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Complete Communion

Complete Communion: Jazz For May Reviewed By Peter Margasak
Peter Margasak , May 31st, 2022 09:16

Reissues of historic free jazz from South African legends the Blue Notes, increasingly sophisticated compositional gambits from virtuoso guitarist Mary Halvorson, finely-tuned intuition from a quartet led by drummer Ches Smith, and solo saxophone evocations of Maria Faust’s childhood memories of an Estonian castle are featured in Peter Margasak’s latest round up of jazz and improvised music

Zoh Amba by Luke Marantz

Few groups impacted the British jazz scene like the Blue Notes, a band of South African expats who fled Apartheid to share their music. The group originally landed in Switzerland, but before long its members—bassist Johnny Dyani, drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, trumpeter Mongezi Feza, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, and pianist Chris McGregor—settled in London, where a two-way transformation occurred.

The musicians let go of the post-bop sound they’d forged in Cape Town and Johannesburg in the early 1960s, and embraced the burgeoning free improvisation scene, but they also opened up the aesthetic of the local players, introducing them to ebullient propulsion and soulfulness of the township traditions the South Africans injected once they’d left home. Considering the group’s ongoing importance it remains shocking that they never released a studio recording during its existence, even though the whole group—with the addition of saxophonist Ronnie Beer—played on the pianist’s 1968 album Very Urgent.

Eventually some live recordings surfaced on Ogun Records, two of which were memorial performances following the deaths of Feza (1975) and Dyani (1986). In 2008 the label released a crucial box set containing those two albums as well a live recording from Durban, South Africa in 1964, with tenor saxophonist Nick Moyake—who stayed behind when the group left—and a ripping 1977 concert in London.

Now Ogun is reissuing all four albums individually digitally and on CD, with additional material featured only in the box set. In April Ogun dropped those last two recordings, which heard side-by-side capture the band’s transformation in Europe. The 1964 date is rooted in convention, with ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ sandwiched between Pukwana and McGregor originals in post-bop mode, while the music on Blues Notes in Concert collides melodies rooted in kwela tradition with free jazz execution.

The shrinking bands on Blue Notes For Mongezi, a sprawling quartet double album from 1975, and potent trio date from 1987 Blues Notes for Johnny, find the musicians transcending loss with uplifting spirits. The musicians intersperse fleeting bits of familiar themes from its collective repertoire, but most of it was forged spontaneously.

Luckily, the various players have shared their own visions in different contexts, which Moholo-Moholo, the sole surviving member, continues to do. Don’t sleep on this history.

David Murray Brave New World Trio – Seriana Promethea

Considering he first emerged as a fire-breathing free jazz saxophonist in the mid-1970s, 67-year-old David Murray ranks as a jazz elder these days, but after a few quiet years the energy and enthusiasm he shares on this new album suggests he’s still got some work to do. This tough new trio with drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Brad Jones came together during the pandemic, partly as a way the players to squeeze in some work during a fallow period, but there’s little doubt that they clicked and have developed a serious head of steam since November of 2020. Apart from a hard-grooving take on the Sly Stone classic ‘If You Want Me to Stay’, the material reflects the leader’s knack for tuneful originals that give him loads of melodic springboards for his still-boundless improvisation zeal to chew up. The album opens jauntily, with Murray shredding his hooky title track melody on skittering bass clarinet, playing up the funk within its eight-bar theme, while ‘Metouka Sheli’ reveals his unimpeachable knack for Ellingtonian balladry. While Murray may not show off any new tricks, this is a good as I’ve heard him in decades, and the connection he has with the rhythm section couldn’t seem deeper and more natural.

Amalie Dahl - Dafnie
(Sonic Transmissions)

With the explosive opener ‘Don’t Get Me Started’ reedist Amalie Dahl might appear intent upon following the paths of fellow Danes Mette Rasmussen and Signe Emmeluth, as free jazz dynamos all living in Trondheim, Norway. Her upper register alto cries open up a furious stop-start attack, with the quintet winding up and releasing tension, but then things calm down with a chill groove initiated by bassist Nicolas Leirtrø. From that point on her debut album Dafnie occupies a more measured, tuneful space rooted in post-bop fundamentals, concluding with a blues grind that finds her switching to hearty baritone . The plush arrangements highlight the lyric side of her writing, with trumpeter Oscar Andreas Haug and trombonist Jørgen Bjelkerud uncorking solos of impressive internal logic and swinging grace, and when Dahl settles into her ballad ‘Hjemve’, where the horns sculpt multi-linear beauty, there’s little doubt that she’s more interested in advancing tradition than she is in tearing it down. Intensity doesn’t need to come through volume or aggression, and here it surfaces through the chamber-like rapport the quintet—which also includes the increasingly ubiquitous drummer Veslemøy Narvesen—possesses.

Marta Warelis - A Grain of Earth
(Relative Pitch)

My admiration for this Amsterdam-based Polish pianist has been growing steadily over the last few years, and her first solo recording arrives as an important statement. Versatility is a big part of her appeal, whether she’s playing a crucial role in Dave Douglas’ recent Secular Psalms project or working with bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Onna Govaerts in the collective Omawi. This new endeavor features her working inside of the piano as much as she operates on its keys. ‘(Into) Body in Pieces’ finds her scraping and rubbing the instrument’s strings with piercing sharpness, a barrage of whooshes and accordion-like swells that remove just about any trace of piano-affiliated sounds. ‘Minute Creatures’ occupies a similar terrain, with more pizzicato-like plucks and percussive gestures puncturing the whistling din. ‘In Waves’ uses preparations, so her keyboard playing deftly blends conventional tones with muted, gamelan-like sounds. Elsewhere she delivers gorgeously lyric introspection without any extended technique: the title piece balances a haunting melancholy with ominously fraught little figures hinting a turbulence swelling up beneath the surface.

Ches Smith - Interpret it Well

Drummer Ches Smith reveals deep trust in his collaborators on Interpret it Well, an album that borrows its title and cover art from a typically enigmatic Raymond Pettibon drawing. The recording reunites Smith with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, who made the 2016 album The Bell with him, but now they’re also joined by guitarist Bill Frisell. The deliberately skeletal compositions rely on the musicians to transform them into something more profound, and they follow suit beautifully. This recording demands close listening, as its primary substance is in the quicksilver interactions and elaborations each individual engages in. Gentle phrases and fragmented lines hang heavy in the air, ready to dissipate into nothingness, but each participant is on the razor’s edge, ready to pick up each fragile provocation and take it somewhere new; when the written material comes together it hits hard. Smith’s leadership sets up a variety of scenarios for his cohorts to build upon, so paying careful attention allows us to trace the often mysterious threads that tie his ideas together, spontaneous interactions that indicate just how plugged in these folks are. Smith provides just enough direction and context to transform what’s largely a free improv session into a masterpiece that divulges its beauty and complexity slowly. This is some real state-of-the-art shit.

Mary Halvorson - Amaryllis & Belladonna

I was knocked out by Artlessly Falling, the second album from guitarist Mary Halvorson’s song-based project Code Girl. There was a schematic quality to the tunes she composed for singer Amirtha Kidambi on the group’s first album, but on the follow-up she seemingly taught herself how to write indelible themes that went far beyond what she’s written for her many instrumental projects. Halvorson’s clearly a fast study, a quality seriously reinforced by these two new paired albums, where she solidified both her ability to compose for a string quartet, and seamlessly fuse composed and improvised material in new contexts. Amaryllis features a top-flight sextet—trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and bassist Nick Dunston—who bring their expected improvisational fire to densely structured tunes, fiercely swinging contrapuntal fantasias where the notes on the page are as inspired and satisfying as anything created on the spot. Halvorson has always been able to conjure catchy riffs and elegant progressions, but these six tunes are self-contained marvels where the solos feel inextricably woven into their melodic fabric. A few of those tunes are heightened by the presence of Mivos Quartet, one of New York’s most versatile chamber groups, and inspired by a Covid-driven writing jag, Halvorson went on to write tunes for the second album, Belladonna, giving the ensemble meticulously detailed arrangements that fan out and fall in line behind her. Halvorson is at the top of her game.

Jacob Garchik - Assembly

Most of the writing I see about trombonist Jacob Garchik delivers an inaccurate gloss about previous excursions into gospel, metal, and big band music, ignoring how multi-layered and nuanced those projects have been. The bandleader—who routinely writes far-flung arrangements for all kinds of traditions for Kronos Quartet—tends to operate on parallel tracks in his own projects, sincerely exploring a particular tradition while applying some kind of conceptual framework that prevents it from being some kind of homage. Assembly features an excellent quintet of old colleagues—pianist Jacob Sacks, drummer Dan Weiss, bassist Thomas Morgan, and saxophonist Sam Newsome—bringing new perspectives to old-school bebop through the crafty post-production. The album opener ‘Collage’ overlays two separate band tracks: one is an up-tempo swinger using “rhythm changes” with a vastly more complex iteration of the same progression played more slowly. The mix is such that the listener can choose to focus on one or the other, but it’s more rewarding to hear how they meld or impact one another. ‘Pastiche’ plays with scale, as the full quintet flies at a ridiculous tempo, only to open up a more measured tempo for an excellent Garchik solo, followed by an even faster recapitulation. On ‘Idee Fixee’ Garchik loops a phrase played by Sacks that suggests a stuck record needle, leading in a wild drum solo. The actual material is scalding, but the production offers unexpected twists.

Maria Faust – MOnuMENT
(Bush Flash)

I’m innately drawn to artists that surprise me over time, perpetually reshaping their music in wildly divergent ways while retaining a clear identity. Copenhagen-based Estonian reedist Maria Faust is one such figure, moving from the flinty, hard-hitting free jazz with Weasel Walter and Tim Dahl to organ-driven chamber sounds, where the acoustics of a church become part of the project. On her first solo album Faust digs deep into the acoustic qualities of the gothic Kuressaare Castle on the island of Saaremaa, where she was raised. The structure was built in the 1380s (or possibly earlier), and the medieval structure was a key influence on the brutalism of architect Louis Khan, who was born on the island, and in the promotional materials for the album Faust cites a connection in how the building impacted both of them. She improvised the 14 pieces on alto saxophone, developing foundational patterns and riffs that take full advantage of the cavernous space, and through the use of effects pedals and looping she constructs an impressively diverse series of excursions that seek to reflect the way light filters through and refracts within the massive edifice. While she created the meditative pieces spontaneously, there’s little doubt that she’s spent most of her life subconsciously processing the nature of the castle, and her blend of soaring lyricism, otherworldly ambience, and haunting harmonies feels both immediate and timeless.

Whit Dickey Quartet – Astral Long Form: Staircase in Space
(Tao Forms)

Veteran drummer Whit Dickey oversees a bracing session of smudged motion, applying his deep free jazz ethos to tempos that crawl and slither rather than race. There’s a kind of liquid connection at work with the excellent ensemble—long-time cohorts of the leader, violist Mat Maneri and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, along with newer constituent, bassist Brandon Lopez—where skeletal themes usher in extended yet exquisitely slow-moving meditations from the ensemble, both in multi-linear conversation and unimpeded soliloquys. The strings initiate ‘Space Quadrant; in lilting yet tonally astringent dialogue, carving out a weird pulse for the drummer to drop in pulse-changing swells. Finally, Brown’s bebop abstractions cut against the sorrowful grain while also finding a firm footing in the funereal thrum. Throughout the album such collisions occur regularly, as luxuriant phrasing and slithering motion intersect with improvisations that roil with intense emotion beneath a placid surface, a quality perpetually enhanced by the presence of Maneri’s microtonal attack and the leader’s sonic levitation, propelling and hovering at once. The sensation is supercharged on the gorgeous title piece, where the most sensual improvisations are spiked with a harmonic edge that cancels any trace of sentimentality.

Zoh Amba - O Life, O Light Vol. 1

Reedist Zoh Amba turned 22 this past April, and a year after settling in New York she’s already dropped two albums cut with two heavy-duty bands comprised of free jazz vets. In March, John Zorn’s Tzadik label dropped a quartet date with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Thomas Morgan, and pianist Micah Thomas. Now she’s back with a trio session made with bassist William Parker and drummer Francisco Mela. Both recordings make clear that Amba, who grew up in Appalachian Tennessee and, in a perfect instance of myth-making, practiced in a local forest, has something special and is clearly one to watch. But she’s not quite escaped the shadow of her forebears yet, including the vibrato-spiked cry of Albert Ayler or the similarly gospel-inflected lyricism of David Murray, with whom she studied, but she also has the self-assurance to not feel the need to blow her brains out. Without the harmonic impositions of a piano, Amba pushes outward more forcefully, her upper register braying on ‘Mother’s Hymn’ tracing the line between Ayler and more modern figures like David S. Ware and Charles Gayle, both of whom seem to have exerted an impact upon her. Take notice.

Jim Baker, Brandon Lopez & Bill Harris - Dura
(Amalgam Music)

37 years separate veteran piano improviser Jim Baker from his colleagues on this vibrant date, but the collective sound they generate dissolves that temporal gap in seconds. Baker, a perpetually overlooked but crucial presence in Chicago, has always been exceptionally open to different strains of collaboration, and he’s worked in Bowlcut, the excellent trio percussionist Bill Harris formed in the mid-2010s, while the drummer is a regular sub for Steve Hunt in the keyboardist’s long running Extraordinary Popular Delusions. Harris caught a performance by New York bassist Brandon Lopez when he was in town with another trio, and he enlisted him for this powerful 2018 recording, half of which features Baker on piano, while he switches to ARP for the other three pieces. The smoldering opener ‘Kuru’ captures the acoustic side magnificently, with the pianist at his most rhapsodic, channeling his inner Bill Evans over dynamic, deliciously bumpy rubato accompaniment. At his best Lopez easily melds rhythmic thrust, an outlandishly fat tone and an oblique melodic sensibility, and sluiced by Harris’s fractured swing and coloristic scrapes and metallic clatter, the piece builds in tension and intensity over six-and-a-half cathartic moments. When Baker turns to ARP the trio digs into propulsive abstraction, collectively digging into interconnected textural evocations while still pushing forward. In the four years since this was cut Harris and Lopez have developed greatly, so this may represent a moment in time, bottled, preserving a wide-eyed intensity.