January 11, 2010
Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things
482 Music 482-1068
Budapest Music Center Records BMC CD 150
Adding special guests to an already existing ensemble can often be a shortcut to confusion. Either the news players don’t mesh with the others or the group loses its individuality and become the backing band to the guests. Leaders of the ensembles on these CDs avoid both drawbacks, yet each does so in a fashion that’s as different as their respective backgrounds.
Chicago drummer Mike Reed, who gigs with everyone from cornetist Rob Mazurek to flautist Nicole Mitchell, also produces contemporary improv concerts in the city and is vice-chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Yet his band People, Places & Things – filled out by alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke – is organized to play original material honoring advanced Chicago sounds from 1954-1960. That’s homage not fealty; there’s no overt imitation here. In addition, the guests – trombonist Jeb Bishop, tenor saxophonist David Boykins and guitarist Jeff Parker – play on one track each to further orient the music towards contemporary improv.
Alto saxophonist Viktor Tóth’s trio is differently composed. Although the saxophonist and bassist Mátyás Szandai are Budapest-based, the third member, master drummer Hamid Drake, is another Chicagoan. Meeting and playing together at a Hungarian festival, the three decided to collaborate. They work together as frequently as Drake – who may be improvised music’s busiest percussionist – can extricate himself from other commitments. As a unit, the interaction is intuitive enough so that Drake’s musical roots in Evanston, Ill. seem almost congruent to Tóth’s background in Kiskunhalas and Szandai’s in Balassagyarmat.
Trumpeter and violinist Ferenc Kovács amplifies the interaction on the seven tracks on which he plays, since he has worked with Szandai in many circumstances. So has tenor saxophonist Mihály Dresch, who joins the others for four collective improvisations. Violist Ádám Jávorka and drummer György Jeszenszky – who probably splits the percussion duties with Drake on those tracks – are similarly supportive.
Throughout both the alto saxophonist and bassist demonstrate the skill which likely turned Drake’s head. Someone who favors a wide-bore attack with full-flavored edges and double tonguing, Tóth is a proto-typical FreeBopper who prefers harsh interplay and spikiness. You can hear that when he trades fours with Drake on “Bringing Light Towards Me” following a slinky exposition. As for Szandai, his steady, pumping or walking bass line locks in with Drake’s output, whether the American is using rim shots or hand slapping his drums.
Kovács, who is able to hold his own in any circumstances – and on either of his instruments –, contributes bent note brassiness and tongue curves in his trumpet solos. On “Falling Down in Fancy Clothes” for instance, the moderato, sliding theme benefits from his rubato intertwining with Tóth, so that the timbres include rococo coloration, following the saxophonist’s satisfaction at shoving as many notes into his solo as he can.
As a septet though, while the band sound is obviously fuller, the front-line harmonies are equivalently thicker, barely thinned by quivering percussion stops. Unfortunately as well, as on “In the Sun-dried Summer”, when both Jávorka and Kovács play full-force fiddle, the Hungarian tendency towards syrupiness is a little too obvious.
Overall Tóth’s best work comes on “. In the New Morning of the River” and “Soaring in Autumn”, where his arched sax lines take on a buzzing, double-reed-like consistency. This inadvertent ney-like sound references the country’s Arabic as well as Magyar past. Otherwise the nagging suspicion remains that as good as Tóth’s work is, his style is still in the process of formation. If he can eventually distinctively mix his Hungarian and jazz backgrounds – as Kovács and Dresch often do impressively – he will have more than lived up to the promise exhibited here.
Someone who has finally realized his promise during the later part of this decade, Reed is evidently consolidating his position as a conceptualizer – as well as a versatile drummer – with sessions like About Us. Not only do some of the tracks swing in an updated Jazz Messengers style, but several of the melodies sound familiar, as if Reed, Ward and the other composers had tapped into a collective Windy City gestalt.
On the Reed-composed “Flat Companion” for instance, the piece moves outwards from Ward’s squeaky, squirrelly solo into snorting and smeary asides from Haldeman, who then picks up the theme and runs with it. As the ruffled double-and-triple tonguing call-and-response plays out, Roebke’s walking bass and Reed’s chiming cymbals and snares keep the pulse steady.
Despite a clashing and hocketing exposition, Ward’s own “V.S. #1” also suggests a familiar sounding riff, the origin of which can’t exactly be placed. No matter. As the drummer pops his cymbals and thumps his toms, extrusive and complicated rhythmic tones come from both sax men. Haldeman vibrates split tones at the top, while before the inevitable drum roll and recapitulation of the head, Ward exposes an a capella muted and flutter-tongued line. Meantime “Under the Influence of Lunar Objects” – again written by Reed – is another full-blown swinger, suspended on the drummer’s modernistic stomps and ruffs and with an intense vibrated theme that’s pulled very which way but never breaks. The drummer’s stop-time breaks divide the accompaniment enough to push the horns towards a lyrical head recapping.
As for the guests, Bishop’s and Boykins’ contributions are most noticeable. On his own “Big Stubby”, the trombonist uses a sequence of pitch-sliding Dixieland-styled counterpoint to frame his burnished, burry tone. As the canon-style arrangement moves up and down the scale, one reedman even sounds like he’s playing Classic Jazz-styled clarinet. At the finale, the melody is recapped, but faster and wilder than at the top.
Boykins’ distinctive gritty split-tones are all over “Big and Fine”. Double- and triple-tonguing, his solo is followed by high-pitched riffing from the altoist and cacophonous smears, emphasized cries and an intense vibrato by all the reeds. Eventually the tune speeds up to a slurring staccato finale.
Broadening his vision of People, Places & Things to include the input of other musicians, Reed has crafted a CD that celebrates the past in present day terminology. How he precedes next in his ongoing examination of Chicago music will be interesting to hear.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Tartim: 1. 13 lines 2. Bringing Light Towards Me 3. In Easiness of Steps 4. In the New Morning of the River 5. I’m Waiting for the Moment 6. Surrounded by Signs 7. Falling Down in Fancy Clothes 8. In a Clearing 9. Forgetting Past and Future 10. In the Sun-dried Summer* 11. Soaring in Autumn* 12. In Winter’s Palm* 13. In Spring Fields*
Personnel: Tartim: Ferenc Kovács (trumpet and violin [tracks 6-13]); Viktor Tóth (alto saxophone and flutes); Mihály Dresch (soprano saxophone and flutes)*; Ádám Jávorka (viola)*; Mátyás Szandai (bass); Hamid Drake (drums and frame drum) and György Jeszenszky (drums and percussion)*
Track Listing: About: 1. It's Enough 2. V.S. #1 3. About Us 4. Big and Fine* 5. The Next Time You Are Near 6. Big Stubby 7. Flat Companion 8. First Reading: Paul's Letter to the Ephesians 9. Under the Influence of Lunar Objects 10. Days Fly By (with Ruby)+
Personnel: About: Jeb Bishop (trombone)^; Greg Ward (alto saxophone); Tim Haldeman and David Boykin* (tenor saxophone); Jeff Parker (guitar)+; Jason Roebke (bass) and Mike Reed (drums)