Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best of 2012: Jazz, part III

Here's the third and final installment of my 2012 jazz round-up. Complete, unannotated list is here, part I and an intro are here, and part II is here. And here's a thematically fitting bonus track: my Pitchfork review of the new Mingus box set on Mosaic. All-genres-in-play year-end lists coming soon!

Jim Black Trio
Somatic [Winter and Winter]
David Virelles
Continuum [Pi Recordings]

Grouping these two together might be a little bit of a stretch, but I think it makes sense. At heart, they're both unconventional piano-trio records that work hard to sustain a particular mood/feel over their respective running times.

I remember receiving a download of Somatic about a year ago, right in the middle of the 2011 year-end-list frenzy. Right from the first spin, I really enjoyed it, but I was worried that it would get lost in the shuffle as the year progressed; albums that come out early in January often do. (Though, interestingly, the album that ended up topping my 2012 all-genres-in-play list—to be revealed in due time—is also a record I've had my hands on since the very beginning of the year.) Fortunately, this did not occur. I saw a very good show by this band at Cornelia Street Café in February, and the record stuck with me pretty stubbornly throughout the year.

So what is Somatic, exactly? Jim Black is a musician I've come around to gradually. I first heard him at Tonic with Dave Douglas's Tiny Bell Trio, probably around 1999 or 2000, and soon after that I ran into him on records by Tim Berne's Bloodcount. I wasn't in love with his drumming at that time. I respected the skill, but the aesthetic didn't click with me; something about the way he was channeling rock seemed sort of like a knowing paraphrase rather than the result of true, head-on engagement, and I found his signature idiosyncrasies, both timbral and rhythmic, a little distracting. But as I heard more of Black's work over the years—especially the gorgeous records he made with his AlasNoAxis band (e.g., Houseplant), on which he did an awesome job of getting out of the way of his own compositions and simply letting them speak—I really turned around on him. Jim Black, the composer-bandleader, appealed to me much more than Jim Black, the sideman.

With Somatic, I think he's reached a new peak. He's stripping the aesthetic down to the bone here, uncluttering it in an admirable way. AlasNoAxis retained that rockish feel via Hilmar Jensson's guitar and the backbeat feel of some of the grooves, but that kind of allusion is less apparent here. This set of pieces feels entirely secure within itself; listening, you're not preoccupied with what the influences might have been. So yes, as I mentioned above, this is a piano trio record: Black, plus bassist Thomas Morgan and pianist Elias Stemeseder (a young Austrian player whose name is new to me). The writing is just remarkable. You get these simple, folksy, memorable themes, such as "Uglysnug" and "Terrotow," which gets stuck in my head constantly, and a bunch of moodier, more troubled-, pensive-sounding ones—like opener "Tahre" and "Chibi Jones"—and then some, like "Somatic," that seem to combine those two sensations. A lot of slow, extremely chilled-out music here, but unpredictable and unboring. "Somatic" is a good illustration of what's so compelling about this record; the composition is sort of lilting and catchy, but the playing is teeming with strange detail. Black, Morgan and Stemeseder are having a real Bill Evans Trio kind of group conversation here, drifting in and out of in-time playing, just sort of flowing where the piece takes them. This record isn't just my favorite example to date of Jim Black's writing; it might be my favorite example of his drumming as well. On "Somatic," he seems to be going for an unbelievably subtle version of the Tony Williams–on-"Nefertiti" thing, i.e., a sort of constructive disruption. The trademark sounds of his kit, those dry cymbals, the splatty bass drum, and the strange, slurred time feel—here you hear all this in a quiet and composed setting. The improvisation does threaten to heat up at times, but it's all so dynamically controlled, so essentially balladic.

This trio doesn't sound anything like the Motian/Frisell/Lovano band, but there's a similar kind of murky, liquid lyricism at work here—an experimentalism that has no time for obvious signifiers. A few pieces on the record veer off in other directions—the postboppish "Sure Are You," one of the only tracks here with what I'd describe as a jazzy rhythmic feel, and the tumbling, prog-funky "Beariere"—but overall, Somatic is a pretty remarkable feat of sustained moodcraft. If you like your jazz reflective, with a little stimulating yet unobtrusive weirdness around the edges, you will eat this record up. Every time I put it on, I feel like I've previously underestimated how good it is.

Again, David Virelles's Continuum—a very different record. Jim Black is a veteran compared to Virelles, whose name I've only started seeing around over the past couple of years. When I noticed that this Cuban pianist's working band, also called Continuum, featured Andrew Cyrille on drums—as well as Ben Street, also a member of the Billy Hart Quartet discussed in part II of this round-up—I was instantly intrigued. Cyrille's been doing awesome work in Bill McHenry's band over the past couple years (check out the recent La Peur du Vide), and he sounds incredible on Continuum. (I've written before about intergenerational jazz bands designed to showcase the work of an older drummer; you can add Virelles trio to that list.)

As Ben Ratliff pointed out in his review, Continuum is a multimedia presentation, in which Román Díaz's chant and even Alberto Lescay's painting play a central role. While I've come to enjoy those elements—and I'll admit that Díaz's vocals took some getting used to—the sound of the piano trio at the core of this ensemble is what's kept me coming back to Continuum. I love the way Virelles, Street and Cyrille groove on the funky dervish dance "The Executioner"—Díaz's subtle Afro-Cuban percussion is key here too—working up to a tense climax and giving way to a masterfully textural Cyrille solo. Some of the other pieces go for pure texture; "Threefold" is a super-quiet masterpiece, an abstracted ballad, in which Virelles and Street leave tons of space for Cyrille's pinging cymbals and rustling brush-on-snare work.

The record can be a little disorienting, since the group's approach mutates constantly; almost every piece seems to have a different sonic objective. After a few spins, though, I started to embrace the variety. This is a record that ranges from "Manongo Pablo," essentially a nimble, uptempo Cyrille drum solo set against Virelles's spacey, almost psychedelic Wurlitzer, to "Our Birthright," where a Díaz recitation over hushed accompaniment from the trio gradually transitions into a passionate, spirit-raising free-jazz episode, featuring guest horn players Román Filiú, Mark Turner and Jonathan Finlayson. (During this latter section, you really hear how valuable Cyrille is to the session; when the other players dial up the intensity, he keeps his volume and density carefully controlled, assuring that the crescendo doesn't turn into a cacophonous blowout.)

While I look forward to spending more time with Continuum, I'm not sure I'll ever understand fully what Virelles is going for here. In the liner notes, he writes about the Afro-Cuban religious practices that inspired the record, discussing the "highly complex cosmologies" that guide them and the way Díaz's verse weaves together Spanish with the "ritual languages" of Karabali, Kongo and Yorùbá-Lucumí. No translations of any of the text are provided, so in a sense, any listener not steeped in these traditions is kept deliberately on the outside. It's an intriguing and, in a weird way, almost refreshing way to present a record, i.e., clue the listener in slightly to the concepts guiding the work but don't overexplain. The result is that Continuum scans like a mystery rather than some sort of context-laden cross-cultural artifact. It's fascinating stuff.

Note that this band plays Drom tonight. They're also at the Village Vanguard from January 29 through February 3, with Filiú guesting Friday to Sunday and none other than Henry Threadgill (!) sitting in on Thursday.


Henry Threadgill Zooid
Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp [Pi Recordings]

As discussed on DFSBP a couple weeks back, I recently had a bit of a moment with Threadgill's three most recent Zooid releases, developing a new appreciation for the band's sound—and the ways in which it diverges from H.T.'s "classic" work. The postscript marked "Update" there features some in-the-moment impressions of this latest Zooid record, which welcomes cellist Christopher Hoffman to the fold, so I won't go into too much detail here. Tomorrow Sunny doesn't differ wildly from the bands prior two LPs—Vols. 1 and 2 of This Brings Us To—but you can hear a progression in terms of the band's deep-listening interaction. The group dynamic on tracks like "So Pleased, No Clue"—one of the sparser, shorter, less groove-oriented pieces—is stunningly sensitive. You really hear the players breathing together, completing each other's sentences, coexisting, collaboratively coaxing out the ensemble sound. In the post linked above, I wrote about how Zooid's music isn't the kind that comes to you; you have to meet it on its own terms. But once you're there—and for me, that meant shedding my desire for big, bold, super-memorable ensemble themes, so prevalent in older Threadgill—this is a very pleasurable, even sensuous record and probably my favorite Zooid statement yet.


Joe Fiedler
Big Sackbut [Yellow Sound Label]

I don't know too much about the trombonist Joe Fiedler, but I have enjoyed the last couple of albums of his I've checked out: 2007's The Crab and last year's Sacred Chrome Orb, both lean trio discs geared toward showcasing the leader's charming compositions and impressive command of odd timbral effects. Big Sackbut debuts a very different project, a World Saxophone Quartet–style four-piece with three trombones (Fiedler, Ryan Keberle and Josh Roseman) and one tuba (Marcus Rojas. I like the more extroverted tracks on here, e.g. Fieder's "Mixed Bag" and a take on Willie Colon's "Calle Luna, Calle Sol," but the more measured, reflective pieces ("#11," "Don Pullen") impress me the most. For me, the real hurdle a project like this has to clear is "Does the music transcend the eccentricity of the ensemble make-up?," and I'd answer a definite yes with respect to this record. Enjoyable stuff, especially for the brass-inclined.

Here's a clip of the group doing "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" live in 2010.


Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet
Weight [OutNow]

Another one that foregrounds an unusual ensemble make-up. Here, I'd heard everyone but the leader—Israeli tenor-saxist Yoni Kretzmer—going in; the rest of the band—bassist Sean Conly and Reuben Radding, and drummer Mike Pride—are all NYC stalwarts.  There's definitely a gritty, post-Ayler quality to Weight, but that's only a fraction of what's going on here. Kretzmer has a very classic tenor sound, raspy yet melodic—I believe I cited Dewey Redman in one of the prior write-ups; I think of him here too—and a sometimes borderline-sentimental compositional sense; on pieces like "Giving Tree," and "A Bit of Peace," these qualities clash fruitfully with the grittiness of the improvising. This push-and-pull keeps me interested. I'm all for the backbeat-driven meltdown at the beginning of "Again and Again," but I'm even more intrigued by the way the dynamics dip down to ballad level instead of continuing to blare. "Smallone," a measured interlude that sets Kretzmer against the two plucked basses and Pride's tasteful brushwork, is another standout. As with the Threadgill record, Kretzmer really lets you hear every player in the band; it's a beautifully recorded disc, and its greatest pleasure is hearing the group members carrying on a lively yet expertly controlled conversation, e.g., on a track like the sing-songy "A Bit of Peace." Everyone's really listening, here and throughout the album.


Ted Nash
The Creep [Plastic Sax]

I'd never really checked out Ted Nash's work before this year. One of the most welcome side benefits of researching my Jazz Composers Collective profile a couple months back was getting to know various Nash projects like the Double Quartet, Still Evolved and Odeon. As with the Fiedler and Kretzmer records above, some of this past Nash work—e.g., the tango-inspired Odeon and the string-quartet-augmented Double Quartet—thrives on unconventional ensemble make-up. The Creep is something different, though. It's simply a scrappy, hard-swinging quartet record, driven by Ulysses Owens's ass-kicking drumming and the stimulating warm-cool contrast between Nash's saxophone and Ron Horton's trumpet. Much like the Dolphy/Curson/Mingus/Richmond band, this group gets a ton of mileage out of its stripped-down instrumentation, emphasizing density or sparseness, abandon or control as the situation demands. Check out "Burnt Toast and Avocado" and "Plastic Sax Lullaby" in succession and you'll see what I mean. Nash has cited Ornette (particularly his use of a plastic saxophone) as an inspiration for this record, but to continue with our overriding theme, The Creep is another no-school jazz statement. It simply does its thing (many things, really) and leaves the classification up to the listener.


Jeremy Pelt 
Soul [HighNote]

Hat-tip to Phil Freeman for turning me on to this one. I knew Pelt's name, but little else about him, going in. I was intrigued by the idea of hearing JD Allen and Gerald Cleaver in a new context, and I wasn't disappointed at all. This is a low-key and unassuming session, ballad-heavy, clearly indebted to ’60s Blue Note fare—esp. moody Wayne Shorter records like Speak No Evil—and gorgeously recorded. (Pelt's site says that Rudy Van Gelder himself engineered this one, though, oddly, Joe Marciano's name is listed on the CD itself.)  It's a throwback record, but it's not slavish in the slightest, and the playing is outstanding, whether on the more freewheeling, uptempo tracks like "What's Wrong Is Wright" or "The Tempest"—both of these have a pretty strong mid-to-late-’60s-Miles-quintet vibe going on, with Cleaver clearly mining a Tony Williams vibe on the latter, and sounding great—or whispery slow pieces like "The Ballad of Ichabod Crane." The latter piece exemplifies one of Soul's most appealing qualities, its ability to convey chill-ness without sleepiness; in the end, this is a fairly straightforward record, but there's enough intrigue and conviction in the playing that it doesn't feel rote. Playing this again now, though, I'm reminded by its subtle magnetism—I'll definitely be returning to this one, and keeping an eye out for future Pelt releases.


Ralph Peterson 
The Duality Perspective [Onyx]

As with Soul, I woke up to this one after reading another writer's take, in this case Ben Ratliff's review. And again, I'm very thankful for the heads-up, since I wasn't familiar with Peterson's prior work. Part of what intrigued me in the Times write-up was the description of the Fo'tet—one of two bands featured on this record—a quartet with clarinet, vibes and bass. (The sidemen are Felix Peikli, Joseph Doubleday and Alexander L.J. Tosh, respectively—all new names to me.) The combination of clarinet and vibes is one I've loved since I first heard the ’30s Benny Goodman Quartet back in college—got a nice opportunity to binge on these sides during WKCR's recent Teddy Wilson centennial marathon—and though the Fo'tet is no Swing Era throwback, the texture of the band does hint at the crisp, fresh, chamber-jazzy interplay of Goodman and Lionel Hampton. To me, this group sounds best playing more or less straightforward postbop, as on album opener "One False Move." What I like about this piece, and "Princess" as well, is the contrast between the cool sound of the clarinet-vibes frontline—and I mean that more texturally, since Peikli is a daring and passionate soloist—and Peterson's busy, churning accompaniment. He's got a rumbling, Elvin Jones quality to his swing, and he certainly smacks the kit from time to time, but his dynamics are impressively controlled; he's driving the band without overdoing it. I'd have to agree with Ratliff's assessment of the record's latter half, which features Peterson's sextet ("The sextet has its moments, but it deals in more weighed-down and conventional moods and doesn’t have as recognizable a group sound," he wrote). The title track—a lushly orchestrated ballad—is a definite winner, though: a strong showcase for Peterson's writing/arranging, that muscular yet sensitive drumming style I mentioned above and the appealing two-sax frontline of Walter Smith III and Tia Fuller. I look forward to hearing more from Peterson, especially the Fo'tet.


Eric Revis's 11:11
Parallax [Clean Feed]

Was a little apprehensive about including this one on my year-end list, mainly because it only showed up in the mail a few days before I filed. But I knew that (A) the band featured here—the sidemen are Ken Vandermark, Jason Moran and Nasheet Waits—was too special to overlook and that (B) the record wasn't really going to be eligible for 2013 consideration. Definitely still digesting this one, so my impressions are a little sketchy. But I will tentatively say that Parallax lives up to my high expectations. (I remember seeing this band listed on the Jazz Gallery schedule a few years back, and after missing that gig, I eagerly awaited a recording.) Revis is, in his own way, one of the most eclectic players I know. I've been seriously impressed by his playing with Tarbaby, Bill McHenry's current working quartet, Peter Brötzmann (the 2011 Vision Festival featured a Revis / Brötzmann / William Parker trio), and Branford Marsalis—a pretty wide range of contexts—and I remember really digging his last leader record, Laughter's Necklace of Tears, when I checked it out a while back.

Like that LP, Parallax is an eclectic and challenging set. Revis doesn't just put together bands and let them rip; he assembles real programs' worth of music. This album features muscular, trancelike solo bass ("Percival," e.g.); dramatic, tightly orchestrated pieces like "Dark Net" and "MXR," which almost come off as proggy chamber jazz; entropic yet sensitive free-jazz pieces ("I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Celestial Hobo," "ENKJ") that really show off the potent group dynamic this quartet has achieved; and at least one piece ("Winin' Boy Blues") that sounds like a riff on the kind of stylized retro vibe that Moran and Waits often explore in the Bandwagon. Skimming back through the tracks now, I'm realizing that I can't wait to give this record a few more focused spins. Revis has put together a fascinating group here—one that can breathe free-form fire when called upon to do so, e.g., "Hyperthral," or groove hard and tough, e.g., "Split"—and he really seems to be wringing all the potential he can out of these players.


Harris Eisenstadt
Canada Day III [Songlines]


Canada Day Octet [482 Music]

Harris Eisenstadt has been a mainstay of my year-end lists over the past few years—I particularly dug 2008's Guewel and 2010's Woodblock Prints. He's prolific, but he's always worth checking in with. I'd overlooked Eisenstadt's Canada Day band in the past, maybe because it's his most conventional-sounding ensemble, a quintet with saxophone, trumpet, vibes and bass. As with previous Canada Day releases, the writing on III is very clean, clear and lyrical, sometimes with a shade of playful quirk.  The pieces seem designed to show off the sidemen, specifically the extraordinary frontline of saxist Matt Bauder and trumpeter Nate Wooley; both can veer into abstract/abrasive territory—fans of Wooley's work in freer contexts will recognize what he's up to on "Nosey Parker"—but what impresses me most here is when they're playing in this sort of soft, murmuring style—as on "Song for Sara"—and mingling their sounds with Chris Dingman's vibes. It's a very pleasant and accessible group texture, but far from conventional, which seems to be a hallmark of Eisenstadt's work overall. Don't meant to short-shrift the Canda Day Octet record record when I say that it's more or less a companion piece. Eisenstadt's writing for this expanded group is just as sharp as it is for the core band—the multipart "Ombudsman" suite, which really takes advantage of the larger ensemble, is magical—and again, Bauder, Wooley and Dingman are the stars here. Both these discs are highly recommended.

Here's some live footage of the octet.


40Twenty [Yeah Yeah]

David Ambrosio has shown up a couple times on this list already, on the Schuller and Yamamoto records, and the other three here are familiar names, all of whom lead their own projects. (Garchik's The Heavens is definitely one to check out.) This is a subtle one that I might have overlooked if it wasn't for Nate Chinen's recent shout-out. I like how this record manages to sound both weird and composed at the same time, as when the band plays an expertly controlled form of free jazz on Ambrosio's "One Five," or a slurry Monkish march on Sacks's "Jan 20." With only trombone in the frontline, the group has a kind of drollness about it, a vibe that's also reinforced in the writing, but there's some really heated, energized playing on tracks like Garchik's "Gi." Like many of the other projects on this list, 40Twenty is taking what it needs from various jazz strains without aligning itself to any of them. "Jan 20" sounds almost throwbacky—appropriate since the band's name is a nod to the grueling nightclub gig schedules of yore—while "Plainchant" is as delicate and austere as the name would suggest. The feel of the latter piece captures what I enjoy about this record—the way both its beauty and its oddness feel muted, sort of far off. 40Twenty is more elusive than most of the records cited above, but it's worth taking the time to get close to it.


P.S. The best jazz performances I saw this year, with links to coverage, where applicable:

Miguel Zenón Quartet
January 6; Zinc Bar (Winter Jazzfest)

Craig Taborn Trio
April 6, 8; Village Vanguard

Darius Jones Quartet
June 12; Roulette (Vision Festival)

Marc Ribot Trio

June 29; Village Vanguard

Ethan Iverson / Ben Street / Albert "Tootie" Heath
August 26; Village Vanguard

Bob Stewart Quintet
November 10; Central Park (Jazz and Colors)

Henry Threadgill Zooid
November 24; Roulette

1 comment:

joesh said...

Nice reviews and more importantly reminders. I'm a great fan of Bill McHenry and was glad to discover that he had a new record out .... something I'd apparently missed.

It's also great to be able to get a few listening suggestions to add to the already huge pile of albums from 2012 ... and 2013 is already looming up, help!

Thanks again for the excellent blog.