|J A Z Z W O R D R E V I E W S
|Reviews that mention Todd Nicholson
Moers Festival June 10 to 12, 2011
By Ken Waxman
Ornette Coleman’s performance at Germany’s Moers Festival was the surprise birthday present celebrating the 40th anniversary of Moers, which takes place annually in this town, about 50 miles from Cologne. Announced earlier, cancelled, and rescheduled, the jazz legend’s performance wasn’t even noted in the official program. Appearing on the fest’s final night, Coleman’s quartet turned in a suitably magisterial set, with the leader, dapper in a suit, infusing his tongue flutters and altissimo reed cries with genuine emotion. Segueing through short selections including classics like “Dancing in Your Head” and “Lonely Woman”, the alto saxophonist’s lines swooped, swerved and sighed, bringing a distinct country blues sensibility to everything he played.
Meanwhile bassist Tony Falanga’s robust strumming and contemplative bowing paced the material, as electric bassist Al MacDowell used guitar-like finger-picking to color the proceedings. MacDowell’s head elaborations in unison with Coleman’s lines, or flowing call-and-response patterns with Falanga, were backed by unforced backbeats from drummer Denardo Coleman.
Moers’ 20 featured performances over a three-day period took place in what is reportedly Europe’s largest circus tent. In a positive way, Moers is like a three-ring circus. Besides shows for the tent’s massive audience, the festival hosts smaller gigs elsewhere. Daily late-night sessions showcased younger Cologne improvisers and a Latin-themed dance party; mid-morning improvisations mixed and matched players from different featured bands; plus during the week, primary schoolers were taught improvisational rudiments by experienced players.
An afternoon recital at a nearby music school by 25 pupils plus instructors such as saxophonist Georg Wissel and tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch almost confirmed the anti-free music taunt that “my kid can play that” as students created well-paced, rhythmically challenging sounds. Following that experiment with protoplasmic sound extensions however, the instructors alone proved that in-the-moment improv is more sophisticated than that and demands immediate responses. One example occurred when some players picked up on one child’s repeated nose blowing, incorporating sonic parodies of her nasal honks into their solos.
Coleman’s earlier appearance at Moers was in 1981. Drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, also featured that year, returned in 2011 with the Encryption trio of bassist Melvin Gibbs and guitarist Vernon Reid, who also played with him in the Decoding Society 30 years ago. Solid in accompaniment that included cross pulsing and bass drum accents, Jackson’s playing belied the minor heart attack he suffered the day previously. He checked himself out of the hospital for the show, returning for observation immediately afterwards. Using thumping accents and slurred fingering underlined with feedback loops, Gibbs reinforced the rhythm, while utilizing buzzing reverb during solos. Instructively, much of Reid’s evocative lead guitar work was based on slide guitar styling as traditional as T-Bone Walker’s. The three were as rooted in the blues as Coleman.
If Encryption literally amplified Coleman’s innovations, then tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon plays an accelerated variant of Coleman’s imaginative improvising. Apparently never stopping for breath, Irabagon played 45-minutes of freebop studded with split-second quotes from pop and jazz standards. Encompassing techniques ranging from foghorn growls to skyscraper-high trills, he never lost his way, frequently cycled back to the head, and at points seemed to be playing two disparate reed parts by himself. Ample space was left as well for bassist Peter Brendler’s string-slaps or below-the-bridge strums plus drummer Barry Altschul’s pinpointed bass-drum bashes that fuelled a steady backbeat. Anyone missing a piano sound could have turned to a hushed and methodical solo set from Abdullah Ibrahim. Playing mostly medium tempos, Ibrahim applied variants of touch and texture to his playing, at junctures appending a slow, rocking beat to methodical chording. His pastoral output was only traded for ringing notes during an encore when torrential rain hit the tent.
Younger bands which impressed included The Ambush Party (TAP) from the Netherlands and Germany’s Tørn. Following Germany’s bombastic The Dorf, a 25-piece ensemble which combined vamping rock rhythms with sustained, climatic lines from a multiplicity of soloists, Tørn carved out a unique program of spiky chamber-improv. Although clarinettist Joris Rühl’s pitch was strident and staccato, his squeezed timbres harmonized perfectly with pianist Philip Zoubek’s tremolo runs, key clanking and string-stopping. Bassist Achim Tang’s matchless technique supplied the melding ostinato, as drummer Joe Hertenstein’s rim shots and hi-hat slaps broke up the rhythm while keeping it free-flowing.
TAP’s pianist Oscar Jan Hoogland didn’t stint on internal string strumming and stopping plus mallet-pummelling either, but these New music echoes were only part of the band’s game plan. Improvising collectively, TAP’s material galloped among references to trance, Dixieland, Klezmer, free jazz, Tango and even opera, with vocalized, bel-canto gurgles from cellist Harald Austbø, whose theatrical string-sawing on cello suggested a familiarity with the Three Stooges as much as so-called classical chamber music. Meanwhile Natalio Sued accelerating his solos, playing both flat-line clarinet tone variants and slurping tenor saxophone runs. Furthermore, drummer Marcos Baggiani’s steady beats in tandem with Austbø’s stentorian strokes plus Hoogland’s key pumping concentrated the material so that it balanced on a mesmerizing rhythmic undertow.
Other performances highlighted influences as disparate as naïve pop, R&B, grindcore, hip-hop, electronica and ethnic music. Tellingly though, the most appealing sets maintained a strong connection to jazz, as when trumpeter Igmar Thomas’ The Cypher brought the tunes on its set to a higher level with powerful soloing from saxophonist Marcus Strickland and keyboardist David Bryant; or existed in their own sphere, such as the Afrobeat-meets-soul-revue spectacle of Nigerian singer/saxophonist Seun Kuti, which incorporating multiple percussionists, horns, electric guitars plus scantily clad female backup singer/dancers.
Michiyo Yagi’s Double Trio from Japan, which matched her shrill vocals and vigorous plucks on 17-string bass koto and 21-string koto with contributions from drummers Tamaya Honda and Nori Tanaka plus bassists Todd Nicholson and Takashi Sugawa created the most appealing fusion: in this case Oriental-Occidental. Yagi’s enormous string-sets reproduced timbres that resembled 12-string guitar strums one minute and electric guitar licks a little later on. Contrapuntally her string-strokes interfaced with Nicholson’s supple, melodic plucks and Sugawa’s abrasive bow friction as easily as its distinct tone thickened the repetitive drum beats. The results were abrasive, discordant, melodic, harmonic and wholly original.
Unique performances such as Yagi’s; plus the exposure given to younger, un-hyped bands from Europe and elsewhere; as well as the appropriately hushed celebrations of masters such as Coleman; demonstrate how Moers has managed to thrive for four decades.
--For New York City Jazz Record July 2011
July 7, 2011
Prayer for Peace
TUM CD 018
By Ken Waxman
Prayer for Peace may be violinist Billy Bang’s most fully realized session, since it balances his influences with his present-day concerns. With the nearly 20-minute title track a major anti-war statement, other tunes pay homage to his childhood in Spanish Harlem, 1930s jazz fiddler Stuff Smith and Bang’s erstwhile employer Sun Ra.
With trumpeter James Zollar channeling Jonah Jones’ mellow, muted tone, pianist Andy Bemkey key clipping, a Major Holley-like rhythmic bass break from Todd Nicholson, and Bang’s curlicue stops and melodic extensions, the Smith-tribute, “Only Time will Tell” reaches the same level of enjoyable swing in which Smith specialized. Like the work of the older violinist as well, it entertains without pandering. Additionally, a number such as “Chan Chan”, which adds the vibrating friction promulgated by percussionists Milton Cardona and Joe Gonzalez, dazzles with shuffle bowing and spiccato runs from Bang plus brassy, plunger work from the trumpeter, who often also works in Latin-jazz settings.
Meanwhile “Jupiter’s Future”, honoring Sun Ra, mashes up different styles as Ra himself favored, with drummer Newman Taylor-Baker beating his snares and vibrating his cymbals as Bemkey’s chords like Bill Evans and Zollar’s shaking glisses and freak notes contribute to the this multiphonic time dislocation. Bang’s slippery flying staccato and triple-stopping bow pressure not only allows him to suggest an entire string section by himself, but also to output a flowing moderato ending.
But these tunes are ancillary to the major statement which is “Prayer for Peace”. Initially composed as part of a Peace Day remembrance of the Hiroshima bombing, the multi-part suite rests on irregular drags and cymbal splatters, a thumping bass line and vaguely Orientalized piano chords. Zollar initially elaborates the theme with bent tonguing and emphasized grace notes, with another variant showcasing sharp triple-stopping and shamisen-like plucks from the fiddler. A final thematic recap is more Europeanized, somberly dependent on descending, slurred fingering from the pianist.
This CD is both an enjoyable listen plus a major musical statement.
Tracks: Only Time Will Tell; At Play in the Fields of the Lord*; Dance of the Manakin; Prayer for Peace; Chan Chan*; Dark Silhouette; Jupiter’s Future
Personnel: James Zollar: trumpet and flugelhorn; Billy Bang: violin; Andrew Bemkey: piano; Todd Nicholson: bass; Newman Taylor-Baker: drums; Milton Cardona*: conga and percussion; Joe Gonzalez*: bongos and percussion
-- For All About Jazz New York November 2010
November 6, 2010
Lewis Barnes’ Sonic Shades
At The Living Theater
New York, December 14, 2007
Trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes quartet gig at a Lower East Side basement space that usually houses New York’s storied Living Theater, was notable for more reasons than being was one of the veteran brassman’s infrequent band-leading engagement.
Both expressive and assertive in his playing, the trumpeter is a long-time valued associate of William Parker, contributing to most of the bass man’s manifold projects, most notably the Creative Music Orchestra and Parker’s touring quartet. Astringent alto saxophonist Rob Brown, Barnes’ partner in that quartet was also in the front line that night in December, but Parker’s place was taken by bassist Todd Nicholson, who usually plays with violinist Billy Bang.
Most unexpected surprise of the evening however, was that the percussion chair was filled by Cooper-Moore. Cooper-Moore, whose reputation is as a humorous and hyper-kinetic pianist and manipulator of home-made instruments such as the hoe-handle harp, easily filled that role – without a full drum set. Instead, his kit consisted of a graduated series of unattached cymbals and stretched tambourine-like drum heads. Still the rhythm was every bit as prominent and supple as if a conventional trap set was used.
Barnes and the others pumped out a set of originals with a combination of relaxation and intensity, while lined up single file in front of the raised, angled stage. A lawn chair, swimming pool and other props from that night’s Living Theater production provided a bizarre backdrop to the improvisations.
Creative musicians’ constant search for New York performance spaces was the reason for this unusual backdrop for the Barnes quartet gig. Parker and choreographer Patricia Nicholson, moving forces behind the annual Vision Festival, are continually seeking new venues. This Living Theater show was part of a late-winter series that also presented combos led by drummer Gerald Cleaver, guitarist Bern Nix, violinist Jason Kao Hwang and saxophonist Sabir Mateen, plus a duo of Parker and Chicago tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. Parker and Nicholson also spearhead RUCMA (Rise Up Creative Musicians and Art), which agitates for new performance spaces and funding for city artists.
At the Living Theater, bassist Nicholson maintained a steady pace and concentrated pulse. Eschewing flash, his solos often foreshadowed the others’ aural imagery. More relaxed than usual, Brown used moderato flutter-tonguing to vary his output, displaying sensuous lines as well as quicksilver reed bites. As for Barnes, when he wasn’t being the affable host, introducing the tunes and players, his tone was clear and assertive, at times unafraid to replicate the mellow valve effects of pre-modern trumpeters, but just as capable of sounding the most acerbic, chromatic bite.
Resplendent in shades, perhaps to display the proper Max Roach vibe, Cooper-Moore was a marvel. Utilizing a strong backbeat, colored with flams, ruffs and stomps, he marked time by occasionally tooting a penny whistle. Sympathetic as an accompanist, his drum showcases, especially the one which concluded the evening, contained enough muscle, syncopation and cross patterning to rival the refined skin trade of Roach and Buddy Rich in one of their famous encounters.
With the crowd visibly satiated after the gig, the necessity of nurturing no-holds-barred improvisation in unpretentious spots like this was confirmed as much as the players’ in-the-moment skills
-- Ken Waxman
-- For CODA Issue 338
March 15, 2008
Long Hidden: The Olmec Series
AUM Fidelity AUM 036
As much World Music as Free Improv, Long Hidden features William Parker, Free Jazzs most accomplished master bassist, exploring a couple of novel musical paths.
Besides four expected solo bass extravaganzas three of which were recorded in the 1990s there are also three, inter-related, but out-of-order tracks which showcase his skills on the specially-designed eight-string doson ngoni, or banjo-guitar. Plus there are three more songs when he takes his place as sideman with a merengue tipico music group.
Playing traditional and original tunes honoring the Olmec people of Central America, this band is a mixture of veterans and tyros. Besides Parker, who plays six-string Malian doson ngoni, the experienced musicians are alto and baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson, of the Microscopic Septet and bassist Todd Nicholson, a frequent sideman with violinist Billy Bang. The others all less than 23 years old are
Isaiah Parker on alto saxophone, Luis Ramirez on accordion, Omar Payano on conga, güiro and vocal plus Gabriel Nunez on timbale and bongos.
Remarkably the currents from the three subsets appear to mesh.
As might be termed pro forma at this juncture, the solo bass excursions are appropriately breathtaking. Especially on Compassion Seize Bed-Stuy, recorded in Berkeley, Calif. In 1997 and In Case of Accident, which dates back to Montreal in 1993, the bassist alternates sawing arco lines with gentling pizzicato overtones. On the later, the sul ponticello thrusts eventually trigger reverberating waterfalls of notes that splatter faster and faster. Featuring col legno interface, high-pitched plucks, sul tasto shuffle bowing and narrow string pinches beneath the bridge, the impression is of more than one bass playing at a time.
Compassion Seize Bed-Stuy, on the other hand, extend Parkers mournful pitches into tremolo multiphonics, put into bolder relief with the addition of pressure from what seems to be not one, but two additional bows. Midway it appears as if Parker is duetting with himself, passing tones back and forth, stroking and strumming.
Instructively, like his frequent associate multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, Parker uses the timbres of the specially constructed 8-string Malian doson ngoni to get closer to American roots music. The passing tones ratcheted on Long Hidden Part One could come from a couple of geezers sitting on their rural porch at nightfall and serenading the lonesome mountains with six-string guitar and four-string banjo clanking and chromatic plucks.
Most distinctive are the four sextet pieces, which once they gain a head of steam move pass the rhythmic background textures to full group situations. Sewelsons versatility stands out here, since hes able to squeak an abstract saxophone solo on top of the tipico rhythm produced by scratching the gourd and pummeling the accordion bellows without making the result seems any less than organic.
Putting aside call-and-response vocals, ground bass reverberation and contrapuntal reed lines, the definitive group statement comes on Pok-a-Tok, a fanciful name for a piece of musical anthropology. Linking the indigenous American people, with African ancestors and jazzers like Thelonious Monk, Parker propels musical intellect along with emotion. More than jollity is expressed through the cross-fed beats from junkeroo percussion, scraping guiro and skittering accordion bellows. Although the infectious beat sometimes suggest an old-time field recording, the ghostly accordion line and dance-step-like funk horns vamps extend into different directions before reaching the same end.
Although some may prefer Parkers cerebral large band orchestrations or intense small-group interface, Long Hidden exposes another facet of his talent.
-- Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. There is a Balm in Gilead 2. Long Hidden Part Two* 3. Codex# 4. El Puente Seco# 5. Long Hidden Part Three* 6. Cathedral of Light 7. Compassion Seize Bed-Stuy 8. Pok-a-Tok# 9. Esprito#+ 10. Long Hidden Part One* 11. In Case of Accident
Personnel: William Parker (bass, 8-string doson ngoni*) or the Olmec Group# featuring Isaiah Parker (alto saxophone); Dave Sewelson (alto and baritone saxophones); Luis Ramirez (accordion); Todd Nicholson (bass); William Parker (percussion and 6-string doson ngoni); Omar Payano (conga, güiro and vocal+); Gabriel Nunez (timbale and bongos)
November 27, 2006