10 Barre PhilipsThirty years in between
Barre Phillips
VICTO cd 132/08 (victo.qc.ca)

Proving that an old double bass soloist can still learn new tricks isn’t the point of Thirty years in between. Instead, coupling a genre-defining 1989 solo disc from the now 85-year-old American bassist Barre Phillips with a new set of live solos from FIMAV 2019 makes clear how mature savvy has replaced adroit swagger. Not that the 1989 tracks aren’t dazzling, as Phillips was pioneering a novel approach to soloing. With fluid variation at both ends of the timbral spectrum, he maintained a warm expansive tone, whether he was pummelling pumping variables from the bottom tones or using hard-edged spiccato to extract narrowed multi-string squeaks,

By 2019 however his strategy has been distilled to its essence. Pared away from sometimes baroque-like formalism and showy staccato runs, he concentrates on moody narratives. Mellow in his echoing tones, Phillips still makes use of col legno slaps and spiccato reverberations, with some passages taken prestissimo. But by keeping most interpretations at a low simmer he isolates rubs and pops then plays up the suppleness of variously angled string sets and the instrument’s woody reverb. Animated with harsh stropping when needed, as on Abate? Arise?, silences are also prominent. The concluding A new take strings together old and new techniques. Alternating between cultured sweeps and gaunt shrills, a display of triple stopping is followed by thin moderated slides to the finale. Obviously Phillips was a master solo bass player three decades ago – and he retains that skill.

11 Tom GuarnaSpirit Science
Tom Guarna
Destiny Records DR-0030 (destinyrecordsmusic.com)

Renowned jazz guitarist Tom Guarna, often named alongside greats such as John Scofield and Bill Frisell, has released a delightful record, taking the listener on a pleasing and progressive journey through a spacious jazz world; each track like a different chapter of the trek with its own distinct moods and soundscape. All tracks are penned by the guitarist himself and feature an all-star group of musicians including Ben Wendel on tenor saxophone and bassoon, Aaron Parks on keyboards, Joe Martin on bass and Justin Faulkner on drums. Such a unique instrumentation only serves to further highlight Guarna’s compositions and breathe an additional energy into them. 

The album has been mentioned as having a cohesive theme that is inspired by “the science of sacred geometry” which is reflected in each piece; while singular instruments meander on their own set melodical paths within the songs, they come together as a satisfying and coherent whole that calls to mind a geometric shape. Specifically, in Metatron’s Cube, this organized progressiveness is noticeable, with the rhythmic groove and distinct bass melody lending structure to the piece while soaring sax, guitar and piano solos create the sense of spaciousness and freedom. Crossing over seamlessly between progressive rock and traditional jazz, the album is a must for fans of either genre that are looking for a fresh perspective on how Metheny-esque synth and electric guitar use can be taken a step further into a new and unique dimension.

12 Django ShiftDjango-shift
Rez Abbasi
Whirlwind Recordings WR4762 (whirlwindrecordings.com)

In 2019, commissioned by California’s Freight and Salvage’s Django Festival to present a Django Reinhardt-centric recording project, skilled Pakistan-born and NYC-based guitarist/composer Rez Abbasi was challenged by his desire to present Reinhardt not only as a unique, mesmerizing and beloved guitarist, but also as a composer. He plumbed the depths of Reinhardt’s considerable catalogue and came upon seven stunning Reinhardt tunes, as well as two more that were strongly associated with the magical, Roma-Hungarian guitarist. In order to bring his present-tense, genre-blending vision to life, Abbasi called upon the uber-talented Neil Alexander (organ, synthesizers and electronica) and Michael Sarin on drums.

Abassi’s rhythmic, 6/8 arrangement of Django’s Diminishing feels like a tip of the hat to the great Thelonious Monk – and Abassi freely admits that Monk’s odd, juxtapositional style influenced several tracks. Abbasi’s organic understanding of complex rhythmic patterns and his exquisite guitar technique defines this standout project, and longtime collaborators Alexander and Sarin have jumped down the proverbial rabbit hole right along with him – never missing a nuance. 

Of particular innovation is the invigorating use of organ and synthesizers (including guitar effects), coupled with the contiguous, pulsing drum work by Sarin. Reinhardt’s classic Swing 42 is barely recognizable here, but this new perspective on the tune brings an unbridled urgency and the gorgeous ballad, Django’s Castle, displays the fine trio at their lyrical best. A favourite of Django’s, Anniversary Song (Ivanovici), is arranged here as an odd-metered funky trip and one of the most compelling tracks is certainly Abassi’s take on Kurt Weill’s melancholy September Song. Abassi’s sumptuous tone and emotive interpretation of this classic are beyond compare.

13 You Me ColeYou Me & Cole
Noa Levy; Shimpei Ogawa
Belle Records BEL-002 (noalevylive.com)

Over the years, there have probably been as many Cole Porter jazz renditions as there have been people on the planet. However, against the odds, vocalist Noa Levy and bassist Shimpei Ogawa manage to deliver a truly fresh set of Porter classics on their new release. Firstly, to set the obvious aside, a bass/vocal duo coming out with a songbook album is a rare sight indeed. Trying to play and improvise over standard changes without anything resembling chordal accompaniment is no simple task. This particularly rings true when dealing with contrabass and voice, as those may be the two instruments in the jazz idiom where tuning is of the biggest concern. In spite of the challenge, Ogawa’s intonation is spotless to the point of being superhuman and Levy’s ability to adapt to these circumstances is nothing short of incredible. 

The biggest draw of this album is how beautifully the arranging talents, diverse musical backgrounds and novel ideas of the duo converge. Levy and Ogawa season the proceedings with pinches of everything from klezmer to Bach, and the brightest moments come with their shared fluency in tango. Their chemistry is something to marvel at, as they constantly take unexpected risks and play in seamless dialogue together without so much as a misstep. Renditions are also sprinkled with charming gifts to the listener, including overt Mingus and James Bond references. Refreshingly fun.

14 Endless FieldAlive in the Wilderness
Endless Field
Biophilia Records BREP0019 (endlessfieldband.com)

Two well-known NY players, Ike Sturm, bass, and Jesse Lewis, guitar, have teamed up together to become the duo Endless Field. Their album Alive In The Wilderness is a thoughtful road trip descriptive of our connection to the natural elements; songs which carry titles such as Life on Earth, Wind, Fire¸ Water… The album is beautifully played, with great energy and dynamic interaction between the players. Resonant bass and gorgeous lush melodies evoke a film score. With both of their backgrounds being in jazz, the album is a surprisingly laid-back, free-play wander around streams and underneath stars (literally); spontaneous feeling with lots of breath, some folk elements and some just genuinely beautiful storytelling. 

The selections are diverse but manage to hang together with the earthly theme, helped by the continuous backdrop of running water or birds in many of the tracks. A road trip between friends, I especially enjoyed the rhythmic play in Zim and loved the looseness and the sweetness of the journey of Old Man.

The album comes as a download only, which is intended to save on plastic as well as the toxins used to create CDs, and all proceeds are donated to conservation. There is however a gorgeous hand-folded origami album sleeve available from the NY label Biophilia; their artists are united by a common interest in having a positive impact on the environment and communities, and collaborate with organizations that specialize in conservation, sustainability and outreach initiatives. Check them out, they do good stuff and represent some really top NY players.

15 Tropos AxiomAxioms // 75 AB
Biophilia Records BREP0017 (troposensemble.bandcamp.com)

The enigma of Axioms // 75 AB begins with the CD jacket which unfolds like an elaborate origami to ten panels: on one side is a mural which includes a quote from George Lewis, the other side contains track information, instrumentation, abstract diagrams and liner notes hand-printed in a small font. If you prefer clearly typed text, you can head to the Tropos Bandcamp site. In fact, you must head there anyway, because the CD jacket contains no CD, just a download code! Axioms // 75 AB is a tribute to Anthony Braxton on his 75th birthday (June of 2020). Of the 11 compositions, the first five are by members of Tropos while the rest are by Braxton and all contain both composed and collectively improvised elements. Vocalist Laila Smith, saxophonist Raef Sengupta, pianist Phillip Golub, bassist Zachary Lavine and drummer Mario Layne Fabrizio met at the New England Conservatory and created this album as a token of their love for Braxton’s music. Many of Braxton’s works have always presented an alternative and highly original reality for jazz: they certainly swing, yet are in a very different tonal realm to Stardust or Ornithology

Tropos delivers exciting and intense playing and it is clear they are steeped in the tradition of Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Lewis and others. One quibble is that on some pieces, like Braxton’s 23c, Smith’s vocals add nuance while balancing with the rest of the group, but in other cases it is mixed too prominently and overshadows the collective.

Freed from the tyranny of section accompaniment, solo string concertos have long been a feature of notated music. A similar liberation for violins and violas happened years ago in improvised music. However it’s only during the past few years that use of these four-string instruments have been treated as more than a novelty. Sessions such as these, which feature a violin or viola as part of different ensembles, show how the prototypical instrument of so-called classical music is forging an equally impressive role creating freer sounds.

01 SettProbably the answer to the question, “when is a string quartet not a string quartet?” is illustrated on SETT’s First and Second (New Wave of Jazz nwoj033 newwaveofjazz.com) during two extended improvisations. Consisting of one linchpin of the traditional string ensemble, the viola, played by the UK’s Benedict Taylor, the disc stretches the chamber music staple’s role by including a double bass, played by Briton John Edwards, and breaks the mould by adding the two acoustic guitars of England’s Daniel Thompson and Belgium’s Dirk Serries. Mercurial and harsh without being coarse, and fluid without depending on an expected groove, both polyphonic tracks contain numerous sequences of both calm and agitation. As viola and bass move through spiccato sweeps and ratcheting pressure, it’s often dual guitar strums which steady the pace and shepherd squeaks, slaps and shakes from all the players into crescendos of jagged glissandi and, later on, speedy intersection. Second SETT is more assured than the First as the collective guitar licks, plus swelling plucks from the bass, set up a clanking backdrop upon which Taylor’s stridently pitched strokes ascend to spectacular flanges. By midpoint, buzzing arco pushes and taut guitar finger picking define a communicative theme. With Edwards’ plucks creating an ambulating ostinato, the narrative stays constant to the end, while allowing for a series of stressed variations from the violist and some below-the-bridge plinks from the guitarists that almost strip strings of their coating. As spiccato sweeps rub against muted glissandi, SETT defines a form that is both exploratory and connected.

02 lighttiedBerlin-based pianist/synthesizer player Elias Stemeseder and drummer Max Andrzejewski create a more standard ensemble to show off their original compositions on light/tied (WhyPlayJazz WP J 054 whyplayjazz.de). During the program nine pieces are interpreted by the two leaders’ sometimes intensely percussive playing; clarion or deeper-pitched  smears from Joris Rühl’s clarinets; creamy Paul Desmond-like lines from alto saxophonist Christian Weidner; moistly decorative, but at times bordering on dissonant, shimmers by violinist Biliana Voutchkova and cellist Lucy Railton; plus additional programmed electronic whizzes. Furthermore, Stemeseder and Andrzejewski provide the rhythmic undercurrent; and churning wave form electronics undermine the string players’ more formalist impulses. The result is discordant at points, but without being off-putting. Paced by brief interludes of expansive string plucks and bass clarinet lowing, the compositions are gentle and melodic, as well as atmospheric. The best instances of how the admixture works are illustrated on Stemeseder’s Tied Light 1 and Andrzejewski’s Héritage. The first works its way from a tinkling piano and trilling clarinet duet to turn harsher, as thinner clarinet runs meet percussive slaps from the piano and drum beats contrast with alto saxophone calm. Until the end, the timbres vibrate between irregular and expressive without losing the thematic thread or slackening the pace. Sunnier, Héritage finds proper string swells intersecting with crackling electronics. as Rühl’s moderated clarinet defines the slightly off-centre exposition while string plucks vibrate sympathetically. Finally, a dramatic finale is constructed out of swift piano chording, sprightly vibrations from both reeds and stabbing string motions.

03 Perrick HardyAdapting the textures of a violin – or viola – so that it plays with equal prominence as other instruments in a small group is the preoccupation of other improvisers. Instances of this are expressed by Swiss violinist Laura Schuler’s quartet; French guitarist Pierrick Hardy’s quartet, featuring violinist Regis Huby; and the trio of American Jason Kao Hwang, who plays both viola and violin. Proclaimed an Acoustic Quartet perhaps because no electric instruments or drums are present, Hardy’s L’Ogre Intact (Émouvance emv 1041 tchamitchian.fr) includes bassist Claude Tchamitchian and clarinettist/basset horn player Catherine Delaunay. A hint of the fusion that informs Hardy’s compositions comes from clarinettist Delaunay’s other instrument. Throughout the disc the quartet aims for relaxed, pastoral interpretations that flow rather than upset. Yet between double bass thumps and acoustic guitar strums, a rhythmic groove is maintained. Flottements is the most realized instance of this traditional/innovative approach. Blending the basset horn’s muted tone with violin mid-pitches and a buzzing double bass continuum, an antique-styled introduction is attained, but it’s soon replaced with a contrapuntal melody from the fiddle that’s lively and dance-like. As the theme swells with spiccato squeaks from Huby, coupled with thin frails from Hardy, Tchamitchian confirms its contemporary relevance with a repeated rhythmic motif. Playing clarinet on the other tracks, Delaunay adds to the warm elaboration of the mostly largo narratives. Concerned with synthesis not confrontation, supple solos are worked into the warm-blooded adaptations. With his violin output usually caressing romantic themes, only rarely, as on Avant dire/Tamasaburö, does Huby demonstrate his command of multi-string coordination and swift triple stopping. Hardy’s skills are more prominent, with an approximation of folk-blues picking on La Violence du terrain; he moves past positioned strums to propel relaxed swing on the final La Fresque with tougher mettle via spectacularly chunky, rhythm guitar licks.

04 MetamorphosisIf Huby’s violin and the Acoustic Quartet include echoes of the 18th century, then Schuler’s quartet music is strictly 21st. The other members of the group are German tenor saxophonist Philipp Gropper, and fellow Swiss, drummer Lionel Friedli and Hanspeter Pfammatter playing synthesizers. Besides Schuller’s ability to move swiftly from formalist to semi-hoedown to pure improv and on to near fusion in her playing, the contemporary resonance on Metamorphosis (Veto-Records 020 veto-records.ch) centres on Pfammatter’s instrument, whose sonic permutations allow it to replicate the sounds of an acoustic piano, an organ, an electric guitar and even an accordion. Especially on more groove-oriented tracks such as Dancing in the Stratosphere, Friedli projects a popping backbeat which glues together various sound shards from the others; although elsewhere, his nerve beats and patterning help confirm other tunes’ jittery but relaxed melodies. Capable of romantic interludes or strident squeaks if needed, Gropper’s usual role is to serve as a foil for Schuller’s string elaborations. With ghostly synthesizer washes behind, they meld ribald squeaks on his part and banjo-like pizzicato clanks from her on the title tune; or with Pfammatter’s church organ-like chording on Broken Lines, harmonize barbed reed tremolos and rugged string strokes. Z, the CD’s wrap-up, projects variations of these tone permutations, with the outpouring compassing instances of sound unity and severance from all four. As drum ruffs and synthesizer pushes make the narrative more intense and heavier, positioned col legno stabs from the violinist lead to a measured and ambulatory last section and finale.

05 HumanRitesConfirming his allegiance to intense improvising Hwang uses his violin and viola as doubling lead voices in the role soprano and tenor saxophones or trumpet and flugelhorn would take elsewhere. Luckily he and his associates on Human Rites Trio (True Sound Recordings TS03 jasonkaohwang.com), bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury, are perfectly matched, having worked in this configuration for years. Taking a far different approach to the viola than SETT’s Benedict Taylor, Hwang plays it almost exclusively pizzicato, treating it like a four-string mandolin. Most spectacularly, on the foot-tapping Conscious Concave Concrete he manipulates the instrument so at various junctures it takes on sitar and guitar-like affiliations as well as mandolin twangs. Without disrupting his low tones, Filiano also achieves guitar-like facility with fluid solos. Incorporating Drury’s cymbal clashes and steel drum-like suggestions, the trio achieves a singular sound which touches on the blues, as well as international inflections. Playing violin, as on Battle for the Indelible Truth, Hwang’s stretches and multiple stops are as pressurized and extended as the other two’s intense rhythm. Moving into an andante swing section, he backs Filiano’s Slam Stewart-like simultaneous bowing and vocal humming with high pitched trills; but later he creates a pseudo-violin concerto adding a romantic tinge to the tune’s dynamic unrolling. Still, the most dramatic display of the trio’s in-the-moment affiliation is heard on the two-part Words Asleep Spoken Awake. Setting the scene on Part 1, the three create an ambulatory introduction that is rounded and mellifluous until propelled to double in speed by drum rim shots and spiccato violin strokes. This leads to a repetitive multi-string motif that defines Part 2. As the violinist triple stops his strings at prestissimo tempo, Drury’s martial beats and striking pumps from Filiano prevent the narrative from breaking apart while maintaining intensity. Climactically altering his lines by loosening and tightening strings while strumming complementary tones, Hwang supplely and spectacularly demonstrates his skill with a final section where string splays bring up reed or brass intimations as the musical thoughts expressed at the CD’s beginning track are completed.

It’s clear that the variety of ways violins and violas can be integrated into improvised music are as individual as the person playing therm. These discs confirm this truism.

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