[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]
This installment takes us from the depths of Carnegie Hall to the heights of the gutter. Risks everywhere! I jumped for joy at an encounter with a jazz trio on the downtown platform at the Broadway-Lafayette station. Three Japanese guys, Kouyo playing alto sax, Yoshi Takemasa playing the African djembe drum, and the third, yet unnamed, wearing a grinning Cab Calloway t-shirt, was a tap dancer, doing his stuff on a mat. I was struck by the originality of the combination of sounds, and equally by how well they played. After the first piece I heard, I went over and mentioned that there were many excellent Japanese improv musicians in Boston, and Kouyo retorted, smiling, “There are many good ones in New York!” Evidently he’s right. After their second excellent piece on the platform and dropping some change, I had to make an F train to catch a gig at Tonic, so I contacted drummer Tatsuya Nakatani (see last issue, and below) who told me the group was called Moknon. I will keep you posted, but for the time being, this trio can sometimes be found Sunday evenings at that station.
Usually, the New York subways contain performers, usually bad, hoping to get change. The most vile is the terrible saxer (and now an evil-twin trumpeter creature) who molests your ears with his beat-box-a-nova-plus-squawk on the D train when it goes over the Manhattan Bridge, the choice spot for beggars who know you’re trapped with them for five minutes. The best are the rare ethnic performers. Most recently I encountered an excellent Mexican ranchero, with his guitarista, and he half-cried when I requested they play “México Lindo y Querido,” a romantic ballad to the homeland, one of my favorites, and I cried at the beauty of his singing and emotion. On the way to the Torrid Clearance Annex, where mid-prices overwhelm the cut-outs for the emptors to caveat, I ran into a wonderous-large Bo-Peep on a wondrous-large tricycle, singing songs of the ’20s like “I’m Sitting on Top Of The World” and taking requests from folks at the outdoor tables at Time Cafe. Picture the inverse of singer/personage Tiny Tim. Marc Thor, editor of the dragzine High Heels News, tells me her name is Baby Dee. Great fun.
Comedian Rick Shapiro performs outside street cafes in the East Village. I haven’t yet caught him live, but his disc Unconditional Love (Fortified FF1802, 49:36) intrigues me. Though his promo lit screams “Lenny Bruce,” Shapiro has a style of his own, often irritating. I’m not major fan of Bruce either, by the way. Attempting to provoke the audience through juvenile cursing and an obnoxious persona; the material would be stronger if he dropped the shock-jock attitude which is not offensive, just tiresome. And much of his material is very strong, and it’s usually the most politically incorrect pieces dealing with race, drug use, mental heath, education and polysexuality. There’s a wickedly funny parody of the current trends in black female literature in the piece dubbed “WBAI,” the Pacifica free-form, free-speech radio station I was weaned on, sadly now in disarray due to lack of free speech. His material regarding differences between men and women regarding sex is trite. To his credit, he’s often his own target. Are these tape warps which make him sound like a raving chipmunk on some of the tracks, or one of the many voices he uses?
Pittsburgh-based Ensemble Duchamp gave a truly riveting performance at the AlterKnit. The group has nifty instrumentation: oboe, tuba, cello and percussion. Much of the tonalities brought to mind French chamber music, and the texture of chamber music was apparent, but much was improvised within the compositions, and they played free improvs with passion, whether going into loud crunch, or intricate interplay. I can’t wait to hear these guys again. Tubist Christopher Meeder, percussionist David Shively, pianist Joshua Yohe, and oboist Lenny Young. With Ravish Momim replacing Shively, Ensemble Duchamp’s CD Etant Donnés (Sachimay SACH9342, 59:43) contains some pretty fine music, in an echoey live recording. The closing twenty-minute cut, “Ornette, or not” is an exciting chunk of free improvisation. Catch these guys live, and hope for a studio recording too.
Violinist Sam Bardfeld is another new discovery for me. Remember, whenever I use the word “discover,” I am in water as shaky as that of Columbus, nonetheless, many artists are covered from my view and I’m glad to reveal them to you. I chanced upon the tail end of his Old Office gig on 9/13, and it was a fun group he’d assembled, with Michael Sarin on drums, Drew Gress on bass, and Ken Wessel on guitar. Gress was incredible tasty on a George Jones country song; I’m used to hearing him in a totally free vein. Bardfeld’s violin was slippery, slidey and emotional, and his “Eyeball” was the last piece they did. It recalled the sound of the chase as well as an old Irish air, and with Sarin’s sticks on the rim the momentum kept building and swinging, then a recap, and they were stopped short to great applause. It turned out this had been a record release party, and I’m glad to report that this unit, tagged Sam Bardfeld’s Cabal Fatale, has an excellent new disc that goes right in the permanent collection. Taxidermy (CIMP 195, 60:11) is just as swinging and just and much fun, with brains too; the perfect date. The first track reveals all. Gress’s bass frolics (fröhlachs?) with Ken Wessel’s guitar in “El Judío Demostro Calidad (The Jew Demonstrated Quality).” This fiddler isn’t on the roof; he dances in the barnyard, uses a definite Latin tinge, and all of this is integrated. Bardfeld’s outstanding characteristic is a seemingly casual, almost off-hand charm projected from this as if it were old-timey music rather than jazz improv. His fiddle sings, on “One for Bill” almost reels out of the speaker like a theremin. I usually don’t take to standard jazz guitar, but Wessel’s work here is witty and makes me move in my seat. Sarin is always an interesting player; here he propels the group of equals, and his interplay with the bass is a joy. Treat yourself without hesitation. As an aside, I hope I no longer need to make the one plaint I had about CIMP’s attractive, uniform packaging. The spines, with the CIMP semaphore logo, are barely readable in their light print. The present disc thickened it and now I’ll be able to quickly pull it from the shelf for replay. I hope it’s not a fluke.
The same night, the Knit’s main space gave a lesson in unity. Tagged “A Night In The Balkans,” three groups of overlapping players did music from Macedonia. I was too late to catch Lexicon Bulgarian Band and Chris Speed’s Pachora, with a new self-titled disc on Knitting Factory (kudos to the graphic designer of this one). The great find was the aggregation called Slavic Soul Party. The name would have steered me away, but in fact, it describes them well, and the players are well known in their respective musical genres. On the jazz side, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, clarinetist Chris Speed, and accordionist Ted Reichmann. On the traditional side, Michael Ginsburg played the truba, a rotary valve flugelhorn from Czechoslavakia, and Adam Good played a frame drum with thin wooden skewer and a thick wood thumper on the other side. The drum resounded with great, deep thwacks like the rhythm tracks on some of the best early Casablanca Records disco LPs. Excellent solos from Speed and Hasselbring. When I entered, people were already dancing in the back, as they did throughout. They threw money at the musicians, which the dancers said was traditional. Not typical wedding-and-bar mitzvah schmaltz, they immediately made me wish I had a party to give and that I could afford to hire them. Ginsburg’s Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste has a Website listed below, and indeed plays “lamb roasts, weddings, and Saint’s Days.”
Electric bassist Jonas Hellborg has a world-fusion winner in Aram of the Two Rivers: Live In Syria (Bardo 038, 54:34) Here Hellborg plays acoustic guitar, blending wonderfully with his five Syrian counterparts, playing their traditional music. I didn’t expect to like it, but I play this disc frequently. Another Arab-jazz disc on frequent-play is Yara (Enja ENJ-9360 2, 58:40) by Rabih Abou-Khalil. Previous Abou-Khalil discs in my collection have included sidemen ranging from Sonny Fortune to Glen Moore (best known from the proto-New Age group Oregon, despite some solid discs on ECM). One constant has been Nabil Khaiat on frame drum and percussion, and this disc. Yara adds violinist Dominique Pifarely, an excellent partner in recordings by Louis Sclavis, among others, and here the interplay of the violin with cellist Vincent Courtois and Abou-Khalil’s oud is remarkable. Perhaps a touch lighter on the echo next time, please, but the music and sonics are rich. Enja continues to reward Abou-Khalil and his admirers with gorgeous packaging, including gold-leaf Arabic designs on the digipaks.
Gypsophilia is moving from the first cimbalom note on their disc Accidentally On Purpose (Scott Robinson Productions, 61:21). The fact that the cimbalom is hammered dulcimer makes no difference. These musicians have the whole “Greek, Balkan, Jewish, American Music” thing down. Sometimes there is an Appalachian sound in here, which is not shock for musicians coming from the Pennsylvanian region. This is an excellent disc. File it under “world music,” but don’t ghettoize it, as it is outstanding and shouldn’t be missed. Scott Robinson sent a cassette dub of an excellent piece for string trio and chorus, The Stolen Child, and if any reader is in a choral group or is a string player, I suggest contacting him about this striking twenty-minute piece.
Broun Fellinis is Coltrane-modal meets Black Rock Coalition. Despite three lame jazz+political-rap tracks (have they never heard the early Last Poets or have they studied too hard?), the works on Out Through the N Door (Brounsoun 006, 58:56) are stung. David Boyce’s saxwork loves Coltrane and adds a warble from Leon Thomas, and Kirk Peterson’s bass is thoughtful and moving, both physically and mentally; what he calls “low end groove postulate.” Ain’t no postulating here: he works, and what’s better, he’s well-recorded so you can appreciate his subtlety when he’s not bass-surfing. Kevin Carnes adds “beats and swing.” The cut “Levitate” is still “Afro-Blue,” despite a great bass line. Broun Fellinis is easy to overlook, but not if you’ve heard them. Better than a lot of downtown trendies, and whole lot better than Don Byron’s Nu Blaxploitation..
Byron was billed first on his 10/17 Knit gig with Steve Lacy. A charming and dashing emcee, Byron had fun with his clarinet, and chose the compositions, pulling them off the music stand, for the quartet of the impeccable: Lacy, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Billy Hart. I’ll let my Lacy-fanatic pals (me, I’m just a major fan) tell me which comps they were later. They played freely cloppy, and Helias often prodded the group to work harder, doubletiming and walking them to clear destinations. Lacy took a willing back seat to Byron, who listened attentively, shaking his funky dreads hard back and forth, absorbing Lacy’s rhythm and lines. Lacy would take a short solo, Byron would extend and play with it, making it a witty first set. Lacy’s latest release is a two-disc “opera” called The Cry (Soul Note 121315-2, 2CD, 95:06) deserving of the fine word-of-mouth which preceded it. This is a song-cycle of poems by Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh, sentenced and in hiding in Stockholm for her work about the treatment of Muslim women. Irène Aebi’s voice is an acquired taste, a throaty European sound which often projects like a horn, and in The Cry is a perfect complement to the ensemble. A charming and intelligent person who once chatted with me about Russian poets between sets at New York’s “Deadly Nightshade” as she had coffee from the drip coffee pot she takes with her, Aebi has worked with Lacy forever and her singing seconds the acerbic and sarcastic melodic lines of his compositions. Long-time Lacy partner bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel is the only “regular” I recognize in the cast and he propels the piece continuously and interestingly, but Cathrin Pfeifer’s accordion, Petia Kaufman’s harpsichord and Topo Gioia’s percussion make the sound-texture unique within Lacy’s immense and varied oeuvre. Audiophiles will note both the rich sound of Avenel’s bass, and a high-pitched but soon-ignored electronic buzz in this live recording, indispensable to Lacy-lovers and also those interested in European improv and song. Texts in English and French (Lacy lives in France).
Curtis Fowlkes is an excellent trombonist, and every time I’ve heard him live, not only but especially with the Jazz Passengers, his work stood out. Reflect (Knitting Factory KFR -256, 58:34), his outing as a leader of the group Catfish Corner, is perhaps more Jazz Messenger than Jazz Passenger. It’s solid, straight-ahead stuff, but perhaps I miss the all-out wackiness of his Passenger material. Another trombonist who recently impressed me live is Chris Washburne. His new CD NuYorican Nights (Jazzheads JH 1138, 58:38) is Latin jazz. Real jazz. It’s well thought out, and a solid outing. I’d like a little less restraint, although the last track, “9408,” is taut and exciting. Barry Olsen stands out on piano. Rumba Club, a group produced by Andy Gonzalez, has a hip-swaying disc of Latinized standards by Mercer Ellington, Cedar Walton, and Wayne Shorter with a few originals too, called Espiritista (Palmetto PM 2047, 55:00). The bass and percussion stand out, with bassist Josh Schwartman’s arrangement of his composition “Roots & Wings” especially intricate and fine. Espiritista smolders and will be excellent company this winter.
Swiss guitarist Christy Doran, with excellent discs to be had on ECM, hat, and JMT, has a New Bag, a group which performed at the Swiss Institute in New York. I have half a dozen CDs with Doran as a leader on hatHut and JMT and other labels, but I didn’t expect to like this line-up, with its rock premise: electric guitar, electric bass, drums and vocalist. I was more than surprised at how strong this differently-sounding group is, both live and on their disc Confusing the Spirits (On-Cue Records 001, 59:22). Covering many bases from prog-rock to freejazz and Nana Vasconcelos-territory, New Bag has its own sound. With a poster and cd in a cardboard sleeve Packaged inside a new bag, brown paper, the CD is an hour of fun. Basslines run from jazz to Elvis Costello, Bruno Armstad vocalizes a little new wave, a little vocalize, and none of it is trite. “Oil” is seven minutes of wonderful free exploration. The ten-minute “New Bag Ballad” starts with an antiwar text with a pulse and dry humor reminiscent of Annette Peacock’s “My Momma Never Taught Me How To Cook,” then goes to a Milesian electric workout after some Afro-Brasilian vocalise.
Also on the weird-guitarist front is old fave Hans Reichel and Uchihashi Kazuhisa on King Pawns (Zenbai Zen-006, 66:36). Previously collaborating in a thirty-six minute piece on Reichel’s Stop Complaining/Sundown (FMP CD 36), here the duo plays fifteen short pieces. Uchihashi plays guitar and a Roland synth, Reichel his guitar and his own invention, the daxophone, an idiophone, the family of instruments which make their own sounds without having to use attached strings or air spaces. The daxophone is bowed to create a wonderful array of sounds. King Pawns contains witty, jaunty rhythms with squeaky plucks and interplay, lullabies sounding like aspirated reeds, and all fifteen cuts are improvised. Fun but not in the least slight, and excellently recorded, I highly recommend King Pawns, as well as Reichel’s discs and collaborations on Rastascan and Intakt.
An excellent disc of duos, Both Kinds of Music (Leo Lab 060, 69:58) comes from Misha Feigin on classical guitar and balalaika, perhaps the first lead balalaika in improv. No relation to the label owner Leo Feigin (dubbed “the Moses Asch of jazz” by tenor sax player and ethnomusicologist Robert Reigle; see Reigle’s reviews of Siberian music in this issue), Feigin’s axes are just another wonderful string instrument of improvisation in tandem with those of cherished underknowns such as North Carolina’s (and the world’s) Dr. Eugene Chadbourne, Alabama’s violinist LaDonna Smith and guitarist Davey Williams, and New York guitar whiz and composer Elliot Sharp. If you like any of the above, or Derek Bailey or Miya Masaoka, you’ll love this disc as I do.
A surprise treat from Leo is the pairing of two of bassist Joëlle Léandre and the lesser-known Sebi Tramontana on E’vero (Leo CD LR 275, 48:22). Years ago I’d accidentally stumbled upon Tramontana’s remarkable twenty-minute disc Il Giorno Del Santo (Wind 12) for trombone and electronics, and recently re-encountered him while reviewing Georg Graewe’s fine new quintet disc on Wobbly Rail for Signal To Noise. This set of nine duos show off both players’ strengths: Tramontana’s muted (in both senses) conversational tones, subtle and frisky, Leándre’s slap and bow responses, and the natural-sounding vocals emitted from both.
Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, Leo has initiated a new imprint, Golden Years of New Jazz, reissuing rare treasures of what were (groan: the years go too quickly) long-gone vinyl and unreleased performances. Each disc comes in a sturdy three-fold cardboard sleeve, with excellent photos or paintings, and a booklet if the artwork takes up all the panels. The first batch includes one of the lamented Praxis Festival discs from Greece, too expensive for me to buy the first time around, and hard to find even then, except at the Soho Music Gallery on Wooster Street, where I spent a small fortune without regret, and John Zorn was a clerk. All the other Praxis discs are forthcoming. The Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab in Egypt plus the Cairo Jazz Band and The Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble. That’s not only a long sentence, it’s the complete title of Leo Golden Years GY1 (69:52) reissue of the Praxis LP with two unreleased pieces adding on thirty-one minutes to the original. Valuable in any Sun Ra reissue, we’re grateful for complete personnel listings of these 1972 and 1984 sessions.
The Ganelin Trio is represented by a re-release of Con Affetto: Live In Moscow, for the first time issued complete, with three encores (Leo Golden Years GY2, 74:11). For those not familiar with the history of Leo, the company was responsible for most of the first international releases of Russian improvisation, which, at that time, had to be smuggled out. Some of these include the now well-known composer Sofia Gubaidulina as improviser. Con Affetto, recorded in 1983, begins with thirteen minutes of varied percussion, with various horns squawking in. Harsh piano chords followed by short romantic runs, whistles, accordion-like synths. It’s a slowly evolving piece and falls within the territory carved out by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Art Ensemble of Chicago: spare, lots of open space, lots of close listening to each other, and strong. At the thirty minute point, there’s a major turnabout: it has become a swinging mainstream jazz piece, if not as strong as what came before, at least interesting. Then there’s another change to a haunting melody on a tubey sounding synth, before it again changes to a big-band type sound, and that too changes to a weird squeaky, whistley free march which ends the piece. There’s a great encore of “Mack The Knife” with the melody barely implied. For an underground recording, the sound is not too shabby.
On the first few listenings, the first-ever release of Composition No. 94 for Three Instrumentalists (1980) by Anthony Braxton (Leo Golden Years GY 3, 76:00) left me lukewarm. Ray Anderson and James Emery are his colleagues here, and although it is interesting, and the booklet has excellent, unobfuscatory notes by Braxton scholar Graham Locke, there is just so much Braxton out there which is more riveting. Some of the problem might be the muffled sound quality, though Braxton completists will have to have it, and mere fans like me will enjoy it nonetheless. There are two performances of the same piece here, one performed forward and one backward. (This refers to the score, silly.) I had recently bought a vinyl copy of Casava Balls (Leo Golden Years GY4, 64:34), by the trio of Hartmut Geerken, John Tchicai and Famoudou Don Moye, so I didn’t know whether to be delighted or frustrated at its re-release. Twenty minutes of extra material solved my dilemma, and the notes include a recipe for cassava balls. In this high-energy trio, Geerken plays piano and a slew of “little” and large instruments, Tchicai plays his tenor and a semi-slew of other toys, and Moye, away from the Art Ensemble, still has his arsenal of percussive instruments. In a lot of ways this group reminds one of the AEC, as it uses vocals, and numerous squeaky and rattley instruments, and uses fun little swingy melodies as bases for their craft. Geerken’s liner notes (there are none on the LP) explain the amusing titles and the Praxis festival. AEC and Moye fans will need this for an eight-minute Moye percussion solo. There’s also a previously unreleased cover of Ayler’s “Mothers,” and Tchicai intones Ayler’s waver without imitating his style. The best track also new: the eleven-minute “Marconison” could pass as a Futurist piece, with its machinery-like sound in homage to Edison and Marconi.
Darin Gray, electric bassist, joins with guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors in what is, gratefully, a stunningly recorded set of moody pieces, The Lost Mariner (Family Vineyard FV2, 28:22). I don’t know if I would’ve associated these pieces with the title of the disc or its striking cover of a dark, rainy sea, but that’s not important. This is one of Connor’s better collaborations (in the context that it seems lately there’s nobody he’s not been playing with, even without considering his month-long collab/curate gig at Tonic in October.) As the set of seven compositions progress, they get more complex and vary dynamically. You can listen to this almost subliminally, or raise up the volume for detail and texture; both provide rich listening.
The Church is a rock group with Gothic bent, but in A Box of Birds (Thirsty Ear, 61:59) they do what Bowie did in Pin-Ups, taking some of their fave songs and doing it their way, and they do it well. I don’t know all the originals, but “Cortez The Killer,” “It’s All Too Much,” and “All The Young Dudes” are surprisingly effective in their own right. Kevin Ayers, Tom Verlaine and Goffin/King are also covered here. No need to skip even one track.
Like their first disc Watch Out! (Accurate Records), Dennis Warren’s Full Metal Revolutionary Ensemble has a followup CD which too fills the vacuum for larger post-electric Miles jazz ensembles with great horn fronts. If you liked the larger ensembles of the ’sixties high-energy and highly-textured bands, or the sound of Yusef Lateef’s groups, FMJRE is for you. 7 in One, (FMJRE 1998, 62:09), features trumpeter Raphé Malik and guitarist Tor Snyder. Earl Grant Lawrence deserves special kudos; I rarely enjoy jazz flute and he is spectacular. Their Knitting Factory gig in June was plagued by bad audio, but trumpeter Roy Campbell and sax and flutist Sabir Mateen, featured guests, stood out, both by their solos and by being able to be heard above the mix. The group provided me with a soundcheck of the gig; much more was going on than I was able to hear, and the intricacies were fully apparent. I’ll report on future live gigs as they come.
The above-mentioned Tor Snyder’s Irrepressible Spirit has just that. Honestly, I didn’t expect to like this larger ensemble with two vocalists, keyboards, drums, and the leader’s guitar. At the lamented AlterKnit, a painter who did his thing on poster paper while the group played left me cold, with simplistic geometric figures I couldn’t connect with the music even abstractly, but the musicians had a synergy that was, um, irrepressible. I’d avoid labelling them fusion, as their style was not a “neither” but a “both.” of jazz and rock. Snyder’s guitar was stronger than I’ve ever heard him in other contexts, ranging from rock/noise screech, to beautiful responses to the other musicians’ calls. Miles Griffith and the other vocalists did excellent and different (from each other) kinds of vocalisms, with roots from scat to vocalise to fields shouts, with David Pleasant spouting reams of semi-audible text to strong effect. Singer Griffith is just plain insane. I cannot wait to hear him again, and indeed, just noticed he’s on the James Williams’ ICU disc Truth Justice and the Blues (Evidence ECD 22142-2) sitting on my permanent shelf right now, and those liner notes tell me he’s come from the Boys Choir of Harlem and has worked the Jon Hendricks and Wynton M. With ICU, Griffith flies within the tradition. With Irrepressible Spirit, Griffith flew off in every type of vocal known to human kind, carefully listening to the group before something struck him, and everything hit just the right unexpected spot.
On the opposite tack are intricate solo or chamber type outings on the adventurous Sachimay label. From Bhob Rainey, of the group nmperign (see last issue), comes ink (Sachimay SCA 9341, 34:01). Two tracks of adventurous soprano sax go on an almost-narrative abstract journey of sound. This isn’t extreme in the screech-honk sense, though Rainey is a master of his horn and can do multiphonics with the best. He’s more interested in taking the listener through a linear, if sometime pointillistic, experience. His duet with label-owner and pianist Dan DeChellis closes the disc in a play-wrestle called “Pigs in Mud.” The disc is short but worth every penny; not one note is filler. Rainey has another solo disc where he takes nine journeys in mood and range of his axe. Tracks 1-7, as well as the disc, is called The Withered Grasses (Tautology 007, 51:07) Beautifully packaged in a silk-screened gold abstract painting on white gatefold sleeve with a small folder inside, which cryptically says “swallow two or three. spit out seven or eight.” Me, I swallow this disc whole. What Rainey does is explore the sounds and breath in and out of his sax, using all methods of blowing and air movement. There are scrapes, slides and percussive sounds made I don’t know how. Although these explore the outer reachers these are not studies; this is music at its most personal and original. Dan DeChellis’ solo piano outing Shapes (Sachimay SCA 9340, 70:19) is an interesting melange of Jarretty exploration (“Intuition”) and Bleyisms. Indeed, words of praise from Bley appear on the traycard. Most intriguing are a trio of homages to (I’m intuiting, as there are no notes) Messiaen (“Olivier”), “Ornette,” and “Brown Ives,” a clever pun on Charles and “Blue Monk.” All three have incorporated a part of their honorees essences filtered through DeChellis’ style. The DeChellis-Tomasic-Nakatani Trio disc Real Time (Sachimay SCA 9343, 68:40) is a free exploration of three very different-sounding players. DeChellis ranges from strong, chunky chords to filigree, and Tomasic’s electric guitar moans like seagulls and pops like a kid popping his mouth Percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani is the standout using his drumkit, chimes, files, and bowed cymbals. You’ve got to see Nakatani live to visually appreciate what he does, but his approach comes through no matter who the partners are. The last two of the three extended pieces build with energy and rapport.
Herbie Nichols is a pianist whose scant recordings, mostly on Bethlehem and Blue Note, have an irresistible, quirky quality which makes listeners fanatics. I am one. Thanks in major part to Mosaic Record’s Nichols box of his then-out of print Blue Note recordings, and the Herbie Nichols Project of the Jazz Composers Collective, Nichols now has some of Monk’s name-recognition. Like Monk’s tunes, once you adjust to their quirks, they stay in your head. Nichol’s Bethlehem work has been the major tape in my portable from the day I got one (as self-defense from other people’s hissing headphones) and remains a major part of my subway life. As with Monk, too many people attempt imitations of Nichols when doing his songs. This is foolish and a waste of energy. I remember the premiere performance of the Nichols Project at a Jazz Composers Alliance concert years ago, at Greenwich House, shortly after my discovery (I, Columbus) of Nichols. Having just become a devout Nicholsist (and you know how obsessive the devout can be), I ran to this gig not knowing what to expect, but knowing I had to be there. Pianist Frank Kimbrough, originated this project, joined by bassist Ben Allison and other JCC stalwarts, and that was the first time I had heard of any of these performers. When I heard their arrangements of these tunes I was dumbstruck; the compositions had gone 3D, and the band was blazing. Allison in particular blew me away. Their latest, Dr. Cyclop’s Dream (Soul Note 121333-2, 56:29) is their best disc yet, capturing the Nichols flavor, but no slavish devotion. Smoothly swinging with a Jazz Messengers feel, and with standout free-play from Ron Horton, Ted Nash and Michael Blake on their various horns in frisky Mingus-Oh Yeah-sass in tandem and solo. I’d get any performance by Nichols himself first, and then follow through with Dr. Cyclop’s Dream.
I’ve seen Ben Allison at many gigs since that first Nichols Project revelation. Live, Allison never fails to make you move, or to move you. On disc, sometimes he is studio-bound. His newest, Third Eye (Palmetto PM 2054, 51:58) succeeds in making you sway at the same time as you are impressed with the melodies, solos and interplay of cellist Tomas Ulrich, drummer Jeff Ballard, and Ara Dinkjian, no slight to the others. Some have an Near Eastern swing, due to Dinkjian’s oud and cümbüs, and others have a kora-type rhythm. “Kush” and “Mantra” are stand-out tracks.
Another disc featuring some of the above will probably be filed under Ellington, as its only moniker is The Other Side of Ellington: Duke’s Motivation (Palmetto PM 2051). Taking a fistful of standards and a pleasing amount of lesser-known Duke, Matt Wilson, Ben Allison and friends have created a fun disc though it never in fact reveals another side of Ellington. A good rhythm section and the standout guitar playing from Pete McCann make the tunes fresh. McCann wah-wahs in “Wig Wise” to excellent effect, laying the funk (not faux-funk) on this piece. He sounds like a banjo on “I Got it Bad” and “Skrontch.” The piano and sax (despite a clever sustained sax opening “Don’t Get Around Much”) are not up to their colleagues on this outing. Both free piano and sax versions of “A Train” are excellent, but are each a minute-and-a-half, and were bettered years earlier on Sun Ra Live at Montreux.. The two-minute “Satin Doll” by the band is also fine. How about a whole disc where they are limited to two minutes and really shine?
Vocalist Gisburg has a third release, Trust (Tzadik TZ 7038, 43:18), quite different in nature from her previous offerings. Consisting of two composed pieces, “Hearts Don’t Break That Easily” is an opera for solo voice. Unstaged, it is a song cycle, with simple lyrics about love. Some parts are sung, some seem to be sprechstimme (note Schoenberg in her autobiographical thought-cloud in the booklet). It strikes me as merely pretty. “Anna,” a string quartet “based on minimalistic improvised melodies,” is indispensable. When the Cassatt String Quartet played this twenty-minute piece live at Roulette, the date was sold out and I stood in the street frustrated. I’m delighted to say I had a right to be peeved; the studio performance here is in rich sound, in a highly moving performance. It begins with a high whistley motif played high on the violin, with a pizzicato motif soon joining in. Then the cello arcs in, and we have the structure, but the intensity of the playing takes this out of the typical minimalist bag; the frame allows romantic, seemingly programmatic melody to enter, and the listener hears an achingly beautiful string quartet, which, despite its structure, recalls both the well-known French quartet idiom and free improv. As the piece evolves, so do the textures, volume and rhythms.