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.)

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: Not Far From Here (ECM 2664)

Not Far From Here.jpg

Julia Hülsmann Quartet
Not Far From Here

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: November 1, 2019

Fans of pianist Julia Hülsmann’s work will find familiar flavors enhanced by the unique spice of tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff being added to her long-running ensemble. He’s most vividly showcased on “Le Mistral,” one of two tunes contributed by bassist Marc Muellbauer. What begins with a quiet stirring develops into a freely interlocking sound—one honed by years of experience and held together by the band’s open-ended circuitry.

The poetry of Kempendorff’s playing is forthcoming, and the same holds true of his writing, even as “Einschub” is harmonized enigmatically. Most of the composing credits, though, go to Hülsmann. From the opening caress of “The Art Of Failing” to the masterful “No Game,” she treats every instrument as a vital ligament of the same appendage, pointing and flexing to the rhythms of emotional desire. With the tenderness of morning light gaining slow but steady purchase on the corner of a bedroom window, she follows a natural order of things.

Drummer Heinrich Köbberling throws a couple of his own coins into the proverbial fountain, including “Colibri 65,” which furthers the bandleader’s apparent mission of summoning placid, distinct airs.

The set is upheld by two versions of “This Is Not America,” a song written by David Bowie in collaboration with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. With broken nostalgia, it winds a melodic tangle from which escape is an easy but deeply unattractive option.

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

Maciej Obara Quartet: Three Crowns (ECM 2662)

Three Crowns.jpg

Maciej Obara Quartet
Three Crowns

Maciej Obara alto saxophone
Dominik Wania piano
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: October 25, 2019

After their 2017 ECM debut, Unloved, Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara and his quartet make their return with Three Crowns. In addition to six new tunes from the bandleader, the album features improvisational renderings of music by one of the most significant composers of the 20th century: Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933–2010). Though Górecki’s work has been subjected to improvisational treatments before, these renditions bear special distinction for being sanctioned by his family, whom Obara came to know while living in Katowice, where the composer once was based. The first Górecki interpretation, “Three Pieces In Old Style,” is so beautifully reimagined that it sounds as if it’s emanating from another world. Pianist Dominik Wania opens in a deeply respectful mood, allowing Obara’s incisive tone to keen overhead, while bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Gard Nilssen roam a rain-kissed landscape below.

“Blue Skies For Andy” is among the stronger Obara originals—not only for its melodic strength but also its patience. It has a classic sound that feels warm to the ears, as precise as it is free. Other highlights range from the savvy urbanism of “Smoggy People,” notable for Wania’s postmodern swing, to the more geometric “Glow,” which recalls the tightly knotted compositions of fellow altoist Tim Berne. Obara’s bandmates grow in real time, though nowhere so maturely as on “Mr. S,” an homage to trumpeter Tomasz Stańko that rolls in on a wave of melancholy and sunshine in equal measure. Like the title track, it’s flexible and always attached to something pure and knowable. There is no mystery here. Only life.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Keith Jarrett: Munich 2016 (ECM 2667/68)

2667|68 X

Keith Jarrett
Munich 2016

Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded live July 16, 2016
at Philharmonic Hall, Munich
Producer: Keith Jarrett
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 1, 2019

The more I listen to Keith Jarrett’s improvised concerts, the more I shy away from the adjective “solo” to describe them. Not because I live under a delusion that it isn’t just him translating energies that 99.99 percent of us could only hope to detect, but because each iteration of this asymptotic journey at the piano reminds me of the ghost of yet another former self who goes on playing in an alternate reality even after he lifts his hands and takes a bow amid the applause of this one.

Throughout this two-disc recording, which documents a July 16th performance in the city and year of its title, Jarrett unveils 12 numbered sculptures of possibility, each more freestanding than the last. Not that the path between them is linear. What begins in Part I—the set’s longest, just shy of 14 minutes—as a many-tentacled deep sea creature has by Part III already morphed into a landbound shepherd. The latter’s hymnal qualities light a gospel fire in the underground railroad lantern of Part IV before dissolving into the child’s dream that is Part V.

Part VI marks another change of face, uniting questions of mountains above with answers of valleys below. The contortions of Parts VII, IX, and XII are ages between, giving way to meditations in which un-pressed keys speak as truthfully as their contacted neighbors. Few are so profound in this regard as Part XI, of which a certain air of finality is only as permanent as the wind on which it’s written. It whispers as an antidote to the shouting match that has become our lives.

In light of all this, we get a trinity of shades in Jarrett’s choice of encores. In “Answer Me, My Love,” he embraces the past as if it were a dying future. In “It’s A Lonesome Old Town,” he embraces the present as if it were the only hope of peace. And in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” he lets go of all three states of mind, knowing that honesty of expression is the only wave we can catch to keep him visible as he follows one horizon in search of the next.

Kit Downes: Dreamlife of Debris (ECM 2632)

Dreamlife of Debris.jpg

Kit Downes
Dreamlife of Debris

Kit Downes piano, organ
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone
Lucy Railton cello
Stian Westerhus guitar
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded November 2018
at St. Paul’s Hall, University of Huddersfield
and St. John the Baptist, Snape
Engineer: Alex Bonney
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: October 25, 2019

Following his 2018 ECM headliner debut, Obsidian, Kit Downes returns at the organ (and piano), this time among friends, including saxophonist Tom Challenger (heard for a spell on Obsidian), cellist Lucy Railton, and drummer Sebastian Rochford. The latter is heard prominently in the concluding “Blackeye,” a piece cowritten by Downes and Challenger. Its thicker brushstrokes fill a rather different sort of canvas than the ones preceding, albeit touched by the same palette.

“Sculptor” opens with Challenger’s bare tone, a kiss of sun on the morning glory of piano that then imbues the scene with its color. Also lurking is guitarist Stian Westerhus, a new addition to the Downes nexus who is rightly described by Steve Lake in his liner notes as, at times, a “near-subliminal participant.” Twinkling like starlight in “Bodes,” his guitar emotes under tension of utterly non-invasive strings. The latter tune is the album’s masterstroke: a fully narrative journey from cradle to grave that catches as many life experiences as it can before passing them on like an inheritance in faith of continuation.

Comforting about Downes as composer is his underlying sense of open-endedness. Titles such as “Pinwheel” and “Sunflower” suggest interconnections just beyond their titular surfaces—not only in Railton’s liquid threading, but also in their ability to turn melody into substance (if not the other way around). “Circinus” and “Twin” make sense of the organ as if it were a text to be interpreted in humility. Both elicit an undeniably cosmic feel, strangely rendered in textures of flesh and soil.

The only piece not by Downes is “M7.” Composed by his wife, bassist and vocalist Ruth Goller, this organ solo centers its energies in sustained pedal points while spreading open the periphery as one might a pair of hands. In its cradle, the entire album’s heart dents a pillow woven from old maps and cartographic sketches, each drawing closer to an undiscovered country but never quite reaching it. Content to float wherever the current may lead, it closes its eyes and redraws its path in the language of a dream, where the only songs that matter are those without words.

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.

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!