John Zorn: There is No More Firmament

Firmamament

Throughout his career as musician, producer and collaborative lightning rod, John Zorn has never forgotten the importance of putting pen to paper. This all-chamber program of pieces spanning 2012-2016 speaks deeply to his indefatigable spirit and the obvious care with which he chooses his musicians.

Two brass fanfares, consonant and invigorating, are palate cleansers of a sort. “Antiphonal Fanfare for the Great Hall” commemorates Zorn’s historic 2013 day-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It moves harmonically and with a precision that fortifies its ancient roots. “Il n’y a Plus de Firmament” likewise breathes formidable life into the wind quintet genre. With attentions to texture, rhythm and color rarely heard outside Edgard Varèse, Zorn provokes each strand of motivic DNA to fullest unraveling.

“Freud” is an enchanting psychoanalytical detour. Violinist Chris Otto and cellists Jay Campbell and Mike Nicola are its breathtaking interpreters, negotiating neuroses and reveries with comparable aplomb. Its wilder moments recall Zorn’s seminal pieces for the Kronos Quartet, but also the chamber music of Henryk Górecki. “Divagations,” inspired by the poetry of Stephane Mallarmé, places a through-composed score at the hands of classical pianist Stephen Gosling, with the interpretive jazz rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who must make spontaneous decisions along the way.

This disc’s crown jewels are its solo pieces. Clarinetist Joshua Rubin performs “The Steppenwolf” on the rarely heard A clarinet, eliciting a dynamic and tonal range as only a master of the reed like Zorn could enable. “Merlin,” for solo trumpet, is even more compelling in the two versions presented here. Peter Evans fills the ears with wonder, his extended breathing providing the most thrilling moments of the program, while Marco Blaauw (on his custom-built double-bell trumpet in C) adds ghostly dimensions.

There is so much philosophy packed into this album, it feels like a living (auto)biography of which we are given a tantalizing synopsis.

(This review originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

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Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (ECM 2581)

Far From Over

Vijay Iyer Sextet
Far From Over

Graham Haynes cornet, flugelhorn, electronics
Steve Lehman alto saxophone
Mark Shim tenor saxophone
Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes
Stephan Crump double bass
Tyshawn Sorey drums
Recorded April 2017 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Nate Odden
Mixed May 2017 by Farber, Eicher, and Iyer
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Vijay Iyer’s fifth record for ECM is the pianist’s most engaging yet. Over ten scenes, Iyer directs an original storyline with his freshly-cut diamond of a sextet. Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Steve Lehman (alto), Mark Shim (tenor), Stephan Crump (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) are not only actors playing multiple roles; they’re also real-time producers, editors and sound designers.

“Poles” and “Threnody” provide opening and closing credits. Both nurture storms of activity from raindrops, as if celebrating the end of a draught. They also balance the mutual extremes of locking and unlocking. In the latter vein, the leading horns take turns in “Down To The Wire” and in the title track, revealing the underlying irregularities that make this music so exciting. Like oranges, Haynes, Lehman and Shim’s solos are at the peak of flavor when juiced. No wonder, when their bandleader has given them so much soil and sunshine in which to ripen.

Iyer’s clairvoyance smiles across the delightful “Nope,” breathes to fullest capacity throughout “Into Action” and expands on South Indian beats in “Good On The Ground.” The latter two are masterstrokes—thematically and in execution. The rhythm section understands that being sportive can be serious and Sorey digs especially deep. Haynes also has his monologues in “End Of The Tunnel” and “Wake,” both of which work in the cerebral tendrils of his electronics.

Far From Over is a call to listening. More importantly, it’s listening to a call, as most evident in “For Amiri Baraka.” Here the core trio of Iyer, Crump and Sorey teaches the hard lesson shrouded by all this enjoyment. Baraka himself said it best: “There cannot be any apprenticeship for freedom.” Jazz may be heard as a genre of emancipation, but Iyer understands that freedom is illusory until actualized, that communal action is the embodiment of humanity’s reach for its flame and that music is one way to keep us from getting burned in the process.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

DeJohnette/Grenadier/Medeski/Scofield: Hudson

Hudson

Although Hudson derives its title from the valley of the same name, don’t expect the swaths of greenery shuffled across the album’s cover. Its influences are less environmental than musical, the 1969 Woodstock Festival being a central theme.

Of all the greatness at play, most organic is the balance of backward and forward glances. Jack DeJohnette’s drumming references Tony Williams— honored by John Scofield’s original “Tony then Jack”— even as it ignites fresh hearths with that same torch. Larry Grenadier draws on the electric bassists who inspired him through his acoustic wonders, building an anticipatory language distinctly his own. John Medeski on Rhodes hints at electric Miles Davis even as he maps uncharted atmospheres at the piano. And guitarist Scofield, who recorded with Davis, brings that classic vibe into the 21st century, pulsing with abiding love for rock and blues. His other contribution, “El Swing,” is a modal gem frontlining his restrained fire. DeJohnette pens three: “Song for World Forgiveness” aches with beauty, not least of all through Scofield’s lyricism; “Dirty Ground” (written with Bruce Hornsby) features him singing with gritty sincerity; and in the final “Great Spirit Peace Chant,” wooden flutes, percussion and voices leave us holding a feather of ancient ways.

Much of this album, though, polishes gems of folk-rock until they glisten anew. Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” are replete with masterful exchanges. Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” moves in seamless retrograde while a reimagined “Wait Until Tomorrow” (Jimi Hendrix) emotes with bluesy abandon. On the same level is Robbie Robertson’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” which mixes its ingredients in all the right ways.

Like-minded gravity attracts us first, however, to the opening title track, an 11-minute improvisation that puffs up like four dinner rolls baking in fast- forward. This is musical comfort food, the abstractions of which are butter on the nooks and crannies.

(This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Avishai Cohen: Cross My Palm With Silver (ECM 2548)

Cross My Palm With Silver

Avishai Cohen
Cross My Palm With Silver

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Yonathan Avishai piano
Barak Mori double bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded September 2016 at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: May 5, 2017

One can always count on being in the moment when experiencing an Avishai Cohen record. The Israeli trumpeter proved as much when he made his ECM debut with 2016’s Into The Silence, from which he now journeys forth with this set of five originals in tow. Cohen calls the quartet assembled here—with pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Barak Mori and drummer Nasheet Waits—his “dream team” and the distribution of energies throughout Cross My Palm With Silver confirms it.

Although politically engaged, Cohen’s style of personal reflection takes two inward glances for each outward. The result is that he and his bandmates invariably end up in vastly different places from where they began. They carry impressions to lucid ends, all the while achieving delicate infusions of seeking and finding. “‘Will I Die, Miss? Will I Die?’” epitomizes this philosophy in an intimacy deepened by engineers Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard. One may choose to focus on the melodic convergence of trumpet and piano, but greater subtleties are found beneath: bass is the heartbeat of this musical organism, drums its neural pathways.

The declamatory tenderness of “Theme For Jimmy Greene” feels all the more heartfelt for setting up the piano-less “340 Down.” The latter stumbles but never falls, balancing its tray of motivic possibilities all the way to its destination. “Shoot Me In The Leg” bleeds with Cohen’s most dynamic playing on the record. He moves through changes as fluidly as fast-forwarded footage of clouds. Waits works off Cohen’s fluttering calls, as bass and piano move with varying degrees of angle. The backing trio has a gorgeous aside before Cohen’s final word. “50 Years And Counting” finishes the album with enervating openness, giving Cohen all the space he needs to work out his expressive alchemy. All of which makes the album’s title that much more enigmatic, for his tone, if anything, is golden.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil: Incidentals (ECM 2579)

Incidentals

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil
Incidentals

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega clarinet, bass clarinet
Ryan Ferreira electric guitar
Matt Mitchell piano, electronics
Ches Smith drums, vibes, percussion, timpani
David Torn guitar (tracks 1 & 5)
Recorded December 2014 at “The Clubhouse” in Rhinebeck, NY
Engineer: D. James Goodwin
Assistant: Bella Blasko
Mastering at MSM Studios, München by Christoph Stickel
Produced by David Torn
U.S. release date: September 8, 2017

French philosopher Roland Barthes once faulted music criticism for relying on adjectives. The music of Snakeoil is such that adjectives do leave much to be desired. In that spirit, purged at the outset are choice adjectives that could be used to describe it: slipstream, epic, implosive, chameleonic.

For this ECM leader date, number four for Berne, the alto saxophonist reteams with clarinetist Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, guitarist Ryan Ferreira and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith. In the fray is producer David Torn, contributing his guitar to two tracks. “Hora Feliz” showcases the craftsmanship of everyone involved, through which electronics nestle against acoustics as mountains meet sky. Torn sets the scene before the theme jumps into frame. Such awakening, a Berne staple, keeps listeners in check. As the interconnectedness and independence alike of these musicians develop, one comes to see shadow and light in Snakeoil not as opposites but as twins.

Smith is a wonder. He lends no credence to grooves, taking his time, as in “Incidentals Contact,” to mark a beat, thereby furnishing Noriega with a fulcrum. He extemporizes at the margins while Noriega flaps his wings with abandon. “Stingray Shuffle” is another metropolis of sound, which, like “Prelude One/Sequel Too” (the album’s closer), keeps Ferreira’s fire in play around a reverie of higher notes before Berne commands his way to the finish line. But it’s “Sideshow” that gives us the goods and then some. Being the conclusion to a piece that began with “Small World In A Small Town” on this album’s predecessor, You’ve Been Watching Me, it has a past from which to draw. Mitchell does most of the lifting throughout its 26 minutes, responding as much as anticipating. Poetry shares breath with prose at every turn. Whether in Noriega’s sensitivity or Berne’s physicality, Smith’s blast of timpani or Ferreira’s finesse, the band demonstrates the ability of jazz to open doors you never knew existed. The truth of mastery lives on.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Bruce Williams review for The NYC Jazz Record

Private Thoughts

Bruce Williams isn’t afraid to loosen his seams and let rawness seep through, and nowhere is this so true as on the alto saxophonist’s fourth album. In the opening punctuations of “Mata Leon,” the organic nature of his compositional grammar is revealed, as are his interlocking relationships with a roving cast of bandmates, shuffled throughout to fit the needs of individual tunes. While the initial vibe is fragmentary and searching, the title track that follows has a brighter, classical energy actualizing the album’s core concept: squeezing hardship until essential oils of affirmation drip into the bell of his horn. Likewise in “Premonitions,” which, despite its airiness, speaks incisively through the leading voices. Williams on soprano and trumpeter Josh Evans spin webs of future possibility, only to sever them with ferocious retrospection.

Williams is unafraid to ask probing questions metaphorically, but also titularly in “Forever Asking Why?” Such is his quest for resignation by means of a tone so razor-edged that even in the most brooding passages, it cuts to the quick. “The Price We Pay for Peace” and “Last Visit in the Mirror” are further examples of this characteristic. The latter opens with a cultivated intro from pianist Brandon McCune, cushioning a soulful awakening from Williams. Here is the heart of this album—numerically, emotionally, spiritually.

The jauntier “Old Forester” levels darker weights on the fulcrum of trumpeter Freddie Hendrix. “The Void” unfolds in kind and finds Williams belting out his inner world as if it were an improvisational assembly line. Guitarist Brad Williams and core rhythm section of bassist Chris Berger and drummer Vincent Ector are vivid comforts, as are the meatier “I Still Carry On” and “View through a Sheet,” which balance straight-from-the-gut extemporizing and mystery before the smooth landing of “Past Tense.”

Though haunted by memories of a father who took his own life nearly 30 years ago, this is music of survival when all the heart wants to do is curl up in obscurity.

(This review originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Petros Klampinis review for The NYC Jazz Record

Chroma

The title Chroma evokes the colors of human experience. Recorded live in December 2015 at New York’s Onassis Cultural Center, bassist Petros Klampanis’ Motéma debut allows said colors to intermingle in utterly lyrical ways.

Klampanis takes much of the composing credit, starting off on the rightest of feet with the album’s title track. Its trim opening, replete with tuned percussion, eerily recalls the postmodern minimalism of Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile before the guitar of Gilad Hekselman and bow-work of a top-flight string section make it clear that we are in far more extroverted territory. Klampanis possesses a relativity all his own when it comes to crafting melodic cages in which to improvise. His multifaceted rhythm sectioning with drummer John Hadfield, artfully gilded by percussionist Keita Ogawa, gives just the right amount of uplift to maintain an uninterrupted aerial view toward the final vista, “Shades of Magenta.” The latter’s Brazilian pulse and Nana Vasconcelos-esque vocals (courtesy of Klampanis himself) offset a smooth highway with soulful detours.

“Tough Decisions” eases the listener into a patient unfolding. The bassist’s soloing spotlights his refined approach, in which every note feels like a necessary leaf in forested surroundings. For its surprising reveries and groovy resolution, “Little Blue Sun,” with its oceanic vibe, comes across as the most dynamic piece.

Hekselman contributes “Cosmic Patience,” introducing it by way of starlit guitar and expanding the possibilities of his interactions with the bass like heat lightning personified: distant yet glowing with colorful immediacy. Pianist and frequent Klampanis collaborator Spyros Manesis is behind “Shadows,” another prime surface for Hekselman’s warm touch.

If you’ve ever woken up from a dream with beautiful music in your head, only to forget it as the day goes on, Chroma will make you feel like you have recaptured some of that spirit.

(This review originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)