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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Jazz For January Reviewed By Peter Margasak
Peter Margasak , January 12th, 2021 11:09

2021 isn’t exactly off to a promising start after last year’s endless dumpster fire, but jazz and improvised music continues to cope with limitations in creative ways, says Peter Margasak

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger by Deneka Peniston

As much as we pinned hopes that the arrival of 2021 would turn the page on the hellscape of last year, things haven’t exactly delivered salvation so far. But, music’s power as a balm and/or agent of change remains undiminished. This month features quite a few titles made in the tall shadow of COVID — music made during livestreams, online festivals, and at home using low-grade music software — but what distinguishes them is the fact that the music transcends its immediate circumstances.

Last year this column focused exclusively on new releases, and while focusing on the current manifestations and elaborations of jazz tradition, no matter how far flung, will remain the focus here, each future instalment will also put the spotlight on a significant archival release or two.

Bremen 1964 & 1975 spreads two concerts, more than a decade apart, by bassist Charles Mingus in the titular German city, across four CDs. In 1964 Mingus led one of his greatest line-ups, with trumpeter Johnny Coles, reedist Eric Dolphy, pianist Jaki Byard, drummer Dannie Richmond, and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. Dolphy, who had already announced that he was leaving the band, would remain on the continent after the tour, dying from complications arising from undiagnosed diabetes just ten weeks after the Bremen gig.

The rigorously researched liner essay by Bret Sjerven details the mixed critical reception Mingus received, faulted for his indifference to listeners, but the performances smoke with the same ferocity of the other dates on the well-documented tour, with extended romps through his classic 'Fables Of Faubus' and the then-recent homage to his departing reedist, 'Hope So Eric'.

The essay also suggests that German audiences weren’t ready to experience Mingus live, contrasting the enthusiastic crowd response and critical praise the second Bremen concert generated. Following several years of semi-retirement, he assembled a new band in 1972, with a full slate of international touring.

The group, with Richmond remaining on drums, also featured saxophonist George Adams, pianist Don Pullen, and trumpeter Jack Walrath, playing material that tended to retool the leader’s earlier innovations rather than forge new ones. The band is fiery even if the intensity lacks the sense of discovery of the 60s lineup, but this is still a gift.

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger - Force Majeure
((International Anthem)

Like so many musicians whose worked suddenly vanished with the COVID pandemic, bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger — who recently signed a deal with Impulse Records, one-time home to her hero Alice Coltrane — began live-streaming informal duo performances from the home the couple shares in East Harlem on Friday mornings. The tone across the album is endearingly conversational, with an informality so genuine that the bassist needs to call out the changes on a version of the Pharoah Sanders classic 'The Creator Has A Master Plan', capturing a pair of technically remarkable musicians who can’t help but bring innate rigour to the most off-the-cuff exchanges. And those exchanges are stunning, with the players syncing up, pulling apart to support an improvisation by the other, or pushing against one another. On John Coltrane’s 'Equinox' the bassist spikes his deep pocket with slapped accents, as Younger unleashes notes that soulfully elaborate the searching melody with liquid cascades, but the opposing figures fit together beautifully, elevating it toward the sublime. The pair also tackles a clutch of R&B and pop hits, transcending the treacle of the Carpenters hit 'Sing A Song' with nervy ebullience, or adding an appealing friction to the Stylistics hit 'You Make Me Feel Brand New'.

Patricia Brennan - Maquishti
(Valley of Search)

Mexican percussionist Patricia Brennan has devoted herself to pursuing new sounds since she was a teenager, initially taken with contemporary composed music, since it was the only classical music that featured percussion prominently. Well on her way along the new music path, she attended one of trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s improv workshops, falling for the practice and its spirit so intensely that she moved to New York two years later, focusing on vibes and marimba — a ubiquitous instrument in the folk music of her native Veracruz. Since then she’s worked in several notable projects as a sideperson — John Hollenbeck’s Big Band, Matt Mitchell’s Phalanx Ambassadors, and Tomas Fujiwara’s 7 Poets Trio — and those years outside of the spotlight helped her perfect the deeply original approach she shares on Maquishti, a gorgeous solo recording that’s also her debut. The mix of composed and improvised pieces subtly incorporate electronics here and there, whether it’s the pitch-bending pedal effects with which glowing tones curdle into acidity on 'Solar', or the aqueous ambient tones she produces on 'Away From Us'. Her improvisations are beautifully organised, with a compositional logic, even on the fully spontaneous pieces, that feels baked in.

Russ Lossing - Metamorphism

Over the last two decades pianist Ross Lossing has brought his interest in pensive exploration to sleek post-bop settings as well as more free contexts, and in both cases his commitment to rooting around in the ambiguous corners of harmony and time, a la Paul Bley, has been a reliable pleasure. On this new quartet outing he generally operates in a more mainstream mode, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t push against the edges of orthodoxy in his probing improvisations and in the wide-open spaces carved out when his group elucidates his sophisticated, graceful themes. The opening 'Three Treasures' is larded with interplay, particularly in the call-and-response figures he navigates with saxophonist Loren Stillman, sizzling with the sort of dynamic extremes made famous by the second Miles Davis Quintet. The band — which also includes bassist John Hébert and drummer Michael Sarin — make the most difficult material, such as the rhythmic jujitsu in 'Sojourn', feel natural, turning on a steady interest by the pianist in creating out-of-sync situations, where different instruments overlay in different feels and tempos to project an elusive liquidity within performances that flirt with instability, but never collapse or lose direction.

Matt Piet - (pentimento)

Pianist Matt Piet quickly turned heads on Chicago’s jazz and improvised music scene a few years ago, dropping a series of solo and collaborative projects that suggested impressive versatility, originality, and a collaborative spirit. But then he kind of dropped out. According to his liner essay for this concise solo outing, he suffered a breakdown revolving around substance abuse, mental illness and creative doubt. As he was getting back on his feet, COVID shut down potential activity, so in June of last year he went into the studio and drew inspiration from the 1963 Bill Evans album Conversations With Myself, on which the pianist overdubbed three separate tracks on each piece. Piet used simple ideas to guide each piece, like “inside the piano” or “within one octave,” but cut each new layer without hearing its predecessors, instead relying on memory and instinct. Thanks to his internal parameters each of the brief pieces — which range from one to three minutes, with all 15 works clocking in at 29 minutes — feels logical, with each component fitting in neatly. Naturally, some lines create more tension than others, but these meticulous constructions are nicely varied, using piano preparations or a limited range to execute each excursion. Here’s hoping there’s more to come from Piet.

Disquiet - Disquiet(Trost)

This quartet nominally led by Austrian electronic musician Christof Kurzman uses its abraded textures, tersely hypnotic gestures, and quietly trudging rhythms to meditate on Europe’s refugee crisis. The sonic foundation of Disquiet resides with the skittering, crisply defined drumming of Martin Brandlmayr (Radian, Polwechsel) and the astringent arco grinding of Stockholm-based bassist Joe Williamson, larded with woozy non-verbal utterances from the ever-inventive Sofia Jernberg. Kurzman sketched out the form of this single, extended 47-minute piece, incorporating a speech by European Parliament member Guy Verhofstadt decrying the reactionary NIMBY response of so many member countries when it came to accepting refugees, but for the most part the quartet makes its point more subtly, appropriating texts from tunes by ABBA and Tall Dwarfs and a poem by Joe McPhee, to plead for a more empathic, humanitarian position in a time of crisis. Kurzman is actually the main vocalist, using his endearingly thin, wobbly warble to trace melodies, powerfully supported by Jernberg’s extended techniques. They come together on the McPhee text, conveying a righteous indignation that’s elsewhere embedded in the roiling ebb-and-flow.

Alexander Hawkins - Togetherness Music

Oxford pianist Alexander Hawkins has routinely reinforced his broad musical appetite with a rigorous engagement and understanding of the multifarious threads he’s pursued — including a solo practice, a daring quartet with singer Elaine Mitchener, or a duo with cellist Tomeka Reid, among others. This impressive new effort is his first to deal with contemporary composed music, deftly colliding improvisation and scored material in non-sacrosanct ways. Saxophonist Evan Parker opens the album with his trademark circular breathing on soprano saxophone, but as the recording unfolds fixed and mutable parts played by Riot Ensemble and a strong cast of British improvisers, including drummer Mark Sanders, bassist Neil Charles, and reedist Rachel Musson, demand close attention on the listener’s part, with motifs from one piece transforming into new modes in another. I miss the leader’s presence on piano — he plays, but only for short durations — but this is a thrilling new facet of his multidimensional practice.

Dell Lillinger Westergaard –Beats

This Berlin based trio has operated largely to tackle specific ideas though hands-on research. A few years ago drummer Christian Lillinger, bassist Jonas Westergaard, and vibist Christopher Dell — who usually writes thorny, dryly academic essays to accompany each recording — engaged in a exploration on perceived relationships between tonal structures and jacked-up soundscapes on Boulez Materialism, while last year’s Grammar II, in the words of Dell, “examines and experiments on structural framework as a set of strategic musical viewpoints that inform the practices of DLW as a community of players”. Sure! The new album deploys small fragments from a larger Dell composition, using them as concise compositional models for richly varied improvisational gambits. There’s no fixed rhythm on the opening track 'Configuration I'. Instead it offers an astringent pond of colour and texture. But soon after, Lillinger’s singular drumming takes over, with most of the pieces providing an exhilarating, labyrinth of polyrhythmic activity, sometimes gently tweaked by post-production electronics. At times the trio seems to be forging stuttery hip hop tracks on the fly, but that doesn’t stop them from interpreting the fourth movement of Webern’s Bagatelles during one piece.

Signe Emmeluth - Hi Hello I’m Signe
(Relative Pitch)

Danish saxophonist Signe Emmeluth, who now lives in Oslo after studying in Trondheim, Norway, has made a strong impact on the European free music scene in the last couple of years, not only due to her ferocious sound, but also through a stylistic openness. Her rugged band Amoeba fulfils her compositional interests, while her duo with guitarist Karl Bjorå, Owl, which released a stunning 2020 debut called Mille Feuille, is more spare and contemplative. This solo outing — a single piece recorded live for Ingebrit Håker Flaten’s Sonic Transmissions Festival — contains its fair share of fire-breathing, with tart boppish phrases ricocheting toward the horizon in upper register sallies, but it opens and closes with finely etched restraint, as sibilant, snaking lines build and recede from and into nothingness. A beguiling, multipartite arc of sound.

Maggie Nichols - Creative Contradiction: Poetry, Story, Song & Sound

Despite her standing as one of improvised music’s most inventive and political forces, this album marks Scottish vocalist Maggie Nichols’ first solo effort in a career stretching back to the late 1960s, when she joined drummer John Stevens’ groundbreaking Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Before embracing free improv she was a dancer and singer (with a six-month stint at the Moulin Rouge), and over time she freely enfolded many stylistic elements and disciplines within her practice, never troubled by any gaps between melody and abstraction: she also became a staunch feminist, with membership in Feminist Improvising Group. The 72-year old artist taught herself the rudiments of GarageBand during lockdown, and her basic skills lend a charming homemade feel to the proceedings, although the muffled out-of-tune piano can be frustrating. She toggles between free improv, original settings of Rumi poems, and balladry, without hierarchy: Nichols has always allowed seemingly strange bedfellows to coexist, making sense of the connections. While her presence as a performer strengthens those links, even with only sound it’s impossible for me not to be charmed.

Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry - Garden of Expression

The second album from this introspective trio led by saxophonist Joe Lovano heightens the delicate interplay with pianist Marilyn Crispell and the Italian drummer Carmen Castaldi. The leader’s compositions afford plenty of space, his hushed but pretty melodies radiating outward. There’s no shortage of ruminative jazz these days, but rather than relaxing into placidity, this combo spikes its music with an alluring, enriching tension. Crispell — one of the most original, thoughtful, and probing, yet often overlooked, artists in jazz who has emerged during the last four decades — is the secret weapon, as she deftly reinforces the gentle tone without reducing her contributions to a soothing gloss. Instead, her playing creates new openings and injects an aching ambiguity to the proceedings. Rather than simply tracing out chord patterns behind the leader’s lyric constellations, she constantly engages — pushing, shadowing, and contrasting the actions of her partners. The music has a classic ECM feel, particularly in the cymbal-heavy patter of Castaldi, who functions as a sound painter more than a percussionist.