Complete Communion: Jazz For September Reviewed By Peter Margasak

Recently discovered free jazz gems from Los Angeles and Berlin, orchestral free jazz spiked by West African grooves, folk-jazz tracing the history of indigenous North American Wabanaki people, and dynamic dice-and-splice free jazz assemblages from LA are featured in Peter Margasak’s latest round up of jazz and improvised music.

Mali Obomsawin, photo credit Abby and Jared Lank

The Swedish percussionist and visual artist Sven-Åke Johansson has been based in Berlin since the late 1960s, and he’s remained one of the most peripatetic figures in the city’s cosmopolitan scene. He compliments his multifarious music making with drawings, photos, and performance art, all of which he meticulously documents on his fascinating website website.

Yet there is always more in his vaults, such as the newly released Live ‘82 (Black Truffle) proves. Recorded at the Moers Festival, the music is billed to the Bergisch-Brandenburgisches Quartett, featuring Johansson on drums with Hans Reichel on violin and modified guitars, Rüdiger Carl on reeds and accordion, and East German Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky on alto saxophone.

Petrowsky was a key figure in bridging a divided Germany during this era, playing regularly with musicians from the west. Under Johansson’s warped guidance they blend free jazz, wild improvisation, and conceptual brio that sounds utterly fresh and incisive four decades later.

We’ve covered some archival material from the great Los Angeles pianist, bandleader, and community figure Horace Tapscott in this space before. Brighton label Mr Bongo has been a key part of the Tapscott renaissance.

They’ve recently unearthed The Quintet, what was set to be the pianist’s follow up to his 1969 debut The Giant Is Awakened, recorded the same year with the same group: alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, bassists David Bryant and Walter Savage Jr, and drummer Everett Brown Jr.

His tune ‘For Fats’ appeared on the debut in a two-minute version, but here it gets a more spacious and powerful 16-minute reading. The album also features ‘World Peace’ which rides on a groove one might expect from Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood Of Breath, while ‘Your Child’ is a modal gem that would’ve sounded at home on an Impulse! release. A major discovery, indeed.

Eve Risser Red Desert Orchestra – Eurythmia
(Clean Feed)

French pianist Eve Risser has set herself apart with her astonishing abilities under the lid of her instrument, applying wild preparations to her instrument that would make John Cage blush. Her solo performances turn the piano into an extended percussion machine, where her furious rhythmic conception suggests some kind of rattling, buzzing Rube Goldberg contraption. Her love for purring vibrations might explain her attraction of music from West Africa, where many instruments, such as the Congolese likembi clatter and jangle. After leading an adventurous large ensemble of French collaborators called the White Desert Orchestra, she followed up with a new ensemble fueled by musicians from Mali and Burkina Faso including Ophélia Hié on balafon, Oumarou Bambara on djembé, and Melissa Hié balafon and djembe. Risser’s stately compositions don’t try to adapt Mande themes, but they are deftly embroidered with West African grooves and sonic textures which percolate beneath rich, horn-driven arrangements that pivot and levitate. Most of the album basks in aerated timbres, with judicious solo passages coming from heavies like saxophonist Antonin-Tri Hoang, trombonist Matthias Müller, and the leader herself. On a tune like ‘Desert Rouge’ Risser guides her band back-and-forth between meditative orchestrations and magnificently propulsive polyrhythms without a hiccup. These sorts of projects are dangerous, with one component too often serving as window dressing, but Risser had overseen a powerful marriage of traditions serving a single goal.

Ollie Brice Trio/Octet – Fire Hills
(West Hill)

Although he’s regularly led his own projects over the years, bassist Olie Brice has been a kind musical glue in countless UK combos over the last decade or so, perpetually holding down the low-end in all sorts of groups. He’s a versatile musician, adept in free improvisation, but as this new project reveals his true sweet spot resides closer to adventurous post bop, both as an improviser and composer. None of his previous recordings conveyed his range like this superb double CD, the first of which features a muscular trio with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger and drummer Will Glaser. Several of the pieces are dedications to figures that seem like influences on Brice’s expansive conception – including pianist Andrew Hill and fellow bassist Johnny Dyani – but the trio doesn’t tip its hat in any single direction, instead building on the leader’s attractive yet skeletal themes with extended improvisations that reveal a deep connection. On the title tune, for example, there’s a lengthy, dialed-down dialogue between Brice and Challenger where each player walks a tightrope of upper register harmonics before confidently switching into a more full-throated saunter. The second disc is with a high-octane octet including two trumpets and four saxophones powered by some of London’s most protean figures, deftly navigating arrangements that toggle between dense and airy. Brice isn’t splashy, but he not only gets the job done, but he always lifts up those around him.

John Escreet Trio – Seismic Shift

After spending 14 years integrating into New York’s sprawling jazz scene London pianist John Escreet relocated to Los Angeles in 2020, and if his first ever trio recording is any indication, the new city suits him. As activity began resuming during the pandemic he paired up with the explosive rhythm section of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Damion Reid, and Seismic Shift captures the new combo operating at the highest level, easily moving between vibrant post-bop, particularly on a jacked-up interpretation of the Stanley Cowell classic ‘Equipoise’, and the sort of extroverted explosions that marked some of Don Pullen’s finest recordings. The rhythm section, for whom Escreet composed the rugged ‘RD’, doesn’t merely support the pianist’s most outward bound and shape-shifting inclinations, but it also pushes and pulls, operating as a deeply agile, high-energy entity that can stop on a dime, drop accents, or suddenly switch its feel in an instant. Reid has earned a reputation as a kind of human MPC and while he does provide that sort of superhuman rhythmic presence here and there, he channels his abilities to fit this particular context, swinging with clarity and grace when necessary, as on the comparatively measured ‘Perpetual Love’. Escreet is one of the more peripatetic pianists at work today, regularly changing his stylistic prerogative on his albums, but few endeavors have so ably demonstrated his prodigious talents.

Mali Obomsawin – Sweet Tooth
(Out of Your Head)

Until recently singer and bassist Mali Obomsawin was probably known best as a member of the ambitious folk-rock trio Lulu Wiles, which dropped three strong albums on the Smithsonian Folkways label, but this new project not only reveals a different side of their music, but it offers a fascinating portal to her Obomsawin’s heritage. Sweet Tooth is a gripping suite exploring that shares stories and struggles of the Wabanaki, an indigenous people from Eastern Canada down through Southern New England. They were raised on ancestral lands in Maine and Quebec, and Obomsawin shares the people’s complicated history of exploitation. The Ivy League school Dartmouth College, where Obomsawin studied, was originally founded in 1769 as a school to educate the Wabanaki, and they discovered field recordings and other documents of her people hidden away in the school’s archives, some of which turn up on this excellent recording made with the Dartmouth professor and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and sextet rounded out by drummer Savannah Harris, guitarist Miriam Elhajli, and reedists Allison Burik and Noah Campbell. Obomsawin sings in English and Abenaki on tunes that seamlessly meld chorale-like spiritual, folk melodies, and post-Albert Ayler free jazz in a thoroughly convincing fashion. It’s a knockout, rich in context and substance, with a mission that fuels its most exploratory impulses.

Chad Taylor Trio – The Reel
(Astral Spirits)

It’s beyond question that Philadelphia drummer Chad Taylor is one of the greatest sidemen in jazz, a percussionist whose confidence, invention, and sense of space has elevated the music of countless bands in all kinds of ways. Whether playing alongside cornetist Rob Mazurek, bassist Luke Stewart, or saxophonist James Brandon Lewis – to name just a few recent examples – his perfectly pitched presence provides propulsion that feels so innate you might hardly notice his particular genius. I can’t think of anyone that knows how to transform a snare rim into such potent grooves. Of course, there’s much more to Taylor’s work, and the second album by his trio with pianist Neil Podgurski and saxophonist Brian Settles reinforces his abilities as a composer and bandleader, where his weighty, expansive command of his full kit has no problem making up for the lack of a bassist. All of the musicians contribute elegant tunes, whether soulfully tender balladry or knotty, emotionally turbulent post-bop themes that echo the two Andrew Hill compositions the trio tackles. Taylor’s ‘Julian’s Groove’ spins off of an intensely slaloming unison melody voiced by Settles and Podgurski, but it never surrenders the clattery rhythm Taylor uses to hold the entire excursion together – except when he transforms those patterns into a fantastic solo – somehow melding post bop with a vaguely Cuban montuno pattern on piano. As if we needed more proof of Taylor’s innate musicality, here it is.

Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey – Counterfeit Mars
(Relative Pitch)

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey are partners in both marriage and across countless musical projects. During the pandemic they kept their chops up and further developed their already sophisticated practice with regular sessions at home, which they shared with listeners as the months unfolded. They’ve previously released some of their fully improvised work together, but this lovely collection is comprised of pithy compositions that emerged from those spontaneous pandemic sessions. Partly due to the instrumental format – where the lack of bass or piano eliminates any chordal foundation – and partly due to the deep level of trust they possess for one another, the performances roam freely and easily from the skeletal thematic material. At the same time, the written material injects variety across the collection’s thirteen pieces, most of which clock in under four minutes, so it often feels like Counterfeit Mars arrives as a concise summation of those more informal improv sessions. Still, even within the restricted length, each player imparts a steady profusion of ideas and motifs, capturing spontaneous exchanges without a wasted gesture.

Rempis/Reid/Abrams – Allium

The second album from this top-flight trio of Chicago improvisers offers more proof of its subtle rapport and shared vision. Saxophonist Dave Rempis is a notorious fire-breather, a reedist with unbound reserves and energy – and one of the loudest saxophonists I’ve ever heard ¬– but he’s able to radically modulate his attack, and alongside cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams he does exactly that. Despite the chamber-like vibe, this trio is hardly polite. The opening track ‘Petiole’ bristles with astringent long-tones, with the string players unfurling extended arco lines that push into the upper register of their instruments, with Rempis deftly adjusting his attack to layer a mixture of unpitched breaths and billowing shadings that effectively underlines or thickens the striated friction produced by his partners. Of course, as the album unfolds more forceful sounds emerge. Rempis plays tart, fluttering lines on the opening of ‘Schubertii’, imbued with a tension like a tiger about to spring upon its prey, but even as Reid produces more extroverted textures and Abrams plucks thick, woody notes on his bass, the saxophonist maintains that uncertain composure, keeping the listener deliciously on edge.

Angelica Sanchez Trio – Sparkle Beings

One of the most persistently overlooked and under-recorded pianists of her generation, Angelica Sanchez delivers an authoritative statement of her invention and range with this excellent trio session featuring bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Billy Hart. The cross-generational rhythm section offers fleet support for the pianist, who nonchalantly displays her versatility, whether on fleet post-bop, fully improvised excursions, or the sort of brooding introspection she shared on her most recent effort, the sublime 2020 piano duo recording with Marilyn Crispell, How To Turn the Moon. It’s fitting that the album opens with a spirted dissection of ‘A Fungus Amungus’, a gem from Mary Lou Williams – another female pianist and composer that hasn’t received her due more than four decades after death. Sanchez moves in and out of the thematic material with quicksilver grace, demonstrating electrifying rhythmic alacrity and mood shifts. ‘Generational Shifts’ is one of the fully improvised pieces, but between the rhythmic elasticity of Formanek and Hart and the deluge of meticulously arranged ideas from the pianist it hardly feels that way. Sanchez also takes on Cecil Taylor’s ‘With (Exit)’, but remakes it in her own ravishing stye, elaborating on the theme with a measured, even austere exploratory elan.

Chris Williams Quintet – Live
(cow: Music)

I’d never heard of trumpeter Chris Williams until earlier this year, but he’s suddenly been turning up often, dropping a recent duo album with LA reedist Patrick Shiroishsi or playing in a new electro-acoustic improvising quartet with bassist Luke Stewart, drummer Jason Nazary, and alto saxophonist Chris Pitsiokos. He’s an improviser, but he’s also been working with rapper Pink Siifu in recent years. This concise album was recorded in Los Angeles back in 2018, but despite its title it’s not exactly a live set, although it was recorded at the lamented venue Blue Whale. Leading a stellar quintet with Shiroishi, pianist Joshua White, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Guillermo Brown, Williams presents two dazzling collaged pieces that ricochet between improvised passages and written material—in which all of the player add electronic elements—all assembled by the leader in post-production. Williams boldly toggles between tuneful passages and dissonant abstraction, cutting-and-pasting stuff together with a keen sense of scale and variation. While someone like drummer Makaya McCraven assembles live improvisation into seamless composites, Williams thrives on head-snapping contrasts made possible in part by the versatility of his collaborators. Collectively they move between classic fire music, abraded free improvisation, and pure sonic exploration, with Williams updating the tape-cutting magic of Teo Macero for the 2020s. These 28 minutes hit as hard as anything I’ve heard this year.

Margaux Oswald – Dysphotic Zone
(Clean Feed)

The solo debut from this Copenhagen-based French-Filipino pianist clocks in at just over 32 minutes, but it’s hard not to feel drained by the time this bruising, intensely physical performance comes to an end. Recorded live in the fall of 2021 at the Monopiano Festival in Stockholm, Margaux Oswald builds almost monolithic blocks of sound from her instrument—as if she’s carving tones from huge slabs of granite—summoning up thunderous left hand figures that rumble ominously, filling up space while she embroiders surprisingly elaborate, almost delicate patterns with her right hand. When a musician pushes her audience into submission with ferocious sound it can feel fascistic, but Oswald’s approach is different. Indeed, her post-Cecil Taylor fury, which does open up at times, letting silence in like bright rays of sun, is inviting in some strange way, a humanistic sound sculpture marbled with exquisite detail and guided by a remarkable sense of dynamic range. The album title refers to underwater depths, where light quickly dissipates, and the two tracks – ‘237m’ and ‘951m’ – reflect different levels of submersion, neatly applying a sonic quality to the clarity and strength of light. The music represents just one side of Oswald’s approach, and I’m looking forward to experience other facets.

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