Hot Wax – March 2019

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Larry Grenadier

The Gleaners (ECM Records)

  • Larry Grenadier – double bass

ECM Records has a long history relating to solo bass recordings. Among the artists who have gone it alone for the label are Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Miroslav Vitous, and Barre Phillips (whose Journal Violone from 1968 – predating ECM–is reportedly the first jazz solo bass album). It’s a prestigious group of courageous virtuosos, and Larry Grenadier has joined their ranks. Judging from The Gleaners he deserves the privilege.

Now in his early fifties and recognized as one of the most renowned bassists of his generation, Grenadier has worked with everyone from Charles Lloyd and Pat Metheny to Mark Turner and Joshua Redman, yet may be best known as a longtime member of pianist Brad Mehldau’s celebrated trios. The Gleaners appears to be his first album as a leader, proving that going out on a limb may be a vital element of his artistic nature. Bold as this unadorned exhibition may be, Grenadier is at heart a tradition-minded player who doesn’t lean on extended technical resources to express himself. (Little wonder that one of his compositions “Pettiford” pays tribute to the legendary bebop bassist.) What Grenadier relies on is a thoroughly gorgeous tone–both plucked and bowed–discerning taste, and a strict devotion to gratifying melody. Where The Gleaners could have acted as a spotlighted exhibition of one man’s prodigious command of his instrument, complete with jumping-through-hoop displays of virtuosity, it’s essentially a lyrical demonstration of Grenadier’s resolute musicality.

Without deliberately evoking him in tone or attack, Grenadier, in his deliberate attention to detail and avoidance of extraneous flash, can call Charlie Haden to mind. (Haden’s numerous unaccompanied solos on various ECM recordings–the epitome of fastidious improvising– could, if collected, be transformed into a posthumous solo bass recording). Grenadier’s rigorous focus on the telling note and the carefully wrought melodious phrase is a testament to his innate artistry; his sumptuous sound is its own reward.

One half of the album’s 12 tracks are sturdy original compositions. (Grenadier’s “Woebegone” is the only track that takes advantage of minimal overdubbing.) In addition to a medley uniting “Compassion” by John Coltrane and “The Owl of Cranston” by Paul Motian (which the bassist had earlier essayed on Larry Goldings’s Awareness), Grenadier also takes on “Gone Like the Season Does” by his wife, the singer Rebecca Martin, two brief bagatelles by the guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, and the ever touching standard “My Man’s Gone Now” by George Gershwin.

No matter the repertoire, Grenadier drills into the dramatic core of the composition, never letting his dexterous fingers or purring bow take precedence over the melodic content. As he’s said: “With a really good technique you can express yourself but the way to make contact is not about technique, it’s about emotion. So in a way, the ultimate music experience is zero intellect, but you know that without the intellect you cannot move on with all the process.” The Gleaners, a perfectly balanced display of Grenadier’s superior skill and expressiveness, unites head and heart and is all the more satisfying for it. (Steve Futterman)

Ran Blake/Claire Ritter

Eclipse Orange (Zoning)

  • Ran Blake, Claire Ritter – piano
  • Kent O’Doherty – saxophone

Piano players rarely play together – heck, there’s even a documentary about it (1982). But seriously folks, that’s but one reason this is an unusual – and remarkable – album. Ran Blake (b. 1935) has been cracking the keys for a few decades – his second album (and solo debut, 1965) Plays Solo Piano was the eleventh album released by the mythic ESP-Disk label, and he’s collaborated with none other Jaki Byard, Steve Lacy, and Houston Person; he’s been an educator who can count Matthew Shipp, Don Byron, and John Medeski among his students. Claire Ritter (b. 1952) studied with Blake and established herself as a composer (aside from the 88s) in the New England jazz scene, her tunes recorded and performed by/with Steve Swallow, Ricky Ford, and Dave Holland. Both draw from the same wells of inspiration – Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, classical, gospel, blues. Both are minimalists in the sense of playing few notes for maximum effect, but where Blake is angular and elliptical, Ritter’s playing is painterly and melodiously song-like. Eclipse Orange documents a concert, partly commemorating Monk’s 100th birthday, where Blake and Ritter perform duo and solo, with occasional appearances by tenor saxophonist Kent O’Doherty.

Of the duo selections, “Blue Monk” gets a cheerily fractured and slightly dissonant reading, keeping the giddy joy of Monk’s melody while some big, loud note-clusters collide in the ether. The title track is an elegant, unabashedly sentimental ballad in the vein of “Stella By Starlight” – this is so eerily sublime and dreamy that it may spoil you for future balladry. “Karma Waltz” is another dandy ballad, Ritter and O’Doherty, the latter sounding a bit like a French horn player, with that smooth, wide-flat tone. “Brazil Medley” is Blake alone, and he achieves a stunning contrast – how to play pretty notes while being (seemingly) astringent and free-of-sentiment as Bela Bartok (an early influence). Played as a duet, “Over the Rainbow” gets deconstructed somewhat – but with respect. The (oh-so well-known) melody is skirted but the yearning quality accented and elevated to poetry.

Eclipse Orange is 20 beautifully recorded bite-sized pieces of jazz pianistic bliss, played by a couple of pros with wonderfully inclusive approaches. Not just for piano devotees only. (Mark Keresman)

Eric Dolphy

Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)

  • Eric Dolphy – alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
  • Woody Shaw – trumpet
  • Clifford Jordan – soprano saxophone
  • Bobby Hutcherson – vibes
  • Prince Lasha – flute
  • Sonny Simmons – alto saxophone
  • Garvin Bushell – bassoon
  • Richard Davis, Eddie Khan – bass
  • Charles Moffett, J.C. Moses – drums

While on Starship Earth for a relatively short time, Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) made a major impact in jazz (and beyond) as a performer (alto sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute), bandleader, accompanist, and composer. Dolphy, like friend/bandmate John Coltrane, was of the generation of players that bridged the hard bop and avant-garde/free jazz zones. Along with being a member of Coltrane’s early ‘60s band Dolphy played most famously with Charles Mingus, Chico Hamilton, George Russell, and Oliver Nelson. As an influence Dolphy impacted on no less than Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Arthur Blythe and Frank Zappa (yes, you read right). As he served as leader on but eight albums in his lifetime, this collection Musical Prophet is rather momentous: this three-disc set includes the complete 1963 albums Conversations and Iron Man, in-and-out-of-print on assorted labels for decades, presented here in glorious mono (monophonic sound), and a disc of previously unreleased material (mostly outtakes but a couple of unissued gems).

Dolphy had a singular approach on his axes: he extended the range of the alto sax with his energized style and used extended techniques to emulate the human voice and birds’ singing; on the flute he had a clean, honied, very classically-influenced sound (strongly influenced by the 20th century European classical tradition, Dolphy also played in modern classical contexts), and his bass clarinet was warm, fluid, and often vocalized. While his soloing, especially on sax and bass clarinet, could seem very free it was rooted in the bebop language, albeit expressed abstractly and angularly, and his ensemble playing always swung mightily.

Highlights are many: “Iron Man” swings as if tomorrow wasn’t coming, with Dolphy searing, J.C. Moses’ drumming explosive, Bobby Hutcherson vibes ringing supportively, and a very young and torrid trumpeter Woody Shaw, another cat that extended the range of his axe. “Muses for Richard Davis:” a pair of duets for Dolphy’s bass clarinet and Richard Davis’ bass, the former “singing” almost like a baritone voice, the latter’s bowing elegantly sonorous and cello-like – some moments of empathetic dissonance and more of aching, sepulchral beauty. The wistfully quirky “Music Matador” evokes festive Mexican mariachi music with hints of Caribbean-style melody, with Dolphy’s bass clarinet gleefully tossing a wrench (or three) into the machinery, Prince Lasha’s flute sweetly lilting, Sonny Simmons’ alto making like a mad snake charmer and a cool bopper.

Three discs might seem a little much at once for the Dolphy novice (try Out to Lunch or Far Cry), but for the smitten, and devotees of the NY ‘60s scene, this Prophet is a veritable must. (Mark Keresman)

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