MYRA MELFORD’S THE TENT

Where the Two Worlds Touch
Arabesque AJ0159

THE FONDA/STEVENS GROUP
Twelve improvisations
Leo CD LR 394

Building on jazz’s standard two-horns-and-rhythm combo format, these CDs impress by showing how the players manage to make things new by tweaking sounds to match their own aspirations.

A team for over 20 years, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist Joe Fonda do this by not only insisting that all the sounds on their CD be completely improvised, but by adding another voice to the line-up. French alto and baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro is one of that country’s foremost experimenters, working in contexts as varied as solo recitals and bands with saxophonist Michel Doneda and Joe McPhee. Here his unique articulation and sound sources add another dimension to that supplied by the pianist, bassist, long-time drummer Harvey Sorgen, and endlessly inventive trumpeter Herb Robertson, who has worked with Fonda and Stevens in various bands, on-and-off for more than a decade.

Pianist Myra Melford approach to the situation is a bit different. Following her Fulbright scholarship-sponsored, nine-month residency in Calcutta, this session finds her integrating the sounds of Northern India on harmonium with her own influences which range from distinctive poetics to salutes to earlier jazz heroes. Furthermore, her band, The Tent, melds sidefolk from her earlier combos. Trumpeter Cuong Vu and bassist Stomu Takeishi — who are both in Vu’s trio — join with busy Manhattan reedist Chris Speed and drummer Kenny Wollesen who has played with John Zorn.

Encompassing sampled traffic noises and vocal exhortations recorded in Calcutta, “No News At All” is the only track that directly refers to Melford’s experience on the subcontinent. But the accordion-like repetitive riffs she produces on the harmonium and the drummer’s backbeat color that so-called exotica in a different way. So do Vu’s brassy squeals and Speed’s clarinet trills, both of which end in sibilant whistles. If anything the end product resembles a jolly tarantella more than Hindustani music. Not only that, but any time Takeishi is front and centre, his flat picking, thumb pops and flailing confirms that these are bass guitars he’s playing not a sarod or an acoustic stand up bass.

Harmonium timbres may be on display in a viscous mixture with a clarinet reed on the nearly 12 minute “Where the Ocean Misquotes the Sky”, but that doesn’t stop Melford from eventually switching to high frequency piano tone clusters to emphasize the theme. Shortly after that, her cascading overtones and modal attack introduce pure swing accompanied by press rolls from the drummer and a walking bass line. Earlier, any eclogue resemblance is lost among the trumpeter’s glottal smears and slurs. With the horns playing double counterpoint quietly in background, the pianist gradually gooses the tempo to a satisfactory conclusion.

Or listen to “Brainfire and Buglight” where a jagged swaying and hocketing tenor line mixes it up with irregular note clusters from the piano, electric bass blasts that sound like tuba toots, and rolls and flams from the drummer. As Speed becomes more aggressively abstract, and Vu adds quacking runs and basso pedal tones, Melford keep everything together with glissandi.

Summation of all this is “Hello Dreamers (for Lester Bowie)”, which celebrates the pan musicalism of the late Art Ensemble trumpeter. Beginning with Vu approximating Bowie’s sour tone, varied drum work and a massed polyphonic horn line soon double the tempo to a more ambulatory, almost joyous pace. Following Speed’s exhibition of double tonguing and split tones, Melford turns to key clipping for a spell. Then she slows the tempo down to a two handed quasi boogie-woogie exercise, propelling cascading note clusters into different tempos and harmonies. Enlivened by a splayed Rent Party beat, the piece reaches a galloping climax, then reprises the melancholy section at the top.

At home or abroad, the power of improvised music means that you can be celebratory even in the midst of sorrow.

Alive with a dozen improvisations to Melford’s eight, Fonda, Stevens and crew have more scope in which to exhibit their talents. Additionally, while these may be TWELVE IMPROVISATIONS, they’re definitely not 12 pieces of indulged abstraction. Veterans, each member of the quintet knows what he can do, and gets enough space to do it within a group context.

Take, “Distant Voices,” at almost 9½-minutes the longest track. Here modulated stick pressure and knuckle duster rolls from Sorgen lead into ponticello bowing from Fonda and the continuous spew of accented timbres from Robertson. As Lazro adds harmonic color, the trumpeter’s lines get more expressive and legato. Soon the brassman is chromatically severing single notes as Stevens accompanies him with church-like low frequency chords. Lazro, now on baritone, smoothly resonates underneath, as Robertson decorates the line with stairstep obbligatos.

The Frenchman’s bari can squeal as well as snort as he demonstrates on “Talking Drum”, most of which is taken up by Sorgen doing just that. Lazro double tongues searing altissimo squeaks that are later amplified by Robertson’s quivering valves. Meanwhile the percussionist resonates, rattles and rolls as if he was playing a bata or a darbuka, using his palms, fingers and palms more than his sticks.

Robertson and he exhibit classic teamwork between brassy triplets and pardiddles and flams on the aptly named “Call and Response”. Throughout the CD, the trumpeter seems to be functioning at a level even higher than in years past, having finally exchanged European expatriate life for the United States.

Two example of this are “Extracurricular Activity” and “The Meeting”. The former finds Stevens’ high frequency, circular piano accents succeeded by split-second, tongue stopping blasts from Lazro and exaggerated wah-wah blowing from Robertson in Clyde McCoy mode.

More serious, the latter sets up a series of meetings among the group members. Concerned with cascading chords and right-handed plinking, Stevens pushing broken note patterns into a swinging centre meets rumbles, glances and bounces from Sorgen. Then Harmon-muted tones from Robertson meet sharp slurs from Lazro’s alto, As the trumpeter maintains his feathery timbres, staying concise and concentrated, Lazro moves to split tones and lip vibrations.

Sometimes the sounds move far beyond the expected. Arco bass lines and pronged internal piano string constraint on “In the Distance” are succeeded by what could be electro-acoustic oscillation and distortion mated with buzzing brass tones. As Fonda cushions everyone with arco bustles both high-pitched and lower, Lazro adds altissimo flutter tonguing. Finally the resolution appears in Stevens rubbing the internal piano strings with a light, cylindrical object as Robertson continues twittering short phrases on his own, as if he was a homeless person mumbling to himself.

Improvisations also include variations on jazz’s bedrock, with “Front and Center” a finger snapping blues piano showcase, complete with rolling drumbeats and walking bass. Andante, Stevens reveals his inner Red Garland and Fonda displays a bass line that would do Milt Hinton proud. Only at the very end does Lazro contribute dissonant split tones and irregular vibrated slurs and cries.

If the CD has a weakness, it’s that the final track founders on slow moving hard handed descending piano tones and a whiny, vibrated trumpet egress. Considering what went before the CD should end with a flourish not a whimper.

Still one lapse can be forgiven.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Worlds: 1. Eight 2. Where the Two Worlds Touch (for Andrew Hill) 3. Brainfire and Buglight 4. Where the Ocean Misquotes the Sky 5. Secrets To Tell You 6. Everything Today 7. Hello Dreamers (for Lester Bowie) 8. No News At All

Personnel: Worlds: Cuong Vu (trumpet); Chris Speed (clarinet and tenor saxophone); Myra Melford (piano and harmonium); Stomu Takeishi (electric and acoustic bass guitar); Kenny Wollesen (drums)

Track Listing: Twelve: 1. Ostrich 2. The Meeting 3. Electricity 4.In the Distance 5.Talking Drum 6. Extracurricular Activity 7. Front and Center 8. Call and Response 9. Dante’s Inferno 10. Distant Voices 11. Bariphonics 12. Trance

Personnel: Twelve: Herb Robertson (trumpet); Daunik Lazro (alto and baritone saxophones); Michael Jefry Stevens (piano); Joe Fonda (bass); Harvey Sorgen (drums)