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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Alan Sondheim: Cutting Board (ESP-Disk')


Short because it was written to fit on one panel of a "digipak." Not included: how funny Alan is; how neurotic he is; how incredibly prolific he is, far beyond his discography of released albums. Almost every day he posts a track of freshly improvised music on ESP-Disk's Facebook page.

Alan Sondheim is the first artist from ESP-Disk's 1964-75 heyday to return, since it was revived in 2005, to issue an album of new material on the fabled label. We find it especially appropriate that he does so during ESP's second annual 50th anniversary celebration. It was in 1963 that owner Bernard Stollman recorded ESP's first album, Ni Kantu En Esperanto, which gave ESP its name; 1964 was when he first began recording the avant-garde jazz artists who would make the label famous, and these were first issued in 1965.

Sondheim joined the roster with a 1967 session, Ritual-All-7-70, then followed up with 1968's T'Other Little Tune. (Drumming on the latter was Joel Zabor; now known as Rafi Zabor, he reunited with Sondheim at ESP's 50th anniversary concert in November 2013.)

Sondheim got his musical start as a guitarist, but soon moved into a much more original sound utilizing a vast array of instruments from around the world. His instrument collection has only grown in variety all these decades later. Cutting Board, his eighth album, is his first instrumental group album; his other albums have always either been solo (and there are two solo tracks on Cutting Board as well) or, like this year's Avatar Woman with partner Azure Carter on the Public Eyesore label, featured female vocalists. His collaborators here intertwine saxophone lines that offer a relatively consistent set of timbres against which Sondheim's arsenal of sounds presents contrasting textures in music of great energy and variety.

Though he's a pure improviser, Sondheim rightly insists that he doesn't play jazz; even playing with two saxophonists, he's outside that tradition's spectrum. The eclecticism of the sounds he's working with sonically can tenuously seem to connect him to world music, but he doesn't play the instruments in traditional ways. And on rare occasions you can hear the blues lurking, but I wouldn't bet on Living Blues putting him on the cover. Maybe if somebody starts a music magazine (or website) called Beyond Category, then Sondheim can be a cover subject.

Bud Powell: Live at the Blue Note Cafe, Paris 1961 (ESP-Disk')


When I put together this reissue, my focus was on fixing the track indexing (on the original CD release, if you just played the whole thing through, you'd never notice any problem, but if you skipped to a track, you'd be starting a few seconds into it) and using the original cover art, a pencil drawing by Francis Paudras. I probably should have had somebody with more Powell expertise write the booklet notes, but had to economize and thus wrote them myself. I could not have managed without constant reference to Peter Pullman's detailed biography Wail: The Life of Bud Powell, which I highly recommend. I bought it directly from Mr. Pullman via his website, and so should you!

Bud Powell moved to Paris, France at the end of March 1959. A 1954 arrest in Philadelphia for possession of heroin had cost him his cabaret card after his 1955 guilty plea in the case, so, for several years, he had been legally barred from steady gigs in New York City and had had to, instead, rely on out-of-town bookings, which did not always go well, given his mental problems and addictions. In contrast, a two-week engagement in November 1957, at Club Saint-Germain in Paris, had gone well.

Once in Paris, Powell soon hooked up with drummer Kenny Clarke, with whom he had made history in the previous decade on the jam sessions and recordings in which bebop was created. Clarke had had a band with Lester Young at the Blue Note Café, from January '57 into March (following which, Young, quite ill, returned to New York and immediately died). So Powell's arrival was fortuitous; he and Clarke played at the Blue Note for all of April. In December, they reconvened at the club, with bassist Pierre Michelot and—avoiding the question of who was the bandleader, though it was Bud who called the tunes—billed themselves as The Three Bosses. With time out for tours and festival appearances, they worked there for much of 1960 and '61 The first three tracks here, with Zoot Sims, date from January 1961.

Powell's alcoholism, prankishness, or a combination of both got the best of him in January 1962, when the Blue Note fired him for stealing a customer's drink. (Kenny Drew replaced him.) Powell then worked in Switzerland, Sweden, Copenhagen, and Norway for much of the rest of the year. Eventually, another visiting American saxophonist, Johnny Griffin, asked for Powell to accompany him at the Blue Note, and Powell got back in the club's good graces by 1963.

The longer trio set, recorded by Alan Douglas, is from 1961, although one discography, without explaining why, puts it in 1962, without pinning the date down any further. Though this is unlikely, were it true, it would have to have taken place in the first week of January '62, just before Powell was fired. It's hard to believe that anyone, while listening to Powell navigate the fleet tempos of these bebop standards, would care all that much about what might be as little as a matter of a week's difference.

Powell's work, from 1954 on, is generally denigrated, and certainly this always erratic artist, after a police beating, various shock therapies crudely administered during involuntary stays at mental institutions, the ravages of heroin and alcohol abuse, and the side effects of chlorpromazine AKA thorazine, was only rarely able to approach the top-notch digital technique he had flaunted in his youth. But sometimes, as in these concerts, he had good nights, and the greater expressiveness of his later years has its own attractions. His time in France rejuvenated him and spared him the hassles and, to some degree, the temptations of New York that had dragged him down. Nearing the sunset of his career, his musical light could still burst through the clouds and dazzle his faithful listeners.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Bob Moses: Devotion (Soul Note 121173)

It turned out, somewhat embarrassingly, that five of the tracks on Devotion had been released already on an out-of-print 1980 LP titled Family on the small Sutra Records label. Soul Note learned this when a reviewer pointed it out. Within a few years, expanded use of the internet would make such an error much less likely to occur.


The band here is Moses (drums/percussion), David Liebman (soprano saxophone), Terumasa Hino (cornet, percussion), Steve Kuhn (piano), and Steve Swallow (bass).

Issuing the early work of a jazz musician 17 years after it was recorded carries with it a heavy burden of expectation and responsibility. The musician better be somebody of stature, or his historic document will be dismissed with a simple "so what?" or worse (anybody remember the critical reaction to Harry Connick Jr.'s album of his work as an 11-year-old? Ouch!) And the music better be of more than scholarly interest, or it will speak only to a small coterie. The tapes that Bob Moses's father found in his basement pass both these acid tests easily.

Multi-instrumentalist Bob Moses, born in New York City in 1948, was playing piano, vibes, and drums when he was ten years old and within two years was jamming with Charles Mingus, who was one of his press agent father's clients. He paid his dues as a teenage vibraphonist in the Big Apple's thriving Latin music scene and at the age of 18 formed what many consider the first electric jazz-rock group, Free Spirits (which included Jim Pepper and Larry Coryell). He subsequently played in a wide variety of jazz contexts with David Liebman's Open Sky, various Gary Burton groups, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Hal Galper and the Brecker Brothers, and large groups led by Mike Gibbs and George Gruntz, among others. When Gramavision released 1982's When Elephants Dream of Music and 1983's Visit with the Great Spirit, they brought Moses critical acclaim and a broad audience. Yet he has recorded only intermittently since then, partly because he's been expanding his musical palette with trips abroad.

Thus, previously unheard music by Moses is even more welcome for mitigating the paucity of releases. But this album may be a revelation for those who know his music only from the later releases, which tend to be for large ensembles and of polyglot style. To say the quintet documented here is an all-star aggregation is not to engage in hyperbole, but merely to state the obvious. The talents of the players are given much more space than Moses's subsequent large-group works generally afford, and the context is at first glance more traditional, but the search for new sounds and structures found in the later works is already evident here; it's obvious at every turn that this was no jam session, but rather a carefully arranged date.

Thoughout this album, compositions unfold in a highly organic manner, with each section flowing into the next without obvious demarcations. It's as though, having decided that the tonal colors of the instruments and the styles of the players offer contrast enough, Moses wove his music from strands rather than building it from blocks. Jazz references name-check Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and other bandleaders as influences on Moses's arranging, comparisons aiming obviously at Moses's large-group work; this quintet suggests that, structurally and developmentally, the subtle free jazz Jimmy Giuffre conceived in a trio format (to which Swallow was a major contributor) may have pointed towards some of the paths Moses travels down here, though the compositions are more worked out and a harmonic underpinning is almost always in evidence even if not always the governing feature.

"Autumn Liebs" is unsurprisingly a feature for Liebman, who solos first and longest; what is a surprise is that he's on tenor saxophone (as he is throughout the album) rather than on soprano sax. In fact, in the year following this recording he gave up tenor and flute to concentrate on the straight horn. His active (but not cluttered) style on this tune belies the accusation of Coltrane-clone often flung at his tenor work, covering a much broader bop and post-bop range in a thoroughly integrated way. Hino follows with a solo that seems ruminative even during its most expostulative outbursts and high-altitude moments; the longer it goes on, the more fragmentary his lines, lending a questioning quality, until Hino's phrases become so short that when Moses fills in the gaps with accents, it seems as though the two musicians are trading off. Kuhn's high-octane swirls follow in an effective contrast, and when the piece's hesitant theme returns, Kuhn underlines it with gusts and flurries.

"Heaven" is a ballad with an unusual structure: cornet and sax play the theme in unison, then repeat it with the tenor gradually diverging more to echo and comment. When Hino solos, Liebman continues to interject, as though the theme-and-divergence method were being continued, though by the second chorus it's Kuhn rather than Liebman who fills in the gaps. When Kuhn's solo begins, the effect at first is as if Hino has merely paused a bit longer. Kuhn's solo gradually becomes fuller, with his bright right-hand roulades balanced by weighty comping by the left hand, until Hino and Liebman return with the theme over Kuhn's most ornate runs. It is a highly organic arrangement that thoughtfully avoids the predictability and compartmentalization of head-instrument 1 solo-instrument 2 solo-instrument 3 solo-head structures.

The uptempo "Radio" has the merest excuse of a theme, its main characteristic being its asymmetrical phrase lengths and seemingly abrupt conclusion. In fact, it's a perfectly typical 32-bar length, but the ever-shifting phrase lengths with their unexpected pauses and extensions will throw listeners off-balance even on repeated hearings. Rising out of the absence of theme, Swallow steps to the fore for the first time, and then Hino plays his most fiery runs yet. The solos are not long, and after a typically bravura Kuhn excursion, Liebman charges in to top him. Throughout, Moses swings hard and fast, and after Hino spices the end of Liebman's solo, the theme gets played twice in a more assertive and less disconcerting fashion.

The oddly titled "Snake and Pygmy Pie" lays out a modal groove mostly carried by Swallow's ostinato pattern, with a sinister cornet/tenor melody full of pregnant pauses twining through Kuhn's spare Orientalisms while Moses plays a very free pulse. The textures are pared down even further when Swallow and Kuhn drop out, with Liebman and Hino trading figures which are more gestures than phrases, often overlapping, while Moses shifts the rhythm constantly. When the horns drop out, Kuhn and Swallow re-enter, both playing the ostinato figure, while Moses solos (a welcome change from the usual unaccompanied nature of drum solos). A lengthier and more elaborate variation on the style of the beginning turns into a coda that conjures the icy elegance of some of the quieter moments of electric-period Miles (a former employer of Liebman and an obvious influence on Hino, who on open cornet often manages to evoke a Harmon mute sound) with utterly different materials and procedures.

On "St. Elmo" (a reference to underappreciated bebop pianist/composer Elmo Hope, perhaps?), Hino finally does use a mute, recalling Miles's Prestige years. The piece seems continually to come to a close even in its earliest segments, yet keeps starting up again. The gorgeous ballad features Hino for quite a while until Kuhn takes over briefly with a strangely swirling line in which every accent is placed with lapidary precision, like Monk playing a Bill Evans tune. The oddly coda-like character of the entire piece, with Liebman entering late and Hino's fragile tone so predominant, leaves an elegaic impression at the same time it continually unsettles expectations; when it finally does cease to start up again, the effect is breathtaking.

The speedy "Portsmouth Figuration" has another odd, and quite short, head, with a few note-filled snippets of varying lengths alternating with brief, frenetic solos, with Swallow's trotting (this is too fast for walking) and Moses's headlong rush of a cymbal beat holding it together. Hino again plays fragmentary lines during most of his short solo, contrasting strongly with the robust, perpetual-motion lines Liebman spins out next. Moses then takes an unaccompanied solo of JATP-like proportions, shifting kaleidoscopically through a variety of patterns spiced up with some percussion sounds definitely not found in a standard drum kit. Through all the pauses and twists, his momentum never flags until he fades out before the oh-so-brief reappearance of the instruments.

The melody of "Christmas '78" is awfully nostalgic, in a fairly melancholic if hardly depressed tone, for a holiday a mere eight months past at the time of recording. Though Kuhn's comping under Hino's solo, along with Swallow's rhythm, is sometimes quite jaunty, it alternates with a foreboding modal pattern utterly lacking in cheer. Hino's improvisations here are much more of a piece than elsewhere on the album, and within a relatively narrow range. Similarly, Kuhn's solo is at first more restrained and less overtly virtuosic than his established norm on the other tracks. He takes us through a series of juxtaposed moods ranging from chirpy to ironic, all seemingly with quotes around them. Liebman's pensive, Shorteresque solo has an elliptical quality that leads into a unison restatement with Hino of the regret-laden theme.

Hino opens "Devotion" by himself in his most heart-wrenching tone, developing the nagging motif with some mildly avant timbres before returning to his plushly mellow tone. Swallow takes over with a minimal, broadly paced ostinato just barely accompanied by Moses, leading finally to the theme. A regal melody laid out in long notes, it has a flavor of archaic majesty to it that all the players emphasize as they simultaneously embroider it, slowly crescendoing in volume and intensity. The title helps suggest a sort of ritualistic worshipfulness, and the ever-increasing fervor of the players suggests this devotion brings with it an ecstasy surpassing verbal expression. Kuhn in particular utterly submerges his florid tendencies in a chiming procession of block chords. The bends and tonal inflections of Hino and the plangent, mournful sound Liebman draws from his horn, which eventually is stripped down to a long held tone, give way to Swallow's final statement of the ostinato and then to silence. It is the most organic and elliptical of all Moses's arrangements on this masterful session, and its hushed rather than bravura ending, like all of them, heeds conventional ideas only to quietly subvert them. Here's hoping Richard Moses finds some more tapes in his basement.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Azure Carter & Alan Sondheim: Avatar Woman (Public Eyesore)

Another job of recent vintage. I met Alan Sondheim through my work at ESP-Disk', and became friends when he and his partner Azure Carter lived a short walk away (now, alas, they have relocated to Providence, RI -- which is lucky to have them, but apparently unaware of its luck). Hanging out at their place listening to Alan demonstrate the sounds of his huge collection of instruments from around the world was a whole education in itself. I was happy to pitch in with these booklet notes when asked, and I heartily recommend acquiring this album.

Listen to any track on this album. Have you ever heard someone else who sings like Azure Carter? I sure haven't. Have you heard anyone who plays as a wide range of instruments, with such gleeful abandon, as Alan Sondheim does? Me neither. Put them together and this may be the most original and unique sound to come along in years, even decades perhaps.

Carter's lyrics are, I am told, related to and/or inspired by Second Life, an online virtual world. That may have significance for some, perhaps even great significance, but even a Luddite such as myself can enjoy them and interpret them in the context of meatbag life: longings for contact and connection, deconstructions of our strategies for satisfying that longing, self-analyses and reflection. Between the conundrums and quirks of that search and the restless music underpinning them, this is an album of unease, of a hypermodern sense of overwhelming possibility, even though sometimes Carter's cadences sound eerily like Psalms or the Song of Solomon (you can hear this right off the bat on "Among the Ferns").

About that music. Alan Sondheim, an underground icon from the '60s thanks to a 1967 debut album on Riverboat that made the infamous Nurse With Wound list, followed up with two albums on notorious outsider label ESP-Disk', has made a 21st-century comeback (in the interim, he established himself as an academic pioneering cyberspace theory). His improvised music resists all genre labels, though one can hear, in the sounds of the instruments chosen if not always the non-traditional techniques he uses to play them, so-called world music; on the tracks Ed Schneider and Chris Diasparra play on, there are traces of jazz in their contributions; and Sondheim's early blues roots shine through on "Credo." It is music based on gesture and timbre rather than harmony and/or melody, and rhythmically abjures beats. "That 'mama heartbeat,' that 'bom-bom-bom' — it's so boring, it's so banal," Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart once said. "I want things to change like the patterns and shadows that fall from the sun." Sondheim's improvisations are like that, except as though played by a metabolism operating at a faster rate of speed, or filmed and fast-forwarded. 

Yet there's an opposite effect, or rather a balance, brought by what Sondheim is doing with timbre — and, thanks to a broad and ever-changing instrument collection drawn from around the world, he's got a dazzling array of timbres available to him, with Schneider and Diasparra adding even more to the collective color palette. When apprehended by a listener acutely attuned to timbre rather than rhythm or the chimeras of melody and harmony, the scurrying gestures of his instrumental lines blur into clouds of sounds that paradoxically suggest a sort of perpetual-motion stasis. But there is no paradox, rather the Buddhist refusal to treat with dichotomy, a suggestion of the infinite possibilities in every moment and every movement. The way Carter's voice frictionlessly twists and slides through the buffeting textures and fits into the cracks amid those timbres/possibilities perfectly complements and reflects that infinity as she and Sondheim paint with sound on the canvas of time.

The Albert Ayler Story (ESP4072)

Something current, for a change. This accompanies a download-only July 2014 release with four disc's worth of tracks, mixing music and interviews.

Albert Ayler, one of the most controversial and polarizing musicians in the history of jazz, was accused of not being able to play his instrument, so radically did he reboot the whole idea of jazz saxophone. But consider this: in his youth in Cleveland, he was nicknamed "Little Bird" for his ability to mimic Charlie Parker, and later such old-school tenorists as Don Byas and Illinois Jacquet praised Ayler's playing.

The son of a saxophonist, Ayler was born in Cleveland on July 13, 1936, and from an early age was attracted to music. His father gave him his first lessons, starting him on alto sax. After excelling in both school and church bands, Albert began playing in professional bands in his mid-teens, famously being recruited for the band of blues harmonica great Little Walter Jacobs, who took him on tour. Ayler spent two years in Jacobs's band and also went on the road with New Orleans R&B singer Lloyd Price. At age 22, he joined the Army and was assigned to a Special Services band (an example of his playing in this context is included here), which basically meant he was still being a professional musician while he served for three years (and on top of that, he could take gigs in nearby Louisville). Eventually, he was posted to France, and also got to visit Denmark and Sweden.

During his time in service, he switched to tenor saxophone and began working on developing a more personal and revolutionary style. When he returned to the States, the change shocked old acquaintances. He was discharged in 1961, at which point Ornette Coleman had become notorious for playing microtonally and ignoring chord progressions, but Ayler went even farther into free improvisation. Faced with rejection in his native land (not only in Cleveland, but also during a brief sojourn in Los Angeles), Ayler returned to Sweden in April 1962.

He was out of place there too, playing with musicians who didn't fit his new style, but it's nonetheless historically fascinating to be able to chart his growth by listening to his June 1962 radio session in Finland, as guest with a band led by Swedish guitarist Herbert Katz – the first recorded example of Ayler's new approach. His rendition of "Summertime" brings to mind clarinetist Tony Scott's anecdote about a time, years later, when Albert sat in with his group and played the same tune: "…he went way out, you know. I turned to [fellow clarinetist] Perry Robinson and said, 'Does he know "Summertime"? He said, 'Forget that and listen to what he's playing!'" Ayler also sometimes got to play in the company of more adventurous and empathetic compatriots, notably with the Cecil Taylor Quartet the following month, as heard on an excerpt here that focuses on Albert's solo amid a free improvisation. By the time he left Europe and returned to the U.S. in 1963, he had recorded two albums, though again with relatively incompatible local sidemen.

When he returned to his home country, it was not to Cleveland, but to the center of the jazz world: New York City. Near the end of 1963, a friend of Ayler's urged Bernard Stollman, a lawyer who occasionally helped musicians, sometimes for no recompense, to go uptown to Harlem to hear Ayler sit in on an Elmo Hope gig. When Ayler got up to play, the other musicians stopped playing, but Ayler was used to such behavior by this time; it never stopped him from playing, and he played solo for twenty to thirty minutes. Stollman was overwhelmed by the intensity of Ayler's music. Earlier that year, Stollman had issued an album of music and poetry, Ni Kantu en Esperanto, to promote the constructed language Esperanto, of which Stollman was an enthusiast; he had named his label ESP for that reason.

Stollman's enthusiasm for Ayler's music led him to immediately propose issuing an Ayler LP. Ayler said he already had a session scheduled for the following February at Atlantic Studios (these recordings were eventually issued as Witches & Devils [AKA Spirits] and Swing Low Sweet Spiritual [AKA Goin' Home]), but that he would be in touch after that. To Stollman's surprise, Albert kept his promise. He had put together a trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sonny Murray that meant he was playing regularly with like-minded innovators, so their July 10, 1964 session went well, to say the least. In fact, it was a milestone of jazz. It would not be much of a stretch to say that ESP-Disk made Albert Ayler famous and Ayler made ESP famous. Ayler had impressed a few colleagues on the avant-garde jazz scene, but was little known before 1965, when ESP released his album Spiritual Unity, the label's first album of jazz, recorded at that 1964 session.

Spiritual Unity presented a new paradigm for improvisation. Not even Ornette Coleman's groups played with so little structure, standard pitch, and steady rhythm. Even Ornette had a system; Ayler ran on pure, unbridled emotion. Ayler's sound was so unprecedented, and so much rawer than any other jazz of the time, that poet Ted Joans famously likened it to "screaming the word FUCK in St. Patrick's Cathedral." Sometimes, it was expressed in squalls of untempered sound, sometimes in outbursts of poignant spontaneous melody. Meanwhile, under and around the leader's effusions, Peacock and Murray reinvented the roles of their instruments. Spiritual Unity ranks among the most influential 29 minutes on record in jazz, and "Ghosts," "The Wizard," and "Spirits" became familiar touchstones of "The New Thing," as this revolutionary musical movement was dubbed.

ESP followed up this success with many Ayler releases, some years later – more than by any other artist on the label. Three more 1964 recordings eventually appeared on ESP. Prophecy documented an earlier (June 14) trio performance at the Cellar Café in New York with, aside from the title track, the same repertoire as Spiritual Unity, but more loosely organized. It was recorded by Canadian poet Paul Haines.

The soundtrack for the art film New York Eye and Ear Control was recorded seven days after Spiritual Unity; it was a free improvisation for which Ayler's trio was joined by trumpeter Don Cherry, alto saxophonist John Tchicai, and trombonist Roswell Rudd. Even freer than Spiritual Unity, it's been called the link between Coleman's Free Jazz and Coltrane's Ascension. It is certainly not an iota inferior to Spiritual Unity, and the interaction with Cherry has led some to rank it even higher.

Another Ayler/Cherry collaboration that didn't appear until many years later, The Hilversum Session, was recorded at the end of a European tour with Cherry, Peacock, and Murray for a Netherlands radio station. It has not been blessed with the reputation of Spiritual Unity because of its tardy release, but it is just as boldly brilliant, the culmination of their year's work. We also sample a gig from earlier on that tour, this time without Cherry.

1965 yielded Ayler treasures as well as his style shifted. The transitional Bells was just 20 minutes (here we sample the beginning], released originally as one side of a clear vinyl LP with the other side. It was recorded at a May 1 Town Hall concert of ESP artists, displaying Ayler's new group. Murray remained, Albert's brother Donald joined on trumpet, and Lewis Worrell held down the bass slot. The denser sound of "Bells" shows Ayler moving towards the bigger sonic statement made on Spirits Rejoice, a September 23 Judson Hall session (ESP used the empty concert hall as a "studio," its reverberation adding to the bigness of the sound). Albert and Donald were joined in the frontline by Charles Tyler on alto sax while Peacock paired with fellow bassist Henry Grimes, with Murray a constant. Both Ayler's playing and the band sound are even more intense than before, the parts of the players sometimes only loosely related. Some defended it as an energetic ensemble style harkening back to the early days of New Orleans jazz in its intertwining of independent lines; it came to be called "energy music" and started a movement that continues to the present day in the playing of Charles Gayle, Sabir Mateen, and Peter Brötzmann.

In 1966 Ayler was signed by the Impulse! label, but a pair of LPs recorded at Slug's Saloon that May 1 was released by ESP many years later. It showcases Albert's regular group of that time: Donald, violinist Michel Samson, Worrell, and drummer Ron Jackson, AKA Ronald Shannon Jackson, continuing Ayler's run of superb, innovative drummers. The less-than-hi-fi sonics pale to insignificance in the face of the sheer power of the performances. A few non-Impulse! concert performances from '66-67 further extend our view of Ayler's evolution.

When Ayler's band went through Customs in July 1970 on their way to play at a festival in France, keyboardist Call Cobbs got held back and arrived a day late. Minus Cobbs, the band played anyway. The music-making of the resulting ensemble is freer and more adventurous than on the quintet's following Maeght Foundation concerts. This unique document, Ayler's penultimate recording, thus brings him back to something close to the trio setting in which he first found fame. Bassist Steve Tintweiss (who decades later brought his cassette tape of the concert to ESP) and drummer Allen Blairman are sometimes joined on Live on the Riviera by Ayler's partner Mary Maria, who adds occasional vocals and, once, another sax. Exactly four months later, Ayler's body would be found in the East River.

To dwell on how small Ayler's recorded repertoire was, and how often his bands recorded the same tunes, would be to miss the vastly larger point that the playing of both Ayler and his band mates was of such great spontaneity and imagination that no two performances are remotely the same beyond their themes. Ayler's influence at the time and for decades to come was based on his ESP records much more than his work for any other labels (yes, we're biased, but we're hardly the only ones who think that), but given the briefness of his career, every recording of Albert Ayler is precious musically and spiritually.

Richie Beirach - The Snow Leopard (Evidence)

The Snow Leopard is a 1997 trio record with George Mraz, bass; Billy Hart, drums; plus Gregor Huebner, violin, on a few tracks. This is one of my favorite notes. I always find it more interesting to talk with the artist about the album, and Mr. Beirach was very friendly and open during an afternoon in his apartment. In particular, his earlier Blue Note recording of the first piece in Musica Callada by Federico Mompou had been my introduction to Mompou's music, and talking about Mompou with him strengthened my desire to track down all of Mompou's recordings of his own piano music.

Thanks also to Jerry Gordon of Evidence Records for the assignment. It was the first liner note job I got from a label other than Black Saint/Soul Note, where I had worked for several years.

Over the course of Brooklyn-born pianist Richie Beirach’s long and respected career, he has never made an album as full of variety as The Snow Leopard. “I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done before,” he explains, “and that had always previously been a problem and dangerous, [which] is to bring together very disparate, seemingly stylistic possible clashes. It’s one of the things that I’m always very aware of making a record, that you don’t just put a bunch of tunes on it--you don’t have to have a big concept either--but the way music dovetails into each other is very important, and it’s ultimately more important than the actual content. Some of the music on The Snow Leopard is straightahead in a sense, like that tune "Citizen Code," that’s swinging, and it’s tonal. And then to do something like the Bartok duo, which is completely different language, different instrumentation, and contemporary music. It just happens that I really enjoy doing all those different things. I usually do them on separate albums. Putting these things together, I just wanted to give myself a challenge, surprise the guys I’ve been playing with for 20 years, and hopefully come out with some fresh things as a result of different combinations.”

Though Beirach didn’t think it all out beforehand, he does have strong feelings about how the different items balance each other, and how the sequence flows. “In terms of chromatic or tonal or simple harmonic [language], the intensity of the Bartok piece is very similar to "Redemption," except that the instrumentation is different. We also do "Peace Piece," and that is very stark because it’s pure C major. "The Wee Small Hours," you know, a standard, Frank Sinatra, is very dark. I mean, the tune is in major, I put it in A minor instead of C major. I saw that as a balancing act to "Naima" and "Peace Piece." For me what is the difficult thing to integrate is not the playing, it’s the harmonic language, and then the rhythmic phrasing. See, the rhythmic phrasing in "Naima" [is] very, very, not conservative, but accessible. We’re not slipping around over bars disguising it very abstractly. You can count it. I wanted that. Whereas "Redemption" is like a volcano.”

One of the reasons "Redemption" stands out is because it comes right after "Expression." “Now the reason I put them together, "Expression" was Coltrane’s last tune. If you listen to Coltrane’s recording of it, they play the head with Alice and Rashied, and then they go off and scream. They don’t ever use the chord progression, even rubato. I realized when I saw the tune, that the tune is so important, because it combines a lot of Coltrane’s tunes from the past. It has like "Giant Steps" kind of movement in a ballad, like major third root movements. Melodically, the way the notes fall on the chords are very, very tonal, they’re right in the 1-3-5-7 of the chord. The harmony moves, it’s very thick, it’s almost like an old-fashioned ballad the way the harmonic movement is so rapid. Because [later] Coltrane had basically simplified his chord progressions down to one or two chords. He eliminated all the rapid chord rhythm. So I played the tune and it was such a strong piece of music, it was almost operatic, it was like Tosca, an aria. And then I got into the chord progression, I learned to play it through the changes, which nobody has ever done. First I was going to play it solo piano. No. It was too like Rachmaninoff. Then I realized, I’ll play the head, play through the changes like Trane does, but I’ll play on the changes after. In other words, I’ll go back and play from chord to chord. It worked because of George, harmonically, because I’m so linked with him; [and] that’s Billy’s favorite stuff, the free rubato stuff. And if you listen to the way Billy plays on that, there are very few drummers alive that have that kind of imagination. At the end melody, we’re sweeping along and it’s really rubato. He starts playing very soft but very consistent double-time. It had nothing to do with what I’m doing, but when you listen to the whole thing together, it creates a whole other dimension, because he’s doing like a texture superimposition thing. He’s doing what’s not being done. The reason I put "Redemption" after that is because Coltrane was Billy’s thing--he played with him once or twice, I think--and that tune, that’s like a Trane tune, isn’t it? Maybe [from] Transition, harmonically.” The interviewer suggests Blue Train. “You’re right,” Beirach responds, “because what I do in it, I don’t play on one chord, I move it to an eight-bar blues thing. But that was more consistent with "The Snow Leopard," and the Bartok, the language of it.”

This is the second time Beirach recorded Federico Mompou’s "Música Callada No. 1" (he did a solo version on Sunday Songs). “I discovered Mompou through a student,” he recalls. “A student went into the Tower Records discount bin, like a big barrel for a dollar, and she just saw this nice old man’s face on a CD from Spain. The guy lived to be 97, he just died 10 years ago. Alicia de Larrocha was the original tape that I heard. The music was so deep and simple and reminded me so much of the best of Bill Evans, or the way Keith [Jarrett] would play early on, no excess. It had that sense of concentration, those pieces. ["Música Callada No. 1" is] perfect for improvisational format, because it’s so simple. It looks like a lead sheet! It’s some of the deepest music, and a challenge to play. There’s no place to hide. You can tell he spent his life on one note here, one note there. So that appealed to me, because of simplicity and transparency, to use it as a format for improvisation. It kinda felt like it was one of my tunes, or something from Sketches of Spain.”

Beirach also returns to some of his own tunes on this album. “I recorded "Elm" a lot. Elm was originally a record on ECM which was never distributed here, with George Mraz and Jack DeJohnette. [Elm also includes "The Snow Leopard."] I recorded "Elm" also with Quest. I wrote "Elm" as a dedication to a wonderful Polish violinist named Zbigniew Seifert who I was friends with and who I recorded some stuff with. Very unknown, very tragic. He died of cancer [at 33]. That tune, I didn’t write, it just, there it was. It came as a gift, intact. People seem to be drawn to it because there’s something very basic about it, it sounds like it’s always been there.”

The melody of "Citizen Code" is also an interesting story. The chords are based on the standard "The Lamp Is Low," and Beirach changes the original melody by playing it quite abstractly. He points out, “The guy that wrote it stole it from Ravel. It’s Ravel, 'Pavane for a Dead Infant.'” It’s no surprise given the song’s Impressionist roots that Beirach was attracted to it. By the way, he explains the title thusly: “[Producer] Todd [Barkan] thinks I look like a young Orson Welles, like Citizen Kane. And Code is my nickname for years, people call me The Code.”

Fortunately, Beirach’s musical code is so emotionally communicative that no matter how complex its harmonies and rhythms, it’s easily understood. With so many facets of his style in one place on The Snow Leopard, it’s practically his Rosetta Stone, simultaneously a summary of his musical growth and the perfect introduction for new listeners. Like the title animal, Beirach’s music is rare and beautiful and worth preserving.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Billy Bang: A Tribute to Stuff Smith (Soul Note 121216)

The first album note I ever wrote came about by accident. I worked at Black Saint/Soul Note in the early '90s, when it had a New York office (in the cargo area of JFK Airport, oddly, though since they were importing from Italy, it was somewhat convenient, though certainly my commute was far from convenient). When violinist Billy Bang was scheduled to record an album that Sun Ra would play on, you can be sure I went to the studio.

This turned out to be Sun Ra’s last studio session. It was certainly a pleasure and a privilege to be on the periphery of it, but also somewhat trying. This was after Sonny's stroke, and he was confined to a wheelchair by then, and I'll never forget helping his manager get him out of the cab outside Sear Sound and into the chair while just down the block where a prostitute had been giving a blowjob in clear sight on the sidewalk, a fight broke out between the pimp and the john and they were breaking glass bottles with which to do battle, close enough to us that shards of glass were skittering under the wheelchair. Nor will I forget the totally unrehearsed recording session, with Sun Ra and Bang reconciling differing ideas of how various songs should be structured (as Bang discusses freely above). With Ra's ability to communicate severely impaired post-stroke, the first day proceeded at a crawl, and it was somewhat amazing that it all came together and good music resulted.

Somebody in his camp was scheduled to write these notes, but ended up being too busy dealing with Sonny's health issues (he would die within a year). So, since I was the only Soul Note employee who had attended the session whose native language was English, I got the job. Thanks always to Flavio Bonandrini for taking a chance on me.

In a radio interview back in 1987, Billy Bang was already talking about planning a Stuff Smith project, and if it turned out to be a smaller group than he originally imagined, one statement was still prescient: "It's individual identity that is one of the most important things. When I get this project together I'll be playing the music of Stuff Smith, but when you hear it you'll know it's Billy Bang playing Stuff Smith."

One jazz reference book includes the information that Bang's violin technique had to be corrected because he'd copied Smith's unorthodox way of holding the instrument. Despite this, Bang arrived at his own unique, sweetly acerbic, freely swinging sound. Study with Leroy Jenkins corrected the technical problem, and listening to saxophonists such as Jackie McLean (an obvious tonal influence on Bang) and Ornette Coleman gave Bang a foundation on which to build his own improvisational style. Conscious of what's gone before, he respects it too much to merely imitate it, in the end reflecting the spirit of the original creators. He certainly sees the linear progression. Bang says of Stuff Smith, "He was avant garde too, in his own way.... By the nature of his instrument, basically. People still don't understand the notes of Smith or can catch on to him. He was so far-fetched, so far away from jazz. Not for the main people, not for the people that are inside, but even for people that are in my neighborhood [Bang grew up in The Bronx]. I had never heard of Stuff Smith. It took me a long time. You would hear Papa John Creach before you'd hear of Stuff Smith. You would actually hear Ray Nance before you'd hear Stuff Smith. So he was outside of that medium, somehow."

Smith's career certainly did not follow a mainstream path. Born Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith in 1909, he became known in the 1920s but only achieved fame after some 1930s recordings with his Onyx Club Orchestra featuring his comic vocalizing struck the public fancy. This seems to have led to critics not taking him seriously (Louis Jordan suffered much the same fate), and Smith is often left out of jazz reference books. Those that do mention him, however, are properly respectful of his violin skills and even seem aware of how far ahead of his time he was, instrumentally and musically; one book refers to "cross-beat multiplications" as an integral element of his style.

Now having finally recorded his Stuff tribute, which had shown up onstage before being committed to tape, Bang says, "It was a great opportunity for me to get a chance to showcase how I feel and how I can handle a traditional song but still 'a la Bang,' because I hear these same songs played, like `Satin Doll,' by a million different guys, and basically to me they all sound the same: the same clichés or solos, the same licks, the same turnaround. I anticipate what's going to happen and sure enough, it happens. I try to approach it through what I believe and how I interpret it, but still sticking to tradition. The chord changes are the same, bridges, 32 bars, etc., etc. So it's really pulling two different sides, two different angles together, and what really enhances that is being able to do it with Sun Ra."

When it came time to go into the studio, Bang knew who to call in as the perfect foil. He says the presence of Sun Ra functioned "like a physical passing of the baton, and it's like a real physical touch thing--Sun Ra played with Stuff Smith. And I have no connections over there, emotional and musical and all that. And to be playing with a person who played with one of my heros...it's like a real type of a bond. And actually to play one of the same songs that Sun Ra played with him, caught me by surprise, because I didn't know whether we were gonna do that or not. I came back from lunch and saw it on my music stand, 'Deep Purple.'" Ra's collaboration with Smith on that standard can be heard on Evidence Records' CD reissue of Sound Sun Pleasure as a bonus track. Believed to be the earliest recording of Sun Ra yet released, it was probably laid down in 1953 or '54 in Ra's home.

John Ore and Andrew Cyrille were hardly afterthoughts in the quartet; both have famously served time playing for strong-minded pianists, Ore with Thelonious Monk and Cyrille with Cecil Taylor. Ore has since played with Ra, too, and Cyrille and Bang have frequently teamed, so this session group had a headstart in cohesion.

Bang himself has played in the Sun Ra Arkestra, if not as soon as he could have. After he finished his tour in Vietnam, Arkestra member Jack Jackson tried to get Bang to join. Having just gotten out of one army, Bang did not immediately jump into another sort of army. Eventually, though, he did join the Arkestra and don the robe and headpiece; he has photos of himself thus attired, playing electric hollow-body violin with the Arkestra in 1981. That experience, although different from playing with Ra in a small group, helped prepare Bang for this session.

"I only played with Sun Ra in a big band. But now I'm faced with Sun Ra at one-on-one, almost. And that did put a lot of weight on me. I always knew how deep Sun Ra is. He comes out of an era I know nothing about, his voicings, everything. He was playing some Scott Joplin, too. So luckily I had been around Sun Ra enough to get enough courage and confidence up to deal with him directly. It was one of the most profound things I had to do musically. It's kind of like being a gunslinger going one-on-one with Ra. He knows what he's doing. I'll give you an example. There's one song called `The Bugle Blues' that has that trumpet intro, but Stuff Smith played it on violin. They used to play that record in Chicago and Detroit to wake people up in the morning on radio stations. Right there [at the end of the intro], for me, was the top of the song. That was the intro, detached from the song. What Sun Ra did was, he definitely counted that introduction, four bars, and when we came in on one, that was the fifth bar. He wasn't going to hear anything else. He had the first solo, so when he hit the top of that bar, which was the fifth bar, then he played up to twelve bars, eight more bars to play, then we're back to the top. So he wanted to go from five to twelve, then from one to twelve. We took a long time, but when we finally figured it out, he was correct. And that's the kind of person he is, that's what he is.

"On some other songs," Bang continues, "I thought he was bringing in the bridge a little too soon in some places. But then I realized later that that's really Sun Ra's style. Because the first time I heard him was this church in Washington, D.C., the first time I really heard Sun Ra play with the time, it was there, but he was kind of in his own time frame. But the thing is, what I had John Ore do was keep counting with us and come right in. So sometimes we came in before he finished his statement, because I wanted to really maintain the structure. Somehow it didn't hurt the structure for him just to be Sun Ra. That's why I had to really utilize confidence and courage, because normally I would allow Sun Ra to finish his statement, and wherever he ended, I would come in, wherever that is. It might not be the first bar at the top, it might be the third bar. But I didn't want to give that much room up, for the sake of the music. So it was kind of push and pull, the whole thing, but it was done in such a mellow way that it was a kind of a non-antagonistic appreciation of that. And it's always been that case for Sun Ra, even when I'm in the band, always. You've got to respect him."

On this recording, Sun Ra showed he had adjusted to playing in the wake of his stroke, deploying Monkish chords and finding complexity in simplicity during his solos. Listen to the first Ra solo of the album, on "Only Time Will Tell." Almost any pianist could play it--but only Ra would think of it. And while comping under Bang, Ra turns the music inside out with his off-kilter rhythms and harmonies. Bang is hardly overshadowed, spinning out inventive yet swinging, structurally sound lines. With Ore's fat bass sound and Cyrille's pointillistic drumming providing a rock-solid but supremely flexible rhythm section, the liberties Ra likes to take are perfectly supported. The one-of-a-kind results speak for themselves.