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.
My monthly list of recommended CDs, as published in The New York City Jazz Record, September 2014. NOTE: This is the last Six Picks to appear in the paper. From here on I’ll be posting a monthly Top Ten in this space.