Live Spirits No. 1
Utech Records UR-002

Live Spirits No. 2
Utech Records UR-003

New York has above ground jazz musicians (c.f. Wynton Marsalis), sort of underground jazzers (c.f. Charles Gayle) and really far underground free jazz players, some of whom are showcased on these two live discs.

Most prominent is Brooklyn-born alto and tenor saxophonist Ras Moshe, who may be undersung, but has it together enough to constantly organize gigs for his Music Now Unit. As evidenced by the locations here, Moshe finds different spaces in which to play, even if he has to go as far away as Syracuse, N.Y.

Still gigging doesn’t mean recording, especially in a competitive spot like the Apple. Which is how Utech, a grassroots-style boutique label from Milwaukee, Wisc. gets involved. Players like Moshe are honest enough to know they’ll never create big sellers, so Utech (www.utechrecords.com) turns out editions of 75 or so CDRs.

Large numbers have noting to do with excellence as jazz folks of any genre can tell you. There’s some memorable work – and some a little sloppy, not to mention under-recorded, sounds – scattered among the four long selections that take up both volumes of LIVE SPIRITS. Players vary from tune to tune, but the saxman’s most consistent rhythm partners are Matt Heyner, young bassist with TEST and the No-Neck Blues Band, and veteran Jackson Krall, Cecil Taylor’s recent drummer of choice, one or both of whom are on every track.

“Road: Medley” recorded at Syracuse University and “Brooklyn Improv” from the Improvised and Otherwise Festival are trio performance. More than 40 minutes long, the later serves as a demonstration of Heyner’s and Krall’s extended techniques, rightly limited to accompaniment elsewhere.

Early on, the bassist’s heavy strokes turns to guitar-like triple stopping as Krall splashes vibrations from his cymbals and Moshe advances a slithery line with an intense vibrato that turns to Tranesque cadences and meet up with Heyner’s slapping and stopping. From that point on, the saxophonist alternately plays off the lines from either the bassist or Krall. Getting a ney-like snarl from his horn, Moshe’s churning trills meet tranquil nerve beats and clanks, as well as a highly rhythmic buck-and-wing from the drummer. At another point sul ponticello bass swirls moderate an irregularly vibrated reed solo.

Here and elsewhere there’s no mistaking the tautness and thickness of Heyner’s strings as he thumps them as if he was playing a diddly bo. Not that his only strategy is abrasiveness. Meshed with carefully selected textures from Krall, the bass and drum sometimes are as simpatico in accompaniment as a sarod and a tabla, although no one would mistake Moshe’s horn for a bansuri flute. Instead the saxman’s flutter tonguing, flattement and doits suggest a different method of approaching transcendence.

“Road: Medley” on the other CD is a good companion piece to “Brooklyn Improv”, with Moshe’s well-modulated runs confirming his lineage from Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins. Here and elsewhere, the relaxation in his tone often implies that he’s improvising on alto as well as tenor saxophone, with both horns in use on all tracks.

Heyner’s attack is tougher on this 26-minute piece, pulling extra action from his strings and slapping its belly and ribs as he maneuvers circular double stops. Higher-pitched, his sul tasto explorations splinter into individual tones. Meanwhile, Krall not only clatters and rattles his way through a solo, but with hammer-hard snare action, spectacular press rolls and bass drum accents moving faster and faster, brings to mind a hipper Buddy Rich.

Moshe’s response to this harsh interface is to break apart his solos into smaller squealing units, reducing even split tones to molecular nodes, and finally attaining glossolalia. With the bass accompaniment varying from pitches that could be produced Scruggs-style by a tenor banjo or wrenched from the single string of a washtub bass, Moshe squeaks into false registers, so that the metal of his body tube almost liquefies. After a brief pause, the coda is made up of reed cadenzas played in Aylerian march tempo.

Neither of the other tracks reaches those heights. Although it’s only slightly lengthier than “Brooklyn Improv”, “Full Moon Night” soon wears out its welcome. Adding trumpeter Matt Lavelle and Chris Forbes on electric piano to Moshe and Krall, and substituting both Francois Grillot and Ken Filiano on basses for Heyner, muddies the texture. One problem is the recording, which for the only time on these discs, appears muffled at points. Another is the use of an electric piano whose jittery sheen upsets rather than adds to the performance – likely a fault of the acoustics and the manufacturer rather than Forbes.

Intermingling with Moshe’s often-liquid sax tone, Lavelle’s output moves between the Dons: Cherry and Ayler. Sometimes he brays triplets upwards, or in contrast extends a story-telling line with sour slurs and crying tremolos. Walking in standard time at certain moments, sluicing slippery bass line upwards at others and expressing themselves spiccato elsewhere, Grillot and Filiano appear surprisingly – especially for the later – reserved and mirror-images of one another. Neither makes much of an impression, but they, more than any one else, suffer from the sonic weaknesses.

Because of all this Moshe and Krall appear particularly audacious. Sticking to boppy hi-hat movements and post-bop quick flams and ruffs, only when the drummer wallops his cymbals ceaselessly does the excitement level rise. Using trills and irregular vibrations, the reedist is more Tranesque than usual, even expelling a lone, buzzy reverberation that pushes his horn into baritone saxophone range until subsiding into segmented squeals and split tones. A series of almost soundless screams, egged on by Lavelle serve as the piece’s climax.

Moshe, Heyner drummer Todd Nicholson and vocalist Kyoko Kitamura are on board for the final “Unnamed Peace” recorded in the cramped surrounding of the old

Downtown Music Gallery. With the bassist providing the accompanying ostinato, the saxman limits himself to fills in a balladic Trane-like fashion, studding his work with near quotes from the other saxophonist’s canon. Not unpleasant, Kitamura’s style seems ill-defined as she moves between mumbles, recitation, scat singing, free association and speaking in tongues. Time condensation may have helped this track as well.

It’s unfortunate that the two Moshe-Heyner-Krall numbers couldn’t have been on a single CD. That would have been a dynamite disc. Still the saxophonist and the other players here deserve a hearing. Picking up either of these sessions will provide an introduction, allowing you to discover exceptional work. But try to ignore other tracks that aren’t at the same high standard.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: No. 1: 1. Road: Medley 2. Full Moon Night

Personnel No. 1: 1. Ras Moshe (alto and tenor saxophone); Matt Heyner (bass); Jackson Krall (drums) 2. Matt Lavelle (trumpet); Ras Moshe (alto and tenor saxophone); Chris Forbes (electric piano); Francois Grillot and Ken Filiano (basses); Jackson Krall (drums)

Track Listing: No. 2: 1. Unnamed Peace 2. Brooklyn Improv

Personnel No. 2: 1. Ras Moshe (alto and tenor saxophone); Matt Heyner (bass); Todd Nicholson (drums); Kyoko Kitamura (vocal) 2. Ras Moshe (alto and tenor saxophone); Matt Heyner (bass); Jackson Krall (drums)