|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Muhal Richard Abrams
Roi Boyé & the Gotham Mintrels
Oliver Lake/Julius Hemphill
The Solo Trombone Record
Of Blues and Dreams
Karl Berger & Dave Holland
All Kinds of Time
Barry Altschul Trio
Something in the Air: Sackville Record’s Avant-Garde Releases Return
By Ken Waxman
Besides gaining a reputation for its demographically diverse and eminently liveable neighbourhoods, when it came to improvised music starting in the early 1970s Toronto was actually a world-class city in more than civic boosterism. That’s because on the initiative of photographer/musician Bill Smith, Sackville records was issuing LPs by some of the most significant avant-garde players from New York, Chicago and St. Louis. Recorded for the most part in local studios, these discs – and affiliated concerts – documented these emerging stylists and designated Toronto’s as part of the international free jazz firmament. Now Chicago’s Delmark label is distributing CD reissues of the original Sackville records.
Probably the most significant session was the label’s one two-disc package, saxophonist and flautist Julius Hemphill’s Roi Boyé & the Gotham Minstrels Sackville SKCD2-3014/15. It’s a solo session that’s a pioneering example of using multi-tracking to create a compelling audio drama. Best known as a founder of the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ), Hemphill (1938-1995) was interested in programmatic story telling not reed bravado. One observation is that the often-delicate timbres of the reedist’s overdubbed flutes were showcased at a time when the cliché of advanced jazz imagined every player a discordant eardrum-assaulter. Even when playing astringent alto saxophone, as on the second track, Hemphill is so in control of his material that he doesn’t lapse into glottal punctuation. Instead he replicates a New York subway journey through an overdubbed choir of yelping saxophones. Exactly one year later, Hemphill and his WSQ colleague Oliver Lake recorded the duo disc, Buster Bee Sackville SKCD2-3016 in Toronto. As notable as their teamwork was, it lacks the revolutionary force of the solo set. On “Roi Boyé” for instance, Hemphill devotes the final track to a narrative about a black artist’s life in a materialistic society, punctuating his story-telling with harsh squeals, discordant whorls and split tones, Another track replicates a butterfly’s attraction through stacked and harmonized reed tones that meander linearly; while a third is practically a capriccio, with the theme bouncing along, propelled by carefully stacked, overdubbed horn vamps, while reed-biting and pressurized vibratos from the alto saxophone come in-and-out of aural focus for contrast; ending with a distinctive contralto textural upturn. Hemphill doesn’t neglect jazz’s bedrock, the blues, either. One extended piece positions a soulful alto saxophone riff, basso lip-bubbling from the flute and a heavily breathed soprano saxophone line that could come from a country blues harmonica, while discordant, pitches slide contrapuntally among them. Eventually the track reflects both the guttural despair and altissimo promise of the music.
Another pace-setting session took place a year earlier, with George Lewis’ The Solo Trombone Record Sackville SKCD2-3012 the first session under his own name by the musician now as famous for his computer-directed music as for his brass mastery. Audacious to the nth degree, the disc’s “Tonebursts” is another example of overdubbing. But while Hemphill was 39, with years of gigging behind him when “Roi Boyé” was recorded, Lewis was all of 24. In spite of his youth, the 20-minute track is another tour-de-force with the trombonist evidentially able to stylistically replicate key attributes of older brassmen, calling upon the color of Tricky Sam Nanton, the sophistication of Lawrence Brown and the speed of J. J. Johnson at will and blending them as needed. Here expressive lines are sometimes replaced by a sudden staccato brays, or mid-improv, a trombone choir harmonizes, with its parts segmented among bass trombone pedal-point, alto trombone open-horn linearity, and the highest textures strained though a cup mute. There are even times during which you could swear a supple saxophone is soloing accompanied by phantom guitar strokes. Besides expressive glissandi, timbres are sourced from deep within the trombone body; capillary lines are lobbed from one ‘bone to another; or rubato tones share space with polyharmonies and polytones. Eventually techniques such as oscillated mouthpiece kisses are replaced with resonating runs that maintain an almost conventional jazz-styled line while at the same time making room for growling ostinatos and altissimo cries. Lewis also provides a solo interpretation of “Lush Life”, but more impressive are other tracks such as “Untitled Dream Sequence”. Taken at the same tempo as that Billy Strayhorn classic, the piece’s note-slurping, double-tongued accents and speedy glisses from every part of the horn demonstrate that exciting improvisation doesn’t have to be fortissimo, super-fast or discordant.
Lewis was also more than just present a year previously when saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s Quartet on Sackville SKCD2-3009 was recorded live at Toronto’s long defunct A Space gallery. The momentous session not only captures a then-rare example of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s saxophonist performing without the other band members, but puts him in an all-star context. Other quartet members are pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, probably the most respected Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians founder, and Detroit guitarist Spencer Barefield. Mitchell and Lewis expose sonorous counterpoint on one duo track and the trombonist alone turns Mitchell’s “Olobo” into another brass tour-de-force, blending a near ballad exposition with guttural sniggers, near-silent breaths and a coda of overblowing. Group dynamics are memorable as well. Sonic tension is almost visible on “Tnoona”. With the theme built up from the saxophonist’s tongue flutters and split tones, guitar vibration, Lewis’ sliding plunger work and Abrams’ focussed note clusters, it finally dissolves without release. Aleatory as suggested by its title, Mitchell’s “Cards” is the CD’s most fully-realized composition. Chromatic forward motion is due to the pianist’s expressive low-frequency runs, but the linear form is punctuated by Barefield’s oscillating amp reverb. Meanwhile Mitchell’s reeds bark with clown-horn-like blasts and dilating split tones, as the trombonist contributes plunger grace notes and discursive pedal point. A coda of stentorian guitar strums completes the improvisation.
Other 1970s group sessions involve a rare excursion into focused European improvisations on All Kinds of Time Sackville SKCD2-3010 by a duo of German pianist/vibist Karl Berger and British bassist Dave Holland, who now follows a more mainstream course; plus pianist Anthony Davis, best-known for operas such as X and Amistad, expressing himself with a suite and shorter composition backed by violin, cello and percussion. But it is Brahma Sackville SKCD2-3023 from 1980 which best demonstrates the musical future which was partially ushered in by these earlier discs. Led by veteran drummer Barry Altschul, the unusually constituted trio introduced two players now in the prime of their career: trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Mark Helias. Improvising jazz is never static, and unlike uncompromising abstraction that characterizes earlier discs in this set, swinging elements are now mixed with the risk-taking solos. These rhythmic components still go far beyond the conventional. Altschul’s solo on the 17-minute title track may hit a groove, but his bulls-eye beat is amplified with timbre scrambles using mallets and sticks, ratamacues and drags on toms and snares, plus numerous interjections that bring in cymbal shaking, bell-tree resonation, waterphone scrapes, cow bell thwacks and shrills from slide whistles. The finale involves shaking a thunder sheet for fortissimo oscillations; the mid-section is based on a martial beat from the percussionist and wide-angled stops and thumps from Helias. Overall, this drum finesse is synchronized with elephant-like grunts from Anderson’s sousaphone when the brassman isn’t altering themes with flutter-tonguing, freak note whinnying and gutbucket slurs. Capable of smooth balladry on Altschul’s mid-tempo “Irina”, Anderson also whistles and slurs his way through his own Spanish-tinged “Con Alma de Noche” backed by woodblock bops and opposite sticking from the drummer. And he enlivens the bassist’s “Lism” with triplet-extended brassiness, allowing Helias to hand pump and sluice his way up-and-down the strings with guitar-like expressiveness as the stop-time tune evolves.
Advanced improvisations featuring out-of-towners, not to mention the burgeoning local free music community, continues to be recorded in the GTA. These historically important and musically impressive albums show how one series of discs successfully captured musical changes.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 16 #10
July 12, 2011
Lest We Forget:
Malachi Favors (1927-2004)
By Ken Waxman
Trickster to the end, when bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut died of pancreatic cancer in early 2004, his daughter revealed that he had actually born 10 years earlier than his previously accepted 1937 birth date. In a way that concluding jape was perfectly in character for the versatile bassist who from the mid-1960s until his death was a vital component of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC). The quintet proved that theatricism in the form of face paint, costumes, so-called “little instruments” and stylistic turns could be the source of profound and searching modern jazz – or if you prefer Great Black Music Ancient to the Future.
Fittingly Favors, whose most common rejoinder to inquiries about his age was that he was “older than dirt”, was born in Mississippi, one of the centres of jazz history, and brought up in Chicago, another important jazz location. A bass player by the time he was 15, after an army stint during the Korean War, Favors studied with local heavyweight bassists such as Israel Crosby and Wilbur Ware, and worked regular club gigs with pianists Andrew Hill and King Fleming. Searching for something more, he played briefly with Sun Ra, joined pianist Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band by 1961, and was a Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) founding member.
A subsequent meeting with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell led to him joining the reedman’s band which eventually evolved into the AEC. Favors, who also played banjo, zither, bells, gong, harmonica, melodica and percussion is generally credited with introducing “little instruments” to the AACM and AEC, the idea for which came from playing with Sun Ra and observing visiting African musical groups.
Besides his 35 years as a stabilizing force in the AEC, the bassist also recorded and played in a variety of contexts in Europe and North America with other advanced players such as saxophonist Archie Shepp, trumpeter Dennis González and drummer Sunny Murray. Internationally, he was part of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet. Home in Chicago, from the 1990s, Favors was with saxophonist Ari Brown, a valued member of percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio, showcased on many Delmark CDs; and played in ensembles with fellow bassist Tatsu Aoki, with whom he recorded a duo disc for Southport. His only CD as combo leader is a RogueArt session with fellow AACMers, saxophonist Hannah Jon Taylor and drummer Vincent Davis.
Unassuming in his actions except for his exceptional bass styling, Favors sometimes added the suffix Maghostut to his name, explaining that Maghostut was an ancient African word meaning “I Am the Host”. The timeless and mystical connection of this name fit perfectly with the profound, tradition-extending musicianship he displayed throughout his life.
-- For All About Jazz New York February 2011
February 12, 2011
Muhal Richard Abrams/Roscoe Mitchell/Janáček Philharmonic
Veteran American improvisers, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell get a rare showcase for their notated works on this notable performance by the Janáček Philharmonic of the Czech Republic, conducted by Petr Kotik. Surprisingly enough for two sound explorers, identified with the avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), both commissions, Abrams’ Mergertone, and Mitchell’s three-part Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, use the full resources of the orchestra to add lush, impressionistic coloration to the many harmonies and timbres exposed.
A fantasia, Megertone does exactly what the title suggests, layering and contrasting multiphonics. Moderato, it exposes individual instruments as the theme adavances. Pounding kettle drums, insinuations of Ragtime piano plus marimba and xylophone clatter share space with cushioning strings, a slinky oboe line, pan-tonal horn parts and a smooth and soothing tutti finale.
Featuring the cultured tones of baritone Thomas Buckner, the Mitchell piece, initially composed for his Art Ensemble of Chicago group, gains added gravitas from Buckner’s parlando, which mixes outright recitation with a suggestion of plainsong. As the baritone uses melisma to alter the lyrical line, orchestra cadenzas sympathetically scene set, embellish and subtly follow the tempo changes. Chromatic massed reed flourishes, string undulations, metronomic piano patterning and grace notes from the French horns also turn repeated phrasing from mere accompaniment to partnership.
As a prelude to the extended philharmonic performances, the two composers unite on Romu, the CD’s first track, a brief, low-key improvisation.
-- Ken Waxman
-- For Whole Note Vol. 15 #7
April 4, 2010
A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music
By George E. Lewis
University of Chicago Press
Home from his studies at Yale University in 1971, trombonist George Lewis was walking to his parents’ home on Chicago’s South Side when he heard unusual sounds coming from a nearby brick building. Peering inside he saw a group practicing what he calls “fascinating” music. Asking if he could attend future rehearsals, Lewis was grudgingly welcomed into what he soon found out was the disciplined but inventive milieu of the Association of the Advancement Musicians (AACM).
Shortly afterwards he became a member, and subsequently an official of the organization, founded by a group of Chicago’s most accomplished, jazz-directed improvisers in 1965. Forty-three years later the AACM – which one European critic describes as “a guarantee of quality” for improvised music – is recognized world-wide as “the first [successful] avant-garde co-operative in the United States”. A music professor at New York’s Columbia University, Lewis uses his insider’s perspective to write this comprehensive history of the organization. Knitting together 92 interviews and extensive research, A Power Stronger Than Itself stands out as exemplary jazz scholarship that also appeals to the non-academic.
Basically, the reason why the AACM has managed to survive into its fifth decade, while similar organizations have disappeared, is because as Lewis writes, “the collective conception that dominated the AACM both institutionally and artistically challenged the commodification of individuality itself – the ‘star system’ with its sharp division between ‘leader’ and ‘sideman’ that has been authoratively written into the discursive cannon of jazz”.
That doesn’t mean that some AACM members aren’t internationally renowned – reedists Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams come to mind. It’s just that the association’s growth has always been predicated on its collegial connection with the working class Black community of Chicago’s south side where it spawned. AACM members still promote its original nine-point program from 1965 that promises to stimulate cultural tradition, increase employment opportunities for creative musicians, provide composers’ workshops, like the one that impressed Lewis, and operate a school for aspiring musicians. AACM bands such as reedist Ed Wilkerson’s 8 Bold Souls and flautist Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble are still a constant Chicago presence.
However Lewis also notes that as significant for the ACCM’s survival, and its influence – which has gone past jazz’s boundaries to affect what he calls “whiteness-based” musics such as rock and so-called classical – is the decision from the beginning to emphasis the primacy of original music and the composer. Many first-generation AACMers – including, Lewis, Abrams, Braxton, violinist Leroy Jenkins, reedists Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman and others who left Chicago and formed a New York chapter in 1982 – deal with idioms that move across genres. Involved with theatre, poetry, sound collage and multi-media, the post-modern art music composed by these individuals is as likely to include references to minimalism and neo-classicism as the jazz tradition. As Lewis writes: “AACM musicians felt that experimentation in music need not be bound to particular ideologies, methods or slogans.” Musically, the AACM’s paramount contribution to experimental improvised music is a sense of dynamics. Unlike the New York-based New Thing of the 1960s, “the Chicago people got intense, but they also got soft and they were also incorporating other sounds into their music,” Lewis quotes Mitchell saying.
Describing the parallel development between the self-described “more conservative” Chicago-based AACM and the experimental New York wing is another way in which this volume supersedes earlier studies of the association. Lewis does situate the AACM in relation to other avant-garde collectives such as New York’s Jazz Composers Guild, St. Louis’ Black Artists Group and Los Angeles’ Underground Musicians Association (see Musicworks #96). He outlines how a supportive group of writers, music presenters and record labels allowed the collective to become better know. Braxton, Jenkins and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC) – which included Jarman and Mitchell – gained greater recognition during a two-year, late-1960s relocation to France.
However the French romanticizing a link between the association and radical Black Nationalism was discursive. These players’ intra-musical experiences plus resentment from Chicagoans, who felt that the AEOC was monopolizing the AACM, necessitated a separate New York chapter.
A Power Stronger Than Itself is also universal enough to deal with topics usually ignored by others. Lewis’ penultimate chapter itemizes how the ACCM has finally evolved from being a literal “old boy’s club” into addressing its gender imbalance. From first-hand accounts, he doesn’t sugar-coat the situation that initially any female musician had a hard time being accepted into the AACM, and that it wasn’t until 1992 that Samia, become the association’s first all-woman band. Even today female AACM members are more the exception than the rule, although Nicole Mitchell is the association’s co-chair
Recalling his experience and those of his AACM peers such as Braxton he also exposes the barriers that Black composers like themselves face when they write music outside the codified jazz tradition. Neither fish nor fowl, their creations are rejected by jazz purists for not swinging or being blues based, and by the classical establishment for being African-American, even he says, in the so-called downtown New music world. Such aids to experimental composers as university professorships, endowed chairs, performance ensembles and electronic music studios are monopolized by musicians hostile to improvisation and African American music.
Although he was only one of three African American composers affiliated with important experimental efforts such as 1992’s New Music, New York, since then the subsidy situation has improved, with several AACM composers are beneficiaries of major fellowships. Slightly beyond this volume’s purview, grant politics should be examined in the context of post-modern music in 21st Century. However readers of A Power Stronger Than Itself discover how the AACM, a grass roots association, evolved to participate in these discussions.
Considering that an AACM-organized, 50-member ensemble was available to play Abrams’ orchestral composition as part of the association’s 40th anniversary celebrations in Chicago, composers and performers from the ACCM will sure to be involved in whatever constitutes modern music for decades to come.
-- Ken Waxman
In MusicWorks Issue #101
July 2, 2008
Ken Waxman’s Top CDs for 2007
[In alphabetical order]
For CODA Issue 337
1. Muhal Richard Abrams, Vision Towards Essence Pi Recordings Pi23
2. Johannes Bauer/Thomas Lehn/Jon Rose, Futch Jazzwerkstatt JW 010
3. Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet, Inner Constellation Volume One. Nemu 007
4. Exploding Customer, At Your Service Ayler aylCD-063
5. Scott Fields Ensemble, Beckett Clean Feed CFO69 CD
6. Frank Gratkowski/Misha Mengelberg, Vis-à-vis Leo CD LR 476
7. François Houle, Evan Parker, Benoît Delbecq La Lumière de Pierres psi 07.02
8. Lucas Niggli Big Zoom, Celebrate Diversity Intakt CD 118
9. Quartestski Does Prokofiev, Visions Fugitives OP. 22 Ambiances Magnétiques AM 171 CD
10. Elliott Sharp & Reinhold Friedl, Feuchtify EMANEM 4133
Plus Two reissues:
• Charles Mingus, Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard … Played Live in Its Entirety at UCLA Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside SSC 3041
• Andrea Centazzo Mitteleuropa Orchestra, The Complete Recordings Collection 1980-1981; The Complete Recordings Collection 1982-1983 Ictus Records Special Collection Vol. 1-3, Vol. 4-6
January 15, 2008
Muhal Richard Abrams
Vision Towards Essence
Pi Recordings Pi23
Recorded at 1998’s Guelph Jazz Festival Vision Towards Essence captures New York-based pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’ triumphant solo concert there. A composer and orchestrator as well as a pianist, Abrams invests the nearly 40-minute, three-part recital with enough sonic excursions and augmentations to challenge any notated composition.
Along the way he alludes to practically the entire history of piano music. At various junctions he touches on the airy coloring of rococo recapitulation; andante classical-styled patterning plus staccato interpolations; the double-paced rhythmic gait and ringing bass notes of Swing and boogie woogie; plus the dynamic pulse and rubato inventiveness of free-form jazz.
Initially exploring those polyphonic patterns that can be raised from cascading pulsations – which utilize the soundboard and brass lugs as much as the keyboard – he slides into gentle key fluffing with configurations that, as call-and-response vamping is exposed, also become more fortissimo and harder-edged. Eventually, portamento note cluster sluices transform into rippling timbres that are as descriptively ornamental as Hard Bop comping and as out-and-out swinging as Stride piano patterns. Succeeding a penultimate variation that unites string-friction stops with a waterfall of ringing allegro patterns, Abrams end the recital with double-handed key smacks and echoes melding higher and lower pitches into unexpected rhythmic resonation. This climax-cum-resolution confirms his talents.
-- Ken Waxman
-- For Whole Note Vol. 13 #4
December 1, 2007
MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS
Things To Come From Those Now Gone
Co-founder and first president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Muhal Richard Abrams spent his Chicago years (up to 1977) formulating and organizing new and unique ways to approach music. This 1972 reissue highlights many of them.
Although recorded over a two-day period, there's a different grouping on each track, with the sound ranging from romantic semi-classical to out-and-out freebop. At the same time, since THINGS TO COME is a peek into Abrams sonic lab, some experiments arrive stillborn.
Especially grating is Ella Jackson's piercing soprano on "How Are You", where her "classical" vocal stylings seem to torture every sign of life out of simple phrases. "Ballad For New Souls" is merely pleasant, resembling one of Erik Satie's dainty miniatures more than anything else. Meanwhile "1 and 4" works much better at the beginning, with Abrams at the piano, then later on when his synthesizer tinkering suggests a skating rink rather than a concert hall or club. Only Steve McCall's subtle percussion coloring preserves the mood.
It's future sound partisans like McCall -- glimpsed in their early years -- who are responsible for the excellence of the rest of the disk. (Parenthetically, Abrams' synthesizer work has also soared in the 28 years since then). Powerful drummer Wilbur Campbell helps turn the two tracks on which he's featured into bluesy, post bop showcases, while Wallace McMillan and Edwin Daugherty show that out-of-Chicago fame doesn't necessarily come to all fine saxophonists.
Tenorman Ari Brown -- now in his prime as part of the Ritual Trio -- proves on "In Retrospect" that his supply of ideas and go-for-broke tone were in perfect working order back in 1972. Moreover bassist Rufus Reid, who seems to have been the epitome of tasteful mainstreamer forever, reveals his avant-garde past and turns in an expectedly impeccable performance whenever he's featured.
In short, anyone interested in Abrams' concepts over the years will probably want this album. Even "How Are You" can be ignored by pre-programming the CD.
Track Listing: 1. Ballad For New Souls 2. Things To Come From Those Now Gone
3. How Are You? 4. In Retrospect 5. Ballad For The Old Souls 6. 1 and 4 Plus 2 and 7. March Of The Transients
Personnel: Wallace McMillan (flute or alto saxophone); Edwin Daugherty (alto saxophone); Ari Brown (tenor saxophone); Muhal Richard Abrams (piano and synthesizer); Emmanuel Cranshaw (vibes); Reggie Willis or Rufus Reid (bass); Steve McCall or Wilber Campbell (bass); Ella Jackson (voice)
September 11, 2000