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Black Host: Life in the Sugar Candle Mines (Northern Spy) / by A. Drouot

19 Jul


Now 50, Gerald Cleaver’s career has really taken off in the past ten years or so. His fourth album as a leader comes out under the moniker Black Host and features a new project that blends the adventurousness of free jazz with the energy of rock. The group consists of up-and-coming musicians, alto sax Darius Jones, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, and bass player Pascal Niggenkemper, with the notable addition of veteran pianist Cooper-Moore who doubles on synthesizers for the occasion.

The epic opener serves as a perfect introduction to Black Host’s world, a world where chaotic mayhem, hard driving ostinatos, blissful melodies, and unfettered improvisation come in succession. That being said, each piece has a distinct construction or form. For instance, “Gromek” moves along an industricla or machinery-like hum with Jones and Seabrook aiming at stratospheric targets. And “Wrestling,” a nod to Bartok, is based on the Hungarian composer’s “Mikrokosmos no. 108.”

Despite the various approaches and strategies adopted, the compositions share a common vibe and are shrouded in a post-industrial veil. A close-to-the-bone rawness and urgency also prevails. In fact, Cleaver is credited for “sound and design.” This is neither a sign or self-indulgence nor a gimmick, but rather the recognition that the drummer has indeed put much work in defining a unique sound, a rare feat that might place this recording in a category alongside Eric Dolphy’s emblematic Out to Lunch.

Finally, Life in The Sugar Candle Mines would not be that successful it it were not for the top-drawer musicianship that never relies on the same bag of tricks. Pascal Niggenkemper’s tachycardia-like pulse, the osmosis between Jones and Seabrook (hopefully, those two musicians will get to work more together), Cooper-Moore’s turbulent commentaries, not to mention Cleaver’s explosive drive, contribute to create the many arresting moments that stud this album.

– Alain Drouot


Cavity Fang/ Urban Problems (Table and Chairs) – by Alain Drouot

19 Jul


Cavity Fang is the brainchild of Bay Area keyboardist/composer Michael Coleman. The project is built around a trio of drummers (Hamir Atwal, Jordan Glenn, and Sam Ospovat) and adds two open-minded and versatile musicians from the jazz/improvised music scene: Ava Mendoza on guitar and Cory Wright on baritone saxophone and flute.

It is difficult to say whether the result is rock informed by jazz or the opposite – and an analysis of each track might bring a different answer each time. The anthemic nature of some of the songs and the riffs definitely borrow from the rock tradition while the way sound and sonorities are organized owes more to jazz.

The offbeat approach, jagged rhythms, and quirky melodies might be at times reminiscent of Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, who incidentally originated from San Francisco. But Cavity Fang’s musical palette extends beyond those confines. “100 canoes,” which features wright on flute, ventures in Eastern territory and “Rara” exploits the three-drummer concept to the fullest by generating a barrage of percussion.

At the difference of 1970s jazz-rock which was often characterized by never-ending solos and unabashed self-indulgence, today’s young musicians seem to have learned a lesson or two and prefer to use rock’s conciseness rather than bombast. This is why it is likely that listening to Cavity Fang 20 years from now will be just as rewarding.

One might have a quibble with Urban Problems, though. The relatively short running time (just over 30 minutes) will leave many craving for more. Hopefully, it will not take long before we hear from this intriguing band again.

Alain Drouot

Rich Halley 4, Crossing the Passes (Pine Eagle Records)

9 Jun


When surveying the American jazz landscape, there is a good chance that the West Coast will get shortchanged. Since the days of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, or Shelly Manne, musicians who have called Los Angeles, Seattle, or even San Francisco home have had a hart time to get some attention. Tenor sax Rich Halley hails from Portland and despite churning out albums for over 30 years he is hardly a household name.

Crossing the Passes is one more addition to a recent string of consistently fine albums featuring a now steady quartet that includes Los Angeles trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, another under-recognized artist, bass player Clyde Reed, and drummer Carson Halley. The saxophonist’s recipe is an astute mix of post-bop and free-bop, an ideal environment for a band that is just as comfortable swinging hard as venturing in the unknown.

Halley is a lyrical and forceful saxophone player as well as a focused and driven band leader. His modus operandi is often a simple and effective melody used as a springboard for improvisation. This, however, does not equate to monotony. “Smooth Curve of the Bow” opens with a grand bowed bass intro before leaving way to a funky beat the Art Ensemble of Chicago would have relished; “The Spring Rains” is a ballad reminiscent of Mingus; and, “Journey Across the Land”‘s mood and walking bass style would be a perfect backdrop for Tom Waits.

Vlatkovich and Halley are real brothers in arms and share the free spirit of the late Jim Pepper, another Portland legend that never received the accolades he deserved. Their exchanges are always stimulating, sometimes playful or truculent, and benefit from a rock-solid and involved rhythm section that can also engage in a meaningful dialogue (“Traversing the Maze”).

Rich Halley’s music might not be the most original, but the musicians’ sincerity and honesty as well as the heartfelt and sometimes gut-wrenching delivery help this disc rise about the crop.

-Alain Drouot

Anna Webber, Percussive Mechanics (Pirouet)

9 Jun


New York-based Anna Webber is a young Canadian saxophone and flute player slowly building a reputation. 2010’s Don’t Need to Worry about Anything with her Third Floor People Project was a nice surprise. She confirms with yet another band this time put together with mainly promising European musicians and, as the album title suggests, a serious dose of drums and percussion.

One should not expect a heavily rhythmic affair, though. The array of percussion Webber convened (vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, two drum kits, etc.) is harnessed to be the engine that propels and guides the music as it curves and shifts. And this is crucial since a major trait of Webber’s compositions is their loose structure. They do not rely on the traditional head/improvisation/head format. To a certain extent, most of her pieces can be construed as mini-suites divided into multiple short parts – and they achieve a rare balance between challenging and accessible music.

Moreover, her breezy and compelling pieces allow time for introspection and emphasize the musicality of the percussion instruments, which does not rule out a touch of zaziness as the insanity-fuelled climax of the title-track bears witness. The only quibble might be the sequencing with the two most contemplative tracks slated back-to-back towards the end of the recording, thus jeopardizing the momentum gained so far.

Finally Webber’s priorities focus on group cohesion, coherent voicing, and seamless transitions, which also underline her talents as an arranger. Every move has a purpose; there is no wasted gesture, nor any flashy virtuosic display. Indeed, even in the freest passages, this septet is never guilty of meandering or noodling.

– Alain Drouot

Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House, Strong Place (Intakt)

15 May


New York-based German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock continues to assert herself as one of today’s most promising jazz musicians. Since the release of its debut, the unit known as Anti-House has expanded from a quartet to a quintet with pianist Kris Davis now being officially inducted into the group – she had previously appeared as a guest artist.

The band is probably a flag bearer for a new New York sound detached from what was known as the Downtown scene – ironically, none of the musicians is originally from the Big Apple. Laubrock, Davis, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and bass player John Hebert are all rising stars. And experienced drummer Tom Rainey whose name has been associated with countless sessions adds even more credibility.

Each piece would require a second-by-second description. Indeed, Laubrock’s compositions are dense and malleable patchworks of insistent codas, melody bits, dissonant and angular statements, or jagged rhythms and lines, and make use of the many tools that are part of each musician’s arsenal.

Anti-House makes challenging music but provides enough hooks to grab and retain the attention, most notable on the Henry Threadgill tribute, “Cup in a Teastorm.” Preeminently and perhaps facetiously featuring Davis’s piano – an instrument Threadgill rarely uses – Rainey’s busy and choppy drumming propels this faithful homage reminiscent of his Sextett days. Playfulness also comes into play, as evidenced in the middle of “Count ‘Em” at the injunction of Rainey, which underlines the authority that each musician can exercise to take the music in a new direction or to cue a new segment. Because what impresses most is how nimbly the band can negotiate shifts and, in particular, move from textures to a melody.

Finally, Strong Place will remain a great entry point to admire Laubrock’s soprano playing which is gaining in personality even if the fat lines she can conjure lean towards Joe McPhee.

– Alain Droulot

TrioVD, Maze (Naim Edge)

15 May


It is easy to see how this recording might puzzle or even create some dismay among jazz fans. This is not jazz, many will exclaim. It is quite certain that the members of this trio which hails from Leeds, England, do not really care what label is going to be stamped over their music. Running the risk of over-simplification, trioVD can be reminiscent of John Zorn’s Naked City at their most abrasive and violent. Indeed, Maze owes as much to jazz and improvised music as to speed metal and industrial rock.

However, after paying closer attention to the work of saxophonist Christophe de Bezenac, guitarist Chris Sharkey, and drummer Chris Bussey, the initial impression of mayhem tends to dissipate to reveal a band that is far from being one-dimensional. They can diversify their approach and go past the in-your-face formula to assemble a careful collage of sounds. Moreover, the electronics add to the atmosphere, providing a dense and textural backdrop.

The music of trioVD can be oppressive and full of imminent danger.  Pounded drum toms and harsh metallic cymbals often set the tone. Trouncing guitar and saxophone riffs are dealt without mercy. A frantic saxophone cuts through the magma in fusion like a buzzing saw. Morse-like phrases and a seemingly dyslexic discourse abound. This is sometimes offset by silly humor and unexpected turns as quiet passages are frequently the sign of a storm waiting to be unleashed.

If this was not already obvious, to best approach trioVD, it is recommended to leave expectations and preconceived definitions at home and let oneself be carried away by the irresistible adrenaline rush and the maelstrom of emotions.

– Alain Drouot

Functional Arrhythmias, by Steve Coleman and Five Elements (Pi Recordings)

11 May

Alto sax Steve Coleman is a highly conceptual artist who enjoys combining his interests outside the music realm with his compositional research. This time, he focuses on the relationship “between the human soul, biology and music” and, in particular, the various rhythms of the biological systems. 

His velocity and fluid articulation could land him the title of the archetypical 21st century bebopper, but this time his delivery is more closely connected to the rich and complex backdrop supplied by drummer Sean Rickman and electric bassist Anthony Tidd who are both making their return with Five Elements. Resisting the impetus to rush, Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson are measured as if they constantly search and probe – never following a straight line – the best path to navigate over Rickman’s polyrhythms and Tidd’s supple yet muscular bass lines.

More than a dozen-year partnership has enabled Coleman and Finlayson to seal a special bond. It is utterly impressive to hear both men so closely attuned while dealing with the complex  rhythmic requirements of the material. It is almost as if they were connected by an invisible umbilical tie. Whether they work in unison, part ways, or solo, Coleman and Finlayson follow the same modus operandi and their interplay is almost of telepathic nature.

On about a third of the tracks, guitarist Miles Okazaki joins the quartet, but his presence neither detracts from the performance nor enhances it. His contributions have more to do with a duplication of the process. Only on “Lymph Swag (Dance of the Leukocytes)” does he make an impression and affect the mood by switching to his distinctive nylon-string guitar. 

Alain Drouot