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.
The clarinet looms large in Chris Speed’s work, though he spent the first two nights of his residency at the Stone solely on tenor saxophone. In the last of four trio sets with bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Dave King (Mar. 12), Speed focused mainly on music from his new Skirl release Really OK, sitting in a low chair with the bell of the horn far away from the mic. “It’s nice to play some swing music here at the Stone,” he said after a loping, slower-than-usual reading of John Coltrane’s “26-2” came to a close. “All of Me,” the similarly relaxed and swinging finale, was also something you wouldn’t expect under this downtown roof. But the opener, a brief and agitated take on Albert Ayler’s “Spirits,” fit like a glove. Regardless of source material, the trio brought to bear a unified aesthetic, rooted in Speed’s dark tenor sound and exploratory phrasing. There were two originals from the album played back to back: first the slowly churning 5/4 vehicle “Takedown” and then the brighter “Argento,” prefaced by King’s incendiary intro on drums. “Transporter,” set up by Tordini with resonant double-stops, harmonics and other textures, came from the book of a different project: Speed’s yeah NO, a quartet slated for the following night. Some six more lineups would play before Speed’s residency ran its course, so the Really OK trio seemed a fine way to limber up. Its loose and effortless interaction, broad dynamic contrasts and controlled wild streak played to Speed’s strengths and got at something vital about his artistry. (David R. Adler)
Relationships run deep in pianist Noah Baerman’s Jazz Samaritan Alliance, even if the sextet’s Jazz Gallery engagement (Mar. 13) was the first live gig of its existence. Celebrating the release of Ripples (Lemel), Baerman opened with the expansive “Motherless” — based on the spiritual “Motherless Child” — and called upon the prodigious talents of vibraphonist Chris Dingman, alto saxophonist Kris Allen, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Johnathan Blake. There were rubato passages, unaccompanied spots and tight restatements of the theme, animated by a strutting feel and horn harmonies that recalled classic Blue Note. Baerman’s “Peeling the Onion” was funkier, moderately paced, full of rhythmic intricacy and harmonic ambiguity. Guest flutist Erica von Kleist brought an emotional connection to the 3/4 ballad “The Healer,” forming a mini horn section with Allen and Escoffery and venturing her own solo just before Baerman’s. Two vignettes, “Ripple: Persistence” and “Ripple: Brotherhood,” featured modified lineups. The first was a boppish quartet feature for the virtuosic Allen while the second took an atmospheric turn, with Escoffery’s soprano sax guiding (and Allen sitting out). “Zaneta,” from Dingman’s album Waking Dreams, closed the first set in a decisively swinging mood, with Escoffery blowing fiercely once again. As intent as Baerman was on sharing the spotlight, he did plenty to light up the music with his lyricism, drive and confident touch at the keys.(DA)
My feature article on drummer-composer-bandleader Gerald Cleaver ran in the November 2013 issue of JazzTimes — the link to the online excerpt is here. I also wrote a concluding section that didn’t make it into the magazine and wanted to share it for posterity. See below.
[Gerald] Cleaver debuted as a leader in 2001 with the moody Adjust, a quasi-electric statement from his band Veil of Names (a James Joyce reference). Taborn played keyboards and organ; Reid Anderson made his first appearance on electric bass; Ben Monder played scorching guitar alongside Mat Maneri on viola and Michigan-based Andrew Bishop — Cleaver’s “secret weapon” — on reeds (Bishop plays in Violet Hour and Uncle June as well). “Hover,” the opening track on Adjust, reappears in a slower, elongated form to lead off Life in the Sugar Candle Mines. Cleaver mentions the idea of “covering” one’s own song, in the manner of Thelonious Monk and Bill Frisell.
Since his debut, Cleaver has made increasing use of spoken word. During a late May showcase at SEEDS, Ohad Talmor’s space in Brooklyn, Cleaver and the rest of Black Host all read aloud from different books. Alto saxophonist Darius Jones continued reading after the others fell away, though Cleaver would still shout or murmur isolated lines from what he’d spoken earlier — “whatever came to mind, I just followed my own story,” he says. “I like that speech or song modifies our expectations: everything is reframed.”
Cooper-Moore, who plays piano and fantastically haunting synth on Sugar Candle Mines, remembers the SEEDS gig: “That actually hurt. It’s a loud band, a big sound — it’s like a rock band. I think it’s a new way of feeling and thinking.” Speaking highly of his Black Host colleagues Jones, Brandon Seabrook (guitar) and Pascal Niggenkemper (bass), Cooper-Moore adds: “I’m the old guy in the band. I’m 67 next week, and that’s how you don’t get old, man. You don’t get old if you play with young cats. You might think you’re cutting-edge but there are young cats coming behind you. You learn from young people by listening to them, not telling them. That’s what’s in this band. People who are learners.”
“I’m not trying to get wilder,” Cleaver says of Black Host’s experimental vibe. “Things are getting clearer, sound in general is getting clearer, and I just want it to be more powerful. Not necessarily louder, but clearer.” The name Black Host holds no special significance, but Sugar Candle Mines is loosely inspired by the early 20th-century anatomist Emil Zuckerkandl. “Vienna at that time was a real progressive place,” Cleaver says. “There was a lot of cross-pollination between the arts and sciences, way more than we experience now. I was reading about Zuckerkandl and his wife Berta, who ran a salon from their home, and the name just popped out at me. … [‘Sugar Candle Mines’] relates to the unconscious, going beneath the surface and getting to something much deeper than what you see or hear.”
Cleaver’s albums project a sense of mystery as well as narrative — they’re never simply an assortment of tunes. Taborn compares it to “putting together a book of poetry.” On the foldout jacket of Gerald Cleaver’s Detroit are black-and-white photos of the city, old and recent, bleak but with an odd grandeur. The back cover of Be It As I See It has band-member portraits interspersed with Cleaver family snapshots from long ago.
“Memory is not what it seems,” Cleaver says. “So another aspect of Uncle June is I’m not remembering, I’m experiencing the people as if they were alive right now. The continuum is free-flowing. I might have a picture of my grandfather as a boy but I want to be that boy in 1910, or the retired autoworker in 1972. That’s why I say the record is dedicated to everybody, because the experiences are real and continuing for all of the ancestors. Our ancestors’ experiences are lived through us today.”
Jeremy Pelt included a ravishing ballad of Cleaver’s, “From a Life of the Same Name,” on his 2010 release Men of Honor. It’s also the final cut on Be It As I See It, where Tony Malaby’s tenor sax, Maneri’s viola and Bishop’s bass clarinet crookedly interweave, leading into beautiful solos from bassist Drew Gress and then Taborn. “I feel like I’ve had a couple of lives,” Cleaver says. “They feel like different lives, from being young in Detroit, never thought I would live in New York, then fast-forward to 2007 when that was written. That song is a bookend, in the same way the Detroit album is a certain kind of bookend. Everything I write definitely speaks to me. I have to get them out and then they speak to me. They have very specific things they have to say to me.”
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.
When the George Coleman New Octet began its second set at Jazz Standard (Dec. 11), one band member wasn’t easily visible: George Coleman. The veteran tenor saxophonist began his solo on “Waltzing Westward” and revealed his position, seated in a chair on the floor just off the bandstand. Though he played a diminished role next to five other horns — as well as eminent pianist Harold Mabern — Coleman still put himself forward as a player and conductor. His feature on “Body and Soul” was illuminating, though fellow tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander took the melody out and claimed some cadenza space of his own. Despite a flubbed transition or two, the band was impressive in its handling of big and broad harmonies, polished soli sections and genuinely surprising tempo changes. With Gary Smulyan on baritone saxophone, Alexander McCabe on alto, Adam Brenner on tenor and Bill Mobley on trumpet, the band didn’t lack for surefooted soloists, though it was hard to equal Mabern, whose driving attack and harmonic intelligence was a master class in itself. In the rhythm section were bassist Leon Dorsey and drummer George Coleman, Jr. — the younger Coleman not only swinging but sharing on-mic duties with his father, verbally setting up Ned Otter’s “Nothing But the Blues, Part 1.” This midtempo charger, with chromatic substitutions on the blues form, paired with Frank Foster’s “Square Knights of the Round Table” (another modern blues) to close the night with the band at its peak. (David R. Adler)
It was right of guitarist Matthew Stevens to utter profanity when describing the cold snowy weather just outside ShapeShifter Lab (Dec. 8). But without further ado the Toronto native got to work, kicking off a strong quintet set with pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Eric Doob and percussionist Paolo Stagnaro. Stevens is quite capable of rocking out and lending an electric charge to the music of Christian Scott, Ben Williams, Erimaj, Next Collective and others. But his tone at ShapeShifter was clean and straightforward, from the opening “Processional” with its busy melodic line to the closing “Ashes,” which omitted Clayton and featured the drums-percussion unit more overtly. Stagnaro was not there simply for added color: his rhythmic assertions and subtle textures meshed with Doob’s precise, funky traps to define the music from the ground up. Clayton, too, was vibrant and essential, doubling on Rhodes and combining acoustic and electric at the same time on “Sunday,” a dreamy David Bowie cover. Some of the intricacy in Stevens’ sound and phrasing got obscured in the mix, though overall the instruments were clear and balanced. The guitar solos blazed, but despite the blizzard of notes one could sense how Stevens edits himself and listens deeply to the band. On “Grown-Ups” he followed Clayton’s rousing acoustic turn with a statement of utmost fluidity and taste. The music had its busy and aggressive side but also an atmosphere of melodic calm, of breath and space. (DA)