Monday, February 27, 2006

Miles Davis - The Cellar Door Sessions

I've never been a huge fan of Miles' electric period. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I dislike Miles output from Bitches Brew forward, it's just that it's not the sort of thing that I often get the urge to listen to. I'm not a big fusion fan to be honest, and it's not really about the electronics or rock rhythms, it's that the often dense texture of sound doesn't ever allow the music, or the listener, a chance to breath. Acoustic jazz can be like that as well, but it's easier to fall into that trap with the electric instruments, guitar heavy front lines, and more complex studio production values.

Which is why the new Cellar Door sessions is like a breath of fresh air. Most of the six disc set features Keith Jarrett (player Fender Rhodes and Fender Electric organ), Jack DeJohnette, Gary Bartz, bassist Michael Henderson, and Airto. John McLaughlin is featured on the last two discs. Some of the material with McLaughlin appeared on the Live Evil release, but most has sat unheard in the vaults for decades. Now I haven't listened to the whole set yet, but what has really struck me thus far, especially on the tracks without McLaughlin, is how varied the textures are, and even on the tracks where the band is playing at 100 percent intensity, the music doesn't get muddy (and not just sonically). Perhaps it's because of the live setting, perhaps it's the lack of McLaughlin or another similar voice on most of the material, but I think it mainly has to do with Keith Jarrett. Jarrett is a singular voice in jazz, and even on these recordings, playing instruments he apparently didn't care too much for, his work stands out, and takes the band places you don't expect, and rarely hear such fusion bands go. His sound and conception defines these recordings, just as one could say Wayne Shorter's did the music of Miles' great second quintet. I didn't say Herbie Hancock, because for as great and innovative as Herbie was with Miles, Wayne's dramatic artistic conception is the closest thing I can think of when comparing how utterly unique Keith sounds in this context. If Wayne played the keyboards, he might sound something like Keith does on these recordings.

One other thought, these vintage fusion recordings, finally released after 36 years still sound fresher than the many "contemporary" attempts at similar sounds by today's jazz artists. People are still wrestling with the legacy of Miles. They spent the 80's and most of the 90's dealing with Miles' music from 1955-1965. Now they're trying to deal with Miles from 1970 or so. I wonder how long it will last this time.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Quick thoughts (aka I'm Back)

I've been away from here for a while now, as I've been busy doing a number of things, including helping to launch a new local non-profit dedicated to promoting and eventually presenting jazz in the Fresno area, plus going to the opera in San Jose (La Boheme), several excellent local jazz concerts, and of course, listening to a lot of great (and not so great) new music. I tend not to write on the bad stuff, so here's some highlights:

Manu Katche - Neighbourhood
One of those rare records that lives up to the potential of its personnel, which in this cases includes Jan Garbarek, Tomasz Stanko, Marcin Wasilewski and Slawomir Kurkiewicz. I'm a big fan of Jan's work, though I find the bulk of his recent output less than satisfying. This cd finds Jan playing the rare role of sideman with his current drummer of choice, leading his first record. Katche wrote all of the music, replete with plenty of hooks and catchy melodies, and a subtle haze of pop production values. The mood is most often contemplative, but there's enough variety here to put aside the typical ECM cliches. Don't take that last statement the wrong way though, it's an all acoustic record, (no drum machines or loops) and Garbareck and Stanko get plenty of blowing space though not all of the cuts are quintet. Katche's drumming solidly anchors the music, yet doesn't dominate, he's a jazz drummer at home in pop settings, or vice versa a pop drummer at very well versed in jazz, and apparently a very talented composer. It's a very pretty album, and I've noticed that the phones always light up when I play it on the air.

Andrew Hill - Time Lines
A new album by Andrew Hill is always a major event. One that brings Charles Tolliver back into the recording spotlight is even more so. Time Lines is (in my view) the companion album to Hill's brilliantly evocative "Dusk" which came out several years ago on Palmetto. The folks at Blue Note, who were as I understand it, pleasantly surprised by the sales of Hill's "Passing Ships" (a session from the 60's that had sat in the vaults unissued for decades), so lo and behold, Hill is back on Blue Note, for the third time. The album opens with one of the most strikingly beautiful tracks I can recall hearing recently, Malachi, which (I assume, since the cd lacks liner notes) is for the late bassist of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Malachi Favors. It's followed by the title track, which is a very free piece with a hint of Hill's Caribbean heratige. The piece "Fly Round 1" has echoes of Hill's early Blue Note recordings from the 60's, with an angular, trumpet/bass clarinet front line (Greg Tardy), riding a churning rhythm section (John Hebert bass, Eric McPherson drums). I'll spare you a complete run down of every track (these were to be short reviews), but this album is a sure bet to be on all the most important top 10 lists at the end of the year, and is a significant addition to Andrew Hill's discography. The thing that strikes me the most about this album is how relaxed and free it is, even in its most frenetic moments. Nothing is rushed, no one is trying to outplay someone else, and Hill (and his band) use space, in a very refreshing way. It's also very beautifully recorded in a way that is very sensitive and compliments the music and musician's personal sounds.

Esbjorn Svensson Trio (e.s.t.) - Viaticum
Think of The Bad Plus for a moment. Now take away the hype and irony, and the goofy outfits from the photoshoots. Add an extra dose of musicality, and jazz chops, and you have E.S.T. Now I don't mean to praise E.S.T. by criticizing The Bad Plus, (I do enjoy some of their material, as I have documented on this site), it's just that I see both groups as trying to do similar things (take the piano, bass, drums "jazz" trio sound in a new direction, through incorporating certain "non-jazz" devices. But while The Bad Plus often seems like an inside joke, and some have questioned their "jazz chops" (not my doing, but I've heard prominent jazz musicians raise the topic) no one is going to question the jazz credentials of pianist Esbjorn Svennson, or at least they'd be foolish to do so. I haven't heard all of E.S.T.'s albums, but this is among my favorite of the half dozen or so I have heard. The production values lend a very fresh sound to the trio, and there's a lot of subtle studio things going on, sort of like what Brad Mehldau was attempting with his Largo record, but more successful (in my opinion). I'm left thinking of Brad's playing quite a lot while listening to this cd, as they both have similar influences, as post-Jarrett pianists. Rhythmically though there's a few things that Svennson does that sound VERY similar to what Brad does. I'm not about to dissect how that came to be, but if you get the album, listen for it, and you can decide if I'm right or not.

Well, so much for "quick thoughts"! More to follow.