The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Jazz For September Reviewed By Peter Margasak
Peter Margasak , September 14th, 2020 07:45

Peter Margasak is back once again with a view of all that is righteous in the world of jazz, including reviews of new releases by Emma-Jean Thackray and Bill Frisell

Emma-Jean Thackray by Matthew Benson

Live performance — the heartbeat of jazz — remains limited as the coronavirus extends into its seventh month of shutting down life as we knew it.

But, in Europe, at least, a trickle of concerts offers a glimmer of hope, even if fluctuating numbers suggests nothing is certain, and such activity could be quickly snuffed out.

Still, improvisers excel at rolling with the punches, finding ways to keep the music alive, whether that means staging concerts on the front patio of one’s private home, as Bad Plus pianist Orrin Evans has been doing or playing online to an empty club, such as the series embraced by New York’s legendary Village Vanguard.

Even if we don’t see them, jazz musicians are still woodshedding, rehearsing, and recording. So far, the pandemic hasn’t significantly impacted the flow of new releases, of which these ten terrific recordings are just a drop in the bucket.

Jake Wark Quartet - Scrawl

The ascent of the International Anthem label has elevated the profile of many of Chicago’s most interesting artists, but a steady stream of media hype has tended to ignore the many musicians outside of that small orbit. This gritty new outing from saxophonist Jake Wark is part of an ongoing wave of young players emerging from the city and Amalgam — an imprint run by drummer Bill Harris — has become an important exponent of that activity. Ironically, despite the label’s low profile, this quartet features one of the most celebrated figures from Chicago these days, clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid. On five loose compositions by the leader, designed as modular structures, this quartet revels in the sort of interactive, unfussy intensity that’s been a hallmark of the city’s improvisational aesthetic since the late 1950s. Bassist Jakob Heinemann and drummer Adam Shead — who, like Wark, moved to the city in the last half-decade or so — are equal partners, both holding down the harmonic and rhythmic frameworks while fully engaged in pushing and prodding the frontline. Shead, stands out with a frenetic sensibility that injects fractured patter informed by European free improv within the lurching grooves. But the highlight is the charged interplay between the horn players. More often than not they improvise simultaneously, shadowing one another, blending sweet-sour tones, and digging into rigorous counterpoint as they reference and discard the leader’s themes. Wark is clearly a talent to watch, and Dawid, arguably, has never displayed her skills as a clarinet player more convincingly.

Otis Sandsjö - Y-Otis 2
(We Jazz)

Over the last couple of years bassist Petter Eldh has been honing a production style that draws heavily from hip hop, bringing a boom-bap low-end to jazz. Saxophonist and fellow Berlin-based Swede Otis Sandsjö has been a key partner in that pursuit, which struck gold last year with the debut album by Koma Saxo — a bristling post-bop quintet, of which they’re both members, whose performances served as raw material for Eldh’s nifty studio manipulations. Y-Otis 2 reveals more rigorous production at the expense of improvisation; Sandsjö’s playing is shaped largely by the elastic grooves made by drummer Tilo Weber, keyboardist Dan Nicholls, and Eldh, both live and through post-production. The saxophonist toggles between tightly-coiled lines that subtly elaborate on written themes and threading a needle constructed from dense, fractured polyrhythms and a slew of countermelodies shaped by keyboards or, on a track like 'Tremendoce', the twinned flute lines of Jonas Kullhammar and Per “Texas” Johansson. While Sandsjö is the lead voice on the entire album, the heavy lifting occurs behind him. Ultimately, this isn’t really a jazz record, but it wouldn’t exist without it. Still, the timbres from track to track are gorgeous, and the incorporation of heavy dub ('Ity Bity'), moody R&B ('Fruchling'), and slithery funk ('Atombahn') only heightens the surfeit of continually morphing detail.

Bill Frisell - Valentine
(Blue Note)

If any recording this year demonstrated the value of nuance, interplay, and shared language it’s Valentine, the first album by guitarist Bill Frisell's trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston. The trio has developed on the road over the last two years, enhancing a deep rapport the leader has forged with his partners in other projects. Frisell has previously recorded some of the tunes here, such as the meditative opener 'Baba Drame', a bluesy gem by the great Malian singer Boubacar Traoré that the guitarist interpreted on his 2003 album The Intercontinentals, but the way this limber ensemble leans into it, working as a single organism capable of extending itself in different simultaneous directions, makes it feel entirely new. Indeed, the leader’s instantly recognisable voice hasn’t changed too much over the last two decades, but the collective energy he generates with Morgan and Royston arrives as a constant act of reinvention, whether on new pieces like the Monk-ish title track, with its irresistibly halting melody, or the devastatingly beautiful ballad 'Winter Always Turns To Spring' heard previously on his 2000 album Ghost Town. The exponential power the trio achieves through collectivity eclipses any sense of the familiar.

JD Allen - Toys/Die Dreaming

Speaking of familiar, tenor saxophonist JD Allen has spent much of his career working in classic sax trio format, finding renewable material in a setting that’s been around more than five decades. This is his second album with bassist Ian Kenselaar and drummer Nic Cacioppo, and they’ve certainly sharpened their connection to the leader. Allen doesn’t hide the Coltrane hue with which the band tackles the standard 'You’re My Thrill' - a ballad famously sung by Billie Holiday — with the bassist providing a hydroplaning thrum for the saxophonist to inventively embroider the tender melody with his seriously muscular tone, first shaping tuneful elaborations, then ascending into a spiritual invocation. His gift for melody sparkles on the crisply swinging 'The G Thing', a wide-open blues where space functions as the fourth member: Allen’s phrasing is nothing short of astonishing, working over the theme with the thoroughness of Sonny Rollins and using silence masterfully. In fact, on 'Toys', with its vaguely Ornette Coleman feel, he more or less vanishes after the opening chorus, giving a spotlight to Cacioppo, who summons the spirit of Ed Blackwell and Milford Graves, in an extended improvisation. The lurching 'Die Dreaming' reinforces Allen’s predilection for the lower end of his horn’s range, with some wonderfully crude honks and cries that only underline the physicality of his blowing. With each new record, Allen reminds me why I fell for jazz in the first place.

Charlotte Greve/Vinnie Sperrazza/Chris Tordini - The Choir Invisible

German saxophonist Charlotte Greve — who moved from Berlin to New York back in 2012 — began working with this trio in 2017, sporadically meeting up for loose, improvised get-togethers, but over time a shared sensibility began to emerge and each member began to bring in tunes. But the Choir Invisible isn’t your typical saxophone trio. As Bert Noglik writes in his liner note essay, “[Greve] has the feeling that the saxophone is played by the whole band, and ultimately that all three give each other a purpose.” Indeed, while Greve, bassist Chris Tordini, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza — both extremely versatile, in-demand figured in New York — exhibit plenty of independence on this debut album, there’s an almost telepathic connection on display when the players begin to improvise, registered in gentle, conversational tones. This music is restrained, as one can tell on Greve’s hypnotically cycling opener 'Chant', it’s not laid back. Her alto retains a seductive simmer over the coolly loping groove of 'Low', and it’s on the bridge that you can really hear how the band engages in a sly give-and-take as Tordini provides the lion’s share of melodic invention, but Greve unleashes a soulful upper register sally fuelled by the bassist during the final chorus. On Tordini’s '1.7' the saxophonist creates lapidary patterns with the weightless repetition of a glistening, minimalist phrase before the piece opens up for an extended bass solo during which Greve offers sly permutations of the theme, with Sperrazza shadowing his partners melodically as much as rhythmically.

Stirrup+6 - The Avondale Addition

Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nick Macri, and drummer Charles Rumback formed their trio Stirrup back in 2009 when they were working as the rhythm section in the folk-rock band the Horse’s Ha. On their own each member wrote frequently catchy tunes, where elastic grooves supported the far-flung, seriously tuneful improvisations of the cellist. This recording captures a one-off live performance from 2017 where Lonberg-Holm deployed the methodology of his Lightbox Orchestra — a conducted improvisational practice using coloured lights and written cues — but instead of starting from scratch, he directed six guest musicians to improvise over tunes from Stirrup’s sturdy songbook, with Macri and Rumback laying down an imperturbable foundation. As the opening scrapes of Peter Maunu’s violin and Zoots Houston’s electronics on Lonberg-Holm’s 'Song For Salim' make clear, there’s plenty of space for unbound exploration, but more often than not the superb cast chews up the forms, unspooling a flurry of lyric solos, guided by the cellist’s unerring sense of proportion, which arrays different instrumentalists to play lovely unison figures, charged counterpoint, and other techniques, all on the fly. The group also includes reedists Mars Williams and Keefe Jackson, trumpeter Russ Johnson, and violist Jen Claire Paulson —collectively, some of the city’s most reliable improvisers — and they thrive in this setting, giving Stirrup’s tunes a dynamic new perspective.

Nick Dunston - Atlantic Extraction: Live at Threes
(Out of Your Head)

Bassist and composer Nick Dunston dropped one of the most ambitious and impressive debut albums of 2019 with Atlantic Extraction, a riveting, episodic suite distinguished by internal rigour, endlessly inventive timbres, and a vast stylistic sweep. The leader, who’s turned heads with his work in groups led by Tyshawn Sorey, Marc Ribot, and Amirtha Kidambi, among others, reaches well beyond the confines of jazz, forging an elusive strain of chamber music powered by his ensemble’s refined interactions. This live recording was made in February of this year — part of the label’s digital-only Untamed series — and it resituated pieces from Atlantic Extraction with a number of new pieces into a pair of seamless extended works, establishing the leader’s restless creativity. Dunston cleverly wields the quintet’s instrumentation to create shifting textural focus, as when his arco lines braid with the viola and violin of Ledah Finck and the various flutes of Louna Dekker-Vargas, or when he girds the drumming of Stephen Boegehold and electric guitarist Tal Yahalom in a more rhythmic function, consistently extracting orchestral possibilities. The performance feels both exacting in its dynamic shifts but loose in terms of spontaneous possibilities, afforded by a group of musicians that are brilliantly locked in and committed to Dunston’s vision. It all feels like a tightrope walk, bristling with tension and reliant upon total concentration. It also doesn’t sound like anything else out there.

Camila Nebbia - Aura

This album arrived like a bolt out of the blue. I’d never previously heard of the 32-year-old Argentine saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Camila Nebbia, but leading an elastic tentet here she reveals astonishing depth as an improviser, composer, and arranger, drawing upon a wide swath of sources. There’s no missing the AACM influence on the dazzling opener 'Las Manos', from the Anthony Braxton-esque theme to the charged interaction of miniature sounds that follows, but she reassembles these devices in a wholly personal fashion, deploying a remarkably sophisticated orchestral palette. That skill is especially apparent on the epic 'Algunos Rastros de la Memoria', an episodic marvel which features a pointillistic passage moving between unpitched rhythmic breaths and sharply articulated tones, a gorgeous chamber string section, full-bore blowing, wide-open improvisational interplay, and modern classical writing, through which the main melody experiences numerous permutations. On her 2109 solo album De Este Lado she incorporated spoken recitations of her own poetry, but here she improvises on a verbal fragment from a Federico Garcia Lorca drama that underlines her feminist activism. 'La Quietud del Viento' exploits the stereo field to forge duelling rhythms while essaying a sense of serenity that accompanies the chaos of death. I can’t wait to hear where Nebbia goes next.

Emma-Jean Thackray - Um Yang
(Night Dreamer)

Trumpeter, producer, and bandleader Emma-Jean Thackray is among the most promising figures in the new British jazz, regularly demonstrating a broad sweep and an innate understanding of the various approaches she melds within her work. She’s often deployed hip hop as a foundation in her music, but on this new EP she’s opted for a more immediate approach, recording the two extended tracks live-to-disc at Haarlem’s Artone Studio in the Netherlands, where her occasional collaborator Elliot Galvin cut his superb 2019 album Modern Times in the same fashion. She shares the frontline with veteran saxophonist Soweto Kinch, revealing a strong affinity for late 60s Miles Davis that arrives in probing multi-linear excursions over seriously percolating grooves sculpted by drummer Dougal Taylor, percussionist Dwayne Kilvington, conguero Crispin Robinson, sousaphone blower Ben Kelly, and Fender Rhodes player Lyle Barton. The title is taken from the Korean for yin and yang, 'Um' opens like a benediction, slowly summoning an accreting power, where the leader eventually delivers Taoist incantations, while 'Yang' pops off with a brief flurry of caterwauling that invokes the soulful chaos of the classic ESP-Disk-style free jazz before unleashing a magisterial vamp powered by Kelly’s fat puffs — with undercurrents of New Orleans brass — through which Thackray and Kinch trade phrases and unfurl searing improvisations. I’m eager to experience a full album that adequately conveys her vision, the dollops she’s served up over the last few years indicate she’s got something brewing.

Charles Tolliver - Connect

Veteran post-bop trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who first made his name as a sideman for Jackie McLean in the mid-1960s and co-founded the influential Strata-East Records with pianist Stanley Cowell in 1971, displays a remarkable vitality on this new session cut last year in London during a visit with his band. It’s the 78-year-old musician’s first new recording in over a decade, following a couple of high-octane big band efforts made in the 2000s, and his power and authority are undiminished. He leads a fiery quintet with storied veterans Buster Williams and Lennie White, on bass and drums, respectively, along with younger generation alto saxophonist Jesse Davis and pianist Keith Brown. The album opens with 'Blue Soul', a sleek soul jazz original riding a huge tom-heavy groove meted out by White. Tolliver saves his solo for last, following sashaying statements from Brown and Davis, outlining the narrative template of his protean improvisational style by gathering up a series bright, punchy tones into an imploring blues, with the whole band serving up a couple of nifty harmonic blitzes that only heighten the excitement level. A couple of pieces that were featured on Tolliver’s recent big band recordings are rearranged here for sextet — the group enlarged by the presence of tenor saxophonist Binker Golding, including 'Emperor March', which experiences a steady churn of vibes dictated by each soloist; the searching heat of Binker, the more relaxed, lilting lyricism of Davis, and the ruminative-to-authoritative statement by the leader.