July 2021: Jazz Record Reviews

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik: Somit
Kaja Draksler, upright pianos; Petter Eldh, bass; Christian Lillinger, drums, percussion
Intakt 353 (CD). 2021. Kaja Draksler, Petter Eldh, Christian Lillinger, prods.; Martin Waschkowitsch, eng.
Performance *****
Sonics *****

There's a lot to unpack with Punkt.Vrt.Plastik, but doing so doesn't feel like a struggle. Unfortunately, doing so doesn't quite make things crystal clear.

First the name. "Punkt" is Swedish for dot. "Vrt" is Slovenian for "garden." "Plastik" is German for "plastic." The three words represent the nationalities of the three players: bassist Petter Eldh, pianist Kaja Draksler, and drummer Christian Lillinger. The album's title, Somit, translates as "consequently."

If that's all vaguely suggestive while remaining intriguingly confounding, then we're on the right track. Punkt.Vrt.Plastik is a piano trio. Somit sounds like jazz, but again, it's not as easy as that. The allure is in the way the sounds sound.

What leaps out first on Somit are Kaja Draksler's pianos. She plays two, both uprights. She plays lines in unison, sometimes near-unison in the same octave on the two instruments. The uprights' thin voices differ—they might be siblings, but they're not twins—and they aren't perfectly in tune. That tension isn't always overt, but it's always present, vibrating and refracting. The depth of Lillinger's drums, from the hard snap of the snare to the muted toms farther back, create another sonic illusion. Eldh's bass is deep and encompassing, circling slowly below. Abrupt and tightly executed changes sound like edits, but the acoustic warmth of the sustains speaks to the precision of their playing.

The compositions work in the service of the group. The 13 tracks, between two and six minutes, are bright, taut, and easy to digest. A fascinating listen.—Kurt Gottschalk


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Ben Goldberg: Everything Happens to Be
Goldberg, clarinets; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Mary Halvorson, electric guitar; others
BAG Production BAG 018 (CD). 2021. Goldberg, prod.; Nick Lloyd, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Goldberg, a veteran clarinetist whose first recordings were of avant-klezmer music, has teamed with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and the trio Thumbscrew for this unusually mellifluous avant-jazz session. The album is based loosely on the concept of the chorale, the musicians elaborating on wistful, recognizable melodies, all composed by Goldberg except for a familiar hymn, "Abide with Me."

On the earlier tracks, such as "What About" and the dulcet "Fred Hampton," Goldberg and Eskelin state the theme in unison or counterpoint before improvising together or in sequence while the three rhythm players supply deft embellishments. The band vamps in harmony or engages in spirited musical conversation, but the sound is contemporary, lacking the screeching solos characteristic of free jazz and anything that closely resembles bebop.

The title track is structured more conventionally, with Goldberg playing the lead before he, Halvorson, and Eskelin solo. "Tomas Plays the Drums" is the most typically avantgarde cut, with Goldberg squalling on the low-pitched contra-alto clarinet accompanied by Halvorson's electronically enhanced guitar, as Tomas Fujiwara vigorously abides by the track's title.

The performers all find the same tuneful groove—namely Goldberg's. Eskelin is a perfect foil; Halvorson bends and plinks the strings when she's not picking straight-ahead runs; and Michael Formanek and Fujiwara provide solid, flexible support. Fujiwara sits out as the others play as one on "Abide with Me," with Goldberg on Albert-system clarinet.—Larry Birnbaum


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John Patitucci, Vinnie Colaiuta, Bill Cunliffe: Trio
John Patitucci, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Bill Cunliffe, piano
Le Coq 695924331981 (CD, also available as download). 2021. Bill Cunliffe, prod.; Josh Connolly, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

You would have to be a damn fool not to applaud people with the guts to start up a jazz imprint in the midst of a global pandemic. Le Coq appeared on the scene in early 2021. The label's founder, Piero Pata, has provided a succinct mission statement: "Honest jazz."

Trio is Le Coq's fourth release to date. Its premise was to bring three high-level players together for the first time and turn them loose "without a script." John Patitucci is one of the great living jazz bassists. Vinnie Colaiuta is a premier crossover drummer, the choice of rock icons like Joni Mitchell and Sting. The star of this project is Bill Cunliffe, a master of modern mainstream jazz piano who is famous only among pianists.

Given the impromptu nature of the occasion, the set list needed to be familiar material that the three could play from memory. Within minutes, they become a cohesive, interactive ensemble. They move from hovering, pensive ballads like "Laura" to high-energy workouts like "Seven Steps to Heaven" and make it one seamless flow. As Piero Pata promised, the music is honest and everything swings. "Good Morning Heartache" and "Just in Time" contain emotion inseparable from melody. Cunliffe elevates every one of these culturally significant songs with inspired digressions into personal lyricism.

Patitucci is a continuous looming presence. His lines of accompaniment are complex responses to Cunliffe's ideas, and his solos prove that in the right hands a bass can speak truths of the human heart.—Thomas Conrad


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Enrico Morello: Cyclic Signs
Enrico Morello, drums, qraqeb, carillon; Francesco Lento, trumpet; Daniele Tittarelli, alto saxophone; Matteo Bortone, bass
Auand AU 5014 (CD, also available as download). 2021. Enrico Morello, prod.; Francesco Ponticelli, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

Enrico Morello is probably the most in-demand drummer in Italy. He plays with young badasses (Francesco Diodati) and old masters (Enrico Rava). Cyclic Signs is his debut as a leader. It is startling how this essential sideman reveals himself as fully formed composer and overseer of ensemble form.

In his liner notes, Morello identifies the underlying assumptions of this project. Everything is based on the "driving force" of rhythm but with "unexpected variations." The format, without a chording instrument, facilitates open dialogue between horizontal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) dimensions. Trumpeter Francesco Lento and alto saxophonist Daniele Tittarelli fulfill these roles in Morello's 12 original concepts. Their vivid lines run in parallel for jagged counterpoint, or cross for arcane harmony, or coincide for loose unison statements of Morello's convoluted themes. Meanwhile, the leader's drums and Matteo Bortone's bass slash and seethe in rhythms with unexpected variations.

The power of Morello's band is that four players who devotedly serve the ensemble are so capable of abandoning their roles and running wild in free air. On "Natural Movement," Lento's eruptions are jolts of adrenalin. Bortone and Morello insert a volatile, spattering interlude. Then Tittarelli resets the mood, floating in over the top, circling and weaving. Cyclic Signs is a precarious balance of impulse and organization and a continuous adventure for creative listeners. It is also further evidence that Italy's is the strongest jazz scene outside the United States.—Thomas Conrad


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Ches Smith and We All Break: Path of Seven Colors
Sirene Dantor Rene, vocals; Miguel Zenón, saxophone; Matt Mitchell, piano; Nick Dunston, bass; others
Pyroclastic Records PR 14/15. 2021. David Breskin, prod.; Ron Saint Germain, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ***

Ches Smith didn't take delving into Haitian music lightly. The percussionist writes, in the extensive liner notes to his posh new CD set Path of Seven Colors, that it was only after people started saying they heard the Haitian influence in his playing (he'd been studying privately for 15 years) that he decided to focus his energies and form a band. With his teachers Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz and pianist Matt Mitchell, he organized the first version of We All Break and released a small-batch CD-R in 2017.

By 2020, the ideas had grown, and he returned to the studio with the original band plus singer Sirene Dantor Rene, saxophonist Miguel Zen¢n, bassist Nick Dunston, and a fourth percussionist, Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene. Both sessions are included in the new set. The first disc is a spotlight for Mitchell, who soars with the rhythms, but it's with the octet that the music really breathes. Smith brings a jazz sensibility, opening the band to exploration and excavation into the pieces he built from drum patterns with new songs written by and traditional tunes woven in by Brevil.

Producer David Breskin, who has overseen previous Pyroclastic releases (including Kris Davis's exceptional Diatom Ribbons) as well as albums by Nels Cline and Mary Halvorson, and engineer Ron Saint Germain—whose own extensive production credits include Sonic Youth—keep a warm room sound to the 2020 sessions. You never forget you're listening to a live band. The results are inviting and engaging, playing to tradition without being beholden to it.—Kurt Gottschalk


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Dan Wilson: Vessels of Wood and Earth
Dan Wilson, guitar; Christian Sands, keyboards; Marco Panascia, bass; Jeff "Tain" Watts, drums; others
Mack Avenue BRO4001 (CD, also available as download). 2021. Christian McBride, prod.; Todd Whitelock, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Vessels of Wood and Earth is the second release by Brother Mister Productions, bassist Christian McBride's own imprint on the Mack Avenue label. Vessels presents a new guitarist who has the goods. Dan Wilson's assets include chops like the fastest young guitar gunslingers on the street plus something more scarce: a mature artistic vision.

Wilson is grounded in the great jazz guitar tradition. You hear Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell in his sound. The core of this album is a quartet with pianist Christian Sands. Wilson and Sands are artists with extensive mainstream knowledge, but they are so technically gifted and play with so much creative passion that they fly beyond traditional boundaries.

Wilson's emotional range is also extensive. His baseline attitude is exuberance, as on Stevie Wonder's "Bird of Beauty." He gets the ecstasy of Wonder's melody, but he embeds it in a complete, detailed jazz arrangement. Then, together, he and Sands elaborate the song in a vast improvisation. "After the Rain" is very different, a rare guitar response to John Coltrane's solemn, hovering prayer. Wilson respects the dignity of darker songs, but his natural elegance bathes them in new light.

The quartet with Sands is smokin', yet the last two tracks, guitar/bass duets, are best. "James" is one of Pat Metheny's best-loved, most affirmational songs. Wilson elevates the affirmation, adds funk, and lavishes new content upon it. It is not easy to out-Metheny Metheny. Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose," a country classic, is a twangy surprise. Wilson's gracefulness deepens its poignance.—Thomas Conrad

COMMENTS
Allen Fant's picture

Excellent Jazz coverage this month.

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