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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Jazz Reviews For April By Stewart Smith
Stewart Smith , April 24th, 2017 08:53

With the dub-funk & tritium guitars of Harriet Tubman, Joshua Abram’s shimmering, kinetic trance, not to mention one of the albums of the year, Matt Mitchell’s Førâge - here's Stewart Smith with the jazz

This month’s Complete Communion swings the jazz pendulum between the US and the UK, sweeping up Spain and Portugal in the process. On the US side, there’s magnificent new music from Harriet Tubman, Matt Mitchell, Whit Dickey and Joshua Abrams, while on this side of the pond, there are strong showings from Lascelle Gordon’s Vibration Black Finger and Dominic Lash’s Anglo-Spanish quartet. Lisbon, meanwhile, continues to cement its reputation as one of the most exciting scenes on earth with the gorgeous new set from Gonçalo Almeida, Rodrigo Amado and Marco Franco. Casting my eye over this month’s selection, it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer breadth of what’s going on in creative music, from Funkadelicised fusion and acoustic space jazz to North African systems music and Renaissance harmolodics. Strap yourself in, you funky cosmonauts.

Harriet Tubman – Araminta
(Sunnyside Records)

Araminta, the latest album from the power trio Harriet Tubman, begins with an electric bass striding through thick cosmic slop, while tritium beams of guitar intersect with diamond sharp trumpet angles. ‘This sounds like Greg Tate’s dreams,’ I think as I start to plot the co-ordinates between Harriet Tubman’s radioactive fusion and the great critic’s beloved Funkadelic, Electric Miles and Bad Brains. But this is no retro fusion exercise: guitar Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer JT Lewis imagine a contemporary free music that absorbs dub, hardcore, avant-rock, electronic music and visual scores. On Araminta, they welcome the great trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith (the genius behind tQ’s favourite jazz album of 2016) into the fold.

To add such a graceful musician to their jagged, funky mix might seem odd, but it’s an inspired move. Smith is never so obvious as to pull a Miles Davis move, cutting through the churning funk with short, silvery statements. Instead, he throws himself into the action, bubbling up through the angular riffage of opener ‘The Spiral Path To The Throne’ with a fizzing, grainy tone. ‘Blacktal Fractal’ sees Smith and Ross laying clear, melodic lines over a tense dub-funk groove that sounds not unlike On The Corner filtered through Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, while the closing ‘Sweet Amarinta’ takes another tack altogether, as the group improvise a beautiful ballad. A stunning album of 21st century avant-fusion.

Gonçalo Almeida/Rodrigo Amado/Marco Franco - The Attic
(No Business/Tombed Visions)

Portugal’s avant-jazz scene continues to surprise and delight. Recorded in the loft space at SMUP, a pioneering arts venue in the Lisbon satellite of Paredes, The Attic brings together three of the country’s finest improvising musicians: bassist Gonçalo Almeida, tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado, and drummer Marco Franco. Amado’s star is on the rise, following 2015’s excellent This Is Our Language with Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler and Chris Corsano, and last year’s superb offering from his own Motion Trio. He’s a generous collaborator, and The Attic is as much Almeida and Franco’s show, with the bassist’s elegant and powerful playing often setting the scene.

‘Shadow’ opens with a beautiful bowed solo. Playing in the instrument’s higher register, Almeida teases out elegant melodic phrases, shaded with darker double stops. There’s a beautiful clarity and light to this piece, with its modal harmonies giving rise to lines that remind me at times of European folk forms and minimalism. Amado plays the tenor in a pinched altissimo that sounds uncannily like a stopped trumpet, but for the fluidity of the steps, adding to music’s heightened sense of otherness. By the end, he’s making like Pharoah Sanders at his most blissful, giving a spiritual jazz sermon from some holy mountain.

If Franco is a subtle presence on the quieter tracks, his colouristic approach takes on a fauvist intensity on ‘Board’, where he scurries around the kit, firing off short fills and accents over a free pulse. Combined with Almeida’s rock solid bass strut, it gives the music a non-linear momentum, so it breathes and flexes, rather than tearing off in a single direction. ‘Nail’ comes in hard, with Amado blowing in a classic free jazz style over Almeida’s dark and woody bass. Franco’s drums crash, rumble and splash, but his light touch ensures each hit lands with a gymnast’s agility, rather than a blunt force. Amado alternates between high, strangulated tones and guttural honks, filling the gaps with cheeky staccato triplets. Yet while some saxophonists would deliver such sounds with macho volume and blare, Amado plays them with a subtler, rounded tone. He’s authoritative but never domineering, serving the collective improvisation.

Matt Mitchell – Førâge

Tim Berne is one of the Downtown New York scene’s most interesting composers, with a musical language that is dizzyingly complex and energetic, but never merely clever for its own sake. On Førâge, pianist Matt Mitchell, a member of Berne’s band Snakeoil, reinterprets the Berne songbook for solo piano. The results are astonishing, with Mitchell splicing multiple compositions into single pieces and plotting new improvisatory courses around the map. Pieces like ‘Trãçeś’ are mind-bending, as Mitchell works around the oblique angles of Berne’s music with a dazzling sense of tempo and dynamics. For all the mathematical complexity of the writing and physical ingenuity of the arrangements, there’s a tremendous sense of musicality here. ‘Trãçeś’ has a wonderful kinetic quality, as if it’s the lost soundtrack to some surrealist ode to industrial modernity, while ‘ÀÄŠ’ is utterly gorgeous, with Mitchell giving a sensitive reading of its pensive tonalities. It’ll take months for me to fully unpack Førâge, but it’s undoubtedly brilliant and one of the albums of the year.

Whit Dickey – Vessel In Orbit
(Aum Fidelity)

Vessel In Orbit is the first new group music from drummer-composer Whit Dickey in over a decade. He’s joined by the peerless Matthew Shipp on piano and violist Mat Maneri, son of microtonal composer Joe Maneri. The album and track titles suggest a science-fiction concept, and although there are no obvious cosmic jazz trappings to this acoustic session, the music is certainly evocative. ‘Spaceship 9’ (surely a nod to Sun Ra’s ‘Rocket 9’) has Shipp’s piano beginning the countdown with a single repeated note over Dickey’s weirdly funky martial snares. Shipp momentarily breaks away with some right hand abstract flourishes, inviting Maneri to enter with viola lines that are both plaintive and vigorous. ‘Space Walk’ has the trio negotiating zero gravity. Maneri’s first tentative steps are accompanied by a distant rumble of toms. After a few minutes, the violist has drifted far from the ship, his solo conveying a beautiful sense of wonder and dread. Towards the end, Dickey’s tom gently pulls him back in. While it’s fun to imagine such narratives, they don’t really do justice to the inventiveness and fluid musicality of this album, which ranges from the quiet exploration of ‘Galaxy 9’ to the dense abstraction of ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Hyperspatial’. Superb.

Dominic Lash Quartet – Extremophile

UK bassist and composer Dominic Lash returns with the second album from his reconfigured quartet. Guitarist and clarinettist Alex Ward replaces pianist Alexander Hawkins, bringing a spikier contrast to Ricardo Tejero’s often lyrical saxophone and Javier Carmona’s expansive rhythms. Ward reins in the febrile hyper-skronk of his own projects like Forebrace to serve Ward’s compositions, which encompass elements of Euro-improv, free bop, contemporary classical and even Renaissance music. On the opening group improvisation ‘Puddle Ripple’, Ward scratches and scribbles while Tejero feels out the space with wisps and trills. Then it’s straight into the bizarro-world bebop of Lash’s ‘Mr S.B.’, where Ward comps like a post-punk Grant Green over the bassist’s intricate, yet swinging, perambulations.

One of the most intriguing pieces is a chamber jazz arrangement of ‘Fumeux Fume’ by the 14th century French composer Solage. The melody is arranged contrapuntally for saxophone and guitar, with Lash’s bass grounding it all while Carmona casts off into freewheeling orbit. It’s testament to this group’s sensitivity and skill that Carmona’s tom flurries never feel disconnected from the whole. Rather than undermine the elegant Renaissance contours of Solage’s composition, Carmona brings a refreshing harmolodic energy to the piece. Thrumming guitar and sepulchral arco bass underline the bristling drone of ‘Pálpito’, while ‘Slailing’ glides along on bowed bass and sustained sax tones until Ward kicks in with atonal guitar jabs that sound like an unholy communion of Derek Bailey and Robert Fripp.

A lengthy take on Cecil Taylor’s ‘Mixed, Mixed’ rounds off the album. Arranging one of the master pianist’s compositions for a piano-less ensemble is a bold gambit, but one that pays off. The original, first released on Taylor’s 1961 album with Gil Evans, Into The Hot is simply known as ‘Mixed’, suggesting that Lash thinks of his version as a kind of remix, in which the different sections are shuffled and improvised on. Tejero gets the bulk of the melody, which he plays more or less straight over bowed bass and pensive two note guitar figures. Drums kick in and the guitar gets busier, with Lash switching to pizzicato. Tejero’s saxophone accelerates, as he works over repetitive phrases and trills before leaping into altissimo. Rather than sustain that high tone, he pecks at the mouthpiece and releases some barely audible whistling sounds, ushering in a more reflective section, with smoky nighthawk melodies. Carmona starts up a jaunty marching rhythm and we’re off again, with the music getting weirder and wilder before drifting away in wisps of bass harmonics and rain-smeared guitar. Lash is a bassist and bandleader of distinction, and this album from his Anglo-Spanish quartet is one of his most impressive projects to date.

Vibration Black Finger – Blackism
(Enid Records)

A resident DJ at Soho’s Wag Club in the 1980s and a founding member of Brand New Heavies, Lascelle Gordon is deeply immersed in the culture that emerged out of acid jazz and rare groove. The drummer’s most recent projects have been the cosmic improv outfit Woven Entity, whose 2014 debut on Babel Label is thoroughly deserving of your time, and Vibration Black Finger, a collective that includes members of the Heliocentrics, free improvising vocalist Maggie Nicols, and the brilliant avant-garde saxophonist Julie Kjaer. Blackism follows 2015’s Vibration Black Finger EP and originates from the same 2008 sessions with My Bloody Valentine producer Brian O’Shaunessy. It offers a contemporary spin on the groove-based jazz in the vein of ‘70s Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Eddie Henderson, enhanced with dubbed-out studio wizardry and free improv flourishes.

The title track maps out the territory, with its low-slung funk groove, slivers of wah wah trumpet from Andy Knight and bubbling synths courtesy of Ben Cowen. ‘In Rhythm’ sees Nicols starting out with some Linda Sharrock-esque moans before working on the refrain ‘just keep on in the rhythm of your own life’ in a bluesy, semi-scatted mode. It’s great to hear her in this mode, bringing her findings from the wilder shores of improv into a funkier context. ‘Sawalha’ updates the dreamy atmospherics of pre-Scientology Return To Forever with glassy techno synths and prominent tom-toms, while ‘Goodbye NYC’ animates a Fender Rhodes drift with gelatinous bass and toothsome saxophone from the Heliocentrics’ James Arben.

‘Ofilli’ begins in Bitches Brew territory, with Gordon playing broken zither twangs over cantering snares. Knight’s trumpet heralds an ambient middle section, with Gordon’s slit drum percolating under oleaginous phased bass and glistening trails of Echoplex percussion. Laced with electric tabla and a street smart groove, ‘Punk’ initially recalls Miles’ ‘Black Satin’, but there’s less of that track’s gimlet eyed cocaine paranoia, and a more open-ended sense of funk, as Lascell lays out a deep, Jaki Liebezeit-style groove under the restless patter of the tabla. A classy effort: here’s hoping Gordon has more Vibration Black Finger music to come.

Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society - Simultonality

Joshua Abrams is one of the most adventurous players to emerge from Chicago’s vibrant creative music scene. Simultonality reflects the breadth of his vision, weaving elements of spiritual jazz, minimalism, North African gnawa and Indian classical into a shimmering, kinetic trance music. This is the first Natural Information Society album to feature the working line-up of the band, which perhaps explains its focus and rhythmic energy. Several tracks begin with insistent Terry Riley-like organ patterns, before Abrams strikes up a riff on the guimbri (bass lute), opening it all up. Drummers Michael Avery and Frank Rosaly channel the flow motion of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit, creating expansive grooves that bubble away under Lisa Alvarado’s meditative harmonium and Emmet Kelly’s fuzz guitar jabs. Closing track ‘2128 ½’ finds Abrams on bass, paying homage to the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane and his mentor Fred Anderson: a marvellous thing.