Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Clinic in Smart Jazz Collaboration

Saxophonist Jason Robinson and pianist Anthony Davis have a new duo cd, Cerulean Landscape, out on Clean Feed, their first full-length album together. Richly melodic and often majestic, it’s simply one of the year’s best. The interplay and chemistry here are comfortably intuitive and strikingly collaborative, as you would expect from a couple of good listeners who’ve worked together frequently in the past. It’s less conversational than it is an exchange of ideas. The two share reconnaissance, intelligence and tactics, Davis’ piano sometimes taking on sax voicings with trills and glissandos of its own. Robinson’s aggression sometimes contrasts intensely with Davis’ judicious lyricism; sometimes it’s the other way around. Despite the title, there’s next to no blues here.

The opening track, by Davis, balances soprano sax stretching to break free, Davis’ signature third-stream elegance underneath. Finally Davis gets to cut loose himself and chase the demons away, then they end it on a quietly triumphant note. Someday I’ll Know, a ballad by Jason Sherbundy, lets Robinson flutter around, eventually ushering in a glimmering, terse solo passage from Davis, who takes it down to a modal-tinged apprehension that will recur memorably in places later on here. A study in contrasts, the third track, Viscissitudes, is something of a delayed-reaction call-and-response, frenetic circling sax over deft incisions that Davis eventually abandons and then follows with a similar apprehension. The musicians reverse roles on the unaffectedly magnificent Translucence, Davis’ alto flute treading gingerly while Davis glimmers darkly and insistently, Robinson leaping for a scampering run when Davis finally introduces some rhythm about three-quarters of the way through.

Robinson again plays good cop to Davis’ distantly moody menace on Of Blues and Dreams, complete with overtones flying from the soprano sax and Davis plucking and muting the piano strings. Davis’ shadow-and-surprise sniper attack late in the piece is arguably the high point of the album. After that, a swing tune without bass or drums – neither which seem necessary here, given the robust camaraderie – finally sees Davis taking a page out of Robinson’s bop book and cutting loose. The album winds up much the way it began, Robinson’s tangents extrapolating wildly from Davis’ mysterious home base, the circle expanding as Davis carefully maps out an increasingly playful series of puddlejumps.

Robinson also has two new other albums worth checking out. Cerberus Reigning is the second part of his ongoing solo Cerberus trilogy: it’s just Robinson, his saxes, some loops and a whole slew of effects. Don’t let the Dungeons ‘n Dragons song titles fool you – it’s soulful, lyrical, often very amusingly playful stuff. And his combo album The Two Faces of Janus with a cast including George Schuller, Marty Ehrlich and Rudresh Mahanthappa reaches for the occasional grit that surfaces on Cerberus and takes it up several notches.

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December 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conference Call Doesn’t Phone This One In

You have to give these guys credit, they fly without a net every time. By the time reed player/composer Gebhard Ullmann’s quartet Conference Call played their concert on April 22, 2007 in Krakow, they were a well-oiled machine. As far outside as some of their improvisations go, the chemistry in the band is visceral: at this point, they could just press “record” and go for it, knowing they’d get something worthwhile out of it. And as reliably adventurous as these players are – Ullmann on saxes and bass clarinet, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass and George Schuller on drums – there’s far more structure and melody in the performances on this album, What About…? than might seem evident at first listen. It’s a long album, two cds and almost an hour and a quarter’s worth of music, but virtually all of it will hold your attention if you listen closely. Jazz doesn’t get any more psychedelic than this.

A cynic would say that the Europeans always go for the weirdest stuff, and these guys start out weird – a flutter of the sax, a wrinkle of the piano, and eventually they work in tandem, fluttering as the bass and drums do recon. But ultimately Ullmann is the scout here, as he will be for the rest of the night, searching overhead as the piano pounds gently – the two converse briefly and then bass and drums join the agitation. They segue into the next two tracks – a tastily chromatic, minimalist piano rumble with variations and then a slowly pulsing nocturne, overtone-laden bowed bass and sax whistling and weaving out of focus, adding a vertiginous, off-center unease. As with many of the tracks here, they fade out gracefully when everyone’s said all they have to say.

Ullmann frequently goes completely against the central key here, with bracingly effective results, particularly on the fourth track – the first of a loosely connected three-part suite – that blends both classical and funk piano tinges while the sax flies overhead. And the device adds considerable humor on the practically seventeen-minute second part, Ullmann swinging obliviously as the rest of the band prowl around, tentative and ominous until they finally coalesce and take it up to a clever false ending.

The second cd opens with Fonda taking over the obliviously swinging role after a long, tersely played yet expansive intro. Stevens’ sardonically titled Could This Be a Polka is actually one of the most memorably warped tangos ever written, Ullmann’s bass clarinet indignant, insistent and eventually even belligerent as the piano brings it back out of the chaos when least expected. Litmus, by Schuller builds from conspiratorial call-and-response to a long machine-gun vamp; Ullmann’s Translucent Tones is an impressionistic exercise in shadowplay, glimmer versus low thoughtful washes of sound as the piano slowly establishes a camouflaged lento groove. The jauntily amusing title track is basically a swing tune with the rhythm stripped away (a paradox, but that’s what makes it so much fun), piano, bass and drums hinting at it but never quiet going there as Ullmann blithely sways along, completely on his own for almost the entire eight minutes. As intriguingly and surprisingly melodic as this album is, it has legs well beyond the free jazz/outsider jazz crowd who are its primary audience.

August 18, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment