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January 2023


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Masaki Hayashi Group
Blur The Border
S/N Alliance

In contrast to its sister-label Nagalu Records, Shinya Fukumori's S/N alliance is devoted to music and musicians outside of Japan, bringing idioms from classical music and improvised streams under one roof, to be shared across borders. And pianist Masaki Hayashi's Blur The Border fits right on the cusp of those idioms—too through-composed and arranged, with traits from European classical music, to simply be considered "jazz," and too spontaneously borne out of the moment, with free communication between the players, to be called "classical music."

On the album Hayashi is joined by a chamber sextet featuring Shinya Fukumori on drums, Hiroshi Suzuki on reeds, Takashi Sugawa on bass and cello, and with Atsuki Yoshida on violin and viola plus guitarist Kazuma Fujimoto. Ambient and deconstructed in one moment ("Flux"), atmospheric and sparse in the next ("Oneba"), Hayashi's composing proves of vast influences, ranging from the lullaby-esque melodiousness of Japanese folk over the big Romantic gestures of 19th Century classical music to modern-day jazz improvisation, all within a matter of minutes, but united within in a homogenous sonic surface. Much of the music has a cinematic quality to it, due to the wide atmospheric build-ups on the one hand, and because of the programmatically operating subjects on the other. Like themes to specific environments, or even people, the songs introduce different melodies and other motif-like elements with a strong sense of purpose, painting a precise portrait.

Opening cut "Yuragu" makes a dramatic entrance, placing long melancholy sighs at its core, framed by hovering strings. "Analogy," by contrast, is of a fiercer character, with deep saxophone leads painting a more threatening picture, before the ensemble breaks up and moves into more uncertain territory. All the while, Hayashi presents himself as a constructor-composer rather than a pianist —instrumental virtuosity couldn't be further from his mind. Instead, small patterns and harmonic outlines form waves, like ripples in the water, picked up by the other musicians and expanded upon with emphatic crescendo. The group occasionally picks up the otherwise delicate pace, and things get rowdy, as with "Cleanse"— demonstrating some of the group's more muscular soloist attitude. Just when one thinks to know what to expect, the next surprise comes around the corner, because Masaki Hayashi indeed very successfully "blurs the border." .

Dave Douglas Quintet
Songs of Ascent: Book 1—Degrees
Songs of Ascent: Book 2—Steps
Greenleaf Music

Reviving the quintet-line-up from his Be Still-Time Travel-Brazen Heart album series, on Songs of Ascent New York trumpet institution Dave Douglas goes on quite the daring venture. Of all the music that has ever existed, jazz is arguably the one genre that relies on real-time communication the most. Reaction in and of the moment. Be it between two hands of one player, between a duo alternating melodic and comping duties, or a larger group, dynamically building momentum as they exchange glances, ideas, phrases. Here, Douglas puts that reactive quality to the test: In what is a remotely recorded project, the trumpeter documented all of his parts first. The remaining band added their voices to his lead after the fact. One wouldn't be crazy to assume that this approach would rob the session of any spontaneity or make lively interplay impossible. Yet, the two Songs of Ascent volumes prove that this isn't the case.

Between tight unison lines over, in turn, balladic and more vivaciously pulsed tunes, extended solos on top of a dynamic back-drop and more spontaneously intertwined sections of deeply etched interplay, the quintet couldn't sound more alive and together. Take "A Fowler's Snare" or "Olive Shoots" for example—Ornette Coleman-esque structures that have saxophonist Jon Irabagon and Douglas trading leads to a wildly swinging rhythm section with pianist Matt Mitchell providing frequent chromatic explosions within ambiguous harmonic frames. Sometimes the cues are obvious, other times the group just washes over the changes, in trance and interlocked with one another in spirit and time. Proving that the free jazz attitude isn't just an excuse for imprecision, they enter into gentle balladic territory on "Quiver," the opening piece of Book 2: Steps, or "A Weaned Child," off of the same volume. The ballads demonstrate the group's attentiveness for each other, proving of high-alert interplay and beautifully constructed solos by Mitchell and Douglas. Drummer Rudy Royston and Linda May Han Oh on bass are far more than a solid foundation to lean on; their contributions are compelling and defining—tying the group together, and, where necessary, pulling it apart like threads of a web.

Inspiration for the project came from the 15 biblical psalms known as the "Songs of Ascent." The sixteenth here, The other Ornette Coleman-ish "Never Let Me Go," came to the trumpeter early on, it works like a gateway to this album's musical universe and teases at the things to come. By funny coincidence, musically speaking there are a lot of descending lines that dig their way through these compositions—in the opening cut alone. But the "ascending" part is not meant to be taken literally, on an instrumental level anyways. Instead, Douglas insists how "the uplift of working with these texts was so important to me. The world needs light, and the daily task of making music with his specific purpose of uplift is necessary for not only out own sanity, but for the furtherance of all positive energies worldwide." In that sense, yes, this music is positively ascending.

Jeff Parker, Eric Revis, Nasheet Waits
Eastside Romp
Rogue Art

When Marion Brown burst on to the avant-garde jazz scene in the mid-'60s, there was no holding back that determined lyrical alto tone, always ready to explore the dizziest tune to the full. On Eastside Romp, Jeff Parker, Eric Revis and Nasheet Waits take on Brown's "Similar Limits" as the opening title. After the head, it's all crash, paying Brown due respect. Parker "deguitarises" his instrument, switching to frequencies unknown—effect pedal to the ready—as Revis and Waits tear the structure down, like a bulldozer tipping over due to the weight of its victim. The opener debugs the session, setting the floor for more gentle introspections, as the trio explores Parker's Western-ballad "Wait." It's one of those beautiful meditations that swings like a pendulum, back and forth within two-to-three-chord structures as the players take their turns soloing.

After "Wait" comes Waits's "Between Nothingness and Infinity," another meditative exercise in reduction that has the group delving down smooth paths of soft-spoken interplay, giving Parker the necessary room for delay and tremolo explorations of psychedelic quality before "Drunkard's Lullaby" —this time a Revis original—brings back the mad and wonky, however with a distorted rock attitude rather than avant- garde-free. The title track is a clearly structured, rhythm-oriented improvisation, followed by another quiet Waits composition before Parker's "Watusi" brings the session to a swinging close with what must be—besides to Marion Brown's "Similar Limits"—the standout head of the album. Parker first introduced the track to his repertory on his 2003 trio recording Like-Coping (Delmark Records), with Chad Taylor and Chris Lopez, and gives the tune a newly invigorated pass here, recorded with arguably more "boom" than on the previous occasion. It's a romp alright, but it has its reflective moments, too.

Uusi Aika
Uusi Aika
We Jazz

Bold in its discreetness and eccentric in its lo-fi aesthetics, the Finnish ensemble Uusi Aika's debut record proves a truly unique offering. Between folk, improvisational approaches from jazz and avant-garde as well as synthesizer tapestries that bring the 21st century into the music, Uusi Aika moves elegantly between the genres without sounding eclectic. Meekly and always in coherent presentation, a wide variety of currents blend into an ensemble sound that is elegantly led by wind player Otto Eskelinen, mainly on alto sax and the Japanese bamboo flute shakuhachi, seamlessly navigating through open structures. The influences here are vast, sometimes skilfully veiled and rendered unrecognisable, yet at the same time the music sounds primal, as if it has always been there.

Eskelinen himself names inspirations ranging from Jan Garbarek to Lester Young to Japanese folk music: "Lately I have been playing mostly folk music and using traditional instruments, such as ancient flutes. I wanted to create a band that would play something connected to free jazz, but with a distinctly melodic approach. I wanted the sound of the band to be gentle and peaceful, all acoustic."

In interplay with various percussion and keyboard instruments, he has succeeded in creating soundscapes that stand on their own legs, act autonomously and refer to themselves without bringing to mind musical territories previously explored. On double bass is Tapani Varis, whose fat, vibrating strings lie on top of the production like a warm blanket. On keys, Johannes Sarjasto moves like a ghost between synthesizer, accordion and piano, bringing minimalist emphases to Eskelinen's haunting melodies. Percussionist Amanda Blomqvist too operates with reduction, bringing organic pulses alive. The imperfect recording quality—as opposed to overproduction—enhances the set's charm.

Tyshawn Sorey Trio + 1 with Greg Osby
The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism
Pi Recordings

Prior to this live-document of Tyshawn Sorey's trio performance with saxophonist Greg Osby at The Jazz Gallery in New York from March 2022, came Mesmerism, introducing Tyshawn Sorey with a slightly different trio line-up than here, performing, as on this three-disc set, a set of standards in quite idiosyncratic manner. And yet, from a music-interpretational perspective, the two albums have little in common. While Mesmerism turned its focus on six pieces, all but one condensed to a rather manageable length and dynamic range, The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism celebrates bombast and exuberance by bringing 14 standards to life, five of them rendered in two different interpretations. Most of them last at least ten minutes. Excessive, right? But in the best kind of way, because even after the first pass at "Night and Day" it becomes obvious that the more of this we get to hear, the better.

Aaron Diehl returns on piano, as with Mesmerism, on bass, however, Russel Hall takes Matt Brewer's place. Together with Osby's angular yet hopelessly lyrical alto tone, the quartet approaches the music head-on, but mostly in a figurative way, for more often than note, a song's head doesn't appear until several minutes in. Instead the group builds momentum and tension, creating an atmosphere of coherence but also agitation, in anticipation of the changes to come. The quartet's first reading of "Three Little Words," of course, has the song's melody built into Diehl's semi-chromatic chord blocks that preamble the song, but it's more about atmosphere, an uneasy one at that, than it is about melody, and that notion remains intact as the remaining players enter the conversation, each one seemingly pulling and tugging at a different end in order to create one whole. This goes on for exactly twenty minutes, as the quartet explores each and every corner of the Tin Pan Alley classic. A constant? A four-note motif made up of a fourth fall, a whole note climb and another fourth fall, hinting at the original composition's opening harmonies. Like the root of a tree, it's what holds the various branches the group explores together.

Besides a couple of Osby originals that seamlessly take their place alongside over half-a-century-old tested songs, Sorey and his colleagues tackle the big league scores, from players like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to composers like Billy Strayhorn and Jimmy van Heusen. One ingredient that reappears frequently throughout the program are breakdowns, marked by dissonant tendencies to a gloomy effect, and consistent rhythmical patterns, often leading to Sorey conjuring a storm of cymbals crashing and toms exploding. The quartet doesn't do favorites, they give everything their all, and the energy is contagious.

Whit Dickey Quartet
Root Perspectives
Tao Forms

Disorder becomes quite relative when it's as intuitively coordinated as on drummer Whit Dickey's Root Perspectives. Released on his own label Tao Forms Records— launched in 2020—the album brings together several generations of avant- garde players, with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and Matthew Shipp being the most experienced after the leader, and Brandon Lopez, born in 1988, bringing in fresh energy on bass. The roots of this project go back 15 years, when Dickey dove deep into the depths of John Coltrane's first steps into more avant-garde territory on Crescent and Love Supreme, "keying into the mantra/vibration," as the drummer explains.

If a mantra is able to conjure spiritual powers, then the one exercised in the first half of this album is surely addressed to powers wielding dark energy, as the quartet scratches and screams at the very fabric of sound in "Supernova" and "Doomsday Equation." To call Malaby's tenor hoarse is an understatement. It screams and roars into the abyss, made up of Dickey's vibrating and fidgeting percussion, mirrored by Lopez's equally uneasy bass stabs that function as an extension of Dickey's drum set. The sonic atmosphere lightens up increasingly with "Swamp Petals" and then "Starship Lotus," though the group's fight against tonality remains unchanged. Shipp alternates between pattern-based injections and more outside of the box improvisation, covering the entire range of the piano most of the time. The set is upsetting, but it pulls the listener in, sucking the air out of the room like a hurricane. Also like a hurricane, it's impressive, but devastating.

Tracks and Personnel

Blur the border

Tracks: Yuragu; Analogy; The Magician Hutuktu; Oneba; Flux; Under The Open Sky; Teal; Cleanse; Again; Blur The Border.

Personnel: Masaki Hayashi: piano; Kazuma Fujimoto: guitar; Hiroshi Suzuki: clarinets; saxophones; flutes; Atsuki Yoshida: viola, violin; Takashi Sugawa: double bass; cello; Shinya Fukumori: drums.

Songs Of Ascent

Tracks, Book 1 -Degrees: Never Let Me Go; Deceitful Tongues; Lift Up My eyes; Peace within Your Walls; Enthroned; A Fowler's Snare; Scepter; Mouths Full of Joy.

Tracks, Book 2 -Steps: Quiver; Olive Shoots; Grass On The Roof; Let Your Ears Be Attentive; A Weaned Child; Make A Horn Grow; Dwelling of Brothers; Lift Up Your Hands.

Personnel: Dave Douglas: trumpet; Jon Irabagon: saxophone, alto; Matt Mitchell: piano; Linda May Han Oh: bass; Rudy Royston: drums.

Eastside Romp

Tracks: Similar Limits; Wait; Between Nothingness And Infinity; Drunkard's Lullaby; That Eastside Romp; A Room For VG; Watusi.

Personnel: Jeff Parker: guitar; Eric Revis: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.

Uusi Aika

Tracks: Gudrid; Kaksi puuta; Ajelehtivat pilvet; Uusi aika; Lumikenkä; Distances; Henget.

Personnel: Otto Eskelinen: alto sax, shakuhachi, alto clarinet, piano (A2), vocals; Johannes Sarjasto: piano, synth, accordion, vocals; Tapani Varis: double bass, vocals; Amanda Blomqvist: drums, percussion, vocals: Antero Mentu: zither (B3).

The Off-Off Broadway Guide To Synergism

Tracks: (Set 1): Night And Day; Please Stand By; Chelsea Bridge; Three Little Words; Mob Job; Ask Me Now; (Set 2): Out Of Nowhere; Ashes; Please Stand By; Three Little Words; Jitterbug Waltz; Mob Job; It Could Happen To You; (Set 3): I Remember You; We'll Be Together Again; Contemplation; Out Of Nowhere; Solar; Ask Me Now.

Personnel: Sverre Gjørvad: drums; Herborg Rundberg: piano; Dag Okstad: bass; Kristian Svalestad Olstad: guitar; Eirik Hegdal: saxophone (#11)

Root Perspectives

Tracks: Supernova; Doomsday Equation; Swamp Petals; Starship Lotus.

Personnel: Whit Dickey: drums; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Brandon Lopez: bass; Matthew Shipp: piano.

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