May 22, 2015
The Gospel According to Dudu Pukwana
Edgetone EDT 4144
Enja Yellowbird ENJ-9726
Aki Takase/Alexander Von Schlippenbach
So Long, Eric
Intakt CD 239
When it comes to serious improvised music, tribute discs are as likely to be a bane as a boon. That’s because the artist involved faces a double challenge. Firstly can the player salute the honoree in such a way that the music will amplify rather than diminish that person’s reputation? Plus if that’s done properly will the resulting product be imaginative rather than an unoriginal run though of familiar tunes? Luckily the sessions here stay away from the overly familiar Miles-Louis-Duke-Trane team to honor less frequently venerated innovators. But while each session is enjoyable and while there are pleasurable and cultivated sounds on tap, none attains the level of creative freshness that the prototypes did.
Trying to avoid the curse of emulation, alto saxophonist Kathrin Lemke and her eight-piece Heliocentric Counterblast ensemble, perform her original compositions along with classics first recorded by Saturian-American honoree Sun Ra (1914-1993) and his Arkestra. Some, such as “NepTune”, which are borne on waves of hand-claps, harmonized horns and a walking bass line, engender genuine excitement. However all sound so close to the Ra oeuvre, that even if they’re not pastiches of other Ra compositions – which is what “Sat-ancient-Urn-Aiethopia” is literally – they could be mistaken for them.
Taken as a whole the recreations are professional enough and often move with unabashed swing. Plus just as long as the group pitches its variants on Ra’s simpler music so that it resembles so-called Jungle band music which the Arkestra intuited from earlier classics by Fletcher Henderson, Heliocentric Counterblast is on solid ground – or perhaps more appropriately operating in the correct part of outer space. However a tune such as “Outro” with its combination of yelping trombone and spacey synthesizer runs sounds more like Earth, Wind & Fire than “We Are Not of This Earth”. What is a bit unsettling though are the chants. Try as they may the players’ harmonies can’t equal those of June Tyson, Michael Ray et. al and the sharp ear can note several non-English inflections as band members vocalize.
With the negatives out of the way, though, Planetary Tunes can be enjoyed for what it is. Consisting of some of the most accomplished Berlin-based improvisers, not only does the group integrate contrapuntal pulses and straightforward energy, but there are many outstanding solos. With Andreas Dormann’s jumping baritone saxophone blats and Mike Majkowski`s tough double bass lines holding down the bottom, everyone is granted freedom, often in surprising ways. For instance, among the screeches, scrimps and electronic wiggles on “Saturn” Lemke creates a sweet Pete Brown-styled solo whose subversive old-timey-ness would have appealed to Ra. “Sat-ancient-Urn-Aiethopia” is one of the tracks that showcases the firm, hard trumpet work of Nikolaus Neuser, abetted by the convinced Tranesque – not John Gilmoresque, though – tenor saxophone of Dirk Steglich. Plus on “Fate in a Pleasant Mood”, Niko Meinhold is able to use his keyboard to emulate slick guitar runs and space harp whizzes, while with the same facility his piano playing moves from night-club moderation to pseudo-ragtime. Overall; though, there are few instances where the band reaches true Arkestra transcendence. Playing up Sun Ra’s party-time eccentricity and futurism at the expense of his commitment to Black music in many forms may be the one fashion a European band can honor Ra’s music. If that foreshortened goal is a measure of success, then Lemke and Heliocentric Counterblast score on their own terms.
Sun Ra’s musical longevity may have overcome his Jazz obscurity, which wasn’t the case with South African alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana (1938-1990). Part of the Apartheid-era Diaspora that led many of his fellow musicians to leave home, Pukwana’s mix of Freebop plus Africanized rhythms and compositions were featured in bands such as The Blue Notes, Brotherhood of Breath and his own units. But knowledge of his distinctive soloing was limited to a select few. Organized by drummer Andrew Scott, Duduvudu seeks to change that perception. Featuring a dozen tracks played by a total of 29 musicians, sessions took place in London in 2009 and San Francisco at a later date.
Sincere in his fandom, Scott has even managed to round up a half-dozen players who worked with Pukwana in his heyday to join the band. As expressive as some of the arrangements and solo work are however, the drummer’s focus on Pukwana’s blues-dance-gospel side risks reducing the alto saxophonist to the status of a Fun-Jazz progenitator. The South African’s equivalent involvement with and influence by such British avant-improvisers as Evan Parker, John Stevens and Paul Rutherford is left out. As a matter of fact, the only true free-form improv on the disc is “Duet for Dudu”, a spindly session of arrhythmic trombone flutters and pinched flute lines by Annie Whitehead and Chloe Scott respectively.
With a total of seven percussionists, five bassists, two guitarists and two keyboard players involved, the often sneaky-slidy rhythm dominate the tunes from the floor up. Many of the melodies also appear to relate more to Latin and Caribbean rhythms than the Jazz-High Life strains in which Pukwana specialized. Nadir is reached with “Kweleentonga”, a call-and-response variation of instrumental Funk that could have been imagined by Herb Alpert. “Ezilalini” is the complete opposite of that though. West Indian echoes are subordinated to kwela pulsations, with the slinky melody driven by the dual guitar work of Pierre Dørge and Dave Draper, exploding trumpet blasts, likely from Harry Beckett and Ntshuks Bonga’s thin, but highly rhythmic alto sax solo.
Most of the CD’s other tunes bounce between that high and low. For instance, pianist Rolf Johnson’s playing of his arrangement of Mongezi Feza’s beguiling “You Ain’t Gonna’ Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me” as a high church devotional hymn subverted by African echoes, attains what should have been heard on all tracks. Plus Jim Peterson’s repetative slurs here and rugged deconstructed Bop-like solos elsewhere on both alto and tenor saxophones, show that the unvarying bass-led beat and Rock-Pop guitar lines don’t have to be roadblock to creativity. At the same time however some of the big-band-style arrangements are pat rather than spacious. Obviously a heart-felt effort this CD can serve as an introduction to Pukwana’s music. But by ignoring some parts of it, it’s an incomplete and somewhat flawed picture.
In complete contrast to the other honorees, multi-reedist Eric Dolphy (1928-1964), the focus of dual pianists Aki Takase and Alexander Von Schlippenbach’s So Long Eric, has been memorialized many times. Recorded live, the very familiarity of the nine Dolphy tunes outlines the challenges faced in this reconstruction. Luckily the two come up with a stop-start programming method that call on many of the multi-reedist’s influences from West Coast Jazz, big band swing and Charles Mingus-affiliated old-timey funk to vary the program. One irony is that Dolphy, who in maturity rarely worked in anything larger than sextet, is here honored by a total of 12 musicians. Besides the pianists, the formation includes trumpeter Axel Dörner, trombonist Nils Wogram, reedists Rudi Mahall, Henrik Walsdorff and Tobias Delius, vibist Karl Berger, bassists Wilbert de Joode and Antonio Borghini plus drummers Heinrich Köbberling and Han Bennink.
In truth, the most fascinating parts of the program are when instruments such as trombone and clarinet, never or rarely involved in Dolphy’s work, are given prominence. Wogram, for instance, uses his unique style to simultaneously round the corners of “The Prophet” plus expose stop-time gutbucket timbres with his gutty slides. Similarly popping trumpet lines and dribbling clarinet tones from Dörner and Mahall respectively on “Serene” create an early Swing-styled arrangement, an illusion expanded when the other horns accompany the duo with clunking banjo-type accents. Equally startling is how “Something Sweet, Something Tender” is opened up from its clanking dual prepared piano introduction to burnished harmonies from the trumpeter. Berger’s unruffled vibe explorations add to the cool overlay. Considering that Dolphy worked with later modern mainstreamers such as Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and Mal Waldron this arrangement wouldn’t have been foreign to him. Takase plus Mahall on bass clarinet even manage to birth a small gem of chamber Jazz with “17 West”, as the melody is both softly expanded and toughly exfoliated of sweetness.
Bennink, the only musician besides the vibist, to have actually played with Dolphy, exhibits his crackling cymbal attacks and booming bass drum accentuations on his introductory solo on “Out to Lunch”, but happily he’s cut short by the rest of the band entering and he’s further restrained from reaching over-the-top showiness by Wogram’s restrictive plunger tones. With all hands on deck, the ensemble runs through an exciting and high-pitched rendition with Dörner sounding more like himself with strained squeak tones which mix with semi-stride piano and concentrated thumps from the bassists. Throughout the player with the trickiest role is Walsdorff, but he avoids undue comparisons with Dolphy on the latter’s main instrument, by maintaining an equilibrium that includes narrowed bites and unexpected tonal slides.
Rife with exceptional if somewhat disconnecting playing, So Long Eric can be praised more for its Dolphy fidelity than any radical restructuring of the works. Pleasurable interpretations like the other CDs here; none genuinely posits new view(s) of the honoree (s).
Track Listing: Planetary; 1. Intro* 2. Mother Earth 3. Saturn* 4. Mars 5. Pluto 6. Uranus 7. Fate in a Pleasant Mood 8. Discipline 27-II 9. NepTune 10. Rocket #9 11. Sat-ancient-Urn-Aiethopia 12. Outro*
Personnel: Planetary; Nikolaus Neuser (trumpet); Florian Juncker (trombone); Kathrin Lemke (alto saxophone and flute); Dirk Steglich (tenor saxophone); Andreas Dormann (baritone saxophone); Niko Meinhold (piano and space-keyboard); Johannes Schleiermacher (synthesizer*); Mike Majkowski (bass) and Philipp Bernhardt (drums)
Track Listing: Gospel: 1. Sekela Khuluma 2. Diamond Express 3. Portrait of Mosa Gwangwa 4. Ezilalini 5. Mra 6. You Ain’t Gonna’ Know Me ‘Cos You Think You Know Me 7. Kweleentonga 8. Sonia 9. Angel Nemali 10. Duet for Dudu 11. The Bride 12. Ezilalini Reprise
Personnel: Gospel: Harry Beckett, Jody Scott, Ross Wilson (trumpet); Rolf Johnson (trumpet, piano); Wayne Wallace, Mary Wehner, Annie Whitehead, Mara Fox (trombone); Ntshuks Bonga (alto saxophone); Jim Peterson (alto and tenor saxophones); Adam Mori and David Somers (tenor saxophones); Chloe Scott (flute); Mike Aaberg, Darren Grant (keyboards); Pierre Dørge, Dave Draper (guitar); Nick Stephens, Bob Menacho, Ernest Boykin, Geoff Brennan, Dennis Criteser (bass); Pedro Gomez, Josh Jones, Mark Sanders, Andrew Scott (drums); Thomas Dyani, Hadley Louden, Rudy Ortiz (percussion)
Track Listing: So: 1. Les 2. Hat and Beard 3. The Prophet 4. 17 West 5. Serene 6. Miss Ann 7. Something Sweet, Something Tender 8. Out There 9. Out to Lunch
Personnel: So: Axel Dörner (trumpet); Nils Wogram (trombone); Rudi Mahall (clarinet, bass clarinet); Henrik Walsdorff (alto saxophone); Tobias Delius (tenor saxophone); Alexander von Schlippenbach, Aki Takase (piano); Karl Berger (vibraphone); Wilbert de Joode, Antonio Borghini (bass); Heinrich Köbberling, Han Bennink (drums)