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.)

Konstantia Gourzi: Music for piano and string quartet (ECM New Series 2309)

Gourzi

Konstantia Gourzi
Music for piano and string quartet

Lorenda Ramou piano
Ensemble Coriolis
Heather Cottrell
violin
Susanne Pietsch violin
Klaus-Peter Werani viola
Hanno Simons violoncello
Recorded July 2012, Himmelfahrtskirche, Munich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 10, 2014

Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi’s approach to time plus ECM’s approach to space equals the most whole of sonic numbers. Said whole consists of intimate minutiae, each the corner of a photograph otherwise hidden by the downturned palm of history. The transubstantiation of Eine kleine Geschichte, op. 25 (2005) for solo piano epitomizes this feeling of obscurity. Notes fall neither like rain nor like teardrops, but more like a maple copter in slow motion, yearning for the touch of soil. After such a liminal experience, the opening proclamation of the String Quartet No. 2, op. 33/2 (2007) indeed feels like a bear hug of gravity. Titled P-ILION, neun fragmente einer ewigkeit (the latter meaning “nine fragments of eternity”), it is a fitting description of the molecules that inform Gourzi’s atmospheres. A powerful river in which to drop one’s ears like stones, its currents teem with reminiscences and fantasies alike. Whether groveling in a heavenly day or dancing in a pagan night, the sheer breadth of evocation herein is staggering. As the cloth of familiarity frays at the shards of stories yet to be told, this piece elicits a lyricism so deep that it can only end where it began. Moods are darker in the String Quartet No. 1, op. 19 (2004). Bearing the title Israel, it begins with the mortal urgency of Henryk Górecki and the playfulness of Claude Debussy before morphing into a lone voice, orphaned but for its spiritual genealogies traceable back to Abraham’s near-sacrifice.

The program gives us a cross-section of Gourzi’s writing for piano. From the seven miniatures that make up „noch fürcht’ ich”, op. 8 (1993), an early opus that is her first for the instrument alone, to the similarly aphoristic Klavierstücke I-V, op.24 (2004) and the eclectic Aiolos Wind, op. 41 (2010), we encounter jazz, folklore, and hypermodern cartographies. The moment we find something to hold on to, it slips away and offers a substitute made of an entirely different material. When piano and string quartet combine in Vibrato 1, op. 38 (2009/10) and Vibrato 2, op. 38 (2010), Gourzi creates the soundtrack to a tracking shot, one footstep at a time.

I cannot fathom how this album slipped past my radar for so long. Though of only recent discovery, it has already earned a top spot among my favorite New Series discs. And while these compositions may sit comfortably beside those of György Kurtág and Helmut Lachenmann, there’s something distinct about Gourzi that is to be found not in her last name but in her first. Konstantia, which means “steadfastness,” is precisely the quality of which her music is possessed, moving ever forward as a way of polishing us like mirrors held up to the past.

Jøkleba: Outland (ECM 2413)

Outland

Jøkleba
Outland

Per Jørgensen trumpet, vocals, kalimba, flute
Jon Balke electronics, piano
Audun Kleive electronics, drums, percussion
Recorded May 2014 at Madstun, Fall and Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Audun Kleive and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed by Audun Kleive
Mastered by Bob Katz
Produced by Jøkleba
Release date: October 24, 2014

Is it the sea you hear in me,
Its dissatisfactions?
Or the voice of nothing, that was your madness?
–Sylvia Plath, “Elm”

Although Per Jørgensen (trumpet, vocals, kalimba, flute), Jon Balke (electronics, piano), and Audun Kleive (electronics, drums, percussion) had already made four albums as Jøkleba before debuting on ECM under that same name, each musician had been involved in numerous other productions for the label. That said, this set of literarily themed improvisations leaves its own set of fingerprints, the whorls of which are spectral in range. By the second track, “Bell Jar,” itself a saline flush of digital impulses and organic trumpeting, the listener will know whether leaving or staying feels like the right thing to do.

To be sure, there’s much to admire here. From the visceral mountain calls in “Blind Owl” and “Horla” to the moonlit twinges of “The Nightwood” and “Below The Vulcano,” this trio knows how to craft a mood from scratch with cinematic lucidity. And while each musician contributes a personal energy throughout, for me it’s Jørgensen as vocalist who links the most creative chains. He plays the trumpet as if it were his own voice and sings as if his throat were honed in brass. The album’s most intriguing passages are his to carry. “Brighton,” for example, unfolds with the cadence of a Butoh dance, rich with meaning in the subtlest of movements.

Amid these abstractions, the appearance of piano and drums in “Rodion” feels like an oasis in the desert. “One Flew Over” gives further traction to the keyboard, and by that deference hints at something more pre than post. By the end, we’re left with a slipstream narrative that neither fulfills a promise nor answers a question. And perhaps that’s the way they prefer it.

Avishai Cohen: Big Vicious (ECM 2680)

2680 X

Avishai Cohen
Big Vicious

Avishai Cohen trumpet, effects, synthesizer
Uzi Ramirez guitar
Jonathan Albalak guitar, bass
Aviv Cohen drums
Ziv Ravitz drums, live sampling
Recorded August 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Romain Castéra
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 27, 2020

Big Vicious marks the studio debut of trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s eponymous band. Already six years old, this assembly with Uzi Ramirez (guitar), Jonathan Albalak (guitar, bass), Aviv Cohen (drums), and Ziv Ravitz (drums, live sampling) embodies the canyon-wide leap of evolution Cohen has taken across ECM’s terrain since Into The Silence in 2016. This album is distinguished by its digital sheen, which through a web of guitars and live sampling shines the light of a distant future on the darker here and now. It’s a sensation amplified by the project’s silent partner, Tel Aviv musician-producer Yuvi Havkin (a.k.a. Rejoicer), who served as Cohen’s cowriter (another new direction for the frontman) on such tracks as “Honey Fountain” and “Teno Neno.” Where the former lifts the spirit by chains of echoing sentiment, even as it redraws boundaries of the flesh from which it stretches a hand toward hope, the latter tune speaks of moonlight in the language of a star.

From start to finish, Cohen fulfills the role of a storyteller gathering characters, dialogue, and settings, and in his combinations of those elements forges history. Throughout “Hidden Chamber,” his trumpet is a warrior of light, a reminder that politics forces us into places where tongues of strife lose their sense of taste. Cohen’s composing paves us a viable detour. From the propulsive bassing of “King Kutner” to the regressive groove of “This Time It’s Different,” every melody oils our skin through the thorny bramble of adversity.

The brightest heavenly bodies are the band’s arrangements. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” for one, is reborn. Shedding every possible shade of cliché, it lives in a space only ECM can provide. Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” gets an equally postlapsarian treatment and harks to the earliest days of Big Vicious, when Cohen and friends mainly played 90s covers. The original lyrics of this song are appropriate in describing the present sound:

Water is my eye
Most faithful mirror
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire
Of a confession

Likewise, messages ooze from the ground as if during a spring thaw. Each is artfully crafted, traveling upward in a vortex of self-regard.

Of especial note is the album’s cover, a painting by David Polonsky, perhaps best known for Waltz with Bashir. Like the image itself, this is music that eschews photorealism in favor of something touched by hands, materials, and movement. It is also the visual equivalent of the album’s closer, “Intent,” which is so smooth that you might just find yourself blending in with your surroundings, wherever you happen to be.

Wolfgang Muthspiel: Angular Blues (ECM 2655)

2655 X

Wolfgang Muthspiel
Angular Blues

Wolfgang Muthspiel guitar
Scott Colley double bass
Brian Blade drums
Recorded August 2018 at Studio Dede, Tokyo
Engineer: Shinya Matsushita
Assistants: Yuki Ito and Akihito Yoshikawa
Mixed at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Wolfgang Muthspiel, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 20, 2020

On Angular Blues, Wolfgang Muthspiel revives the format of his 2016 ECM leader debut. Rejoined by drummer Brian Blade yet inviting bassist Scott Colley in place of Larry Grenadier, the Austrian guitarist serves a full course of originals with a couple of surprises added to taste. The members of this trio share what Muthspiel calls a “love of song” and perhaps no more succinct a term could so accurately describe their rapport. Longtime listeners won’t be surprised that Muthspiel has brought together players who understand the value of space: how to shape it, to be sure, but more importantly how to let oneself be shaped by it in kind.

The narrative impulses of the opener, “Wondering,” harness the flexibility of Muthspiel’s acoustic playing, which in this context meshes with bass while kissed cymbals draw the z-axis of a three-dimensional sound. Moods cycle between gentility and insistence and shades between. The title track is aptly named for revealing a delicately virtuosic side to the energies at hand. “Hüttengriffe” follows with a soft-hewn anthem.

The remaining tunes find Muthspiel plugged-in, jumping into the amorphous body of his electric guitar. In “Camino” he is equally at home, his fingers free to engage in metaphysical play. As a thinly veiled tribute to the late John Abercrombie—not only in style but also in the way Muthspiel drafts his solo—it’s a highlight that deserves close listening. Others include “Kanon in 6/8,” which shows the trio at its deepest level of synergy (it’s also offset by the digitally enhanced “Solo Kanon in 5/4”), and bebop-influenced “Ride.” Two standards fill in the gaps. Where Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” moves vertically, “I’ll Remember April” ends this worthy set on a horizontal plane.

(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.)