Delmark Goes Modern
Back at the Velvet Lounge
Certain musicians are dependable. Their very names on an album cover suggest an immediate indication of what’s in store for the listener with near certainty. Sometimes though dependability can be detriment. Occasionally a musician can fall into a rut of repetition, treading the same trails until once fertile soil becomes trampled and stale. Fred Anderson, one of the Windy City’s most venerable and consistent jazz fixtures isn’t in this fix yet, but I fear that he might be heading in that direction with his second Delmark release.
Once again the scene is the Velvet Lounge, Anderson’s creative music enclave for going on two decades. Once again the usual associates are in attendance on the bandstand. Stalwart bass anchors Aoki and Bankhead along with drummer Chad Taylor have each been featured prominently at various points in Anderson’s dozen-strong discography. The new face is youthful trumpeter Brown, who makes an impressive recording debut, particularly on his switch from sedate to declamatory during the disc’s first cut “Fogeux.”
Five ‘new’ compositions are unveiled in all, but to be honest the fresh clutch of tunes is heavily steeped in the familiar blues-based figures that are the flexible basis most of Anderson’s music. It’s here where I believe the problem lies. Hearing Fred (and his friends) blow can be a cathartic and intensely enjoyable experience, especially in person in the funky confines of the Lounge. But his palette is limited by choice and has thus far only rarely allowed for substantial deviations from his standard vernacular.
Bankhead does his part to vary the proceedings from what’s come before by strapping on an acoustic guitar for “Job Market Blues.” His scratchy ramshackle strumming sharpens a funky edge onto the tune, but Anderson still seems staunchly rooted in his stock phraseology. Parker also attempts to pull the leader out of his comfort zone on, but the stylistic tug of war ends up becoming a bit tiresome over the long haul. The overall feel is more of a typical blowing conclave at the Velvet, rather than a cut above performance worthy of commercial circulation. Another peccadillo is the slightly muddy fidelity, unusual for Velvet sound engineer mainstay Clarence Bright.
Fred Anderson is hands-down one of my favorite living saxophonists. My admiration and affection for the man and his music make the scribing of a lukewarm review all that much more uncomfortable. Longtime Fred fans will want to pick this one up, especially for his initial unaccompanied solo work on “Olivia.” But listeners just becoming acquainted with his emotionally rich oeuvre should probably start elsewhere.
Delmark’s long been about giving local Chicago and Midwest talent a shot. As such, Bob Koester’s decision to place a patronly bet on the talents of bassist Abrams with this debut disc isn’t so unusual. Where the surprise arrives is in the band of compatriots Abrams assembled for the session.
Dörner and Gregorio are from Germany and Argentina respectively. Each represents a colorful braiding of current strains of creative energy in improvised music. The former’s deconstructionist tendencies are widely documented. So is his near supernatural ability to eke out virtually any sound from his brass. Gregorio’s reputation carries a similar sterling value. His accomplishments as composer and improvisor regularly incorporate a multi-disciplinary approach by integrating elements from the visual and architectural arts into his music. Jeff Parker personifies the final piece in the four-prong puzzle. He continues to shine brightly across a solar system of musical spheres- from the ambient technotronica of Tortoise to regular jazz gigs with Fred Anderson and his own trio.
Abrams opens the program up to pieces by his partners along with a small handful of his own compositions. The title track and “And See” come from a studio date, while the others are the wheat shaken from a harvestable Empty Bottle gig. All four men are as adept at playing abstract sound patterns, as they are more conventional jazz structures. This sort of stylistic straddling drives the music from the initial interplay of “Mental Politician.” Abrams and Parker reel out percolating pizzicato lines down the middle while the horns voice terse phrasings along the stereo channel flanks. Dörner capitalizes on the first of many chances to show off his abilities at conjuring static-charged acoustic tones from his trumpet. Gregorio’s alto is less alien in intonation. He races through a range of upper register trills and smeared notes.
“And See” is conversely awash in luminous layered drones making it difficult to localize to any single instrument. Parker uses sustain pedals in conjunction with Gregorio’s limpid clarinet and burnished metallic gleam of Dörner’s horn to create topography of rising and falling tones. “Neo Nimaj Nero” radiates from a loping jazz bass line and Parker’s lilting single note lines. Soon, Gregorio’s lyrical clarinet further elaborates on a coalescing thematic thread. And so the chameleonic colloquy continues through another seven cuts.
If there’s a downside to this exploratory journey its perhaps in extended duration of the trip. While ideas flow plentifully the program seems a shade too long and could have benefited from bit of judicious editing. Still, listener patience consistently pays strong dividends. In the disc’s notes, Abrams explicitly states his desire to see the band outlive the single string of dates documented herein. Based on the quality of the musical ore they’ve tapped, I’m inclined to agree.
Malachi Thompson’s Africa Brass
As the eleventh Delmark album by Thompson and his third featuring the expanded Africa Brass horn section schematic, this disc suggests that the decades deep relationship shared by the trumpeter and his label is in no danger of flagging. Regrettably, it also continues the track record of less than stellar musical results that has hounded the leader for the last several years. Thompson’s ambitious ideas often seem to just over-reach his skills of execution. The session starts with a promising premise- the celebration of free-bop’s (a term Thompson didn’t coin, but a style of his own design) 25th anniversary by enlisting a roster of estimable guests. Saxophonists Bartz and Harper are the highest profile, but fellow Chicagoans Ari Brown and Dee Alexander also make engaging, if brief, contributions.
The nine-member brass section gives the band a top-heavy slant, but Brown, Bankhead and Joyce, Jr. do an admirable stint as rhythm section counterweight. Bartz and Harper are the undisputed heavyweights, but their contributions end up oddly subdued in places. It’s almost as if Thompson’s reluctance to unleash the pair’s full powers for fear of compromising the more egalitarian aspects of the band as a whole. Considering their out-numbered odds it would’ve been a thrill to hear the saxophonists take on the marshaled might of the brass section together and individually. Sadly, the opportunity for these sorts of amiable confrontations is largely passed up.
Thompson chooses instead to trace another one of his highly stylized timelines through jazz history. Divided into two orchestral sections “Black Metropolis Suite” and “Blues for a Saint Called Louis Suite” the disc puts the AACM’s credo of “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” into creative practice. A final trilogy of tunes that includes Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” completes the package. The pieces draw collectively on a lineage linking the Dixieland roots of Satchmo through the piquant modern gumbo that is jazz today. Thompson’s large-scale charts are sturdy, but they sometimes sound derivative. The relative economy of brass solos is also kind of surprising. The leader, Berry and McFarland devour the lion’s share of statements, but more often the section is used en mass as a source of sliding harmonies and thrust.
The bright head of “Black Metropolis” is but one example. Expanding on the catchy melody the band breaks apart into rhythm-plus-soloists configurations starting with Thompson switching to Bartz and Harper. The brass section is basically left riffing on the breaks between. Other pieces rely on equally hook-laden structures and incorporate vocals along with the occasional instance of free interplay as on the atmospheric “Genesis/Rebirth.” With “Mud Pie” Thompson even dips into some funky organ grooves coupling Brown’s keys with the booting saloon sax of “Daddy G” Barge and the gruff shouts of The Big Doowopper. While the overall program is a bit underwhelming, quite a bit of enjoyable jazz sifts to the surface in sectional moments of inspiration.
One of the most enduring aspects of improvised music is the infinite mutability of musician associations. Band borders are among the most porous of any musical genre. Players switch and trade-up with catalyzing regularity. It’s one of the few styles of musical expression that actively encourages continuous recombinating and is made all the more healthy through a resistance to long-term convention and custom.
Drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Tom Abbs are both of a younger generation that has internalized this loose ideology. Older, but no less adventurous are saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and trombonist Steve Swell. Together, these four men form the core cooperative Active Ingredients, a band name that echoes the galvanizing energy inherent in their association. Also in the ranks for Titration is a trio of Chicagoans, colleagues of Taylor’s who bridge the complimentary styles of East Coast and Midwest free jazz.
“Song For Dyani” gets things off to a wobbly, but enthusiastic start as the band slips a little on its shimmy down the opening theme. Moondoc soon takes charge and guides things back on course with a plangent alto line. Swell follows, but for some inexplicable reason the track fades out as his cavorting brass is just hitting stride. “Velocity” is a dirge curiously devoid of a traceable tempo for much of its duration, a drifting cloud of palpitating brushes, craggy arco bass, mewling brass and fluttery alto figures. “Slate” showcases strong rhythm as Taylor and Abbs trade percussive patterns and Moondoc skronks on top with Swell and Mazurek. The full septet arrives for “Modern Mythology” a rhythmic vamp-driven piece that adds Boykin’s boisterous tenor to the fray as fine complement to Moondoc’s mercurial alto.
The brief “Absence” matches the horns of Moondoc, Swell and Mazurek with Abb’s hummingbird arco and clattery hi-hat in a fractious union. The bassist’s switch to meaty plucking signals a rapid race for tune’s finish and the horns answer by chattering excitedly. Boykin returns for the somber sounding title, track, voicing a melancholic theme embellished by his harmonizing partners. Moondoc’s higher register alto contrasts in tone, but not sentiment. He traverses the dour terrain in another sprint followed closely by Swell’s sputtering brass before deferring for a Boykin tour de force.
Taylor tackles “Dependent Origination” by his lonesome. While brief, the track offers an intriguing distillation of the more melodic side of his drumming and a strong debt to Denis Charles. The disc’s grand finale arrives with the anthem-worthy “Other Peoples Problems” where the core quartet convenes for a last joint sally. Moondoc thrives in the emotion-heavy surroundings, sculpting the sort of pathos-pregnant solo at which he so uniformly excels.
Stacking this current batch of Delmarks against previous ones there’s an obvious turn toward an emphasis on more modern strains of jazz. In the past, Bob Koester’s abiding love of traditional jazz has been manifest in at least one Dixieland or swing release per clutch. In this case all of the entries are post-bop and beyond. The shift suggests that the label’s 50th Anniversary (celebrated this year) is reason to focus its collective eyes wisely on the future. Thankfully, there are also other pairs averted to the hindsight of the past making the label the most complete curator of Chicago’s jazz history.
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Tracks and Personnel:
Fred Anderson – Back at the Velvet Lounge
Tracks: Fogeux/ Olivia/ Job Market Blues/ Syene/ King Fish.
Players: Fred Anderson- tenor saxophone; Maurice Brown- trumpet; Jeff Parker- guitar; Harrison Bankhead- bass, acoustic guitar; Tatsu Aoki- bass; Chad Taylor- drums. Recorded: November 18, 2002.
Josh Abrams – Cipher
Tracks: Mental Politician/ And See/ Neb Nimaj Nero/ Cipher/ Calamities Break/ No Theory/ Background Beneath/ Space Modulator/ First Tune That Night/ For SK.
Players: Josh Abrams- bass; Axel Dörner- trumpet, slide trumpet; Guillermo Gregorio- clarinet, alto saxophone; Jeff Parker- guitar. Recorded: Sebtember 11-13, 2002, Chicago.
Malachi Thompson & Africa Brass – Blue Jazz
Tracks: Black Metropolis/ The Panther/ Jaaz Revelations/ Genesis/Rebirth/ Po’ Little Louie/ Get On the Train/ Blues For a Saint Called Louis/ Blue Jazz/ Footprints/ Mud Hole.
Players: Malachi Thompson- trumpet, flugelhorn; Gary Bartz- alto & soprano saxophones; Billy Harper- tenor saxophone; David Spencer, Kenny Anderson, Micah Frazier, Elmer Brown- trumpets; Tracy Kirk, Steve Berry, Bill McFarland, Omar Jefferson- trombones; Kirk Brown- piano, organ; Harrison Bankhead- bass; Leon Joyce, Jr.- drums; Dee Alexander- vocals; Ari Brown- tenor saxophone, clarinet; Gene “Daddy G” Barge- tenor saxophone; The Big Doowopper- vocals. Recorded: December 17, 2001 and February 27-28, 2003, Chicago.
Active Ingredients – Titration
Tracks: Song For Dyani/ Velocity/ Slate/ Visual Industries/ Modern Mythology/ Absence/ Titration/ Dependent Origination/ Other Peoples’ Problems.
Players: Chad Taylor- drums; Jemeel Moondoc- alto saxophone; Tom Abbs- bass, hi-hat; Steve Swell- trombone; Rob Mazurek- cornet; David Boykin- tenor saxophone; Avreeayl Ra- percussion. Recorded: July 5-6, 2002, Chicago.