Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Two quartets

Hello to all, a happy holidays and best tidings, etc.

Had the luxury over the past few days of sitting down with two uncommonly exciting records, and I wanted to wax a little about them if you don't mind. They share a few similarities, though they're nothing alike, really. Both are horn/piano/bass/drum quartets, both are in the adventurous-jazz realm, and both consist of four tracks and feature one 20-plus minute showpiece. Other than that, all they have in common is that they smoke.

The first of these is Tabligh, the latest from Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, which, weirdly, is out on Cuneiform, the same label that issued the latest Cheer-Accident disc (see a few posts down). I was way into this one when I first heard it earlier in the year, but I don't think I really *got* how special of a session it is. I picked it as my #2 jazz record of the year over at JJA, but I feel like it deserves some extra highlighting.

What we have here is a very special band, a totally different one than the group Smith originally labeled his Golden Quartet--that being pianist Anthony Davis, bassist Malachi Favors and drummer Jack DeJohnette. I've always meant to take time out w/ the GQ's 2000 Tzadik debut, but I've only heard it in a cursory way. Same goes for the second GQ disc, The Year of the Elephant, which came out on Pi in '02.

Tabligh, though, is a record I've really sat with, and it's fabulous. For whatever reason, Smith has replaced the whole band here. Now it's Vijay Iyer on piano, John Lindberg on bass and Shannon Jackson on drums. A very odd combination, and one you probably wouldn't hear anywhere else. Those three play beautifully together, though, and Smith gives them tons of space in which to do so. Four longish tracks, minimal thematic material, a very expansive kind of situation.

A very diverse kind of record as well. Waxed live in '05, it starts off with "Rosa Parks," which mines a kind of electric-Miles groove, with Iyer getting funky on the synths and Lindberg holding down slightly wah-wah-ish bass vamps. (I don't know the Yo Miles! discs that Smith co-led w/ Henry Kaiser, but I'll bet they sound at least a little like this. I'm seeing now that these feature not only Steve "ex-Journey" Smith on drums, but also John Tchicai?!) But my favorite parts of the record are the gorgeously drifting free ballad sections, like the third track, "Caravan of Winter." Smith lays out for a lot of this and lets the rhythm section hammer it out. They work up from a quiet miasma to a very cooking freebop swing.

I'm really impressed here and elsewhere w/ Jackson's drumming. Have never been a huge fan; always felt the Last Exit stuff, e.g., was really clunky. But he's subtler here than I've ever heard him, demonstrating the busy skittery-ness of Tony Williams but with a very powerful, rock-derived tom-tom and bass drum attack. He's a sterling listener, very adaptive, and he has a blast with Lindberg and Iyer.

It's a spacey session. A dark, moody thing, always stretching--sometimes swinging, sometimes just drifting, but very purposeful. Smith's bold blasts lead the way. He's a conductor with the horn; doesn't take up a ton of space, but makes it count. Really the masterstroke is the band itself, though. Every one of the players gets at least one major feature and whoever is out front, the texture is riveting.

Don't know Smith's music very well at all. This is the first disc of his that I've really owned and spent time with. Really interested now to hear other GQ discs, as well as the Kabell Years set on Tzadik and Divine Love, a late '70s disc on ECM. I've just begun checking out what seems to be a mini-documentary on Smith that's available on YouTube. The interviews remind me of his pithy sage-like contributions to the AACM panel discussion held back in May. Brilliant guy--very magnetic and warm. Here's part of the doc, featuring the latest GQ in action:

That seems to be like a preview section. Start here for the full seven-part film.


Got a bit carried away there, but the other record I wanted to mention was Transition, a little-discussed Coltrane record from '65. As I've mentioned on here before, that year is probably my favorite Trane vintage, mainly due to the awe-inspiring Sun Ship. It's basically the moment when the great quartet was running up against the rocks artistically, but fascinating things were happening as the vessel was splitting apart.

This record doesn't quite have the tongue-speech frenzy level of Sun Ship, but you can tell Trane is craning for that. He seems constantly in hurry to rocket to that place of ecstasy. The 15-minute title track moves very quickly to screaming overextension of the horn, with Elvin crashing and bashing in his patented cruising manner. As is customary with this period, Tyner's solo sounds a bit dainty, a bit out of place. A really hard-hitting performance overall, though.

A really strange feature of the session is a five-part piece merely entitled "Suite," an impressive 21-plus minute journey that I'm really surprised doesn't get cited more often in the history books. Someone (me?) needs to survey these long works he's fond of in this period--including both versions of Meditations, plus Om, Kulu Se Mama and Ascension (anyone know Selflessness?)--and stack them up against a Love Supreme, which is great but not necessarily more interesting than, say, "Suite." The latter is fascinating, starting out as a turbulent, roiling dust-up and then moving into a very classy, dirgey midtempo thing before giving way to a nice Garrison solo and a ballsy, barreling charge.

Again, this record is rarely discussed and kind of hard to find. It's also discographically baffling. Apparently the CD version has two tracks that weren't on the original LP, but were first issued as part of Kulu Se Mama (including "Vigil," which is, to my knowledge, the only studio duet between Trane and Jones). Also, this issue leaves out one track that was affixed to the CD version of Dear Old Stockholm. This is shadowy territory for me. Sometimes I think I know the Trane quartet stuff really well, and then I realize I haven't reckoned with records like the aforementioned, or--and this is the one I really feel I need to track down asap--Living Space, which was recorded less than a week later.

Anyway, sick, sick stuff, pushing right up against the edge of what this band was capable of. Trane is, again, craning for the sun--passionate and fire-ful at all times and Jones is absolutely at the peak of his fierce, hard-bashing cruise style.

Check this and the Smith out, and have a happy transition into '09 and I will see you soon...


P.S. Check out the awesomely comprehensive Village Voice Jazz Poll, in which I participated (note Tabligh coming in at No. 5!). My ballot is viewable in this section, and Francis Davis's intro essay is here. Thanks very much to Mr. Davis for including me.

1 comment:

Phil Freeman said...

I'm a big Ronald Shannon Jackson fan; loved the Decoding Society discs when he had Vernon Reid and Melvin Gibbs in the band. To hear him in a totally different context than the free-funk-rock stuff he did as a leader and Last Exit member in the 80s, though, you should go back and check him out behind Albert Ayler and then later with what I think is Cecil Taylor's best band, the sextet heard on The Cecil Taylor Unit, 3 Phasis, Live In The Black Forest and especially the monumental One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye. He's a really fucking brilliant drummer. Oh, and I picked Tabligh for my Voice Top Ten, too.