Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Ionian mapped to the Cube-root-of-2


The E Flat Ionian mapped to the Cube-root-of-2 Scale.

Black History Month: The Life and Times of Malcolm X

With Black History Month rapidly drawing to a close at HurdAudio my ears are drawn to X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X: An Opera in Three Acts by Anthony Davis. Initially composed from 1984 - 1985, this work had its premier in New York City in 1986 and this recording is from 1992. This work needs to be staged again - and often. This opera is a high accomplishment that approaches a massive range of aesthetic and social issues that rarely combine for such substantial impact. There is much more happening in this work than meets the ear in a single listening and repeated exposures to this material is incredibly rewarding. Repeated stagings would be ideal.

The instrumentation is an augmentation of the standard operatic configuration. There's a full cast of singing parts for the stage, a full orchestra (the Orchestra of St. Luke's in this recording) and an additional set of "jazz" players (credited as the Episteme ensemble) that adds an important element to this sound. The challenge that Davis meets head on is in mixing the colors of trap drum kits and jazz pianos along with orchestral percussion and large numbers of string players into a cohesive and balanced sound. All while leaving room for vocals and dramatic narrative to co-exist.

The Episteme ensemble brings something substantial to this sound with so many of the greatest performer/improvisers of this era: Marty Ehrlich (flutes, clarinets, saxophones), J.D. Parran (clarinets, flute), John Purcell (flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophones), Herb Robertson (trumpet), Arthur Baron (trombone), Abdul Wadud (cello), Mark Dresser (bass), Mark Helias (bass), Gerry Hemingway (percussion), Pheeroan akLaff (drums), Warren Smith (drums), Marilyn Crispell (piano), Clyde Criner (piano) and Anthony Davis (celesta). That ensemble alone is worth the price of admission.

One of my favorite moments from this one is the "Child's Aria" from act One. Marilyn Crispell provides some delicate accompaniment as a young Malcolm seeks comfort from his mother in the wake of his father's untimely death. In this moment there is this rare moment when so many forces come together in this quiet passage as the emotional impact of the story seeps into a sound that teeters between groove, improvisation and operatic tone. The transition into "Ella's Aria" is incredibly poignant and an outstanding feat of arranging/composition. Perfect moments like these are the gems that pull me back into this listening experience and more than make up for some of the rough spots where the balance between these complicated elements don't quite line up.

Another incredible moment is "Malcolm's Aria" at the close of the first act. The instrumental buildup to the entrance of the vocal part seems to draw upon elements of Philip Glass's Satyagraha - and given the interesting contrasts between Gandhi and X - this makes for an intriguing cross-commentary between two different-yet-similar biopic operas that deal with the frustratingly slow pace of change toward greater social justice.

The form of this opera as a whole - as well as the narrative structure - pivots around "Mecca" midway through the final act. On the heals of political and personal pressures leading up to this late point in the opera (brilliantly conveyed through a near-Greek Chorus-like chanting and interposed non-sung dialog) emerges an invigorated - and renewed - figure shortly before the dramatic and untimely death that closes out this piece. As a feat of story telling this opera is a tremendous success (credit is due to Thulani Davis for the libretto).

Studio engineering practices for recording live orchestras versus smaller jazz ensembles couldn't be more different and there are times when one or the other seemed to be in an awkward sonic space as the score moves gracefully between the two worlds (often combined) while the studio engineering seemed to lag behind. The live experience must have been something.

At the Composer-to-Composer conference in Telluride, Colorado in 1989 there was an interesting series of exchanges between Anthony Davis and John Cage regarding X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. At the root of the confusion between these important (and contrasting) 20th century composers is the role and/or virtue of "power." The story of Malcolm X and the opera based upon his life is about empowerment. It is about gaining social and economic equality "by any means necessary" and as an operatic work this takes on a deliberate commentary of the medium itself as the same stage that hosts The Magic Flute becomes a forum for exploring the ongoing struggle to realize the goals of the civil rights movement more than 40 years ago. Which is relatively contemporary in operatic time.

As an anarchist, and Zen Buddhist-influenced composer, John Cage had a different sensibility regarding "power." (And as the creator of the Europera series of indeterminacy-driven opera-like spectacles he also had a different take on opera in general). With a lifetime of works oriented around removing the ego from composition he was having a difficult time understanding the difficult aesthetic topography that Anthony Davis had negotiated with this opera. John Cage was well liked because of his curiosity, ability to listen and overall positive conversational approach. Through a series of non-confrontational questions and an honest assessment of his own aesthetic hang-ups he eventually came around to understanding what Anthony Davis has achieved with this incredible opera and expressed a sincere hope to experience a live performance of this work in its entirety. Which is a fair assessment of this work. There is so much going on at so many different levels that one's initial exposure can be unsettling. Particularly if you're not familiar with operatic conventions, avant garde jazz traditions or the story of Malcolm X. But once you start to absorb the numerous thematic and theatric qualities of this astonishing work the sheer magnitude of this accomplishment begins to sink in. X is a worthy addition to the operatic canon that deserves hundreds of new interpretations over the next several generations.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Ionian augmented 5 mapped to the Square-root-of-2


The E Flat Ionian augmented 5 mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale.

Black History Month: Lush Life

There's been some discussion online about who should or could be regarded as the "greatest American composer" with various blogs promoting their favored candidate. Setting aside the merits of bestowing such a title to just one individual there's a strong argument to be made that Billy Strayhorn is - and was - possibly the greatest composer that this culture has produced. His creative output is dense with inventiveness at so many levels. From his outstanding arranging sensibilities to the twists of his melodic ideas he brought some big ears to his craft and jazz history is much richer because of his efforts.

With Black History Month winding down at HurdAudio the celebration continues with ears applied to Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn from Joe Henderson recorded on September 3, 6 and 8, 1991 at the Van Gelder Studios of Englewood, New Jersey. These are arrangements of 10 Billy Strayhorn tunes (one co-composed with Duke Ellington) performed by various combinations of Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Stephen Scott on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums.

Originally part of Duke Ellington's Far East Suite, "Isfahan" was co-composed with Strayhorn following their 1963 tour of Iran. For this recording it is performed as a duet for tenor and bass. This track alone seems to beg for repeat listenings. It's performances like this one that keep my ear open for the tone and improvisational sensibilities of Joe Henderson. Compositionally, this is a great melodic line that gives Henderson plenty to work with.

"Johnny Come Lately" brings in the full quintet for this classic 1942 tune. The interplay between the trumpet, tenor and piano as they trade off on the melodic theme sets up a cool sound. This is a spirited, and disciplined take on a piece that would probably shine given a wide range of interpretive liberties. In some ways this interpretation is a little constrained despite the outstanding solos from Henderson, Marsalis and Scott. This one is polished to the point where I crave some rough edges to rough up the shine.

"Blood Count" is a late Strayhorn composition (written almost literally from his death bed" at the hospital in 1967) and one of his best. Here it's given a quartet treatment as Henderson takes the spotlight for this slow tempo number. Stephen Scott strings together some excellent chord voicings on the piano as Joe Henderson spins out an extended improvisation before relinquishing the focal point to reveal a brief gem of a solo from Scott. These guys make it sound easy.

The inspired rhythm section of McBride and Hutchinson lay down a steady groove as Henderson delivers a trio take on the 1941 composition "Rain Check." This is the track that stays with me for days after listening to this disc. This one has such a great hook and catchy chord changes that I'm surprised it doesn't get covered more often.

"Lotus Blossom" is the duet between Henderson and Scott that one craves after hearing them together on "Blood Count." Stephen Scott opens this one with a solo that teases at a slow stride at times for a good couple of minutes before Joe Henderson quietly enters with a melody that drapes over this intensely creative piano part. These two could record an entire disc together and my ears would be glued to it.

The full quintet returns for a piece with one of the greatest titles of all time: "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing." I immediately notice the smooth tone of Marsalis on trumpet for this steady ballad. Normally my ears are camped out in the avant/free jazz side of things so I don't often rave about Wynton Marsalis. But that cat can play and I wouldn't want to live in a world without performances like this one.

"Take the 'A' Train" (first recorded in 1941) gets a 7-minute treatment as a duet for tenor and drums. Henderson rescues this composition from the realm of cliche that heaps of soul-less interpretations have consigned it to and turns this familiar tune into a launching pad for an energetic linear improvisation propelled by some simmering drums from Gregory Hutchinson. Hearing the triple-pianissimo melody bubbling out from under the drums to bring things back to the head is a particularly nice touch.

The trio of tenor, piano and bass take a turn at the 1949 blues tune "Drawing Room Blues." McBride works in some nice bass lines in this one that come through with great clarity in this setting. Particularly as he picks up the bow for an arco solo. The piano solo from Scott is worth checking out a few times.

The full quintet returns for a take on one of my personal favorite Strayhorn tunes: "Upper Manhattan Medical Group" composed in 1959. This is a traditionalist take on this tune and these players do it enormous justice. Though again, this one is over-polished and I find myself craving a more ambitious arrangement that takes a few more risks.

This listening experience closes out with a solo tenor rendition of "Lush Life" - a composition from 1948. The decision to vary the instrumentation from track to track is one of the great strengths of this release that keeps the sound fresh from start to finish. The one constant in all of these is that unmistakable sound of Joe Henderson on the tenor and stripping everything down to just that one element for this final track is a perfect coda. And "Lush Life" is exactly the right composition for solo horn. Henderson explores a beautiful tension between sustaining a lyrical line against some embellishments drawn from his outstanding vocabulary on this instrument.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Sharp Mixolydian 1% narrow


The F Sharp Mixolydian 1% narrow Scale.

Black History Month: Juju

Black History Month continues at HurdAudio with a listen to Juju by Wayne Shorter circa 1964. This quartet is outstanding. Each name inspires profound awe for jazz aficionados: Wayne Shorter on tenor, McCoy Tyner on piano, Reginald Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Throw in the fact that this is a Blue Note record from one of their golden eras and you come up with a listening experience that is deeply satisfying every time.

Kicking off with the title track, "Juju" opens with a sound of pure joy as Tyner cascades his distinctive harmonies before Shorter comes in with an inspired melodic line. Then comes a great piano solo over the infectious 3/4 groove. Wayne Shorter answers with a solo of his own as he plumbs and develops the soundscape he composed for this session. Following this the ears are treated to an Elvin Jones drum solo. In my mind, one of the greatest to ever work behind the kit. The melodic statement returns and it's clear that this is one of the great Blue Note records of any era.

"Deluge" slows the tempo down for another side of Shorter's great melodic mind. Laid back and accompanied by these great parallel harmonies from McCoy Tyner.

Tyner sets the tone for "House of Jade" with a solo piano introduction that paints an inviting modal territory. Then Shorter enters with an easy going melodic line before soloing over some steady backup from this rhythm section. Shorter occupies the focal point through most of this one.

"Mahjong" starts off with Elvin Jones carefully crafting a reserved introduction on he drums. The piano and bass then roll out a harmonic floor just ahead of Shorter's entrance on this one. Shorter's use of dynamic range on this one is outstanding.

"Yes or No" hits an uptempo stride with the melody coming right away and keeps up a steady momentum throughout. Shorter effortlessly navigates some tricky chord changes and seems to effortlessly spin out linear lines that adhere closely to this harmonic soundscape. The piano solo is pure Tyner-esque joy.

"Twelve More Bars to Go" is a blues tune (as the title implies) that leaves plenty of room for these great performers to stretch out and respond to one another.

This particular release includes alternate takes of "Juju" and "House of Jade" at the end. Which pulls the ear back toward earlier moments in this listening experience and deepens one's understanding of these compositions with the variations in performance and solo materials. In many ways, I find this alternate take of "Juju" more interesting with regard to some of the broken-scalar material Shorter spins out in his solo as well as the aggressive energy in the short Elvin Jones solo toward the end. And "House of Jade" is a significant attraction compositionally so the alternate take is a welcome addition here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Scale of Day: E Flat Mixolydian 1% wide


The intervallic content of the E Flat Mixolydian 1% wide Scale.

Black History Month: Monads - Triple Slow Mix - Cycle - Shadowgraph, 5 (Sextet)

The celebration of Black History Month at HurdAudio continues with an ear wrapped around Monads - Triple Slow Mix - Cycle - Shadowgraph, 5 (Sextet) by George Lewis from 1977.

There's such a balance of austerity and improvised vitality to the music of George Lewis. This disc is a great sampling of sonic ideas that hold a strong attraction.

"Monads" is scored/performed for piano (Anthony Davis), bass clarinet (Douglas Ewart), violin (Leroy Jenkins), alto and tenor trombones (George Lewis), soprano saxophone (Roscoe Mitchell) and cello (Abdul Wadud). This work explores some sparse textures that allow ample room for improvised focal points. Leroy Jenkins spins some great material that balances well, and is reflected against, the full ensemble of outstanding talent working behind him. Some tasty harmonies poke through sparingly from Anthony Davis on the piano. This is an exquisite texture. This one has the quality of an abstract painting of angular lines and vibrant colors rendered in sound.

"Triple Slow Mix" is a trio for two pianos and sousaphone. Muhal Richard Abrams is panned hard left, Anthony Davis is panned hard right and George Lewis holds down the center on the sousaphone. The generous use of "inside the piano" sounds from Davis and vocalizations from Abrams provides a delicate bed for the phrases and drones of the sousaphone part. This work is surprisingly dynamic - both in loud-to-soft range and sonic texture. And the sense of time feels enormously elastic in this composition. The consistency of the sousaphone material supplies a cohesive element to some wildly varied material from these pianists.

"Cycle" is multi-instrumental duet scored for Douglas Ewart on clarinet, bassoon, sopranino saxophone and percussion and George Lewis on Moog synthesizer, tenor trombone and Wagner tuba. The analog sounds balanced against the clarinet at the start of this track brings an involuntary smile. There's a beautiful, focused tone to this performance as each shifts frequently between instruments. George Lewis' spoken voice ringing through the body of the trombone sounds remarkably similar to the sounds he coaxes from the Moog synthesizer.

"Shadowgraph, 5 (Sextet)" is scored/performed for piano (Muhal Richard Abrams), flute, Ewart bamboo flute, cassette recorder/recitation, percussion (Douglas Ewart), viola (Leroy Jenkins), tenor trombone, Wagner Tuba, sousaphone, sound-tube (George Lewis), alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, cassette recorder, soprano saxophone, flute (Roscoe Mitchell) and cello (Abdul Wadud). The entire Shadowgraph Series is some of my all-time favorite George Lewis material and this is a pretty outstanding ensemble realizing this one. This one opens with short, well-directed bursts of activity marked by enormous reserve from each of these potentially explosive and dominating performers. Things slowly open up as the focal point skips effortlessly from performer-to-performer in some breathtakingly creative ways.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Sharp Mixolydian mapped to the 3/2


The F Sharp Mixolydian mapped to the 3/2 Scale.

Black History Month: Duke Ellington presents The Dollar Brand Trio

Black History Month at HurdAudio takes a spin of Abdullah Ibrahim's debut recording from 1963 - back when he went by the name of Dollar Brand - Duke Ellington Presents The Dollar Brand Trio.

"Dollar's Dance" opens with a great hook on the piano as the ears open up to a great piano trio in action. It is immediately apparent what caught the Duke's attention when he heard this trio playing at a club in Zurich and immediately agreed to produce three recordings and heavily promote this sensational pianist from South Africa. This trio is fantastic. The bass solo on this track is dead on and the overall sound is such a great balance between these three players and their big-ear interactions together. I'm struck by the rhythmic approach on the piano and the choice of harmonies that puncture the texture and occasionally move in parallel lines.

The liner notes provide no clue to the identity of two-thirds of this excellent trio. With a little digging around online I learn that this bassist is Johnny Gertze and the drummer is Makaya Ntshoko.

"Kippi" switches gears as a ballad. Here the focus in on the melodic line that is lovingly supported by a restrained trio along with some artfully arranged harmonies. This brief number has a wonderful conclusion as a well-crafted chord that spans the wide registers of the piano is allowed to decay naturally.

"Brilliant Corners" by Thelonius Monk is the lone non-Dollar Brand composition on this collection. The melodic bends and harmonic quirks of Monk are a natural fit for Abdullah Ibrahim both as a composer and pianist/interpreter. This is another track that allows a glimpse at the creative prowess of Gertze on the bass as he rips out another great solo on this one. This arrangement sticks close to the overall form and chord changes of this familiar standard. The brief flashes of double-time are incredibly cool.

"Jumping Rope" skips along, propelled by Ibrahim's deft navigation of some rapid chord changes before swirling around into a steady groove for some deeply laid back improvising. He packs a lot of surprising twists and turns over a steady cyclical chord sequence. This track is far, far too short. The Gertze bass solo seems to just get started before things swing into a coda.

"Ubu Suku" begins with piano alone as Ibrahim unfolds a melody and interjects increasing degrees of harmonic and rhythmic divergences into it until the trio eventually joins in. The texture alternates between smooth passages of linear melody juxtaposed against short doses of repeated sequences. This track is my personal favorite from this collection. There's a great sense of contrast at work in this one compositionally and it feels less abridged than the rest of the offerings on this disc.

"The Stride" closes out this listening experience with an up-tempo groove that seems to keep rolling over on top of itself. Ntshoko's drum work catches my ear on this one - even before his solo. This was a great trio and they really fused together on this track.

Compared to the records that Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim would later record this one is a modest introduction to a great talent that really deserves more attention.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Sharp Mixolydian augmented 4 mapped to the Triative


The F Sharp Mixolydian augmented 4 mapped to the Triative Scale.

Black History Month: Where's Your Cup?

Black History Month at HurdAudio tunes the ears to a recording from August 1996 from Henry Threadgill & Make A Move: Where's Your Cup? Make A Move is a quintet featuring Henry Threadgill on alto sax and flute, Brandon Ross on electric and classical guitars, Tony Cedras on accordion and harmonium, Stomu Takeishi on 5-string fretless bass and J.T. Lewis on drums.

Kicking off with a long accordion solo by Tony Cedras (2 and a half minutes), "100 Year Old Game" lures the ears into this listening experience with an infectious set of chord changes and a number of melodic elements that seem to span African chants to tango before a pulse is eventually established as the rest of this fine ensemble enters in for a moderate tempo that meanders between 3/4 and 4/4 meters. The combination of Brandon Ross on guitar with the elastic sound of Takeishi's fretless bass is positively inspired. But it's the accordion that is the focal point of this composition. Toward the end this ensemble pours on a nice accelerando that takes this material into klezmer territory as the crisp tone of Ross's guitar cuts clean lines over the sustained accordion timbres.

J.T. Lewis moves into the focal point as "Laughing Club" opens with an extended drum solo (1 minute long exactly, 20% of the total length). He quickly settles into a groove as the rest of the instruments come in with extraordinary balance between some sparse, yet intricately woven parts - some improvised. The alto sax work from Threadgill is particularly noteworthy. Toward the end each part seems to dissolve away into a fine mist that fades away with the last sounds of the ride cymbal decay.

"Where's Your Cup?" begins with a fretless bass line and a slow melodic line from the accordion. Ross seems to add some punctuation with the classical guitar as Lewis fills out the sonic space with some well placed gestures on the cymbals and toms. A couple minutes into this steady crescendo the flute comes in with a counter melodic line. The slow tempo, implied pulse and group improvisation (and unusual instrumentation) make for an intensely beautiful sonic fabric. The classical guitar solo in the middle accompanied only by the bass, accordion and sparse drums is particularly mesmerizing.

The accordion again lays the groundwork as "And This" opens with a minute long solo before a healthy groove from the drums appears. As the accordion part melts away a fantastic solo on the fretless bass unfolds over a steady drum part. Takeishi has a great sonic vocabulary that makes generous use of natural and artificial harmonics, double-stops, strummed chords and some beautiful use of extreme registers on this fantastic instrument. Five minutes in he lays down a confident bass part for the full ensemble to come in as the drums crescendo into a steady groove. Brandon Ross spins out a great solo on the electric guitar over this sonic bed. And Threadgill later answers with a dizzying display on the alto. At this point the texture is pleasantly dense and well-balanced. The groove couldn't be any sweeter.

"Feel's Like It" is an ensemble work that walks that fine line between sounding through-composed and improvised that marks so much of Threadgill's style. The interplay seems too perfect to be improvised but sounds too spontaneous to be written out in full. This one turns on an inner logic and melodic/harmonic austerity that seems to drift effortlessly as different players take turns as a focal point.

"The Flew" sets up a contrast to the preceding track as the drums propel things more forcefully as the accordion and sax churn up the texture with Takeishi's distinctive bass tone holding down the low end. There's so much activity in the drums and yet there's such a lightness to Lewis's playing. The density of this wall of sonic activity builds up as Threadgill splashes some bold lines and colors onto this crazy canvas. Brandon Ross answers with some angular, aggressive electric guitar assaults of his own.

"Go To Far" opens with an arrangement of a slow melodic line with lots of ornamental detail in the arrangement as each sustained tone in the sax and accordion line seems to set off a soft flurry of activity in the drums, bass and guitar parts. Then Ross moves into the foreground for a classical guitar solo as the drums and bass continue to provide soft ripples of an elongated pulse. Then Threadgill takes a turn in the limelight as soloist as he applies a gritty tone from the alto sax as a contrast to this restrained backdrop. Cedras follows sequentially with his own turn in the catbird seat as he explores a timbral role that grows organically out of the rhythm section. Then the melodic theme is then sown back in one more time as this piece concludes.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Mixolydian augmented 4 mapped to the Square-root-of-2


The intervallic content of the E Flat Mixolydian augmented 4 mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale.

Black History Month: Jazz Festival, Antibes, July 13, 1960

Black History Month at HurdAudio takes a turn toward one of the most amazing live recordings I've ever heard: Immortal Concerts: Jazz Festival, Antibes, July 13, 1960 by Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. This one is another must for the serious jazz collector.

These compositions are all Mingus, with the exception of the jazz standard "I'll Remember April." Though at this point many of these Mingus charts are standards in their own right. The band is Mingus on bass and piano, Eric Dolphy on reeds, Booker Ervin on tenor sax, Ted Curson on trumpet, Dannie Richmond on drums and Bud Powell sits in on piano for "I'll Remember April." This is one hot band and they were completely on for this set.

"Better Git Hit In Your Soul" opens this listening experience. There are few blues tunes more hip than this one. And this is one of the outstanding performances with Dolphy working an extended, outstanding solo through much of it. The rhythm section digs deep enough to draw out deeply sincere "hallelujahs" out of even the most cynical non-believers. Toward the end Mingus moves over to the piano after driving this performance as the band leader on the bass. He hits a few perfect chords before pulling back to the head as he returns to his ax.

"Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" turns in another definitive take on a Mingus classic. Here Ted Curson weaves a near perfect solo line on the trumpet over the top of an irresistible blues groove. The dynamic range fluctuates organically so that loud passages come on with surprising impact in the wake of relative quiet. The bass seems to speak with emphatic humanity and the horn section responds in kind. Booker Ervin turns in a masterful solo. Drawing out sustained tones before sending out a cascading sermon of sound that pierces right through the harmonic qualities of this composition. The band takes on the feeling of a congregation swept up in the tone and mood of this performance. During the drum solo Mingus moves over to the piano and translates his role from the bass to the 88-keys for a dramatic change of timbre. Returning to the melody at the conclusion has rarely felt more satisfying after the journey this one lays out.

"Prayer for Passive Resistance" lays down a great interplay between the bass and drums as Dolphy comes in to lay down the melodic line on sax. Then Mingus starts his walk as Ervin is unleashed to explore this composition through inspired improvisation. Again, so much of this material derives so much from the variation in the dynamic range from the rhythm section from the tension of quiet to the release of loud. This composition and this performance is the spiritual definition of "prayer." The kind that has genuine passion and sincerity to it. The kind that is directed at deeper truths and hard won convictions.

"I'll Remember April" marks a change of pace as a showcase of the incredible talents of guest performer Bud Powell. This was a historic performance. A chance to hear one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time backed by a great band. Here Powell is given generous space to spin out an awe inspiring solo over some familiar chord changes. The rest of the band takes a series of shorter solos following Bud. The sequence of "trading 4's" between Ervin and Dolphy toward the end is particularly inspired. Particularly when the rhythm section drops away for a spell to leave them exposed. The ending is also a nice touch as a multilayered polyphony pairs away to a spare set of chords on the piano to conclude this amazing performance.

"What Love?" is a great Mingus ballad and a chance to hear Dolphy working his magic on the bass clarinet. Though Ted Curson's trumpet solo is also not to be missed on this one. And Mingus takes a great, extended bass solo as well. But it's Dolphy's effort on this one that marks the high point of this set. Mingus and Dolphy find a lot of open spaces to explore inside the framework of this composition and they make the most of it. The texture of acoustic bass and bass clarinet has never sounded better.

"Folk Forms I" marks a return to the impassioned sermonizing that kicked off this set. Mingus lays out a conversational line on the bass and is joined by a sax from the "congregation" as the drums fill in some punctuation marks in between. Slowly, the "congregation" fills out with an intoxicating bubbling of sounds and interweaving melodic lines. At times, things strip away as one performer after another bears their "testimony" in improvised form. But it's when the full ensemble kicks in that the ultimate release is found.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Sharp Pythagorean Mixolydian mapped to the Square-root-of-2


The F Sharp Pythagorean Mixolydian mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale.

Black History Month: Lifelong Ambitions

Black History Month at HurdAudio turns a focused listen toward Lifelong Ambitions - a duet album for violin and piano recorded at Washington Square Church, NYC on March 11, 1977 by Leroy Jenkins and Muhal Richard Abrams.

"Greetings And Salutations" begins with a melodic motif outlined by both instruments before launching into an independent interaction that finds the opening melodic line quoted frequently in the piano part in various registers. The applause at the end is well deserved.

"Meditation" opens with some dramatic gestures. Some held tones on the violin - absent any vibrato - answered by loud clusters on the piano. This sequence is expanded as a melodic line with generous quantities of held, brittle notes on the violin accompanied by percussive dissonant chords on the piano. Much of this material is boldly fortissimo. I can hear Jenkins' breathing with an intense focus on these loud, clearly declamated tones as the bow drags across the strings.

"Happiness" opens with pizzicato on the piano strings with the pedal held down as Jenkins explores some quiet territory with sul ponticello (bowed on the bridge) and some light col legno technique. The twin pizzicato part that follow is an exquisite pianissimo texture of tranquil intensity. This track is my personal favorite.

"The Blues" begins with a solo violin line with a traditional dose of vibrato. The piano answers in nearly neo-classical style. The thematic development sounds almost through-composed. A slow journey through a set of blues changes begins to unfold with plenty of room for embellishment and ornamentation for both performers. The broken fragments of blues lines and gestures slowly gel into cohesive "image" by the end of this composition.

"The Weird World" builds up a loud texture of freely improvised gestures. The clipped, fragmented staccato and harsh tone of Jenkins' violin cuts through and blends well with Abrams aggressive work at the piano. This composition consists of a focused act and react between these two performers.

"The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost" features a descending line in the piano part as the violin moves freely between ascending and descending passages. As this texture develops it forms a study of scalar lines moving along different trajectories and the surprising harmonies that emerge. After an applause these two play a short coda of three near-unison phrases to end the evening's performance. A unity in the wake of so much independence.

Each of these six Leroy Jenkins compositions clocks in at almost exactly six and a half minutes. And I suspect that this is not an accident. I hear a distinct "ding" from an egg timer that marks the point when each of these pieces truncates - often prematurely. And for almost all of these ideas this is simply not enough time for my taste. Through quiet sections I can hear that timer tick tick ticking away. It's a joy to hear these creative souls play together and it would be even better to hear them unrestrained by external time constraints. But even within 390 second-long excerpts there's already a wealth of ideas and compositional substance to keep me returning for repeated listenings.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Scale of the Day: E Flat Pythagorean Mixolydian


The intervallic content of the E Flat Pythagorean Mixolydian Scale.

Black History Month: Capricorn Rising

Black History Month continues at HurdAudio with ears tuned toward Capricorn Rising from October 16-17, 1975 by pianist Don Pullen and reedsman Sam Rivers. The rest of the quartet on this recording consists of Alex Blake on bass and Bobby Battle on drums. This is a great record and should be part of any serious jazz collection.

This experience begins with "Break Out," composed by Sam Rivers. The tenor sax comes on front and center with some confident, free improvisation with Don Pullen as the perfect foil both as collaborative improviser and intuitive accompanist. The rhythm section keeps things moving well forward at a steady clip as Rivers and Pullen paint with large splashes of sonic color. About 7 and a half minutes into this work Alex Blake begins to emulate Pullen's textures on the acoustic bass as Sam Rivers switches over to soprano sax. The ripple of color across the texture at this point is delicious. This piece closes with a dense chord on the piano that is allowed to decay naturally as the sound rolls around inside the instrument.

"Capricorn Rising" is a Don Pullen composition that harnesses the aggressive energy of this quartet in a different direction from the opening track. The flute lines over the double-time walking bass are a nice touch as Pullen and Battle push things along tempo-wise. Don Pullen had such amazing technique on his instrument. He moves effortlessly through a wide range of controlled to barely controlled shades of improvisational freedom. In one moment he's unfolding some intricate, near chorale-like chord voicings and at the next moment he's ripping across the 88-notes at breakneck speeds like a painter splashing a can of paint on a canvas. There's plenty of outstanding piano work on display here. The drum solo by Bobby Battle toward the end is particularly satisfying.

"Joycie Girl" pulls things inside harmonically as this Don Pullen composition lays down a steady groove and a melodic line that rests comfortably within some familiar chord changes. One can even pick out the AABA form throughout the solos on this one. But the solos lose none of the edge found in the free improvisations heard earlier. It's a real pleasure to hear these artists work so well both "inside" and "outside" the many sounds and sides of the jazz genre.

This listening experience concludes with "Fall Out" by Sam Rivers. This one opens with a great intro on the bass before the drums kick in and lay down a foundation for some rich sax and piano work. Pullen explores the extreme registers on the instrument as Rivers explores phrasing that moves between conversational and expressive human cries on the horn. Like "Joycie Girl," this composition seems to come inside from the blistering freedom of the opening two tracks. And again Pullen weaves thick sheets of sound along the keyboard that would careen well out of control if attempted by mere mortals. At times his percussive playing takes on all the dizzying complexity of a master Tabla drummer. The soft clusters he places perfectly underneath Rivers' flute solo is incredible. During the bass solo, Pullen reaches inside the piano and matches the moment with some tasteful strumming and rhythmic plucking of the guts of his instrument. All four of these pieces are dense with great moments like these.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Scale of the Day: F Sharp Mixolydian diminished 5


The F Sharp Mixolydian diminished 5 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Black History Month: Armageddon

For those in the know, Armageddon was recorded on February 20, 1995 at Prince Studios in New York City.

Black History Month at HurdAudio continues with ears tuned in to poet, free jazz drummer and creative soul William Hooker. Armageddon is a documentation of 6 collaborations and one solo work of free improvisation with the drums mixed well forward. This music is intense, raw, energetic, challenging and played with a great deal of focus in the moment of its creation.

"Time (within)" kicks off this collection with a duet between Hooker on the drums and D.J. Olive working the turntables. With waves of drums washing over the top Olive fills the sonic texture with something akin to whale cries.

"Spirit World" presents a quartet with Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Blaise Siwula on sax, Kickwad on guitar and Hooker driving the kinetic force on the drum kit. Siwula runs a solid wall of sax across the right speaker as Kickwad counterbalances with some elastic playing on the left channel. This is the aggressive energy that I associate with New York free jazz. About half way through the sax gives way to Barnes' trumpet work as he works a frenetic crescendo into the mix. Everything drops out briefly, before a quick coda at the end with all players making their final statement.

"Magus" is a quick drum solo from Hooker that works a pulse to hypnotic effect before moving toward some rumbling kick and brush work for a spell. This one sounds like the microphones were in extremely close to the kit (and kick drum) for this recording.

"Purge" features Richard Keene on sax and Doug Walker on synthesizer as Hooker pulls the intensity back to match the pulsating analog sounds that percolate through this work - always mixed just behind the drums. Keene carves just a few, well selected notes (that he seems to flatten as needed). This particular track takes a satisfying direction as these players react and respond as the intensity level increases over the course of this 10 minute work. Keene eventually strings together long lines of notes that emulate the synth material

"Spirits of Fire" is a drum solo with a recording of Manley Hall speaking. This one has the feel of an academic lecture delivered with an obscuring wash of drum accompaniment. At under 2 minutes this one comes across as episodic and too brief.

"Ghost Dance" is a duet between Hooker and David First on guitar. Here, First seems locked into Hooker's drumming as he manages to keep up with a matching, rumbling electric guitar sound that carves a niche just above the drums in the frequency spectrum. The human cry, possibly from First, near the end is a nice touch. This one has a nice sonic shading to it.

"State Secrets" is a trio with Letha Rodman and Jesse Henry playing guitar over Hooker's thunderstorm on the kit that serves as the epic conclusion to Armageddon. This one is pure, kinetic, adrenaline-laced improvisation. It's a wall of sonic sheets anchored by large slabs from the drums. The wall occasionally breaks down, leaving gaping holes for the guitars to cut through with varying levels of barely controlled electric noise in the signal.

The mix on Armageddon is representative of how this material must sound from behind the drum kit. And at times I really wish there was a better balance between the instruments. But ultimately, this presents an odd angle that keeps a strong focus on the energetic quality of this music. And for free improvisation the way William Hooker attacks it that can be an exhilarating perspective.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Scale of the Day: B Dorian 1% wide


The B Dorian 1% wide Scale.

Black History Month: A Quiet Place in the Universe

Black History Month continues at HurdAudio with a focused listen to A Quiet Place in the Universe by the other-worldly Sun Ra & his Arkestra recorded live in 1976-77. This is a particularly interesting period of Sun Ra's multi-faceted creative output. And typical for a recorded document of Ra's incredibly inspired arranging prowess this one proves to be bit rough around the edges in production quality.

This set presents some unusual arrangements and instrumentations of some otherwise familiar Sun Ra compositions along with some works I haven't heard elsewhere.

"...A Quiet Place In Outer Space" is a moody, introspective (yet loud) opener featuring John Gilmore on tenor sax along with a substantial wind ensemble. This one is the highlight of this CD and it's the track I come back to for orchestration ideas. It's not the cleanest recording. But this is a great texture and a rich sound if you focus on the substance of this work.

"I Pharaoh" is a long backdrop for a distorted recitation by Sun Ra. The poetry that unfolds highlights the persona of the author and focuses on the Pharoah figure as a key part of Ra's self identity. The easy cries of "pharaoh" from the ensemble add a great dynamic as this work transitions from a vamp into a silky texture of flutes, horns and voices. It's an attractive transformation that begs for an updated interpretation if anyone could fill those extra terrestrial shoes of the narrator.

"Images" is a duet between Sun Ra on synth and Vincent Chancey on French horn with some backing from members of the Arkestra. This is a glimpse of an early collaboration between these two souls that would expand from this point.

"Love in Outer Space" is my favorite Sun Ra composition and this arrangement is quite unlike any version I've heard of it. It takes a full ten minutes for the melodic theme and bass line to emerge as the rhythmic impulse of this great modal work forms the basis for nearly the full duration of this drums and percussion showcase.

"I'll Never Be The Same" briefly pulls this nightclub set back into some comfortable jazz standards territory with Pat Patrick lending a great solo on the alto sax.

Things conclude with a quick dose of "Space is the Place" to close things out. Sun Ra had a knack for great melodic lines with incredible hooks and this one is a classic example. It's hard not to be humming this one for days after listening to it.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Scale of the Day: B Dorian mapped to the Triative


The B Dorian mapped to the Triative Scale.

Black History Month: Harmony and Abyss

Black History Month is underway at HurdAudio. Which calls for a celebration and focus upon a significant body of music. Tonight I'm visiting a relatively new acquisition that has caught my ear in a big way these past few weeks: Harmony and Abyss by pianist Matthew Shipp - recorded in 2004.

Kicking off with a noodling electric piano line, "Ion" launches into a mesmerizing, groove-heavy soundscape that seamlessly melds electronic and acoustic worlds with hip hop and avant jazz. The balance between elements both ugly and sublime is irresistible. The tension between electronica manipulations slapped against live piano, acoustic bass and drums is tightly drawn. This one is rich with detail for the attentive ear to pick out.

"Galaxy 105" is a particularly fascinating track that calls elements of Sun Ra to mind as Shipp unleashes some extended improvised textures on the piano over a solid backdrop from William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver's excellent drum work as the electronic elements of this recording recede to reveal just how hard these guys swing both with and without the other-worldly textures and manipulations of FLAM. "String Theory" works the texture back into the soundscapes of the abyss by relaxing the rhythmic propulsion in favor of drawn out timbres that expose another angle on the same creative impulse. Then "Blood 2 the Brain" draws the tight grooves back into the soundscape and sweep back into the force and flow that dominates this recording. These three tracks form a brilliant sequence in the middle of this listening experience.

"Invisible Light" is a quick burst of acoustic improvised activity that illuminates just how aggressively these improvisers can emulate electronic manipulation. It's a short, sweet gem late in this one. And in many ways summarizes both the energy and aesthetic space of this work as a whole.

The variations in texture and sonic sheen keep this disc solidly engaging from start to end. A lot of groove-oriented music tends to fall into an "abyss" of same-ness that keep the feet moving at the expense of wearing the ear and attention span down. This one has something for the body and the mind.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006