Complete Communion: October's Jazz With Stewart Smith
, October 14th, 2016 09:01
Stewart Smith is back with all the juice you need to keep your jazz inhaler vaping: reviews of new albums from Mats Gustafsson, Robert Glasper, Donny McCaslin and Forebrace, along with a round-up of UK and US releases you might have missed over the summer months
In terms of live shows, the knockout news of the moment is Art Ensemble Of Chicago's February 2017 residency at Café Oto. It's been a long time since the great avant-jazz-performance troupe visited the UK and while two of its founding members (Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors) may no longer be with us, Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye are keeping the Ancient-To-Future vision alive with some more recent recruits from the AACM. Tickets go on sale this Wednesday.
More immediately, the last week of October sees one of the greatest runs of music Café Oto has ever programmed, starting with the incredible Black Spirituals, followed by a three day residency from one of the heroes of our time, Matana Roberts. Then there's the Match & Fuse Festival featuring Portuguese trumpeter Susannah Silva Santos & Evan Parker, and the Confront label's 20th anniversary show. Halloween brings a night with NYC free jazz legend Charles Gayle and his UK trio. November brings the ooft with a three day residency to celebrate The Necks' 30th anniversary, shows from Otomo Yoshihide, Yoshi Wada and Tashi Wada, Idris Ackamoor's reactivated spiritual jazz-funk group The Pyramids, and the return of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Further details here.
The EFG London Jazz Festival returns in November. Highlights include Wayne Shorter, Carla Bley and the Liberation Music Orchestra, Mike Westbrook, Les Diaboliques (Joëlle Léandre, Maggie Nichols, Irene Schweizer), Donny McCaslin and Robert Glasper. More details here.
Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra's annual festival takes place at the CCA between 24-26 November. The opening night features pieces and performances dedicated to the late George Lyle,, an unsung great of the double bass and a giant of Scottish jazz and improvised music. GIOfest IX has an intriguing line-up of international guests, including Australians Peter Knight and Alister Spence, Spanish saxophonist Xavier Paxariño, Finnish viola player Anne Pajunen and Canadians Instant Places. Scottish guests include violinist Ken Slaven and electronic artist Adriana Minu. Workshops and talks. More details here.
Jazz and improv fans elsewhere in the UK should keep an eye on Manchester's The Noise Upstairs for listings, Birmingham's Fizzle club and Brighton's Safehouse for regular events. Essential October/November tours include cellist Tristan Honsiger and his group In The Sea, and tQ favourites Peter Brötzmann & Heather Leigh.
The past few months have brought a host of great records to wrap your lugs around; too many to review in depth. Connecticut's consistently excellent Firehouse 12 label has issued two of the year's outstanding jazz albums in Mary Halvorson Octet - Away With You and Taylor Ho Bynum - Enter The PlusTet. Guitarist and composer Halvorson is a tQ favourite, but Away With You may well be her finest achievement to date, a beautiful ensemble work which pivots on the contributions of pedal steel maestro Susan Alcorn. Her gliding tones seem to inspire Halvorson to combine her slightly jerky and angular compositional style with a more graceful and fluid approach. This music's elegance and oddness recalls both Carla Bley and Ornette Coleman, but Halvorson's sound is sharply contemporary, touched by avant-rock and even hip hop.
Halvorson is a member of the mid-sized ensemble on Taylor Ho Bynum's album, a fantastic set which recalls Ellington, Mingus and even the Brotherhood of Breath, but is very much a product of the 21st century. While the backline play lustrous themes, innovative soloists such as trumpeter Nate Wooley, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and cellist Tomeka Reid cause mayhem at the edges. Vibraphonist Jay Hoggard is a particularly strong voice, bringing impressionistic clouds and hip 60s espionage licks. Enter The PlusTet is a triumph: post modern jazz in the best sense.
UK Album Round-Up
Recent months have also seen a number of strong UK releases. Shabaka Hutchings should require no introduction to readers of this site and his album with South African group the Ancestors is one of the year's finest, fusing the saxophonist's African-Caribbean influences with free jazz, township and gospel.
Sarathy Korwar - Day To Day
Hutchings recently recorded a live session for NTS Radio with Hieroglyphic Being and percussionist Sarathy Korwar. Born in the USA, raised in India, now living in London, Korwar's Day To Day on Ninja Tune is a classy fusion of jazz, electronica and the traditional folk music of the Sidi community in India. The Sidi community is descended from Africa Bantu who travelled to India as merchants, sailors and slaves from the seventh century onwards. Their music gains its particular character from a mix of East African, Sufi and Indian influences. Korwar mixes samples of old Sidi recordings in with live playing and while some tracks could do with a little more fire in their belly, when it really gets going it's terrific, not least on 'Bismillah', with its staccato funk guitars and polyrhythmic groove.
Dinosaur - Together, As One
Another notable UK release is Together, As One the debut from Laura Jurd's Dinosaur. Trumpeter and composer Jurd is part of a new generation of musicians comfortably moving between the mainstream and the avant garde, and her compositions reflect that, fusing jazz rock with folk, electronics and modern composition. There's certainly a strong Miles Davis influence to Judd's pithy trumpet statements and Elliot Galvin's Rhodes piano, but Conor Chaplin and Corrie Dick's fluid, driving rhythms recall contemporary UK acts such as Polar Bear. The use of repetitive synth patterns is quite effective, providing a relatively fixed element around which the band can move, while the playful folk flourishes of 'Robin' are charmingly original. Their music hasn't quite shaken off that polished music school feel, but that's nothing touring and a few Motörhead albums won't fix.
Mats Gustafsson & Friends – MG50
For his 50th birthday in 2014, Mats Gustafsson invited many of his current collaborators to Vienna for a two day blowout. The results are documented on this 4CD set, which offers a sprawling guide to the Swedish saxophonist's current occupations. His regular groups The Thing and Fire! both appear, albeit in unusual configurations, while there are also forays into electronic noise and new music. Perhaps the most entertaining set comes from Swedish Azz, a group Gustafsson formed to celebrate his country's jazz history. Swedish jazz classics are reimagined via free jazz and turntablism, with Dieb13 cutting and scratching spoken word recordings into the live performance. In addition to his own solo performance, legendary Swedish improviser Sven Åke Johansson appears on Swedish Azz's final piece, reciting sage ruminations over the group's detourned post bop.
Other highlights include the vocal duo of Sofia Jernberg and Kristoff Kurtzman pool, where the pair electronically manipulate throat sounds, mouth music and sprechgesang into strange new tongues. Kurtzman's rubber band solo and Robert Wyatt quotations are quite beautiful, their tender surrealism given an edge by Jernberg's fiercer contributions.
Jernerg and Breton piper Erwan Keravec contribute to a slow burning Fire! which builds on the project's trio language, while avoiding the over-cooked prog bombast of its orchestral incarnation. Keravec's maddening skirls drive 'Exit Pt. 2' into the ground, before a spry organ groove and operatic backing vocals take things into Magma territory, with Jerberg wailing at the climax.
Keravec's own solo spot, 'Urban Pipes II' is a sustained exercise in dudelsack derangement. Over massive drones, Keravec plays with texture and attack, building up tension through short skirling phrases that, after a few deliberate false starts, build into a flood of Terry Riley-like patterns. Bending notes on the pipes is no easy task, but Keravec does it, modulating the pitch as he ascends through 16th note trills. Astonishing stuff and worth the price of entry alone.
Robert Glasper Experiment - ArtScience
One shouldn't judge an album by its cover, but really, what were Glasper's people thinking with the ugly ass cartoon art and chalkboard font that adorns ArtScience? It's like one of those nasty 90s hip hop covers, Snoop's Doggystyle being the most egregious example. Perhaps that's the point, but it bodes ill for the music within. Glasper has played a major role in jazz and hip hop's current love affair, collaborating with the likes of Mos Def and Erykah Badu on his Black Radio albums and contributing to Kendrick Lamar's magnificent To Pimp A Butterfly. He's covered tunes by Dilla and Lamar, and reified the art of turning a jazz rhythm section into a human MPC.
The question is, once the novelty of hearing jazz solos over Dilla loops wears off, where does the jazz and hip hop crossover go next? Steve Lehman's head-spinning Sélébéyone, with its intricate mesh of avant jazz, underground hip hop and West African rhythms has set the benchmark for innovation in this field. ArtScience is a much less formally ambitious work, but even on its own terms, it's a rather disappointing effort, lacking the freshness of the Black Radio series. Like last year's acoustic trio album Covered, ArtScience is clearly intended as a back-to-basics affair, ditching the guest stars to focus on the core electric group. While the musicians' skills are never in doubt, the songwriting is nu soul and 80s r & b by numbers, while no amount of vocoder can enliven Casey Benjamin's undistinguished vocals.
Pale echoes of Michael Jackson's 'Rock With You' resonate throughout 'Day To Day', while 'No One Like You' sounds like an insipid Hall & Oates b-side. On the latter, the band attempt to open things up with jazz soloing and and tricksy Roni Size snare patterns, but as long as they stay within the confines of the standard song form, there's only so far their improvisation can go. All too often, they pull back from the brink just as things are starting to get exciting, whether it's in the free-blowing introduction to 'This Is Not Fear' or Benjamin's extended soprano sax feature on 'No One Like You'. Sonically, ArtSciencelags well behind today's r & b and hip hop, while it lacks the formal daring of contemporary jazz. Where's the experiment?
Donny McCaslin - Beyond Now
Donny McCaslin was musical director on David Bowie's Blackstar and on his own Beyond Now the New York saxophonist has continued his engagement with the Thin White Duke's music, covering the towering 'Warszawa' and 1. Outside gem 'A Small Plot Of Land'. The former is an intriguing, if not entirely successful, experiment in transposing Bowie and Eno's brutalist synth architecture and Silesian folk borrowings to a jazz idiom.
Although the second half of Low is often characterised as frosty and Teutonic, McCaslin recognises the humanity of 'Warszawa', playing the first vocal melody in a high and wistful tone. Jason Linder's shimmering synths and twinkling keys take the piece into ambient territory, while Mark Guiliana's billowing snare and tom rolls offer a slightly hammy evocation of the original's Iron Curtain dread. Guiliana switches to a more conventional jazz rhythm in the second half, ushering in an improvisation on the climactic theme. McCaslin tends to overplay, ending his lines with short scalar runs that detract from the soaring melody. A fuller embrace of the drone, with less fidelity to the jazz idiom might have made for a more affecting performance.
Guest vocalist Jeff Taylor is no Bowie, but McCaslin's take on 'A Small Plot Of Land' offers an intriguing glimpse of what other Bowie songs might have sounded like had Ziggy played guitar with this group in a live setting. McCaslin's own 'Bright Abyss' recalls the nocturnal moods of Bowie's 'Lazarus', but his musical palette is wide enough to cover tracks like 'Shake Loose', where the saxophonist tears it up over a synth-heavy fusion groove, or the hardcore punk tinged 'Faceplant'. Although his music is tuneful and energetic, there's something a little too studied about McCaslin's engagements with rock and electronica; it's as if his virtuosity holds him back from getting down and dirty. Where's Tony Visconti when you need him?
Forebrace - Steeped
If McCaslin represents the more mainstream side of rock-influenced jazz, then Forebrace are the manic prog goblins hopping about the underground. Led by Alex Ward, a man so ludicrously talented he was playing with Derek Bailey in his teens, Forebrace are an international quartet playing febrile hyper-skronk in the anti-tradition of Last Exit and Naked City. Other reference points might include the twitchy avant-funk of Ornette's Prime Time and the queasy English art rock of King Crimson and Cardiacs. Although Ward is a formidable guitarist, he opts for clarinet here, handing axe duties to Roberto Sassi. Satiago Horro plays electric bass while Jem Doulton mans the drums.
Recorded at Dalston's Vortex Jazz Club in 2014, Steeped is a series of directed and free improvisations beginning with the sharp geometries of 'Hive'. In the space of a few bars, Sassi goes from radioactive surf-rock to caustic no-wave, rumbling and clanging as Ward's clarinet swoops and whinnies its way onto a military parade ground. Sassi busts out some truly nasty effects, from whammy pedal wooze to death ray tremolo, while the rhythm section clatters and roars. There are curious traces of klezmer and swing to Ward's playing, along with gobbling turkey trills and extended techniques involving amplifier feedback.
Highlights include the demented noise-funk of 'Stalks' and theFlash Gordon bombast of 'Crest', which segues into the creepy Giallo atmospherics of 'Grains'. 'Home Stretch' breaks down to a Ward clarinet solo, where the amplification allows him to conjure pecking hens and dancing butterflies out of percussive key taps, distortion and feedback. Then a brisk click of the drumsticks and it's straight into the batshit Balkan hardcore of 'Bolt'. Fiendishly good fun.