September 23, 2008
Michael Jefrey Stevens
For The Children
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1202
Ultrabolic UBR 0502
Loïc Dequidt Quartet
Kopasetic Productions KOPACD 022
Trying to wrest contemporary jazz from the control of the neo-conservatives is as honorable a struggle as any avant-garde exploration. Extending the tradition shouldn’t preclude innovation within set boundaries, and that’s what these three groups attempt with varying success, on their CDs.
Configured as the classic jazz quartet of saxophone-piano-bass-and-drums, each combo performs original compositions, written by the session leader as a challenge to the burgeoning jazz copycat… oops … repertory movement. It’s interesting to note however that only one quartet is all-American.
That’s the one featured on For The Children, a disc recorded back in 1995. The CD also involves three musicians who now often work the more experimental side of the street. Pianist Michael Jefrey Stevens, who composed all the tunes here, is probably best-known for the band he co-leads with bassist Joe Fonda; bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen are the rhythm section of choice for many, most notably partnering multi-reedman Joe McPhee is Trio X. Only tenor saxophonist David Schnitter, who played with Jazz Messengers in the late 1970s, could be considered a bona-fide modern mainstreamer.
Fiery American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa joins forces with powerful French bassist Hubert Dupont’s trio on Spider’s Dance, recorded in 2006. Yet neither the New York-based saxophonist nor the Paris-based bassist has proper mainstream credentials. Part of the Kartet band with pianist Benoît Delbecq as well as in bands that include computers and electric instruments, Dupont isn’t restricted by Bop basics. Neither is Mahanthappa, who frequently plays with pianist Vijay Iyer on sessions that bow to their joint South Asian background as well as jazz. This heritage is something he shares with understated drummer Chander Sardjoe, who has studied South Indian classical music as well as western classical music and jazz. Lyon-native pianist Yvan Robillard often adapts classical techniques to his improvising.
Even more international is the band on Nomade, recorded in 2007. Leader Loïc Dequidt is a French pianist who moved to Sweden in 2003. Bassist Mattias Hjorth and drummer Peter Nilsson are as in-demand as rhythm players in that country as Duval and Rosen are in theirs. Tenor saxophonist Tommy Smith on the other hand is Scottish. He and Dequidt have played together on-and-off since 1994. That was 11 years after Smith made her first record – at 16. Today besides touring with his own group, the saxophonist directs the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO). With this Young Lion background and association with the SNJO, Smith should be a textbook example of a neo-con. Yet at least on one track on Nomade, his improvising is surprisingly free.
That happens on “Nordique” where his split tones and wheezes quicken from a meditative Trane-like groove to discordant fortissimo twists that elongate and distends the theme. Meantime Dequidt builds up swelling tremolo keyboard lines. Eventually the two reach a dramatic concordance of traverse double counterpoint until Smith’s singular reed bites and the pianist’s arpeggiation and single-note clusters knit the interplay closer together.
Throughout this and other tunes, the quartet’s dynamic is steady and unflappable. The rhythm section stays in the background, with the drummer often relying on blunt rim shots and cymbal shivers, while the bassist tries out low-key sliding string resonation. Dequidt’s overall strategy is playing peaceful and moderato runs, with sustained high-frequency arpeggios as well as chiming and clipping key picks marking the time, as Smith flutter tongues and slides out smoothly vibrates tones.
An older hand at this sort of saxophone showcase is Schnitter, whose solos on For The Children exhibit a true professional’s versatility, taking inspiration from John Coltrane, Arnett Cobb, Stan Getz and others without being beholden to any one. This proficiency is shown on “The Hunt”, descried by its composer as “an old blues” and “Graduation” with its modal overtones.
On the former, Schnitter’s riffing and honking veer into “Yakety Sax” territory, although the saxophonist’s downward slurring attack with disintegrating split tones is more sophisticated than that. Additionally Stevens’ quasi-rickety-tick approach to playing sometimes skirts parody, only to right itself into profundity by the tune’s conclusion. To maintain the foot-tapping tempo, Rosen emphasis the backbeat with rim shots, while here and elsewhere Duval holds to a Paul Chambers-like steady groove.
In contrast “Graduation” is based on double counterpoint between broken trills spit out by Schnitter’s sax and Stevens’ blunt yet sluicing piano lines. With cymbal cracks rallying both, the multiphonics cross over until the tempo falls to moderato and andante and the head is recapped by both. Finally a tough strummed bass slap, snorted sax and ruffs from the drummer conclude the piece.
With themes ranging from near waltz to Hard Bop homage, it’s the pianist’s writing, that’s most on display here and Stevens demonstrates this facility on nearly every track. Another standout is “Patato’s Song”, where the montuno rhythms built into the theme that help define the piece. While dynamic glissandi and cross-handed chords from Stevens also contribute to the exposition, it’s Schnitter’s flutter-tonguing that defines the piece itself as half-Latin and half (Sonny) Rollins.
Saxophone improvisation – this time on alto – also coils the tunes there towards multi-faceted interpretation on Spider’s Dance. Overall, the organic layout of the compositions is slightly different then on the other CDs, since a bassist rather than a pianist is the chief composer. Although many tunes float on bull fiddle motifs, Dupont’s erudite strategy doesn’t turn every piece into a bass showcase. If anything in fact, it’s Robillard who gets the most solo space after Mahanthappa.
On “Possib” Robillard sounds out a Latinesque line plus high frequency note clusters; resonates in New music style deep inside the soundboard on “Mars Presque”; and even flirts with boogie-woogie on “Spiders”. Band members’ responses vary from clean obbligatos, note flurries and sluicing tremolo bites from the reedist, to low-pitched sliding arpeggios or standards walking from the bassist.
No false gagaku emulations characterize the “Oreientable” intermezzo either. Instead Mahanthappa slides his timbres upwards with double-tongued pitch modulations on top of flams and bounces from Sardjoe, while Dupont adds guitar-like strums and stop-time interjections.
Still, the CD’s high point is definitely “Moundélé”. A balladic nocturne, it undulates not only on supportive bass slaps but also with the voicing of overlapping piano harmonies and saxophone trills. As the alto man buzzes split tones, Dupont thumps thick stops and the pianist twists out mid-range glissandi and tremolo runs. Building up to a climax of staccato tones the band recaps the head, but leaves the conclusion distinctively post-modern, slicing off the last phrase.
Working within the song form and in standard configuration none of these sessions are really touchstones in jazz history. But each is stretching the mainstream definition in some way to keep the tradition supple – and out of the hands of the neo-clones.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Dance: 1. Spiders 2. Mais Presque 3. Possib 4. Orientable 5. Irid 6. 1010 7. Douj 8. Mondélé 9. Ladies on Board 10. D’Hélices
Personnel: Dance: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Yvan Robillard (piano); Hubert Dupont (bass) and Chander Sardjoe (drums)
Track Listing: Children: 1. Specific Gravity 2. Henderson 3. Sadness of the Madness 4. The Hunt 5. Graduation 6. Sunny’s Song 7. Patato’s Song 8. For The Children 9. Lazy Waltz
Personnel: Children: David Schnitter (tenor saxophone); Michael Jefrey Stevens (piano); Dominic Duval (bass) and Jay Rosen (drums)
Track Listing: Nomade 1. Nomade 2. Final Play 3. Harris Tweed 4. Amhara 5. Nordique 6. Virvel
Personnel: Nomade: Tommy Smith (tenor saxophone); Loïc Dequidt (piano); Mattias Hjorth (bass) and Peter Nilsson (drums)