|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Matana Roberts
Variations on a Theme
Guelph Jazz Festival Musicians On Their Own
Barry Guy/Mats Gustafsson/Raymond Strid
Cloudy Then Sunny
Libra Records 203-019
News For Lulu
The Chicago Project
Central Control CC1006PR
Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet
Cuneiform Rune 270
Healthy in its adolescence, the Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) has become Ontario’s pre-eminent festival for improvised music. Now in its 15th year, the GJF presents improvisers in concerts, workshop and symposia. An appealing factor for listeners is that GJF concerts highlight only one of the versatile musicians’ many activities. Recent CDs capture other aspects.
Take British bassist Barry Guy, at Guelph with violinist Maya Homburger and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly. Except for Guy’s string prestidigitation, that chamber-improv is nearly the opposite of the go-for-broke Energy Music on Barry Guy/Mats Gustafsson/Raymond Strid, Tarfala Maya MCD0801. Two high-octane Swedish players, saxophonist Gustafsson and percussionist Raymond Strid complete the band.
Spewing accentuated timbres, Gustafsson’s cries and snorts demand muscular retorts from the bassist. On the title track Guy uses guitar-like arpeggios to match the saxophonist’s echoing split tones, wrapping the friction of individual string pressure into a contrapuntal response. Strid’s rim shots and rattling snares provide the rhythmic glue. Eventually Guy’s harsh twanging plus abrasive sawing at strings near the scroll move the saxophonist’s smears, flattement and flutter-tonguing into contrapuntal counterpoint.
Chromatic bass thumps and conga-like pops from the percussionist push Gustaffson’s extended glossolalia from discursive to convergent on “Icefall”. Guy’s ostinato underpinning and Strid’s pats and pumps neutralize Gustafsson’s honks and tongue slaps into a diminuendo conclusion.
Resolving the clash between rough and gentle voicing, staccato and legato pitches also characterize Junk Box’s Cloudy Then Sunny Libra Records 203-019. Two members of the trio, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura play the GJF. A composer-arranger, Fujii explores new territory on this CD, using graphic notation to spur the improvisations. Junk Box’s third member is American drummer John Hollenbeck, capable of rhythmic interaction ranging from rattles and pumps from tam-tams and marimba to full military press rolls and bass drum thwacks.
On “One Equation”, Tamura uses split tones and triplets to create a call-and-response section all by himself, as Fujii plays the tremolo melody in tandem. “Opera by Rats” emphasizes piano pedal action as the theme shifts from Bop to Stride, while the trumpet brays and Hollenbeck snaps cymbals and pops snares. This popping serves as a coda to “Back and Forth”, which also describes the trio’s tonal connection. Tamura’s timbre is French horn-like as he echoes Fujii’s phrases, and the track concludes with cascading piano chords draping themselves over the others’ note clusters.
There a similar interchange among alto saxophonist John Zorn, trombonist George Lewis and guitarist Bill Frisell on News For Lulu hatOLOGY 650. This 1987 reissue is different, yet somewhat similar to the three sets of Radical Jewish Culture Zorn is presenting at GJF this year. Rather then re-interpreting and re-conceptualizing Jewish melodies, Lulu does the same for Hard-Bop classics. Yet as devotional or freylach-like ditties are transformed with percussion, electronics and electric guitars by Zorn at GJF, this CD performs a similar conversion as raucous blowing vehicles become recital-ready.
Both the guitarist and trombonist – who have performed at Guelph – are responsive enough to keep things moving, despite the lack of a rhythm section. Surprisingly, it’s often Lewis’ gutbucket braying which holds the pieces together from the bottom. “Venita’s Dance”, has the trombonist comping as the guitarist loops licks that turn to single-note filigree. Later Zorn steadily peeps and Lewis chromatically exposes the head. “Funk in Deep Freeze” isn’t funky, but instead finds Frisell distorting country-styled licks, Lewis roughening his tone and Zorn’s alto texture slinky and airy.
“Sonny’s Crib” plays up gospel inflections with the two horns passing on the theme like relay runners. Zorn double times, Lewis plays rubato variations and Frisell picks out blues tonality until the introduction is recapped by the altoist. “Melody for C” with conclusive organ-like reverb from Frisell, provides an opportunity for three-part harmony, with the trio’s improvisations divided into fuzzy multiphonics.
Matana Roberts also twists the jazz tradition, but less radically. The alto saxophonist, who brings her Coin Coin Continuum to the GJF, celebrates her own home town on The Chicago Project Central Control CC1006PR. Other Chicagoans contribute: drummer Frank Rosaly, bassist Josh Abrams, guitarist Jeff Parker – whose band Tortoise is at Guelph this year – and veteran tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. In 2002 Anderson, played an incendiary GJF set with Kidd Jordan. Saxophonist Jordan (see Whole Note Vol. 13 #9) plays Guelph again this year.
In the same league as the Jordan-Anderson meeting, Roberts a capella duet with Anderson features swirling staccato lines intersecting contrapuntally – finally reaching rapprochement. On “Nomra”, she and Parker prove that free improvising can be low-key and supple, highlighting resonating guitar licks and tasteful saxophone arpeggios. Tunes are tougher elsewhere. “Exchange”, built on a walking bass line and the drummer’s repeated flams showcases Parker’s distorted flanges and bottleneck-sharp runs that contrast with Roberts’ fruity tone and slide-slipping vibrato. “Thrills” is a POMO blues with the saxophonist rooster-crowing and double-tonguing, Parker snapping delayed echo and Rosaly smacking the backbeat.
Pianist Vijay Iyer produced The Chicago Project and he’s at GJF 2008 with DJ Spooky. But it’s electric piano and synthesizer he brings to trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet CD Tabligh Cuneiform Rune 270. Drummer Shannon Jackson and bassist John Lindberg are equally “Golden”.
Atmospherically referencing Fusion, but with simplistic beats leeched out, the disc’s color comes from Iyer’s Fender Rhodes pulsations. Strumming cadenzas backed with swaggering synthesizer drones, Iyer lets Jackson’s solid ruffs and Lindberg’s four-square rhythm anchor the compositions. On top of this ever-shifting bottom, Smith arches long-lined slurs and unhurried grace notes. Replicating a bugler’s tattoo, on “Rosa Parks”, or a bellicose call-to-arms on “DeJohnette”, the trumpet’s lines encompass high-pitched brassy trills and sputtering Bronx cheers. Extended essays in improvisations, Tabligh’s tunes bond fragmented brass slurs, cross-handed rim shots, kinetic piano cadences and string scratches into throbbing instant compositions.
Instant composition describes the music of Holland’s Instant Composers Pool (ICP), in residence at the GJF this year. But the creative ferment generated by the band is equally expressed when ICP band members work in smaller groupings. One is AMMÜ Quartet’s AMMÜ Quartet PAO 50030. Raucous drummer Han Bennink – with the band for 35 years – and unflappable violinist Mary Oliver – a 10-year ICP veteran – join forces with Munich-based cellist Johanna Varner and trombonist Christopher Varner. The Varners produce the sort of timbres Oliver and Bennink hear in the ICP from trombonist Wolter Wierbos and cellist Tristan Honsinger.
Never one to play presto when he can play staccatissimo, or pianissimo when fortissimo can be sounded, Bennink continually clinks, clanks, bangs, whacks and thwacks. So it’s instructive to hear his duets with the trombonist. Varner ejaculates speedy, emphasized brays, moving from vocalized syllables to tongue stops and alp-horn-like flutters. Amazingly this results in textures that fit hand-in-glove – or mute-in-bell –with the drummer’s bomb-dropping bangs and cymbal crashes. On their duet Oliver squeaks and spatters sul ponticello as the cellist responds with strums and shuffle bowing.
This comfortable creativity amplifies when the four play together. On “Improvisation II”, the trombone’s contrapuntal buzzes and the violin’s spiccato runs chase one another as the cellist double-stops and Bennink jabs and rebounds. As the strings distort into double counterpoint, the trombonist puts aside distended subterranean timbres for dog-whistle shrilling. Other times the drummer’s kettle-drum-like resonation faces legato coloration from the cello; alternately, wide, chromatic notes from the trombonist complement string-stropping from Oliver. Stop-time and polytonality characterize “Ammü”, although pitch clusters from the strings and horn can’t overcome Bennink’s frenetic time-keeping.
GJF audiences, exhilarated by what they hear live can be equally impressed by these CDs.
-- Ken Waxman
-- For Whole Note Vol. 14 #2
October 8, 2008
Guelph Jazz Festival:
Improv On The Move
Taking the concept of free-flowing improvisation a step further, one morning at this years Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF), 15 musicians performed simultaneously in four different whitewashed rooms of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.
The workshop developed this way, according to Ajay Heble, GJF artistic director, because so many musicians wanted to participate. Some American alto saxophonist Marshall Allan, British pianist Veryan Weston, Québécois guitarist René Lussier and American banjoist Eugene Chadbourne rooted on a spot and collaborated with whoever came along. Others moved from place to place and up and down the staircase as they played.
Trumpeter Gordon Allen from Montreal added fanfares to understated percussive taps from Guelph drummer Jesse Stewart in the main space and later combined with Lussier for showier work in an upstairs room. New York-based alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, wearing a dress festooned with razor blades and safety pins, and tenor saxophonist Jason Robinson from San Diego acted like traveling minstrels. At one point the two and altoist Allen blended for spicy multiphonic runs. At another, Roberts played a feathery obbligato behind a simple blues Chadbourne was chording.
Toronto bassist Rob Clutton constantly schlepped his ungainly instrument. In one space he sympathetically backed Chadbournes avant-folk, before that he combined in a staircase duet with Halifax clarinetist Paul Cram. Interesting juxtapositions occurred as faint sonic timbres bled into the textures produced by the visible performers.
At Sticks & Stones afternoon gig, Roberts, wearing face paint and a flowing gown, proved herself equally facile on clarinet and saxophone. With drummer Chad Taylors polyrhythms and bassist Josh Abrams powerful plucking as anchors, her solos encompassed wide vibratos as well as piercing note pecks.
Sharing the bill, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujiis quartet worked from more of a composerly base. The keyboardists contrapuntal styling was seconded by the understated inventiveness of percussionist Jim Black and thick col legno swoops and windmill motions of bassist Mark Dresser, so the energy level built throughout. When Fujii reached inside the piano to liberate quivering pulsations, the drummer sawed on his cymbals for daxophone-like squeals.
In a set that echoed Fujiis recorded work with Japanese noise rockers, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura spun out muted staccato lines, reminiscent of 1970s Miles Davis. That sound served as a sub-motif for the Festival. It was echoed in interludes from drummer/trumpeter Arve Henriksen, whose Norwegian band Supersilent, late at night brought synthesizer and computer-processed noises to an enclosed downtown mall with post-rock soundscapes that promised more than they delivered.
Quicksilver grace notes were showcased more impressively by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith in the all-star Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) ensemble that opened the showcase concert in the soft-seated River Run Centre. Smiths sprints and spits made common cause with the bassoon, flute, didjerido, shaker and miscellaneous little instruments of Douglas Ewart, Hamid Drakes percussion and Jeff Parkers guitar. A last-minute addition Parkers twangy fills never really jelled with the others work. Episodic rather than cohesive, the best audience response came with Ewarts anti-George Bush recitation.
Headliners, The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC) fared much better, hitting a groove with its opening number and keeping the time steady, no matter what detours into hokum, faux primitivism, blues, post-bop dissonance or pseudo-swing were evident. Based around the durable bass work of Jaribu Shahid and the solid beat of percussionist Famoudu Don Moye, this underpinning allowed the front line its freedom.
Playing trumpet and flugelhorn singly or together Corey Wilkes, combined fiery execution with sophisticated note placement. His musical personality was strong enough to hold his own with Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who between them play most members of the reed and flute families. Theatrical in his face paint and ceremonial robes, Jarman frequently honked two saxes simultaneously and interspaced his solos one of which he played on his back like a 1950s R&B saxophonist with shouts and a shuffling dance. Resplendent in a well-cut business suit, Mitchell belied his appearance with fierce polyphonic reed responses to Jarmans japes and notable solos on both saxophones and piccolo. Mitchells parody blues, Big Red Peaches was the shows finger-snapping climax, with Wilkes playing Cootie Williams-like plunger tones and the AEC confirming its commitment to all forms of improv from the simplest to the most complex.
The AEC concert was the capper to the GJFs celebration of the AACMs 40th anniversary as well as five days of impressive music. The concurrent improvised music colloquium provides an academic cachet lacking in other festivals. Internationalism was represented by Israeli pianist Yitzhak Yedid and the European musicians, while a group of Quebecs Musique Actuelle heavy hitters such as saxophonist Jean Derome and bassist Pierre Cartier celebrated another concentrated scene in shows throughout the fest.
More pop-oriented performers were presented in the licensed tent in front of city hall, so the casual as well as the committed could sample the music. Furthermore, with workshops, free and open to the public, the uncommitted could discover a showcase like Montreal clarinetist Lori Freedmans intense solo concert that used the rooms acoustics as well as extended techniques,
Solidly established at 12, with attendance growing, international jazz fans follow the GJFs progress as it heads into its teen years.
November 15, 2005
STICKS & STONES
Thrill Jockey thrill 140
Locust Music 40
Real Jazz has always been a music of apprenticeship. Unlike so-called classical or pop music where younger players can make a reputation and a living by reinterpreting and/or copying the work of their elders, jazz revolves around what you as a player can bring to the band stand.
Thats why SHED GRACE is a major step forward for the Sticks & Stones trio, while ON CORTEZ is very much an apprentice effort. Saxophonist Aram Shelton, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Tim Daisy, who gave their band its unique name because all were born in 1976, are gathering the experience in Chicago to put them in the sophomore class of players. Reedist Matana Roberts, drummer Chad Taylor -- both of whom spend much of their time in New York -- and bassist Josh Abrams, on the other hand, are already in the senior class. Individually, and collectively as a trio, theyve developed distinct identities and appear ready to trade the promising for the established designation.
Each of the Dragons has already racked up an impressive c.v. Shelton is also in bassist Jason Roebkes trio and recorded in larger ensembles led by reedists Scott Rosenberg and Matt Bauder. Daisy is a member of saxist Ken Vandermarks quintet and Ajemian has worked in one of Vandermarks larger bands and in a trio with guitarist Jeff Parker. Still, while each of the seven tunes here is technically impressive, theres a little too much familiarity about nearly all of them.
Seemingly leaving the best for last, Humboldt and Star Night the final two pieces, are the most impressive and most original. The first, which in its intensity suggests some mid-period John Coltrane lines such as Alabama, finds the saxist showing off a moist, wide vibrato and some Eastern inflected trills. Ajemian contributes tremolo shuffle bowing and Daisy rumbling ratamacues and press rolls. Daisy then relies on his mallets to give the saxman a foundation on which to play out his harder lines.
Mallet work is on display on Star Night, which is taken at a leisurely, almost largo, pace. Arco, the bassist exhibits double stopping vibrato, the drummer rumbles away on his kit and Sheltons slurs and passing tones are upfront. The interpretation is why the young Dragons will eventually have a bright future; leaning how to play expressively at a slow tempo is what separates the mature professionals from the also-rans.
Unfortunately the rest of the album doesnt live up to these two tunes. Cymbal snaps, walking bass lines and offbeat reed trills show that collectively they can handle blues, Latin rhythms and near-hard bop. But while many of the tunes are foot tappers, a patina of originality is missing. No matter how many times Ajemian thumps his bass, Daisy plays a shuffle or Shelton chirps and double times, there are many other bands -- even on Chicagos North Side -- that can do the same.
In contrast, Sticks & Stones has graduated to a higher plane after more than five years of apprenticeship. Perhaps it relates to the trio members more extensive working experience. Roberts has played with stylists as different as saxophonist Fred Anderson and Anthony Braxton, guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and Jeff Parker and is part of the jazz-rock-funk-hiphop collective Burnt Sugar. Taylor takes part in brassman Rob Mazureks Chicago Underground projects, works with veteran altoist Jemeel Moondoc, and is in Triptych Myth with bassist Tom Abbs and pianist Cooper-Moore. Instructively, Abrams gigs are as likely to include fellow Chicago Undergrounder guitarist Parker as avant-garde chamber player, reedist Guillermo Gregorio.
SHED GRACE takes its inspiration from all over. On The Refusal for instance, as well as regular sounds from his kit, Taylor produces textures that appear to come from log drums and a kalimba. For her part Roberts adds a reedy coloratura that then mixes it up with double stopping emphasis from bass and splash cymbals. When Abrams gets the spotlight for obtuse ponticello bowing, the reedist moves to a lower pitch adding the occasional altissimo squeaks for effect. Finally this Europe-meets-Africa extravaganza ends with Roberts floating the legato melody on top of hand drumming and cymbal noises.
Pieces like Veatrice, So Very Cold and Colonial Mentality swing, but Taylors off beats and counter rhythms are often such that its likely that the hip-hop samplers will be investigating his beat tapestry. At times alternating pizzicato and arco lines, Abrams shows that he can carry the rhythm for subtle foot patting when need be, and at different times Roberts shows off double tonguing and warbling bird-like lines or farm yard animal like slurs that vibrate in various pitches.
On the other hand, the altoist manages to inject enough of her personality into the unfolding beauty of Billy Strayhorns Isfahan -- misspelled on the label, by the way -- to have her performance stack up against others who have handled the tune. Staring with double timed variations on the theme, she elaborates it with a loose, relaxed swing feel. Avoiding excessive sweetness, she cuts the sugar with the equivalent of cayenne pepper, adding a more pronounced vibrato and flutter tonguing to her reading. Following some fat bass fingerings from Abrams, she reprises the melody straight, then speeds it up for a coda.
About the only misstep the three take here is in their version of Thelonious Monks Skippy. Doing it much slower than usual, with bowed bass and shaking cymbal beats makes the tune more dramatic, but this theatricality also removes its distinctiveness.
Still thats really the only drawback. And its no reason not to make SHED GRACE a valuable listen to seek out. As for Dragons 1976s 40-minute debut, it shows the same sort of derivative disappointments mixed with remarkable promise that Sticks & Stones first CD had on its release.
Maybe second time around, those three can create something as exceptional as SHED GRACE.
Track Listing: Cortez: 1. Canopy 2. Felt 3. Upstairs Downstairs 4. Heater 5. The Way It Is 6. Humboldt 7. Star Night
Personnel: Cortez: Aram Shelton (alto saxophone); Jason Ajemian (bass); Tim Daisy (drums)
Track Listing: Grace: 1. Shed Grace 2. The Refusal 3. Wordful 4. Skippy 5. Veatrice 6. So Very Cold 7. Colonial Mentality 8. Wonder Twins 9. Isfahan 10. 4:30
Personnel: Grace: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone); Josh Abrams (bass); Chad Taylor (drums and percussion)
June 7, 2004
Sticks & Stones
482 Music 482-1012
Playing improvised music in a trio setting can be the most revelatory, as well as the most humbling, experience for any jazz musician. Not only does each side of the triangle have to fit just perfectly for the music to take its proper shape, but the looming accomplishments of earlier bands in that configuration can make anyone wary.
Working in the most common saxophone-bass-drum arrangement, Chicago natives alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor have set out with this cooperative combo to craft their own sound. Each contributes three tunes to the CD. Overall, though, the result is a split decision. Some of the tracks are interesting; others drag. More seriously it appears that the skills and versatility of Taylor overpower the other two.
Probably also the one-third of the band with the most experience, the drummer is percussionist for all the variations of the Chicago Underground ensembles, and has also performed with reedmen such as Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell and Fred Anderson, plus master bassist William Parker. Solid, steady and undemanding Abrams rarely asserts himself here. A member of both Town and Country and David Boykins Expanse, the bassist stays in the background as he does with those other bands. Meanwhile, frontwoman Roberts, an Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) member, who currently resides in New York, slides from producing fiery foreground explorations on some tunes to slipping into slow, subdued expositions on others.
Most of the time her tone is smooth and almost tentative, more like earlier Windy City boppish altoists like John Jenkins than fellow AACMers. Shes not really tentative, but when she introduces a section that sounds as if its going to develop into Sonny Rollins East Broadway Rundown but doesnt; or on one Taylor piece appears to be quoting Lets Face The Music and Dance; she seems to be reacting to what the others are playing rather than pulling her own weight.
Both of the first two tunes are less than memorable and a further ominous sign appears when the three only loosen up on Lose My Number, one of the two compositions here not written by a group member. Based around a child-like Ornette Coleman-style vamp, Roberts pays homage to the New Thing with repeated honks and trills to such an extent that the drummer soon decides to play Sunny Murray to her Albert Ayler. Although she counters with some Trane-like cadenzas, its Taylors snare and cymbal work that make most impression. Her own Hanibul(sic) is more of the same, not a lot better. Here Abrams finally make his presence felt producing some bowed Jimmy Garrison-style lines, which curl around Roberts alto as if it was Tranes soprano. Because of this, and Taylor powerfully sounding Elvin Jones-like gestures, the saxist appears to be driven to whining reed biting and multiphonics, constructing variations on variations of each phrase. Furthermore, Taylors powerful sideslipping solo reverses the equation, with the other two playing the role of sidefolk as if they were in one of Jones bands.
Following a pretty standard reggae run-through of Lee Scratch Perrys Sons of Slaves, with the bassist and drummer making like Sly and Robbie, the three replicate a tambourine-driven beat on Taylors Salvador. More like an avant bossa nova then a roots ballad from the Caribbean, Abrams appears to be just starting to lay out the necessary uniform beat and Roberts opening up with some trills and smears when the piece fades out.
Each member of Roberts/Abrams/Taylor appears to be talented and on-and-off here show that he or she can create and play on boppish foot tappers as well as some tunes with unusual rhythms. But overall, it appears that the commitment to raise this session above merely interesting is missing. Perhaps next time out things will operate at a higher level. If the three could just adopt some of the force usually associated with sticks and stones, the results should be so much better. Right now, well just hope these words wont harm them.
-- Ken Waxman
1. Turning the Mark 2. Equally Strong 3. Lose My Number 4. Suhasani 5. End of the Game 6. Usetosay 7. Sons of Slaves 8. Hannibul 9. Spaces 10. Salvador 11. Spicer
Personnel: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone); Josh Abrams (bass); Chad Taylor (drums)
September 30, 2002