9 Winds NWCD0263

Go Figure
9 Winds NWCD0231

Brass and strings figure prominently in these two discs recorded by experimenting musicians who fight the good fight for improv in cities like Chicago and Seattle, which move in and out of the jazz spotlight.

Yet sometimes it takes more than good intentions, good ideas and good technique to produce sessions that will resonate outside of a particular social and geographical area. Perhaps that’s why trumpeter Jim Knodle’s session ends up being disappointing while drummer Damon Short’s lives up to its promise

Both men are veterans. Knodle has spent years in the Pacific Northeast music scene taking all sorts of gigs with all kinds of players. Part of the loose community seeking out-of-the-norm sounds, he recently formed Anansi, named after the canny spider character in African folklore, to expand his personal view of lyrical improvisation. But his CD only rises above typical when he’s truest to himself.

For many years grizzled Chicagoan Short has been playing his own music, both in the Windy City and for four years in New Orleans. This CD features musicians who have worked with the drummer since about 1989. One, trumpeter Paul Smoker, who now lives near Rochester, N.Y., has a national reputation from his associations with Anthony Braxton and the Fonda-Stevens group. A couple more deserve to be heard more widely.

WENDING’s high point occurs with its second and shortest track “No Before Like More”. A spare, low-key composition that Knodle says “is about going to sleep in Iowa and hearing train whistles from 20 miles away” it captures perfectly the idea of a Prairie existence and its miles of flatland. Built around a highly articulated, almost legit sounding trumpet line, it includes straightahead quasi country music-like harmonies from guitarist Paul Sawyer, some plunger color from trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and well-thought out piano asides from Lynette Westendorf.

Putting aside the title track, which seems to merely meander, the centrepiece of the disc at more than 25 minutes — and perhaps the reason for its recording — is “M.D.D.” Here the trumpeter, trombonist and guitarist plus rhythm section — piano sits this one out — interpret a composition of Knodle’s designed to fit the word-rhyme of the poem “Miles D.” by Pamela Moore-Dionne, reprinted in the booklet. The limitation is that the band is only able to play each theme once.

What results is an aural caricature of the sound of different Miles Davis bands from the 1950s through the to 1970s. Rife with undemanding swing at the start, Dan O’Brien puts a little torque into his steadfast Paul Chambers emulation and Knodle’s Harmon muted- Miles tone moves along well enough, until what seems to be fusion era Davis arrives. Without warning Sawyer starts firing out chicken-shack rhythm guitar licks as if he was Steve Cropper, drummer Don Berman hits hard and steady like Cropper’s fellow MG Al Jackson, as the trombonist growls out pungent plunger trombone stops that are fine Vlatkovich, but seem divorced from the rest of the proceedings. When he, the trumpeter — still muted — and the guitarist — now in Joe Pass mode — return to balladic style then go back to rock rhythm, the entire concept seems to fall apart.

Maybe with the articulation of Moore-Dionne’s lyrics this composition would have worked better. Perhaps, as well, the track and CD will be welcomed as a keepsake for those locals who have seen the trumpeter perform it in person. Still Knodle writing as himself on “No Before Like More” is much more impressive than the Miles emulator on “M.D.D.” Sticking to his own vision in future he could probably turn out a fine CD.

If WENDING’s centrepiece is based on someone else’s conception, then GO FIGURE’s “Gardens of Perception”, which is also almost 25 minutes long, was written by Short for the featured musicians on the session.

What they do with it showcases their skills. Paul Scea, now director of Jazz Studies at West Virginia University in Morgantown, exhibits his tenor tone alive with split tones and side slipping, easily working on his own when necessary, sporting a slinky, shaded tone and honks that would make Willis Jackson proud. Earlier he produces a fat sound by doubling his bass clarinet line with the feisty baritone saxophone sound of Chuck Burdelik, a former longtime member of Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble.

But the defining thematic sounds belong to the less-than-common instruments here. Short, with who has recorded a duo CD with Scea, is featured on one, and shows that he’s much more than a beat man as he moves from his kit to vibrate the vibes with a light-fingered attack approach that makes it resonate like an electric piano. The other miscellaneous tones come from the mellow smoothness of Chicagoan Ryan Schultz’s bass trumpet, which is pitched in trombone range and which sounds as if he can also use it as a hunter’s horn. One of the few practitioners of the swollen brass outside of Cy Touff, who recorded with Woody Herman’s Herd, Schultz’s versatility has allowed his instrument to mesh with players as different as Chicago’s avant-mainstream tenor saxophonist Ari Brown and New York’s classically-oriented French hornist Tom Varner.

Unfolding in a circular fashion, the malleable theme of “Gardens” fluctuates up and down in pitch with Scea’s flute and the trumpet at its peak and drums and bari at its base. Expanding with brass fanfares, sliding tones and massed cascading horn runs, the piece resolves itself, helped not a little bit by the subtle and low-key backing from now Brooklyn-based guitarist Jim Yanda and Chicago homeboy bassist Larry Kohut.

That’s not all. When, despite its title, Short’s frisky “Old School” resembles tunes played by Ornette Coleman’s 1960s’ quartet, Scea’s buzzing flute vies for space with Smoker’s bumble bee trumpet tone. With bass mooring the timekeeping, Schultz is able to create a droning countermotif that really sounds as if it’s coming from a gender-bent half-trombone/half-tuba. Short’s expressed admiration for Gene Krupa shows through in his high-sticking, cymbal and bass drum work. Plus the whole tune ends on an upbeat.

Yanda comers up with some Jim Hall-like slick backing licks on “Anesthesiology”, which seems to be reaching out to “Show Me The Way To Go Home”. Enervated trumpet lines add to its smooth execution. Yet when Scea inserts random tenor sax notes, the guitarist returns as good as he gets with intermittent plucking.

Finally there’s “Flag Day”, an obtuse piece that appears to be a Smoker feature. Slicing his way through jungle sounds from the other horns, the trumpeter, inserts and withdraws his mute as quickly as he’d manipulate a video game, trilling and whistling on one hand, plunging deep into choked valve territory elsewhere. As drum beats build up to a steadfast rat tat tat, Burdelik on baritone and Scea on bass clarinet join in, as does Yanda with an occasional banjo-like strum. At the end, before Smoker spits out an extended plunger mute coda, the entire aggregation resembles an out-of-sorts New Orleans marching band whose unsteady members hit a few too many watering holes on the way to a jazz funeral.

Bewilderingly, all this material was recorded in 1997, but has had to wait years for release. Perhaps the members of Short’s national ensemble play so well as a matter of course that they didn’t realize how good this session actually is. Well, at least it’s out now and we can all enjoy it.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Wending: 1.Wending* 2. No Before Like More* 3. M.D.D. - Four 4

Personnel: Wending: Jim Knodle (trumpet); Michael Vlatkovich (trombone); Paul Sawyer (guitar); Lynette Westendorf (piano)*; Dan O’Brien (bass); Don Berman (drums)

Track Listing: Go: 1. Permutation*^ 2. Go Figure* 3. Old School 4. Anesthesiology* 5. Flag Day 6. Gardens of Perception* 7. Anthem*^

Personnel: Go: Paul Smoker (trumpet); Ryan Schultz (bass trumpet); Paul Scea (soprano and tenor* saxophone, flute, bass clarinet); Chuck Burdelik (tenor^ and baritone saxophone); Jim Yanda (guitar); Larry Kohut (bass); Damon Short (drums, vibes)