Different Shapes & Sounds: Solo, Trio, Small & Large Ensembles

Chris M. Slawecki By

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PulsionAfro Latin Vintage Orchestra

A musician friend whose opinion I greatly respect shared with me that he enjoys listening to Pulsion, the fourth release by the Afro Latin Vintage Orchestra (ALVO), in two layers: The frothy jazz-influenced horn, brass and string arrangements on top and, like a musical parfait, the churning Latin, AfroCuban and other funk rhythms underneath.

ALVO was founded in 2007 around the core band of Masta Conga (percussionist, ringleader and spokesman), Benjamin Peyrot de Gachons (keyboards), Jean-Baptiste Feyt (trumpet), Max Hartock (drums), Elvis Martinez (guitar), Victor Dos Santos (alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet), and Philippe Vernier (baritone saxophone, clarinet, flute), a global conglomerate that Conga describes as "a space of creation all around, of various revolving musicians according to projects." They're joined on Pulsion by double-bassist David Battestini-Quadri and a string quartet. "On this fourth album, we tried a new approach by including various inspirations such as library music, spiritual and electric jazz funk, abstract hip-hop, with a touch of European groove and contemporary music," Conga explains.

The title track is quite representative of this entire piece: "Pulsion" opens with Battestini-Quadri's acoustic bass tethered to classic 1960s acoustic jazz but the other instrumentation, directed by Feyt's electric trumpet like a spectral spooky finger, quickly lifts the music like an untied balloon to float away and leave jazz behind. Even though trumpet is the lead instrument, the driving percussion rhythms frequently overtake this tune's center. "Shaman" grows from bass line doubled by piano into a hothouse flower of electric keyboards, growling reeds and other exotic sounds, and then navigates a freeform dialogue between saxophone, percussion and bass before settling into Congas's warm Latin percussion groove. "Shaman" would have also been a great title for this entire set. Rippling currents of electronics, horns, bass and strings set the subsequent soundstage for the cinematic "Drama."

Miles Davis' trumpet sound and fearless explorer's essence (more in feeling than execution) emerge like shadows from "Chroniques Marxiennes" and "French Connexion": Trumpet, piano and strings outline and punctuate the "Chroniques" arrangement, with an electric keyboard solo that conjures the spry and schizophrenic spirit—restless, relentless, irreverent yet respectful—of Chick Corea's work in some of Davis' electronic ensembles. "French Connexion" strips down the instrumentation but not the thick heady atmosphere—flute, trumpet, strings, keyboards and congas float in and out, like musical actors coming and going onstage in a play.

Pulsion is easily one of the most intriguing, entertaining and yet inscrutable sets you'll ever hear. I replied to my musician friend with my own description: If trumpeter Don Cherry recorded an album with Mongo Santamaria as his rhythm section, arranged and with strings by Nino Rota and produced by hip-hop pioneer Greyboy, it would sound like Pulsion. He's probably still laughing at this description, but he didn't disagree with it either.

Offering Live at Temple UniversityJohn Coltrane
Offering: Live at Temple University

Offering: Live at Temple University finally and officially releases the John Coltrane concert (in)famous for him singing with his voice in addition to singing through his saxophone during several pieces. Released on the saxophonist's 88th birthday (September 23, 2014), it presents a genuinely legendary 1966 performance in a small hall about ten blocks from Coltrane's own home in his adopted Philadelphia hometown, plus a snapshot of one of his most musically combustible ensembles: His wife Alice Coltrane on piano, Pharoah Sanders on second tenor and piccolo, Rashied Ali on drums, Sonny Johnson on bass (Johnson's brother Dewey Johnson played trumpet on Coltrane's jazz landmark Ascension released the year before [1965, Impulse!]), here joined by several local percussionists and saxophonists.

Offering blows a jazz hurricane of ferocious intensity. Their twin tenors in "Crescent" contrast Coltrane's muscular melodicism with Sanders' free-jazz screams, with every instrument except for Ali's drums seeking shelter from Sanders' storm. Coltrane's tenor in the final seven-minute passage of this tune, accompanied only by percussion and drums, displays in sharp and brilliant color his fearless explorations of avant-garde and African music through modern jazz.

"Leo" opens with Trane and Sanders bleating out inversions of the bebop classic "Salt Peanuts," which Sanders quickly shreds into shrieking tenor sounds. While these two lead saxophones galvanize the music, the piano, drums and percussion roll together ebbing and flowing, radiant pulses of rhythm and sound. Coltrane briefly sings to counterpoint Sanders' tenor, reenters on soprano, and later sings again—pure dusky vocal ejaculations of musical ecstasy, his voice straining toward lines that his saxophone eventually picks up to echo and more expansively explore before "Leo" fades away like a passing thunderstorm. In the concluding tour de force "My Favorite Things," Alice's piano solo sounds just as kinetic as her husband's saxophone, and as she splatters notes in every direction it is easy to hear the power and vision that made Coltrane's wife such an obvious choice to fill the majestic piano chair vacated by McCoy Tyner.

So while Offering: Live at Temple University officially and finally releases the John Coltrane concert famous for him singing, it delivers so much more, and is so much more important, than that. "For me, the Temple recording is an affirmation that, no, he didn't exhaust the saxophone," explains saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John and Alice's son. "The saxophone was just a tool, one over which he had a master's command. His voice was an extension of the saxophone as the saxophone was an extension of his voice. When you hear that transition on 'Leo,' it's totally seamless in energy, vibe and intention."

A 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation, Resonance Records is contributing a portion of every CD and LP sold to The John Coltrane Home, an organization devoted to the preservation of Coltrane's former home in Dix Hills, New York.

Ramshackle SerenadeLarry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Bill Stewart
Ramshackle Serenade

Like just about every historically great organ trio, these three expert musicians are strongly rooted in funk and jazz: Organ player Larry Goldings and drummer Bill Stewart both spent time smoking riffs for saxophonist Maceo Parker (not at the same time), while no less an authority than Jim Hall once called Peter Bernstein the most impressive jazz guitarist he'd ever heard. These shared roots especially grow through this set's "Mr. Meagles," through which Goldings and Bernstein respectively move and groove like Jimmy Smith and Grant Green.

"Sweet and Lovely" is more than a standard lovingly rendered by these six capable hands—it's an accurate summation of this entire set. "We have developed a group sound in a completely natural way instead of having a sound that is dominated by the organ," Goldings suggests. "Maybe it's because of the respect we have for one another as musicians with strong personalities."

They respectfully open their Serenade with Goldings' tribute to drummer Max Roach. Organ and guitar riffs stroll into and then jump out of this leisurely glide, move to swap brassy chords (which sound like they'd be the horn chart in a larger ensemble) and then open up for increasingly long and complex drum rolls and cymbal splashes that honor this tune's namesake. In another namesake tribute, Goldings' chords wrap up and nestle Bernstein's opening guitar like luxurious bedclothes as it dances through all the beauty and romance of Antonio Carlos Jobim's ballad for his youngest child, daughter "Luiza."

These three voices sing the title track "Ramshackle Serenade" in a truly singular voice that radiates the warmth of jazz from the American heartland nurtured by Pat Metheny, Bruce Hornsby and similar mainstream artists. "We all wanted it as the album's title," Goldings explains. "I think that sometimes we as a band let feelings of dissolution and chaos meet up with strength and beauty. It's fun to take something beautiful and harmonically and rhythmically turn it around so that certain darker shadows mix in. Tension is crucial when you want to make good music."

Stewart builds up "Blue Sway" upon guitar and organ chords that rock it back and forth, its melody and rhythm as perfectly titled as "Sweet and Lovely" and as the serene and floating rendition of Horace Silver's "Peace" which closes this set.

Matadorials Matadors

The acoustic jazz Matadors came together while its three members—multi-woodwind player Michael Sachs from Los Angeles, bassist Aaron Darrell from Virginia and drummer Jun Young Song from Seoul (Korea)—were simultaneously pursuing undergraduate studies through Berklee College of Music scholarships. Their progressive jazz debut marks the first release on Berklee's independent record label birnCORE, was recorded live in the Berklee Internet Radio Network live room, and was produced by George Massenburg (whose decades of experience as an engineer, mixer, remixer and producer include work with Little Feat, Herbie Hancock and Linda Ronstadt).

The quiet and thoughtful Matadorials never confuses intensity with volume and projects the studied, assured confidence of musicians equally adept at mainstream, free, modern/progressive jazz and whatever might come after that. Several titles prove most descriptive: The somber "Sullen Skies" sounds more like a studied classical miniature than like jazz, especially when someone's singing voice doubles the saxophone's melody line, and empties into total silence before the bassist picks up his solo. "Oslo" almost imperceptibly opens with percussion that softly rattles like icicles scraping against your windowpane, and then floats through a meandering melody barely tethered together through the lightest of musical threads.

In the opening "Lisney Dand," Darrell's walking acoustic bass bumps and nudges Sachs's alto, as sharp and dry as Paul Desmond's, like a playful yet obedient pup following its master's walk. It's a quietly adventurous sound, perhaps even the new cool school: Sometimes all three seem to be soloing simultaneously, sometimes they seem to be playing in tight unison, and sometimes no one's playing at all. But the trio won't let you take "Lisney Dand" too seriously; it's arranged to deliberately sound like a skipping vinyl record—twice.

Sachs's airy, nimble alto in "Reaudition" also brings to mind, in addition to Desmond, Mel Collins' beautiful work in King Crimson on such albums as Islands (Editions EG, 1971). So does the subsequent jumbled jazz of "Disarray," which the trio, especially drummer Young Song, scrambles into frothy rhythms—the interwoven sound of a band conversing among itself.

Tribal DanceTohpati
Tribal Dance

Indonesian composer, producer and guitarist Tohpati continues his march toward dominating the jazz-rock fusion guitar world with Tribal Dance. Written and produced by the guitarist, this electrifying Dance was recorded live in a Los Angeles studio then finished in Indonesia, and is credited to "Tohpati featuring Jimmy Haslip and Chad Wackerman." Haslip and Wackerman previously worked together on the 2010 MoonJune set Blues for Tony, to honor the untimely passing in 2007 of drummer, composer and Lifetime Visions Orchestra bandleader Tony Williams, and their previous experience playing together helps them provide Tohpati with rhythm section that's a genuine rhythmic force. So much color and energy explodes from this set.

Even though Tohpati has a unique guitar sound, it reflects the brilliance of other exceptional guitarists. "Rahwana" erupts in a blazing and brilliant jazz-rock ensemble voice with dynamics that leap from fusion jazz to hard rock to heavy metal (changes that Jeff Beck fans will thoroughly enjoy); Haslip rolls through blues riffs like a locomotive while Wackerman nails down an articulate yet monstrous beat. In "Run," Tohpati's opening riff washes up from the shores of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood" before exploding like metallic shrapnel into multiple directions, then scratching out itchy funk rhythm guitar that keeps time behind Haslip's head-spinning bass solo. The spirit of Al Di Meola screams through the Latin-tinged jazz-rock fusion of the wonderfully descriptive "Supernatural"—Tohpati's speed, dexterity and power on guitar does sometime sound otherworldly.

Blues guitar, rippling over drums and percussion, flows through rock guitar into the "Spirit of Java" along with the vibrant tones, rhythms and scales of music from Indonesia. (Wackerman busts the last several minutes of this tune apart, pounding it like a hurricane crashing onto shore.) The title track sprawls through several movements, opening with vocal, percussion and crowd noise samples that part like morning mist for Tohpati's warm and bright, dawning guitar melody; Wackerman swaps pushing the tempo ahead with pulling it back, creating rhythmic tension for Haslip's deep bass to thunder through.

Even though Haslip and Wackerman contribute so much, it somehow seems fitting that this Tribal Dance concludes with the solo guitar meditation "Midnight Rain."

Metaphor Dimitrije Vasiljević

The second solo piano release by composer, pianist and Serbian native Dimitrije Vasiljevic, Metaphor seems to embody the very best of the European (Eastern and Western) and American classical and jazz piano traditions. With his austere yet light approach to melody and rhythm, Vasiljević reflects both emerging pianists such as Eldar Djangirov and more longstanding stalwarts such as Keith Jarrett.

In fact, Vasiljević studied under the same jazz piano professor who instructed Jarrett, Joe Zawinul and Chick Corea at the Berklee College of Music, and subsequently studied with JoAnne Brackeen and Danilo Pérez. (Metaphor also sounds as pristinely recorded as any Jarrett solo piano album in the ECM Records' catalog).

Even though it is hard to distinguish between what's improvised and what's composed on Metaphor—between the dancer and the dance—Vasiljević's music is undeniably beautiful and brilliant. "I'm trying to be an artist who expresses thought, ideas and feelings through music," he explains. "I have a great respect for masters but also know how to respect myself."

Vasiljević opens and closes this set with some of his best music. The pianist paints in the opening "Wardenclyffe" a rippling "portrait of Nikola Tesla presented through music" with cascading notes that merge together into streams of melody. A sense of awakening emerges as he circles back to revisit and expand variations upon specific phrases with extraordinary vision and technique. Vasiljević seems to play the closing "Ditto" out from its center: Phrases keep repeating (check the title), circling back and burrowing into themselves and then growing back out into new melodies like new shoots from a central vine. "Ditto" also sounds like Vasiljević is painting a musical picture and the ivories are his canvas.

Even though Metaphor is undeniably serious music, the pianist's left and right hands sometimes sound like they're having fun playing "cat and mouse" with each other. His quicksilver "Anima" is almost too animated—he plays so many ideas so quickly that your ears almost feel left behind—and "Sacré-Coeur" rolls through its chords with a creole jazz feel. "Tronozhats" cleverly twists and jumps into the sounds of both Horace Silver (his melody) and Dave Brubeck (his variations), a famous fan of Eastern European music.

"I come from a region of Eastern Europe where odd meters are common in traditional folk songs, so I grew up listening to 7/8, 9/8 and 11/8. Songs like this were on TV and radio every day," Vasiljević recalls. "Much later, when I started composing jazz, I was influenced by Balkan traditional music which has compound odd meters such as 17/8, 27/8 and 29/8."

Tracks and Personnel:


Tracks: Kagemusha; Pulsion; Rituel; Resurrection; La Traque; Homo Analog; Audio Synthese; La Blanche; Complot; Shaman; Drama; En Sursis; Chroniques Marxiennes; French Connexion; Code Panthera; Kung Fu.

Personnel: Masta Conga: percussion; Benjamin Peyrot de Gachons: keyboards; Jean-Baptiste Feyt: trumpet; Max Hartock: drums; Elvis Martinez: guitar; Victor Dos Santos: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Philippe Vernier: baritone saxophone, clarinet, flute; David Battestini-Quadri: double bass.

Offering: Live at Temple University

Tracks: Disc One: Naima; Crescent; Disc Two: Leo; Offering; My Favorite Things.

Personnel: John Coltrane: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, flute, vocals; Alice Coltrane: piano; Sonny Johnson: bass; Rashied Ali: drums; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone, piccolo; Steve Knoblauch: alto saxophone; Arnold Joyner: alto saxophone; Umar Ali: congas; Robert Kenyatta: congas; Charles Brown: congas; Angie DeWitt: bata drum.

Ramshackle Serenade

Tracks: Roach; Luiza; Simple as That; Ramshackle Serenade; Mr. Meagles; Sweet and Lovely; Blue Sway; Useless Metaphor; Peace.

Personnel: Larry Goldings: Hammond organ; Peter Bernstein: guitar; Bill Stewart: drums.


Tracks: Sullen Skies; Oslo; And How Are You; Reaudition; Disarray; Lucky Me; Anna's Big Tear; Levin's Small Joy.

Personnel: Michael Sachs: woodwinds; Jun Young Song: drums; Aaron Darrell: bass.

Tribal Dance

Tracks: Rahwana; Spirit of Java; Tribal Dance; Red Mask; Savana; Run; Supernatural; Midnight Rain.

Personnel: Tohpati: guitars; Jimmy Haslip: bass; Chad Wackerman: drums; Pak Komyang: vocals; Iwan Wiradz: vocals.


Tracks: Wardenclyffe; Sacré-Coeur; Anima; Ellipsis; Far; The Love is Out There (Live); Tronozhats; Ditto.

Personnel: Dimitrije Vasiljević: piano.




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