Gato Libre

Strange Village

Onoff Records, Japan

I'm as much a sucker for a good CD cover as any, and Natsuki Tamura's airy quartet, Gato Libre, has a simply enchanting painting of a marvelous black cat (reminds me somewhat of one I had in the eighties, a huge ill-mannered old tom who came with the name Emperor Ch'in Shih-huang Ti and had the attitude to match) posing as they will at the foot of an old stone stairway which leads we-can't-tell-where. The cat's eyes are unreadable, adding to the potential mystery of it all. And, of course, on the back cover he's moved on. Where?


 Intriguing, and so is the music. Tamura's slowly unraveling trumpet lines (don't go flashing on Kenny Wheeler here--Tamura's far less elliptical) color the long-held accordion tones of Satoko Fuji, Kazuhiko Tsumura's Spanish guitar, and Norikatsu Koreyasu's acoustic bass.

Strange Village (taken as a whole since the mood of these ten pieces is very much like movements alluding to a central master theme) is very meditative, sly, and almost of an Eastern European folky atmosphere. I found myself thinking of the circuitous routes through a strange village which a cat might take--under wash lines, between houses, behind rows of children's backpacks.

Subtle humor does arrive now and then, possibly as unintentional as a cat's as well, what with the dancing trumpet lines of the Dvorak-like title bit, "Welcome Party," whirling about the guitar and bass, or the unpleasant surprise (possibly for the cat, not the listener) that leaps up in "Journey Again."

On occasion Tsumura's guitar (perfect tone for this music) will carefully pick out a path forward while Tamura's muteless trumpet lays out. The instrumental layering here is also a treat, especially during "Then, Normal Life," which alludes to both a hoary old medieval bass line and Tom Waits's "God's Away on Business." I have a feeling that last was unintentional. Koreyasu's arid bowing is equally a treat here once they get that seesaw pattern out of the way.

Fuji's accordion, in the way it refuses to lilt, does not call up mental postcards of hotels on the Left Bank in Paris with flocked wallpaper in the lobbies, and for me that seals the deal. It's been a while since I've heard something this different.

It may not be for you, but Gato Libre's Strange Village is good company when your apartment manager doesn't allow animals.



 Gene Ess

Sandbox and Sanctum/Song Cycle for Quartet

Simp Records, USA

 You like to think that eventually all the great voices will be unearthed, and all the notes will be played. I suppose then we'd just have to go back to ragtime and start all over again. Unless, of course, Dixieland came first. Did it?

But then somebody like Gene Ess comes along, and you realize there's a way to go yet before every nuance has been explored and every possible combination of notes has been played. Thank heaven! Saves me having to go to the New School and take a composition or arranging course.

Mr. Ess is worth waiting for in that he knows his history, and he knows what was recently attempted (his hollow-bodied Yamaha guitar has some of John Abercrombie's gentleness and an equal dollop of Pat Martino's tart humor) as well as an idea of the success and drawbacks of recent experiments. This is yet another of those guitar/sax/bass/drums quartets (see a recent review by yours truly in these e-pages concerning the redoubtable Perry Conticchio, for example). Maybe the piano is falling out of favor.

The combination of knowledge, chops, and a light touch for melody (having the current era's middleweight champ, Don McCaslin, on tenor and soprano saxophones doesn't hurt either) makes for an excellent addition to the new impressionistic strain in the music of late (Dean Taba and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee). Thoughtful, well-constructed solos demark the exquisite "Baptisma Pyros" (an island in the Aegean Sea?), quiet and unassuming near to a fault while drummer extraordinaire Gene Jackson cuts up scandalously.

Some may find Jackson, who clearly never met a paradiddle he didn't like, overbusy and domineering. I'm frankly high on his swinging, Tony Williams-like discernment of space and time. Astutel Jackson challenges Ess's mid-on statement in "Baptisma," goosing him to tremolo his notes and twin them with McCaslin. Nobody will ever mistake Ess for Hendrix but there is some definitely magisterial string-bending from Gene E at the close of a very rewarding workout.

No Jazz album from this mindset is complete without at least one ballad, and on this one "...for a Swordsman" has Ess on acoustic Spanish guitar, bassist Harvie S at middle distance and pensive, Jackson nicking off the rhythm matrix at an easy half lope and McCaslin largely laying out early.

Ess's taste for melody is elusive and requires many listens to sink in. Once McCaslin finally gets his solo he accesses a bit of the late Dexter Gordon's soundworld, coming close to quoting Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" and Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" but never quite doing so. I can dig it. At this remove from the founding days you have no need to overplay your hand.

"Ask the Guru" must be about a very hip old fellow sitting on a mountain somewhere that's not very far from a really good Jazz club; well, shimmying like one's sister Kate is purportedly good for the hips. Lovely gnarled melody, Jackson taking it at a medium trot, and Swartz opens with a shuffling, bluesy statement that puts me in mind of late Mingus. Plucked like a master. And there's a lot more good stuff too.

You would be hard pressed to find a wittier release this year (I'm cheating just a bit, as it has only now as I write this been 2006 for about ten seconds). Six months from now, I'm certain I'll be able to say the same thing, though.


 Manuel Mota

Cesar Burago, carillon; Margarida Garcia, upright e-bass; Fala Mariam, trombone, mute; M. Mota, electric guitar


Headlights Recordings, USA

 Improvised music, despite Evan Parker's elegant method of comparing it to composed music (both, he has said, involve "putting things together") does have a somewhat deeper row to hoe than does its counterpart. Freed of any structure but that of the moment and unable to pull at the heartstrings by relying on melody in any but the most implied way, it stands or falls on a largely intellectual reaction from the listener. Small choices of instrumentation and playing styles affect the flow of raw ideas, and all have to hit exactly right. The strangest things can trip up the proceedings. See below.

 Manuel Mota's quartet are accomplished players, but it was the inclusion of the carillon, a form of celeste (you may recall the period instrument Tom Hulce was playing in his portrayal of Mozart during the "Magic Flute" sequence late in the movie Amadeus), that repeatedly hampers this effort. Because the carillon's contributions here are all made-up chords and single notes which often either repeat or vary within a very narrow pitch field, you may find your ear turning to the carillon as the improvisation's tonal center by default. And this may not at all be the case. Often the effect appears far more jarring than the composer or the improvisers may have intended. I kept flashing on a Morton Feldman piece adrift in a far more jagged sea than his work might normally be used to.

It's rather sad, because Mota has an ear for tapping the body of the acoustic/electric guitar that adds a nice woody percussive flavor to many of these nine short bits.  Mariam, muted or no, essays a nice dirty tone, and Garcia scrabbles to good effect, but overall the entire thing just seems to be prevented from jelling by the very narrow range of the carillon and the fact that it only seems to be staking out center stage (either due to its own natural limitations or how it is used--I'd venture to guess the former).

Equally it's a shame because there's a certain Braxtonesque randomness here that's subtle and engaging. As in, say, Anthony B's 1978 piece "For Four Orchestras," it takes a hearing of a full phrase from the group en masse before one can get an idea of where the track is headed. A lot harder to do when you haven't got it all written down!

   I would like to hear this foursome with Burago at an electric piano or something similar. I'll wager the success level of making an implied whole from diverse parts would be far higher.


 Eli Yamin, piano/voice; Adam Bernstein, upright bass/voice; Andy Demos, percussion and saxophone

 Suns of Cosmic Consciousness

Aztac Records, USA

 Good stuff, even if it isn't necessarily what I expected when I saw the CD cover, a montage of the band members under red spotlights, hard at work. Look at the title and one might think, "Get your oxygen mask on--time to get on outside with Outer Spaceways Incorporated!" But though the much-missed Sun Ra's "Love in Outer Space" is covered here, there's a much more in feel, however elastic it might be.

 Mingus's "Remember Rockefeller at Attica" gets a rootsy bit of a go, the band underlining Le Grand Charles's debt to Cole Porter in the melody (you'll figure out what song).

Skip ahead a few tracks to Yamin's original, "Waltz on the Hudson," and you'll wonder what Marx Brothers movie this bouncy lovesong melody is in. Classic pre-Tin Pan Alley, and delightful support from Demos's tubs. I also can't fault Demos's literate snare work during a jolly run-thru of Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning."

If Solar has any main connotation I'd say McCoy Tyner's mid-to-late 1960s trios--you know, before he started using those muscular Jacob's ladder left-hand vamps he was into for a while.

Bernstein's "Samba de Aztac," this CD's opener, starts with some of that Lonnie Liston Smith cascading piano and drums, downshifting smoothly into a bopping continuum made to show off Yamin's very estimable chops. In fact, the take of Kurt Weill's "September Song" makes me think of one method Tyner might have used to cover it, though to my mind I don't recall if he has yet. A lot of what-ifs here, all diverting.

It's only fair to mention Bernstein's cheerfully plump bass extensions, on best display during "Rockefeller" (appropriately enough) and the stupefyingly in take of the Ra song. Well, we remember how Sonny Blount decided in his later years that it was time to bring the Arkestra back into orbit about Earth again (you can only write "The Utter Nots" once), but I would never have expected anybody to rescore "Love" to the point that Bill Evans might have used this arrangement. Very nice! Jazz is the sound of surprise, after all (thanks, Whitney Balliett), and that track is the most notable of the new year.

   I don't know how far out Solar is actually capable of getting, but you will enjoy the aural view from here.

 Trio X of Sweden

 Not to be trite but the word smorgasbord comes to mind when listening to Trio X of Sweden (Joakim Ekberg, percussion; Per Johansson, bass; Lennart Simonsson, piano). The trio show themselves capable of a large number of styles, so the question arises: do they want to give eclecticism a good name or is this CD a sort of aural resume?

 Agnas Musikproduktioner, Sweden

 Because though some bands can mix and match styles well, Trio X of Sweden have tried on so many different suits of clothes here that the jump from track to track can be rather jarring. Note the lead-footed drumming afforded the workmanlike theme of the initial cut, "Kavalaby." Might be a local folk tune, as can also be said for "Grubbepolska," a minuetlike dance (smart arranging, there, given how in Sweden a polska is comparable to an Irish jig in structure) to a one-in-a-bar throbbing bass. What's funny is that between these two pieces is a completely different, highly impressionist postbopper called "Swedish Dance Routine." Could have been left off Chick Corea's "Tones for Joan's Bones"?

 Ekberg whirls adroitly about his toms and cymbals, Simonsson comping along with a cocked ear for the spaces between notes, and Johansson's moody plucks taking the center of the sound field. Delightful. Not a lot of sonic baggage is shared by the ditties before and after with this one, but...

The surprises, most of them very pleasant I admit, keep coming. "There She Walks" has a rhythmic complexity I don't think Erroll Garner's trios ever essayed, but it captures them nicely otherwise, tiny scraps of R&B and boogie-woogie sticking out at angles. Sly connections in "Joel" between a trance ballad and some of the more evocative tonal phrases from Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" made me nod faux-wisely as if to say, "We've all been there."

"Back on Doubletrack" adds a nodding lilt to the previous tune's aura, but then "Bonsoir" and "Biggi's Dance" change direction again into a Lyle Mays pop/jazz sort of space.

Having been a Pat Metheny Group fan since their debut in the late 1970s (though Brian Ferneyhough and Roscoe Mitchell are more my thing these days), I have no problem with this; you, however, might start getting dizzy.

The mood of Trio X of Sweden's CD, to paraphrase Emerson keeps and passes and turns again for the next eight tracks as well-more Swedish folky bits, an oddly syncopated Monkism here, a wintry ballad there, more impressionistics. They certainly can do well whatever they choose. You'll get a workout, but that's what art is supposed to do. A sense of artistic focus may be overrated after all!

   I should mention that there already is a Trio X, that of the estimable Joe McPhee, Jay Rosen, and Dom Duval, but I'm hoping they don't decide to call a lawyer.

 Tom Walsh and Steve Swell

Tom Walsh, sampler and trombone; Steve Swell, guest trombone; Thom Gossage, percussion; Miles Perkin, bass

 Phat Hed

Ombu Recordings, Canada

 Montreal has long been a font of some excellent and challenging music, and not just because the Robert de Niro character in that movie The Score supposedly ran a Jazz club there--to say nothing of the proximity of the late-spring Victoriaville festival in Quebec City or Montreal's most unsung experimental rock/Jazz/classical acts IKS and Miriodor.

 Small record labels with big ears like Ombu have brought us Tom Walsh's trio/quartet Phat Hed, and there's some heady (no pun intended) stuff going on here.

Walsh's "Waltz Leger" (recorded at the 2003 Montreal Festival International de Jazz) opens up the program with antiseptic clouds of synthesized horns and strings that somehow do not transfer us into hyperimpressionistic Eberhard Weber country; rather, the widescreen selection of root chords spreads out over a very tantalizing distance and allows Perkin's slow, broken-bass sine wave to trampoline this piece to a higher level.

Gossage (known to me from his own fine ensemble, recorded by another label) brings his selection of musical saws to the fore, and Swell steps out to duel the drummer with humor and guile. Walsh eventually shuts down his sampler and takes up his own trombone, but the traffic never gets too heavy onstage to deter one from the many sights along an easily fluent way. In fact the later silence among the instruments spices the middle section of "Waltz Leger" in a way I wouldn't have expected.

Equally notable is the McCoy Tyner-like intensity of a take on Dave Holland's "Backwoods Song." Again, Perkin's performance makes me sit up and wonder why this isn't his band. But that sense of improv's credo, that anything can happen and usually does on a good night, is all the explanation necessary.

"Nitra Oxide" and "Drunk Man," recorded live in Slovenia in 2003 by Walsh with drummer Balasz Elemer and bassist Szandai Matyas, have a raw energy and an erudite sort of respect for the blues (Matyas's slippery shuffle is almost worth the price of the CD), but in an emotional as opposed to an intellectual vein. Very clever. "Drunk Man" is based on a Hungarian folk air but somehow that dusky attitude remains. Very cool.

We round out the evening with Benny Carter's "Walking Thing," waxed back at Montreal again, and without too much surprise Swell and Walsh's trombones merge and part with yet more wit. Sounds like a lot more wind instruments than just two, but if Phat Hed is a whole far greater than the sum of its parts that's very much to Walsh and his top-notch collaborators' credit.

   The new year is very new, but anybody else bringing a recording out shortly has a pretty high bar to jump to beat this.

 By Ken Egbert


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