Charlie Rauh: The Bluebell

Bluebell_Album cover

Stern Reason is to judgment come
Arrayed in all her forms of gloom:
Wilt thou my advocate be dumb?
No, radiant angel, speak and say
Why I did cast the world away;

Why I have persevered to shun
The common paths that others run;
And on a strange road journeyed on
Heedless alike of Wealth and Power—
Of Glory’s wreath and Pleasure’s flower.

These verses, which come to us by way of Emily Brontë and the history woven into her surname, light candles in a shadowy world. She and her sister Anne are the subjects of this wordless tribute, evoked through the strings of Charlie Rauh’s acoustic guitar. Recorded in the very home where he learned the instrument, The Bluebell is more than a collection of miniatures (each track averages about a minute and half) inspired by poetry. Rather, they are devotionals bound by the metaphysical leather of tribute, meditation, and emotional transference.

Two versions of the title track, one drawn from the veins of each sister, are as genetically distinct as they are seamless. Not only do we feel the stem, leaves, and petals of this bulbous hyacinth, but are more importantly lured by its fragrance. Indeed, scent abounds in the source texts, which Rauh inhales as inspiration and exhales through the compact wonders of “Watch Through The Darkest Hours Of Night” with nary an errant note.

Whether channeling doubts of biblical proportion in “Though Weak Yet Longing To Believe” or donning the protection of divine assurance in “Faith Shines Equal Arming Me From Fear,” the sentiments at hand show that such armor, known only to the God in whose name it is worn, is hidden from view, girded as it is about the soul. And so, if the feelings of uncertainty we encounter in “Careless Gifts Are Seldom Prized” are indicative of anything, it is that wisdom is made manifest in holy illumination. And as reflections of time in “We Were Not Once So Few” spread horizontally into the vertical regard of “With Purpose Pure And High,” we find ourselves alone yet unafraid. Only in that state of openness can we accept “A Little And A Lone Green Lane” as a reminder that our flesh is but the garment of pilgrims passing through.

And yet, the bluebell still stands, head bowed as if in prayer, holding on to its hymn of persistence. Thus, these melodies stare poignantly into the eyes of decay and smile as if to say, “It’s easy to hear music in the poetry. Let us never forget to hear poetry in the music.”

Gato Libre: Koneko

Koneko

The eighth album by Gato Libre, since 2015 a trio consisting of trumpeter Natsuki Tamura (who turns 69 this month), Yasuko Kaneko on trombone and Satoko Fujii on accordion, is a minimal and delightful context for the patient charm of Tamura’s compositions. By turns mysterious and whimsical, improvisational elements bring out the rapport of the trio, one built on deep listening, while prewritten material exploits their ability to hone in on what is most essential.

In that respect, the album’s title (Japanese for “kitten”) gives some insight into the blend of mystique and playfulness one experiences in these eight feline-themed scenes. Each track, in fact, is named for a different kind of cat. On the one hand, we encounter programmatic gems like “Ieneko” (domesticated cat) and “Bakaneko” (silly cat), both of which sport a range of textures and emotions while exhibiting Tamura’s painterly brilliance, as well as the avant-gardism of his formative years. On the other hand, we join the “Noraneko” (stray cat) and the “Yamaneko” (wild cat) on their nocturnal adventures, rendered in exquisite detail by Fujii’s starlight, Kaneko’s slinking motions and Tamura’s restless energy. Together, they wander through favorite haunts in search of sustenance in the spirit of survival. The latter tune feels like a folk song developing in slow motion and finds Kaneko in a particularly soulful mode.

Each musician, but especially Tamura, is content coloring both inside and outside the lines, allowing quiet atmospheres to unravel as they will until the closing “Kanbanneko.” The term refers to a cat that hangs out in a store (often seen sleeping in the window) and is well known by regular customers. Like its namesake, the music seems to insist on being left alone in a corner as the hustle and bustle of commerce hums in the background. And because the recording is only subtly processed, allowing for instruments’ natural reverberations to shine through, we can be sure that every meow is heard.

(This review originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Elliott Sharp/Frances-Marie Uitti: Peregrinations

Peregrinations

Free improvisation can be many things: challenging, abrasive and meandering among them. This spontaneous act of creation between Frances-Marie Uitti (cello) and Elliott Sharp (Dell’Arte Anouman acoustic guitar and soprano saxophone) is none of those things. Rather, it’s welcoming, cartographic and focused. Sharp has always had a tactile approach to the guitar, one that emphasizes skin and organs alike and which embraces natural resonance as a portal to understanding the mathematical certainty of decay. The same could be said of Uitti, who digs into her cello as if it were a plot of land and pulls up every root around which she can curl her fingers.

In “Avior,” the relationship between these two signatures is so complementary that one almost feels a new strand of archaeology at play. Not in the sense of tearing up sacred land for the bastion of science, but of letting the past speak for itself. Thus, when Sharp sheds the guitar for a soprano saxophone in “Ainitak” and “Algieba,” he invites an earthen language to rise to the surface. In tandem, Uitti renders her instrument a giant ear to capture those utterances before they fade.

Given that in the past Uitti has been mislabeled a mere provider of drones, this reviewer challenges any listener to discover anything but complex shades of meaning in her sound. In that respect, both musicians are translators of energies that could otherwise go unacknowledged. Sometimes, as in “Mizar,” Uitti brightens the foreground while at other times, as in “Mintaka” and “Arcturus,” Sharp wraps us in the garland of a minstrel’s weathered muse. And while it is tempting to label their music as cathartic, in these times of distance one can’t help but read it as a form of proximity.

As organic as it gets.

(This review originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Tim Berne/Nasheet Waits: The Coandă Effect

The Coandă Effect

In this 2019 live set from The Sultan Room in Brooklyn, alto saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Nasheet Waits connect a 49-minute Möbius strip of improvisational wonder. Composed of two free outpours, “Tensile” and “5see,” the performance is a barrage of ideas, which, despite their thickness of description, leave plenty of room for our imagination as listeners to run wild in tandem. With an immense freedom of spirit and catharsis of expression, the duo breaks down one wall after another until all expectations end up in a free box at the side of our mental road. Without a map, we are left to roam the subtler implications of their interactive cause. The ending of each statement becomes the beginning of another, leaving us with a string of words barred access to orthography. The ebb and flow between clarity and obscurity is as cohesive as the connection between bodily organs.

Berne plays with intense lucidity of communication. He tells stories not for the sake of a reaction but in the interest of filling in blanks the rest of us may be afraid to touch in the Mad Libs of life. His incisiveness fires arrows of indisputable meaning into the air. Waits likewise pulls out the rug from under us not out of a desire to break our equilibrium but to reveal an even more stable surface beneath it. Like Peter Pan, he cuts away his shadow in search of a land without rules, only to realize that connections of a higher order can never be broken. Such is the depth of their rapport as each defers to the other until the geyser of creativity grows too hot to contain. And so while we might end up with more questions than answers, we are all the better for having asked them.

(This review originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Gerry Mulligan and The Concert Jazz Band: Young Blood (Jazz at the Concertgebouw)

Live Mulligan

The document presented here for our consideration by the Dutch Jazz Archive is important not only as a gem for fans of Gerry Mulligan, but also for reasserting the baritone saxophonist’s first love of the large ensemble. His self-styled Concert Jazz Band was indeed a return to form. Recorded on November 5th, 1960 at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, this performance finds Mulligan commanding his instrument in such a way that only the vessel of a big band would have been large enough to contain it.

Mulligan and friends chew on a wide-ranging repertoire, but especially seem to savor the iconic Johnny Mandel, represented in three tunes from his soundtrack to the 1958 Susan Hayward vehicle I Want to Live! (the theme, “Black Nightgown” and “Barbara’s Theme”).

Alongside these cinematic turns, each a noir-ish sashay through smoke-filled rooms and even smokier intentions, we find a smattering of standards and showtunes, including the swinging Richard Rodgers- Lorenz Hart’s “You Took Advantage Of Me” (Rodgers/Hart) and slower drawl of “Come Rain Or Come Shine” (Arlen/Mercer).

Though Mulligan never treated this band as a showcase for his own writing, his are some of the highest points in the set. Of those, “Apple Core” provides a towering stage for guest soloist tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims who, despite being in less-than-stellar condition, brings a lithe kinesis to the fore. The title track is another standout swing. In the latter vein, the rhythm section of bassist Buddy Clark and drummer Mel Lewis is on point throughout, but especially in “As Catch Can,” in which they anticipate every turn of the wheel.

Fiery solos abound, including alto saxophonist Gene Quill’s in “18 Carrots For Rabbit” and trumpeter Conte Candoli’s in the title track. Mulligan himself goes for quality over quantity, adding grit wherever he treads, especially in a spotlight rendition of “My Funny Valentine,” and with that characteristic dark edge only he could hone.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

(This review originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Kristjan Randalu/Dave Liebman: Mussorgsky Pictures Revisited

MPR

Although Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81) is best remembered for Night on Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition, the latter has had the more interesting afterlife, inspiring arrangements from such wide-ranging artists as prog-rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer, German metal band Mekong Delta and Japanese electronic pioneer Tomita. Yet this duo of soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman and pianist Kristjan Randalu presents more than a recasting of the Mussorgsky mold, instead a fresh landscape irrigated by channeling water from the source material. Case in point is the jaunting “Promenade,” which opens in straightforward territory but which in subsequent iterations (five in all) draws out hidden messages.

Liebman understands how to turn even the most familiar melodies inside out without losing their skin in the process. His tone is as flexible and colorful as ever, navigating every twist of “Les Tuileries” and “The Market” with characteristic attention to detail. The physicality of his artistry is most obvious in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens,” as also in his bluesy handling of “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle,” the latter a veiled stand-alone among extroverted peers. Randalu, for his part, is as comfortable laying foundations as he is building on top of them. Whether orienting his compass to the lodestar of “Bydło” or jazzing up “Baba Yaga” with exuberance, he makes sure that every wisp of proverbial smoke fulfills its promise of fire. As a unit, he and Liebman find profoundest coherence in “Il Vecchio Castello,” of which they make an understated dirge.

And so, by the time we reach the farewell of “The Heroic Gate,” we are confident in having been somewhere. This is, of course, the whole point of Mussorgsky’s greatest hit: to place us in that gallery so that we may feel the colors of every scene as if they were our own.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

James Ilgenfritz: You Scream A Rapid Language

YSARL

Bassist/composer James Ilgenfritz is rare for running lines of transfusion between jazz and classical bodies while keeping them equally alive. In that spirit, he presents this chamber program of formidable subtlety and feeling that travels comfortably between (and beyond) genres.

The combinations of instruments provide constant fascination, starting with the pairing of violin (Pauline Kim Harris) and double-pedal bass drum (Alex Cohen) in Terminal Affirmative. By turns primal and futuristic, this music frays the edges of such contradictions to the point of unity. It’s worth noting that this piece is based on observations of Ovid, who emphasized the power of water droplets to erode stone over time as an organic illustration of persistence. This philosophy seeps into everything that follows, but especially in Apophenia III: The Index. This trio for piano (Kathleen Supové), guitar (James Moore) and violin (Jennifer Choi), based on a short story by J. G. Ballard, asks the musicians to build a grander narrative out of through-composed fragments. Thus, what first seem to be aphorisms take on a coherence all their own.

Apophenia IV: A Bell In Every Finger sets poetry by the late Steve Dalachinsky (on Muhal Richard Abrams and Cecil Taylor, no less) for baritone (Thomas Buckner), piano (Joseph Kubera), percussion (William Winant) and Ilgenfritz himself. Buckner lends his falsetto to this garden of delights and darkness, contrasting hauntingly with the album’s masterstroke: How To Talk To Your Children About Not Looking At The Eclipse. Here flutist Margaret Lancaster breaks down breath to its most linguistically pure elements and makes them sing.

Tempting as it is to call this album intermittently assaultive, it is perhaps better described as possessed of a fierce intimacy. As in the concluding Fanfares For Modest Accomplishments for two violins (Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris), it uses brevity to bring our attention to expanse. Such dichotomies are difficult to maintain, but these musicians do just that with unwavering strength.

(This review originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Wolfgang Haffner: Kind of Tango

Kind of Tango

This album expands composer and drummer Wolfgang Haffner’s Kind of… series with its best-integrated offering. Not only because the rapport he shares with bassist Lars Danielsson and pianist Simon Oslender is as involuntary as breathing, but also because the music spinning out from that core trio is reflective of a bandleader who understands that comfort is born of experience.

Whether in the understated groove of “La Cumparsita,” the inward glance of “Respiro” or the somber farewell of “Recuerdos,” Haffner figures that every dance doesn’t need to be a competition. And he’s not afraid to let melodies awaken slowly, as on “El Gato.” But the tango is best drawn between a leap and a crawl, and the brilliance of Haffner’s tempi lie in that balance. Quintessential in both concept and execution is his handling of Astor Piazzolla. By wrapping the familiar strains of “Libertango” in mystery and the lesser-known neorealism of “Chiquilín de Bachín” in the warmth of an open fire, he brings out a blush of sanctity from the secular. What we end up with, then, is a welcoming examination of tango: something personal, fresh and unforced.

(This review originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: The Fantastic Mrs. 10

Fantastic Snakeoil

There’s something undeniably adhesive about Snakeoil, alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s uncompromising outfit of exploding singularities. From the inaugural line, catalyzing an angular yet strangely joyful romp through head-nodding territory, we’d be hard-pressed to find ourselves unattached to at least one motif, line or beat along the way. Lending further veracity to his enterprise are Berne’s usual suspects of pianist Matt Mitchell, clarinetist Oscar Noriega and percussionist Ches Smith, adding to those guitarist Marc Ducret. One imagines the urban landscape moving in concert with these bodies ambulating through it, as if flesh, metal and concrete were all one assemblage to which this is the only logical soundtrack.

Despite the muscle behind much of the movement, passages of gargantuan sensitivity abound. Sometimes these are holistic, as in “Dear Friend,” which finds the band bowing its collective head for its composer Julius Hemphill. Other times, those moments are buried, as in “Surface Noise”—an accurate title, to be sure, but one that reclaims the term by severing its negatively connotative roots and replanting it in active soil.

The interplay between piano and alto saxophone is as oceanic as that between guitar and bass clarinet is amphibious, thus indicating a powerful array of duos throughout. Other notables include Mitchell and Ducret in the title track and “The Amazing Mr. 7,” Berne and Smith in “Rolo” and Berne and Noriega in “Third Option.”

All of this and more is summarized in “Rose Colored Assive.” At the touch of behind-the-scenes member David Torn, this concluding statement feels more like an opening one, its taste of fantasy whetting our palates for yet another new direction from one of the most exciting bands working in jazz today.

(This review originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)