Miho Hazama - Dancer in Nowhere

Label: Sunnyside, 2019

Personnel includes: Miho Hazama: composition, conduction; Steve Wilson: alto saxophone; Jason Rigby: tenor saxophone; Andrew Gutauskas: baritone saxophone; Atsuki Yoshida: viola; Ryoji Ihara: saxophone; Jonathan Powell: trumpet; Lionel Loueke: guitar; James Shipp: vibraphone; Billy Test: piano; Kavita Shah: vocals; Sam Anning: bass; Jake Goldbas: drums; Nate Wood: drums; and more.

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Despite her young age, the classically trained, Tokyo-born Miho Hazama is an accomplished conductor/composer who has so much to give to the contemporary jazz universe. Dancer in Nowhere is her third release with the m_unit, her highly qualified 13-piece signature ensemble.

The comprehensive music includes several stylistic influences combined within lush arrangements, with the eight tracks unveiling intricacy in the composition and sagacity in the form. The collective navigates odd meters and lays down churning rhythms with ardent dedication, starting with the graceful "Today, Not Today", whose syncopated and asymmetric course whisks us away to uplifting orchestrated sections. The muted trumpet of Jonathan Powell, who begins slowly and ends feverishly, and the vibraphone of James Shipp, backed by stringed ostinatos and woodwind melodies, are the free voices here.

Bassist Sam Anning starts “The Cyclic Number” with a solitary act, plucking vigorously and adding stylish slides before putting up a shimmering groove in four, ofttimes interrupted by passages of a different order. Sometimes, those passages allude to a slippery crossover jazz like happened during the statements of Atsuki Yoshida and Ryoji Ihara on viola and saxophone, respectively. The closing vamp brings drummer Jake Goldbas to the forefront.

Vocalist Kavita Shah gives meaning to the celestial chamber texture of “Somnambulant”, a piece that sparkles with improvisations by tenor saxist Jason Rigby and guest guitarist Lionel Loueke, who adjust to distinct contexts. The latter, in possession of a delay-drenched sound, concentrates his efforts in the blues-rock idiom.

Capable of waking us up from any sleepwalking trance, “Il Paradiso Del Blues” leans heavily on the off-the-cuff roller-coaster rides of altoist Steve Wilson, who is given more than one opportunity to shine. If he blows the saxophone with fiery energy over a hard-swinging motion, then baritonist Andrew Gutauskas unleashes sultry lines as the Latin rhythms invade the scenario.

Whereas the brashly charming “Magyar Dance” manifests dynamic shifts in tempo, there’s contrapuntal clapping on “Olympic Fanfare and Theme”, penned by John Williams for the 1984 Olympic Games. Some of his motives can be heard on the tune, which, being the shortest in time, features seven soloists.

The session terminates with the title track, where a breezy post-bop in seven bumps into contemporary classical elements and serpentine melodies reminiscent of the Middle East. It is supplemented with solos full of flavor by Rigby on tenor and the illustrious guest Nate Wood on drums.

Motivated by a globalist outlook in music, Ms. Hazama has crafted a collection of tunes whose mature frameworks secure layers of dynamism, all splashed with strong-hued solid colors.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Today, Not Today ► 05 - Il Paradiso Del Blues ► 08 - Dancer in Nowhere


Billy Pod - Drums To Heal Society

Label: Puzzlemusik, 2019

Personnel - Billy Pod: drums, composition; Michalis Tsiftsis: guitar; Kimon Karoutzos: bass; Yiannis Papadopoulos: Rhodes; Jannis Anastasakis: electronics; Katerine Duska: vocals; George Kontrafouris: piano; Stephanos Chytiris: drums.

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Athens-born drummer Vassilis Podaras, known in the artistic world as Billy Pod, envisions music as a miraculous influence with the capacity of touching, affecting, and healing listeners. According to that idea, and based on his compositional efforts, the title given to his debut album was Drums to Heal Society.

The essence of “Void” is purely percussive, inviting us to the album with an exploration of darkened drum timbres gorgeously synced with cymbal splashes and adorned by speculative electronic noises. It precedes the harmonically lucid “Minor Mystery”, where indulging in the guitar solo of Michalis Tsiftsis is undemanding. Whereas he shows off his legato technique over a 5/4 bluesy spell, Pod slightly expands his chops during the closing vamp before entering in a 30-second hip-hop state of mind on “Reminiscence”.

Enveloped by a balmy breeze, “L.” bounces with the conspicuous intervallic cadence brought up by the bass of Kimon Karoutzos, who intrepidly ventures into improvisation on tunes like “Connection”, a hauntingly melodic pop/rock song, and “Billy Pod”, a 12-bar blues with a sweet, traditional taste and written by guest pianist George Kontrafouris.

The predominantly soft nature of these tunes contrasts with the danceable approach used in the groovier “One Heart”, whose percussive flux in seven is interrupted at one point by a folk-imbued passage that escorts us to reticent Fender Rhodes statements by Yiannis Papadopoulos. In a flash, the eclectic guitarist Brad Shepik came to my mind.

The sophisti-pop of “Limit to Your Love”, a song penned by the pair Leslie Feist/Chilly Gonzales and popularized by James Blake in 2011, also brings a trip-hop-ish atmosphere, emitting chill-out vibes through Katerine Duska's soulful vocal work.

As a percussive experimentation, the title track detaches from the stream of songs, featuring Stephanos Chytiris on drums. If Pod opened the session with his drumming, then Tsiftsis uses poignant lyricism on the fingerpicked guitar to close it out.

Even embracing stylistic dispersion along the way, Pod finds his own balance through uncomplicated structures and persuasive aesthetics that facilitate the listening.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Minor Mystery ► 05 - One Heart ► 09 - Connection


Twin Talk - Weaver

Label: 37d03d, 2019

Personnel - Dustin Laurenzi: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Katie Ernst: bass, vocals; Andrew Green: drums, percussion, gankogui bells.

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Formed in 2012, the adventurous Chicago-based trio Twin Talk is composed of reed player and main composer Dustin Laurenzi, bassist/vocalist Katie Ernst, and drummer Andrew Green. Their sophomore album, Weaver, has no harmonic coloration in its passages but that doesn’t mean a less rich sonic palette. In fact, they seize on overdubbing and a careful post-production treatment to attain the desired sound and texture.

The title cut opens the record with sax-vocals consonance, preceding a groove that will sustain more unison phrases, this time accented by each of the group members, whose actions weigh equally in the final product. As the song moves forward, a cloudy rock accumulation invites Laurenzi to improvise before Ernst’s wordless vocals catch him toward the final theme.

The art of delivering witty unison licks with perfect notions of tempo and attack is featured in many of the tunes. “Five” and “The Sky Never Ends” are two good models. The former bestows a sense of floating, which, disturbed by the creative stomp of the drummer, evolves into something muscular and uncanny; the latter begins in a relaxed 4/4 before slightly dissonant layers and odd-metered passages with looped phrases come to life. The third phase of the song is slightly darker, gliding on an unrugged surface built on the basis of drones.

If “Folks” shows the band’s affinity for easygoing pop/rock with a tasteful beat and nice melodic paths trailed by overdubbing horns, then “Paxton” adopts a true rocking posture marked by a resilient spirit and explorative temperament. The driving rhythm and freedom of movements get them closer to the avant-garde genre; yet, the tune ends in a sluggish 3/4 after some abrupt transitions.

The sculptural shape of some pieces brought The Lounge Lizards and Blake Tartare to mind, while the vocalized intonations reminded me of Sara Serpa. Still, an regardless of any inspirational source, the band speaks with its own voice.

Written by Ernst, “Human Woman” and “Solace” are showcases for her voice, with the former offering an elated Eastern-like chant, later delivered in tandem with the saxophone until morphing into separate ostinatos.

With each member injecting distinct flavors into the music according to their creative individualities, Weaver is a step up in the Twin Talk’s out-of-the-mainstream jazz/rock spin.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Human Woman ► 07 - The Sky Never Ends ► 08 - Paxton


Dave Harrington - Pure Imagination, No Country

Label: Yeggs Records, 2019

Personnel - Dave Harrington: guitar, bass, synth, pedal steel, electronics; Lars Horntveth: electric piano, string synth; Will Shore: vibraphone; Jake Falby: violin; Andrew Fox: keyboards, synth, electronics; Samer Ghadry: drums.

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Listening to Dave Harrington Group can be a challenging assignment, especially for the ones who like everything neat and arranged with a sense of anticipation. On his latest effort, Pure Imagination, No Country, Harrington, who is an experimental multi-instrumentalist with a predilection for guitar, is accompanied by Will Shore on vibraphone, Andrew Fox on keyboards and electronics, Samer Ghadry on drums, Jake Falby on violin, and Lars Horntveth, a Norwegian multi-instrumentalist and one of the main songwriters of experimental jazz group Jaga Jazzist. This release finds them melding rock, jazz and electronic music with a gut-feeling that reflects our current times.

The short overture, “Well”, has the band diving headfirst into psychedelic rock. It presents a thoroughly crafted drumbeat, pretty active bass lines with some dirtiness surrounding them, and multicolored vibes. Hooked in the drumming showcase of Ghadry, “Belgrade Fever” intermingles the melodicism of Pink Floyd’s early years and the persistent krautrock-like atmosphere of Can. However, it was “Then I Woke Up” that quickly conquered my ear due to the gripping aesthetic of distorted guitars, dance-rock drumming, and consolidated electronics. The synth bass keeps this pop/rock circularity running as we hear sonic pollution covering the canvas in a progressive direction. The band makes atmospheric stops along the way, spreading some mystery in the air by way of a long-standing thrum.

Slides Redux” purges a giddy, paranoid sonority before brooding synth chords and searing guitar lines take over. Conversely, “Neoarctic Organs” is a slow-core exercise with some ethereal flights and a crescendo that terminates brusquely.

The group sets “Patch One”, the longest track on the record, with some doses of abstraction, proposing an unsettling murk. Percussive punches and cymbal splashes are a constant in a relentless exercise that feels feathery on one hand and heavy on the other. From midway through, a jazzy pulse meets the noise rock, thickening up the texture and reminiscing some works of The Cinematic Orchestra.

Counter-parting the more experimental flux of the album, which Harrington admits inspired by Miles Davis’ electric years, “Pure Imagination” works like redemption with its beautiful country/folk orientation. There’s something profound and special in this particular dreamlike ambience, which closes out the album like an act of emancipation.

Harrington, who has the capacity of sustaining a wealth of moods while building hypnotic tension, has a fine album here.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
04 - Then I Woke Up ► 07 - Patch One ► 09 - Pure Imagination


Ernie Watts Quartet - Home Light

Label: Flying Dolphin Records, 2019

Personnel – Ernie Watts: saxophones; Christof Sanger: piano; Rudi Engel: bass; Heirich Koebberling: drums.

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Veteran tenorman Ernie Watts, 73, has recorded with numerable musicians in wide-ranging musical genres. Apart from integrating the Charlie Haden Quartet West, Watts gave major contributions to works by Cannonball Adderley, Bobby Hutcherson, Jean-Luc Ponty, Lee Ritenour, Gerald Wilson, and Quincy Jones, just to name a few. Outside the jazz scene, he got known for his collaborations with Frank Zappa, Marvin Gaye, and Carole King, as well as for touring with The Rolling Stones.

In the mid-2000s, Watts convened his European quartet with three German musicians: pianist Christof Sanger, bassist Rudi Engel, and drummer Heirich Koebberling. Their new outing, Home Light, is a straight-ahead ride with no bumps or stumbles that begins with “I Forgot August”, a contrafact of “I’ll Remember April”. Here, the saxophonist shows off his deft soloing skills and has the pianist joining him in the B section of the theme, doubling the melody.

Frequie Flyiers” is an uptempo, all the more vibrant, bebop-oriented number where he shows a compelling command of timbre, delivering a powerful final statement merely backed by drums. This particular section is evocative of Ornette Coleman.

Both “Spinning Wheel” and the title cut are soulful songs that have the name of Sanger in the writing credits. The pianist penned the former tune as a non-swinging 4/4 post-bop ride, while the latter, dedicated to the late American drummer Leon ‘Ndugu' Chancler, is a gospel-tinged waltz that resulted from a compositional collaboration with Watts.

O.P.” could stand for Oscar Peterson, but it doesn’t. It’s Oscar Petiford, the bassist who mentored Sam Jones, author of this enthusiastic hard-bop piece. The solos from bass, sax, and piano are shrouded in frenzied intensity and the band trades fours with Koebberling by the end. The latter contributed one piece, “Cafe Central 2AM”, which lilts with a gentle, bohemian attitude.

Written by trumpeter Brad Goode, with whom Watts worked recently on the former's quintet album That's Right! (Origin Records, 2018), “Joe” is another dedication, this time to saxophonist Joe Henderson. It’s a stouthearted, swinging incursion into Latin jazz designed with an extra soprano saxophone attached through overdubbing.

Demonstrating a bonafide inner motivation, Watts mixes earthly vibes with some occasional spirituality, keeping jazz in its purest, classic forms.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
04 - Frequie Flyiers ► 06 - O.P. ► 08 - Joe


Ralph Alessi - Imaginary Friends

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel - Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Ravi Coltrane: tenor, sopranino; Andy Milne: piano; Drew Gress: bass; Mark Ferber: drums.

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Trumpeter supreme Ralph Alessi reconvenes his longtime quintet, known as This Against That, for its third ECM album. Imaginary Friends comprises nine mature originals fully developed while touring in Europe. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber are the remaining members of the group.

They make a wonderful first impression on the soulful opening track, “Iram Issela”, whose strange title consists of the name of Alessi’s eight-year-old daughter spelt backwards. Piano and trumpet set up reserved moments of pure beauty, after which Alessi flies in a solo full of brightness and expression. At a certain point, already with bass and brushed drums as accompaniment, he gets Coltrane’s voice leading running in parallel with his melodies. The saxophonist then departs for a glorious improvisation full of art and spirituality. By the end, unison lines and circular harmonic progressions raise the intensity, a propitious time for Ferber to expand drumming chops.

Fun Room” and “Improper Authorities” are formidable cuts presented with insatiable imagination and controlled friction. Whereas the former boasts an odd way of swinging and reaches a peak with Alessi’s fluttering soloistic impulses, the latter wields an ostinato that whether works as an electronic dance pattern or a funk rock-based motif. Colorful unisons and virtuosic solos by Coltrane and Milne come into existence, with the pianist excelling on this one by competently outlining melodic symmetries and rhythmic figures.

Oxide” merges improvisatory discipline with oneiric melodicism. While Milne devises chromatic descents with purpose, Gress’ round notes are responsible for letting the music breathe. The horns switch from parallel movements to dialogue, and Milne concludes with cadenced intervals that resemble raindrops falling from a tree. Divergent in nature, this song doesn’t have the grooving quality of “Melee”, whose light-footed propulsion rules in most of its passages. The spotlight shifts from the trumpet to the piano to the expansive sopranino, which dances over the fidgety drumming without reservation. An instant avant-garde dish is served with some funk on the side.

Pittance” reveals as much introspection as the rubato trumpet/piano duet “Good Boy” or the title track, which amasses cymbal legato, bowed bass, and unclouded reflective polyphony. However, there’s a slight tension throughout, even with the prepared piano conferring it a distinct lyrical erudition.

The methodical, unfolding narrative arc of Imaginary Friends makes it an exceptional collection of impassioned, free-shimmering tone poems where the musical personality of Alessi shines through.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Iram Issela ► 03 - Improper Authorities ► 08 - Melee


Mats Eilertsen - And Then Comes The Night

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel - Harmen Fraanje: piano; Mats Eilertsen: acoustic bass; Thomas Stronen: drums.

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Norwegian bassist Mats Eilertsen had a triumphant ECM debut in 2016 with Rubicon, an album featuring seven talented musicians. And Then Comes The Night, his new outing on the cited label, he reunited a trio formed a decade ago with fellow countrymen pianist Harmen Fraanje and drummer Thomas Stronen. Their music had already been captured on record twice, in 2010 and 2013, with releases on the Norwegian label Hubro. Each member got compositionally involved in the project, with the bandleader contributing five tunes, two of them in association with Fraanje, who brings a couple more of his own. The remaining two are credited to the collective.

Eilertsen’s “22” was written in response to the terrorist massacre on the island of Utoya on July 22, 2011. It opens the recording session with elegiac tones, projecting serene classical-like melody against spacious yet rich bass/drums activity. A variation of this same composition closes out the album, bookending the remaining eight quietly acoustic pieces culled from the musicians’ lyrical depth. Fraanje’s “Albatross”, for instance, transpires a crystalline introspection, just as the trio’s “Perpetum”, which brings Eilertsen to the spotlight in the course of an elegant consonance between steadfast pizzicato and spiritual bowed bass. With introductory percussion creating suspended moments by means of silence and nuance, this ambiguous peregrination may be evocative of the vastness of the desert or the infiniteness of the universe.

By the same token, the crisply executed “The Void” invites the listeners to the mysticism of unconfined, unknown spaces. The trio rambles during the first minutes before finding a demarcated path where agreeable contours of melody connect to lush chordal fluxes. It is all sustained by the strong presence of the bass and a snare drum precipitating unflappable eruptions. This is an old Eilertsen composition that happens to be one of his strongest.

With one piece flowing into another with a calm reserve, the album feels like a suite. There’s temperance at every turn, and the title track, named after the novel of the same name by Icelandic Jon Kalman Stefansson, emulsifies repeated melodic figures into the static framework. This disposition is ultimately diverted through the installation of a primitive groove that stirs the pianist’s improvisatory creativity.

If you’re looking for depth of sound and some relaxing aural experiences, then this is an album you should get.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Perpetum ► 05 - The Void ► 08 - Then Comes the Night


Jamie Saft / Steve Swallow / Bobby Previte - You Don't Know The Life

Label: RareNoise, 2019

Personnel - Jamie Saft: keyboards; Steve Swallow: electric bass; Bobby Previte: drums.

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What an amazing sound Jamie Saft exudes from the Baldwin electric harpsichord on “Re: Person I Knew”. Rocking and grooving like if Sun Ra had joined forces with Deep Purple, this fresh take on the Bill Evans’ tune welcomes you to You Don’t Know Life, the third effort of the keyboardist with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bobby Previte. The organ-centered album is a tempting combination of improvisations, standards, and Saft originals.

The three free improvisations almost don’t feel like such, considering that they naturally preserve backbone stability and follow a specific direction. “Dark Squares” is cooked patiently with nebulous synth chops at a medium-slow tempo. Sometimes noir, sometimes celestial, the tune has Saft choosing between long-held notes and staccato punctuation. “Breath From Water” flows steadily, suffused with Previte’s pervading drum timbres, which are even more authoritative on Roswell Rudd’s succinct “Ode To a Green Frisbee”. On the other hand, “The Break of the Flat Land” proves the less impetuous, more spacious of the three.

The effective bass/drums pairing provides a reliable structure, whether if the tune is tender, like the brushed waltzing “You Don’t Know the Life” by the psych-rock band Moving Sidewalks, or unnerving, such as Saft’s “The Cloak”, where soul music tries to fraternize with prog-rock, and its swinging continuation “Stable Manifolds”, which, after entering in the groovy territory of Jimmy Smith and Dr. Lonnie Smith, ends with caustic chromatic movements. Closing out the album in a low-key style are two standards, “Moonlight in Vermont” and “Alfie”.

This disc is a solid, accessible offering. It doesn't particularly feel like a shift in mindset, but rather a fun sculptural exploration of the organ trio format.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Re: Person I Knew ► 02 - Dark Squares ► 06 - The Cloak


Christian McBride - New Jawn

Label: Mack Avenue, 2018

Personnel - Marcus Strickland: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Josh Evans: trumpet; Christian McBride: double bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.

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Philadelphia-born Christian McBride, one of the most fluid and fluent jazz bassists in the world, debuts a new quartet, New Jawn, whose name derives from Philly jargon and can be translated as ‘new joint’. The quartet affiliates - saxophonist Marcus Strickland, trumpeter Josh Evans, and drummer Nasheet Waits - contribute with two compositions each to a colorful song list that also admits Wayne Shorter’s “Sightseeing”.

The group’s eponymous album spreads thrillingly fresh ideas that surge with infectious energy and grandiose conviction. A great example of that is the opening tune, McBride’s “Walkin’ Funny”, which blends the exhilaration of Lee Morgan’s melodies with asymmetric notions of rhythm and collective improvisatory effervescence that refuses any commercial approach in favor of creative freedom. This same posture marks Waits’ “Ke-Kelli Sketch”, where compelling bowed bass is turned into a galloping groove, at the same time that early loose drumming becomes profusely acute, erecting an elastic avant-garde background over which Evans engraves discernible rhythmic figures. The foundation is reconfigured into a soul-imbued template to welcome Strickland’s melody-driven speech.

Evans’ pieces, “The Ballad of Ernie Washington” and “Pier One Import”, bring chunks of tradition in its rollicking lines. The former brims with a melodicism that is worthy of the Great American Songbook, while the latter is a post-bop incursion with lustrous unison phrases and killing solos. In turn, Strickland bestows “The Middle Me”, a swing ride taken at a burning tempo with a Freddie Hubbard-like intensity, and “Seek The Source”, a blues where everyone finds room to stretch out.

Employing brushes for a more meditative circumstance, Waits outlines his “Kush” song with delicacy. McBride doesn’t let this low-key vibe curb his arco extemporization while Strickland upholds the groove on bass clarinet. The bandleader also improvises on the moderate walker “John Day”, a tune he wrote in 3/4 with a gorgeous head riff and a Nardis-like semblance.

Communicating with countless details and peculiarities, these cats prove they dominate the jazz idiom from end to end.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Walkin’ Funny ► 02 - Ke-Kelli Sketch ► 08 - John Day


Michael Wolff - Swirl

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2019

Personnel – Michael Wolff: piano; Ben Allison: acoustic bass; Allan Mednard: drums.

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Michael Wolff is a pianist, composer and bandleader, who has performed with greats such as Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins. He played a five-year stint in the Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk show as a musical director and has 17 records under his belt. At 66, and after beating a rare cancer, Wolff joins two agile foundation builders: bassist Ben Allison and drummer Allan Mednard, with whom he negotiates the best rhythmic burn for each tune on Swirl, his new outing on the Sunnyside record label.

The buoyant opener, “Allison”, was named after the bassist, who co-wrote the second section of the tune after has been presented with its first part, already put on paper by the bandleader. Alluding to the blues, the song feels hip in the beat, winning in the groove, and likable in the melody.

The eventful “Metairie” encompasses multiple influences. While the swing derives from jazz, the romantic aesthetic comes from classical, with the Latin accents making it danceable as a tango. Instead, Allison’s “The Detective’s Wife” is a fluttering, vagrant bolero that captivates at every move. This recent composition was included in the bassist’s latest album Layers of the City.

Wolff penned “Jenny V9” for a friend who also went through a serious health condition. Scintillating with a keen melodic sensibility, it flows breezily in six, shifting regularly to an additive 6+5 tempo in a complementary vamp passage .

If “Tough Ashkenazy” hangs onto a resolute 4/4 motion, boasting a blues-rock piano riff and categorical improvisations by Wolff and Allison, then “Goodbye Too Late”, written for Wolff’s late father, provides a more serene experience, projecting some ambiguity through the chord movements in a balladic 3/4 signature meter.

Before concluding with the title track, where one can find fleetly swirling cadences on the piano within a gentle environment, the band imparts their takes on a couple of standards. “Angel Eyes” carries deep feelings allied to delicious details for the freshness of sound, while “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” is coated with warmness and percussive decoy.

Part of the appeal comes from the effortlessness associated with the trio’s moves together with the inspired way they set things up. Wolff is a resourceful pianist who happens to be charismatic as well, and those qualities reflect brightly in this recording.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Allison ► 03 - Jenny V9 ► 05 - Angel Eyes


Joe Lovano - Trio Tapestry

Label: ECM Records, 2019

Personnel: Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone; Marilyn Crispell: piano; Carmen Castaldi: drums.

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Grammy-award winning composer/saxophonist Joe Lovano makes his debut on the ECM Records with Trio Tapestry, a new project that integrates the highly expressive pianism of Marilyn Crispell and the inspiring drumming of Carmen Castaldi. Adopting a democratic posture, the group has the pianist and the drummer contributing in an intense way to shape Lovano’s compositions into something uniquely intimate and beautiful.

The opener, “One Time In”, a one-on-one conversation between saxophone and percussion, bristles with deliberately prayerful melodies, unpredictable percussive trajectories, and bright gongs. It leads to the most enchanting piece on the record, “Seeds of Change”, which, gravitating with lamenting intonations, illuminates the world with the warm spiritual light it needs at the present time. Don’t be surprised if you get this positive, energetic current going down your spine as this song firstly caresses your ears and then touches your heart, transporting you to a heavenly dimension.

Crispell introduces “Razzle Dazzle” with pianistic reverie and a generous dash of abstraction. The feel is corroborated by the Motian-esque spaciousness of Castaldi’s brushwork along with the plaintive lines of Lovano.

Sparkle Light” and “Rare And Beauty” exhibit sax and piano in close collaboration, whether in the form of unisons or complementing each other with intensely deep movements, frequent emitters of peacefulness. On the latter piece, the unison statements are a bit more energetic, but there’s still a propensity toward tranquility. Leisurely rhythmic flexibility often welcomes passionate individual statements. However, this is music with commitment and Castaldi’s unobtrusive drumming asserts that there is no space for egos here, only solidarity and integrity. He showcases his gong percussion on “Gong Episode” as well as on “Mystic”, a piece he occasionally agitates with mallets, yet prevailing the general state of musing.

By displaying contemplative virtues, the trio doesn’t resort to showing you everything they can do. What they do here is harder than showing off all their technique and musical prowess at once. These tunes fly and soar before penetrating into our minds. However, compositions like “Spirit Lake” - aesthetically assembled with arpeggiated tension, restless drumming, and emotionally blazing saxophone - and “The Smiling Dog” - the biting closing piece whose intensity expands via crafted rhythmic accents and the strong communicative presence of the artists - bring in many other colors, conjuring up avant-garde jazz routines that never cease to spiritualize and amaze.

The creativity and adaptability of Lovano and his peers stimulate Trio Tapestry to endlessly pique our interest with a lucent musicality from which we don’t want to be apart.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Seeds of Change ► 08 - Rare Beauty ► 11 - The Smiling Dog


DarkMatterHalo - Discernible Grid

Label: Hardedge, 2018

Personnel – Hardedge: sound design; Brandon Ross: guitar; Doug Wieselman: guitar.

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Known for its utterly unique experimentalism and obscurity of sound, DarkMatterHalo is a collaborative effort by sound designer Hardedge and guitarists Brandon Ross and Doug Wieselman. Ambling through tapestries of abstract clutter, Discernible Grid is their newest program of six explorative tracks.

Sunk in a pool of well-coordinated electronic effects that include water sounds, oft-repeated chirps, bizarre rattles and grainy scratches, bell chimes, and futuristic noises and vibes, “Sub-urban” maintains the mysterious spaciousness until the end in the company of some eerie guitar work. Delving into a strange, brooding muse, the trio makes us wonder where we are taken, especially when the guitar activity intensifies to create moderate psychedelia.

Remaining torpid and trippy for most of the time, “Gasping Silence” embarks on the tidal ebbs and flows of experimental ambient. The flickering, sometimes murmuring guitars ease the mood, but don’t remove the deep abstraction of the setting.

More palpable in texture and direction, “In Difference” renders a combination of droning vibes and chiming guitar glow in a twitchy crescendo that also incorporates suitable percussive sounds. This dark ritual creates suspense and will leave you under a spell for the time it runs.

If “The Final Tear” is a techno/trance exercise disrupted by a prolonged gust of noise pollution, “Stop Watching” proposes outlandish conversations with plenty of effects, crisscrossing ostinatos, rusty chords, and distorted notes that can be pulled into harmonics or fall into a downward spiral.

Closing out the album, “Fathom” incorporates atmospheric fingerpicking to conceptualize a noir country-ish scenario with occasional bluesy haziness. The music then metamorphoses, exposing electric guitar sounds, in its distorted and pointillistic modes, over a braindance backdrop.

Sidestepping conventions through uncompromising manipulations of sound, this is an intriguing project that will mainly appeal to open-minded listeners.

Grade  B

Grade B

Favorite Tracks:
03 – In Difference ► 05 - Stop Watching ► 06 - Fathom


VWCR - Noise Of Our Time

Label: Intakt Records, 2018

Personnel - Ken Vandermark: saxophone, clarinet; Nate Wooley: trumpet; Sylvie Courvoisier: piano; Tom Rainey: drums.

Noise of Our Time is the debut album by VWCR, a recently formed quartet with some of the most formidable avant-gardists out there – the notably articulated Ken Vandermark on saxophone and clarinet, the enigmatic Nate Wooley on trumpet, the captivating Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, and the trustworthy Tom Rainey on drums. With the exception of the latter, each member brought three compositions to the recording.

The band’s creative vein and improvisational flair are immediately felt on Courvoisier’s “Check Point”, which prompts Vandermark to embark on wild activity, having patterned melodic conductions running underneath. When Wooley steps ahead, he is offered wonderful support by the nonpareil bass-less rhythm team.

Vandermark’s “Track and Field” comes to life in a brooding, droning legato. An apparent erratic direction leads to consistent horn counterpoint, prepared piano attacks, and mind-boggling pulses from Rainey’s quirkily tuned drums. Although the piano work is crucial here, none of the musicians claim the center because they are already there, contributing with their own insight. The tune ends with sparse drum beats counterpointing compulsive horn accents.

Sparks” is one of my favorite pieces and a brilliant invention from Courvoisier’s musical mind. It features bright unisons, intersecting improvisations, and synchronized movements loaded with elegance and playfulness.

The vital flame that envelops “Tag” is initially lit by Rainey’s skittering tom-toms and cymbal work, but then the spotlight rotates, firstly concentrating on Vandermark, who blows out deft phrases with extraordinary intensity, then on Courvoisier, always edgy without losing that soft gliding appeal, and finally Wooley, whose abstract impromptu incorporates sketchy lines and terse remarks. The trumpeter wrote “Songs Of Innocence” with nearly philosophical sagacity, creating a fascinating framework where the suspenseful and the dreamy combine. The mood is perfect for Vandermark’s fast rides on clarinet, having a more serene Wooley contributing to the continual energy flow.

Despite the silences and fragmented phrasing, “Truth Through Mass Individuation” is rich in tonal colors. It has something impulsive in its ways, spilling out a panoply of musical figures that dance either in frictional counterpoint or amiable partnership. If Rainey’s snare activity marches on with rattling effervescence here, then on “Simple Cut”, the divergent yet fittingly accomplished closing track, he adopts a low-key posture, a circumstantial condition shared by his bandmates.

Traversing challenging paths together and exploring them with distinctive class, these four experienced players are at the peak of their powers in an unmissable avant-jazz session to revisit many times. 

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Sparks ► 05 - Tag ► 06 - Songs of Innocence


Ken Thomson - Sextet

Label: Panoramic/New Focus Recordings, 2018

Personnel - Ken Thomson: alto saxophone, clarinet; Anna Webber: tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson: trumpet; Alan Ferber: trombone; Adam Armstrong: bass; Daniel Dor: drums.

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Alto saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Thomson, a reputable member of New York’s Bang on a Can All-Stars and Asphalt Orchestra, squeezes excellent ideas into Sextet, an album that often swirls post-bop with classical elements. He plays alongside a wonderful set of horn players that includes tenorist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, and trombonist Alan Ferber, and a rhythm section that glues everything together with Adam Armstrong on bass and Daniel Dor on drums.

Dominated by rich polyphony, Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Pasacaglia Ungherese” opens the recording in the classical fashion. The wide tonal range leans on melancholy here, contrasting with “Mysery In The New Hope”, in which drums and bass hold together to set a hasty, urban pace enlivened by relentless rhythmic accents in an unquiet contrapuntal activity. After the bandleader’s solo, mostly shaped within the boundaries of the implicit harmony, Johnson promotes dynamism in the call-response communication established between him and elements of the horn squad.

On the vibrant “Icebreaker”, the horn section explores labyrinthine melodic paths, evincing the same affinity for rhythmic punctuation as its precedent piece. The flow becomes swingingly Latinized, accommodating Ferber’s wise lines, and the finale brings an exciting dialogue of saxophones to the table.

The swinging vibration continues with rhythmic crosscurrents and phrasal juxtaposition on “Phantom Vibration Syndrome”, an embroidering jazz fantasy meandered by a perpetual confluence of accents and patterns. This energetic current is discontinued for a minute by a musing unison passage that occurs after Thomson’s pronouncement.

At first, “Resolve” depicts tranquil landscapes with chamber classical poise, but then veers into deep solemnity just before Dor's jubilant percussive sparks take us to avant-garde vicinities. That’s when Webber shines by delivering a sturdy solo that also breathes conveniently whenever necessary. She leads the way to the motivic and synergistic section that concludes the piece.

If the placidity of “Helpless” lives from a set of loopy lines that induce a sensation of curtains in perpetual movement, “Turn Around” bristles with flawless interplay in an animated collective dance impregnated with jazz punch.

Thomson guides the crew with a firm pulse and sheer ambition, assuring that the arrangements hybridize genres with a personal musical stylization and influential narrative force. Sextet is a solid effort.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
02 - Misery in the New Hope ► 04 - Resolve ► 07 - Phantom Vibration Syndrome


Greg Ward's Rogue Parade - Stomping Off From Greenwood

Label: Greenleaf Music, 2019

Personnel - Greg Ward: alto saxophone; Matt Gold: guitar; Dave Miller: guitar; Matt Ulery: bass; Quin Kirchner: drums.

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Saxophonist Greg Ward has been a ubiquitous presence in the Chicago jazz scene for some years now. He is a terrific bandleader, composer, and arranger and his sophomore Greenleaf album, Stomping Off From Greenwood, features a new quintet with guitarists Matt Gold and Dave Miller, bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Quin Kirchner. Together, they are Rogue Parade.

The record opens with “Metropolis”, an exciting ode to New York and Chicago, cities that are in the heart of the bandleader. Things are kept intensely contemporary throughout the route, and from its epicenter, located midway between a busy free-funk and floor-filling electronica, branches out guileless breakbeats, rolling guitar ostinatos, and expressive melody. The quieter passages resemble a melodic symphonic rock, oozing into atmospheric moments where the guitarists entwine textural work.

Inspired by boxing, “The Contender” flaunts an odd groove in seven, worthy of the best prog-rock attributes. Ward and Gold deftly delineate their solos, while Kirchner gives wings to his percussive creativity on a strenuous vamp installed after the final theme. A different, quieter route is taken on “The Fourth Reverie”, a spacious cosmic-like enterprise into the unknown marked by atmospheric guitar. A disciplined ebullience returns with “Let Him Live”, a piece showcasing Ward’s rapid-fire phrases diffusing tension over a relentless Afro groove accommodating guitar strokes in counterpoint.

Black Woods” is one of my favorite compositions and opens with a personal pizzicato statement by Ulery. He later employs arco in support of a more mysterious ride. Collectiveness abounds exemplified by earnest unison phrases in a Paul Motian-esque electric setting that also offers synergistic tradeoffs between saxophone and guitar.

The band transforms “Stardust”, a jazz standard, into a feel-good pop/rock experience with waltzing cadences. Its energy is extended to “Sundown”, whose initial languid tone is reinforced by a detached backbeat and guitar fingerpicking. The song rises amiably, setting a determined yet relaxed mood with circular harmonic movements and plenty of melodies.

Two numbers, “Excerpt1” and “Excerpt2”, resulted from Ward’s daily compositional routines. While the first piece turned out somber, even when the drummer crashes the cymbals with a bold efficiency, the second, more playful in nature, is a mixed bag of African and R&B flavors.

In this recording, Ward’s appealing jazz-centered music takes several directions, achieving cohesiveness as a whole. Regardless of the ambience, his improvisations stand out, eventually ramping up to elevated levels of adventure while seeking new outfits to dress the jazz according to our days.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
03 – The Contender ► 05 – Let Him Live ► 06 – Black Woods


Endangered Blood - Don't Freak Out

Label: Skirl Records, 2018

Personnel - Chris Speed: tenor saxophone; Oscar Noriega: alto saxophone; Trevor Dunn: bass; Jim Black: drums.

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The quartet known as Endangered Blood boasts a creative frontline with Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega on tenor and alto saxophone, respectively, and a powerful rhythm team composed of Trevor Dunn on bass and Jim Black on drums. Their third work of originals, Don’t Freak Out, is a melange of well-integrated genres, consisting of eight compositions with equal parts humor and bite.

Dunn’s stalwart round bass launches “Passion Fruit Birthday Cake”, a sympathetic, utterly motivating song gearing towards a calypso-like rhythm. The sumptuously seductive “Koreana” relies on a melody that recalls Ravel’s “Bolero”. The sound is pure and the character affable.

The stretchable “Easy Blues” sounds naturally familiar, but causes some apprehension on the account of being played in five. The loose, groovy feel that comes from Dunn and Black’s interaction impels the reedists to deliver nimble phrases impregnated with ins and outs. Also played in five and brimming with fine melodies and ostinatos, “Waiting For Marni” provides you with a breezy classical/jazz experience.

With “Varmints” and “Complimenti”, the band jumps confidently into the avant-garde. The former piece commits to a gutsy-saxophone-lines-meet-spunky-rhythms aesthetic, whereas the latter glides with smoothness, throwing in unisons that gravitate with joy and in abundance on top of a swinging pulse.

The pronouncedly folk theme of “Diego Partido” is spelt with classical-like articulation and finds the band in full dance form. In contrast, the improvisations are unrestrainedly eccentric, bursting with energy while evoking the works of greats such as Albert Ayler and Frank Lowe.

By closing out the album with “Bella V”, a ballad that practically touches the mainstream, the quartet made me think of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” due to some similarities in the melodic contour.

Tidier and more accessible than in previous efforts, Endangered Blood varies dynamics and mood while maintaining the vivid spark of creativity.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Passion Fruit Birthday Cake ► 03 – Easy Blues ► 04 - Varmints


Lucas Pino No Net Nonet - That's a Computer

Label: Outside In Music, 2018

Personnel – Lucas Pino: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Alex LoRe: alto saxophone; Nick Finzer: trombone; Mat Jodrell: trumpet; Andrew Gutauskas: baritone saxophone; Rafal Sarnecki: guitar: Glenn Zaleski: piano; Desmond White: bass; Jimmy Macbride: drums + guest Camila Meza: vocals.

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Lucas Pino is a great horn player who makes use of his well-developed sound to brighten up concert rooms in New York (I saw him playing twice, at Smalls and Cornelia Street Cafe). He formed his No Net Nonet band in 2009 and since then, the group has released three albums - No Net Nonet (2015), The Answer Is No (2017) and recently That’s a Computer (2018). With the exception of the debut album, which features a different drummer, all of them share the same musician lineup.

The new album opens with “Antiquity”, a delightful composition by altoist Alex LoRe, whose sophisticated orchestration does justice to its attractive legato and harmonic riches. The piece features fluttering orchestral passages and awesome solos by the two saxophonists, both ravishing lyricists with the ability to construct emotionally stirring statements.

Showcasing solos by almost everyone in the band, “Horse of a Different Color” carries an empathic swing with moods comparable to Joe Lovano’s. Pino on tenor and trombonist Nick Finzer start expansively over a swinging tapestry. After them, comes trumpeter Mat Jodrell, whose slower, bluesier tones ease the navigation, and then Zaleski demonstrates why he is a first-call pianist. LoRe is followed by Andrew Gutauskas, who delivers rock-solid hooks with the baritone and welcomes guitarist Rafal Sarnecki, who concludes the cycle with Grant Green’s airiness.

Cumulative layers of elongated held notes introduce “Film at 11”, a ballad that attains a peak when Zaleski hits a higher register. Abundant doses of tradition can be found everywhere throughout the record and “Look Into My Eyes” is another composition shouldering typical twists and churns of the past without making an extra effort to stretch into bolder new affairs.

Both “Frustrations” by Pino and Sarnecki’s “Sueno De Gatos” feature guest Camila Meza on vocals. Regardless of the songs’ different natures - the former is a ballad; the latter is a mutable Latin-tinged endeavor with lyrics in Spanish by Pablo Neruda - none of them really stuck. The album finalizes in a festive pop-ish mood with “Baseball Simulator 1000”, a Nintendo game theme whose composer is unknown.

Experiencing a decrescendo in terms of interest while listening to the album, I deduce that some tunes lack in the tension-release department, with the band adopting a neater, bland, and somewhat commercial approach that failed to make a better impression.

Grade  C

Grade C

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Antiquity ► 02 - Horse of a Different Color ► 03 - Film at 11


Jason Stein's Locksmith Isidore - After Caroline

Label: Northern Spy Records, 2018

Personnel - Jason Stein: bass clarinet; Jason Roebke: acoustic bass; Mike Pride: drums.

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Chicago bass clarinetist Jason Stein has been putting a lot of effort in the command of his reed instrument, from which he unearths mind-boggling sounds ranging from innocuously undisturbed to gutturally wild. His long-running power-trio Locksmith Isidore hadn’t put a record out since 2008, but a few months ago the group released After Caroline, a versatile work where they expand and contract rhythms and textures with a broad sense of adventure.

The album opens and closes with sturdily groovy pieces. If the brawny opener, “As Many Chances As You Need”, composes a rock-imbued setting saturated with scorching lines, multiphonic cries, and altissimo squeals, then the closing title, “We Gone”, emits a raucousness in the true spirit of rockers, incorporating catchy melody over the winning rhythmic drive offered by bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride. The latter distributes resolute chops, filling the transitions with lively energy. Yet, his posture totally redirects toward textural softness on “You Taught Me How To Love”, a melodious, poised poem propelled by brushes.

Conjuring up the styles of Monk and Steve Lacy, “Ekhart Park” bounces resolutely with fragmented boppish lines and complementary drum stretches along the way, landing on a robust bass solo before the restitution of the short theme. This song feels somewhat related to Coltrane’s “26-2”, the album’s sole cover. Heavily steeped in the hard-swinging bop tradition, this celebrated number doesn’t renounce to spirited individual statements.

Strenum” and “Walden’s Thing” have little in common. Whereas the former is a purely spontaneous trio creation that feels at once minimal and abstract, the latter, tumultuous and vociferous in its narrative, is a rhythmically dense experiment written for the late saxophonist Donald Walden.

Through After Caroline, Stein and his trio mates claim a higher position within the freer side of the jazz spectrum. Their key elements are mellifluous angularity, a broad sense of groove, and the substantial thrills of the ride.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - As Many Chances As You Need ► 06 - Walden’s Thing ► 08 - We Gone


Sunjae Lee - Entropy

Label: Self produced, 2018

Personnel – Sunjae Lee: tenor and soprano saxophones; Peter Evans: trumpet; Chris Varga: vibraphone; Minki Cho: bass; Junyoung Song: drums.

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Entropy is the first studio album by saxophonist/composer Sunjae Lee since moving to Korea in 2014. Besides deeply committed to experiment and discover in music, the Boston-born musician is a part-time painter and a full-time acupuncturist. Here, he delivers a raw, spiky set of tunes shaped through diverse group formations. In addition to regular trio mates, Minki Cho on bass and Junyoung Song on drums, Lee summoned American musicians Peter Evans and Chris Varga, trumpeter and vibraphonist, respectively.

Daedalus”, the opening tune, and “Icarus” are totally improvised sax-trumpet duets prone to timbral variation. The type of phrases emitted by Evans’s trumpet provides a wonderful, gritty foil for the saxophonist’s long notes and eloquent circularity designed with some cool, jarring effects. Both musicians are in perfect command of their instruments, attaining high levels of comfort while playing them.

Mounted in a classic saxophone trio format, “Alternative Facts” complies with a 32-bar form, conjuring up the dynamically swinging avant-jazz of Ornette Coleman. In the same way, “Agent Entropy”, written for Lee’s two-year-old son, brings a natural fluidity of movement to the free-bop context where it lives. The ghost of Charlie Parker seems to influence the lines, and drum stretches take place before the final theme.

Exclamatory unisons introduce “Foxdeer”, which also features Song’s responsive drumming. The musicians work under a guided improvisatory method with the density toggling between the compact and the airy. If Evans is relentlessly sprightly in his intervallic endurance, Lee discourses with a Liebman-esque ferocity for a while.

Tenderly harmonized by vibraphone, the title cut offers amiable melodies designed with occasional, dispersed accentuation. In truth, each musician is following a diagrammatical chart from which they pick a sequence to create random atmospheres of juxtaposed phrases. The sonic clouds swirl away without sounding duplicate or overworked. The harmonic glow of the vibraphone also varnishes the ground of “World on Fire”. This composition was written during the time that fires consumed the Columbia River George in Oregon, one of Lee’s favorite places to go while living in Portland. The tune lives from interesting horn statements immersed in extended techniques and suffused with timbral heftiness.

In the epilogue, “Body”, Lee confers a new melody to the famous standard “Body and Soul”. The word soul is purposely missing from the title, in an attempt to alert for today’s soulless lifestyle. Composing with openness, Lee experiences serendipity through the randomness of the moves, even when the band follows a developmental logic in the process. As a consequence, they systematize free itineraries in an engaging, controlled way.

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Daedalus ► 02 - Alternative Facts ► 07 - World On Fire


Ivo Perelman - Strings1 + Strings2

Label: Leo Records, 2018

Personnel - Ivo Perelman: tenor saxophone; Mat Maneri: viola; Mark Feldman: violin (Strings1); Jason Hwang: violin (Strings1); Ned Rothenberg: bass clarinet (Strings2); Hank Roberts: cello (Strings2).

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Ivo Perelman’s transformation here has nothing to do with the art of improvisation, which he continues to dominate effortlessly, but rather with the new-found sense of compelling narrative expressed entirely in the company of strings on Strings1, and side-by-side either with bass clarinet or cello (and sometimes both) on Strings2. As has been common in his groups, the music is made in the spur of the moment, and the musicians have no preconditions whenever they set foot in the studio.

Following a variety of modern classical ephemera, the first track on Strings1 (all the tracks are untitled) dances unorthodoxly throughout, presenting collective cries and finishing with saxophone punctuations in the form of altissimo squeals and occasional popping sounds over the solid high-pitched curtain created by violist Mat Maneri, a longtime associate, and violinists Mark Feldman and Jason Kao Hwang, a new addition and a re-encounter, respectively.

At some point, “Track 4” introduces some Eastern fragrances in its pointillism, also conveying a breezy insouciance in Perelman’s rambles, which come garnished with sporadic air notes and reiterated phrases. Open to textural flexibility, the quartet keeps defining surfaces and changing densities in a constant fluctuation of ideas and sounds. “Track 6” captures Perelman plunging into a sea of violins with the contrasting timbre of his instrument, whereas the energized “Track 8” seems to use ritualistic ways to emulate capoeira music.

Strings2 is naturally darker in tone due to the fortunate addition of bass clarinetist Ned Rothenberg on four tracks and cellist Hank Roberts on six. The drone-imbued “Track1” feels circumspect in nature in opposition to the brazen “Track2”, where agitated activity leads to serious turbulence. The recording lives from contrasting timbres, becoming candidly atmospheric through wails and laments, and sometimes resolutely rambunctious with incisive lines bursting in color.

To me, the great surprise arrived when Perelman and Rothenberg set up a spontaneous groove on “Track4”, later diluted in the swiftness of Maneri’s circular movements. This particular moment, together with the capoeira incursion (deliberate or not) proved that the concept of groove could be further explored without compromising Perelman’s unguarded passion for timbre, texture, and free improvisation. A possible next step?

Grade  B+

Grade B+

Favorite Tracks:
Strings1 - Tracks 1, 4, 8
Strings2 - Tracks 1, 2, 4