If you’re someone like my mom – trying to find music to give to their (in this case) avant garde music loving son – can be a tricky situation. So, in an attempt to help those folks out there who might not know what to get that special someone in their life who loves avant garde jazz, here are a few suggestions of discs that have found their way into my life the past year.
Pianist, composer and band leader Satoko Fujii released three very good, very different albums this year on the Libra label. If you’ve ever seen one of those time lapse videos of a tulip slowly emerging from the frosty ground, growing, reaching upward and blooming, then you’ve got a good idea of what the music on Fujii’s Min-Yoh Ensemble’s album Watershed sounds like. Featuring Fujii on piano, her husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Andrea Parkins on accordion, and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Watershed‘s music unfolds and develops organically. The same can be said about the music on Rafale, by Fujii’s group Kaze, which also includes Tamura, trumpeter Christian Pruvost, and drummer Peter Orins. While Rafale displays a completely different aesthetic from Watershed, which is partially due to the presence of the drums, and the two trumpet front line (both trumpeters make use of extended techniques, often times to the extent where they don’t sound like they’re playing the trumpet), the music is just as collaborative and natural. Fujii’s Orchestra New York provides a much different look at her music on Eto. Featuring several of New York’s top creative/avant-garde musicians such as tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and reed player Chris Speed, Eto‘s centerpiece is the “Eto Suite,” which consists of fourteen short movements. Eto refers to the Chinese zodiac and Fujii wrote the music in celebration of Tamura’s 60th birthday. Each movement – save for the “Overture” and “Epilogue” – are dedicated to the animals in the Chinese zodiac. Literally character pieces, each movement, which are sometimes little more than extended sketches, is a vehicle for each of the soloists in the band. Eto, which also includes three longer pieces that bookend the “Eto Suite,” is an excellent big band disc – not so out so as to be inaccessible, yet forward looking enough to set itself apart from the more contemporary and mainstream big bands out there.
Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira, Dark Lady of the Sonnets (TUM) Recorded in 2007 for the Finnish label TUM, Smith’s latest is a large departure from his other album from this year, Heart’s Reflections. For this relatively stripped down affair the trumpeter is joined by drummer Pheeroan akLaff and Min Xiao-Fen on pipa – which is a type of lute – and voice. First: the packaging is extremely nice – the disc comes in a tri-fold digipack, artwork and design that recalls an ECM release, and substantial liner notes that give the reader a lot of information about the background of each musician. Second: the music is not quite like anything I’ve ever heard. This is partially due to my unfamiliarity with the pipa, but the main reason for this disc’s uniqueness is the ways in which the trio is able to coalesce around the aesthetic vision that Smith presents in his compositions. The tracks are lengthy (only one is under 10 minutes), and this allows the players to stretch out, take their time, and for the music to evolve in an unhurried fashion. The music can be quiet and sparse, as on “Sarah Bell Wallace,” or furious and slightly manic, as on the freewheeling “Blues: Cosmic Beauty.” Smith’s latest is a challenging listen, but the time you spend absorbing Dark Lady of the Sonnets will be worth it.
Tyshawn Sorey, Oblique-1 (Pi Records) Like Smith’s album, drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s latest effort for Pi is also challenging, yet worth the effort. Abstract, complicated, dense and complex, Oblique-1 features ten compositions from his 41 Compositions for quartet/quintet book. Sorey writes in the liner notes that his main influences while writing the music were Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok, Henry Threadgill, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Steve Coleman. And it shows, as all of those influences are heard here. Alto saxophonist Loren Stillman is the main soloist, although just because his is the dominant presence, doesn’t mean he isn’t fully engaged with the rhythm section’s dense and complex conversation (this isn’t a soloist over a swinging rhythm section type of record). Stillman’s tart alto dives and darts through Todd Neufeld’s guitar (his acoustic performance on “Seventeen” is one of the album’s highlights), John Escreet’s keyboards (he’s in a much more “out” bag than on his latest CD), and Chris Tordini’s bass. Definitely not a party album or something to put on to chill to, Oblique-1 demands your undivided attention, and holds it.
Jen Shyu/Mark Dresser, Synastry (Pi Records) – I haven’t heard anything quite like Synastry, the new duo album by vocalist Jen Shyu (who is also on the excellent new Steve Coleman album, The Mancy of Sound) and bassist Mark Dresser. Five of the eleven tracks have lyrics, and of those, two are by Chinese writers and sung in Mandarin. Shyu’s voice is clear, extremely pliable and agile, her intonation is impeccable, her diction is clear, and she adds a touch of slight vibrato to longer held syllables. The other six cuts feature Shyu’s wordless vocals – but don’t take this to mean she’s scatting. Dresser’s bass sounds enormous, whether pizzicato or arco. The label “jazz” doesn’t do this record justice. For example, “Mattress on a Stick,” with text by Sarah Jane Lapp, has very little in common with jazz vocal or bass approaches – it’s more contemporary classical art song than jazz. With lines like “Slice the mattress open, filled it with squirrel/brains” sung over Dresser’s bowed dissonant double stops, this record is definitely not for everybody. I heard one of Synastry‘s cuts on the local college radio station, and when it concluded, the DJ said that she “wasn’t quite sure what to make of it” – which is probably a common response this CD will generate. It’s Synastry‘s uniqueness, creativity, execution, musicianship and riskiness that makes it my vocal album of the year.
Billy Bang/Bill Cole, S/T – The recently deceased Billy Bang recorded this excellent duo album with wind player Bill Cole in 2009 at the University of Virginia Chapel in Charlottesville. Three of the set’s six tunes are improvisations, and each track features Bang on violin and Cole on one of the following: digeridoo, nagaswarm, sona, flute or shenai. The what I assume to be is the natural reverb from the chapel gives the recording a spacious feel, and it sounds as if you are there with them. The pair create a wide range of colors and sonorities (the violin and shenai combination is laden with overtones), and they weave in and around each other – each player displaying an ease with, and understanding of, the approach of the other player. Just check out “Improvisation (violin, flute)”. These are two sensitive musicians who are in total communication with each other and who work towards new modes and forms of expression.
Tony Jones, Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness – Who says free jazz has to be a raucous collage consisting of wailing, honking, and screeching saxophones, banging drums and various other wild exhortations? The latest from tenor saxophonist Tony Jones will counter anybody who argues that all free jazz is “train wreck music,” as my mom would call it. Joining Jones, who has a luxurious, warm and inviting tenor sound, is violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Kenny Wolleson – who is a recent collaborator of Bill Frisell. Wolleson relies more on shakers, cymbals and other percussion as opposed to a kit. Burhnam, especially on “C.K. #1,” which opens the album, has a deep and rich violin approach and uses doublestops to thicken up the sound. The music is often sparse, quiet, meditative, and nothing is forced. If you’re looking for free jazz without bombast, screaming and honking – definitely check out Jones’ Pitch, Rhythm and Consciousness.