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)
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)
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.
When cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and his sextet finished their first set at the Jazz Gallery (November 9th), someone from the venue reached up to put a delicate framed photograph on the wall. “Did we knock that down?” Bynum joked, but the thought was plausible: his band rose to room-shaking levels, particularly during the feral alto saxophone solos of Jim Hobbs. In some of the written passages, however, Hobbs brought a flute-like sensitivity, meshing with Bynum and tuba/bass trombonist Bill Lowe in moments full of warmth and subtle color. (The horn players all wore fedoras, which was part of the vibe.) The work, “Navigation (Possibility Abstract XVII),” lasted the full set and would change significantly in the next set (“Possibility Abstract XVIII,” Bynum explained). This is the method of Navigation (Firehouse 12), the sextet’s new release, which spans two CDs and two LPs yet includes just one piece, played four times. Each reading has common elements but a radically different outcome. A band needs a strong identity to pull this off, but with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Tomas Fujiwara completing the lineup, strength was no issue. The Halvorson-Lowe pairing was rich — Bynum was smart to have them play unison lines, fresh and unexpected. Fujiwara balanced complete freedom with undulating groove and never overpowered the room. Filiano offered not just low-end foundation but a contrapuntal voice, introducing new sounds throughout the journey. (David R. Adler)
Since the inception of Brian Blade’s Fellowship Band, pianist and cofounder Jon Cowherd has forged a distinctive sound as one of its principal composers. With Mercy (ArtistShare), Cowherd’s debut as a leader, he gives that poignant, reflective sound an even fuller spotlight. More than ever, he also shows his range and hard-swinging fervor as a pianist, as was evident at Dizzy’s Club (November 11th), where he took the stage with guitarist Mike Moreno, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Rudy Royston. The quartet played with such fire and polish that one didn’t miss the bigger names on the album itself (Bill Frisell, John Patitucci, Brian Blade). The compositions were elaborate and beautifully conceived, beginning with the uptempo “The Columns” and moving right into the sweeping three-part “Mercy Suite.” The tension-filled “Newsong” began as a Royston feature but also gave Moreno and the leader room to stretch. Cowherd ended with a nod to his New Orleans past (he’s a Kentucky-born Loyola alum), offering the gospel-tinged “Poor Folks,” an Allen Toussaint number from 1971. This was the quartet at its rockingest — one riff sort of brought to mind Deep Purple. But just before that, “Surrender’s Song” highlighted Cowherd’s harmonic approach at its most moving and poetic. He and Moreno voiced the slow rubato theme in flowing unison, evoking a lonely mood that contrasted with the set’s more aggressive New York moments. Hopefully it’s all a sign of more Cowherd-led projects in years to come. (DA)
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.