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Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris
Nu Bop Records CD 09
Positions and Descriptions
Clean Feed CF 230 CD
By Ken Waxman
For the past 20-odd years as “Butch” Morris has demonstrated conduction: structuring free improvisation using a specific series of hand gestures, many improvising ensembles have been created in his its wake. Whether groups use or not signals developed by Morris to rearrange and sculpt notated and non-notated music, conduction is part of their inventory. As these releases demonstrate however, it depends on individual musicians’ skills for a performance to be fully satisfying.
This is apparent on Verona, collecting two Morris-directed conductions from 1994 and 1995. While both involve 11-piece ensembles, the instrumentation in 1995 makes it more satisfying. The three parts of “Verona Skyscraper” vibrate with a lyrical exposition and juddering intensity that upstages the five parts of “The Cloth” from 1994. As two percussionists, a guitarist and two pianists stretch, smack and crunch a pulsating ostinato, distinctive solo interludes interrupt the cacophonous friction. Bill Horvitz’s guitar plinks are contrapuntally paired with one pianist’s key clipping or the aggression of the rhythm section is muted by Stefano Benini’s legato flute tone or contralto wisps from Marco Pasetto’s clarinet. Throughout, Zeena Parkins’ harp plinks are lyrical with a hard edge. As the massed instrumental textures quiver continuously, the stand out soloist is J.A. Deane on trombone and electronics. His braying plunger work cuts through harmonized woodwind extensions or the layered friction of piano strumming cadenzas. Eventually the full-force instrumental bubbles to a crescendo, then ebbs to signal the finale by shrinking to triangle pings and guitar plinks.
Although Deane also solos on “The Cloth”, the minimalist quivers predominating from dual cello string shimmies, low-frequency piano chording and gaunt oboe tones make the themes overly precious. When the downward pinches of Parkins’ harp stand out as disruptively staccato, the textural sameness of the other textures becomes apparent. Luckily by the time the carol-like “Omega” is played, sul ponticello strokes from the celli, and whacks from Le Quan Ninh’s percussion join barking trombone guffaws to angle at least this piece towards concluding excitement.
Flash forward 12 years and bassist/composer Simon H. Fell’s Positions and Descriptions owes as much to juxtaposition as conduction, although Steve Beresford s on hand to bring conduction clues to the 16-piece ensemble. The nine-movement suite is described as “a compilation … incorporating composed, pre-recorded and improvised elements”. With the pre-recorded sequences at a minimum, the tension engendered is between the composition’s notated and free-form sections. Early in the suite Tim Berne’s mercurial saxophone lines create free jazz interludes abetted by drummer Mark Sanders’ rim shots. Later, a chamber ensemble of clarinet and strings echo ornate textures as glockenspiel, vibes and bells jingle contrapuntally and a tubax burps. From a jazz standpoint, “Movt. III” is the most exhilarating track, with Sanders’ bass drum accents and Fell’s pumping strings leading the band though a vamp reminiscent of Count Basie’s 16 men swinging. In counterpoint clarinettist Alex Ward produces reed-biting shrieks and trumpeter Chris Batchelor brassy slurs. Before a cacophonous ending, pianist Philip Thomas and violinist Mifune Tsuji output a faux-schmaltzy tango. Preceding and following this, harp glissandi and baroque-styled trumpet maintain the composition’s formalistic aspects. Fell makes jokes as well. “Plusieurs Commentaires de PB pour DR [Description 5]” described as a “mini concerto for baritone saxophone”, only features the horn’s distinctive snorts when introducing the following “Movt. V”. Before that the piece involves flute whistles, piano key percussion and half-swallowed saxophone tongue slaps. The concluding “Movt. V” gives guitarist Joe Morris a dynamic showcase for kinetic string snaps. At the same time Fell has orchestrated sequences in which staccato string vibrations, woodwind smears and horror-movie quivers from the electronics arrive in sequence. Taken adagio, the finale involves every musician creating snarling dissonance.
Whether that last sequence actually involved conduction, giving top-flight soloists their head is evidentially as good a guarantee of quality music as theory.
Tracks: Positions: Movt. I [Positions 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4; Who’s the Fat Man? [Description 1]; Movt. II [Position 5]; FZ pour PB [Description 2]/Commentaire I de “FZ pour PB” [Description 3]; Movt. III [Positions 6-9]; Graphic Description 4; Movt. IV [Position 10]; Plusieurs Commentaires de PB pour DR [Description 5]; Movt. V [Positions 11-17]
Personnel: Positions: Chris Batchelor: trumpet; Jim Denley: piccolo, concert, alto and bass flutes; Andrew Sparling: Eb, Bb and bass clarinets; Alex Ward: Bb clarinet; Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Damien Royannais: baritone saxophone, Eb tubax; Mifune Tsuji: violin; Rhodri Davies: harps; Philip Thomas: piano and celesta; Joe Morris: guitar; Simon H. Fell: bass and electronics; Philip Joseph: theremin; Mark Sanders: drums; Joby Burgess: percussion; Steve Beresford: electronics and conduction; Clark Rundell: conductor
Tracks: Verona: Conduction No. 43: The Cloth; Via Talciona; Dust to Dust (part 1); Omega; Long Goodbye / Conduction No. 46: Skyscraper Mutiny; Crossdresser; Testament
Personnel: Verona: Conduction No. 43: J.A. Deane trombone/electronics; Mario Arcari: oboe; Riccardo Fassi and Myra Melford: pianos; Brandon Ross: guitar; Bryan Carrot: vibraphone; Stephano Montaldo: viola; Martin Schutz and Martine Altenburger: cello; Zeena Parkins: harp; Le Quan Ninh: percussion/Conduction No. 46: J.A. Deane trombone/electronics; Stefano Benini : flute; Marco Pasetto: clarinet; Francesco Bearzatti: bass clarinet; Rizzardo Piazzi: alto saxophone; Riccardo Massari and Myra Melford: pianos; Bill Horvitz: guitar; Zeena Parkins: harp; Carlo “Bobo” Facchinetti: drums; Le Quan Ninh: percussion
--For New York City Jazz Record January 2012
January 5, 2012
Wadada Leo Smith
Cuneiform Rune 290/291
During a career that stretches from the mid-1960s, Mississippi-born trumpeter and educator Wadada Leo Smith has never followed one path. A founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), Smith – who excelled at playing acoustic music with stylists such as reedist Anthony Braxton and drummer Günter Baby Sommer, has also become comfortable with electric instruments, most notably in the Yo Miles! project with guitarist Henry Kaiser.
However while accepting the strictures affiliated with thicker beats and electricity Smith also doesn’t kowtow to any accepted formula. Plugged-in wave forms are used in his compositions and performances exactly in the same fashion as acoustic timbres. Take this impressive two-CD set as an example. On the first disc, the percussion input is doubled, making what formerly was a Golden quartet a quintet; while on disc two, with the Organic ensemble, the string section includes not only bass, electric bass and cello, but also features at least three and sometimes four electric guitarists.
Of course it helps that the sympathetic drummers on disc one are the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Don Moye and Pheeroan AkLaff, who has backed everyone from saxophonist Oliver Lake to a West African dance company. The other “Goldens” are String Trio of New York’s bassist John Lindberg, and Vijay Iyer, whose elegant piano licks are complemented by synthesizer patterns that never suggest pop music. Lindberg and AkLaff are also part of Organic, as is cellist Okkyung Lee and electric bassist Skuli Sverrisson, two certified New York downtowners. But much of the compositional heft comes from the guitarists who rang from Wilco-associate Nels Cline; Lake-affiliate Michel Gregory; Brandon Ross, who sometimes plays in an acoustic string duo; plus Lamar Smith who is added to the group on two numbers.
To get an idea of the different strategies, compare the quintet’s version of “South Central L.A. Kulture” with the one done by the nonet. The former, about four minutes longer, features a core groove section involving cascading echoes and repetitive modulations from the synthesizer plus backbeat drumming. But this doesn’t stop Iyer from chording distinctively or exposing with high-frequency key fanning and forte glissandi. Meantime Smith’s flutter tonguing is expressed in flanges and distended breaths. Altering the tonal centre by the final variant, the trumpeter sums up the theme a capella with electrified reverb.
Recorded 10 months later, the nonet version of the tune seems to serendipitously pick up where the first version ended. Right from the top, unaccompanied echoing grace notes and braying reverb from the trumpeter are heard, quickly followed by the almost opaque coloration of four electric guitars. Slurring engorged and distorted tone rows skywards, the multiplied flanges mean that this “South Central…” moves in allegro and agitato fashion in contrast to the andante pace of the quintet version. With the two basses and drummer leaning into the pulsating beat, Smith’s rubato changes are answered by a contrapuntal guitar licks. Later, cross flanging and distorted phaser fills from three guitarists gear into overdrive on “Organic”. The resulting tessitura is angular and cross- wired when the thumb-popped electric bass licks are audible, but is also sliced contrapuntally with cellist Lee’s sharp cuts.
Nevertheless, the other tracks pale when compared to “Angela Davis”. It’s like injecting Parlament-Funkadelic grease into a polite Motown pop-rocker. Sluicing and slithering electric bass patterns, heavy drum ruffs plus antipodal guitar-hero licks – likely from Cline – solidify and expand the deep-funk groove until the resulting rasgueado reaches the six-string equivalent of reed multiphonics. Meanwhile the cellist’s pedal point riffs skitter and saw through the interface. As Lee’s spiccato lines ascend and descend they’re matched with concentrated trumpet flutter-tonguing that only stands aside for further guitar lick distortion. Smith’s soaring tremolo first parallels the guitarists’ variations, then, following a pause created by AkLaff’s cymbal resonation, constructs a coda of chromatic lines seconded by moderato-pitched cello stops.
Lacking the string section, on the Golden Quintet disc, it’s Iyer and Lindberg who join Smith to create the proper response to the dual drummers’ double-timed backbeat, ruffs and flams. With the trumpeter often linear and graceful in his parts during “Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2”, for instance, the pianist’s high-frequency dynamics and the bassist’s guitar-like flanging prevent the backing for these tunes from degenerating into no more than percussion discussions. Using the power generated by slapping the wood on his instrument’s belly and waist, plus snaps on his bass neck, Lindberg creates enough space for Smith’s bugle-like chromatic notes to elongate tones without splintering and define the parameters of the selection.
“Al-Shadhili’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise” is more of the same, with the moderato composition sustained by Smith’s sluicing grace notes – which seem to vibrate internally as well as splutter externally – plus presto runs and emphasized arpeggios from Iyer’s keys. Buzzing acro slides and parsed piano chords enliven the performance’s mid section, which concludes in stop-time.
Offering two contexts in which to appreciate Smith’s compositional smarts and different bands’ fulfillment of his ideas, Spiritual Dimensions may be the definitive recorded set for capturing the trumpeter’s unique musical visions.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Disc 1: Track listing: CD1: 1. Al-Shadhili’s Litany of the Sea: Sunrise 2. Pacifica 3. Umar at the Dome of the Rock, Parts 1 & 2 4. Crossing Sirat 5. South Central L.A. Kulture Disc 2: 1. South Central L.A. Kulture* 2. Angela Davis 3.Organic 4. Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy*
Personnel: Disc 1: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Vijay Iyer (piano and synthesizer); John Lindberg (bass) and Pheeroan AkLaff and Don Moye (drums) Disc 2: Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet); Michael Gregory, Lamar Smith*, Brandon Ross (guitar); Nels Cline (6- and 12-string guitars); Okkyung Lee (cello); John Lindberg (bass); Skuli Sverrisson (electric bass) and Pheeroan AkLaff (drums)
May 27, 2010
RON MILES QUARTET
Sterling Circle SC 1219
Trumpet, a chordal instrument, bass and drums: what could be a simpler configuration for improvised music? Very little, in fact, but its a testimony to the imagination and talents of the two quartets represented on these discs that they sound so distinct.
By the same token, while both revolve around the song form, it appears that Italian pianist Luigi Martinales disc, featuring trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso, comes across with more vitality than American trumpeter Ron Miles CD, which features guitarist Brandon Ross.
Unpretentious, Martinales session frankly sets out to be an individual take on post-bop jazz and succeeds admirably at that lesser goal. Miles, on the other hand, tries to blend POMO touches with Americana in his all-original program. His ambitions are admirable, but the program ends up being too folksy and overly tasteful to not drag in places.
Denver-based Miles apprenticed with Mercer Ellingtons orchestra and local tenor man Fred Hesss bands. Teaching music at the college level, hes also widely recognized for his playing, composing and arranging skills utilized by, among others, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, clarinetist Don Byron and guitarist Bill Frisell. Earlier discs with the likes of Frisell have been quiet and intimate, and it seems that he tried to beef up his vitality with this quartet. Comparisons with flugelhornist Art Farmers 1960s combo with guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Walter Perkins have been made, but his associates here are less attached to hard-core jazz than Farmers crew was.
Ross, who plays with Miles in his own Harriet Tubman band, is best known as singer Cassandra Wilsons musical director. He also works in bands headed by pianist Myra Melford, reedist Henry Threadgill and conduction pioneer Butch Morris. Anthony Coleman, arguably the hippest bassist to come out of Minneapolis, has worked with saxophonists Joe Lovano, Dewey Redman and Steve Lacy. Another Denverite, drummer Rudy Royston, has been playing with Miles since college, has experience with Hess and Frisell, is a music teacher and director of Denvers Citywide Marching Band.
Rosss near-country-style finger-picking used to such effect by singer Wilson on her sessions, also gets a workout on the mostly slow-moving Miles originals that make up this set. Trouble is, most of the time his restrained chording and comping sounds not so much like Halls inventiveness, but like the more restrained, cautious Swing Era beat of say, George Barnes or Carl Kress. Similarly, the trumpeter who seems happiest when hes muted or using half-valve effects, appears to be measuring every note he plays. If Farmer was tasteful in his soloing, then Miles is positively decorous, often sounding more toned down than such mellifluous stylists as Barnes old partner Ruby Braff, Charlie Shavers or Bobby Hackett. He doesnt alter this stance even for a piece that purports to honor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
On Jesus Loves Me, which he also performed with Baker, the vamp sounds as bossa novaish as it does bluesy, especially when Miles plays backing arpeggios to Rosss slightly accented, finger-picking fret work. As measured as Coxs bass solo may be, it does stir the trumpet to produce half-valve glisses, short shakes and mouthpiece squeals and smears. But this doesnt disrupt the carefully measured proceedings as much as Roystons extended, near psychedelic percussion feints do.
Psychedelic Black Man, on the other hand, with near-Hawaiian vibrato and wah-wah effects from Ross, shows that he can almost make his guitar talk when given half a chance. Royston is plays powerfully here as well, but the theme is practically nursery rhyme-like. Like the final number Fairy Court [!!], that involves counterpoint from the guitar and gritty-sounding echoing trumpet overtones, the overall musical definition appears to be more adult-album-radio-oriented than anything funkier.
If theres a way of being too refined, Miles and his men seem to have found it.
Turin-based Martinale is a melodist as well, as benefits someone who studied with Italian jazz pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, who get a hidden dedication on one track here. But hes also a member of the Tranes Memory Quartet and has recorded other inside/outside discs, like last years SWEET MARTA (DDQ 128043-2), a trio session with American bassist Drew Gress.
Brassman Bosso, who teaches and leads his own quintet, has also been a member of Pieranunzis quintet as well as other small groups, big bands and broadcast orchestras. Out-and-out swinger, bassist Nicola Muresu, who is a member of American saxophonist Steve Grossmans European Quartet, actually played with Art Farmer [!], while drummer Alessandro Minetto is a young veteran of a clutch of combos.
This combination gives a much harder cast to URKA than Miless disc. Not that the Italian trumpeter isnt tasteful and refined as well. But his constant cadenza of notes coupled with the pianists two-handed style brings brio to tunes like the melodic and finger-snapping Unexpected News and produce a whole different feel. If were still making comparisons with Farmer, then this CD can be heard as Farmer sitting in with Hank Jones or Cedar Walton; he recorded in a quartet setting with both.
Martinales originals include a bouncy blues in 7/4, a balladic dedication to the mountainous region of his native Piedmont, and one tune that seems to subtly shift in and out of waltz time. Influenced by bossa nova, Changing Pictures shows that this band is somewhat like the combos lead by altoist Paul Desmond -- usually featuring guitarist Hall, incidentally -- that managed to be airy and relaxing, but not saccharine -- and that showed you could swing at muted mid-tempos.
Theres We Need a Medium a medium -- no surprise -- tempo bounce number, which, though lighter than air, does feature the pianist building his solo from block chords and creating sympathetic fills behind Bossos measured, allegro lines. Eventually the trumpeter reprises the theme in different registers before the fade out.
Two versions of Yes I Have, based on Rogers and Harts Have You Met Miss Jones, highlight the bands teamwork. On the first, Muresus bass solo is clearly heard despite Bossos biting, controlled vibrato that suggests the go-for-broke excitement of Roy Eldridge. The second, taken at a faster tempo is soufflé light, probably because of Minettos brushwork. It combines Dixieland-style breaks from Bosso -- after hes begun his solo with a quote from Denzil Bests Move -- with pregnant POMO pauses in Martinales accompaniment.
Back To The Roots also shows that the pianist knows his Americana -- at least in the jazz sense -- as well as Denver trumpeter Miles does. Offering a bit of playful stride piano, Martinale triple times with his left hand in the manner of James P. Johnson, while Bossos syncopated, triple tonguing with plunger and cup mute resemble the tone of Johnson associate Frankie Newton. Minetto contributes some Charleston-style brushwork and the whole piece ends precisely not on a present day dime, but on a pre-Second World War penny. A long pause is then followed by a three-second quadruple time reprise of the theme.
Good fun and fine playing, URKA gets the nod because it manages to achieve everything it sets out to do. LAUGHING BARREL may be more of a contemplative statement, but the overlong tunes and overly muted delivery sabotaged its intentions.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Laughing: 1. Parade 2. New Breed Leader 3. Psychedelic Black Man 4. Still Small Voice 5. Jesus Loves Me 6. Sunday Best 7. Fairy Court
Personnel: Laughing: Ron Miles (trumpet); Brandon Ross (guitar) Anthony Cox (bass); Rudy Royston (drums)
Track Listing: Urka: 1. Urka 2. Unexpected News 3. Yes I Have 4. New From The Pier 5. Crooked Blues 6. Open Space 7. The Ring 8. We Need A Medium 9. Changing Pictures 10. Yes I Have (Take 2) 11. Nothing Is Wrong 12. Back To The Roots
Personnel: Urka: Fabrizio Bosso (trumpet); Luigi Martinale (piano); Nicola Muresu (bass); Alessandro Minetto (drums)
April 28, 2003
HENRY THREADGILL & MAKE A MOVE
Everybodys Mouths A Book
PI Recordings PI01
HENRY THREADGILLS ZOOID
Up Popped The Two Lips
PI Recordings PI02
Five years after his unsatisfactory major label dalliance ended, composer/saxophonist Henry Threadgill is back with not one, but two new CDs on a brand-new label. Showcasing one quintet and an almost wholly different sextet performing new Threadgills pieces, the sessions are exhilarating and comfortable at the same time. Thats because the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)s most iconoclastic writer is still finding new ways to express himself while staying faithful to the jaunty compositional system he developed as long ago as the early 1990s.
There are some changes however. With Zooid for instance, he has added an oud -- played by Tarik Benbrahim -- to what now seems to be standard Threadgill instrumentation of acoustic guitar (played by Liberty Ellman), cello (Dana Leong), tuba (Jose Davila), drums (Dafnis Prieto) and his own alto saxophone and flute. Make A Move -- which has existed for some time -- may have Threadgill and the same drummer on board, but the band is filled out by Bryan Carrotts vibes or marimba, Brandon Rosss guitars and Stomu Takeishis basses.
Threadgill has been quoted as saying that while his music may be radically different most listeners dont cotton on to that because the difference in approach doesnt sound radical. Without construing this as a put down, you can say that he writes easy listening atonal music. Both these CDs reflect the sum total of the reedmans musical experience. This includes improvisations with his own combos such as Air and Very, Very Circus, stints playing in marching and army bands while in the military, and sounds created when he was jobbing in show bands, pit bands and even funeral bands.
Well, actually, except for the underpinning of a couple of sorrowful ballads, theres a lot less of the last type of music than any other -- most of the compositions seem pretty upbeat. Plus like Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill and other canny creators of his generation, Threadgill knows that most folks will accept all sorts of deviance in the front line just as long as theres a steady beat in the background.
Cuban drummer Prieto obviously fits the bill as beat master and the only holdover on both discs. And he justifies this faith with the subtle use of Latin accents from his cowbells and wood blocks. The electric pulse of Takeishis basses adds to the drum cushion in Make A Move, while Davila near-unvarying brass bottom linked to Prietos percussion pushes does the same for Zooid.
Make A Move also gets its shape from Rosss guitars. A long-time associate of the saxophonist, his bluesy, rock-inflected, definitely electric guitar runs or racing car quick nylon string strums define each composition on which theyre featured. When his electric machine intertwines with Threadgills straightforward, miasmic flute it brings to mind those years Sonny Sharrock powered Herbie Manns combo. This impression is reinforced when Carrotts fleet, dancing mallet work partners with Prietos tougher approach. Imagine Milt Jackson recording with Pretty Purdie.
Only in existence since 2000, Zooid appears to take variations of Make A Moves jaunty themes to a Greek wedding through Benbrahims oud and Ellmans nylon string guitar. Of course its not a traditional Hellenic celebration, since the overtones that blast out of Davilas brass beast are heavy enough to accompany themselves. At times, as on Calm Down which couples them with the rat-tat-tat of the snare drum, you figure this must be military nuptials.
On the other hand, can Do The Needful be a POMO salute to some of those dance tunes like Walkin The Dog, Twine Time or Do The Funky Chicken that Threadgill would have had to accompany in a pit band? Certainly theres potential for some fancy footwork here as motifs are tossed back and forth from reverberating tuba and the cat gut slides of the cello. The saxist even unveils his fruity, vibrato-laden alto sonority that appears to be one part King Curtis to two parts Ornette Coleman.
The only criticism that can be leveled at both discs is the intermediate length of a couple of slower tunes. Had they been cut off after the initial theme statement or left to gather steam at greater length they would have been more effective.
All and all, though, this is a minor caveat. Think of these as quietly subversive CDs that could as easily impress a newbie who thinks jazz began with Medeski, Martin & Wood as a sophisticate who appreciate Threadgill and the AACMs entire history.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Everybody: 1. Platinum Inside Straight 2. Dont Turn Around 3. Biggest Crumb 4. Burnt Til Recognition 5. Where Coconuts Fall 6. Pink Water Pink Airplane 7. Shake It Off 8. What To Do,What To Do
Personnel: Everybody: Henry Threadgill (alto saxophone, flute); Bryan Carrott (vibraphone, marimba); Brandon Ross (electric guitar, acoustic guitar); Stomu Takeishi (electric bass and acoustic bass guitar); Dafnis Prieto (drums)
Track Listing: Popped: 1.Tickled Pink 2. Dark Black 3. Look 4. Around My Goose 5. Calm Down 6. Did You See That 7. Do The Needful
Personnel: Popped: Henry Threadgill (alto saxophone, flute); Liberty Ellman (acoustic guitar); Tarik Benbrahim (oud); Dana Leong (cello); Jose Davila (tuba); Dafnis Prieto (drums)
January 24, 2002