I love this group for featuring Billy Harper, one of the most underrated tenor saxophonists and jazz composers on the scene. That said, it is pretty much an all-star band; the arguable exception, trumpeter David Weiss -- the youngest member -- is the arranger of all the non-Harper tracks on the band's third album, and thus puts as much of a stamp on the project as anyone. The other players are trumpeter Eddie Henderson, long a member of Harper's superb quintet; alto saxophonist Craig Handy, the second-youngest member, who used to have another band with Weiss (pop-culture aside: they also collaborated on the music for The Cosby Mysteries); and the ace rhythm section of pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart, all three of whom contribute compositions here. (If I have a complaint, it's that after three albums, we still haven't heard them play any Henderson tunes.) Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" is the outside piece – each of their albums has one. The group started as a Freddie Hubbard tribute, sort of, but has now lasted for six years, and has developed a personality of its own. One of the things they get right is that focus on the members' own compositions, rather than jamming on familiar tunes; another is that the tracks aren't just strings of solos, with most featuring just two or three of the players (the exception being the Shorter tune), allowing a deeper delving into the music by those who do solo, and also featuring more intricate horn charts than the typical all-star session. There's a sense of twilight on most tracks, which stylistically are firmly based in the intense and adventurous modal post-bop of the mid-'60s, a style which has aged so well that I'd even say it hasn't aged at all.
Darryl Brenzel's big-band arrangement of Igor Stravinsky's ballet score The Rite of Spring, one of the most iconic pieces of modern music, is certainly no improvement on the original, but is enjoyable on its own terms. Duke Ellington and Eddie Sauter used to do this kind of thing with more venerable classics, and this is at least the third Rite remake (post-rock fans may remember Iceburn's stunning '90s version, and the Bad Plus recently unveiled their jazz take on it), but such things are still outside the norm. The style here recalls the dense harmonies and thick textures of Bill Holman, though the shimmering introduction to the second section, The Sacrifice, instead conjures thoughts of Gil Evans. In the process of making the work swing – which, miraculously, it often does – Brenzel changed the rhythms so much that they're often not very Stravinskyesque, but sometimes he manages to keep it off-kilter, as on "Dance of the Earth." The way he reworked "Glorification of the Chosen One" is rather witty, and that "Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)" is melded with James Brownesque funk is hilarious – and works well. Enough of the themes and harmonies remain that its source is still recognizable. It's especially interesting hearing the soloists improvise over such unusual chords. My other favorite aspect of it is how great the chord voicings sound. It's no substitute for the still-shocking impact of the real thing (and Igor's recording for Columbia remains the benchmark), but this is a very worthwhile pickup for jazz fans in the mood for something different.
I've made it clear on past posts here that Joe Morris is my favorite living jazz guitarist, and this album increases my admiration. It catches him live one night last year at The Stone (the current epicenter of this music in New York City) with excellent collaborators, creating long free improvisations. As he says in his notes, "The long form lets you tell a story; it lets you follow the nodal path in your thought process; it lets you play in layers; it lets you dive into the wave of energy and stay there. And it offers a sense of ritual that describes the present." This is music of complete equality; nobody is background. Bassist William Parker doubles on zintir (Moroccan bass lute), not just grounding the music but also give it some melodic shape; drummer Gerald Cleaver lays down polyrhythmic pulses that simultaneously interweave with the other players and juice them along. There are even moments that groove with unalloyed joy; the freedom in the music of these men includes the freedom to play whatever feels good, even if it dips into tonality and beats. Despite the incredible complexity of the music-making, its visceral impact easily carries listeners along on the journey the players are discovering and revealing in the moment.
This was a February release, but in the past few years pianist Matthew Shipp's albums have tended to leave me speechless for a long time as I adjust to yet another new angle of approach each time out. Shipp likes the sound of bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey so much, he doesn't even play on the first track, letting them set up a lovely atmospheric wash of bowed bass and shimmering cymbals (and Bisio gets a solo track later). Later, Shipp often plays in a ruminative style, or at least quietly, including a track where he plays the strings inside the piano. Of course, he is still capable of thrilling eruptions of notes even at low volume, and he does amp up with the emphatic chords and clusters of "Explosive Aspects." There seem to be degrees of composition and planning on this 13-track album. Only three tracks last longer than 5 minutes; it's all about variety and contrasts, and as Shipp enters his third decade as a recording artist, he's built up such a wide range of approaches that he hardly repeats himself even conceptually (and certainly not in actual notes; he's one of the great free improvisers) across the album's kaleidoscopic development. As he teases his motivic kernels, probing them and gradually growing them into surprisingly resilient structures, the effect is of continual discovery. The lengthiest track, "Elastic Eye," closes the album and seems to sum up much of what came before, giving more evidence of the composition and planning I sensed taking place earlier. That he handles his materials with such a sense of brooding soul, though, is what makes the results so compelling.
American pianist/composer Madsen teaches in Austria, which is where the octet that performs here is based. It's sort of a double quartet: a jazz quartet with trumpeter Herbert Walser plus rhythm section, and a string quartet -- but at least some of the members of the latter improvise. Most of this release consists of Madsen's The Dante Suite, in which he depicts the seven deadly sins organized in categories of Excessive Love, Deficient Love, and Malicious Love. Relatively few tracks go to extremes to express their themes, the notable examples being "Hubris" and parts of "Avarice." My favorite track is "Excessive Desire," a darkly glinting modal post-bop tune reminiscent of Billy Harper's style. In an amusing juxtaposition after the musical pondering of love and overindulgence, the final track, outside of the suite, is "Swiss Chocolate." - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.