Hot Wax December 2014

December 3, 2014

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Tineke Postma/Greg Osby

Sonic Halo (Challenge)
Tineke Postma, Greg Osby – alto & soprano saxophones
Matt Mitchell – piano, Rhodes
Linda Oh – bass
Dan Weiss – drums

Tineke Postma is an alto saxophonist from the Netherlands that relocated to NYC, where she studied with Greg Osby, Dave Liebman, and Chris Potter. Postma has led her own groups (in Holland and the U.S.) and has been featured with Teri Lynn Carrington’s band. Greg Osby is a “graduate” of the M-Base collective, a loose confederacy of Brooklyn-based musicians that routinely (and uncompromisingly) mixed aspects of jazz’s mainstream and avant-garde spheres with judicious bits of funk. (The most well known M-Base-er is fellow alto wizard Steve Coleman.) Osby has a notable career with his unpredictable yet engaging inside/out style of playing a la Eric Dolphy (but to be sure his tone isn’t as vocalized as Dolphy’s).

Aside from the level of talent involved – Matt Mitchell, piano; Linda Oh, bass, and Dan Weiss, drums – Sonic Halo is unusual in that this session is led by two altos that also “double” on soprano sax. The way Osby’s and Postma’s lithe lines intertwine it’s difficult to tell one from the other, except that Postma has a slightly more tradition-oriented tone (the influence of Liebman on Postma’s alto and soprano is evident) and Osby has the more “modern,” slightly oblique approach. The album kicks off with the ominous, mournful, somewhat mid tempo “Sea Skies,” which recalls the Blue Note prime of Andrew Hill (with whom Osby has recorded). The twin sopranos dance about each other over some Mitchell’s clear-as-a-bell keystrokes and an airy but gently driving rhythm. Weiss is perhaps a possible “successor” to Paul Motian, as he has the same subtlety and light but swinging touch. “Facets” is oblique hard bop that balances Hill’s droll quirkiness with Jackie McLean’s mordant swing. Mitchell has a spare but purposeful approach, alternating between some McCoy Tyner-esque sweeps and some pointed Bud Powell-like single-note forays. The suite-like closer “Pleasant Affliction” begins with the persuasive, Charlie Haden-like throb of Oh before some gregarious saxes-in-tandem work before evolving into a free-ish asymmetrical (think Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy), and somewhat meandering sprawl.

Aside from the closer, however, Sonic Halo is a compelling set of tightly performed, wonderfully played, inspired, and dryly witty post bop with some exemplary alto work by two leaders whose very different styles complement each other.   (Mark Keresman)

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Nels Cline & Julian Lage

Room (Mack Avenue)
Nels Cline and Julian Lage – guitars

Coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, Nels Cline and Julian Lage meet at that still center from which all modern jazz guitar comes – Jim Hall. The two developed a friendship in get-togethers at the home of Hall, whom they’d both met individually. Cline, at 58, has a resume that extends from Rickie Lee Jones and Lydia Lunch to his current gig as a regular member of Wilco, and a slew of albums as a leader, most notably of his band the Nels Cline Singers. Lage, 26 [b. Dec. 25, 1987], joined Gary Burton’s band as a teenage prodigy. Like Cline, his talent is broadly eclectic – he leads a band that incorporates a variety of world music and classical influences as well as bluegrass (his collaborators have included violinist Mark O’Connor and Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge).

Taken at face value, Cline is the more experimental, outside player, Lage the mainstream traditionalist. Here – working in a restricted sonic palette of effects- free, live-recorded acoustic and electric guitars – they belie those preconceptions, finding common ground and digging up fresh earth. Though Cline gets sole writing credit on seven of the 10 tunes, it’s Lage who sets the table, with the toy-like rising and falling dissonant figures of opener “Abstract 12.” The piece splits the difference between Lage’s taste for classical Impressionism (Federico Mompou is a favorite) and Cline’s favoring of math-y rhythms and odd accents. But it also showcases these guitarists’ ability to move easily from freely improvised rubato passages into tight unison themes, to “comp” in and out of tempo, and to pull at simple material and stretch and reform it like a piece of taffy.

Tricky angular lines, played in unison, are a hallmark of the album, but each piece has its distinctive character. The speedy up-and-down line of the rockiest “Racy” is punctuated with a soft power chord and thump-thump accent before spinning off into a series of exchanged solos with accompanying bass-register grooves. “Amenette,” named for Ornette Coleman and Nels Cline Singers drummer Scott Amendola, has a bright, Ornette-like folky theme, and “Whispers from Eve” is a country-folk pastoral, which exploits the two players’ shared Americana lyricism and their common ground with another jazz-guitar eclectic, Pat Metheny.

But even when the two guitarists settle into a familiar genre or conventional song-form pattern, the results are always surprising. They hand solos back and forth in seamless transitions over comping rhythm chords (such as the opening section of Cline’s “Freesia/The Bond”). The solo/accompaniment can spin off into simultaneously improvised lines or chord patterns at unpredictable points and then, just as unpredictably, come together in one of those tight unison passages. Those unexpected cadences – the moves in and out of the form – are part of what distinguishes this album from a collection of free guitar noodling. Sometimes the explorations are epic, taking the two musicians into a series of disparate episodes, as on two of the longest pieces on the album, “The Scent of Light” and “Blues, Too” (dedicated specifically to Hall). The latter begins with a series of spare exchanges that can be heard as a kind of protracted call-and-response before settling into a chord progression and groove, as if to say, “See, it’s a blues, too.”

Even at their most free (and “The Scent of Light” is pretty free), these pieces never lose that sense of form – in fact, the forms come together as they unfold. It’s part of what creates the narrative excitement. In the end, these are cohesive, integral pieces, as much improvised compositions as compositions with improvisation. Room is about two players with big, generous ears, gleefully exploring – and creating – new space, and new territories. Hall would surely have appreciated the tribute.  (Jon Garelick)

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Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast

Settle  (NCM East)
Ken Thomson – alto sax, bass clarinet
Russ Johnson – trumpet
Nir Felder – guitar
Adam Armstrong – bass
Fred Kennedy – drums

Some musicians find their stylistic niche and stay there–other musicians, such as saxophonist/composer Ken Thomson, does not put all of his creative eggs in one proverbial basket. Thomson is a member of the punk-jazz combo Gutbucket, director of the Asphalt Orchestra and a member of the World/Inferno Society Friendship Society, the latter an organization combining klezmer, soul, jazz, and punk rock. Further, the new music collective, The Band on a Can All-stars, has commissioned his compositions. His second album under the rubric Slow/Fast, is a dandy compendium of thorny yet user-friendly jazz that encompasses a variety of influences.

“Settle” is the opener, and it tears out the gate like a cross between Charles Mingus and Frank Zappa (the latter in his jazz-oriented mode, such as on the classic The Grand Wazoo)–it’s got swirling, melodious unison horn passages (a la Zappa) and a sardonic, slightly pugnacious mind-set and ebullient rhythmic drive (a la Mingus–think “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” and “Fables of Faubus”). “We Are Not All in This Together” has an almost baroque structure (echoing Mingus in his classical/Third Stream mode and Lee Konitz) with Russ Johnson’s yearningly pretty, blues-charged trumpet singing over top and a compelling starts-as-doodling-but-then-locks-into-a-groove solo by Nir Felder, who unlike some young six-stringers these days sounds nothing like Bill Frisell (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but more like Kenny Burrell (that earthy burred sound, albeit with the fluidity of Frisell). The closer “Coda” is a mournful ballad with overtones of classical music (the Bach-like chorale theme) and the great tenor saxophone balladeers, as Thomson’s velvety bass clarinet carries far-off echoes of Don Byas and Houston Person.

If you prefer jazz albums with lots of freewheeling, swinging soloing, you won’t find that here… but if knotty-ly appealing compositions (such as those by Mingus, Carla Bley) and measured, thoughtful yet energetic soloing (nary is heard an extraneous note) is food and drink to you, Settle is The Right Stuff. (Mark Keresman)

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Melissa Stylianou

No Regrets (Anzic Records)
Melissa Stylianou – vocalsMatt Wilson – drums
Bruce Barth – pianoAnat Cohen – clarinet
Linda Oh – bassBilly Drewes – alto saxophone

The modern-day studio can serve as a tool, an instrument, and a tonic for whatever ails recorded sound(s), but it also serves as a crutch and an enabler; what the microphones hear is rarely what anybody gets on a finished album anymore, and most musicians have become accustomed to having time for overdubs and studio-aided tidying. Jazz albums, by and large, still present a pretty honest and faithful representation of what takes place in recording environments, but it’s a rarity to hear new jazz–or new music in any genre–that’s presented exactly as it came to be. To make such music, an artist must be highly skilled, confident, fearless, determined, and willing to put it all out there with a “no regrets” attitude and philosophy. In other words, they have to be just like vocalist Melissa Stylianou.

For No Regrets, Stylianou went into the studio and recorded everything live to 2-track in a single, one-day session. The resultant music, completely casual and charmingly spontaneous in nature, speaks to Stylianou’s vocal abilities, her skills as an interpreter, and the talents) of her band mates. She walks along breezy pathways, takes bluesy detours, and amplifies the inherent beauty of a lyric like few others can. Her voice is completely disarming on classics like “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “I’ll Never Be The Same,” she delivers a breathtaking reading of “Down By The Salley Gardens” with nothing more than drummer Matt Wilson’s gentle accompaniment, and she gives pause to admire lesser-covered gems like “Humming To Myself.”

Along the way, pianist Bruce Barth proves to be an ace collaborator and accompanist, Wilson and bassist Linda Oh demonstrate a shared appreciation for deep, swinging rhythmic pockets built with a less-is-more mindset, and two guest horn players–clarinetist Anat Cohen and alto saxophonist Billy Drewes–make notable contributions. Together, with Stylianou out in front, they deliver an album that serves as a strong reminder about the virtues of informality. (Dan Bilawski)

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Jeremy Steig

Flute Fever [Reissue] (IPO)
Jeremy Steig – Flute
Denny Zeitlin – Piano
Ben Tucker – Bass
Ben Riley – Drums

One of the most effective methods to get deep into the music called jazz is to follow instruments, not just players. Pick one, pick anyone, and learn as much about it as you possibly can. For this writer, besides the saxophone, my pick for favorite instrument is the flute. It helped that I play the flute, have studied it with a classical teacher, and have seen hundreds of performances by flute players.

This obsession’s beginnings can be pinpointed to the moment as a teenager I heard the album Flute Fever. It was released in 1963. At this time, I was unaware of the existence of one of the greats of music, John Hammond, who would be the producer of this session, and the explosion of exceptional recordings this one man would be part of in this decade. Nor was I at all aware of the importance of Hammond in jazz history and role he would play in pop, blues, and many other areas. And a small company run by a very passionate music producer himself, Jonathan Horwich, who owns the re-issue company, International Phonograph, Inc, has just released certainly one of the greatest of these Hammond recordings.
Sitting at the piano for this recording date, was a very young pianist named Denny Zeitlin, then at his third year at Johns Hopkins Medical School and who had just received an offer to sign as a Columbia artist himself. Zeitlin, in one of the most fortuitous events in jazz, would meet Hammond through his friend, sax player Paul Winter, and Hammond, in a most casual way would say, “Play me something” at a brief audition. The response from Hammond was direct: “I want you to come on board with us at Columbia, come record for us.” Before beginning the project of recording his own albums, Hammond thought it would be a good idea to begin his recording career as the featured pianist on the new Jeremy Steig album. Thus the stage was set for the recording of one of the greatest debut’s in the history of jazz flute, and for one of the most exciting recordings of the entire decade of the ‘60s.

The history of jazz flute goes back to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that there was a powerful movement to popularize the instrument. And there is no question that Roland Kirk, Herbie Mann, Eric Dolphy, and a few others would revolutionize the approach to the instrument as a voice in jazz. But even these players never came up with an all-flute album as exciting as the one by Jeremy Steig. In what could be called a musical explosion that varies from the furious to the lyrical, the rhythm players anchored the set: Ben Riley on drums, and Ben Tucker on bass. But it is the perfectly powerful playing of the young Zeitlin that would make the session as great as it is. The reason for this, is that Zeitlin has the kind of powerful and direct style that he must have been born with. How else can you explain the fact that with little rehearsal, he could sit down one weekend and rip off one of the best jobs of accompanying the flute in all of jazz recorded history? For this listener, this is on the level of Bill Evans with Miles, and Oscar Peterson with Ben Webster. The result is moving, delicate, lyrical, and music so undeniably complex and true that it can survive listening to hundreds and hundreds of times. As John Hammond said himself, after listening to the take of “Lover Man”, “I am sorry gentlemen, but that was a masterpiece.” This comment actually is on the CD track, at the end of the tune.

The re-issue itself is as beautiful as the recordings. From the transfer to digital format to the reproduction of the artwork liner notes, to the restoration of the song, “Lover Man,” to its original unedited rendition and the inclusion of a bonus track, an alternate take of “What Is This Thing called Love,” this is a product of great respect for the music and artists. And for those of us who grew up with this music, we can now re-examine an experience that would change many of us forever. The creativity of the 1960s was real, transformative, and endlessly fascinating. It now lives again for us to experience and understand. This recording is one you can learn from. There has never been another one since that shows the power of a small instrument of silver, with a few holes and a bit of wind that could express every color, every aspect of human emotion, in quite this way. And from everyone who has contributed to this reissue, this is a true act of love.   (Ken Vermes)

the-north

The North

Slow Down (This Isn’t the Mainland) (Dowset)
Romain Collin – piano
Shawn Conley – bass
Abe Lagrimas, Jr. – drums

Without a hint of pandering or compromise, the debut of The North is one of the most refreshingly accessible jazz albums this writer has heard this year. Slow Down… consists of mostly originals plus a couple of well-chosen classics, Thelonious Monk’s “Light Blue” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” plus Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty.” This set consist of 10 concise tracks, with the accent on melodiousness (even during the improvisations) and the trio functioning as a unit, the kind of interplay (simultaneously cozy and stimulating) that comes from a working band.
The opening track “Great Ocean Road” sets the tone for the album–a melody as genial as most anything Vince Guaraldi (the jazz score for the Peanuts cartoons–him) wrote, yet there are pleasantly twisted twists herein. Without seeming derivative, Collin engages in some cyclic Phillip Glass-like minimalist repetition, gradually adding drama to what began as an easygoing swinger. The ballad “Slow Down” is practically a blues, except for the lack of blues structure, but Collin’s playing is shaded with the blues in the manner of such earthy key-crackers as Horace Silver, Harold Mabern, and Gene Harris. Shawn Conley and Abe Lagrimas play with the simultaneous ease and assured swing as Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb (again, without attempting to emulate or imitate them). “Yann’s Flight” is more blues-laden playing but laced with the influence of early twentieth century classical music a la Darius Mihaud (a teacher of Dave Brubeck, not so incidentally) as well as the Gallic strains heard in Django Reinhardt’s music. (While he lives in NYC, Collin was born in France.)

The North’s version of Dylan’s “Blowin’…” is a true wonder–Collin states the forlorn melody with elegant simplicity, maintaining the melancholy outrage of the original, with Lagrimas’ drums as deceptively simple and Impressionistic as Paul Motian, Conley’s bass gently buoying things along. The closer “Stay With Me” is Collin solo, playing sparsely and spaciously, recalling the piano music of Erik Satie, and gently elongating melodic motifs in the manner of Brian Eno’s minimalism-meets-rock classic Another Green World.

There are no pyrotechnics within Slow Down…, no dazzling soloing. There is swing, to be sure, but it’s of the most understated variety. The North’s debut is not unlike an interesting conversationalist with a muted style of speaking, one that makes you want to lean forward and tighten your focus to absorb everything that’s said. This is an ensemble to watch.
(Mark Keresman)

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