Inspired by a visit to Haiti in 2012, pianist Bobby Avey sought to develop his own musical response to the voudou drumming ensembles he studied. The result is Authority Melts From Me, featuring alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and guitarist Ben Monder as well as Avey’s longtime trio mates Thomson Kneeland (bass) and Jordan Perlson (drums).
There are three extended movements and two briefer interludes in this nearly hour-long suite, a musical mountain confidently scaled by these ambitious and well-matched players. The music breathes, churns tumultuously, slogs through mud, digs its way out into soaring melodic releases. “Kalfou” moves from highly configured staccato passages to expanses with Monder in a wailing fuzztone mode. Zenón solos assertively but fulfills many functions, doubling bass or piano figures or picking up counterlines as the tracks unfold.
Between Avey and Monder, there are layers on layers of impenetrable harmony in this music, as well as textural reach and an intriguing give-and-take of acoustic and electric sounds. Monder’s hovering, scratchy, sculpted, machine-like swells during “Louverture” give an uncanny shape and feel to the latter part of that nearly 18-minute piece. On the closing “Cost,” by contrast, Monder’s acoustic guitar gives a sense of solid ground, a tactile foundation, under all the harmonic and rhythmic flux.
In his liner notes Avey makes an impassioned case for righting injustices toward the Haitian people. He notes the harmful role of much U.S. policy toward Haiti, citing the CIA-backed ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990 though not mentioning the U.S. military action that reinstated Aristide in 1994. In any case, Avey’s opinions are strong and worth knowing more about, as they shed light on the knowledge and commitment that lays behind this exceptional album.
Though his output as a leader is somewhat sparse, guitarist Steve Cardenas brings a vibrancy and a shrewd air of restraint to every outing — the same qualities he’s shown as a sideman with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Steve Swallow, Ben Allison and many others. On Melody in a Dream, his fourth album since 2000, he includes pieces by Motian, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and Lee Konitz along with several originals and a standard ballad, “Street of Dreams.” Relying on a modern electric sound full of fluidity and bite, he swings effortlessly in the company of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron. Trumpeter Shane Endsley guests on three tracks.
The trio leads off in a rubato vein with “Just One More Thing” (an oblique comment on “All the Things You Are”), establishing a textural subtlety and openness that persists throughout the date. The original “Ode to Joey,” which marks Endsley’s first appearance, is freer and more assertive, with shifting rhythmic foundations but a clear compositional path. Baron’s “Broken Time,” a bright trio number, involves the players in a round of continual trading — a taste of what’s to come on the Konitz classic “Subconscious-Lee,” where Endsley spars with the leader until they nail the melody together at the end. Monk’s barebones theme “Teo,” a brief but tension-building duo workout for guitar and drums, has a similar quality of spontaneous grit.
Having absorbed the spirit of Paul Motian’s compositions firsthand as a band member, Cardenas brings an unimpeachable authority to the late drummer’s “Once Around the Park” and “In the Year of the Dragon.” On the former he gives Morgan the melody role; on the latter he invites Endsley back to close out the session in a relaxed medium swing feel.
These Motian pieces have a dark and insinuating quality that sets them apart, yet Cardenas plays them straightforwardly as material from the jazz canon, not far removed from Horace Silver’s “Peace.” That is Cardenas in a nutshell: he plugs in and plays, doesn’t overthink, and yet offhandedly summons a deep and meaningful sense of history with every album.
In giving his debut album the title Big Butter and the Eggmen, bassist Noah Garabedian alludes to a 1926 classic (“Big Butter and Egg Man”) by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five — the band that wrote the book on jazz ensemble intricacy and rhythmic vigor. Even if Garabedian’s music has little outwardly in common with early jazz, his sextet deals with concepts of polyphony, harmony and counterpoint that embody the best aspirations of jazz from its beginning.
Unlike Armstrong’s group, this one has no chordal instrument, and yet the blend and individual soloing skill of tenor saxophonists Kyle Wilson and Anna Webber, alto saxophonist Curtis Macdonald and trumpeter Kenny Warren give the session a bold and complex hue. The rhythm section role, too, is dynamic and flexible. Drummer Evan Hughes, like Garabedian himself, often articulates written parts with or against the horns and adds more compositional layers.
Save for the plaintive finale “Measurements,” beautifully adapted from singer-songwriter James Blake, the date is wholly original. It opens with the stately horn chorale “Gladstone,” briefly setting out what is to come on the far longer third track, “Also a Gladstone,” with its pulsing tom-tom motives, shifting tempos and clever soloing form. The swaying rubato and austere harmony of “Once We Saw a Blimp” harks back to the chamber-jazz feel of the “Gladstone” pieces — a nice shift to follow the rock-influenced and subtly avant-garde “Hippie Havoc.” The tango-like “Opposite Field Power,” with Macdonald’s lead alto framed by staccato repetitions from his fellow horns, creates an altogether different mood and model of interaction. Garabedian chooses this tune for his most sustained bass solo, showcasing his fluid technique and robust natural tone.
Ingrid Laubrock Octet Zürich Concert (Intakt)
By David R. Adler
This is an expanded ensemble effort from saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, but the players from her Sleepthief trio (pianist Liam Noble, drummer Tom Rainey) are tucked away inside the octet. The date starts on a high ethereal plane with the brief “Glasses” but then forges ahead with a set of longer and far more detailed pieces, alive with the timbral possibilities provided by guitarist Mary Halvorson, trumpeter Tom Arthurs, accordionist Ted Reichman, cellist Ben Davis and bassist Drew Gress.
Laubrock aims to balance complex written material with flowing and volatile improvisation, and the result is impeccable. Reichman is prominent on “Novemberdoodle,” his lonely melodic lines assuming new shapes as the band fills out the unraveling harmony and subtle counterpoint. Rainey doubles on xylophone — at times it sounds more like marimba — and adds still more textural elements. Halvorson’s solo feature comes at the beginning of “Chant,” which goes on to highlight Gress and Davis in startling bowed unison passages. The abstract lyrical interplay of piano and cello toward the end is a highlight of the set.
It’s on “Chant” that Laubrock steps forward decisively on tenor sax, and she remains very present on “Matrix,” inviting spirited dialogue with Arthurs’ breathy and unsettled trumpet. Reichman and Halvorson have their own deep duo moment as well toward the conclusion. But if there’s a centerpiece of Zürich Concert it’s the nearly 20-minute-long “Nightbus.” It starts with solo piano, rubato Mingusian discords from the band, a brief taste of the fascinating Laubrock-Rainey duo, beautifully conceived sectional counterpoint that emerges in layer after layer, and then a tightly grooving Rainey solo that opens another new section. Soon Noble is off with a fiercely burning trio interlude with Gress and Rainey. Laubrock’s unison writing in this section is astonishing: Tim Berne-like in its difficulty and angular motion but distinctively hers, down to the last lightning chamber figure that surges up to end the piece.
Expanding on his trio output and his marvelous tabla-inspired albums for solo drum set, drummer Dan Weiss ventures into large-scale composition with the ambitious Fourteen. The disc’s seven tracks run together without pause, and though the ensemble swells to 14 members, the first 90 seconds feature Weiss with just his regular trio mates, pianist Jacob Sacks and bassist Thomas Morgan. Sacks opens alone with strong articulation, generating counterpoint in a vague tonality before Weiss abruptly joins, as if breaking through the door. The jolt of that initial entrance says much about Weiss as an artist: full of eccentric spark but controlled, as ready to pounce as he is to pull back.
Surprises like these, both jarring and exceedingly gentle, occur throughout the work. Some passages take on a chamber-like quality thanks to Matt Mitchell on glockenspiel and organ, Katie Andrews on harp and Miles Okazaki on classical guitar. (Okazaki also does some of his grungiest electric playing on record as well.) Vocalists Lana Cenčić, Judith Berkson and Maria Neckam bring a choral element, singing wordlessly with great rhythmic finesse and reaching uncanny high-register extremes in “Part Six.” David Binney and Ohad Talmor unleash on alto and tenor saxophone respectively, while trombonists Jacob Garchik and Ben Gerstein intersect most notably on the sparse duo intro of “Part Five.”
The groove syntax of Fourteen is fluid but broken up, unstable, something Weiss has honed and documented in his trio and sideman sessions as well. The slow heaving beat of “Part One” hints at his metal influences, but soon it’s on to Meredith Monk-like minimalist patterns toward the end of “Part Two,” and ultimately no drums at all on the concluding “Part Seven.” There, Garchik supplies a low tuba drone as Sacks plays rubato and voices rise and fall softly. At a midpoint when the harp and guitar join, it’s almost the inverse of the jolt from the first track. The singers come in too, sounding like flutes, hovering at an implied tempo until the music disappears.
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.