November 7, 2009
By Any Other Name
Porter Records PRCD-4027
John Coltrane dominated the concepts of nearly every young tenor saxophonist between the late 1950s and early 1980s – and his work is still one yardstick against which reedists are measured today. His influence was – and is – so all-pervasive, that even those saxophonists who forged their own identity often referred consciously or subconsciously to Trane’s work.
Oddly enough though the majority of reedists fastened onto Coltrane’s Hard Bop or Modal periods, with very few willing to deal with the timbral and textural achievements the sax man advanced just before his untimely death in 1967. Fearless and individualistic, New York-based Louie Belogenis on the other hand, is someone who has faced that challenge head on.
No Coltrane-clone, he still manages to involve himself in situations where near- transcendental creation is the goal, rather than more mundane considerations. Although over the years, his highest profile affiliation was in a variety of circumstances with the late Rashied Ali – the drummer in Coltrane’s final band – that hasn’t stopped him from collaborating in different circumstances with other players including trumpeter Roy Campbell and percussionist Kevin Norton. Overall there’s no question that his music is alive with excitement and movement witnessed by the performances on these two fine discs.
Recorded within a year of one another, these CDs display Belogenis’ talents in the proper context since his partners are as committed to in-the-moment improv as he. Cohesive and expansive, the Flow Trio is filled out by a drummer who changed his name and a bassist who changed his instrument. As Rashid Bakr, drummer Charles Downs – who has reverted to his birth name – has played with a long list of major musicians including bassist William Parker and pianist Cecil Taylor. Someone who now spends as much time playing the bass as the guitar with which he originally made his reputation, Joe Morris has worked with pianist Matthew Shipp, reedist Ken Vandermark and many others.
Old Dog, which negates the cliché about canines not learning new tricks, includes two veterans; drummer Warren Smith, who has recorded with saxophone stylists as diverse as the late Julius Hemphill and Anthony Braxton; and pianist/vibist Karl Berger director of Woodstock N.Y.’s Creative Music Studio. However, the slightly younger bassist Michael Bisio may be the paramount contributor here. Not only do his thumping string actions circumscribe the group sounds, but the five out of the nine tracks here which aren’t group improvisations are his compositions.
By design organized around his arco and pizzicato strengths, these pieces aren’t solipsistic however. Belogenis’ billowing sound waves and exaggerated reed trills, Smith’s shuffle beats and backbeat plus Berger’s organic patterning with both piano licks and chiming vibes are as important to the exposition and resolution as Bisio’s rhythmic directions.
“Zephyr Revisited” for instance, is an andante piece of FreeBop, with the bassist’s resounding meeting contrapuntal motion involving stop-time reed bites and ringing vibraphone notes. As Belogenis’ flutter tones work up into complex multiphonics, Bisio’s walking anchors the exposition, which is further decorated with descriptive note clusters that elasticize the time, thus allowing the saxman space for wide vibrato dips into basso timbres. Contrast this with “Round and Round” a group instant composition which mulches together reed glossolalia and squealing split tones; contrapuntal friction from the vibes and clanking rim shots and press rolls from the drummer. All the while flow is maintained unconventionally with the bassist’s discordant sul ponticello pedal point.
Meantime, every dog has his day – or is that space – on “Constellation”, with its Trane-echoing title. With each soloist impressive on his own, the group’s collective skills still keep the more than 11½-minute piece from formlessness. For instance, although Smith’s bass drum rebounds and crunching backbeat step up the tempo, the kinetic melody’s architecture is as much a product of Berger’s key fanning, Bisio’s thick strummed line and double-stopping plus the saxophonist’s output. When Belogenis leaps into vibrating false registers with swelling foghorn blares that seem to envelop the entire room, Bisio’s bowed bass line does double duty as coda and summation.
Unsurprisingly Morris’ bass playing includes more arpeggio than Bisio’s work, while Downs’ drumming is more wood-related than Smith’s. However, these two make perfect sonic partners for Belogenis as well. That’s because they vary the rhythmic undertow and constant chromatic motion to construct a bottom that anchors the narrative enough. That means that while the saxophonist’s use of spiky runs, double tonguing and adagio growls may distend nearly every tone to its limit, this happens without splintering the flow or turning the beat around. Examples of this strategy appear on “Pick Up Sticks” and “Two Acts”, the CD’s longest tracks.
The former centres on harsh glottal punctuation and multiphonic emphasis from Belogenis. As his pressured triple-tonguing and onomatopoeic node extensions bounce off the drummer’s strokes and the bassist’s stopping, a characteristic group sound emerges. Lengthened with throat-stretching tension from the saxophonist, the bonding prevents the tune from becoming inchoate. Staccato and with more emphasis on the saxophone’s bottom register, “Two Acts” balances Belogenis’ straining tessitura with a rolling, repeated bass configuration plus opposite sticking from the drummer.
In contrast a tune such as “Unfolding” for instance, is descriptively minimalist, avoiding extremes by layering connective chords and extensions, rather then abruptly breaking off the line for improvisation. Surprisingly enough, this is also where Belogenis’ echoing sax tone at points resembles that of another still-living reed master: Chicago’s Fred Anderson. Like one of the Chicagoan’s notable trio efforts, Downs’ rat-tat-tats and Morris’ cumulative string-stopping emphasize that this moderato piece is a full group effort.
Extending the uncompromising improvisation of Coltrane and others in the new millennium, both these discs confirm that the so-called jazz mainstream isn’t the only tradition that can be expanded.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Rejuvenation: 1. Reflection 2. Slow Cab 3. Pick Up Sticks 4. Two Acts 5. Succor 6. Unfolding 7. Rejuvenation
Personnel: Rejuvenation: Louie Belogenis (tenor saxophone); Joe Morris (bass) and Charles Downs (drums)
Track Listing: Name: 1. By Any Other Name (Trio) 2. Endless Return 3. Swa Swu Sui 4. Round and Round 5. Living Large 6. Zephyr Revisited 7. Who Are You? 8. Constellation 9. By Any Other Name (Quartet)
Personnel: Name: Louie Belogenis (tenor saxophone); Karl Berger (piano and vibraphone); Michael Bisio (bass) and Warren Smith (drums)