Record Roundup : Continental drifts

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

American Grooves

Michael Formanek Very Practical Trio

Even Better – Intakt CD335

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While the musicians on this recording are identified with the experimental jazz scene, they have produced an album accessible enough for a more mainstream-minded audience. Alto saxophonist Tim Berne and the leader of this date, double bassist Michael Formanek, are established outcats, while guitarist Mary Halvorson is a new force to reckon with on the New York scene. From the first notes of this 57-minute side, this unit hits its stride and maintains the momentum through eight pieces by the bassist and one cover, Scott La Faro’s Jade Vision, a subdued ­albeit poignant rendition of that legendary musician’s most famous tune. By and large, the mood of the album is introspective, which in no way ­diminishes its value. In fact, it allows the players to be more closely attuned, a task made easier in the absence of a drum kit. Berne, always a bit of a wild card, provides the bite with an acidic tone reminiscent of his mentor Julius Hemphill, or that of Ornette Coleman. The ­guitarist, for her part, effectively weaves lines, chords and just the right amount of distortion that make her so readily recognizable. Formanek, finally, provides strong support throughout, but has his word to say as a soloist. All told, this album demonstrates how more conventional jazz practices are just another way for musicians working on the outer edges to give full range to their expression.

Anna Webber

Clockwise – Pi Recordings P179

On tenor saxophone or flutes, Anna Webber is no slouch, but her real ­secret weapon are her compositional chops, which have enabled her to find a voice like no other. This B.C. ­native headed off to Germany first after her studies and promptly issued two ­albums of her seven-piece group ­Percussive Mechanics. Upon settling in the Jazz Mecca, she recorded two discs of her Simple Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. In 2018, she headed to the studio with a new band, a sextet staffed by a second tenor (doubling on clarinet), a trombone, a cello and the usual three-man rhythm ­section, with the drummer, Ches Smith, doubling on vibraphone. If Webber’s previous albums established her originality, this one reaches a new level. Of the nine tracks clocking in at the 50-minute mark, the title cut, the fifth, and Array following it, are her most fully realized pieces to date. In their extended forms, these works, like pretty well everything she pens, stretch far beyond those of more standard jazz fare, and her singular approach to orchestral timbres is richly detailed, with written and improvised parts weaving in and out of each other. While challenging, the musical approach is truly original. Both ­qualities are indicative of Webber’s standing as a musician to reckon with now and in the future.

Matt Mitchell

Phalanx Ambassadors – Pi Recordings P181

Pianist and keyboardist Matt Mitchell is another fine example of a cutting-edge New York jazzer who can do it all. As a sideman, he is much in demand, not just for his prowess over the keys, but for his abilities to lift the most complex parts off the page. Pi Recordings must be thanked for giving this consummate musician a chance to lead a band through his music, a rather infrequent occurrence in his case. Seven originals ranging from two to 16 minutes grace this side just over the 45-minute mark. From the onset, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Kate Gentile set the pace and keep the leader on his toes, likewise for vibist Patricia Brennan and guitarist Miles Okazaki. The quintet constantly blurs lines between the composed and the improvised, a key component found in a lot of genre-bending styles, otherwise known as creative musics. Yet its most ­distinctive trait is found in the treatment of time and tempo: bass and drums, for instance, can speed up while the others hold back, or vice versa. This continuous sway generates considerable ­tension, over which musical ideas are thrown around in rapid fire, though never in a haphazard or gratuitous way, as is the case in many freeform musical encounters. For anyone with ears wide open, this is one trip surely worth the ride.

The Ed Palermo Big Band

A Lousy Day in Harlem – Sky Cat Records

If the drum kit is now acknowledged as the main contribution of jazz to the world of music, big bands should rank a close second. After all, would the Swing Era have reached its pinnacle without them? Far from being written off, they are well ensconced in music faculties, and many composers and arrangers are dedicated to the cause. One of the more prolific is Ed Palermo. Though he plays alto sax, his main instrument is his 18-piece band, a vehicle he has used extensively to cover the music of his idol Frank Zappa first, only to set his sights on other pop icons like the Beatles and Todd Rundgren. Jazz, too, has been on his radar, and this most recent album, released on his own label, is right down that alley. His troops romp through 11 originals and two covers (Giant Steps and Minority) over the course of 65 minutes, hardly letting up its ­unrelenting pace. Palermo is lucky to count on a stable of dependable ­players, a luxury nowadays for a freelance band, and an asset that enables him to write with people in mind rather than their instruments. This familiarity allows the players to really have fun with the music, most of it quite jocular, but not flippantly so. The album’s title is a joke in itself, as it is a send-up of the legendary 1958 picture of New City jazzmen (One Great Day in Harlem), the point driven home by the cover shot taken before the very same ­staircase as the original.

European Encounters

Louis Sclavis

Characters on a Wall – ECM 2645

While France abounds with great jazz players, Louis Sclavis is probably the most prominent one on the international scene. A virtuoso bass clarinetist, he is one of the hardest workers on the scene today. For one thing, he maintains a hectic touring schedule while recording prolifically, his long-standing association with the ECM label contributing to his exposure. With each new release, he fronts a different lineup, in this case a more standard jazz quartet consisting of Christophe Lavergne, drums; Sarah Murcia, double bass; and Benjamin Moussay, piano – the latter as the lone holdover from past albums. Returning to a previous project, Napoli’s Walls from 2002, Sclavis draws inspiration out of a wider range of works by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, a visual artist whose imagery informed that earlier release. What these artworks are we do not know, as they are not reproduced in the booklet, but the extended liner notes provide valuable insight on the project. In under 45 minutes, the foursome winds its way through eight originals of varying lengths, a pair of them barely two minutes long, the opening cut just under 10. Now in his late sixties, Louis Sclavis seems to prefer more concise compositional gestures in his playing than dizzying improvisations, a hallmark of his. Lest we forget, this is an ECM release, so a more subdued and introspective tone is to be expected.

Franz Koglmann Septet

Fruits of Solitude – hat ezzthetics 1006

Having made his way in the European improv music scene of the early 1970s, the Viennese trumpeter and fluegelhornist Franz Koglmann changed gears thereafter. Without forsaking totally the freedoms of the genre, he has devoted his energies to composition for most of his ensuing career. Stylistically, his music draws as much from 20th-century European composers (those of the Second ­Viennese School in particular) and ­various forms of Cool Jazz. In true postmodern fashion, Koglmann will quote pieces from both of these worlds, at times quite explicitly. Such is the case in his latest release for this Swiss label, for which he produced some of his most significant work in the 1980s and 1990s. The “Solitude” of its title refers, of course, to the wistful Ellington number, that tune serving as the basis for three distinct variations, the first clearly stating the theme. Apart from the ­sophisticated arrangements, the instrumentation gives the music its European flavour, what with an oboe, a clarinet (or tenor sax), bassoon, horn, cello and double bass. The absence of drums magnifies the chamber-music feel that runs through the nine pieces of this 47-minute disc. In an age when music tends to be so hyperactive and ears turn weary, Herr Koglmann’s musings come along like a welcome break from all the madness.

IIro Rantala

my finnish calendar – Act 882-2

In the decades preceding the new ­millennium, Finnish pianist IIro Rantala was getting some notice as leader of the Tökyeät trio, an odd word which, believe it or not, means “rotten” in his mother tongue. If it were not for his Swedish counterpart, the late Esbjorn Svensson, the Finn may well have been the most celebrated keyboardist in the era. Over the last decade, Rantala has chosen to work as a solo artist, his last two efforts being a first tribute to his own jazz and pop heroes, the second focused on John Lennon. In this third outing, he has put together a kind of personal calendar divided into 12 tracks named after each month of the year. In just under 50 minutes, the pianist delivers 12 concise cuts, all but one under the five-minute mark, the pieces played in a variety of moods, from the slightly ­brooding to the playful. In the latter, he resorts to various preparations on the strings, even some overdubs, drawing out otherworldly effects from the strings and soundboard. Yet, for all of the timbral ­variety, the core of the music still adheres to functional harmonies, making it more readily accessible to listeners with orthodox tastes. There is also no denying that Rantala has considerable skills and knowledge of piano literature. Nor do we doubt the fact that he must have worked very hard at putting this program together, and maybe to the degree of replicating it perfectly if ever he were to perform live again. This is one side that will surely enthral jazz piano lovers, ­especially those with an ear for sounds unlikely.


Punkt.Vrt.Plastik – Intakt CD 318

The somewhat strange title of this album (left unexplained in the booklet) is indicative of the unconventional approach taken by a group that, on the surface of it, has the earmarks of a standard jazz piano trio. But, if you’re looking for a succession of neat solos sandwiched between written themes, familiar tunes, bluesy licks or steady time keeping, this is the wrong ­address. What it is instead is a free flow of ideas tossed around with a seemingly ­reckless, albeit never aimless, abandon. Hailing from Slovenia, pianist Kaja Draksler is much talked-about as an emerging talent in today’s ­European scene, likewise for Swedish bassist Peter Eldh and German drummer Christian Lillinger, the latter attracting considerable attention in his country in recent times. Interestingly, the drummer has penned five of the pieces, the bassist three more and the pianist a ­single one. The extreme angular approach makes it a bit jarring at first listen, but the results are effective due to the album’s brief running time, the longest track lasting eight minutes, the rest under five minutes, all for a scant 40 minutes. For best listening results, give it your undivided ­attention, preferably with earphones on and eyes closed.  

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Marc Chénard is a Montreal-based multilingual music journalist specialized in jazz and improvised music. In a career now spanning some 30 years, he has published a wide array of articles and essays, mainly in Canada, some in the United States and several in Europe (France, Belgium, Germany and Austria). He has travelled extensively to cover major festivals in cities as varied as Vancouver and Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Vienna and Copenhagen. He has been the jazz editor and a special features writer for La Scena Musicale since 2002; currently, he also contributes to Point of Departure, an American online journal devoted to creative musics. / / Marc Chénard est un journaliste multilingue de métier de Montréal spécialisé en jazz et en musiques improvisées. En plus de 30 ans de carrière, ses reportages, critiques et essais ont été publiés principalement au Canada, parfois aux États-Unis mais également dans plusieurs pays européens (France, Belgique, Allemagne, Autriche). De plus, il a été invité à couvrir plusieurs festivals étrangers de renom, tant en Amérique (Vancouver, Chicago) que Outre-Atlantique (Paris, Berlin, Vienne et Copenhangue). Depuis 2012, il agit comme rédacteur atitré de la section jazz de La Scena Musicale; en 2013, il entame une collabortion auprès de la publication américaine Point of Departure, celle-ci dédiée aux musiques créatives de notre temps.

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