Sean Conly - Hard Knocks

Label: Clean Feed, 2018

Personnel - Michael Attias: alto saxophone; Sean Conly: acoustic bass; Satoshi Takeishi: drums.


Sean Conly had his first electric bass at the age of 13. At that time, he couldn’t imagine he would become a respected bandleader and sought-after sideman, establishing unfading foundations in groups led by Anthony Coleman, Greg Tardy, Michael Attias, Yoni Kretzmer and Mara Rosenbloom.
With Hard Knocks, his second work for the progressive Clean Feed label, he plunges into a set of six modern jazz compositions penned for his powerhouse, chord-less trio composed of longtime comrades Michael Attias and Satoshi Takeishi, alto saxophonist and drummer, respectively. Expanding their actions beyond tradition, the trio sets that special, interactive mood that is only possible when the rapport among the involved is strong enough.

The title track unfolds with a variety of rhythmic accents (knocks, if you prefer) and a fine groove. It’s a well-crafted, well-structured, metrically astute piece that takes us to Sam Rivers’ spins. Exploration is undertaken individually when Attias extemporizes thoughts over a profuse swinging vibe locked by bass and drums. After him, it’s Conly who carefully groups selected notes to form consistently bright phrases.

Gradually built in layers, “Totem” kicks off with the attractive timbres of Takeishi’s percussion. We don’t have to wait too long for the saxophonist to join with a sinuous Eastern-influenced phrase carrying an occasional vibrato. Lastly, the bassist sneaks in to lead his gang toward an energetic rock-tinged flux in six.

Skippin’ Town” is immersed in those avant-garde waters once agitated by Dewey Redman and Ornette Coleman. It features not only an enthusiastic swinging section underpinning the sax solo, but also a reiterative odd-metered bass groove on top of which Takeishi creates with freedom.

The trio’s keen sense of tempo is obvious on “Loose Screws”, a blues-based piece crafted with high melodic articulation and shifting rhythms, whereas on “Artefact” they probe textural definition and intensity of playing. The band starts by forming a dense, stormy sonic cloud that thunders with fierce saxophone growls and multiphonics before being pacified by disruptive drum chops, a leisurely steady bass motion, and gentle sax melodies infusing a mix of light and dark tonalities.

Devised as a sort of meditation, “Undertow” is introduced by the bandleader with tranquil assurance and lapidary clarity. After the theme’s statement, he shows an improvisational vein with the support of the percussionist’s shimmering brushwork. The unhurried pace is then set without losing a bit of coordination. There is a strong spell of Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” in the tune’s spacious atmosphere and melody.

Great hooks occurring with incredible ease, groove-centric ideas that can absolutely swing, and an unshakeable sense of unity are all good motives for you to dig Hard Knocks.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Hard Knocks ► 02 - Totem ► 03 - Undertow 

Marty Ehrlich - Trio Exaltation

Label: Clean Feed, 2018

Personnel – Marty Ehrlich: alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, wooden flutes; John Hébert: double bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.


Multi-reedist Marty Ehrlich, a devotee of compositional adventurism and vertiginous improvisations, is always surrounded by musicians who think alike and are capable of intuitive interplay with an elevated rhythmic perception. His new high-profile Trio Exaltation, featuring John Hébert on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums, proves what I just said. 

The trio opens the album strongly with “Dusk”, an original by the late pianist Andrew Hill with whom all of them worked in the past. It starts off as a spellbinding saxophone incantation backed by lively, gorgeously detailed percussion. The bassist only arrives two minutes after, locking down an encouraging groove with clear intent and purpose. He stretches out later in a stroll that subsists in its own pace, regardless the drummer's polyrhythmic fills.

The rhythm section becomes more strenuous on the following piece, “Yes Yes”, whose textural audacity results from a fine combination of bass adventurism and an impermeable yet tasteful net of cymbal crashes and tom-tom fantasies. Unconfined and utterly expressive, the clarinetist spreads a breathtaking fervency while exulting in a prayer. Multiphonics and unexpected piercing notes are constituents of his hip melodic oddities.

In opposition to the dancing spirituality of “Spirit of Jah No.2”, an exhilarating piece for wooden flutes and African-tinged percussion, the haunting sounds of bass clarinet are exerted in compositions with a more reflective and contemplative nature, cases of “Dance No. 5”, a far-from-ethereal John Surman-esque illumination played in five, and “The Arc of the Oar”, an imperturbable duet with Hébert, where the melody of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is revived. 

Sometimes Ehrlich’s approach is clean and transparently lyric, other times it may come intoxicated with searing lines professed with variegated timbres. This last aspect is particularly noticeable on pieces like “Senhor PC” (not for Paul Chambers but for Clean Feed’s Pedro Costa), a free ramble with questioning motifs and ruminative arco bass conspiring with Waits' mallet drumming, and “Stone”, a burner that keeps instilling brief swinging rides amidst avant-garde passages delineated with free bop melodic moves and sudden boisterous drum chops. With the closing piece, “Reading The River”, a deliberate swinging groove is definitely put into effect. It is not rare to find shades of Ornette Coleman throughout these pieces and “June 11th 2015” was precisely dedicated to him.

The Exaltation Trio creates mesmerizing sonic atmospheres based on the supple interplay and expansive personal statements of its members. If their openness facilitates communication, then their ample sense of freedom concedes fearless exploration.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Dusk ► 02 - Yes Yes ► 04 - Dance No. 5

Kjetil Moster/Jeff Parker/Joshua Abrams/John Herndon - Ran Do

Label: Clean Feed, 2017

Lineup - Kjetil Moster: tenor saxophone; Jeff Parker: guitar; Joshua Abrams: bass; John Herndon: drums.


As an adventurer who explores with no concrete boundaries, Norwegian tenorist Kjetil Moster couldn’t have found a more suitable foundation for his sounds than the streamlined rhythm team composed of Jeff Parker and John Herndon, Tortoise’s guitarist and drummer, respectively, and bassist Joshua Abrams, founder of Natural Information Society, whom we could hear recently in projects such as Rempis/Abrams/Ra trio and Jason Stein Quartet.

After gigging together for some time, the musicians decided to hit the studio, and Ran Do is a positive payoff that dignifies their talent.
Orko” resonates affirmatively with the impromptu drumming of Harndon. The rest of the members join him, one after another, starting with the bandleader, who pours out chant-like phrases, and then the bassist, who integrates his throbbing flippancy with the disentangled yet often disconcerting guitar sounds of Parker. The musical scenario feels simultaneously volatile and strapping as the improvisations occur.
Dig Me Out” takes a darker and more intriguing sonic path. On top of that, it is noisy and polyrhythmic. The deeply cavernous blows freed by Moster are strongly imprinted on a surface that also exhibits long and distorted guitar lunges and a multitude of percussive elements. These are intensified in order to uphold bowed bass euphoria, quirky guitar vagaries, as well as the hissing and growling of the saxophonist. Even climaxing in an approachable rhythmic cadence nurtured by bass and drums, it all becomes very ghostly.

The absorbing “Annicca”, the longest piece on the record at more than 15 minutes, serves up African ritualistic pulses, raucous saxophone expressions peppered with vibrato effect and dark timbre, wha-wha guitar dipped in modern funk, and incessant marching bass lines. After Abrams’ monologue, the tune changes skin like a chameleon, presenting a more melodious sax operating with a sweeter timbre on top of permeable guitar chords.

The last tune is funnily entitled “Pajama Jazz” and puts us in orbit with an ostentatious groove reclined in glory. Dripping until coagulate, the piece thrives with the magnificence of Moster’s ramblings filled with revolutionary, spiritual, and charismatic freedom. While accompanying, Parker sounds more surrounding than incendiary, but shows he can also be a wirepuller, delivering a spectacular solo and showing off his matchless sound.

These self-determined orchestrators, provided with instinctive stimulus and scintillating inspiration, are valid voices on today’s vanguard jazz scene.

       Grade  B+

       Grade B+

Favorite Tracks: 
01 – Orko ► 04 – Annica ► 05 – Pajama Jazz

Nick Fraser - Is Life Long?

Label/Year: Clean Feed, 2017

Lineup - Tony Malaby: tenor and soprano saxophone; Andrew Downing: cello; Rob Clutton: double bass; Nick Fraser: drums.


Canadian drummer/composer Nick Fraser, a stalwart in the Toronto jazz scene, targeted a sequence for his previous albums, Towns and Villages (Barnyard Records, 2013) and Starer (independently released, 2016), with a new Clean Feed outing, which features exactly the same chord-less chamber quartet with Tony Malaby on saxophones, Andrew Downing on cello, and Rob Clutton on double bass.

Is Life Long? comprises six intuitively connected tunes that, mirroring freedom, develop within mood-changing structural blocks.

Quicksand”, opening with long, contrasting-in-pitch, and quite ominous notes from arco and soprano, tinge a mysterious canvas with their eldritch presence. Thoroughly coordinated in these moves, Malaby and Downing devise the right wispy strains of melody to compose an unsettling atmosphere, having Fraser’s ruminative percussion as an underpinning. After dwelling in this vague suspension for one-third of the piece's duration, parallel movements of sax and cello commence, conveying a wider sense of cohesiveness but only to split up again for an organic polyphonic exploration. The tune shakes with turbulence in its final section, emphasizing Malaby's classy timbral work, acutely affixed to his peremptory exclamations, while flanked by the increasingly muscled thumping of the bandleader. At this point, one feels impelled into a tumultuous sonic epicenter.

A timing bass groove, obeying to an odd meter, sets the tone for “Disclosure”, an atypical yet majestic march where Fraser resorts to the hi-hat rather than the common snare rolls to set the pace. There are engaging chamber flourishes that suggest some relation with distant oriental places, creating in simultaneous a sensation of pure avant-garde ecstasy.

The fugue-like “Empathy” couldn’t have been given a better title since all the instrumentalists worked for a universal melodicism/organicism whose fluency encases dramatic classical movements delivered to the point.

Dissociating from the remaining tunes, the more-docile-than-acerbic “Skeleton” is a pleasurable swinger that shines from one end to the other via well-delineated jazzy unisons, a bouncy bass pizzicato, and constructive brushed drumming. Although nodding to tradition and advertising Mingus (mostly due to Malaby’s tenor rides), it feels utterly up-to-date in its unlocked musicality. 

The curtains close after “The Predictor”, a slow-cooked recipe that takes time to shape and evolve. After a bemused embryonic state, it morphs into peppery percussive cadences and heavy, provocative agitations.

Fraser’s stylized signature is well patented on Is Life Long?. Whether unobstructed or congested, the gripping ambiances sketched by his deft quartet surround us with an unfaded, exploratory impressionism.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks: 
01 - Quicksand ► 02 - Disclosure ► 04 – Skeleton