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Yes. But Is It Jazz?

Mark Corroto By

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Jazz comes at you from so many directions these days, that to rely on just one definition, is not enough. Sure, it can be a blues-based rhythmic music but it is also minimalist free improvisation. Pigeonholing something, such as jazz, always separates and eventually segregates supporters, creating conflicts and in the end lessening the whole.

Maybe that's why so many "jazz" artists these days eschew the label. Is it also why many "jazz fests" have quasi-rock, blues and easy-listening acts? Well, maybe not so much. The festivals try to attract listeners in big numbers, and jazz isn't and has never been a big numbers business. Ask any modern day festival-goer, and they will tell you that they "love jazz," as they listen to Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow sing "Night And Day." Sure, those might be the extreme examples, but the world of jazz both expands to include Anthony Braxton's compositions and Anthony Davis' jazz operas but also contracts to an entirely free and instantly composed piano performance by Keith Jarrett or a spontaneous drum solo by Han Bennink using styrofoam cups.

That said, the jazz tent is indeed very inclusive and listeners' tastes can also expand and contract their own listening tents, at their choosing. I've gone for long periods of time listening only to early Louis Armstrong, marveling at his brief, dexterous solos and convincing myself that he is/was the be all and end all of jazz. But lately, I've also been fascinated by Masami Akita, the Japanese noise artist known as Merzbow. If you are not familiar with him, his music (noise?) is a frontal assault of distortion and feedback that is both sonically disagreeable and meditatively inviting. Rare for him to add beats, he layers distortion upon distortion to create an ambient mindset that is rooted in a sort of violence. It is music that has spouses and pets running from the listening room, but in a curious way keeps calling me back.

So, you ask, how do you get from "Strutting With Some Barbecue" to "Music For Bondage Performance?" Practice, my friend practice.

The practice is as easy as opening one's mind (and ears) to new possibilities, and listening to sounds that are barely jazz or take a contemptuous or irreverent approach to jazz. By breaking down the definitions that wall traditional jazz in, the musicians further expand the universe of possibilities and add to the creative life force that is our music.

Chicago Underground Duo

Age Of Energy

Northern Spy Records


Of the many permutations of the Chicago Underground bands, expanded to trios, quartets and orchestra, the core has always been the duo of cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor. Actually, the sound of the other CU bands has always started with Mazurek and Taylor. With Age Of Energy the pair are releasing their sixth album as a duo and eleventh as the Chicago Underground.

Their work draws from and ultimately influences their other projects like Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra, Sao Paulo Underground, Tigersmilk and Starlicker, or Taylor's work in the bands of Marc Ribot, the late Fred Anderson, and his bands Circle Down and Grass Roots.

Often part studio creation, this outing though was recorded live with nearly no overdubs. The pair choose to incorporate electronics on the fly from the spacey synthesizers heard on the opening track to the wash of distorted bass and underwater-sounding vocals from "It's Alright." The pair invent soundscapes not unlike the groundbreaking Brian Eno and David Byrne recording My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (Warner, 1982), except today the techniques are anything but shocking. The pair guide listeners through the dreamy altitudes of electronics and human touches of Mazurek's cornet, Taylor's mbira and percussive effects. Listening to the Chicago Underground one gets the feeling it must have hours and hours of studio and live sessions captured for future release. Let's hope so.

Jeff Parker Trio

Bright Light In Winter

Delmark Records 2012

A frequent collaborator with the Chicago Underground duo and founder of the Chicago Underground Trio, guitarist Jeff Parker releases his third disc as a leader, following up on The Relatives (Thrill Jockey, 2005) and Like Coping (Delmark, 2003). Way too long in coming, this trio session with drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Chris Lopes (who doubles on flute "The Morning Of The 5th") maintains Parker's very understated approach to music.

A mainstay in the bands of Nicole Mitchell, Rob Mazurek, Ernest Dawkins and Ted Sirota, he is a vital member of the post-rock band Tortoise, and founder of Isotope 217. Here, Parker shares composition credits with his bandmates, but the sound is all his. A sort of minimalist unadorned approach colors Parker's art. He opts for the introverted. Taylor's drum kit is stripped to the minimum, as is the pulse of Lopes. Parker prefers to strip his sound down to the minimal without becoming negligible. His jazz is, like that of trumpeter Miles Davis, often heard in the silence between the notes.

Mike Cooper

Radio Paradise Mike Cooper Live In Beirut

Johnny Kafta 2012

When blues guitar is seasoned with improvisation the outcome elevates the sound to the heavens. Or maybe, when improvisational music is flavored by the blues, the bar is raised. Such is the world of lap steel guitarist Mike Cooper. Like kindred souls Eugene Chadbourne and Loren Mazzacane Connors, he has developed a highly stylized manner that incorporates blues slide guitar with realtime electronics, processing sounds through a pitchshifter and sampler to create the delta version of DJ mixes. He adds vocals, that are snippets of text, poetry and blues. Not quite Delta and not entirely free, he mines a sort of netherworld of sampled loops and hypnotic rhythms to create a garage sale of music. Let's call it post space-age folk music. Radio Paradise was produced as a limited edition of 500 copies and comes packaged in its own bubble wrap plastic with a silk screen print of Cooper's signature Hawaiian shirt on the cover.

Ivo Perelman

The Passion According To G.H.

Leo Records 2012

Bless Ivo Perelman. The Brazilian saxophonist has, in recent years, released an avalanche of music. All creative, all (warning: non sequitur coming up) accessible, free jazz. He continues to push the boundaries of music and improvisation, expanding the work of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Two recent editions—The Passion According To G.H. and The Foreign Legion—are seemingly dissimilar; The Foreign Legion follows up on his working quartet, The Passion According To G.H. is a chamber date with a string quartet.

Perelman assembled a sort of supergroup in his quartet of pianist Matthew Shipp, guitarist turned bassist Joe Morris and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Previous releases include the quartet's The Hour of the Star (Leo Records, 2011) and a trio (sans Shipp), Family Ties (Leo Records, 2012). Perelman's idea to reconfigure the band into duos and trios allows for a plasticity and adaptability of sound from the differing reconfigurations. This studio outing jettisons Morris for a classic sax/piano/drums lineup. The result is anything but formulaic. Paired with Shipp (and supported with the dynamo Cleaver) the saxophonist can churn out a raucous battling turbulence as heard on "An Angel's Disquiet" or turn inward as a brewing storm on the intimate "Paul Klee." Shipp, who rarely works as a sideman, continues to amaze in support of Perelman.

With Perelman, changing partners doesn't necessarily throw him off his game. On The Passion According To G.H. he creates a fully improvised six-part suite of music with the Sirius Quartet, a two violin, viola and cello ensemble. Similar setup to his previously composed chamber disc The Alexander Suite (Leo Records, 1998), the music here is all instantly created. Part chamber jazz, part cartoon music à la Raymond Scott, the ensemble mines a sort of jocularity of improvisation. The musicians occupy a world beyond definition, inside a dream of the intellectual ad lib.

Rich Halley 4

Back From Beyond

Pine Eagle Records 2012

This month's Spaceways award goes to the interplanetary music of the Rich Halley 4, a quartet with broad shoulders and an outward take on bebop. Back From Beyond follows Requiem for A Pit Viper (Pine Eagle, 2011), and finds the same lineup. In trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, Halley has found an intuitive and genuine partner. The pair, drummer Carson Halley, and monster bassist Clyde Reed negotiate some rowdy muscular music, "Section Three," "Broken Ground" and the funky title track. What is so special here is the interplay and kinetic vibe the band puts out. Seemingly in constant motion, the tunes never lag or want for ideas. They fashion a late-career tribute to Sonny Blount on "Reorbiting For Sun Ra." Halley dodges and inserts lines under and around the pulse before the pair trade some musical conversation, commenting, "I Could Have Danced All Night." And the band did.



Insubordinations Netlabel 2012

When jazz musicians take their inspiration from electronica, as does the piano/bass/drums trio Plaistow, we have begun to explore sounds off the grid. Named after a song by Tom Jenkinson aka Squarepusher—whose recording Music Is Rotted One Note (Warp, 1998) is a must-listen for all electric Miles Davis aficionados—the trio edges its sound into the minimalistic progression similar to a band like The Necks. Until its Australian counterparts, this trio isn't satisfied to organically grow a wave of sound only to have it recess. It constructs these two tracks, albeit slowly, the purpose seeming to be beyond mere meditation. The two lengthy pieces here, totaling 41 minutes, grow slow, rebuild and circle back. The simplicity is the same as a minimalist electronica DJ, but the musicians are creating organic sound manually. The drummer sparks each track with some aggressive stick work that never detracts from the movement.

The Gate

Destruction Of Darkness

Carrier Records 2012

The so called "doom jazz" created by the band The Gate (formerly known as the Dan Peck Trio) rubs elbows with both death metal and chamber jazz. That said, it is neither. The lineup of Dan Peck on tuba, Tom Blancarte on acoustic bass and Brian Osborne on percussion neither plug in nor chill out. The group's heavy, heavy sound is dark, plodding and at times bleak. Sort of like John Zorn's Painkiller without all the screaming.

As you might expect, the bottom end of sound is the ticket here. Bowed bass and the low notes of the tuba rattle subwoofers as Brian Osborne beats out a slow March into darkness. Not something you play at happy time, but like so much from the wildly creative and experimental label Carrier Records, it is an exercise in emotional content. And mining the black dog is one of this world's gifts.

Guano Padano

Guano Padano 2

Tremoloa Records 2012

The beauty of postmodernism is that mashups, be they visual or musical, are readily accepted. But then that has seemingly always been the case in jazz. Take a marching band's music and make it swing, or borrow from South American bossa nova or Spain, etc. With guitarist Alessandro Stefana's band Guano Padano, the cross-cultural borrowing gets a bit confusing. On its second release 2, it mines the world of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti westerns which, originally, was music about the American West as told by an Italian composer (for movies made in Spain!). The mashups heard lose nothing in translation as they move back and forth across the ocean. Stefana and drummer Zeno Di Rossi who can be found backing the performer, Vinicio Capossela (often called the Italian Tom Waits) plus bassist Danilo Gallo create this amazing tribute to Morricone, the surf guitar of Dick Dale, Tex-Mex and 1960s rock. Sound like the musical stylings of Marc Ribot? Certainly. He even makes an appearance on one track, as do Americans Chris Speed, Ted Reichman and Mike Patton. This is a gloriously funky re-imagination of Americana through multiple lenses.

Black Music Disaster

Black Music Disaster

Thirsty Ear 2012

Sometimes traveling the spaceways, things can get a bit sticky. Sometimes noisy. Crowded. Those thoughts come to mind during the single 38-minute improvised live track that is delivered by the quartet known as Black Music Disaster. Matthew Shipp, wielding a Farfisa organ, opens the disc. His sound wouldn't be out of place in a Sun Ra concert, a B-movie 1960s feel, that at times gives the impression he is commanding a rowboat in raging rapids. Next add the dual electric guitars of Spirtiualized's J Spaceman and John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack), plus the drumming of Steve Noble. The onslaught is mighty and unrelenting, thanks to Noble's thunder.

Nobody backs down ever. Noble, a veteran of the bands of saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, guitarist Derek Bailey and the London Improvisers Orchestra, is the catalyst and complement to Shipp's pressure. The twin guitars circle, rage, accent and fill every opening left by the organ and drums. Certainly a few folks walked out on this show, but if you are buckled in securely, it's quite a ride.

Tracks and Personnel

Age Of Energy

Tracks: Winds And Sweeping Pines; It's Alright; Castle In You Heart; Age Of Energy.

Personnel: Chad Taylor: drums, mbira, electronics, drum machine; Rob Mazurek: cornet, electronics, voice.

Bright Light In Winter

Tracks: Mainz; Swept Out To Sea; Change; Freakadelic; The Morning Of The 5th; Occidental Tourist; Bright Light Black Side; Istvan;Good Days (for Lee Anne).

Personnel: Jeff Parker: electric guitar, effects; Chris Lopes: acoustic bass, flute, Korg MS-20 monophonic synthesizer; Chad Taylor: drums.

Radio Paradise Mike Cooper Live in Beirut

Tracks: If I Get Lucky; A Dream Of Arrival; In Exile in Aghmat, Al Mutamids Grief at The Loss of I'timad; Special Rider; Migrant Song / Hearbreak Hotel; In Exile in Aghmat, Al Mutamids Nostalgia for Seville.

Personnel: Mike Cooper: lap steel guitar, electronics, kaos pad, zoom sampletrack, boss pitch shifter pedal.

The Passion According To G.H.

Tracks: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6.

Personnel: Ivo Perelman: tenor saxophone; Gregor Huebner: violin; Fung Chern Hwei: violin; Ron Lawrence: viola; Jeremy Harman: cello.

The Foreign Legion

Tracks: Mute Singing, Mute Dancing; An Angel's Disquiet; Paul Klee; Sketch Of An Wardrobe; An Abstract Door.

Personnel: Ivo Perelman: tenor saxophone; Matthew Shipp: piano; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

Back From Beyond

Tracks: Spuds; Section Three; Reorbiting (for Sun Ra); Solanum; Opacity; Continental Drift; Broken Ground; The Mountain's Edge; Basalt; Back From Beyond.

Personnel: Michael Vlatkovich: trombone, percussion, squeak toys; Rich Halley: tenor saxophone, wood flute, percussion; Carson Halley: drums, percussion; Clyde Reed: bass.


Tracks: Lacrimosa; Cube.

Personnel: Johann Bourquenez: piano; Raphaël Ortis: bass; Cyril Bondi: drums.

Destruction Of Darkness

Tracks: Aeons Of Decay; Frozen Gods; Buries Blasphemy.

Personnel: Dan Peck: Tuba, composition; Tom Blancarte: upright bass; Brian Osborne: percussion.

Guano Padano 2

Tracks: Last Night; Zebulon; One Man Bank; Gran Bazaar; Gumbo; Bellavista; Lynch; Miss Chan; El Cayote; Prairie Fire; Nashville; Un Occhio Verso Tokyo; Sleep Walk.

Personnel: Alessandro Stefana: lap steel guitar, electric bass, percussion, tape echoes, piano, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, banjo, tubular bells, maracas, soprano guitar, banjolin, clavioline, clap hands, field recordings, acoustic slide guitar, drum machine, strings machine, marxophone, piano, autoharp, tape echoes, pedal steel guitar, electric tampura; Danilo Gallo: double bass, electric bass, vox organ, clap hands, Fender rhodes organ, memory bass, EKO tiger organ, paper piano, vibes, ural bass, caravelle organ; Zeno De Rossi: drums, thingamagoop, tambourine, whistle, clap hands, percussion, vocal; Chris Speed Clarinet (4); Leonard Di Angilla: bongos (4); Ted Reichman: piano (5); Gerhard Gscgloessl: trombone (5, 12); Achiile Succi: bass clarinet (7) shakuhachi (12); Vincenzo Vasi: theremin (7); Alfonzo Santimoni: Korg MS-10 (7); Hammond organ (11); Marc Ribot: guitar (8); Mike Patton: vocals (10); Paul Niehaus: field recordings (11).

Black Music Disaster

Tracks: Black Music Disaster.

Personnel: Matthew Shipp: farfisa organ; J Spaceman: electric guitar; Steve Noble: drums; John Coxon: electric guitar.



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