There is something special happening in the highly charged improvised jazz scene in New York City and Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records continues to impress with The Drop And The Ocean, a stellar release from drummer, composer and band leader Rob Garcia.
The band's third album offers a persuasive glimpse into how violinist Jason Kao Hwang fuses the East-West musical contingent into a cohesive pedigree of sound designs and cutting-edge applications that circumvent the norm, even by avant-garde paradigms. The album strikes a captivating balance between structure that is often complex but largely fluid, and free expressionism of numerable shapes and hues. Regardless, Hwang aligns himself with a super-tight ensemble. And they exude a synergistic group dynamic throughout the sum of the briskly moving parts.
Woodwind specialist Ken Vandermark is a prominent voice in modern jazz and improvisation, emanating from the Chicago scene, and currently a major force in the global community. Here, the artist aligns with fellow Chicagoan, drummer Chad Taylor and Scandinavian pianist Havard Wilk for a bass-less trio session, spawning tightly melodic structures within the progressive-jazz schema and the contrasting improvisational domain. Essentially, the trio seeds a distinct sense of well-being into the project to complement a few movements that project angst or turbulence. It's an engagement centered on equality, as Vandermark and Wilk alternate solos and unite for numerous theme-building episodes.
Firmly rooted in the sort of challenging post-bop, pre-free modern jazz epitomized by the pre-electric Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-1960s, and – perhaps – the early 70s ECM sound, the music of Nordic Connect is nonetheless quite un-stodgy and rich in interesting 21st Century influences and flavors. The compositions largely, written by pianist Maggi Olin (though Ingrid Jensen, Christine Jensen and Jon Wikan each chip in some), at times, recall some of the mid-to-late 60s and early 70s Blue Note recordings by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, as they branched out from Miles' musical orbit. As in Miles' and Shorter's music, a key feature of “Spirals” is the blurring of lines between the front line and the rhythm section. There's also a playfully relaxed, experimental spirit here that you won't hear on a lot of today's modern jazz recordings. A cooperative project involving musicians who are either from Scandinavia, or have Scandinavian ancestry, Nordic Connect also adds ethnic flavors from entirely different settings to create sophisticated, intriguing music that is completely contemporary.
Though both came to prominence in Anthony Braxton's revolutionary groups of the early-to-mid 1970s, the music that trombonist Ray Anderson and clarinetist / saxophonist Marty Ehrlich create on Hear You Say is adventurous, hard-swinging post-bop steeped in the blues and redolent with the organic, bobbing polyrhythms of New Orleans.
Bassist / composer Chris Dahlgren is one of those guys who has done a lot of different things in his musical career. He holds an MA in composition from Wesleyan University where he worked with an impressive array of avant-garde conceptualists and artists including Alvin Lucier, Anthony Braxton, LaMonte Young, and Christian Wolff. He was also the house bassist at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club in Cincinnati, OH, a bastion of straight-ahead and big band jazz. He's also recorded and toured with Joe Lovano, Art Lande, Fred Hirsch, Charles Tolliver, Herb Ellis, and Red Rodney to name a few. After returning to New York in the 1990s, he spent the better part of the first decade of the 21st Century working with Anthony Braxton. On “Mystic Maze,” his first recording with his group 'Lexicon,' Dahlgren draws on all of these experiences - and more - to craft a detailed, incisive musical treatise on the shortcomings of music criticism and the nature of public confrontations that may ensue when an audience doesn't get what it expects from an artist.
Three European improvising heavyweights align for an intriguing expansionist endeavor, where space, dainty subtleties, and asymmetrical underpinnings aid the organic and polytonal output of the band's multifarious developments. With orbital and darting exchanges, the trio also delves into minimalism and free-microtonal interludes amid gradually climactic choruses.
"Foxy," Jon Irabagon's fourth recording as a leader is – as the whimsical cover art parody suggests – a tribute to the great Sonny Rollins. Like Rollins' "Way Out West" (compare Rollins' empty-holstered cowboy on the cover of that LP with Irabagon's similar pose on the reverse side of the CD), “Foxy” is a piano-less trio consisting of tenor saxophone, bass and drums. Here's another thing “Foxy” has in common with Rollins' historic recording - it is a genuine tour de force. Known for his abundant technique, unending improvisational resourcefulness, and boundless sense of the absurd through his work with the notoriously iconoclastic quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Irabagon ups the ante even further on “Foxy,” which – despite the dozen creatively-titled track divisions - is basically a single continuous 78+ minute tenor sax solo. Irabagon is supported every step of the way by an absolutely wailing rhythm section consisting of bassist Peter Brendler and veteran avant-jazz drummer Barry Altschul. I, for one, was overjoyed to hear Altschul here, as I fondly remember his always-worthwhile playing with Braxton, Chick Corea and Paul Bley back in the 70s.
Jazz vocalists are, by and large, not an adventurous lot. Most prefer to stick to standards and re-interpretations of contemporary pop songs. While this is a totally valid form of musical expression, I rarely seek out recordings made by vocalists when I want to hear risky, modern, cutting-edge music. With her second recording, "Mobile," the Portugese vocalist Sara Serpa boldly grabs this stereotype by the scruff of the neck and shows it out the door. "Mobile" is a startlingly individualistic collection of beautifully developed and arranged original compositions for voice and a four-piece ensemble. Serpa's clearly not afraid of words – each piece is inspired by books she's read over an 18-month period preceding this recording. Yet, on "Mobile," she functions largely as an instrumentalist, singing wordlessly. What I really like about Serpa's approach is that – contrary to the jazz tradition of scat singing – she does not try to mimic a saxophone or trumpet. Sure, she has a great sense of jazz phrasing, but what you hear is her voice. And what a voice it is! Clear, unaffected, and vibrato-less, with a crystalline purity that seems both fragile and diamond-hard.