Monday, March 31. 2008
It's been a better week, even though I have relatively little to show for it below. I spent a lot of time last week listening to records I had previously rated, trying to come up with words for the actual Jazz CG reviews. In many cases it proved difficult to say something significant in such short space, but I managed often enough that I'm now confident enough to say that the column will be finished before the end of next week. At this point, all I have left is to go back and find some words that do justice to a few duds, plus sort out the favorable reviews into two piles: one to run this time, the other to run next time. Current album count: 43. Current word count: 2251. I manage about 30 records per column, so I'll probably have to hold back a third, leaving me half-done for next time. That's about how it usually works out.
There will be one more week of jazz prospecting in this round, not so much to find anything new for now as to catch any loose ends. Got a tentative date for publication: April 30.
Vijay Iyer: Tragicomic (2007 , Sunnyside): This took a while to sink in. The turning point may been when I flashed on the notion that Iyer is a new generation McCoy Tyner. Iyer has equivalent facility with the keyboard, although he rarely if ever lapses into Oscar Peterson swing -- he draws the line at, well, McCoy Tyner, but more often favors rhythmic repetition and variation rather than line development. Like Tyner, he generally works in a sax quartet, and like Tyner he often overshadows, indeed overpowers, the horn. One might also note that Iyer's saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, has a strong Coltrane-ish streak, but that's not so evident here. Mahanthappa has strong and weak outings, and he didn't make much of a first impression here. He only plays on 7 of 11 cuts, often making little more than a buzz around Iyer's prodigious piano. The trio cuts open up more, not least because they give Stephan Crump on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums more room to shine. One solo cut is further dampened, but logically impeccable. A-
Lionel Loueke: Karibu (2007 , Blue Note): Guitarist, born in Benin, moved to Côte d'Ivoire, then to Paris, then to Boston (Berklee), then to California (Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz), now seems to be based in Bergen County, NJ. He's appeared in quite a few credits since 2001, including some relatively high profile ones -- Terence Blanchard, Charlie Haden (Land of the Sun), Herbie Hancock (The River: The Joni Letters). This is a trio with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth -- mostly: he also picks up a pair of distinguished guests, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, one cut together, one more each. Mixed bag, especially when he sings, but the closer "Nonvignon" is my favorite track here, and he sings on it -- reminds me of pennywhistle jive. [B+(*)]
The Michael Pedicin Quintet: Everything Starts Now . . . (2007 , Jazz Hut): A/k/a Michael Pedicin Jr. Born 1945, plays tenor sax. Father was a musician, but he don't have any details, other than Jr. saying that father introduced him to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, etc. Most likely the father recorded as Mike Pedicin (b. 1917, Philadelphia, band leader, played alto sax): Bear Family has a 1955-57 collection by Mike Pedicin Quintet called Jive Medicin -- AMG likens it to Bill Haley. Jr. has several albums out since 1980. Lives in NJ now, but this one was recorded in Philadelphia, with Johnnie Valentino on guitar, Mick Rossi on piano, Chris Colangelo on bass, Michael Sarin on drums: a strong group that carries the album -- Valentino and Rossi have albums I've recommended in the past -- setting up the saxophonist. [B+(***)]
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
John Chin: Blackout Conception (2005 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Three trio cuts let postbop pianist Chin stretch out and show you what he's got up his sleeve. The other four cuts add tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, who predictably steals the show. Good showcase, but slightly uneven as an album. B+(**)
Josh Nelson: Let It Go (2007, Native Language): Pianist, works in some electric keyboards, but mostly stays acoustic when the Seamus Blake plays tenor sax, getting a little sharper contrast that way. The first-rate band also includes Anthony Wilson on guitar, Derek Oleskiewicz on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums. Serious talent, impressive work, leans toward the side of postbop I find more artful than interesting. B+(*)
Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Avatar (2007 , Blue Note): It seems to me that the Cuban pianist has moved beyond the rhythmic conventions of Afro-Cuban jazz into a whole new realm of personal idiosyncrasy. His quintet has the traditional bebop/hard bop lineup, with Mike Rodriguez on trumpet, Yosvany Terry on various saxophones, Matt Brewer on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums, but none of the traditional forms, veering between progressive postbop and points I don't know how to characterize. Choice cut: "Hip Side" (one of three Terry pieces). B+(**)
Jostein Gulbrandsen: Twelve (2006  Fresh Sound New Talent): I doubt that I would have noticed the leader's guitar had I not first fallen for Jon Irabagon's tenor saxophone. Irabagon plays in Moppa Elliot's "terrorist bebop band" Mostly Other People Do the Killing, where he has plenty of competition on trumpet. Here he has the field to himself, playing high octane avant-skewed runs that I find utterly captivating. Also a bit of clarinet, much lower keyed. The guitarist adds some licks to the high-speed stuff, but emerges more when the sax quiets down. A-
Ila Cantor: Mother Nebula (2006 , Fresh Sound New Talent): Guitar-sax-bass-drums, same lineup as Jostein Gulbrandsen's record on the same label, but different players, and that makes all the difference. Cantor's guitar is rockish, funky, and the bass-drums (Tom Warburton, Joe Smith) follow suit. Tenor saxophonist Frederik Carlquist, on the other hand, lacks Jon Irabagon's avant edge nor does he try to honk his way through. Rather, he plays the straight man in the group: soft-toned, articulate, logical. I like him quite a lot. Never did track down Cantor's group, the Lascivious Biddies. B+(***)
Steven Bernstein: Diaspora Suite (2007 , Tzadik): A little overblown, but what do you expect in a suite? Using the Nels Cline Singers, plus extra guitar, as the core of his rhythm section, Bernstein gets by with two brass and two reeds, and sounds Ellingtonian in the bargain. What confused me at first was that by styling this as a Robert Altman tribute, I figured he was aiming for Basie. A-
Raymond MacDonald/Günter Baby Sommer: Delphinius & Lyra (2005 , Clean Feed): Duo, free saxophone (mostly alto, some soprano) over drums. MacDonald is little known but worth following if you're into this sort of thing. Sommer is a veteran avant-gardist, his discography including previous duos with Cecil Taylor and Irène Schweizer -- a good partner for this sort of thing. B+(**)
Jason Kao Hwang/Edge: Stories Before Within (2007 , Innova): Dense shades of Chinese jazz fiddle, tarted up by Taylor Ho Bynum's cornet. Plus bass and drums, of course. B+(***)
Vince Seneri: The Prince's Groove (2007 , Prince V): Seneri not only plays the Hammond B3 Organ, he sells them through a company called Hammond Organ World. He puts on a good demo, too, with first rate guest stars -- Dave Valentin takes the fast latin pieces on flute, Randy Brecker splatters his trumpet on the funky ones. The only time the groove lets up is the obligatory sax ballad, which Houston Person aces. B+(***)
Anthony Braxton: Solo Willisau (2003 , Intakt): For Alto redux, 35 years to the wiser, no longer shocking, but still a contrarian puzzle. For one thing, I don't understand why he still insists on fishing sounds out of the horn that neither God nor Adolph Sax ever imagined. Most folks play alto for its smooth control at whiplash speeds, and Braxton has shown that he's second to none in that regard -- compare his Charlie Parker record to the relatively lead-footed originals. But at times he huffs and puffs here like he's playing bagpipes (which he has done, and I swear they're even uglier than For Alto). So I don't get it, but I'm way past minding. He's one of the geniuses of our age. B+(**)
Vandermark 5: Beat Reader (2006 , Atavistic): Downbeat's review mentions a second disc, included with the first 1500 copies, something called "The New York Suite: Part One's for Painters (for Willem De Kooning, Hans Hoffmann, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko), Part 2: Composers (for Earle Brown, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolf), Part 3: Improvisers (for Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor)." Didn't get my copy until well after initial release, and when it did come it didn't include the bonus disk. Previous teaser discs were eventually rereleased as Free Jazz Classics, Vols. 1-4. Every review I've read focuses on the integration of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm into the group -- this is the second album since he replaced Jeb Bishop. I don't really hear it or understand it. The cello lacks the volume and dynamics to compete with the horns, but one reason it does emerge more here is that there are a couple of softer pieces that lead with cello, and it matches up well against Vandermark's clarinet. But most of the pieces crank up the volume, and the one thing that emerges most clearly there is how terrific Vandermark has gotten on the baritone sax. This makes 13 albums in 11 years. The only one I didn't much care for was Simpatico, back in 1998, and the last one I held short of the A-list was Burn the Incline in 2000. Nothing here to complain about. A-
Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:
I complained about not having the recording dates to Nik Bärtsch's Ronin's Holon, mostly because the label (ECM) is usually very dilligent about providing that information. My bad. Buried deep in the booklet is a note that says: "Recorded July 2007/Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines." ECM's publicist wrote in to point that out, more precisely that the dates were July 23-25, 2007. She also thought I should have asked before writing, which is a good idea but hard to do given the way I work. I also wondered about bass clarinet/alto sax player Sha. His name is Stefan Haslebacher. In the info on Bärtsch's 2006 album Stoa, he was described as 22 years old, an "making waves in the Swiss 'new minimal' scene." Should probably ask when his birthdate was, and what the "new minimal" scene is all about, but don't really need to know just now. I still harbor some hope of converting all these notes into some kind of reference website, at which point securing those facts will become more important.
Searching through some old mail, two notes from musicians I had recalled as offering corrections could almost be read as fan mail. Matt Lavelle wrote "you got me man, . . . i think you got my captured my sub-conscious intent. . . . your review has helped me take a closer look, and helped me get a better understanding of myself." Of course, that's not the purpose -- at best a lucky side-effect. What was the purpose was to find good records, most of all ones that weren't getting recognized. Lavelle sought me out in that record, so I should be thanking him.
Melody Breyer-Grell also said "you got me there!" but the subject was the gap in her timeline, which she explains: "as a severely depressed failed opera singer I spent 10 years looking at the ceiling . . . the truth is I was practicing and practicing till I thought I sounded and felt credible enough to make a cd." She has a credible record now (maybe two -- haven't heard her first). Those gaps aren't uncommon -- especially with female vocalists, but I've run across a bunch of others with big gaps, many not making their move until retirement age. She's younger, but I still don't know her age. Payoff line in the letter for me was: "I would like to address some things you said because they are so right on that I feel that you are in my head somehow!"