Complete Communion: Jazz For January Reviewed By Peter Margasak

A stunning mid-70s discovery of metamusician Don Cherry found in the GRM vaults, a victory lap for the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and a furious live session from Connecticut are featured in Peter Margasak’s latest round up of jazz and improvised music

Mette Henriette. Photo by Anton Corbijn

The passing of time only strengthens the case for Don Cherry’s unique genius, versatility, and curiosity. He was everywhere, trying out new ideas and exploring disparate traditions every day. It’s astonishing that the music featured on a fantastic new archival recording has remained in the vaults for more than four decades.

The French label Transversales Disques has been trawling through French radio archives and locating one gem after another from the jazz world and the experimental music scene of the 70s. Roundtrip is a live recording featuring Cherry with several trusted collaborators: bassist Jean François Jenny Clark, Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, and reedist Michel Portal.

But the ringer is the presence of French electronic composer Jean Schwarz. The performance mixed some of Cherry’s favorite themes – some folks will hear ‘Bells Two’ as an updated ‘Brown Rice’ – with globe-spanning grooves. Yet Schwarz injects an electronic presence that only reinforces the trumpeter’s wide ears.

A throbbing pulse ushers in ‘Bells One’ over a percussive breakdown by Vasconcelos, loping donso n’goni, and then Schwarz sprays analog synth noise over everything, with bright stabs that suggest a brass instrument, and wild free jazz squawks from Portal. It’s all wide open, rife with possibility. The set covers lots of terrain, moving organically from one idea to the next. Occasionally the music gets a bit stuck, but someone comes along to quickly dislodge things, moving forward. It’s a true marvel.

Based on the recordings turning up in my mailbox the year is off to a strong start. Here’s hoping the pandemic won’t be a topic in Complete Communion in 2023.

Jason Moran – From The Dancehall To The Battlefield

In 2018 pianist Jason Moran premiered a project to honour the oft-overlooked legacy of ragtime and jazz bandleader and composer James Reese Europe – arguably the greatest link between early jazz and Europe, but also a key figure in the music’s Stateside development and the founder of the Clef Club, a Black musicians’ society formed in 1910 – and he poured himself into the endeavour, part of his ceaseless respect for his elders. I haven’t seen the full multimedia production, but this new recording of its music is astonishing, further proof of Moran’s unique ability to weave together all facets of art, regardless of era or style, into a vivid narrative. By turns poetic and historical, Moran creates a thumbnail sketch of Europe’s life and importance on his title composition, but the rest of the album lets the music do the talking, surveying an array of the composer’s tunes – a repertoire that, along with W.C. Handy, he helped make famous, featuring numbers such as ‘St Louis Blues’. Most of the pieces possess a period vibe, but the superb tentet – which includes Moran’s favoured rhythm section of Nasheet Waits and Tarus Mateen – deftly zooms in and out to different eras, and the overall sequence enfolds out-of-time gems like Albert Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’, with a searing tenor solo by Brian Settles, Geri Allen’s ‘Feed the Fire’, and even the Pauline Oliveros breathing exercise ‘Zena’s Circle’. Moran sees and wordlessly demonstrates a bigger picture of Europe, both in the subject’s life, and Black music in America, teasing out connections that make it that rare historical project that also says something about our lives now.

Art Ensemble Of Chicago – The Sixth Decade – From Paris To Paris: Live At Sons D’Hiver

This sprawling double CD, recorded live at Festival Sons D’Hiver in Paris in February of 2020, represents something of a victory lap for the revived Art Ensemble of Chicago, that began, under Roscoe Mitchell, in 2017 at London’s Cafe OTO. A massively expanded line-up, with Mitchell and long-time percussionist Famoudou Don Moye surrounded by a top-flight crew of improvisers spanning generations, dropped another ambitious double album, We Are On The Edge, in 2019, and this performance followed suit, transforming the group into something of an orchestra. The repertoire toggles between older and newer pieces, but in typical fashion Mitchell is only looking forward even when revisiting classics like ‘Leola’, with an ominous recitation from Moor Mother, or his early game piece ‘Cards’, where the improvisational mettle of trumpeter Hugh Ragin, trombonist Simone Sieger, and Mitchell sparkles in a garrulous introduction before the strings of cellist Tomeka Reid, violinist Jean Cook, violist Eddy Kwon, and three bassists (Silvia Bolognesi, Junius Paul, and Jaribu Shahid) swoop, scratch, and soar. It’s a somewhat lumpy affair given the ensemble size and the wide stylistic terrain – operatic singing, traditional African themes, funk grooves – but more often than not the music testifies to Mitchell’s enduring importance and influence on so many that have followed in his wake.

Emil Strandberg – Tonpoem 2021-2022
(Haphazard Music)

Veteran Swedish trumpeter Emil Strandberg has long operated with a crisp concision, dispatching each situation he finds himself in with unerring elegance and directness. This superb new quintet captures a new book of tunes marked by finely etched beauty, and lines cut with lapidary detail. The music at once draws upon the past, particularly the restraint of vintage cool jazz, while evoking the colors of more modern touchstones like Bill Frisell and Franz Koglmann, while sounding thoroughly contemporary, especially on more experimental pieces like the steeplechase stagger of ‘Ta-di-da-di-da’. ‘Fantasi I Ass-dur’ evokes the swing era, with guitarist Kasper Agnas making some wonderfully choked references to Django Reinhardt, but it feels wonderfully askew, as if something doesn’t quite fit right. The rest of the combo – bassist Pär-Ola Landin, drummer Andreas Hiroui Larsson, and cellist Mauritz Agnas – is expertly locked in, allowing an impressive elasticity and spontaneity to the arrangements, with poignant interplay occurring at every turn. Strandberg solos beautifully all through ‘Tyngd’, his sweet melodies masterfully tempered by a tart tone, but he does sit out for a wonderfully contrasting aside between the string players, lining up and finding their way in real-time, and ultimately it’s those little moments that make this something to slow down for.

Mette Henriette – Drifting

In 2015 Sami-Norwegian saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette made an auspicious debut with a double album on ECM – a tall order for any musician, especially such a young artist making their first statement – but she absolutely delivered with one disc played by a trio and another with a larger ensemble. Henriette has now finally delivered a followup with the same trio format as the debut’s first disc, again with the superb Swedish pianist Johan Lindvall and new collaborator Judith Hamann on cello. The saxophonist has clearly embraced the ECM aesthetic, both in terms of the classic reverb-heavy production and the delicately measured beauty of the performance, almost to a fault. Much of the grain and dissonance of the earlier recordings has been sanded away, and Henriette’s alto saxophone tone and lyric qualities recall the music of Jan Garbarek, arguably the best known Norwegian jazz artist ever and an iconic figure at the label. Most of the album’s fifteen works are concise, with gauzy chamber-like themes moved around by the three instrumentalists. It’s a hushed endeavour, with Hamann serving as the wild card with some passages that suggest a harmonium, while others evoke a Hardanger fiddle. It’s a lovely recording that would benefit from some of the variety she brought to her first album, but I expected more given the long gap and the promise her stunning debut.

Rasmussen-Flaherty-Rowden-Corsano – Crying in Space
(Relative Pitch)

Once in a while there’s something in a freely improvised session that screams out, letting you know that lightning has been captured, and that quality certainly applies to this scalding session recorded live at Firehouse 12 in New Haven Connecticut in June of 2019. Saxophonist Paul Flaherty, a gray eminence in the craggy western Massachusetts free improv scene, has a deep connection to drummer Chris Corsano, who has subsequently forged strong bonds with the Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen. Bassist Zach Rowden tends to work more in experimental contexts, but his fevering low-end here resoundingly affirms his gift for spontaneous music making. Flaherty and Rasmussen reveal a stunning rapport, feeding off one another’s energy and responding with quicksilver alacrity. When the second long piece, ‘What to Expect When Faking Your Own Death’, surfaces you can hear the ecstatic course through Rasmussen’s playing, literally gasping with delight – “Hey, man!” she exclaims, as if surprised by the stutter-step tones and pops she unleashes, organically building intensity and motion – and when she finishes there’s a brief pause, as if everyone else has been lost in her reverie, too. That moment alone is worth the price of admission, but the rest of the session is almost as satisfying in its braided fury.

George – Letters to George
(Out of Your Head)

Drummer and composer John Hollenbeck conceived of this jacked-up quartet during the pandemic, joining forces with his long-time co-conspirator in Simple Trio, saxophonist and flautist Anna Webber, and two other musicians he admired but had never worked with: New Orleans reedist, singer, and stylistic polymath Aurora Nealand and Montreal-based, native Colombian experimental keyboard ace Chiquita Magic. The band’s first meeting was virtual, with all of the members remotely contributing a tune called ‘Proof Of Concept’ that, indeed, revealed that George had real legs – a subsequent version, titled ‘Can You Imagine This?’ after a spur-of-the-moment outburst from Nealand, is included. The production style draws upon dance-pop, with a plastic-y tone on Hollenbeck’s busy drumming, and synthetic basslines and electronic washes undergirding the feverish interplay of the reedists. Some of the tunes are fully mapped out, while others were driven by spontaneity – including a knockout cover of the Sonny Bono-penned Frank Sinatra vehicle ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ vividly sung by Nealand and driven by the drummer, while Chiquita and Webber improvised their parts for a tune they didn’t previously know. The pop veneer can be a bit deceiving, because there’s nothing glib or slight about these performances, and the production delivers a delicious tension with the no-holds-barred attack. I can only imagine how George will sound with a bunch of gigs under its belt, but for now the heat this early meeting generated is more than enough.

Sakina Abdou – Goodbye Ground
(Relative Pitch)

I was previously unaware of French reedist Sakina Abdou, but she’s established herself as a highly mobile musician, equally at ease in freely improvised settings and contemporary classical projects. She’s a member of Muzzix, a daring new music group based in her hometown of Lille, which recently collaborated with Michael Pisaro-Liu on last year’s Radiolarians, as well as pianist Eve Risser’s African-driven Red Desert Orchestra. But this superb solo session has me paying much closer attention. She’s featured on alto saxophone, and while she reveals prodigious extended technique, especially on the title piece where she really digs into the sound of her instrument, unleashing dazzling overblowing and activating a prismatic depth of tone. She can be as fiery as she is fierce, but what has impressed me about Goodbye Ground is Abdou’s ability to bring moments of swing-derived blowing to the equation, evoking Lee Konitz as much as Peter Brötzmann. She spent two months at home recording the album, which draws upon a number of strategies, but in the end it becomes clear that Abdou masterfully balances spontaneity and structure. She’s definitely one to watch.

Antti Lötjönen – Circus/Citadel
(We Jazz)

Finnish bassist Antti Lötjönen leads a fantastic quintet with seasoned players from his homeland ripping through a suite of compositions that liberally draw upon jazz history, or at least I’ve been often reminded of classic tunes, whether a trace of Thelonious Monk’s rhythmic scheme from ‘Evidence’ on ‘Circus/Citadel Pt. III’ or a whisper of Ornette Coleman’s austere ballad ‘Peace’ on the more jagged ‘(for) Better People.’ The excellent band – saxophonists Mikko Innanen and Jussi Kannaste, trumpeter Verneri Pohjola, and drummer Joonas Riippa – have an easy rapport, bringing a sonic heft and raucous energy to the leader’s indelible tunes. It’s a collection of deeply swinging post-bop that routinely teeters on the edge of free jazz, and the apparent enthusiasm and vitality of the players is undeniably infectious. It feels like a love letter to jazz’s essential joyfulness and while it isn’t the most original album I’ve ever heard, it definitely scratches a certain itch, and it’s been bringing a smile to my face repeatedly over the last month.

James Brandon Lewis – Eye Of I

Over the last decade saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has maintained a consistent sound – muscular, agile, grainy, and soulful – as he’s explored a steady shift in contexts, forming new bands and writing new books of music for each of them. His trio settings have featured his most aggressive playing, and that’s certainly the case with this new ensemble with cellist Christopher Hoffman, a bandleader in his own right and a trusted collaborator of Henry Threadgill, and drummer Max Jaffe (ex-Elder Ones). They bring plenty of energy and electronics-treated heaviness – Hoffman sometimes sounds like a guitarist with his washes of distorted arco playing – and the album’s closing track is a dense, wiry, hard rocking collaboration with The Messthetics (the Washington D.C. trio led by guitarist Anthony Pirog and the old Fugazi rhythm section of drummer Brendan Canty and bassist Joe Lally, but Lewis keeps an improvisational focus. A smoldering cover of Donny Hathaway’s ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’, where guest cornetist Kirk Knuffke engages in slow-burn frontline dialogue, sets up the album’s basic model, blending bracing self-reflection and poetic expressionism. When the trio is without any guests, Lewis digs into a more familiar post-bop feel, but he continues to assert his nonchalant range and deep curiosity no matter where he goes.

Andrew Cyrille – Music Delivery / Percussion

At age 83 the brilliant drummer Andrew Cyrille continues to operate with dazzling clarity and directness, particularly on a series of recordings for ECM with guitarist Bill Frisell, but also in projects with veteran trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and experimentalist Qasim Naqvi, among others. But nothing of late captures the precision and crispness of his conception like this new solo recording, where Cyrille investigates specific ideas across eleven pieces, including imaginative readings of tunes by Amina Claudine Myers (‘Jumping In The Sugar Bowl’) and John Carter (‘Enter From the East’), communicating the melodic and rhythmic essence of those pieces without any sort of melodic instrument. On ‘La Ibkey’ for example, he revisits the experience of playing 7/4 for the first time, as a member of a band led by bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, overlaying endlessly permutating hand drum patterns over a recording of him laying down the basic kick drum pulse, while on ‘Tambourine Cocktail’ he generates a feast of texture and rhythmic patterns from the simplest of tools – the track title is designed to evoke a bartender mixing a drink, “shaken not stirred,” as the liner notes aver.

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