Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Jazz in Brief - Ari Hoenig and John Escreet

Ari Hoenig - Lines of Oppression

At his regular gigs at New York's Smalls Jazz Club, hyperkinetic drummer Ari Hoenig rarely leaves a jaw undropped. His style is unusually intense and extroverted, overflowing with knotty complexity yet weirdly infectious. Over the course of his 15 years in New York, Hoenig has assembled a rotating core of like-minded musicians with a collective vocabulary of endless rhythmic permutations. Hoenig's new album "Lines of Oppression" features a band of young veterans that matches the leader's intensity minute by minute.

Hoenig's complex rhythmic trademarks jump out from the get go. The opening title track starts as if in a simple 4-4 feel until Hoenig barrels in, revealing that the opening hook was actually in 3. It's a moment both disconcerting and playful, sort of like an over-banked turn on an old wooden roller coaster. The rhythmic surprises only multiply on the following "Arrows and Loops," featuring a treacherous mixed-meter melody and some thrilling dialogue between Hoenig and pianist/beatboxer Tigran Hamasyan.

The band's uncanny precision in such rough rhythmic terrain certainly elicits more than a few dropped jaws. But the moment of most-sustained jaw droppage isn't in some crazy time signature at a blistering tempo. Midway through the album, Hoenig begins a drum solo with soft mallets on his tom-toms. His run sound eerily melodic, as if he's playing a set of high-pitched timpani. Gradually, Hoenig works his way into the bluesy Bobby Timmons classic "Moanin'," except the kicker here is that he plays the melody on his drums. The melody is unbelievably clear. Hoenig is somehow able to accurately alter the pitch of his toms with his off stick to make a full blues scale. It's so cheeky and slick. Don't even try suppressing a chuckle.

John Escreet - The Age We Live In

So the Brits are supposed to use better grammar than Americans? Then why would their top new jazz export end his new album title with a preposition? For shame John Escreet.

Ok, I keed (and "The Age in Which We Live" is a much worse title). But I guess what I'm trying to say is that this album throws cultural stereotypes out the window.

The 27-year-old Escreet grew up in Doncaster, England, a pleasant ruralish area in the country's midsection, and studied jazz piano at London's Royal Academy of Music. He has the pedigree of one of those nice British jazz boys, but an in-your-face aesthetic that sounds all hard-edge Manhattan.

Escreet moved to New York after graduating in 2006 and soon fell into the cadre of saxophonist David Binney, holding court at the 55 Bar. "The Age We Live In" is Escreet's second record for Binney's Mythology label and reveals a shared language rather than a master-padawan relationship. Like Binney, Escreet has a penchant for driving rock and funk-related rhythms, snake-like melodies, and the slow build. Binney even co-produced the record and is the lead horn voice throughout. Yet there's never a doubt that Escreet is the leader on this album.

Escreet's various electronic keyboards are pumped high in the mix and he attacks the keys with intensity in both hands. Compositions like the title track and "The Domino Effect" feed off his energy and his ability to fill space playing two keyboards at once. His chops and aggression can be reminiscent of Cecil Taylor, but Escreet knows the benefit of toning it down too, especially on the valedictory backbeat ballad "Another Life." Sticking mostly to an acoustic grand, Escreet underlays the tune with a patient pulse, letting Binney build his solo to a cathartic climax.

The rhythm team of drummer Marcus Gilmore and guitarist Wayne Krantz (another long-time Binney associate) lays a rhythmic backdrop that matches the music's edgy character without getting in the way of Escreet's pyrotechnics. Gilmore's drums snap, crackle and pop, driving the music to almost trance-like states. Without a bassist underneath him, Krantz adds biting lead lines, tangling the tunes in roving counterpoint.

John Escreet is a pianist with high energy and big ideas. But he's also a smart producer and arranger, adding in enough sonic tricks and unexpected detours to hold your attention for a full 54 and a half minutes. I do have a slight quibble with the short intro/interlude/outro tracks - they're cool vamps and all but don't sit long enough and break up the album's continuity. But hey, they only last 90 seconds total, leaving 52 minutes of really good, uncompromising jazz.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Only Human - Chris Dingman's "Waking Dreams"

On the back of the CD case for his album "Waking Dreams," vibraphonist Chris Dingman places his name at the bottom of the personnel list. It's a small gesture, easily overlooked. The eye is instead drawn to this admonition: "Special care was put into making this album an experience. For best results, listen from beginning to end without pause."

In an age where Shuffle and 99 cent singles have made our ears crave musical variety with a voraciousness traditionally reserved for saturated fats, an album that feeds on sustained attention is anything but conformist. And in a culture where pop stardom is more about selling a personality than selling music, a self-effacing bandleader is downright heretical. Before "Waking Dreams" ever leaves its case, the album announces that its not interested in being cool or popular. It asks the listener to take it as it is and judge the whole self, not a 3 minute first impression. If one is patient and empathetic, one will encounter music that is filled with disarming humanity - messy yet lovable.

Dingman's humility is confirmed at the outset. There is no declamatory show of four-mallet virtuosity, but rather a plaintive prelude by pianist Fabian Almazan. As Almazan's final notes plink out like wind chimes, Dingman finally enters with bassist Joe Sanders, conjuring a mood of mystery and meditation. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire soars above the mist in solitude, later joined by Loren Stillman on alto sax. The music floats as a raft lost at sea, occasionally buoyed by Justin Brown's tom-tom waves. When the raft appears to stall hopelessly in doldrums, Sanders and Brown set a new course with a groove funky and fleet. Sax, trumpet, and vibes snake through a slippery melody before launching into a series of solos, one building into the next. Brown's combustible drumming brings the energy to a fever pitch, yet the energy dies away under glacial chords from Dingman's vibes and Ryan Ferreira's guitar.

While Dingman can't quite escape the inherent coldness of the vibes, his playing reflects a search for new sounds and textures on the instrument. Through a variety of means, he is able to smooth over the vibraphone's jagged edge. He pushes for the illusion of vocalized sustain by striking with extra fat mallets, bowing as if it were a string instrument, setting the electric-vibrato fan on slow. Instead of flinging icicles, he showers a soft layer of snow.

Dingman's search for deeper sounds continue to play out over introspective compositions. Whether the rhythms are surging or placid, Dingman and pianist Almazan layer on harmonies that are dark, rich, and ambiguous. All the players are zoned in, relentless in the pursuit of deep questions. This intense focus gets the best of the tunes about two-thirds of the way through the album. The tracks begin to blend together, bogged down by the heavy harmonies. Yet this near-monotony plays an important part in the character of the music. It affirms the music's realness and the complexity of the emotions conveyed. The dullness is conscious, and in some ways audacious move on the part of the musicians. They choose emotional honesty over shallow likability.

"Waking Dreams," isn't a perfect debut, but it shows a jazz composer who's deeply engaged with the expressive side of his music. The notes on the back of the CD case are born out track by track. You trust Dingman's message, even if it's not always what you want to hear. You trust him enough that you'll certainly pay attention when he's got something new to say.

Chris Dingman's "Waking Dreams" comes out on his own label, Between Worlds Music, on June 21. He has a CD release show at the Jazz Gallery in New York on Saturday June 18.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

New Jazz for You - Tim Berne/Jim Black/Nels Cline, or How to Listen to Free Jazz

Tim Berne, Jim Black, and Nels Cline are all behemoths of free improvisation. Well, Cline and Berne are at least, standing in 6'4" range. Jim Black is more of a mop-topped hobbit (see right).

But never mind that. Regardless of height, these three musicians have been true giants in their respective music scenes with instantly-recognizable voices. Multi-saxophonist Berne has been putting out edgy and varied records for almost thirty years, specializing in long form pieces where one is never sure what is composed and what is improvised. Jim Black's spiky-sounding drums propel New York-downtown music of all kinds, whether Berne, Balkan, or Punk-flavored. Cline is seemingly everywhere these days, spreading guitar mayhem with Wilco and his own projects.

Because the guys are so busy with project upon side-project, getting them together in one room requires nothing less than perfect syzygy. The three did manage to meet up the Stone in New York on July 30, 2009, spewing their improvisational magic over the 80 or so people that can uncomfortably fit into the former corner storefront. It seems a shame that so few would get to experience this gathering of musical titans (and a dwarf), but thankfully the Cryptogramophone label was present to catch it all on some stick of digital memory. The mystic brew was so potent that the label has kept it under wraps since that fateful night nearly two years ago.

But no longer. "The Veil" is lifted next Tuesday, June 7.

So how does it sound, you ask? Well, it sounds just like a Berne, Black or Cline fan would expect, which is just friggin' great. If you are a fan of any of these musicians, you should be anticipating this release like a Belieber on line for "Never Say Never." No need to review any more.

"But all I've heard of these guys is Nels in Wilco," you say. "What can I get out of this?"

I'll start by admitting that this album can be quite the head trip for the uninitiated. There are weird sounds, profound dissonances, and nary a repeating hook. But with a bit of direction, anyone new to free improvisation can make his or her way through "The Veil" and actually enjoy it.

The most important thing is to keep your mind on at all times. Music this abstract invites you to get creative with the sounds you hear. Luckily, the opening track "Railroaded" begins full throttle, giving your adrenaline levels a boost to keep you focused. Jim Black sets the tone with an unrelenting breakbeat while Cline and Berne layer on the noise. Cue in to what Cline is doing. What is that yodeling wah-wah thing? How does he change sounds so quick? Just trying to follow Cline's sound explorations can be a fun challenge.

Nels' infamously powerful effects pedal board
After zoning in on the details, take a step back and try listening to how the players respond to each other. Not locked into a strict song form, Black is able to put on the breaks at any moment, and somehow Berne and Cline respond as if it were all planned. After the group has exhausted a particular idea, someone throws in a new sound or new groove or a new parcel of melody. The others' ears perk up and suddenly the trio goes careening into a totally new place. Sometimes an old idea is brought back, like Black's machine gun rim clicks at the end of "Railroaded." It rounds out the form and signals to everyone that we're done here moving on. The destination? The audience sure as hell doesn't know.

Such close listening can cause a bit of a brain burnout, so after a while, it's kind of nice to chill out a bit and just revel in the sound. After "Railroaded" and the equally rollicking "Impairment Posse," the character shifts into an eerie netherworld. Cline's guitar swells and swallows the space around it, soon followed by creepy digital noises from Black's laptop and screechy multiphonics from Berne's saxophone. This section is called "Momento," perhaps the soundtrack to a creepy thriller by Christopher Nolan in bizarro world. The sound overtakes you. Images flash across your semiconscious mind. A shadowy man surrounded by white light. Doors that open into nothingness. A faint voice emanates behind you. It comes closer. You turn around and...

The trio at fever pitch
A pile of drums falls down the stairs. This racket awakens you from your dream and you find yourself hearing Cline and Black locked in hand to hand rhythmic combat. After 100 seconds of fierce fighting, the two call a draw and lock into a knotty metal hook. Berne drives the ensuing "Barbarella Syndrome," coaxing Black and Cline to new levels of intensity with his abrasive tones. The trio boils over into a rhythmic morass, yet the temperature continues to rise. Black then lets loose a positively headbanging tribal beat. The music threatens to overflow the speakers, yet you want it to keep going, so locked into that groove.

Then suddenly Cline and Black stop short, throwing Berne off a cliff. The saxophonist is alone, attempting to fly just that much further to reach terra firma in the next section. Does he make it? Does the epic saga of improvisation continue? Well wouldn't you like to know.

Ok, ok, ok. So I know some of that description sounds a little bit ridiculous. I'm not trying to say that Berne, Black, and Cline have a definite narrative in their music, but rather that an engaged listener can bring a lot of cool experiences to abstract music that make it all come alive. Perhaps the creepy sounds of "Momento" make you think of an alien abduction rather than a surreal thriller. Perhaps Black's slippery drumming makes you think of collages by Kurt Schwitters in how he takes short snippets of different grooves and rearranges them in a nonsensical order.

Either way, I invite you to check out this brilliant and visceral music and find your own way through it. For those of you who can't wait until next Tuesday, check out the video from last fall's Angel City Jazz Fest in LA.