Avishai Cohen/Yonathan Avishai: Playing The Room (ECM 2641)

Playing The Room.jpg

Avishai Cohen
Yonathan Avishai
Playing The Room

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Yonathan Avishai piano
Recorded September 2018, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 6, 2019

Although trumpeter Avishai Cohen and pianist Yonathan Avishai have known each other and played together since they were teenagers in Tel Aviv, this is their first recording as a duo. The title refers to an offhand comment made by producer Manfred Eicher, who during the recording of Avishai’s Joys And Solitudes remarked, “Avishai [Cohen] should play this room.” The duo session documented here happened just a few days later, only now in the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI at Lugano in place of Studios La Buissonne. And play the room they do. Not only in the sense of liberating a delightful mix of standards and original contributions to the modern songbook, but also because, like seasoned thespians, they inhabit their narrative roles with full physical commitment.

The set’s door is pushed open by said original contributions, starting with “The Opening” by Cohen, which seems to flower into audibility of its own volition to be heard. Piano and trumpet communicate so deeply, even when not playing at once, resulting in one of the more evocative beginnings to grace an ECM program quite some time. Avishai’s “Two Lines” is an equally introspective, if darker, companion, by whose gestures are activated shared memories. Cohen here is especially broad of emotional brush and paints with the abandon of a child.

John Coltrane’s “Crescent” kicks off the album’s airborne remainder, cycling through its own self-awareness and in that process attaching feather upon feather in anticipation of flight. Cohen rises and sets like the stars, while Avishai navigates by their movement. The effect is such that when Duke Ellington’s “Azalea” cracks open the scene like an egg of dawn, its classic sounds feel not so much reborn as reawakened. As in Ornette Coleman’s “Dee Dee” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” they approach the evergreen as an opportunity for pruning instead of replanting.

Whether in the comforting shades of “Ralph’s New Blues” (Milt Jackson) or the gorgeously rendering of “Kofifi Blue” (Abdullah Ibrahim), Cohen and Avishai stay true to form because they understand the form of truth. In their hands, and by the spatial allowances of Eicher and engineer Stefano Amerio, these tunes resonate with nothing more than what they were meant to be. All of which makes inclusion of “Shir Eres (Lullaby)” by Sasha Argov (1914-1995) poignant beyond measure. Not only because it’s an emotional touchstone in the hearts of the musicians, but also because it pulls the sky like a blanket over our ears, that we might better hear the sounds of our own heartbeats. Thus, Playing The Room is the sonic equivalent of the “moon illusion”—when our closest satellite appears bigger on the horizon than it does in the sky due to its visual proximity to earthbound objects. Once risen, however, it tells us just how far we’ve come, and how much infinitely farther we have to go.

Lusine Grigoryan: Komitas – Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514)

Seven Songs

Lusine Grigoryan
Komitas: Piano Compositions

Lusine Grigoryan piano
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

Armenian pianist Lusine Grigoryan makes her ECM debut with a program of music by her homeland’s most respected composer: Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). Seven Songs is a companion to the Gurdjieff Ensemble’s Komitas, led by her husband Levon Eskenian, and was recorded during the same 2015 sessions. Where that previously issued album expanded upon the sonorities of Komitas’s piano music, here we encounter said sonorities nakedly. In each are shades of traditional instruments and dances, motifs regarded beyond time yet grounded in the familiar by their immediacy of offering.

Komitas was intensely interested in Armenian folk music, which he collected, studied, and arranged throughout his life. If not for the efforts of Grigoryan and likeminded artists, his music might remain sequestered in Armenia without ever transcending its borders. As Paul Griffiths writes in his booklet essay, “His is a torn page waiting to be sewn back into music history.” The eponymous heptad of 1911 is a veritable notebook of ideas, each the memory of a fleeting moment, dutifully bound at Grigoryan’s fingertips. Like an ancient soul seeking solace in modern sprawl, where physical contact—once the glue of the human volume—has now dissolved in a landscape of storm-blown leaves. Komitas-via-Grigoryan’s interpretations of innocence and sin, perfection and corruption, death and life are all here for us to examine. Their happiest moments, such as the last (titled “The water comes from the mountaintop”), are also its briefest, and speak of the honesty with which Komitas viewed the world around him. The latter’s geological inevitability is, like the music itself, indicative of his earthly pilgrimage and points to a perennial theme of landscape echoed in the painterly Toghik from 1915 and even in the twelve Pieces for Children (1910-15). Nowhere so vividly, however, as in Msho Shoror. Inspired by the mountainous region of Sasun, its rocky qualities indeed require deft footwork—or, in this case, handwork—to navigate. The shoror, or “sway dance,” is a navigation unto itself, every step woven into what the composer called an “ancestral” experience. Whether vigorous or reflective, each of its seven variations is spiritual in nature, reflecting upon the relationship between flesh and fate, and the connective tissue of experience between them.

The Seven Dances further nuance this sense of bodies in space and time. Komitas calls upon the performer to evoke timbral qualities of particular instruments, such as the daf and duduk. Grigoryan renders these with intimate attention to detail, deeply aware of the flow within them. The second of these dances, of Yerevan extraction, is a standout for its delicate pointillism. Likewise the fifth of Vagharshapat. Heard against the somber reflection of the final shoror, they remind us that vigor means nothing without the stillness awaiting its exhaustion.

Of Rain and Kinship: The Guitar Work of Charlie Rauh and Cameron Mizell

Since its inception, Austin-based Destiny Records has documented a range of artists in their natural habitats, but perhaps none so intimately as Charlie Rauh. On Hiraeth, his second solo album for the label, the guitarist peels back emotional transparency after transparency until only the glowing ember of his heart remains.

Hiraeth

The title is a Welsh word connoting one’s longing for a place to which one cannot return and which may never have existed in the first place. Fortunately for us, the music here is real and delineates a place to which we may return at any time.

Recorded in a wooden cottage during a residency for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Florida, these tunes take inspiration from two years of European travels. The title track is an invitation to share in the acoustic signatures that bind performer to listener. Rauh’s gentleness and near-spiritual dedication is palpable. Some tracks, such as “Patience” and “May Came In Accompanied by Rain,” feel like songs without words, dangled over a vast expanse of possibility, while others share a one-to-one correlation with the places and figures they describe. In the latter vein, “Fanø,” named for a Danish island, evokes listing waters and a foggy horizon while “Norma & Wallace” lets in the sounds of rain outside the recording space. The album’s deepest passages are found in “Eleven Seventeen.” Composed as much of bones as of the flesh around them, it bleeds with the inevitability of watercolors. “Observer” likewise blurs boundaries between notes until only a compound color remains.

Tempting as it is to characterize these as sonic postcards, they are better thought of as pages in a cinematic diary. The images move at their own speed and in service of memories whose only reason for existing is to be conveyed, soul to soul. In this respect they invite listeners to move along in real time, as if in a dance of regard and interpretation. The result of all this is more of a beginning than an end—an implication of something beyond the edges of the screen to which our ears have been directed in service of an interpersonal story.

What We Have In Common.jpg

If Rauh’s solo work is the darker side of a creative moon, then we find its sunlit counterpart in What We Have In Common. This companion album of sorts pairs Rauh’s acoustic guitar with the electric of Cameron Mizell. The atmosphere is indeed brighter and in the opening “A Thousand Faces” renders the kind of nostalgia one would only expect to find in a shoebox of aging photographs. Whereas “Dogwood,” “A Song About A Tree” and “You Are Missing From Me” shine with distinctive Americana, each a hypnotic regression through childhood, the rocking-horse arpeggios and unified harmonies of “Kuksa” reveal fresher sheen. Rauh’s “Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself” and Mizell’s “I Didn’t Find It To Be That, Exactly” are highlights for their nocturnal moods, as are two songs with vocalist Ess See, who adds her own lyrics to “All Along The Way” and “A Thousand Faces.” Both are tender examinations of faith in something greater than blood: the very kinship of lived experience.

For more information on ordering, and to hear samples, check out the Destiny Records Bandcamp page here.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Evans/Fernández/Guy: Free Radicals at Dom

Free Radicals At DOM

Recorded live at Moscow’s DOM Cultural Center in November 2017, Free Radicals documents the assembly of three master improvisers: American trumpeter Peter Evans, Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández and British bassist Barry Guy. While all have unleashed their unquenchable fires in other contexts, this is their first album as a trio and the results are both exactly what anyone familiar with them would expect and yet enchantingly surprising.

Over the course of two tripartite sets, we fall into a conversational category of sound, whereby opinion and assertion blend to the point of indistinguishability and the purpose at the core of it all sheds its skin in search of jagged horizons. The piano’s innards are subjected to an especially fascinating surgery as Guy illuminates the operating table with his bass and Evans melts his trumpet down into a scalpel.

Where the first set isn’t afraid to throw some vinegar into the baking soda, neither does it shy from ponderance, treating quietude as a breeding ground of undiscovered order. The second set is even more substantive, achieving astonishing congruence at almost every turn. Moments in which bonds seem to crumble are those in which unity would come across as hypocritical and which by its very ejection leaves room for listener engagement. Part Two of the latter set is a suspension of disbelief that runs back and forth along the top of the proverbial fourth wall until it erodes to the ground. The encore is more of a beginning than an ending and by its suggestions of eternity rips off the “im” from “impossibility” and skips it across the pond of expectation until the final plop is heard on a shore too distant to see yet close enough to hear.

(This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: La misteriosa musica della Regina Loana (ECM 2652)

La misteriosa musica della Regina Loana.jpg

Gianluigi Trovesi
Gianni Coscia
La misteriosa musical della Regina Loana

Gianluigi Trovesi piccolo and alto clarinets
Gianni Coscia accordion
Recorded January 2018, Night And Day Studio, Cascinagrossa
Engineer: Paolo Facco
Mixed and mastered by Guido Gorna and Stefano Amerio
An ECM Production
Release date: June 21, 2019

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once said of Gianluigi Trovesi and Gianni Coscia, “On a street corner or in a concert hall, they would feel at home just the same.” For their fourth ECM installment, the clarinetist and accordionist prove that statement in a tribute to their departed friend, taking listeners on a sonic journey through Eco’s semi-autobiographical novel La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana). Along the way, they riffle through the archives of a bygone era and recreate it with loving attention to detail and personal association. Most of the songs are mentioned in the novel itself, the centerpiece being the five-part “EIAR.” Titled in homage to Italy’s first radio station, the suite drips with nostalgia of the 1930s and 40s.

Despite being of literary genesis, the album carries a tender cinematic charge, evident already in Coscia’s opening solo “Interludio.” More overt connections to the silver screen abound on “As Time Goes By,” from Casablanca, which spreads across the ears like butter over warm bread, and the mysterious yet emotionally transparent “Bel Ami,” from the 1939 German film of the same name. Other perennial favorites, such as “Basin Street Blues” and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” evoke pure delight yet are infused with enough beauty to court the glint of a tear.

Three originals called “Nebjana” take their inspiration from Leoš Janáček’s In the Mists, while “Umberto” and “Eco” are improvised around Trovesi’s gematria of the honored name. Their masterstroke comes in the form of “Gragnola” (Hail of Bullets). Moving from tragedy to triumph, it’s a film in and of itself, casting in its leading role the unabashed love that defines a grander story.

(This article originally appeared, in truncated form, in the December 2019 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Jazz at Lincoln Center: ECM Records at 50

ECM Records at 50

On November 1 & 2, 2019, Jazz at Lincoln Center will present two nights in celebration of ECM’s 50th anniversary. The lineup will be the same on both nights. I will be there to review the November 2 show for All About Jazz.

The roster is as follows:

Tenor Saxophone Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Mark Turner
Trumpet Ralph Alessi, Avishai Cohen, Enrico Rava, Wadada Leo Smith
Guitar Bill Frisell
Guitar and Piano Egberto Gismonti
Piano Fabian Almazan, Nik Bärtsch, Marilyn Crispell, Giovanni Guidi, Ethan Iverson, Vijay Iyer, Shai Maestro, Andy Milne, Craig Taborn
Piano and Voice Meredith Monk
Cello Anja Lechner
Bass Dezron Douglas, Matthew Garrison, Larry Grenadier, Drew Gress, Thomas Morgan, Barak Mori
Drums Carmen Castaldi, Andrew Cyrille, Jack DeJohnette, Mark Ferber, Ziv Ravitz, Nasheet Waits

Tickets are available here. Hope to see some of you there!

Steve Kuhn Trio: To And From The Heart

To And From The Heart.jpg

To And From The Heart, the latest on Sunnyside Records from pianist Steve Kuhn’s trio with electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Joey Baron, is a walking tour of dreams. By its guidance, we are led through one scene after another, each a step out of time. Two of the most fully rendered among them are by Swallow. “Thinking Out Loud” unfurls the set’s welcome mat into a sound so warm and inviting it feels like we’ve just stepped into an intimate jazz club. That the trio has a long performing history to its credit only adds to the live atmosphere. Such comfort as that expressed here can only come with age and experience.

In both this understated groove and “Away,” a bright and easygoing swing, Swallow’s solos are natural extensions of his comping and vice versa. Kuhn likewise stirs his own compositional palette with the concluding medley of “Trance/Oceans in the Sky.” From a sailing piano intro, it navigates rolling waves to dock on shore, where Swallow leads a long walk inland to Baron’s spotlight monologue, wherein he compresses an entire landscape into its first blade of grass. Along the way, into their joyous circle the trio welcomes Michika Fukumori’s “Into the New World,” a sunlit field dotted with Kuhn’s expository footprints while also throwing in a couple of standards—not only for good measure, but also to measure the good. Where Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination” balances elegance and humility, as epitomized by Baron’s scintillations and Swallow’s robust detailing, Jay Livingston/Ray Evans’ “Never Let Me Go” shows Kuhn to be one who understands that melodies aren’t made to be broken but stretched until one can see through them. When music is this good, this nostalgic yet forward-thinking, it can only be a matter of fate.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles (ECM 2630)

AEC Boxed Set

The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
Recorded 1978-2015

As the peoples of the Earth move into the
21st century, where hi-tech moves them deeper
and deeper into realms of the unknown, visions
of the ancient chime and bell remind us of
the lyrical power that remains at the heart
of mankind’s quest for fulfillment.

–Joseph Jarman

If ever there was a boxed edition that needs your attention, it’s The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles. If ever there was a boxed set that doesn’t need your attention, it’s also The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles, because the music it contains exists on a level so far beyond us that the very universe is already listening to it in infinite regression. What we have in this 21-disc treasure trove is something as metaphysical as it is satisfying in the hands: a legacy made wieldable in crisp lines of typography and cardboard.

ECM Records and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were both founded in 1969, and so it seems inevitable that their kinship should extend beyond numerological coincidence into the realm of audio. In the words of multi-reedist and founding member Roscoe Mitchell, “It has been amazing to have taken this journey together,” and make no mistake: This journey can be savored however one wishes to approach it, inserting life experiences into the music’s nooks and crannies, just as the music leaves its traces in those experiences in return.

The recordings gathered here span from 1978 to 2015, and are accompanied by a 300-page book that contains all of the original album materials along with newly unarchived photographs, paratexts, and essays written specifically for the occasion. In a preface by Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder and lead producer speaks of his first encounters with this “polystylistic” collective as both sonically and visually unforgettable experiences. Having wanted to record them for some time, it wasn’t until 1978 when, in a six-month flurry of activity, he recorded the AEC’s Nice Guys, Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions, and Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love, all of which revolved around the genius of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Vijay Iyer describes in a liner note the “disruptive vocality” of Bowie’s trumpet as “discursive, declamatory, mischievous, and yet welcoming, as though he were somehow speaking to and for everyone.” As such, it marks this collection’s topography with the itinerant precision of a cartographer whose only dream is to show and never tell.

Producer Steve Lake, in a heartfelt tribute of his own to this roving constellation, calls Bowie and Mitchell “two of the most strikingly individual players in creative music of the post-Coltrane era.” To make good on that statement, one could spin this set like a globe and land a finger anywhere. Lake discusses the significance of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and of what began as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (with Bowie, reedman Joseph Jarman, and bassist Malachi Favors) in particular to reveal its compositional acuity and vivid individualism. As the first AACM project to sink its teeth into Europe (by that time acquiring percussionist Don Moye), the AEC had a lot to say. As Lake so delectably puts it: “On any given night, a set’s components might include gong-splashed ancestral meditations and go-for-broke collective improvising, throbbing drum choirs, parodic parade marches, fiery post-bop, vertiginous silences, classical paraphrases, prayer meeting invocations, hints of Chicago blues and country blues and old timey folk song, down-home funk and radical urban sound-collage with impatient bike horns and sirens, all underlining the ‘ancient to the future’ claim which mighty bassist Malachi Favors, in a moment of inspiration, had appended to the Great Black Music slogan.” All the while, labels were trying to capture the uncapturable, but it wasn’t until ECM came along that the AEC’s sonic panorama could be set free.

Nice Guys, being the ECM debut of the AEC, is lacquered in legend. A Rolling Stone Guide capsule review describes it as follows: “A Miles Davis tribute, a hint of reggae, percussion labyrinths, formidable saxophone solos and incredibly sensitive group dynamics are some of the ingredients that make Nice Guys essential.” The keywords are “some” and “essential.” The first because the album is a mélange of old influences and new creations alike; the second because no one who appreciates jazz as a living history should be without this watershed record. In Moye’s words, “In the ancient tradition of art and black music, a musical presentation was not just about music. It was about all the different elements of life.” Indeed, what the AEC achieves, whether in the studio or on stage, is nothing short of life itself. As pianist Craig Taborn, heard as part of Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side, likewise says of Nice Guys: “The melodies moved through actual environments that seemed palpable and teeming with life and energy.”

While Nice Guys is certainly a keystone in the AEC’s discography, I cradle it as a compass through some personal favorites. Highest among those is Full Force, a ball of fire and ice wrapped in one engaging package. From the ephemeral to the everlasting, its moods span the gamut of human experience and etch the soul with its contrasts. Without hesitation, I would direct any and all newcomers to this album as a point of initiation. Another immutable entry into this canon is Smith’s Divine Love, which matches the trumpeter’s depth and breadth with a formidable lineup that includes Bowie, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and bassist Charlie Haden. There is a muted quality to this album—both literally and figuratively—that hints at veils beyond veils to the emotional vibrations beyond them still. It is music as language, turned inward until it binds itself as a book of heartbeats.

A hop and skip bring us to Bowie’s All The Magic!, which blends tributes and the tribute-worthy, culminating in a fascinating solo session that approaches resonance and whimsy with equal sanctity. Peter Kemper characterizes this unusual album as a space in which “[c]areful movements must be made, with small steps forward and a watchful eye to the rear. The investigation of the path being taken appears more important than the goal at the end of the path.” In light of this apt description, and because Bowie is such a primary force, I bow to the dedicatory charisma of the AEC’s Tribute to Lester, which unfurls from every strike of the gong a spirit of undying breath.

Among the Mitchell outings included, I would uphold Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 as a vivid example of what he is capable of in his element. Like a strand of DNA broken and regrown into a widening family, every note births another by grand experimental design. That Mitchell makes it all sound so intuitive is testament to his ability to reign forces as a precondition for liberating them.

The self-titled effort from DeJohnette’s New Directions receives a welcome reissue among these other gems. Featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Eddie Gomez, and a perennial Bowie, it frames the trumpeter as lyrical griot and takes full advantage of the afforded space. All of this and more funnel into Made In Chicago, in which DeJohnette joins saxophonist Henry Threadgill, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Larry Gray, and Mitchell. Jack DeJohnette was never part of the AACM proper, but his introduction of Abrams to Mitchell was the first sneeze in a creative avalanche unlike any other. Like old friends turning the same page, this live document rejoices in the very act of rejoicing and yields one of ECM’s most masterful turns in recent memory.

Music is, as Thomas Staudter phrases it, “the human experience in its full glory.” In the hands of the AEC, music means also a dance between the symbiosis of structure and freedom. In absence of said dance, we can make no truth claims about the AEC and its offshoots, for we are nothing more than the wind shaking the boughs of a tree whose fruit is forever ripe.

Tell of the rustling. Speak of horizons. Practice, practice the strength of beautiful telling from one generation to another so that the beautiful does not pass again into oblivion. Tell each other of life’s scenes. What was good shall be. Slow down to enjoy with the help of colors—and discover. See the greenness and hear the droning and transform your spontaneous sighs into a powerful song.
–Peter Handke, “Über die Dörfer” (“On Villages”)

AEC Boxed 3D

Below is a list of all 18 albums contained in this essential collection, linked to my full review of each. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how many words I and others have spilled in honor of this hallowed assembly and its tandem galaxies, there’s nothing so cosmically rewarding as opening your ears and letting these lightyears of creative spirit flow where they will.

ECM 1126 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (May 1978)
ECM 1167 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (January 1980)
ECM 1211/12 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (May 1980)
ECM 1273 Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Third Decade (June 1984)

ECM 1143 Leo Smith: Divine Love  (September 1978)

ECM 1209 Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender (June 1981)
ECM 1246/47 Lester Bowie: All The Magic! (June 1982)
ECM 1296 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes for You (February 1985)
ECM 1326 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (March 1986)

ECM 1808 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester (September 2001)

ECM 1651 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Nine To Get Ready (May 1997)
ECM 1872 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Mitchell: Composition/Improvisation 1, 2 & 3 (September 2004)
ECM 1873 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Parker: Boustrophedon (September 2004)
ECM 2087 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Far Side (March 2007)
ECM 2494/95 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (September 2015)

ECM 1128 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): New Directions (June 1978)
ECM 1157 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): In Europe (June 1979)
ECM 2392 Jack DeJohnette (w/Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill): Made In Chicago (August 2013)