Thursday, March 29, 2012

CD Review: Steve Lehman Trio - Dialect Flourescent

Steve Lehman Trio
Dialect Flurescent
(Pi Recordings)
When Steve Lehman released Travail, Transformation and Flow in 2009, it knocked my socks off. It was edgy music that had brains and brawn; rigid structures that still managed to sound extremely engaging and welcoming. I've got follow every step this alto player makes, I thought. A year later, he and Rudresh Mahanthappa collaborated on Dual Identity (see my review here: It wasn't quite as mind-blowing as Travail but it was still pretty solid.
Dialect Flourescent places Lehman in the context of a trio with Matt Brewer (bass) and Damion Reid (drums), who also played on Dual Identity. Listening to opener "Allocentric" the first few times, something felt a little unsettling about it. Then it hit me: All three guys are playing the same thing; the same tricky time pattern, the same uneven cluster of notes, even Reid. While the delivery is impressive, this kind of thing sounds a little too tense and makes me feel restless. It's almost like math jazz. Part of my hesitation comes from the fact that Travail was played by an octet, so the focus of the music was regularly shifting between three horns and vibes. Here, it's just a bright, semi-sharp alto and rhythm for virtually the whole album. Everything is front and center from the get-go.
Yet as the album proceeds, things loosen up a little, although Lehman's ability to execute a barrage of notes in a solo is something that ceases. (That's a good thing, by the way. It reminds me in a way of when Anthony Braxton covered Monk's "Skippy" at a tempo that made his alto lead sound like a spray of bullets.) The biggest surprise comes in the next track, a reading of John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice." It isn't recognizable until the trio plays the theme at end of it, and even then it's hard to say if they Brewer had been following the changes of the song or not. The album's alternating pattern of following a Lehman piece with a cover continues and provides an interesting view of the band. After each mathy turn, the trio swings fast and furiously through Duke Pearson ("Jeanine") and Lehman's former teacher Jackie McLean ("Mr. E"). Between those two, he chooses a real out-there cover, "Pure Imagination" from the Willy Wonka soundtrack, which gets a little frenzied. "Alloy" and "Fumba Rebel," the two originals in the second half of the album, aren't as locked into the rigidity of the earlier pieces, as if they took a cue from the bop covers.
There are plenty of moments on Dialect Fluorescent that maintain my fascination with Lehman - his speed and agility, the way he solos in unusual groups of note patterns. It's just that the delivery feels the same in many tracks, like the group wants to devour the music rather than savour it. Still, it makes me want to hear more of him, making me tempted to get his other albums and the rest of the discs by Fieldwork, his collaborative trio with Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey. Maybe I'll listen to this again too.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

CD Review: Vijay Iyer Trio - Accelerando

Vijay Iyer Trio

For awhile, Accelerando seemed like it was going to be the most anticipated jazz album of the year. So much so that I thought it wasn't going to be officially released for another few weeks, since I hadn't seen anything written about it around the time of its March 13 drop date. Then I remembered all the pre-release hoopla it got at the beginning of the year. Maybe that's why it hasn't popped up anywhere recently: all the hoopla already happened. Then Esperanza Spaudling's album came out yesterday, and after getting the latest JazzTimes and checking out last weekend's Sunday New York Times, it was clear that was the most anticipated album of the year. You don't see Vijay for sale on the counter at Starbucks.
Suffice to say that Accelerando has everything an Iyer head could hope for. The opening chords of "Bode" establish the eager anticipation that something is about to break here. The rubato rumbling goes on for a mere two minutes and change before it fades out. It was a savvy move on the trio's part to do this rather than fleshing it out. This piece was part of their set last year, but considering how they segued a lot together, it's hard to remember if they just used it as an interlude or a full-fledged tune.
In the press release to the album Iyer states, "There is a whole world history of groove and pulse to draw on, and we do." He references influences from Bud Powell to the Meters and the music of India and Africa. On this album the group is clearly in-the-pocket and grooving, albeit not in the traditional sense.
The idea of strange grooves appears in the title track, a three minute piece originally written for a dance performance. It's built on an unsteady time signature that tricks your ears into thinking the trio is about to accelerate into double-time, but it keeps snapping back into a riff. (The title "Accelerando" almost feels like red herring, or sarcasm.) Chordally, it's a pretty straightforward, playing a similar rhythm over a descending progression, but the trio brings a lot of intensity to it.
A different groove happens in the wide open middle section of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature," originally a solo vehicle for the pianist which here gets stretched out to over nine minutes, the longest track on the album. Instead of vamping to get listeners in a party mood, Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore toy with the riff. It begins when Crump starts adding comments with a funky 4/4 over the flowing rhythm of the head. Gilmore shifts into something subtle that sounds like it shouldn't conjoin with Crump, but it does. Next thing you know, Iyer has set down the changes and taken it somewhere else, kind of vamping but also soloing. When it reaches a climax, everyone steps back towards the theme, but not before Crump plucks some upper register comments.
"Human Nature" comes in the midst of a set of disparate interpretations, following "The Star of a Story" by the '70s R&B band Heatwave ("Always and Forever," "Boogie Nights"), "Wildflower" by revered-but-still-obscure bop pianist Herbie Nichols, "Mmmhmm" by producer Flying Lotus and "Little Pocket Size Demons" by Henry Threadgill.
Too often the act of combining such non-sequitur pieces comes off seeming self-conscious - an attempt to bring together listeners of different musics in some naive utopian way. Or it's a way to show off the vast expanse of their record and CD collection. It feels like that square peg is getting hammered into the round hole, with the splinters flying everywhere in the process. (If I have to use a cliche, I figure it should embellish the imagery a little.)
With Vijay Iyer, the diversity just feels natural. It's in his blood. It's in his brain. Crump and Gilmore play a big role in that too. So does Steve Coleman, probably, for expanding Iyer and Gilmore's mind with regards to rhythms and whatnot.
So yes - the most anticipated release of the year. I am curious to hear what Esperanza has up her sleeve, but these guys can blow minds and make it seem easy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

CD Reviews: Charles Gayle Trio & Chicago Underground Duo

Northern Spy has become a pretty prolific label in just a few short years. They've specialized in the more intense free improv and noise with bands like the Zs, the Jooklo Duo and Spanish Donkey (the latter featuring guitarist Joe Morris and keyboardist Jamie Saft). But these two releases bring two established and fairly reknown acts to their roster, which ought to bring more curious ears to their homebase to check everyone else out.

Charles Gayle Trio

Charles Gayle's catalog is pretty extensive, to put it mildly. A random sampling might draw on blistering free improvisations lasting up to 45 or 50 minutes at a pop, or the saxophonist's unique and knowledgeable takes on jazz standards. And then there's Gayle's past history of living homeless, allegedly by choice at least for awhile - which incorporates his devout religious beliefs - and his persona of Streets, a sad-faced clown whom he portrayed onstage in the '90s and whom he resurrects for the cover and title of this latest album.

Streets finds Gayle back on his original tenor horn (he has played alto in the past, not to mention piano and, more recently, upright bass). His tone is gruff, sounding something akin to a bar walking r&b honker. While his music is nowhere near that style, neither does he hit the ground screaming either. "Compassion I" begins with a descending line that feels like a Coltrane-esque theme, and Gayle develops that over Larry Roland's double stops and Michael TA Thompson's snare cracks. This track also shows a surprising sense of economy: Gayle's first solo ends around 2:55 and he turns the spotlight on Thompson. Before the track ends just a couple minutes later, Roland also gets in a solo.

The title track brings in some wide tenor vibrato over a droning bowed bass. At 10 minutes, this gives the trio a chance to stretch out, and even though things sound disjointed in the way they move, they still support each other. More surprises come in "March of April," with its marching drum beat, and "Doxology," another 10-minute piece that has a surprise coda that turns into a ballad courtesy of some more vibrato, this time more romantic than Ayler-esque.

"Tribulations" joyfully smashes the mood set up by "Doxology," heading into some old school Gayle wailing. Here, the trio evokes the image of a domestic fight in a classic film, with dishes being thrown as voices flair. Only in this case, that's a good thing. Long time Gayle supporters should enjoy this whole set. Those new to his work, who don't know where to start with his output, would do well to begin here.

Chicago Underground Duo
Age of Energy

Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor have been making albums with the Chicago Underground moniker for 15 years, always challenging listeners to rethink the possibilities for what a couple guys (and the occasional extra friends) can create. Anyone who just wants to hear wild cornet and drums blowing is going to have to wait.

Age of Energy finds the duo creating a lot of texture and mood, sometimes very slowly, where things don't always move at a steady pace. "Winds and Sweeping Pines" last nearly 20 minutes and doesn't rush to get the action started. After four minutes of outer space electronics, a bassline finally surfaces, and Taylor gives it a backbeat 60 seconds later. This continues for about another five minutes, without much presence beyond the groove. In the last quarter of the track, things finally feel energized when a faster bass riff sets up Mazurek's cornet, and Taylor joins him.

"It's Alright" feels like a modern version of something like Miles Davis' "He Loved Him Madly" from Get Up With It. A loop of electronics drones in the background while Mazurek sings the title through a wall of tremolo and blows some cornet through the haze. Some wild sounds pass through, like something that sounds like a feedback loop that speeds up and slows down, but it might have been more exciting if Mazurek played something more lines than long tones.

Taylor plays mbira (African finger piano) on "Castle In Your Heart," which sounds a little distorted and overdriven. The effect gives it a lot of presence and makes the duet with the cornet (the sole acoustic tune here) one of the albums best moments. With that, the duo wraps things up with the title track, a wild blend of buzzing synth lines, wild drumming and energetic horn blowing.

Check out these and more at

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

CD Review: Lambchop - Mr. M

Mr. M

Mr. M opens with the sweet strain of strings, which had me wondering if I was listening to the wrong album. Then Kurt Wagner makes his entrance with the line, "Don't know what the fuck they talk about," which serves to reassure that yes, this is the right place.

The band couldn't have picked a better way to pay homage to their late friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt than with that line's blend of salty honesty and semi-sweet delivery. The song is titled "If Not I'll Just Die" which comes - probably not coincidentally - from the final line of Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You." But this song sounds less like a love song than an overview of the scene of the recording, where Wagner comments on the sound of the strings, offers a desire for some flutes (which never happens) and adds that Grandpa is coughing in the other room. Regardless, it's a great scenario and a good way to open an album.

The rest of Mr. M, Lambchop's 11th album, finds Wagner sketching out more stories, some as immediately engaging as "If Not I'll Just Die" and some not quite as successful. His delivery almost makes him sound like a crooner in the old fashioned style, with the lack of technique coming to the surface occasionally, adding to the authenticity. That plays to the band's claim years ago as being "Nashville's most fucked-up country band." But other times, his vibrato gets to be a little too much. Sometimes it sounds like he's out of breath or doing an Aaron Neville. And he drops syllables periodically, which really gets frustrating in "Kind Of" because the payoff line kind of depends on the adjective.

When the group takes the songs at a Pink Floyd tempo, Mr. M works better in small doses. Half the 12 songs last over five minutes, with two clocking in around seven. Yet, even when they take their time getting to their destination, the band manages to throw in something that keeps you coming back. The long coda of "Gone Tomorrow" brings the slow movement to a crescendo, with what sounds like some guitar noise from the other room seeping into one channel. "The Good Life (Is Wasted)" has an undercurrent of distortion in the arrangement.

All through the album, the strings rarely play with vibrato, and even when they do, the effect is rich and never sappy. Several songs also make good use of angelic, wordless back-up singers, especially in the instrumental "Betty's Overture," which is based on a chord pattern similar to Jobim's "How Insensitive." (Could be another coincidence, but Wagner and his crew seem to be pretty wise to the world of such music.) This cut also has some fuzz bass hiding in the corner, and a great blend of the strings and lower brass.

The album ends with "Never My Love," which is not the Association song of the same name. Instead it acts like a hopeful ending in which Wagner sings about "my stupid love," as a way of being self-deprecating, and insure this love song won't get too maudlin. The approach makes it a more realistic take on the traditional love song, and the back-up vocals, which here sound like a theremin, contribute to the mood.

Mr. M might not be an easy album to get through, but it's pretty engrossing anyway.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Staycation, CD purchases and Davy Jones

My staycation is nearly over. I'm back to work on Tuesday. And I have done squat in terms of blogging. In fact the last entry was written BEFORE the vacation started. Well, part of that had to do with my laptop fizzling out and needed a new hard drive. That was two or three days of driving back and forth to get work done on it and taking the start-up discs there. Tell ya what, though, I feel like I've already gotten my money out of the Geek Squad. I had to get them to help me reinstall a crucial program this morning. It took half a day and they were cool about it.

For those of you in Pittsburgh who don't already know, Paul's CDs has now knocked their going out of business prices down to 40% off. I went in and went crazy today, after having already been in there once earlier in the week. Today's booty includes an FMP Cecil Taylor big group (with Charles Gayle), the ECM trio Fly, Thelonious Monk w/John Coltrane (all I have is a crappy dub from 20+ years ago), Archie Shepp, a live Pernice Brothers CD and I think one other thing. I did get the wife a Scott Walker disc too.

I suppose this is the place where I should opine about the passing of Davy Jones, Monkees booster that I am. To be honest Davy was never my favorite Monkee. In fact he might have been my least favorite, the highest honor going to Mr. Nesmith - for both his first name and for the fact that he played guitar, which when I got a couple of their albums at the tender age of 5 or 6, was a serious criteria. (Why else would I have thought Tito Jackson was the coolest member of the Jackson 5?) And I just can't shake the memory of an interview he gave the Post-Gazette in 1999 when he came here on tour with Bobby Sherman and some other idol like Peter Noone. He trashed the rest of the Monkees, sounding bitter and whiny. Unfortunately the P-G's online service doesn't go back that far, otherwise I'd link it.

Still, it doesn't seem right that Davy has left us so soon. He was always good for a couple of yuks. There's the recurring, "I am standing up," joke from the series, that was riffed on endlessly. "You must be joking," was another stock line. Besides "I'll Be True to You" is a really strong cut on the first album. Actually, the first four Monkees albums have some decent Davy cuts on them. ("I Wanna Be Free" serving as one of the more notable exceptions.) And despite his nasty thoughts in the above interview, an article this weekend made him seem like the nice Monkee while Peter Tork was the crabby one. So there are some benefits that come with being Mr. Entertainer.