tone, along side rich, bubbling  accompanying playing. She plays spirited saxophone in a loose and imaginative manner, leading to a guitar solo that is equally fast, showering notes along the path. Shimmering organ and drums groove through a featured segment, locked in tightly, and everyone returns to the bouncy effervescent theme for the closure. "Peaceful River" has a warm and welcoming feeling, with more space and nice patient organ and cymbals. The leader takes flight with some exciting soaring saxophone, over lightly comping guitar. The saxophone focus is clear as the musicians bubble and simmer, and she rides the thermals before returning to the quieter more inward looking saxophone theme. Shifting percussion with saxophone developing a deep swirling rhythm usher in "Quiet Earth" with Grossman's taut saxophone tone cutting through fine layers guitar, keyboards, percussion. She is very expressive on each of the saxophone she plays deftly using narrative development within a solo. Soaring and playing in a very organic and natural fashion, the group is in on point with a spiffy guitar solo, leading to an equally interesting organ and percussion duet that explores while holding the groove down. Tenor saxophone coda with thick bass and strong drums provide a memorable tag ending. This is another fine entry in Muriel Grossman's steadily growing discography. The band plays very well supporting her solo endeavors and working positively as an ensemble, and the leader's saxophone playing is bright and memorable. Quiet Earth - Bandcamp.com

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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Anthony Pirog - Pocket Poem (Cuneiform Records, 2020)

Guitarist Anthony Pirog takes a wide ranging view to the instrument, melding genres together without fear and on this album alone touching on progressive rock, ambient, avant-folk, creative jazz, free improvisation, electronica, and guitar soundscapes. Often layering the compositions with sounds created using modern technology and vintage guitar synthesizers. In addition to guitar Pirog use a wide range of electronics and keeps excellent company with Michael Formanek on acoustic and electric basses and Ches Smith on drums, percussion and electronics along with guest musicians on a number of tracks. Many of the tracks are quite short, like sketches or experiments, beginning with the opening track "Dog Daze" in which a quiet and subtle opening gives way to heavy grinding electric guitar placed along side and long tones of majestic progressive electronics. "Honeymoon Room" shows Pirog playing loose acoustic guitar with fingers squeaking on frets, thoughtfully done, then moving to an electro-acoustic formation with longer hanging tones of electric guitar weaving around strumming acoustic, creating a very interesting texture. After a subdued opening, ""Adonna the Painter" takes a wide screen approach, then developing a more conventional guitar solo leading to a well thought out and played bass solo. The trio works very well together in this track, adding fine drum support as well. "Beecher" uses spare and atmospheric guitar and hornlike synthetic instruments to create an unusual sound environment, it sounds like he's playing synth guitar similar to something Pat Metheny would play, layering the sound to create a duet between the two instruments. They develop a wide variety of textures and ideas toward the end of the album, beginning with "Spinal Fusion" with Smith setting drum machine like beats, and Pirog building long tones of guitar and electronics sweeping into a glitching lurching performance. "Untitled Atlas"uses Formanek's scraping bowed bass to excellent effect adding fascinating texture, then the focus shifts to an alluring drumbeat met with smears of electronic sound, resolving itself finally with a heavy drumbeat with electronics to push to the end. The final track is an edit of "Danger Play / Pocket Poem / Mori Point" which combines some of the most interesting passages of the album where tones are built up in layers amid beats silences, followed by a cut to a burst of faster, more colorful playing. The musicians create an interesting album, one that is in constant motion, trying to cram in all of the influences that Pirog has absorbed in his guitar playing life. Zooming from style to genre and touching on them briefly gives the album a hallucinatory, kaleidoscopic effect, while still maintaining a personal touch. Pocket Poem - amazon.com

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Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Various Artists - Hanging Tree Guitars (Music Maker Foundation, 2020)

Freeman Vines is a guitar maker, an artist who is looking for a way to tell stories within his instruments as well as the music that they create. To that end he took possession of lumber from a tree that had been used in the lynching of an African-American man. Each instrument he constructed from that wood is completely unique and they are used by the musicians on this album to create gusty and defiant music that encompasses a wide range from deep blues, soul music and gospel. The music brought forth from these instruments is frequently amazing, like the stark guitar playing that is met by the harrowing story of deep blues where a starving sharecropper goes to his boss man in desperation for food only be made to eat it out of the dog’s bowl. The haunting deep blues of this song along with the opener “Slavery Time” by Rufus McKenzie bring home this history and passion of courageous men and women who continued to play music regardless of the cost. The struggle these musicians have faced over the course of their hard won lives is very real, no more so than on the closing track “Amazing Grace” by Guitar Smith Stephens. His hands have been worked to the bone and he can barely form the notes on the guitar, but the ones he does make, accompanied the most heartfelt singing make for a harrowing and powerful performance. The music on this disc is lightened a bit by the pure gospel sounds of “Get Ready” by The Glorifying Vines with their beautiful voices urged forward by strong rhythmic guitar playing. On a whole this disc was wonderful to hear and a powerful statement that people can take back something that has seen so much evil like a lynching tree, and turn it into powerful instruments of healing. Hanging Tree Guitars - Music Maker Foundation.

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Saturday, January 02, 2021

Various Artists - Spiritual Jazz 12: Impulse! (Jazzman Records, 2020)

For the twelfth entry into the Spiritual Jazz series, they finally gain permission to use the music of Impulse Records, home to some of the musicians that would come to be most clearly identified with the sub-genre. This is a two CD or LP set, well packaged with generous liner notes and photographs, the selections are an interesting mix of the familiar and the obscure, making for a consistently interesting experience. Leading off with one of the most spiritual of all tracks, John Coltrane’s “Acknowledgment,” the first part of the A Love Supreme suite, his submission to a higher power through chant and powerful saxophone playing. Coltrane’s sidemen are also well represented, with two tracks from Elvin Jones, “Fantazm” and “Half and Half” which show his percussive prowess in a piano trio and a progressive sextet format with underground legends Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons. Two of McCoy Tyner’s earliest solo recordings are added, including “Three Flowers” with John Gilmore on tenor saxophone. Yusef Lateef takes to the exotic argol reed instrument on a track from his Live at Pep’s LP, channeling the music of the East and Africa in a fascinating performance. Alice Coltrane anchors the second disc, with “Turiya and Ramakrishna” which is deep piano jazz with Ron Carter on bass and Ben Riley on drums. She truly heads for the cosmos with beautiful harp playing alongside Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali on “Journey in Satchidanada.” Pharaoh himself is well represented with “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah” with Sanders raw saxophone locking in with the yodeling vocals of Leon Thomas. “Thembi” is equally beautiful, as Sanders moves between tenor and soprano saxophone amid a bed of ever shifting percussion. Saxophonist Marion Brown began playing fire music, but by the time he recorded “Maimoun” he was playing the spacious and thoughtful music that he would explore for remainder of his career. Overall, this is a very enjoyable and listenable composition to hear. The music is chosen and programmed well, and just hints at the depth of the Impulse records catalogue. Spiritual Jazz: Impulse - amazon.com

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Friday, January 01, 2021

Thumbscrew - The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform Records, 2020)

The veteran exploratory jazz outfit Thumbscrew, consisting of Tomas Fujiwara on drums and vibes, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Michael Formanek on bass went to the Anthony Braxton archive to search for previously unheard compositions and then worked them into a shape during a four week residency playing live, and developing arrangements of the Braxton compositions to meet their trio format. "Composition No. 52" has a sense of snaking complexity, with fine interplay among the band members throughout the intricate performance. They are never still, but building to a very fast, shimmering quality. Dispensing with anything extraneous, the brief "Composition No. 157" burrows ever deeper into the meat of the composition, unleashing very fast guitar and drums, then becoming quite abstract in the end. "Composition No. 14 (Guitar)" is a short feature for Mary Halvorson, and she makes cool guitar sounds, creating a fascinating solo feature by sculpting those sounds to meet her needs, with shades of blues and electronics. Bowed bass and brushed percussion usher in "Composition No. 68" with spacious guitar sounds, allowing the music to offer short bursts then quickly stop. Vibes enter, adding a new texture everything in space, and the pace speeds up with faster guitar playing, clamoring vibes and percussion. "Composition No. 274" is a gradually building performance that makes the most of Halvorson's excellent guitar to develop a potent and architecturally sound feature that makes the most of the source material. A solo feature for Tomas Fujiwara, "Composition No. 14 (Drums)" is patient and well rounded becoming faster, multi rhythmic and complex. "Composition No. 61" is a compelling theme, sounding almost like a march, quite memorable, and even more so as the trio starts to pick it apart and improvise, spinning faster and faster in a colorful and dynamic fashion. Vibes along with skittish, spidery guitar are at play on "Composition No. 35" before the performance begins to open up with more prominent bass, allowing the improvisation room to flex and grow through episodic development. Finally, "Composition No. 79" is very interesting with its slinky vibes playing with cool bass and guitar. A really jaunty and almost swinging tune is developed, the most accessible by far and a fine ending to a compelling album. Braxton's music is beyond my ken for the most part, but hearing this group play it makes it a little more manageable. They eschew any displays of flashy technique, though they have plenty to spare, to dig deep and explore some of the compositions of a musician who has touched their lives so deeply. The Anthony Braxton Project - amazon.com

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