Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: The Month In Jazz – June 2017

The Vision Festival is a totally unique event on the New York jazz scene. Every year, Patricia Nicholson-Parker (wife of bassist William Parker) and the Arts For Art organization put on a series of concerts over the course of a week to 10 days. The musicians who perform mostly fit under the broad umbrella of “free jazz” or avant-garde improvised music, though a few rock- and hip-hop-oriented acts have appeared in the past; I saw the turntablist group the X-Ecutioners one year, and the improvising jazz-funk-rock ensemble Burnt Sugar have played the festival twice.

I first attended the Vision Festival 20 years ago, in 1997. It was held in the Orensanz Arts Center on Rivington Street, a few blocks north of where Tonic would open not that many years later. I made a lot of friends that year, including Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Steven Joerg, who had just launched his label, AUM Fidelity, with Wisdom Of Uncertainty, an album by the David S. Ware Quartet. That group was one of the ones I saw perform, and over the years I also saw Art Ensemble Of Chicago member Joseph Jarman, Chicago saxophone legend Fred Anderson, William Parker’s massive Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, and too many others to count.

I went back this year for the first time in quite a while and was immediately reminded of just how joyful an occasion the Vision Festival is. The first night, as always, was organized as a “lifetime achievement” tribute to a veteran musician; this year’s honoree was Cooper-Moore. Born Gene Ashton, he’s been around since the early ’70s, when he and David S. Ware formed the trio Apogee with drummer Marc Edwards in Boston, then moved to New York to be part of the loft jazz scene. Following that group’s dissolution (Ware and Edwards got jobs in Cecil Taylor’s band), Cooper-Moore began aggressively doing his own thing. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who plays piano as well as a number of instruments he’s designed and built himself, some out of literal junk.

Cooper-Moore performed with three groups that night: In Order To Survive, a quartet led by William Parker, whose new album is reviewed below; Digital Primitives, with saxophonists Assif Tsahar and guest Brian Price, and drummer Chad Taylor; and drummer Gerald Cleaver’s group Black Host, featuring saxophonist Darius Jones, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, and bassists Pascal Niggenkemper and, on this occasion, Trevor Dunn. With In Order To Survive and Black Host, he played piano, and that was great; his style was hard-charging and frequently dominant, but he never totally took over — he was always 100% part of any group that was with him onstage. But the Digital Primitives performance was Cooper-Moore at his wildest and most captivating.

Stepping away from the piano, he played his hand-built instruments, including an electric three-stringed guitar-like object with which he was able to create a startling range of distorted buzzes and roars. He moved about the stage with a contagious excitement, staring directly at Taylor and engaging him in an almost blues-rockish duo as the saxophonists stayed back like they were afraid to interrupt. Cooper-Moore is more than an artist: He’s an entertainer, with a persona somewhere between hillbilly and holy fool. He shouts and carries on, joking with the audience and his bandmates, and at the end of Digital Primitives’ set, he came all the way forward onto an extended portion of the stage that jutted into the audience and led everyone in a raucous song about how happy we all were to be alive. And in that moment, it was impossible not to be.

Here’s a video of Digital Primitives performing in Copenhagen in February:

The great thing about the Vision Festival — besides the music, which is mostly created by acts you will never hear in standard jazz clubs — is the atmosphere. During the day, panel discussions were held to discuss how musicians and artists can make an impact through social and political engagement. Down in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church, where it was held, a dozen or more vendors sold music, books, art, and food, and signed people up for causes. But more than that, they hung out and talked to each other; for me, it felt like a high school reunion at times. I met people I only knew via email, including the owners of Pi Recordings and International Anthem; talked to musicians like saxophonist Joe McPhee, and drummers Mike Reed and Hamid Drake; and reconnected with William Parker, Matthew Shipp, and Steven Joerg. (Random celebrity sighting: Andre 3000 showed up the first night, and bought several AUM Fidelity CDs.)

Because it’s stretched out over a week or longer and people come back night after night, the Vision Festival really feels like a community coming together in celebration of itself, without ever seeming insider-ish or hostile to newcomers. Compare that to the vibe in most jazz clubs, which are like restaurants with musicians playing, and it really does change your whole outlook on what the music can mean. If you’re in New York in late May/early June next year, you should try to make it.

Now, on to the music!

Archival Find Of The Month: David S. Ware Trio, Live In New York, 2010 (AUM Fidelity)

Like I said above, the first time I attended the Vision Festival, I saw saxophonist David S. Ware’s quartet, with Matthew Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, and Susie Ibarra on drums. (Ware ate up drummers — the group had four during its nearly two-decade lifespan, beginning with Marc Edwards, who was followed by Whit Dickey, then Ibarra, and finally Guillermo Brown.) He was a titanic force on the tenor saxophone. His short, mantra-like compositions served as springboards for epic solos like the roars of a dinosaur. He combined the power of Archie Shepp with the melodic invention of Sonny Rollins, adding his own amazing command of harmonics to create a sound like no one else. Only David Murray approached Ware’s raw power, but Ware was much more willing to go all the way out and stay there, taking the listener into orbit. In his final years (he died in October 2012), following the dissolution of the quartet, he explored pure improvisation, as he does on this double disc, recorded at the Blue Note in 2010 with Parker and drummer Warren Smith. Club gigs were rare for Ware — I saw the quartet once at the long-gone basement spot Fez, but he generally played festivals in New York or one-offs like when they opened for Sonic Youth at Hammerstein Ballroom in 1999. In any case, the two sets played are documented in full here. Ware starts each one on the stritch, a straight alto saxophone that sounds like a soprano but picks up the tenor toward the end. On the smaller horn, his sound is necessarily thinner and higher, giving his lines an almost Middle Eastern feel. Behind him, Parker and Smith get plenty of room to stretch out, too. The overwhelming feel of the set is one of intimacy; the bluster and roar of the quartet is gone, replaced by meditative introspection. This is a fantastic performance, absolutely worth hearing.

Stream a selection of excerpts:

Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire hasn’t made an album in three years. His last one, 2014’s the imagined savior is far easier to paint, was more interesting than thrilling. In addition to his regular band, it featured a string quartet and guest vocalists. This double disc, recorded live at New York’s Village Vanguard, is much more intense and visceral. The same core musicians heard on imagined savior — pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown — are here, minus saxophonist Walter Smith III. The set includes 14 brand-new compositions, as well as a couple of solo spots for Harris and Raghavan. Akinmusire’s playing is really interesting — he’s capable of great virtuosity and can hold a note for so long you’ll start gasping for breath yourself in sympathy. He also likes to let his lines waver and slide, slowly dissolving into leaky-balloon hisses. Harris, Raghavan, and Brown throb and sway more than they swing, since most of the music here is slow and somewhat melancholy. But when things do get more uptempo, Raghavan in particular is a powerful force. There’s a passage on “Withered” where he and Brown lock in and relentlessly build to an energy level that’ll make your skull vibrate. You can almost picture them glaring at each other, daring the other to be the first one to surrender.

Stream “Maurice & Michael (sorry I didn’t say hello)”:

JD Allen, Radio Flyer (Savant)

Tenor saxophonist JD Allen puts out an album a year. Most of the time, he’s accompanied by bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This is his seventh record with those guys, but for the first time, they’ve brought in a guest: guitarist Liberty Ellman, best known for his work with Henry Threadgill. The compositions Allen brought to the session were all minimal sketches, allowing for maximum freedom on everyone’s part. The results can be truly surprising at times. On the title track, the saxophone and heavily effected guitar interact in a way that recalls Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band, while bass and drums skitter and boom in the background. Other tracks sound like the trio doing their usual high-energy post-bop thing, with Ellman giving the music an additional sharp edge. But even then, we’re talking about masters of the form, so there’s nothing rote or expected about anything here.

Stream “Radio Flyer”:

Nicole Johänntgen, Henry (Hofa)

Saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen’s new album Henry is named for her father, Heinrich, a trombonist. It was written in New York, but recorded in New Orleans in a single day last May. She’s accompanied by trombonist Jon Ramm, sousaphone player Steven Glenn, and drummer Paul Thibodeaux on seven compositions that run a total of just 37 minutes, yet the music is so high-potency that any more would just be exhausting. Things start off ferocious with the title track, on which Johänntgen’s crying alto (she was heavily influenced by Arthur Blythe, who was the person who convinced her to record with tuba, as he did for years) is both supported and challenged by the other two horns, as Thibodeaux creates complex, twitchy polyrhythms behind, beneath, and around them all. As the disc continues, strutting parade numbers are alternated with slow, churning blues tunes. Glenn’s sousaphone is both bass and melody, and the alto and trombone wail and shout. “Henry,” “NOLA,” “The Kids Of New Orleans,” and “Take The Steam Train” are the rippers; “Oh Yes My Friend,” “Slowly,” and the abstract “They Missed Love” are the calming interludes. But the whole thing is a raucous eruption of exuberance and pure fun.

Stream “Henry”:

Brian Charette, Kürrent (self-released)

Organist Brian Charette is a sharp, witty player who blurs the lines between funky soul jazz, jam-band rock, and avant-garde weirdness. His latest album — recorded with guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Jordan Young — combines the expected sounds of the organ trio with intricate jazz-fusion melodies, squiggly ’70s synths, and bent samples. It’s got all the groove of his other work, but Monder is the kind of guitarist who’s happier shredding or tearing into a big riff than chopping out single chords. Charette meets him in the middle, sounding amazingly Larry Young-like at times as the guitarist gets his Mahavishnu on. Jordan Young is the perfect drummer for an ensemble this fleet-footed and multifaceted; he can hack and slash as easily as he can set up a subtle, ticking groove.

Watch the group’s video for “Mano y Mano”:

Binker & Moses, Journey To The Mountain Of Forever (Gearbox)

The duo of saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd have been working together for a few years, and their first album, Dem Ones, came out in 2015. This follow-up is a double disc, and while it’s still just the two of them at first, on the second disc they’re joined by avant-garde legend Evan Parker on second saxophone, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Tori Handsley on harp, Sarathy Korwar on tabla, and Youssef Dates on drums. The duet tracks are funky and hard-driving, reminiscent of the James Brandon Lewis Trio — “Intoxication From The Jahvmonishi Leaves” is a honking, strutting blowout. When the sonic palette expands on the second disc, the compositional parameters do, too. There’s a spiritual energy, simultaneously dreamy and fiery, that brings to mind Pharoah Sanders’ early ’70s albums, and the interaction between Golding and Parker is a fascinating collision of styles.

Stream “Intoxication From The Jahvmonishi Leaves”:

Riverside, The New National Anthem (Greenleaf)

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is the co-leader of the band Riverside, alongside reeds player Chet Doxas; they’re backed up by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Jim Doxas. On their 2014 debut, they paid tribute to the work of clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre. This time, they’re doing the same for pianist Carla Bley, interpreting several of her compositions (the title piece, “King Korn,” and “Enormous Tots”) and recording eight new tunes — one by Swallow, one by Chet Doxas, and the rest by Douglas — inspired by her work. (This would be a good time for me to tell you to check out Carla Bley’s recent ECM albums Trios and Andando el Tiempo, because they’re amazing.) Douglas’ trumpet sound is slightly pinched and occasionally warped by mutes, which allows him to converse with Doxas’ clarinet in a relaxed and easygoing manner. Swallow’s bass is a deep throb, and Jim Doxas scampers across his kit and back, rarely cutting loose but always keeping just enough tension in the rhythm that you think he might go off any second, so you better pay attention.

Stream “Old Country”:

B.J. Jansen, Common Ground (RoninJazz)

Baritone saxophonist B.J. Jansen has assembled a ferocious band on his tenth album. He’s got Duane Eubanks on trumpet, Delfeayo Marsalis on trombone, Zaccai Curtis on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass, and Ralph Peterson on drums. These are guys who are serious about pushing the hard bop language into the 21st century and they do it extremely well here, cranking through big, memorable heads and then smoothly trading solos until it’s time to bring it all home. The opener, “Stacey’s Pace,” sets the tone and shows how the band’s approach is just slightly different from purely traditional hard bop: the hard-charging, almost R&B-ish horn melody that opens it gets the energy level up, but the first person to really take a solo is Douglas, the bassist. After that, though, the horns step in: Eubanks, then Jansen, and finally Marsalis. The token ballad, “Soul Loss,” is an excellent showcase for the melodic capabilities of the baritone sax, which is too often relegated to a sort of farting-along background role. I’ve got to point out how awesome Ralph Peterson is, by the way. He’s an absolutely slamming, rock-solid drummer from the Art Blakey/Elvin Jones school, where you feel like he could drown everybody else out if he wanted to and he’s just holding back out of mercy.

Stream “Stacey’s Pace”:

Farnell Newton, Back To Earth (Posi-Tone)

Trumpeter Farnell Newton is a totally new name to me, but apparently he spends a lot of time touring with funk, soul, and jam bands. This is his third album (two others are on Bandcamp) and his first for Posi-Tone. The band includes trombonist Kyle Molitor, pianist Greg Goebel, bassist Dylan Sundstrom, and drummer Christopher Brown, all of whom are as unfamiliar to me as Newton, but the music shows exactly why the label — which usually records their entire year’s output in a string of marathon sessions in New York — was willing to make an exception (they tracked this album out in Portland, Oregon, where Newton lives). It’s high-level acoustic jazz, swinging and aggressive; Goebel is absolutely pounding the keys, and Brown’s drumming verges on angry at times, but Sundstrom’s subtly restrained bass keeps them both in line. Newton and Molitor fire fast, complicated melodies at each other, but the trombonist always steps back when the time comes, ’cause this is the trumpeter’s show. And he is definitely seizing the moment. Newton is a high-powered, virtuosic player in the vein of Woody Shaw, in total command of the horn at all times. Even on the semi-ballad “Back To Earth,” he unleashes long, complicated notes and phrases, but he makes it all work; it’s never just showboating.

Stream “Crossing The Tracks”:

Fabian Almazan And Rhizome, Alcanza (Biophilia)

Pianist Fabian Almazan is not only the composer of this 12-track suite — which combines a jazz ensemble with a string quartet — he’s also the founder of the Biophilia label, whose music is digital-only, but you do still get an object to hold in your hand: a large fold-out poster containing photos, album notes, etc. The ensemble consists of Almazan on piano and electronics, Camila Meza on vocals (in Spanish) and guitar, Linda Oh on bass, and Henry Cole on drums, joined by Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola, and Noah Hoffeld on cello. Almazan, Oh, and Cole each get short solo spots, but otherwise the suite flows steadily along like a river of song. Meza’s voice is soft but powerful, and the strings are more romantic than dissonant; this music is full of longing and exploration, even when it comes closest to conventional swing.

Stream “Vida Absurda y Bella”:

Hear In Now, Not Living In Fear (International Anthem)

It’s hard to call this a jazz record with a straight face, but fans of improvised music will find it thrilling. Hear In Now is a trio featuring violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassist Silvia Bolognesi. This is their second album, recorded in 2012 and 2014, and it’s a stark and powerful statement. There’s no true leader; each woman takes the lead role at times, with the others providing countermelodies or percussive sounds as needed. On “Transiti,” Bolognesi slaps the strings to create a sound like a rat-trap snapping shut, as Swift and Reid make their instruments zing and cry. And when the bass comes in full strength, it’s a massive boom that nearly overpowers the other two. Melodically, the music pulls from modern classical, free jazz, folk, blues, and hard-to-define zones in between. It’s got a concentrated energy, free of discursive or foggy passages. Every note counts.

Stream “Transiti”:

William Parker Quartets, Meditation/Resurrection (AUM Fidelity)

Bassist William Parker’s latest release is a double disc recorded in a single day with two different bands. The first set features a new version of his long-running quartet with alto saxophonist Rob Brown and drummer Hamid Drake. Original trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes left NYC, and Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson steps in. This quartet has always been one of Parker’s most traditional, hard bop-rooted bands, and that continues here. There’s a two-part dedication to Horace Silver, and “Handsome Lake” sets up a thick, bluesy groove over which Brown and Nelson take fulsome, rippling solos. Nelson’s tone is full and highly polished, as much like a mariachi horn as a jazz horn, but he can get down to a sultry murmur as well. Parker and Drake have been a rock-solid team for decades, and their work here is hypnotic and 100% locked-in. On the second disc, pianist Cooper-Moore replaces Nelson and the music is credited to In Order To Survive, a group that has had several membership changes over the years, and made fewer records, but every one’s a winner. The compositions are longer, running between 11 and 18 minutes, and more meditative. Cooper-Moore’s piano playing has a Monk-like spaciousness, coupled with a Cecil Taylor-ish willingness to jab and assault the keys. He often chooses notes that seem maybe one or two keys to the left of the “correct” one, and he speeds up and slows down at will, setting his own rhythm regardless of what his bandmates are doing. Still, it’s never a case of Cooper-Moore versus everybody else — he’s just what you might graciously call a dominant personality.

Stream a selection of excerpts from the set:

Oliver Lake Featuring Flux Quartet, Right Up On (Passin’ Thru)

Alto saxophonist Oliver Lake likes to work in unorthodox contexts. I once saw him play with a band that included a steel drummer. Here, he’s joined by the Flux Quartet (with whom he’s been working live for 15 years) for an album that juxtaposes his raw, emotional saxophone playing against their stark, stabbing strings. Lake, who composed all the music, only plays on about half the tracks. “2016,” “Right Up On,” and “Sponge” are performed by the quartet alone: violinists Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violist Max Mandel, and cellist Felix Fan. Their short, scraping lines and sudden eruptions keep your nerves jangling, waiting for the next strike. Lake, on the other hand, huffs and puffs and injects notes of vitality and joy, really cutting loose on “5 Sisters” and creating a kind of hybrid of free jazz and modern classical in the process.

Stream “5 Sisters”:

Verneri Pohjola, Pekka (Edition)

Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola comes from a musical family. His brother Ilmari plays trombone in the post-rock/jazz-fusion group Oddarrang, and his father, Pekka, was a prog-rock bassist, best known for his work with the group Wigwam. Pekka died in 2008, and now, nearly a decade later, Verneri is interpreting his father’s compositions on this album. The band includes Tuomo Prättälä on Fender Rhodes, Teemu Viinikainen on guitar, Antti Lötjönen on bass, and Mika Kallio on drums. I saw all of these guys except Prättälä, in various combinations, in December when I was in Helsinki for the We Jazz festival, but hearing them together in this context is fascinating and somewhat thrilling. The prog-rock melodies and Pohjola’s solos soar skyward in spirals of Donald Byrd-esque high notes, with the Fender Rhodes shimmering behind and Lötjönen and Kallio surging forward, then dropping away. Viinikainen’s guitar stings, but rarely goes into all-out shred mode, and frequently disappears entirely, as on the album-closing “Innocent Moments,” a trumpet-keyboard duo. Still, this is an intense album with plenty of fire, and well worth hearing even if, like me, you’re totally unfamiliar with Wigwam or Pekka Pohjola’s other work.

Stream “The Dragon Of Kätkävaara”:

Denys Baptiste, Late Trane (Edition)

Plenty of saxophonists have tackled the music of John Coltrane. Most of the time, they opt for the late-’50s and/or very early-’60s classics like “Giant Steps” or re-interpreting “My Favorite Things” in a way that’s clearly indebted to Coltrane’s version. Branford Marsalis even had the stones to re-record “A Love Supreme.” But British saxophonist Denys Baptiste has had a more interesting idea. He’s recording songs from the end of Coltrane’s career, when his music was deeply spiritual, quite free, and often alienating in its intensity. Late Trane includes versions of pieces from albums like Sun Ship, Transition, and Stellar Regions — great records, but challenging ones. Baptiste and keyboardist Nikki Yeoh, bassist Neil Charles, and drummer Rod Youngs sometimes interpret this material in a slightly more groove-oriented manner than Coltrane et al. did (“Ascent,” once a free-blowing rampage, is now a funky strut with warped, electrified horn), but just as often they retain the bottomless spiritual feel of the originals. This isn’t just a reminder of Coltrane’s greatness; it’s a terrific performance by an accomplished group of creative musicians.

Stream “Ascent”:

Zem Audu, Spirits (Origin)

Saxophonist Zem Audu was born in Nigeria, grew up in England, and is currently a New Yorker. His career as a sideman has included work with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Ernest Ranglin, and the Skatalites. This is his debut album and it features a strong band: pianist Benito Gonzalez, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer John Davis. On five tracks, guitarist Mike Stern — a player who frequently combines fusion and world music in his own work — joins the action. The tunes on Spirits have big, memorable melodies and bounce along atop rhythms that owe as much to reggae and funk as jazz. Audu’s lines are quick and high-energy, with a strong Grover Washington, Jr. feel. He’s not interested in abstraction; he wants to grab you by the ear and drag you along with him, making sure you’re nodding your head and tapping your foot. This is an album that could easily have come out on CTI in the 1970s, and that’s a good thing.

Stream “Spirits”: