Ove Johansson review for The NYC Jazz Record

tenorsaxophone

On Christmas Eve, 2015, Swedish jazz lost an undisputed maverick in Ove Johansson. All the more fitting then that the tenor saxophonist’s swan song should span seven discs in as many hours. Although just as comfortable tying his laces on straight as he was yanking them off his shoes and throwing them in the listener’s face, over the years Johansson settled into a trademark solo style, marrying long-form improvisations with electronics. While on paper this may recall John Surman’s classic reed-and-synthesizer experiments of the 80s, in practice Johansson’s is a less cohesive art. Which is not to say it doesn’t bond in accordance with its own clandestine rules. For while the electronics—which range from drum machine beats to impressionistic waves—at first seem like a cheap application of retrospective blush, over time their dated quality reflects these danses macabre with clarity. Still, seven hours of such clarity will test your resolve, if only because Johansson’s playing is so engaging on its own that anything added to it feels secondary at best and, at worst, intrusive.

The first four discs, along with the last, consist of hour-long improvisational treks over amorphous landscapes. Each is named after a month, November and December being the synth-heaviest and most meandering of the bunch. Discs five and six, which together boast 45 tracks, are the most exciting, spotlighting Johansson as they do in live settings. The compactness of these pieces makes them visceral, so that one can almost smell the sweat of their kinesis. All of this feeds into the seventh disc, which reveals the album’s sharpest edges and rewards the journey with rawness.

Just as Johansson was a self-taught musician, so too does his music require self-taught listening. There’s no roadmap or manual: just a splattered terrain that begs the tread of an adventurous ear. Listening to this set is like breaking a hermetic seal, out of which come spilling years of pent-up energy, which in light of his death reads like messages from the other side.

(This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Zakir Hussain & Niladri Kumar: A Match Made on Earth

zakir-and-niladri

Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Niladri Kumar (sitar)
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 14, 2016
8:00pm

In 1987, Zakir Hussain released one of my favorites among his “nontraditional” albums, Making Music. It was a prophetic title for the world’s leading Indian classical tabla player, whose dedication to doing just that is never clearer than when experiencing him in a live setting. Ithacans had that very fortune on 14 October 2016, when a crowd of over 1000 filled Cornel University’s Bailey Hall for his two-and-a-half-hour performance with Niladri Kumar. In characteristic humility, Zakir introduced himself as little more than Niladri’s accompanist, on a mission as he is to promote the rising sitar virtuoso to new, global audiences (for more on this, see my interview with Zakir here). The duo began with a Rageshree, a Hindustani raga following a 16-beat rhythm cycle, before moving on to lighter material for the second, along with a few modern surprises. Such pedantic descriptions, however, evoke nothing of what it felt like to be in the presence of two living masters.

When, after an exchange of tuning (and attunement), Niladri opened with a 15-minute solo, he disclosed not only his dexterity on the instrument but also his ability to speak through its resonant chamber in a language that filled the auditorium, which trembled between solidity and vanishing at the likeminded harmony of intent and surrender pulsing through its molecules. Whereas raga settings often employ a drone via the open-tuned tanpura, Niladri provided his own undercurrent, fingers as effortless as reeds wavering in a river’s current. Whenever he departed from those lower flames to craft a melody from their smoke, he bent the higher strings like time itself, wrenching melodies from their dying breaths in ways that stretched our ears to their limits of perception. The sitarist built a freestanding structure from every variation, picking up speed with the majestic passivity of a mountain peak catching cloud. Whether strumming a single note beyond the embrace of its own vibrations or gracing the sympathetic strings beneath, he was the incarnation of patience as its own reward. His rhythms were an organic heartbeat, the raga its lifetime of circulating blood.

The effect of all this was such that Zakir’s first entrance felt more like implosion than explosion, a changing of the world through synchronicity. He needed barely touch the drum, and it sang with freedom. Like two birds, wandering yet returning at key points to touch wings, he and Niladri participated in equal exchange, bartering in a currency that was beyond the expressive capacity of anyone there to hear it yet inevitable as the tide. Through melodic call and response, especially in the folk motifs to which they later turned, these artists shed the kneejerk divinity of association by way of proving the multidimensionality of earthly art. With delicate yet no-less-enthralling skill, and appropriate touches of humor to make the audience feel included, they expanded their respective toolkits as the night unfolded, each an orchestra unto himself. When, for instance, Zakir ventured beyond his tabla onto the terrain of peripheral percussion, he completed a circuit of expectation we never knew was there. And when Niladri unveiled an electric instrument of his own invention called the “zitar,” he coaxed from his gracious accompanist a global, cinematic palette.

More electric, though, was the air shared between us as their students and them as our teachers, between the past and the future. Indeed, here was a glimpse of times yet lived, pulled from minds yet to be born into every absorbent soul. For while these players may have been in and of the moment, they were as much beyond the reach of history as they were makers of it.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

zakir-ji
(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Rhythm Future Quartet: Travels

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The Rhythm Future Quartet—composed of virtuosos Jason Anick on violin, Olli Soikkeli and Max O’Rourke on guitars, and Greg Loughman on bass—extends beyond its Django Reinhardt roots for a sophomore, but in no way sophomoric, set of mostly original compositions.

With five tunes to his name, Anick boasts the lion’s share of thematic credit. His writing has a distinctive tenderness about it and, like his playing, shines with confidence. Whether evoking fond memories in “Still Winter” and “Amsterdam” or exploring more upbeat romanticism in “Vessela” and “The Keeper,” he moves through every luscious key change like the sun through shifting clouds. In the title track especially, co-written with O’Rourke, he rewards patience with prettiness, but always with an integrity that recalls the hybrid textures of Nigel Kennedy’s collaboration with the Kroke Band. O’Rourke’s fretwork dazzles further in his own “Round Hill,” which to my ears sings of the sea.

Soikkeli pens two tracks of complementary temperament. “For Paulus” develops unforcedly, epitomizing the band’s penchant for letting the music breathe. “Bushwick Stomp,” on the other hand, swings right out of the box, stowing us away aboard a night train to Munich. In both, the composer’s exchanges with Anick are more than worth the risk of being caught. Loughman counters with his own “Iberian Sunrise,” opening the album in utter loveliness. Cool currents of air waft through the guitars, caressing a dancing violin. The precision is immediate and strong, hitting the ear like a nostalgic fragrance would the nose.

Rounding out the set are a trio of French tunes, including the muscular “Je Suis Seul Ce Soir” by Paul Durand, and a fresh take on John Lennon’s “Come Together” for good measure. All of which makes for a colorful palette to which you’ll want to return your listening brush in enjoyment of new hues. The band coheres so organically that one cannot imagine this group or its music being performed any other way. It’s an approach that feels just as ironclad as your enjoyment of it.

Avishai Cohen: Into The Silence (ECM 2482)

Into The Silence

Avishai Cohen
Into The Silence

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Bill McHenry tenor saxophone
Yonathan Avishai piano
Eric Revis double-bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded July 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: February 12, 2016

Following his appearance as sideman on Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven, Avishai Cohen makes his leader debut for ECM Records. Bearing dedication to his late father, Into The Silence teams the trumpeter with a fantastic band of his own that includes tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. This effort marks the first time the band had, as such, stepped foot inside a studio, and the results hark back to the golden age of ECM in both texture and mood. From its spacious arranging and freely realized originals to its classical roots (the solo piano music of Rachmaninoff was a conscious inspiration) and cross-pollination of styles, Cohen’s musical identity speaks at once from without and within.

Through the six-sided prism of as many tunes, Cohen shines a light as only the darkness of mourning could yield. The muted lines of “Life And Death” feel as much celebratory as elegiac. Cohen thus asserts himself as more than a voice among the voiceless, as if the album’s titular silence were not the absence of sound but a personal choice to protect one’s dreams. Here, however, we are bathed in dreamlike qualities with such melodiousness that it’s all we can do to not imagine the many fates that must have convened to produce this patient bit of magic. Avishai’s pianism is another ripe fruit in the band’s gift basket. Morphing from barest comping to bluesy climatic shifts and sparkling tails, he is a comet in an already starry sky. The end of this opener, though a postludinal afterthought, is just as substantial as what comes before it.

“Dream Like A Child” only deepens the spell craft of its predecessor. Unmuted yet just as vulnerable, Cohen undoes the ribbon of this offering to reveal a melodic ocean just aching to crash on the listener’s shore. The pianism is majestic yet aptly proportioned, mirroring the underlying respectful altitude at every turn: just when you think it has gathered enough momentum to soar, it touches its feet to the earth. Though things do cohere in more groove-oriented ways as the rhythm section builds a higher and higher wall from which Cohen and McHenry must jump, there’s no doubt that the ground will hold its foundation through Waits’s textural reinforcements.

The title track expands on ECM’s evolving ethos of ritualistic jazz, as drums and microtonal harmonies in the piano interlock with downright spiritual patience. Again, the band flirts with groove but foregoes that sweetness for a cerebral savory. These strategies become more evident with repeat listens (for this is, indeed, an album you’ll want to return to time and again). Waits is an organic force here, moving from tumbling abstractions to tight snare rolls at the flick of a wrist, his plumage fully outstretched.

A Cohen

Somberness, however, is never far behind, and “Quiescence” bottles its fragrance like a master perfumer. Cohen’s trumpeting is the center of a vocal solar system, shining through planets forged in thematic space dust. Lengths of days and seasonal changes are determined by the gravitational pull of nostalgia, so that by the next track, “Behind The Broken Glass,” one knows that fragmentation is a universal law. Cohen proves that, in the wake of any emotional shattering, no effort of putting the pieces back together will produce a clean reflection, for it will always bear the scars of its undoing. The breadth of his inspirations has brought him to this humble (and humbling) realization in his career, and finds empathetic amplification in his bandmates that funnels in the solo piano reprise of “Life And Death” that ends the album’s journey.

Having seen this project with a different roster at the 2016 New York City Winter Jazzfest, I can attest to the raw, living power of its music. So much so that, following that experience, this studio date feels somewhat tame by comparison. So: see them in person if you can, but revel in the wonders of this “second best” all the same, for in them is a pilot light that ECM lit nearly five decades ago, and which continues to burn pure and warm despite the winds of change.

Hommage à Eberhard Weber (ECM 2463)

Weber Hommage

Hommage à Eberhard Weber

Pat Metheny guitars
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Gary Burton vibraphone
Scott Colley double bass
Danny Gottlieb drums
Paul McCandless English horn, soprano saxophone
Klaus Graf alto saxophone
Ernst Hutter euphonium
Eberhard Weber bass (from tapes)
Michael Gibbs arranger, conductor
Ralf Schmid arranger
Rainer Tempel arranger
Libor Šíma arranger
SWR Big Band
Helge Sunde conductor
Concert organized and produced by Martin Mühleis, sagas productions
Recorded by SWR, January 2015, at Theaterhaus Stuttgart by Doris Hauser, Volker Neumann, and Boris Kellenbenz (technician)
Mixed at SWR Studio, Stuttgart, by Volker Neumann (engineer), Manfred Eicher, Eberhard Weber
Pat Metheny’s “Hommage” mixed in New York by Pete Karam
Mastering: Christoph Stickel at MSM Studios, Munich
An ECM Production in collaboration with SWR
Redaktion: Günther Huesmann
SWR Big Band Manager: Hans-Peter Zachary
U.S. release date: September 11, 2015

Bassist Eberhard Weber two-handedly defined a generation of sounds, resulting in some of the most iconic albums the ECM catalog has to offer. In recognition of his contributions to the arts of performance and recording, Weber received the Jazzpreis Baden-Württemberg lifetime achievement award on his 75th birthday, and was guest of honor at jubilee concerts held in January of 2015—proving that, despite the stroke that rendered him unable to play since 2007, Weber’s fire blazes on.

Among his illustrious torchbearers is guitarist Pat Metheny, who in a liner note for the album describes lasting indebtedness, having joined Weber on the classic Ring and Passengers (Weber also appeared on Metheny’s Watercolors). As one who has always made the most of technology to harmonious advantage, Metheny acknowledges the inspiration manifest “in the instruments that [Weber] had built to bring that sound into the air, crystallizing a sonic fingerprint that even all these years later remains as uniquely identifiable and fresh as it was on first hearing back then.” All of which makes it doubly celebration-worthy to see Metheny swimming again in ECM waters. His “Hommage” is, in fact, this disc’s centerpiece. A sprawling world unto itself, it includes its dedicatee as performer in the form of video footage of the improvising bassist projected onto a screen at stage rear, creating what the composer calls “my imagined virtual Eberhard.” The idea somewhat recalls the speech-to-melody experiments of composer Steve Reich, with whom Metheny has worked and whose influence can be felt here in certain passages throughout the half-hour-plus suite.

Germany’s SWR Big Band, backing a chain of venerable soloists, brings this and the other works on the program to a resurrected state, here supporting solos from the formidable Gary Burton (vibes), Scott Colley (bass), Danny Gottlieb (drums), and Metheny himself. The opening is everything that Weber’s music ever was and will be: verdant, atmospheric, and fully developed right out of the box. The videographic Weber is almost ghostly, but over time feels less like an avatar and more a viable player whose creativity shines with unquenchable force. Metheny navigates their virtual interactions deferentially at first before easing into fuller integration, while the band handles this transformation with grace at director Helge Sunde’s exacting touch. The latter’s consistency ensures that Burton’s soloing is both the vessel and the water keeping it afloat; that Colley’s bassing, while distinctly Weberian, also adds its own shades to the spectrum; that Gottlieb’s adornments feel like more than just that; that Metheny’s flights always have their shadow in full view; and that Weber’s archival reveries transcend the limits of space and time they’ve been allotted.

Before this, listeners are treated to a far more intimate introduction in Jan Garbarek’s “Résumé Variations.” Based on the album of the same name, this piece finds the saxophonist improvising in his cinematic, clarion way around prerecorded bass lines. The two instruments intertwine in a way that only years of collaboration could produce, as if two massive continents of time were coming together in the least destructive abduction imaginable.

On the other side of Metheny’s juggernaut is a string of artfully pruned evergreens. “Touch” evokes the golden age of Yellow Fields. Featuring solos by Burton and Ernst Hutter on euphonium, and arranged by Ralf Schmid, this timeless jewel floats on a bed of vibraphone, moving in breezy fashion across its landscapes with the redolence of an old film magically restored. Its reach is matched by “Maurizius,” here arranged by Michael Gibbs and breathing with all the power, and more, of the original. Sharing solo duties with Burton is Paul McCandless, who carries his soprano saxophone to distant shores in this quintessential turn from Later That Evening. The same soloists carry over into an arrangement of “Tübingen” by Rainer Tempel, whose sense of flow meshes sympathetically with Weber’s. McCandless and Burton weave a carpet of textures through a stirring and complex sound that is equal parts somberness and joy.

Two reimagined songs from Pendulum close out the program: “Notes After An Evening” and, available as an exclusive bonus track via digital download, “Street Scenes.” Both are masterfully arranged by Libor Šíma, who gives them a certain heft. Burton and McCandless reappear, with alto saxophonist Klaus Graf adding his nocturnal lines to “Notes.” McCandless’s English horn, by contrast, burns like the sun in “Scenes,” balancing out cooler blasts from the band at large with energetic forecasting.

Given that Weber will never play again, one can’t help but find something bittersweet about these performances, built as they are on a legacy that, while nominally retired, lives on, their poignancy like a pair of lips pursed to a candle flame—yet which, instead of puffing it out, contributes to its glow.

Hommage Photo
(Photo courtesy of ECM)

Be sure to check out the DVD of these performances, available from Jazzhaus, which I have reviewed here.