Carlo De Rosa’s Cross-Fade

Brain Dance
Cuneiform Rune 317

Eastern Boundary Quartet

Icicles

Konnex KCD 5258

Ivo Perelman Quartet

The Hour of the Star

Leo Records CD LR 605

Of all the formations that have characterized improvisation at least since the Bop era, the most common has been that of one reed player along with piano, bass and drums. Just because it’s unexceptional doesn’t mean every session has to be identical however, especially if the meeting ground is original compositions. As these quartet discs demonstrate, plenty of variations are available, even if the form prods participants towards a mainstream orientation.

Least committed to that concept is Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman, who is also most closely aligned to what could be called Energy Music. His all-star American quartet includes guitarist-turned-bassist Joe Morris, sought-after and sympathetic drummer Gerald Cleaver, and, on four of the six tunes, celebrated pianist Matthew Shipp. Shipp’s presence is crucial here. For while nowhere does he entertain thoughts of running the changes, the pianist helps create a conventional rhythm section, which steadies the often-abrasive playing of Perelman.

If The Hour of the Star is the most avant-garde session, then Brain Dance is the most conventional. That’s conventional as in normal, not predictable however. Leader/bassist Carlo De Rosa, who has worked with everyone from drummer Jack DeJohnette to Jazz-World Music trumpeter Amir El Saffer, has composed seven high quality tunes, and his Cross-Fade band is made up of top New York players. Vijay Iyer who plays Fender Rhodes and piano here is one of the most celebrated younger keyboardists, mixing Asian inflected concepts with Jazz. Kingston, Jamaica-born tenor saxophonist Mark Shim has worked with the Mingus Big Band and trumpeter Terrence Blanchard; while young drummer Justin Brown’s credits include gigs with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba.

With its music somewhere in between these two previous discs, and with an inside-outside quality, is the aptly named Eastern Boundary Quartet, a working unit since 2007. Two of its members are American veterans and long-time playing partners: bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, who together or alone work regularly with players such as German reedman Gerald Ullman. Their lesser-known – in the West – compadres are Hungarian. Mihály Borbély plays alto saxophone and tarogato and Balázs Bágyi is on drums. Borbély teaches at both the Béla Bartók Conservatory and the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy, and has worked with musicians as different as the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and flautist Herbie Mann. Someone who also works in theatre music and takes Jazz gigs, Bágyi is a mamber of the Magyarvista Social Club, a 31-member Hungarian World Music orchestra.

Working with different line-ups over the years, right now Cross-Fade’s weakest links seem to be in the drum and saxophone chairs, but for different reasons. Brown is an incredibly busy drummer and appears committed to hammering rhythms and licks onto every track –whether they’re called for or not. Shim on the other hand has developed a distinctive, robust tenor sound. Unfortunately it’s nearly unchanging on most tracks, making those few instances where he alters his playing strategy stand out. Additionally, while De Rosa’s centred bass lines holds many of the pieces together, cleverly winnowing or double-timing distinctive solos or accompaniment, Iyer’s touch, so masterful and clear-cut on acoustic piano loses its individuality when he switches to electric.

That’s why the CD’s stand-out tunes are “Headbanger’s Bawl” and “Terrane/A Phrase”. The latter, the nearly 13½-minute lengthiest track, feature a straightforward up-and-down bass line, a similarly unadorned swinging backbeat from Brown, with enough breathing space left for both Shim and Iyer. As Brown moves among wooden clatters, drags and ruffs, the pianist exposes a series of tension-building chords and the saxophonist equally intense snorts plus controlled flutter tonguing. Iyer’s cascades circle around the reedist’s multiphonic expansion, until De Rosa’s atonal string vibrations move all concerned to cross tones and connections. Rhythm on “Headbanger’s Bawl” is properly opaque and Rock-like, with De Rosa adding a bulky pulse, and Brown later breaking up the time with paradiddles and cymbal clanks. Shim’s stuttering tenor line soon escalates to slurs and tongue stops, while the pianist constructs his brooding, multi-fingered sequence out of glissandi and flashing tremolo runs.

Stevens is another commanding piano soloist with the experience that makes him an equally sensitive accompanist. On Icicles he effortlessly slides from the gentle impressionism of his self-composed title tune to tougher syncopation on more blues-oriented material. Furthermore he can offhandedly use slinky tremolos for effect in the piano’s mid-section, without letting the rhythm lag. Fonda too is assured. He quotes Oscar Pettiford’s “Blues in the Closet” in his rhythmic introduction to the band’s treatment of Atilla Zoller’s “Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody”; and on his own “Fish Soup” uses solid thumps and echoing lines to set up Borbély’s double puffing and extended flutter tonguing. Borbély’s reed lines throughout are distinctive, sticking to the alto saxophone’s highest register – or perhaps actually playing soprano saxophone – for melodic interludes. Meanwhile he uses narrowed tarogato tones and frenetic triple-tonguing to keep the momentum going on Balázs’ “Soft BalkanWinds”, which actually is blown along via the drummer’s primitivist beats.

“Borders”, again composed by Borbély is the most fully realized performance. In part it’s a Fonda showcase with the bassist’s runs scurrying from super-speedy to walking to strained strums, as well as exposing additional tones and partials. Still ample room is available for the composer and pianist. Stevens’ muscular patterns, cascading chords and repetitive key clipping pave the way for Borbély’s slithering split tones, as the reed man elaborates a melody which almost sounds Scottish.

Someone whose melodies definitely lack a Scottish – and usually a tonal – tinge is tenor saxophonist Perelman, although after more than 20 years of recording and times changing, his textures sound more tempered than in the past. Not that the Brazilian’s improvisational allegiance is any less to late-period Coltrane. It’s just that in the nearly 50 years since Trane’s death, these concepts are part of many saxophonists’ lingua franca.

Interestingly enough, there’s a portion of “As For the Future” where Perelman’s tenor tone seems to be condensing to approximate that of a tarogato. His tone is just as strident; his pitch is as altissimo, but is that a quote from “Secret Love” that sneaks into his solo? Atop Morris’ ostinato plucks and Cleaver’s restrained rolls and rim shots, Perelman chews on the exposition like a pooch with a meaty bone, using snorts, bites, growls and tongue motions to extract every ounce of protein from the material. Finally he slows the piece down to a Hard Boppish, almost mellow ending.

In such fast, yet encouraging company some of the tenseness that has characterized the tenor saxophonist’s improvising in the past has dissipated. His lines are still harsh, especially when pushed along by Shipp’s metronomic chording. Yet framed among irregular drum beats and adhered bass thumping, even as glossolalia and guttural tones exit his horn, his playing is more focused. Juddering counterpoint from the pianist, mixed with repeated renal cries and sudden descents into the horn’s nether regions from Perelman, create an altogether original take on the material.

One climax occurs on “Singing the Blues”, where the saxman’s approximation of late-period Trane slurs, shakes, snort and timbre-shredding meets Shipp’s expressive kinetic runs until the palpable ferocity is almost visible. Accelerating to fortissimo and seemingly emptying the horn of all its air with diaphragm pressure and note stretching, the addition of Cleaver’s backbeat helps wrap things up so that the saxophonist’s agitated growls find their proper place among the pianist’s downwards punctuation.

No matter the nationality of members of the formations – and no matter how advanced and far-out the improvising may be – these sessions prove that the sax-plus-rhythm- section format is still as viable as it ever has been,

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Icicles: 1. Fish Soup 2. Icicles) 3. Soft Balkan Wind 4. Borders 5. China 6. Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody 7. Transylvania Blues

Personnel: Icicles: Mihály Borbély (alto saxophone and tarogato); Michael Jefry Stevens (piano); Joe Fonda (bass) and Bágyi Balázs (drums)

Track Listing: Brain: 1. Circular Woes 2. For Otto 3. Maja 4. Headbanger’s Bawl 5. Brain Dance 6. Terrane/A Phrase 7. Route 17

Personnel: Brain: Mark Shim (tenor saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano and Fender Rhodes); Carlo De Rosa (bass) and Marcus Gilmore (drums)

Track Listing: Hour: 1. A Tearful Tale 2. Singing the Blues 3. The Hour of the Star 4. The Right to Protest 5. As For the Future 6. Whistling in the Dark Wind

Personnel: Hour: Ivo Perelman (tenor saxophone); Matthew Shipp (piano [except 2, 5]); Joe Morris (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums)