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Lena Bloch: Lena Bloch: Feathery

Dave Wayne By

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One of the really enjoyable things about listening to jazz is that, after a few years, one is able to discern some aspects of a particular musician's stylistic evolution. If her debut album, Feathery, is any indication, saxophonist Lena Bloch has staked a claim on some of the most distinct real estate in the jazz neighborhood; the 50s era cool school jazz of Lennie Tristano, Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz. Far from being a mawkish tribute or an entry-level primer on what Tristano, Marsh, Konitz, et al. were up to, Bloch has gone well down the path of forming her own distinctive voice around this 60+ year-old sub-genre. Not a mean feat! Significantly, Bloch has worked and studied with Konitz, and considers him a mentor and a good friend. Perhaps that's why Feathery is so much more than a tribute to a bygone age, it's a vital statement and a fresh take on an approach to jazz improvisation that has never really gotten its due. In its own understated way, the playing here is perhaps more edgy and radical than what's found on most avant-jazz offerings.

Though Bloch's tenor sound is sweet, lilting, and easy to warm up to (imagine Paul Desmond on tenor), her artistry is as tough as nails. This is apparent even in her choice of sidemen. Drummer Billy Mintz has a similar mindset to Bloch. A master of subtlety and delicate shading, Mintz nonetheless swings as hard as Paul Motian or Billy Higgins even when he's playing the drums with his bare hands. It's always a pleasure to hear bassist Cameron Brown. A long time associate of Roswell Rudd, Beaver Harris, and Dewey Redman, Brown is perhaps best known for his stellar work with one of the most crucial jazz groups of the 1980s; the George Adams / Don Pullen Quartet. Here, Brown's as limber as ever, spinning out melodic lines and a fine solo on "Baby Suite." Guitarist Dave Miller is a particularly intriguing choice. A member of a dozen or so challenging and stylistically diverse Chicago- and Brooklyn-based combos, including Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls, the post-rock group Algernon, the avant-jazz ensemble Zing!, and in various groupings with saxophonist Greg Ward, drummer Dana Hall, and vocalist / keyboardist Patricia Barber, Miller demonstrates a true flair for the quirky side of straight-ahead jazz guitar. His solo on "Starry-Eyed" is a case in point. Sounding a bit like Jim Hall, he finds the oddest combinations within the changes, referring to the melody in a variety of ways, seemingly at will.

Feathery is comprised of nine tracks; two Bloch originals (one briefly revisited at the album's close), plus one each by Miller, Brown, and Mintz, a Warne Marsh tune ("Marshmallow"), Ted Brown's "Featherbed," and a lone standard; "Starry Eyed." One of Marsh's most challenging and thorny creations, "Marshmallow" gets a taut, bracing reading, with Miller's imaginative comping framing Bloch's eloquent tenor. Miller follows Bloch's solo with an excellent one of his own. The guitarist's composition, "Rubato," is the most radical thing on the disc. Treading the boundary between free improv (pioneered by Tristano in the 50s) and the aforementioned cool school terrain, Miller's pensive melody gives way to Mintz' almost orchestral drum solo. The ensuing quartet improvisation is graceful and sparse in an almost ECM-like manner. Brown's lengthy "Baby Suite" is episodic, interspersing solo improvisations by Brown and Mintz with interestingly varied ensemble passages. Here, Bloch's soloing is more brawny and bluesy; a nice contrast to her more refined, but no less appealing, approach elsewhere on the recording. Bloch's own pieces are distinctive and point to her great promise as a composer. "Hi-Lee" kicks off the album with a feature for Brown's resonant bass. Bloch and Miller ease into the easygoing melody by soloing a bit around it first. The spooky-yet-lush "Farewell to Arms" has that surreal, slowed-down minor-key sound that Yusef Lateef, another one of Bloch's mentors, used to great effect in his own music. The twisting, arabesque melody doesn't so much terminate as wander off into Bloch's evocative solo.

In her liner notes, pianist Roberta Piket notes that this album, Bloch's debut as a leader, is long overdue. As true as that may be, there's something to be said for really living life. Bloch's career in music has included stints in Isreal, Holland, and Germany (where she worked with the legendary ethno-psych-improv band Embryo) before she landed in Brooklyn for good in 2008. I imagine Ms. Bloch has some great stories! Considering just the musical ones she tells on her debut album, Bloch's musical journeying has paid off hugely. Lessons fully absorbed, mentors became friends, journeys to other lands revealed new musical vistas, and Feathery proves that none of this time was wasted.

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