Jazz in Motion JIM 75086

Panoptic Modes
Red Giant RG011

Practically a jazz cliché, the sax and rhythm quartet has been a staple of the music since the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it became the favored compact configuration for modernists to tour from town to town.

Since that time every major improviser, definitely including such iconoclastic figures as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and, surprisingly, even Anthony Braxton, David Murray and Evan Parker has played and recorded in that formation from time to time. So the challenge facing someone is how best to adjust the quartet setting to his or her own ends.

These accomplished discs by a young Dutch tenor saxophonist and an even younger American pianist present two accommodations to the form that has almost as much history associated with it as a Civil War battlefield.

A thoroughly-schooled musician whose CDs have featured him collaborating with everyone from iconoclastic pianist Misha Mengelberg to players drawn from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for a ballad album, saxophonist Honing, 37, links up with three hoary veterans of the jazz wars here. Step forward pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian.

Meanwhile pianist Vijay Iyer, 29, who regularly worked in Steve Coleman’s band and with Roscoe Mitchell’s the Note Factory and who has an interdisciplinary PhD in music and cognitive science from University of California, Berkeley, tries to reflect his South Indian classical (Carnatic) background in his music. He fills out his quartet with other younger players, including longtime associate alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who plays Paul Desmond to Iyer’s Dave Brubeck or perhaps it would be hipper to say Charlie Rouse to Iyer’s Thelonious Monk.

Ironically enough, there are times on SEVEN when it appears as if Honing is vying to capture Desmond’s tongue-in-cheek designation of himself as “world’s slowest saxophonist”. Awash in the glacial tempos and formal presentation that the other quartet members have toyed with for years, you suspect that he’s using the session to experiment with extended techniques. Adopting a sharp, almost alto-like tone throughout, the tenor man can be heard indulging in spetrofluctuation, intensity vibrato and airy hiss at different times.

Some solos are no more than repeated patterns pushed in proper order up the scale. On others, his passive, nagging presentation sounds as if it’s more related to showcasing classical saxophone structures than improvised music, although it’s almost irrefutable that all the tunes are instant compositions. Maybe one should hear his duets with Bley, who does have a degree from Julliard — and so much else — as preparation for his meeting with the Concertgebouwers that took place after this CD was recorded.

Maybe part of the seeming disconnect results from the fact that subtle percussionist Motion, powerful bassist Peacock and Bley first recorded together in 1963 (!), two years before the saxist was born. It may not have been meant that way — or it may have been a deliberate compliment — but much of the time Honing appears to be following Bley’s lead, filling in the spaces left for him, and not the other way around.

Letting loose only seems to occur to the saxist when the bassist adopts a steady — and standard — quicker 4/4 pattern on one piece and on the final piece when Bley unveils some this-side-of-prepared piano solos. Facing off against a conception that’s all metallic chord substitutions, internal string mutes and reverberating tones, Honing responds with deeper, more virile playing, though it must be admitted that it’s still pretty deliberate sounding.

Coming from a different time and place, the Iyer four are nothing but exuberant, with drummer Derrek Phillips, who regularly works with alto saxophonist Greg Osby, alone expending more energy on the first number that Motian seems to have done during the entire other CD. Each quartet member seems to have chops to burn, but because they labor as a working group, that sense of disengagement that is sometimes apparent in the Honing session is missing here.

One reoccurring motif is the frequent blending of tones that occurs between saxophone and keyboard. Another is that while they take most of the tunes at a breakneck pace, they dissipate the tension with slinky, slower motions for the codas.

Although Iyer, who is the son of Indian immigrants, raised in upstate New York, emphasizes his South Asian roots, the language of jazz is paramount here. “Configurations”, for instance, which is supposed to reflect rhythmic progressions from that subcontinent, appears to take more from a Spanish tinge and McCoy Tyner’s modal work. “Father Spirit”, on the other hand, features Iyer playing what sounds like quirky Herbie Nichols-like lines, with Mahanthappa interjecting gingerly, one phrase at a time. The aviary-like reverberating arcs the saxist uses here are effective, as is most of his playing, except for the few times when for some reason, he adopts a pinched, adenoidal tone.

Iyer’s note-spinning, speedy vamps that appear from either his left or right hand also serve him well throughout the disc. Especially if the saxophonist, who made a reputation for himself in Chicago before moving to New York, really digs into the music, or Phillips starts to imagine himself as Elvin Jones, and begins overplaying his hands.

The only time this technique isn’t completely accurate is with “Circular Argument”, conceived of as a Monk tribute. Almost a parody of what a swinging nightclub tickler would have played in the 1930s, Iyer is too much the modern, educated pianist and the band too wedded to straightahead swinging to reflect Monk’s individuality. Plus here and on the next piece the saxophonist shows that he’s much happier spewing out sheets of sound than subordinating himself, as Rouse did to Monk’s vision.

Bassist Stephen Crump, who usually works with drummer Bobby Previte, is the only musician who suffers almost silently here. Frequently kept in the background by the sheer volume of the others — especially Phillips — his few solos reveal a strong, but rather prosaic timekeeper.

In short, these CDs prove that in the right hands — and feet and mouths — sax-and-rhythm quartet sessions are still a viable option for many musicians, with Iyer’s more focused effort having a slight edge. If neither of them move into the winner’s circle of memorable dates produced by Coltrane, Murray or even Stan Getz or Zoot Sims, both leaders are still young enough to likely appear with great sessions in the near future.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Seven: 1.One note out 2.Yasutani 3.Hell’s Kitchen 4. Bley Away 5. Lost Virginity 6. Once is Twice 7. Vertical

Personnel: Seven: Yuri Honing (tenor saxophone); Paul Bley (piano); Gary Peacock (bass); Paul Motian (drums)

Track Listing: Panoptic: 1. Invocation 2. Configurations 3. One Thousand and One 4. History is Alive 5. Father Spirit 6. Atlantean Tropes 7. Numbers (for Mumia) 8. Trident: 2001 9. Circular Argument 10. Invariants 11. Mountains

Personnel: Panoptic: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); Stephan Crump (bass); Derrek Phillips (drums)