Wheelhouse (Dave Rempis/Jason Adasiewicz/Nate McBride), Boss of the Plains (Aerophonic) Joshua Abrams Quartet, Unknown Known (Rogue Art) Rob Mazurek Octet, Skull Sessions (Cuneiform)
By David R. Adler
The fine avant-garde jazz of today’s Chicago is generally not piano-driven, though much of it can be said to be vibraphone-driven. That’s thanks in large part to 36-year-old Jason Adasiewicz, an evolving master of the instrument, a huge harmonic and textural asset to bands led by Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed and others.
Of three recent releases involving Adasiewicz as sideman or collaborator, Boss of the Plains by the co-led trio Wheelhouse offers the most arresting portrait of the vibraphone itself. There are no drums; the subtly gritty and ethereal Adasiewicz sound is captured in faithful detail, even when alto/baritone saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Nate McBride rise to levels of furious free-jazz intensity. Adasiewicz reverses his mallets to strike directly with the wood on “Song Juan” and “Song Sex Part 2.” On “Song Tree” and the longest track “Song for Teens” he takes a violin bow to the bars to create haunting, almost electronic effects. In a freely improvised setting he’s more likely to draw on extended techniques and highlight the vibraphone’s percussiveness.
While bassist Joshua Abrams’ extraordinary Unknown Known is also bracing and free in many respects, it’s far more compositional, with a wide dynamic range and a healthy appetite for groove and swing. Adasiewicz brings a lush, enveloping harmony to the session, filling the space with sustain and unsettling dissonance. The quartet features Abrams and Adasiewicz with tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist David Boykin and drummer Frank Rosaly.
Abrams’ writing demands close attention. The opening title track is witheringly abstract until the end, when tenor and arco bass join together in a slow mournful unison line framed by a soft sustained trill from Adasiewicz. Track two, “Boom Goes the Moon,” is 11 minutes of convoluted beauty, with an unaccompanied vibes intro and a spine-tingling ballad section filling the second half. The closing “Pool,” way uptempo, is a three-and-a-half minute sendoff, almost a contemporary answer to “Cherokee.” The band’s harmonic language brings to mind classic Andrew Hill or Bobby Hutcherson sides for Blue Note, but with a good deal more sonic abstraction (the ghostly violin bow resurfaces early on in the longest piece “Leavening”).
On Skull Sessions by the Rob Mazurek Octet, Adasiewicz is less of a dominating presence, more a counterpoint to the shred guitar of Carlos Issa, the enchanting viola-like rabeca (and C melody saxophone) of Thomas Rohrer and the cornet and electronics of the leader. Nicole Mitchell, on piccolo and flute, is a vital solo voice and an engrossing parts player, at ease with the most challenging details of Mazurek’s compositions. There’s a big forward thrust to the band’s sound, a concentration of power in Guilherme Granado’s keyboards, John Herndon’s drumming, Mauricio Takara’s indispensable percussion (also cavaquinho) — and add to that a universe of electronics deployed by several members.
Still, Adasiewicz cuts through and makes himself indispensable. He’s a key melodic unison voice on the opening “Galactic Ice Skeleton” and a captivating soloist on “Passing Light Screams” (with a brief but crucial duo passage involving Mazurek). His solo intro to “Skull Caves of Alderon” — the strange metallic sound was produced by turning off the vibraphone’s motor — gives another glimpse of Adasiewicz as experimenter, pushing past the instrument’s limits while engaging the highly physical, intuitive side of his playing.
John O’Gallagher The Anton Webern Project (Whirlwind)
By David R. Adler
In tackling the music of Austrian serialist Anton Webern (1883-1945), alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher expands on a history of jazz-classical interchange that’s as old as jazz itself. Strong recent examples include Michael Bates’ Acrobat, devoted to Shostakovich; Samuel Blaser’s Consort In Motion and Mirror to Machaut, focused on Monteverdi and Machaut respectively; and The Bad Plus’ For All I Care with its acute renderings of Stravinsky, Ligeti, Babbitt and more.
On The Anton Webern Project, O’Gallagher approaches eight Webern compositions in a sextet format, with vocalist Margret Grebowicz joining on three tracks. Even if one knew nothing about the origin of the material, it would be a great listen: the band is immensely tight and texturally engrossing. Russ Lossing plays Rhodes and piano but spends much of his time on Hammond organ — a refreshing choice to interpret harmony this dark and dense. The instrument’s warmth and fullness cuts through and enhances every finely orchestrated passage with guitarist Pete McCann and vibraphonist Matt Moran.
Much of the musical language (and on the vocal cuts, German language) comes directly from Webern, though O’Gallagher added solo sections. Good thing: his alto work is superb, aided every step by the rhythmic alliance of bassist Johannes Weidenmuller and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. But the bass and drums share equal footing in the ensemble, bringing a loose, jazz-informed energy as they execute the most challenging and dissonant written counterpoint.
O’Gallagher’s complexity and drive can bring to mind alto contemporaries such as Steve Lehman, Greg Osby, Dave Binney and Tim Berne. There are hints of those aesthetic worlds in pieces such as “Schnell (after Op. 27),” “The Secret Code (after Op. 28)” and “Quartet (after Op. 22).” But O’Gallagher succeeds in shaping a distinctive band sound and orchestrational approach. His adaptations stand on their own, but they’re more eye-opening when played alongside Webern’s originals, with instrumentation ranging from solo piano to string quartet to orchestra to mixed chorus. Each is a world apart, yet O’Gallagher detects the common thread, captures the essence and enriches the music in the end.
Cornet specialists aren’t in huge supply, but Kirk Knuffke stands out among this unique lot for his versatility and expressive depth. He’s explored Steve Lacy’s music with Ideal Bread and the Lennie Tristano legacy with Ted Brown. He’s offered a compelling take on the repertoire of Monk, Ellington and Mingus in duets with pianist Jesse Stacken. His sideman work with Matt Wilson, Jon Irabagon and others is vigorous and surefooted. Chorale, Knuffke’s fourth outing as a leader, finds him in a brilliant lineup with pianist Russ Lossing, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. It’s striking that the nine original pieces all have one-word titles save for the closing “Good Good,” which playfully shifts from uptempo to half-time swing.
Striving for a balance of the written and the freely improvised, Knuffke opens with the former, a plaintive rubato invention called “Wingy.” Hart’s drumming is identifiable within the first minute and its appeal only grows from there, giving more tempo-based pieces such as “Kettle,” “Standing” and “School” a sense of dynamic flux and timbral oddity.
“Madly” revives the hovering feel of the opener but in a much freer context; it’s the longest piece of the set, moving through passages of near silence and ending with Lossing’s fiery unaccompanied piano. The transition from there to “Match” is pretty magical: Lossing is out for the first two minutes while Formanek states a steady bass line and Hart plays hypnotic tom-toms, moving to more jazz-like sticks and cymbals the very moment the piano comes in.
The blend of cornet, bowed bass and piano on the title track does in fact suggest a chorale. This bit of lyrical and offbeat chamber-jazz, rather unlike the album’s other material, yields to free rubato interplay and yet somehow preserves the feeling and direction of the opening statement. It’s the strongest evidence of the band’s profound intuitive connection.
Guitarist Nate Radley doesn’t have the wide recognition of some of his six-string peers, though he’s one of the tastiest and most consistent players on the scene. He’s done enviable sideman work with Alan Ferber, Loren Stillman, Marc Mommaas, Andrew Rathbun and others. He debuted in 2012 with The Big Eyes (Fresh Sound New Talent), using a lineup of guitar, alto sax and (sometimes) Fender Rhodes with rhythm section. On the new Carillon he omits keyboard but keeps the guitar/reed front line, using tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek alongside Matt Clohesy on bass and Ted Poor on drums.
Radley isn’t after wild and extravagant soundscapes in the studio. He plays semi-hollowbody guitar, straightforwardly and beautifully, with a round but slightly steely tone and just a bit of reverb. He has a buoyant rhythmic feel, a cohesive hookup with Cheek and a fluid harmonic approach that lets him fill plenty of space when the horn lays out.
Radley’s writing has a lushness and intricacy, a way with pacing and contrast, from the bright feel and contrapuntal invention of the opening “Carillon” to the mellower glide of “Positive Train,” the finale. There’s something logical and satisfying in the transition from “Whiteout,” an evocative waltz for solo guitar, to “Fadeout,” with its slow rock feel and majestic minor-modal tonality.
These are eclectic players who are nonetheless rooted in jazz — something Radley stresses with his inclusion of Thelonious Monk’s “Hornin’ In,” Cole Porter’s “All Through the Night” and the Charlie Parker-associated ballad “Laura,” by David Raksin. (There were no standards on Radley’s debut.) In a word, the quartet can swing. Radley has a rich and well-developed take on Monk’s aesthetic. He reads the Porter tune in a staggered uptempo swing feel and cleverly opts to have Poor solo first. But the dark original ballad “Some More” works just as well as a jazz showcase. The ending, an E-flat minor chord held and elaborated for a quietly stunning 20 seconds, is probably the session’s single finest moment.
Recorded live at Cornelia Street Café in February 2013, Arc Trio finds veteran bassist Mario Pavone in turbulent waters with Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums. These aren’t some random sidemen: Taborn and Cleaver share a bond going back to the Detroit scene of the late ’80s. The freedom and focus they bring to these eight Pavone originals is often astounding.
As it happens, Arc Trio comes just five months after Taborn’s trio debut for ECM, Chants, also featuring Cleaver (with bassist Thomas Morgan). While Chants richly deserves the accolades it has received, Pavone’s outing is just as vital and shouldn’t slip past the radar. It’s fueled by a similar simpatico, though with a grittier aesthetic and compositional logic. Chants boasts that exalted, polished ECM sound; Arc Trio captures a night in a club with a piano that Taborn wouldn’t likely choose otherwise, but bends to his will nonetheless.
In his liner notes, Pavone gets specific about his obsessions and models: Paul Bley’s The Floater, Andrew Hill’s Smokestack, Steve Kuhn’s Three Waves and Keith Jarrett’s Life Between the Exit Signs, along with certain works by Dick Twardzik and Muhal Richard Abrams. One way or another, the rhythmic thrust and texture of all this music gets filtered into Arc Trio, beginning with the frenetic double-stop bass riff and dense piano theme of “Andrew” (first heard on the 2008 quintet release Ancestors, featuring Cleaver).
Pavone’s writing is often spare and concise, with tightly played heads but also room for open blowing over solid tempos. While there aren’t many prescribed chords, the pieces have distinct tonal personalities conjured by the brilliance of the players involved. “Eyto,” “Hotep” and the closing “Dialect” have a jumpy, unpredictable flow while “Poles” and “Alban Berg” usher in a slower swing vibe. Taborn is explosive and virtuosic on “Not Five Kimono” and “Box in Orange,” both also found on previous Pavone outings but given new life. Cleaver is dynamic and funky throughout, though sonically it is Pavone’s snappy bass that gets captured the best.
Michel Gentile/Daniel Kelly/Rob Garcia WORKS (Connection Works)
By David R. Adler
Flutist Michel Gentile, pianist Daniel Kelly and drummer Rob Garcia aren’t just trio mates: they’re business partners, overseeing the nonprofit Connection Works as it programs concerts, workshops and educational events in Brooklyn. WORKS, their co-led trio, is a house band of sorts, collaborating regularly with high-profile guest artists (e.g., Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, John Hollenbeck) in the Brooklyn Jazz Wide Open series.
WORKS has also developed its own repertoire over the years, highlighting the compositional gifts of its members. The debut CD WORKS gathers these original pieces and shines some overdue light on Gentile, Kelly and Garcia as players and co-thinkers. Their union of flute, piano and drums is a wonderful thing: softly textured, harmonically expansive, percussively engaged and intense, all in the right proportion.
Kelly is the band’s de facto bassist, taking charge of the energized low-end lines in Garcia’s “Island” and “Will” and Kelly’s own “Emanglons,” among others. But Kelly is also prominent as a melody voice, doubling many flute parts while keeping chordal ideas flowing. Of anybody in WORKS it seems Kelly’s job is the hardest, though he doesn’t let it show.
The trio members each play a brief “Soliloquy” — just one of the ways they show their subtlety as individuals. Together they handle the challenges strewn throughout Kelly’s galloping “Hundertwasser,” with a 6/8 theme that shifts ingeniously to 5/8 when the melody returns midway through. Gentile’s “Voir Dire,” in contrast, opens with a fast quasi-serialist motive and later breaks away to free improvisation. There’s a quieter side too, in the romantic chanson vibe of Gentile’s out-of-tempo “C’est Bien Ça” and the dark ambiguity of Kelly’s “Chorale.”
The category stumpers are Garcia’s “Spring Comes ’Round” and the closing track, Gentile’s “Commodius Vicus.” The former is angular and jazzy, free of tempo, but detouring into chamber-like passages and ending on an ominous straight-eighth vamp. The latter generates maddening spirals of counterpoint — melodic and rhythmic — between flute and piano, framed by Garcia’s hip and understated groove accents. There isn’t a stronger example of the trio’s uniqueness and ability.
Ethan Iverson/Lee Konitz/Larry Grenadier/Jorge Rossy Costumes Are Mandatory
By David R. Adler
The smartest thing a younger jazz player can do is to seek wisdom from established masters of the music. Pianist Ethan Iverson has done this again and again, gigging with the likes of Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Albert “Tootie” Heath and Billy Hart. On Costumes Are Mandatory he joins alto saxophone great Lee Konitz in a session full of idiosyncrasy and varied repertoire, from “What’s New” to “Try a Little Tenderness” to “317 East 32nd Street,” the Lennie Tristano classic (miscredited to Konitz on the back sleeve, though not in Iverson’s liner notes).
Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy, who worked together for years in Brad Mehldau’s trio, provide just the right feel — relaxed but deeply swinging. If anything Grenadier is more the timekeeper, while Rossy blurs and deepens the textures. Grenadier’s bowing on the abstract piano-bass duet “Mr. Bumi” (named for pianist Masabumi Kikuchi) is especially strong.
The spirit of Tristano, Konitz’s old teacher, hovers over the set. Iverson alludes to some of Tristano’s distinctive practices: using a metronome on the piano-drum duet “Bats,” overdubbing or tweaking the piano sounds on “It’s You (Tempo Complex)” and “My New Lovers All Seem So Tame” (the latter a short prelude to “My Old Flame,” on which Konitz scat-sings). The turbulent piano trio showcase “A Distant Bell” — based on “I Remember You” — also builds on Tristano’s (and Konitz’s) discipline of using standards as groundwork for new inventions.
Konitz remains warm and inescapably melodic on the horn, though he bows out on a number of tracks. He sails smoothly on “Blueberry Ice Cream,” Iverson’s hip midtempo blues in A, played in two takes that start and close the album. His duet with Grenadier on “Body and Soul” stands out as well — hard to believe Coleman Hawkins recorded his historic version two days before Konitz’s 12th birthday. There’s a logic and unhurried pace to Konitz’s phrases and the band’s outlook as a whole, a sense of old musical values underneath a commitment to the experimental.
At long last, bassist Christian McBride has weighed in with a straight-down-the-line piano trio session. Yet Out Here throws much of the spotlight onto a different Christian — young pianist Christian Sands, who handles with aplomb the great responsibility he’s given. It’s a fine McBride album, but even more satisfying as a showcase of Sands’ talents. Drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. brings a drive and fluidity to Out Here that’s just as crucial. (It’s worth noting that Owens recruited Sands and McBride for Unanimous, his 2012 debut on Criss Cross.)
This trio has the chops to play anything, and yet Out Here isn’t a showy, technical, “music school”-type record. It could be called commercial in an old sense: melodic, bluesy, rhythmically direct and in-the-pocket instead of elliptical. The one track that reaches into modern modal territory is “My Favorite Things,” over nine minutes long, significantly reharmonized and put into 5/4 time. But Oscar Peterson’s uptempo “Hallelujah Time,” Billy Taylor’s “Easy Walker” and the opening E-flat blues “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” bring out the trio’s core identity as a swinging, grooving beast with a fairly straightforward appeal.
There are nice repertoire twists: a new version of “I Guess I’ll Have to Forget,” originally from McBride’s 2000 Verve release SciFi; a straight ballad take on “I Have Dreamed” (from The King and I) with exceptional legato bowing from the leader; and readings of the bread-and-butter standards “East of the Sun” and “Cherokee” that play to the trio’s strengths ingeniously. “Who’s Making Love,” a tribute to Stax legend Johnnie Taylor — with a “shake ya boo-tay” coda no less — closes with a potent reminder of McBride’s soul roots. It’s a leap between genres, but given the groove-heavy quality it shares with the rest of the date, no leap at all.
It’s odd for a solo acoustic guitar album to be more varied, harmonically and sonically, than a lot of full-band efforts, but such is true of Ryan Blotnick’s Solo, Volume I. The Maine native plays an old Martin with a pure and gorgeous tone. He opens with an unadorned “Monk’s Mood,” getting deep into the forbidding counterpoint while letting the instrument sing in a straightforward way. There’s an affinity with John McLaughlin’s treatment of Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from My Goals Beyond.
But with “Dreams of Chloe” and the other originals that follow, Blotnick uses mainly the same Martin guitar — amplified at times — to introduce other sounds and ethereal illusions. His subtle warbling echo on “Hymn for Steph,” “Michelle Says” and elsewhere create an effect of sustained melodies, even additional instruments where there are none. There’s an impressive sound-design aspect to the recording, as stripped down as it is.
“The Ballad of Josh Barton” and the capricious, lyrical “Salt Waltz” bring it back to pure acoustic, with clear tempos and folk/rock elements that show Blotnick to be a gifted composer. “Lenny’s Ghost,” most likely named for Lenny Breau, stands out at eight and a half minutes as the epic journey of the set, with various sections tied together by a recurring, ancient-sounding theme in ¾ time.
In just 34 minutes, Blotnick alights on a surprising number of aesthetic frameworks, from distorted haze to crisp arpeggiation, from rubato dream states to country-ish feels and strong melodies. Evocative and restrained, the album widens our conception of what a solo piece can be.
Miguel Zenón & The Rhythm Collective Oye!!! Live in Puerto Rico (Miel)
By David R. Adler
For years alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón has made quartet albums with the brilliant pianist Luis Perdomo as a central focus. Zenón’s music, therefore, has always been thick with harmony. But intermittently for several years, Zenón has explored another sound with his Rhythm Collective, a piano-less quartet with electric bassist Aldemar Valentin, drummer Tony Escapa and percussionist Reynaldo De Jesús. Oye!!! captures them in their native Puerto Rico in 2011, at a now-defunct space called El Taller Cé.
There’s an intimate club vibe to the recording, with charged-up applause and band member introductions — in Spanish, over a fast groove — at the start and finish of the program. The disc preserves the acoustic imperfections of the site and still manages a high sound quality. Valentin’s bass sounds a tad far away, and yet he’s a monster on every track, playing liquid solo lines and highly inventive double-stop work, hugging every turn in the music. Escapa and De Jesús, too, are unstoppable. The subtle textural differences in their setups come across beautifully on disc.
Zenón has worked hard to bring jazz and Puerto Rican folkloric idioms into contact. The Rhythm Collective, which toured six African countries with help from the State Department in 2003, has a different but related take on global cross-pollination. “JOS Nigeria,” a Zenón original with a bouncy optimistic feel, has an explicitly African connection. Tito Puente’s classic “Oye Como Va” gets stretched and pulled apart, at one point inspiring Zenón to quote Wayne Shorter’s “Juju.” Silvio Rodriguez’s “El Necio” is more closely faithful, though it still sparks furious off-the-page improvisation.
The band plays with gut-level energy but nails every note, every displaced accent. In the precise staccato hits of “Hypnotized” (slower and partly rubato, inspired by Paul Motian), or the crisply articulated bass pattern of the fast burner “Double Edge,” Zenón advances his own adaptations of traditional rhythmic forms, again proving himself one of the most distinctive artists on the scene.