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The Pile (#3) — Faith, by Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who turns 48 today (Part 1)

Saw that master pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba turns 48 today, and listened to his 2010 self-produced solo CD,  Faith, which arrived recently.  I think it’s a masterwork, as was his 2006 recital, Solo [Blue Note], on which he similarly assumed sole responsibility for time, tempo, key, timbre and tuning on a lyric meditation on the classical and folkloric canons of Cuba and the points at which they intersect with jazz.

“Not many people know the 20th century Cuban composers,” Rubalcaba told me for a Downbeat piece I wrote at the time.  “European culture had a strong presence in Cuba in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and these composers—Amadeo Roldan and Alejandro Garcia Cartula, for example—used tools from the European school to tell their own stories, their own roots and traditions, on the level that we know as classical music.”

As an example, Rubalcaba analyzed Roldan’s “Canción de Cuna del Niño Negro (Lullaby For a Black Child),” which appears on Solo. “The melody is not exactly a folk melody, but Roldan’s vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he placed it in a form that mirrors Europe,” he said. “There is the ambiance of the Impressionist composers. But the score shows us that the left hand, the ostinato, does not work as a French or Russian composer would do it. It’s against the beat, as in popular Cuban music—as we dance, as we accent and phrase our speech. My challenge was to combine the worlds of interpretation—my vision of that music—and improvisation.”

Solo feels highly curated. Faith — which includes one Caturla piece ["Preludio Corto #2 (Tu amor era Falso)"], as well as six Rubalcaba originals, two improvisations based on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and two interpretations apiece of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” and Bill Evans’ “Blue In Green” — does not. That the session took four days to record contradicts the aural impression that Rubalcaba turned the studio into a faux living room in which he just sat down and let the invention flow.  On both dates, he gets to essences, finding the most lyrical pathways, playing with restraint and keenly focused intention. The word “poet” gets tossed around a little too much in reference to pianists of a lyric bent, but it’s a descriptor entirely suited to Rubalcaba.

It’s a real evolution from the pre-40 phase of his career, when Rubalcaba wore his chops on his sleeve. He was  an innovator of Cuban timba (he was also the musical director for the salsero Isaac Delgado), and, while still in Cuba tried to synthesize Cuban and jazz vocabularies within a highly caffeinated, improv-oriented ensemble context. He emigrated to the Dominican Republic in 1992, then to Miami in 1996 (he became a U.S. citizen several years ago). By ’96, he was an internationally known jazz musician, known for various bravura soloist-over-all-star-rhythm section albums with the likes of bassists Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, and John Patitucci and drummers Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian.

“At the beginning, I was a bit rushed, and pushed by the record company,” Rubalcaba remarked to me. “I was still in the process of feeling comfortable and safe. It took time to be part of the musical reality of the States, and meanwhile I was supposed to do something. “

As is evident on the subsequent Blue Note trio disks Inner Voyage [1998] and Super Nova [2002], both propelled by Cuban master  drummer Ignacio Berroa (and on a highly creative late ’90s duo recording with Joe Lovano),  Rubalcaba worked hard to assimilate the nuances of jazz syntax into his presentation. He learned, as  Ron Carter put it in 2006, “not to feel so responsible for all the ideas—all the good nights and bad nights—and to let the chips fall where they may. He understands some things are out of his control, which frees him to be even more creative.”

Rubalcaba stated in 2006 that his ability to coalesce different styles and languages “is very typical in Latin-American musicians. They move around the world, assimilating everything possible to make them powerful artists. And the way they think they are powerful is working in different areas. For example, a lot of writers work in musicology, in novels, in social studies. In music, we see the same. It’s not just Cubans. Astor Piazzolla left Argentina looking to develop his career. He established himself in Paris, and when he returned to Argentina he was criticized because nobody understood exactly what he was doing with the tango. But the tango we hear today is 100% Piazzolla.”

This predisposition for polylingualism extends to the spoken word as well; Rubalcaba has become quite comfortable expressing himself in English, as was apparent on a pair of interviews that I conducted with him on WKCR in 2004 (during a run at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola with the New Cuban Quartet) and in 2006 (during a combined solo and trio — bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Jeff Watts — week at the Jazz Standard).  I’ll post them separately, seriatem.

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Filed under Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Review

The Pile (#2): Two Recent Releases by The Cream of the AACM First Wave

The Association  for the Advancement of Creative Musicians means a lot to me.  I encountered a number of the members as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle ’70s.   The Art Ensemble of Chicago had recently returned from Europe, and Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman,  Don Moye, Henry Threadgill, Ajaramu, Amina Claudine Myers, Douglas Ewart, Wallace McMillan, Pete Cosey, and a bunch of others were living in proximity to Hyde Park and playing concerts locally, including the UC campus — the New York migration had not yet begun. Critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin were on the scene.  So was Chuck Nessa. So was Lorraine Black. One time in 1974 or 1975,  Fred Anderson brought his sextet to Reynolds Club, I think, for an afternoon concert, and on my way in I heard amazing, Coltrane-in-the-gutbucket trombone lines that traversed the horn’s registral range. Turned out they were from George Lewis, who had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from Yale.

I’m a New Yorker, grew up on Bleecker and Thompson, and New York attitude bebop — Sonny Rollins, to be specific (friends used to tease me about my boast that I had all of his records—which, I’ll confess now,  I didn’t), not to mention Bud Powell and Bird and Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and ’50s Miles and Coltrane — spoke to me above all other music. I related to them, I think, because I spent so much time at the West Fourth Street basketball courts as a kid, and their music seemed like an analogue to the ballers I looked up to — among them, Billy, the fastest guard I’ve ever seen who could tomahawk at about 5’8″;  Valentino Willis from the Harlem Wizards; Butch Barbizat, who at 6’2 was the leading rebounder on  the Power Memorial team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played; Timmy, who had what I considered a superior bank shot to Sam Jones. On the musical tip, pop didn’t seem serious enough — as a wiseass Bleecker Street kid, the folkies seemed too self-satisfied, Dylan too solipsistic, Cream and the Rolling Stones too bridge-and-tunnel. I liked Motown and EW&F, and in Chicago I went to the South Side and West Side blues clubs with my friends, and checked out rootsy stuff by David Bromberg and Dan Hicks, but I couldn’t patch into funk.   Nor was I feeling out jazz then.

That afternoon at Reynolds Club,  my paradigm began to shift. New worlds opened up. Jarman did solo concerts that incorporated kabuki and Asian ritual. He performed on campus in duo with Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. George Lewis began learning how to develop improvising software, and  joined Braxton. I got into the magic of Von Freeman. I stopped believing in the sanctity of my personal taste, and began making an effort  to explore modes of expression  that fell outside of it.  I’ve never stopped loving the main-stem of jazz expression. But the aesthetics of speculative improvisation and experimental music mean every bit as much, and brought me into other areas that I once disdained from ignorance. Or, to cite one of my all-time favorite homilies, from Ellis Marsalis:  “son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”

Muhal Richard Abrams:  Duos with Fred Anderson and George Lewis: SoundDance (Pi)

There’s an old master quality to these barely-roadmapped musical conversations between Abrams—elected  NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer last year at 80—and long-time AACM colleagues Anderson, the late outcat master  tenor saxophonist and  charter member of the organization (from 2009, a year before he passed), Lewis (recorded in 2010), the polymath trombonist, electronicist, improvising software creator, and professor of music at Columbia University, who met Abrams in 1971 while on sabbatical  from undergraduate duties at Yale. There’s a call-and-response quality to the former duo, as Abrams supports Anderson’s huge-toned idea development, then spins off variations of his own; whilst the latter performance is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite, transitioning from one concept — the range spans stride piano to post-serialism — to the next without a blink, as though the music were creating itself.

The proceedings bring to mind that one of the key tropes of Lewis’ magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself (U.Chicago Press),  is the autodidactic learning path that Abrams imparted to such ’60s members as  Roscoe Mitchell,  Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Douglas Ewart, and on down the list. They also evoke an exchange I had with Abrams and Lewis in 2007, for a Downbeat piece framed around Streaming, a spontaneous triologue with  Mitchell, when I asked them about Quartet (Sackville), a 1975 encounter that marked the first recorded meeting of the three.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” asked Abrams.

    “It seems like we’re going too far back there,” Lewis said.

    “You were just talking about histories.”

    “Only in reference to coming together to perform,” Abrams explained calmly. “It’s very important to accept, if you can, how we view the basis of this. George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, what I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration. The sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

The third and most cohesive recording by Mitchell’s Note Factory project, a kind of double quartet in which Mitchell on saxophones and flute and thirty-ish trumpeter Corey Wilkes (Lester Bowie’s replacement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) interact with two pianists (Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer), two bassists (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead, who also plays cello), and two drummers (Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis). It’s dense music, and though I’ve listened twice, I’d probably need another two or three to start breaking things down.  Suffice to say that Mitchell’s bandmates are sufficiently intimate with his intense concept as to be able to engage each other in what Iyer once described as “immersive counterpoint,” generating clear, non-imitative ideas simultaneously like a Dixieland band in a parallel galaxy. Although Mitchell, who turned 70 this year, offers healthy helpings of spirit-catching circular breathing and multiphonics, what comes through most palpably is the innate soulfulness and lyricism of his songs and his instrumental sound.

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Filed under AACM, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Piano, Roscoe Mitchell, Tenor Saxophone, Trombone

The Pile (#1)

As I’ve had a bit of down time recently, I’m trying to catch up on new releases, which arrive inexorably. It’s hard to make a dent—there’s only time to listen to a couple or three 60-70 minute recordings in a day, and that’s stretching it.   Then, too, as I’ve learned by experience from writing liner notes (not to mention just plain old common sense), recordings by serious master musicians demand multiple listenings to catch the nuances, the overall arc and intention. With that in mind, it’s important to self-remind that personal taste has nothing to do with the actual quality of the artifact. I may hear something that I’m not in the mood for, but two weeks later it’s just what I want to absorb.  Or perhaps the rhythmic feel aggravates me one time, but  resonates the next. One reason why I’m very cautious about making judgments — assessments are different — when I write reviews. I’m not a musician. I haven’t spent my life working up the knowledge/experience base that went into making this recording.

In any event, this is the first of hopefully a ongoing series of “Pile” columns (the accumulated stacks of CDs that are outside of my assignment purview pile up) on some items that have recently caught my ear. Unless the offense/offender is particularly egregious, I won’t go negative. That said, don’t assume that omission means distaste.

David Gibson, END OF THE TUNNEL (Posi-Tone)

A lot of individualistic trombone virtuosos emerged during the ‘70s and ‘80s—George Lewis, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson, Robin Eubanks, Conrad Herwig, Frank Lacy, Gary Valente…I could go on. But outside of Wycliffe Gordon, Clifton Anderson, Ronald Westray, and one or two others, trombone players don’t pop immediately to mind when you think of interesting slide improvisers over the last two decades. Maybe we’re in for a new wave. I’ve dug Marshall Gilkes in recent years, and Gibson has a similarly gorgeous sound and a solo conception that’s thematically cogent and also kinetic through a range of late 20th century food groups. Many dates that draw on the various mid-’60 Blue Note genres sound contrived and stale, but this one has a fresh feeling, as though the participants were recording something fresh contemporaneously — not unlike some of the bebop-oriented improvisers who’ve used Smalls as a base over the last 15 years.  In any event, Gibson dialogues throughout with the excellent alto saxophonist Julius Tolentino, his front line partner; organist Jared Gold, himself a leader on few Posi-Tone dates, combines point guard distribution duties with intelligent shot selection, laying down apropos comp and basslines but also creative solos; drummer Quincy Davis, an A-lister in my book, works the grooves with energy and taste.

James Carter, CARIBBEAN  RHAPSODY: CONCERTO FOR SAXOPHONE AND ORCHESTRA (Em-Arcy) – (composed by Roberto Sierra)

A tour de force. I can’t really review it properly without listening 3-4 more times, which I probably won’t be able to do without an assignment, but I can say that it’s one of the most synchronous collaborations I’ve heard between an orchestral (as opposed to big band…I hope I’m making myself clear) composer and improvising soloist—particularly a soloist as florid and adventurous as JC—that I can remember hearing. Sierra creates a series of felicitous environments in which Carter can soar, and soar he does, with ferocity and extraordinary craft on all the instruments.  I saw Carter at the Blue Note a few weeks ago with his organ trio, plus Nicholas Payton and Blood Ulmer, and was impressed by his complete command of his materials—the presentation and narrative arc came through as strongly as his considerable musical contents. Which can happen once a musician of Carter’s gifts and focus hits his forties and coalesces his various tributaries of expression into a clear path.

Gerald Clayton, BOND: THE PARIS SESSIONS (EmArcy)

Yes, I know, two EmArcy releases in one post…

I’ve dug Clayton for a couple of years, since  his trio was in residence for the entirety of the Perugia summer edition of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival, and I heard him play Duke Pearson’s “Is That So?” (Bradley’s denizens of old will remember that this was a John Hicks favorite) with complete idiomatic authority—he owned the language. Not long after that I heard him, at a Hank Jones festschrift concert, come out after Hank had played a few tunes, sit down with George Mraz and Willie Jones, and invent a variation on Cole Porter’s “I Love You” that I assumed had to be composed, everything was so perfectly in place and ingeniously constructed, but was told that he put it forth on the spot. That winter at Orvieto he did a series of duos with his father John Clayton that were on the very highest level of interaction and sophistication. So I know his scope.  Didn’t think he represented his breadth quite as effectively on his debut record, TWO SHADE, from 2009. BOND offers a much more complete portrait of his gifts—the beats are modern but also swinging, the trio has a one-voice flow, the new-jack originals and old-school standards interweave seamlessly. No showoffs here. In fact, it’s appropriate that he ends with John Clayton’s “Hank”; there isn’t really a discernible stylistic connection between Gerald and Hank Jones, but Gerald possesses a Hank Jones level of clarity and focus—an ability to cut to the chase and say something fresh in any environment. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I love his solo on “Nobody Else But Me”—a major league left-hand and a melodic spirit. Like James Carter, Gerald is in complete control of his materials, and at 26 or 27, he’s already recognizable as himself while engaging with the tradition on its own terms. He’s one of the very few under-30 pianists out there (Manuel Valera is another, but he’s 30) whose concept would have enabled him to fit with ease into the Bradley’s rotation.  (That’s a good thing.)

Alexis Cuadrado, NONETO IBÉRICO (BJU Records)

A well-wrought program of 8 tunes composed and arranged by bassist Alexis Cuadrado, a Barcelona-to-Brooklyn transplant, each of them built on a different rhythmic structure of the Iberian diaspora. Needs three or four listens (which I don’t have time for now) to say anything meaningful. Suffice to say that the soloing (Loren Stillman, Avishai [trumpet] Cohen, Brad Shepik, Dan Tepfer, as well as Piraña and Blas Cordoba and Tomatito) is inspired throughout, and the arrangements are fresh and cohesive, with ever shifting colors and intoxicating rhythms (Mark Ferber on drumkit and Marc Miralta on cajon and percussion lock in beautifully with Cuadrado).  Thought of in conjunction with Wynton Marsalis’ excellent VITORIA SUITE, with Chano Dominguez, it shows that Flamenco Jazz now has its drivers license—that’s to say, it’s  reached adulthood as a genre and become a mature pan-generational, trans-national idiom on the worldwide playing field.

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Filed under Alexis Cuadrado, Bass, David Gibson, Gerald Clayton, James Carter, Piano, Review, Tenor Saxophone, The Pile, Trombone