Carla Bley

March 7, 2005

The Lost Chords
Watt/32 B0002619-02

Swallow/Ohad Talmor
Histoire du Clochard
Palmetto PM 2103

Forty years on from when he first made his mark serving as the rhythmic backbone of many different bands, Steve Swallow is now as noted as a composer he is as the foremost electric bass guitar player in modern jazz. Each of these CDs showcases one of his talents. He wrote the seven compositions that make up the L’Histoire du Clochard (the bum’s tale), which were then arranged and orchestrated by Israeli-American tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor for a chamber sextet. THE LOST CHORDS is a straight up combo session, recorded live on a European tour. The nine whimsical tunes are from veteran pianist Carla Bley, who often writes unique music for larger ensembles, but here confines herself to a compact all-star jazz quartet. Besides Bley and Swallow, the members are American drummer Billy Drummond, who usually plays with Canadian pianist Renee Rosnes, and saxophonist Andy Sheppard from the United Kingdom. Sheppard, an original soloist, is neither part of the BritImprov avant-garde nor a fellow traveller with the U.K.’s band of neo-conservatives.

Young enough to be included in that neo-con crew, but with much wider interests, Talmor, recently was honored by the European Broadcasting Union as composer of the year for 2004. He has written for legit musicians like Austria’s Spring String Quartet, while also composing and performing regularly with his own bands and co-op ventures such as The Other Quartet, co-led by trumpeter Russ Johnson, who is featured on this CD. The other band members include clarinetist Greg Tardy, the most impressive soloist here, who performs similar woodwind duties for pianists Uri Caine’s and Andrew Hill’s projects, trombonist Jacob Garchik and violinist Meg Okura.

While he can’t be faulted for ambition, Talmor’s idea of scoring Swallow’s compositions for a sextet built around the moods and instrumentation of Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” (the soldier’s tale) smacks of misplaced artiness. Listening to the performances the resemblance isn’t so much Third Stream, but One-and-One-Half Steam with the default towards so-called serious music. Taking “Soldat” as an orchestral model has major drawbacks that result from more than a decision to substitute Talmor’s tenor saxophone for the bassoon in the ensemble. Described as ground breaking in form at its first performance in 1918, “Soldat” is often said to be indebted to jazz when played in classical circles; improvised music followers may disagree. If Stravinsky was able to hear any jazz, or hot dance music for that matter, before writing the piece it would have been the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and subsequent readings of the soloist-oriented “Soldat” would have been similarly hampered.

This formalist orientation seems to have been transmitted into the arrangement and solos on Histoire du Clochard, with tone purity and impressionistic harmonies predominating. Okura in particular suffers in this environment. Nearly all of her work is played delicately, emphasizing melodic qualities to the expense of all else, as if Nathan Milstein was playing the passages. Johnson too appears to be holding back, at points sounding as if his instrument is a baroque trumpet, at others, as on “Some Echoes” as if he was merely an orchestral first trumpeter reading his part. Accented grace notes and muted slurs may appear elsewhere, but sadly the tenor of his work is about what one would expect from a symphonic brassman, not an improviser. Garchick’s more-than restrained plunger work throughout is also part of the formal, neo-classical mind set.

Talmor’s light-toned (Stan) Getzian tenor saxophone, with its sweeping ornamental lines also seems to emphasize consonant, rather then dissonant chords, with nearly every track overpowered by resplendent string and horn harmonies. Swallow himself peeks infrequently out of the orchestral arrangements, but merely to contribute the odd guitar-like grace note. That’s why Tardy stands out. Utilizing glissandi and some heartfelt trills he brings an idea of the outdoors to a CD that seems locked in the recital chamber and front parlor.

Moreover, the tune that appear to be least precious also suggest the influence of other non-classical music. The swing feel of “Chelsea Bells”, for instance, brings with it a suggestion of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” slowed down to natural and delicate counterpoint. Meanwhile “Ladies In Mercedes” echoes Kurt Weill’s cabaret sounds. Freeing itself from a tone combination that often makes the performance sound as if it’s played on a giant accordion, only Tardy gets real space for impressive, double-tongued twitters and chirps. Surprisingly Talmor then contributes a slithery, flutter tongue section, the brass exhibits double counterpoint in response and Okura swirls speedy jettes that bring almost all of her strings into the exposition. If only the whole CD had been done this way.

In contrast to the rarefied air of the other CD, The Lost Chords comes across as a prototypical live session with four professionals adding some torque to tunes that were played on this 20-city European tour. Recorded live, some of the applause may result from the musicians’ presence rather than the performance itself. Overall, the best track is “Hip Hop”, one of Bley’s herky-jerky compositions that is undoubtedly named with onomatopoeia for long-term travellers’ discomfort, rather than for the movement in rap music. Built around a restrained backbeat and cymbal flaps from Drummond, it opens into a darting semi-gospelish line from Bley, that while double-timed, includes rhythmic walking bass from her left hand. It also allows Sheppard to indulge himself in some staccato reed bursts that opens up into rivulets of overblowing. It ends with Bley returning to simple cadences to trade fours with Swallow’s contrasting chromatic runs and the saxman’s repeated snorts.

Other tunes such as “The Maze/Blind Mice Redux” and “Lost Chords II” play up the pianist’s Monkish tinting and note-bending. Her idiosyncratic note bending solo calls for straight rhythm backing from Swallow on the first tune, plus straightforward lines from Sheppard. The second may not contain that many “lost chords” since at points this foot tapper sounds like a combination of “Milestones” and other bop lines.

“Red” consists of dancing piano lines behind an extended Swallow solo. Yet while his guitar-like facility stands out, his reliance on upper partials almost negates the very “bass-ness” of his axe, forcing the tune to rely on Bley’s left handed chording.

Sheppard’s showcase is “Wink Leak/Traps/Leonard Feather”, where his theme variations are played with spiraling, circular breathed trills. On soprano saxophone, he builds his solo by sounding phrases then answering them with differently accented lines. Drummond’s bounces and Swallow’s flanges keeps the beat going, with the coda a theatrical reworking of “Stormy Weather” by Bley.

Some of the other tunes veer a little close to smooth jazz, making it appear as if the group couldn’t rouse itself out of running the changes one more time. Belying its title “Tropical Depression” is a masterful summation of the whole disc though. Based on an ever-shifting stop time rhythmic pattern that reverberate step by step with decorative arpeggios and cadences from Sheppard’s tenor saxophone, its slinky theme depends on a habanera section from Bley, extended by gliding bass inserts from Swallow.

A good, not great, example of Bley and Swallow’s capability, The Lost Chords is pleasant enough, though far from her or his best work. It does score higher than L’Histoire du Clochard, though because it expends less energy to reach its much more limited goals. CLOCHARD is more than a failure, but less than a success. Maybe the best idea for Talmor would be to concentrate on his own vision, rather than trying to extending Stravinsky’s or Swallow’s. That original concept will be the one to watch for and hear.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Clochard: 1.Making Ends Meet 2, Sweeping Up 3. Chelsea Bells 4. Some Echoes 5. Ladies In Mercedes 6. Hullo Bolinas 7. I’m Your Pal

Personnel: Clochard: Russ Johnson (trumpet and flugelhorn); Jacob Garchik (trombone); Greg Tardy (clarinet); Ohad Talmor (tenor saxophone); Meg Okura (violin); Steve Swallow (bass guitar)

Track Listing: Chords: 3 Blind Mice: 1. 3 Blind Mice 2. Wink Leak/Traps/Leonard Feather 3. The Maze/Blind Mice Redux 4. Hip Hop 5. Tropical Depression 6. Red 7) Lost Chords I 8. Lost Chords II 9. Lost Chords III

Personnel: Chords: Andy Sheppard (soprano and tenor saxophones); Carla Bley (piano); Steve Swallow (bass guitar); Billy Drummond (drums)