Classic Album of the Week: Roscoe Mitchell Sextet-Sound (1966)

On his first album as a band leader, Roscoe Mitchell gave the world a first glance at the music that the Art Ensemble of Chicago–of which Mitchell and a few of these musicians were a part of–would be enamored with throughout their illustrious career.  Coming seven years after Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Sound extended Coleman’s message with a more collective playing style and further dives into experimental textures. The aptly named opener Ornette follows the same melody-improvisation-melody formula that Coleman used so often, but The Little Suite follows with great deal of components, each of which tested limits of aesthetic and timbre with harmonicas and other texturally driven instrumental sounds.  At 20-minutes long, title-track Sound was certainly one of the most rebellious offerings of the 1960s.

Chicago was a town that always held an influence on jazz history as many New Orleans-born heroes had to flee to a less racist part of the country late in their careers.  The Art Ensemble of Chicago proved the importance of the city’s art music scened by pushing the idea of improvisation further than it had ever been with each performance.  Sound was the start of their rise and without it the fundamental ideas of free improvisation would not be where they are today.

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The Uncoverables Podcast: Nick Fraser Interview

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This week’s episode (is four days late….) features excerpts from an interview I did over the summer with Canadian Improvising Drummer Nick Fraser.  We spoke a bit about his philosophies surrounding improvisation and the process behind his latest album Starer which you can find at nickfraserthedrummer.bandcamp.com!  New music from outside the jazz world included after the interview portion.  Tune in!

(photo credit: Christer Männikus)

Playlist (artist-“tune” from album)

Nick Fraser-“Sketch #20/22” from Starer

Gintas K-“Minmi” from Under My Skin

Sarah Davachi-“Ghosts and All” from Vergers

Sneaks-“Inside Edition” from It’s a Myth

The Courtneys-“Silver Velvet” from II

 

Lisa Mezzacappa-avantNOIR: Album Review

On AvantNOIR, Lisa Mezzacappa showcases a knack for achieving a great overall ensemble sound in an aesthetic that strikes a balance between noisy avant-garde jazz and more straight-ahead materials.  Beginning with a quirky three-minute tune, diving into some ambient realms in the middle, and ending with a floating, back-beat jolt, this album truly offers seven contrasting tunes, yet there’s a moody quality that connects each number.  Mezzacappa has been around the bay-area jazz scene for quite some time now, but this is my personal introduction to her music and it’s clear that she will become a staple of my jazz listening for years to come.

After giving a taste of the players on the record with the introductory “Fillmore Street,” Mezzacappa beckons in the tightly syncopated blues sensibilities of “The Ballad of Big Flora” with a brooding bass solo over textural electronics and samples.  By leaving a great deal of space between phrases in the middle of the track, Mezzacappa opens up a lot of room for drummer Jordan Glenn and electrician Tim Perkis to trade ideas.

“Army Street” offers another quick tune not unlike the first before the hefty “Medley on the Big Knockover” offers many interlocking sections over the course of ten minutes.  First, we hear a pressing rock groove with some pounding drums and disorienting, screeching-tire sound effects.  Later, we get free-metered space with sparse ideas from each member of the ensemble, before a frantic swing feel with exquisitely broken ride patterns from Glenn.

This track does feature my main reservation on the record, which is the sarcastic dive into a twangy country sound with up-beat accompaniment.  Between this and the sound effects, there’s certainly an element of humor on this track, but the country idea didn’t go over so well for me.  It’s clear that the first half of the record offers a great deal of different sounds, without losing accessibility; there’s a constant melodic focus that primes the listener for later experimental ploys.

The second half of the record distills melodic activity with a great deal of open-ended space.  “Bird in the Hand” comes first with some really well-integrated vocal samples from a movie.  It doesn’t feel like Mezzacappa is forcing anything here as the tune is sort of haunting and empty, with the samples operating as blips on the radar.  Even at the end, with more action in the film sampling, the ensemble remains floating and detached.  It’s great to here sonic work like this on a jazz record.

“Quinn’s Serenade” then offers a somewhat stark, yet gradual change of pace.  The tune kind of fades in around the same tempo of the last track, but as Bennett’s solo grows, the group fades into one of their angular melodies.  This sheds light on Mezzacappa’s over-arching planning on the record.  It’s a really cohesive listen, where each composition sensibly transitions into the next.

Although the record values ensemble sound over individuals as a whole, Aaron Bennett and John Finkbeiner provide standout performances.  When Bennett takes over the spotlight, he’s able to really unleash emotion with this really raw and unhinged saxophone persona.  Finkbeiner, on the other hand, is the character behind the operation with his off-kilter guitar tone.

AvantNOIR really strikes all the markers of a great album.  Each track brings something to the table alone, but their full impact is contingent on the rest of the work.  Also, the ensemble sound balances risk and tradition quite well in a collectively driven setting.  I wouldn’t say it’s a work that totally transcends time and genre and there’s a handful of choices I didn’t love, but it will certainly appeal to jazz fans all over the place and it proves that Lisa Mezzacappa is a compositional force to be reckoned with.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Dek Trio-Burning Below Zero: Album Review (Ken Vandermark, Didi Kern, Elisabeth Harnik)

Adding to the long list of Ken Vandermark collaborations, Burning Below Zero showcases an improvisation-driven sound that doesn’t stick to one mode of playing too heavily.  Much of the record features frantic, free-metered battle between Vandermark, pianist Elisabeth Harnik and drummer Didi Kern, but the group also takes dives into loose, punky swing ploys and even a bit of freakish back-beat funk grooves.  Keeping all this together is the group’s use of space.  As one idea fades out, the group takes their time with ambient noise and sketches of melodies, before jumping onto the next.  It’s an album that greatly varies in sonic content, but it’s also an album that values a natural series of events.

Things get off to an especially raw start.  Pops and clicks from Vandermark’s horn interact with rumbling drum phrasing, then airy phrases quickly turn to screaming melodies and Harnik’s piano phrasing reaches a heavy urgency to really fill the room with noise.  Eventually, Vandermark fades out of the equation, before returning to herald in a slight change in mood.  Although the energy and pace remains high, Kern’s choice to jump off the cymbals, coupled with Vandermark’s sparse phrasing makes for a much lighter attack.  Next, Vandermark gets left in the spotlight for some hefty melodic lines and Kern strong-arms the change in direction with a punky swing feel.

Within the first ten minutes (of a 30-minute track), the group has already taken some pretty big changes in direction, but what’s interesting about the first passage here is that each change in direction is directed—in a sense—by a player who’s rested for a couple minutes.  This becomes a really interesting tactic throughout the record as the group has a player just listening to the sounds of the room, then offering the response that dictates the next move; it makes for cohesive, yet unpredictable sound.

The swing groove of “Raj 1” sputters out around the 13-minute mark and the group enters a really ambient place.  Kern and Harnik take texture as their main focal point with cymbal work and extended techniques in the piano strings.  Vandermark’s return offers something of a rhythmic element with throbbing saxophone lines for the other players to interact with.  Somehow, the percussion section conjures this oddball drone sound and Vandermark gently transitions to a melodic role in anticipation of the final, haunting groove.  The second half of this track is much sound and space driven, but again we see a lot of sonic ground covered with some fantastic collective playing.

“Raj 2,” admittedly, features a similar series of events to the first edition, but there’s some especially special work here from pianist Elisabeth Harnik.  There’s a natural aura of drama that her piano melodies carry and this adds a lot of emotion to the abstractions that begin the track.  As Vandermark pecks out melodies, Harnik stabs out some brooding piano lines and slides before resorting to rumbling low range to notch up the intensity.  It’s work that’s not excessive, but it really drives the mood of the project at this point.

This track does also incorporate on of the coolest grooves on the record.  After complete madness, ensues around the ten-minute mark, Kern abruptly jumps into a quasi-funk groove with Vandermark and Harnik still gripping the atonal slosh the group just came out of.  It’s a really off-kilter moment and it’s great to hear so much raw passion in one place.

Considering that there’s two nearly 30-minute tracks, it’s certainly an album that takes a jazz head’s ear and a bit of patience, but this album is chock full of well executed material that feels very naturally crafted.  As I’ve said time and time again with acoustic jazz records, this album isn’t necessarily breaking new ground sonically, but it certainly proves that gritty improvisation still has something to say.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Satoko Fuji Tokyo Orchestra-Peace: Album Review

Satoko Fuji is perhaps Japan’s most notable Free Jazz composer.  Having played with the likes of Myra Melford, Tony Malaby, and Mark Feldman, Fuji has managed to set-up big bands on different continents and string together a handful of duo and trio recordings across her 20+ year career.  On Peace, there’s no shortage of fantastic improvisation and intriguing compositional choices.  The album kicks off with portraits of duos and solos within her Tokyo-based big band ensemble, with huge messy interpolations from the whole band stringing everything together.  Then we get a bit of impressionist pentatonicism, an especially chaotic number, and a cool modal piece.  There are certain aspects that make the album a bit of a tough listen.  The four tracks don’t necessarily relate to each other all that well and the first track is a bit excessive and doesn’t come to an especially satisfying resolution.  Still, Fuji’s band shines and her place in the jazz community is clear.

At 32-minutes in length, “2014” is naturally a going to have smaller microcosms within the overall mass.  First, we get some textural trumpet experimentation from—I think—Natsuki Tamura.  Harsh noise is wrenched from the instrument, immediately filling the track with tension.  Eventually drummers Akira Horikoshi and Peter Orins enter to interact with the solo, gradually adding a notion of meter to the room.  Then, the band buds in with a dramatic, rising melody as Tamura finally enters a more straightforward trumpet playing space to utter some heavy hitting hard-bop lines.  At around the seven-minute mark, the cycle repeats as the band recedes to full silence to yield attention to a duo of saxophone and trombone, with drums and bass also taking hold of the spotlight later on.  The time on the track is exceptional.  The band maintains immense forward momentum in both completely free time and straightforward 4/4 with the drummers providing a sort of spectrum between the two.

The issue I find with this track is that each of these components don’t necessarily resolve, which is intentional as Fuji is crafting a larger narrative to the track, but even the ending bass solo sort of just stops.  So, again there’s not really a resolution.  Thus, the track just ends up being a sort of circulating timeline without a feeling of closure.  Even the flow from one idea to the next is a bit questionable.  Although the drummers are able to connect the dots as the band transitions from open to free, the return to space is not nearly as gradual.  To hold a 30-minute track together, there needs to be a strong development and a logical series of events leading to a final conclusion, I feel as though this one missed the mark.

The other three tracks on the record are much more concise.  “Jasper” is an undeniably beautiful piece of music featuring some breathtaking work from Sachi Hayasaka on soprano sax.  Hayasaka’s tone is so pure that in places you can’t even discern the identity of the instrument.  The track thrives on pentatonic scales, which yield picturesque tone color.  Completed first by subtle drones, Hayasaka is able to work with subtlety and motivic development.  Later the track digs in a bit with stinger chords in the trumpet section coming at a lethargic quarter-note pace, allowing Hayasaka to show off some flashier licks.  Fuji’s ability to orchestrate while maintaining an emphasis on improvisation shines here.  There’s a pleasant simplicity to the work she gives her band that only uplifts improvisation without dictating too much of the natural flow of for the moment sound.

“Peace” takes a pretty maximal approach to improvisation with complete madness setting in at the first downbeat.  At first, you get the impression that a screaming saxophone player is going to attempt to take on Fuji’s double drum set-up, but then another sax takes a crack at it (and so on).  This is why the track works though.  The ideas bounce from player to player to match the natural frantic edge that music at this speed is going to have. Rather than having one guy spit as much out as possible, you get some input from a bunch of players making for a really interesting piece.  This track also does a bit of a better job than the first in transitioning from a huge wall of sound to open space.  Instead of a complete fade out the band almost folds back the curtains leaving a saxophone line—one that’s already occurring—in open space.  This technique might have made the “2014” a bit more cohesive.

Another possible issue with the album is the flow from track to track, which is most apparent at the last track. “Beguine Nummer 3” is a bit of a floating modal track that really comes out of nowhere considering the Avant garde edge of the rest of the work.  Of course, the music is well executed and Tamura delivers another especially musical solo, it just really comes out of nowhere.

Peace is not a perfect album, but I didn’t come away feeling entirely unsatisfied.  Players of this magnitude are never going to fully disappoint and despite some issues with flow, the vigor with which Fuji inspires her ensemble to approach every waking moment of her composition inspires focus throughout.

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Ned Rothenberg-In Cahoots: Album Review

In Cahoots features three mainstays of the free jazz community doing what they do best.  Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and Violinist Mark Feldman combined forces on one of my favorite projects from last year—Miller’s Tale which also included Ikue Mori and Evan Parker—and although this album involves less exploration of extended technique and uncharted aesthetic space, their musicality combines nicely with Ned Rothenberg for a biting artistic journey.

Much of the project feels anticipatory for something huge.  Opening track “Light and Variations” plays with anxiety ridden aesthetics as quiet, combative melodies are pitted against each other throughout, implying an incoming explosion.  This sort of sets the tone for the first half of the record.  Admittedly the lack of drums somewhat limits the group in terms of fire power, so the explosive material comes in the forms of tiny blips on the radar.  Take the track “Inter-State,” for example; here, each player kind of dives right in with rather out of control melodic material from Feldman and Rothenberg, complimented by pounding piano work from Courvoisier, but the track is only six minutes in length and the explosive material still finds quite a bit of time to cool down towards the end.  For an album that’s been building for 6 lengthy tracks the climax seems relatively short lived, yet the group somehow uses this to their advantage.  Time tends to move fast when you’re expecting something and by only satisfying the tension on occasion, the group really puts their work on the edge.

The group seems to be altogether unaffected by the lack of drums rhythmically.  Much of the project features all three of the players hanging in a contrapunctal state with pecked piano notes, plucked strings and spiraling clarinet—see the beginning of the title track.  Othertimes, one player will obsessively repeat a simple melodic figure and slowly spin out of control, while others sit in a more pitch-driven space. Rothenberg showcases this on the track “Epic Proportions,” first crafting a metric groove, before abandoning any real sense of meter and tapping into a more emotionally driven sound.  To contrast, Feldman can offer longing violin melodies, or Rothenberg can make a track really breathe with his Shakuhachi flute playing.  The album represents a mastery of internal time-keeping.

The space on the project doesn’t necessarily have a hierarchy and every musician sort of plays every ensemble role at one point or another, but there are certain habits at hand.  One in particular is the parts of the project where Courvoisier plays an emotionally affectual role to change the context of Feldman and Rothenberg’s melodic trading.  Referring again to the title track, when Courvoisier leaves the room for a couple minutes, Feldman and Rothenberg take a step forward as the main focus area, but then Courvosier seemingly taps one key and changes the track completely.  This really helps the ensemble achieve contrast in a cohesive way by leading the group down a different path without losing track of the starting point.

Aesthetically, this is an album that comes out every day in the jazz community, so it’s hard to say if this specific project is ever going to get name dropped after this year, but the musicians do more than just throw it on auto-pilot.  The project flies bye as a product of the tension the musicians maintain.  Rothenberg and Feldman constantly interact in intriguing ways, while Courvoisier selects new moods for them to jump into and rhythm—although not rationed to any one musician—constantly pushes the momentum forward.  In Cahoots is certainly a work worth listening to.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Listen on spotify:

Concert Log: Tom Rainey’s Obbligato at the Jazz Gallery NYC

Lucked into a trip to New York.  Here’s my thoughts on the Tom Rainey Obliggato show that I caught on my first night. (sorry about the picture Kris Davis is missing)

Tom Rainey’s night at the Jazz Gallery felt a lot like what it was: a return to standard practice through the lens of some of the most daring experimentalists in the contemporary jazz community.  Ingrid Laubrock, Kris Davis, Ralph Alessi, and Drew Gress took the notion of abstraction into everything they did.  Form wasn’t thrown out the window, but traditional tunes like “Stella By Starlight” and “What is This Thing Called Love” were stripped for parts with brief highlights of the melody thrown into the mix alongside wild improvised countermelodies and incredibly interactive rhythm section roles.  The lines between solos were extremely non-confining as musicians were gradually left alone in space as the previous musician finished off their ideas.  Each musician had a moment in the spotlight, but nothing felt forced, making for a set that flew by in an instant.

Rainey really gave the group its spirit.  His creative, lyrical drum style is perfect for gesturing towards a meter without articulating every beat.  On “Stella,” Rainey very rarely touched upon the ride, almost using the kit as a set of hand drums.  During his biggest solo, Rainey used his finger on one hand and sticks in the other to broaden his immense dynamic range.  Sounds I didn’t know were possible were ripped out of the cymbals and more primal ideas were expressed with pummeling shots on the floor tom.

Alessi showed off his biting technical prowess in a way that never felt showy. In one tune, he added a note into the final chord so quiet that it could barely even be heard—the true sign of a good trumpet player.  Later, he gave a glimpse of his capacity for acrobatic high notes with his invigorating, unaccompanied solo.  Never to be outdone, Ingrid Laubrock also jumped in for some electrifying solos and unleashed some beauty with her command of the night’s only ballad.

One of the most impressive aspects of the night was the lightness every musician was able to tap into.  Obviously the jumps into more pulverizing territory were entertaining, but when the group was all playing at once, there was a concerted effort for each player to articulate as quietly as possible, so that everything on stage could speak clearly to the audience.  This really helped push the malleability of the tunes because the musicians could easily hear each other’s ideas and provide responses.  Also, this ideology snuck into larger ideas of the concert as musicians clearly commanded the stage alone at times, but kept in mind the rest of the musicians involved so that the experience would remain non-hierarchical.

The night stood as a reminder for the amount of internalized jazz time and feel that all of the musicians in this community keep.  All of the deep dives into free improvisation never erase the fact that these musicians can play the piss out of a tune.  At the same time, it didn’t feel like a night with any real confinements, more-so a musical moment where swing feel, jazz melodies, and limitless improvisation all held equal standing.

-Donovan Burtan