March CD Reviews – Alex Ward, Slumgum, Jason Robinson, Issie Barratt et al

Alex Ward’s Predicate Same (FMR CD318-0811)

PredicateAlex Ward (g, comp),Tim Hill (as, bs), Dominic Lash (b), Mark Sanders (d). Rec. September 2010.

This came out a while back but has just come my way. Imagine jazz-rock never drifted into fusion but continued its progress down the dark, unexplored by-ways of jazz. That’s what you get here. Not without precedent, perhaps. Ray Russell’s Rites and Rituals and Live at the ICA, Last Exit, Metheny and Coleman’s Song X might provide reference points – but no more than that. This is a reminder that music this visceral, this wild and cathartic is still an option.

Here the shapes, rhythms and colours of rock coexist alongside the more complex harmonic and melodic ideas of jazz and Dominic Lash and Mark Sanders are central to this music, creating polyrhythmic possibilities that constantly force the pace. Listen, for example, to the rush with which these two propel the momentum on Courtesy Class. This is a dream rhythm section and Lash’s duet with Sanders that opens Forecast is surely one of the highlights of a fine record.

Tim Hill on alto and baritone is a swaggering presence throughout and he combines beautifully with guitarist Alex Ward, who leads his men from the front. Stub is a perfect example of this. Hill solos on baritone but Ward prods and provokes with clipped chords and needling runs. His comping behind Hill on Happy New Year is open-hearted and supportive before his own solo takes the stage rich in sustain and compression. Think Zappa – it has some of that quality to it, a comparison that seems warranted here. But most of all, it is the way that Ward seems able to play both lead and rhythm at the same time which most impresses. This ability might be most evident on the guitarist’s remarkable, breath-stealing solo on Courtesy Class but it’s there too in the middle section of Forecast and in the duet with Hill that follows.

This is music that takes no prisoners. You will know us by the trail of our dead, indeed!

Alexey Kruglov and Jaak Sooäär Trio Sea Colours (SoLyd Records SLR0415)

Sea ColoursAlexey Kruglov (ss, as, basset horn, rec, v), Jaak Sooäär (g), Mihkel Mälgand (b), Tanel Ruben (d, perc). Rec. October 2011.

This is a surprise after this set-up’s Karate (Leo CDLR603). That was a stunningly powerful record, aggressive, provocative and revelling in the tension between Alexey Kruglov’s free improvising credentials and Jaak Sooäär’s more direct approach. Not that Sea Colours is for wimps. Once again, this is tough, muscular music from this Russian-Estonian quartet. The title track is a decidedly edgy affair with some astonishing bowed bass from Mälgand over spluttering sax and guitar from Sooäär and Kruglov. But this time, these guys are also willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves without embarrassment.

Kruglov is, arguably, the most important Russian jazz musician to emerge since the Ganelin Trio, Jazz Group Arkhangelsk and Sergei Kuryokhin. His series of albums for Leo Records – Russian Metaphor (Leo CD LR591), Impulse (CD LR634) and Identification (Leo CDLR616) – revealed a precocious talent but one grounded in a respect for the Russian tradition of free jazz improvisation and a love of his country’s music – both folk and classical. (see “New Routes through an Ancient Landscape”, elsewhere on this site) Given my previous comments, I hesitate to say anything that might seem like criticism here. There is nothing in his playing that makes me doubt my original assessment. There is, however, less a sense that this music comes from Eastern Europe than had been so evident in the past.

But then this is a group album with Kruglov an equal partner with Jaak Sooäär’s fine Estonian trio. Perhaps that’s the most obvious change and Sooäär has clearly grown as a composer since Karate. His two tunes here – “Sea Colours” and “Song for Myra” – are beautifully episodic pieces with rich harmonic currents running through them alongside some quite lovely melodic ideas that Kruglov and Sooäär exploit to the full. Mälgand is particularly impressive on Song for Myra adding a limpid bass solo to this gorgeous, sumptuous piece.

Perhaps the album’s most Russian moment comes with “Waltz (from the Snow-Storm)”. Its composer Georgy Sviridov studied with Dimitri Shostakovich and the group draw out the contrasts present in this composition from 1975 – itself inspired by a poem from Alexander Pushkin – to present it both as the calm before and the storm itself. Sooäär is at his most lyrical here. Kruglov’s “Poet” offers another series of dramatic tableaux and the saxophonist’s duel with drummer Tanel Ruben reveals once more this quartet’s capacity for force majeure. In fact, where Sea Colours perhaps triumphs over its predecessor lies in its ability to move from tender ballads to full-throated, full-on passionate outpourings.

Kruglov’s “Love” closes this CD with  all group’s virtues on display. There is warmth and delicacy matched with a virile authority and at times a sense of pain and hurt that threatens to overwhelm and is barely contained. But that’s ‘love’, isn’t it? A remarkable achievement from four highly talented young musicians.

Issie Barratt and the Meinrad Iten Quartet The Meinrad Iten Suite (Fuzzy Moon FUZ006)

Meinrad Iten SuiteIssie Barratt (bs, comp), Rowland Sutherland (f), Mick Foster (cl), Mark Donlon (p). Rec. September 2011.   

In less enlightened times, a record like this would provoke tedious ‘Yes, but is it jazz?’ debates. We know better now and can hear this lovely music for what it is – a meeting point between jazz and European art music but one which preserves the improvisational imperative of the best jazz.

There’s a lovely story to this record. Barratt, a stalwart and groundbreaker of British jazz education, was commissioned to compose these eleven tunes by a municipal government in Switzerland based on the paintings of her great-grandfather, Meinrad Iten. Understandably, it has proven a labour of love and it is that which strikes immediately at first hearing. Wisely, Barratt has chosen a line-up that includes a chordal instrument – and an excellent pianist in Mark Donlon, whose past dance card has included musicians as different as Christine Tobin, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler, Dudu Pukwana and Dave Liebman. It allows for a greater harmonic variation than one sometimes gets with wind trios and quartets, where counterpoint is often the main source of thematic development. That said, the woodwind outing on the lovely “Das Mädchen” makes fine use of just that, as well as exploiting the possibilities of polyphony to great effect.

Barratt’s own baritone playing is central to the record’s success, anchoring the music yet allowing it its moments of turbulence. Her beautifully weighted, elegiac solo on “Unser Vater” is followed by Rowland Sutherland’s bird-like flute and offers one of the album’s many highlights, a delightful study in contrast. Elsewhere, on “Der Weg” for example, she offers variations on the main melody allowing the other instrumentalists to embellish with their countermelodies. Ultimately, however, it is really the delicate strength of these compositions that is the big draw with The Meinrad Iten Suite. The feel is more often autumnal or wintry than filled with hints of spring but that is part of the charm of Barratt’s music. The birdsong combination of Sutherland’s flute and Foster’s clarinet on “St. Jost” might suggest the approaching vernal equinox but Barratt’s baritone tells us that winter still has cards to play. Yet, at times, these pieces can prove both witty and humorous. “Der Weg” is just one such instance.

Most of all, Barratt’s tunes and arrangements allow space for soloists whilst offering a framework within which the narrative must unfold. What we sometimes refer to as ‘Third Stream’ or ‘the jazz that dare not speak its name’. A fine album, indeed.

Living By Lanterns New Myth/Old Science Cuneiform Rune 345   

New Myth/Old ScienceTaylor Ho Bynum (c), Greg Ward (as), Ingrid Laubrock (ts), Mary Halverson (g), Tomeka Reid (clo), Jason Adasiewicz (vib), Joshua Abrams (b), Tomas Fujiwara (d), Mike Reed (d, elec) plus Nick Butcher (add elec tracks 1 and 4). Rec. September 2011.

This is one of those occasions when what looked good on paper worked to perfection in practice. Chicago percussionist Mike Read was commissioned a few years ago to create a performance in response to material from the Sun Ra material from the Sun Ra archive held by the Experimental Sound Studio. New Myth/Old Science is the result, a carefully crafted set of arrangements by Reed and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz of unreleased compositions and improvisations by the great man.

The sleevenotes tell us that Reed concentrated his energies on a tape from 1961, what the notes describe as a collection of ‘stream-of-consciousness ideas’ and which were then used to fashion wholly new compositions. It’s fair to say that the music here hints at and acknowledges Sun Ra rather than offering un hommage. Better you don’t come to this expecting to find Ra himself but take it for what it is – a beautifully poised and realised set of tunes in its own right.

And there is much to enjoy here. Adasiewicz’s vibes on “Shadow Boxer’s Delight” has all the fast stepping, ducking and weaving of the title, whilst Greg Ward’s alto that follows jabs and prods with unerring precision. “Think Tank” is perhaps the strongest – and longest – track here. It unfolds quite beautifully through a series of musical episodes from its opening vibes and sax introduction through some gorgeous sonorities from the horns. Mary Halverson’s delightfully eccentric guitar solo follows before Adasiewicz’s vibes and Taylor Ho Bynum’s extend the abstract, angular complexities of the piece still further. Ra is most present, perhaps, in the awareness of the traditions of the music that we also find in New Myth/Old Science . It comes across most strongly on “Forget B” with its oblique take on bebop and in Ingrid Laubrock’s spluttering but flowing tenor solo and in the more obviously boppish “2000 West Erie” with its excellent alto work from Greg Ward.

Elsewhere, there’s a lovely, fragmentary duet between Ho Bynum and bassist Abrams on “Grow Lights”, joined halfway by Halverson’s spidery guitar, and the near-march of “Old Science”, which drives at a frenetic pace with another fine solo from Laubrock. One senses that this record was a joy to make from conception through planning to execution. Who knows? Maybe, it will help bring neophytes to the music of the old myth-maker himself.

Jason Robinson Tiresian Symmetry Cuneiform Rune 346

Tiresian SymmetryJason Robinson (ss, ts, af), Marty Ehrlich (as, bcl, cf), J.D. Parran (acl, cbcl, ts), Marcus Rojas (tba), Bill Lowe (tba, btb), Liberty Ellman (g), Drew Gress (b), George Schuller (d), Ches Smith (d, glockenspiel). Rec. February 2012.

Any musician who numbers Eugene Chadbourne, Peter Kowald, Anthony Davis, Toots and the Maytals and the San Francisco Mime Troupe amongst his past sparing partners has got to be worth checking out. This is Robinson’s second album for Cuneiform – his third if you count the group outing Cosmologic’s Eyes in the Back of My Head from 2008 – and it’s a vibrant, joyous record indeed.

The use of tuba alongside master bassist Drew Gress is a clever stroke. As well as its surprising flexibility as a front-line instrument in the hands of Marcus Rojas and Bill Lowe it adds a wonderful propulsive energy to proceedings. Listen to the opening track, “Stratum 3” and you’ll hear how well this strategy works. I’m guessing here but I think it is Rojas’ who solos on this number over twin drums and it makes for a thing of beauty. In fact, one of the things that really hits home with Tiresian Symmetry is how strong it is rhythmically. With its two drummers – George Schuller and Ches Smith – bass, tubas and drums combine to offer complex layers of rhythm that continually lift the soul and make the feet want to move.

If the title suggests that there’s a bit of mythology and Ancient Greek numerology behind Robinson’s thinking here, that’s an extra and the music here is warm-hearted and approachable and yet constantly eschews the easy option. Make no mistake. This is music that is elegantly structured and beautifully executed.

The two part “Elbow Grease” is a case in point. Robinson opens with a lengthy solo improvisation that then leads into a funky, pulsating little big band number that never lets up. The support from Gress, the two drummers and guitarist Liberty Ellman behind Robinson’s tenor continually provokes and cajoles before the other horns enter and throw the whole game into chaos. There’s something quite Ellingtonian to the title track in combined sound of the three reeds here and Marty Ehrlich– long one of my favourite players – produces a lovely sinuous solo on bass clarinet, whilst Drew Gress’s bass is discursive and questioning. Robinson, here as elsewhere, is authoritative and commanding with that big, bold sound he has on tenor. I hear further echoes of Ellington on “Radiate”, albeit with a hint or two of Frank Zappa. Fine solo too, I think, from J.D. Parran.

Whether it’s the furious funk of “Saros”, the commanding presence of Robinson on “Tiresian Symmetry” and “Elbow Grease” or the classy use of counterpoint on the closing track, “Cosmolographie, this may well be Jason Robinson’s finest album to date.

Circuit Illusion FMR CD337-0412

Circuit IllusionJon Seagroat (ss, bcl, f, elec), Trevor Taylor (electronic & acoustic perc), Tim Chatzigiannis (laptop, elec). Rec. February 2012.

Percussionist Trevor Taylor’s interest in electro-acoustic music goes back to the mid-nineties. Illusion develops that interest into what is Taylor’s most successful foray into the field to date. It begins slowly, taking its time with a few notes or sounds carrying perhaps more than their actual weight. By the fourth of these twelve tracks, a sense emerges of something more exploratory, still minimalist maybe, but also more penetrating and disruptive than that term implies. The credit for this seems to lie with John Seagroat whose soprano sax provokes Taylor into a more responsive mode, whilst Chatzigiannis’s electronics and real-time processing also come more to the fore.

Clearly, music such as this is concerned with texture but it also derives from free improvisation the possibility of movement. It need not just occupy the soundscape but can move through it. This is Seagroat’s contribution here. It is as if he tires of equilibrium and craves imbalance. His flute on the fifth and sixth tracks illustrates this perfectly, a strong, almost at times percussive tone matched by the increased involvement of his partners. Taylor’s percussion now becomes more forthright and even ominous and Chatzigiannis begins to draw out Koto-like melodies that contrast with the static or gurgling sounds that are the electronic musician’s stock-in-trade.

It is on track seven that Illusion goes beyond a mere combination of three musicians and becomes a group music based on dyads and triads of conversation. This reaches its best expression from the ninth track onwards. Whether it is the combination of Seagroat’s brooding, dark bass clarinet with Taylor’s percussion or how his flute joins with the church organ sounds of electronics, it is here that Illusion becomes something quite special within the genre of electro-acoustic music. With track eleven Taylor’s percussion provides a stately pulse behind Seagroat’s clarinet over the echoes and distortions of electronic processing. The final cut fully realises my best hopes for this record as Seagroat’s soprano leads the way through the shifting electronic and percussive landscape provided by Chatzigiannis and Taylor. This is a thoughtful and at times quite outstanding piece of music-making.

Gavin Templeton Asterperious Special Nine Winds NWCD0294

Asterperious SpecialGavin Templeton (as), Larry Koonse (g), Gary Fukushima (p), Darek Oles (b), Joe LaBarbera (d). Rec. January 2010.

Another very smart album from Nine Winds and proof, were it needed, that music that it is approachable can also challenge and provoke. Inspired by Gavin Templeton’s grandfather’s experiences as a navigator with a B24 bomber (the “Asterperious Special” of the title) in World War II, the music is reflective rather than filled with the dramas of war. The writing is strong and has a constant sense of forward movement. Most of all, however, it is the way the performances and the compositions combine that makes this record so appealing.

The title track showcases Templeton, whose almost clarinet-like sound on alto is one of the most striking aspects of the group’s sound. The sense of flow is palpable whether in Templeton’s solo or that from Koonse that follows. The tune has a kind of loping swing to it that is so easy to hear but so very hard to achieve. “Misplaced Optimism” has a Latin, Bossa Nova feel and is graced by some fine alto from Templeton, whilst “The Divide” is more of a waltz with some gorgeous limpid piano from Gary Fukushima. “Grace in Concession” is one of the most lovely pieces here but, sadly, is over far too soon. It must be said that the presence here of veteran drummer Joe LaBarbera is a constant pleasure. He is given little solo space but no matter – he constantly catches your attention with rolls and fills that support and entice the soloist to greater efforts.

If I have a criticism, it is that despite – or because of – the even pace of the record it needed a more uptempo, upbeat ending, something more than the gentle swing of “Ya Moosh!” It has an exclamation mark at the end, guys – why not put one there in the music? But that takes little away from the journey itself.  Asterperious Special is special enough.

Slumgum + Hugh Ragin The Sky His Own Nine Winds NWCD0293

The Sky His OwnJohn Armstrong (ss, ts), Rory Cowal (p), David Tranchina (b), Trevor Anderies (d) plus Hugh Ragin (c). Rec. 2012?

I had little idea what to expect here, though the presence of trumpeter-cornettist Hugh Ragin certainly boded well. Here, he joins the Slumgum quartet for their second album. The Sky His Own blends elements of abstraction with writing that combines sharp melodic hooks over a strong rhythmic backbeat. One of its best attributes is the fact that these four musicians – plus Ragin – insist on serving the group and the music without grandstanding.

Ragin’s “Silver Cornet News” is one case in point. The tune negotiates its way through a series of a cappella performances by each member whilst never losing its dynamic sense. It’s a marvellous statement of intent. Jon Armstrong’s hymnal “Farewell” is a fine piece of music that seems to draw from that mid-western protestant musical tradition in ways that are both ironic and yet respectful as well. Its loose structure and the freedom it allows reminded me of Ives’ “Country Band March”. Yet, Slumgum can do straightahead too – witness the fast-paced, boppish “Bread and Butter”, with excellent playing from Ragin and Armstrong, and the opener “Zoyoki Gnoki” with its lovely lyrical solos from Cowal and Tranchina.

“Kyo” is more confusing being even more unwilling to settle on one particular mood. It begins so slowly it would make John Cage seem innervated but then builds into a bravura duet between the horns over flowing rhythms and splashing cymbals. If anything, the record becomes increasingly abstract with the final two tracks “Inherent Vibrations” and “Minuet” but even here there’s a sense of tradition in the latter’s nod towards New Orleans marching bands – an assurance perhaps that Slumgum have all bases covered with authority and confidence. Some very good records are simply that. The Sky His Own is one of those.

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2 Responses to March CD Reviews – Alex Ward, Slumgum, Jason Robinson, Issie Barratt et al

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