CD Reviews - December 2012 

by Tim Willcox

Anima, Matt Otto, saxophone, and Leonard Thompson,
This excellent duo outing by two of modern jazz’s unsung masters showcases the symbiosis that can grow from a prolonged musical relationship. Saxophonist Otto of Kansas City, and pianist Thompson of NYC, find themselves exchanging and crafting stories over the changes to standards from the American Songbook. Flanked by a few completely improvised tracks as well as an original apiece from each musician, Anima is one of those rare albums where the music is performed in such a democratic matter, it’s impossible to pinpoint who the leader of the date was. We come away with the impression that the only thing leading this recording was the music itself.

There’s an intimacy in sound achieved partly through the virtual absence of reverb on this recording. Recorded in mid-2001 at a church in Kansas City, one feels that they may be tucked away in between the piano and saxophone in somebody’s living room. There’s a warm dryness that prevails throughout the session, a reminder to us that - when it comes down to it - no amount of flashy studio gear can truly change the quality of the music as it’s going into the microphone.

Both Otto and Thompson draw from a significant palate of sound and texture. Otto’s control over the saxophone, both in terms of timbre and technique, is truly remarkable. Able to color his tone with the most subtle and minute adjustments of sound and volume, the listener feels as if they are watching a great master painter add tiny bits of color to a blank canvas. Otto lets them blend together as they dry and crack into a thing of pure beauty. Thompson at times has a pointillistic approach to the piano, evoking images of both Monk and Chick Corea. At other times, he plays in a vein reminiscent of Bill Evans’s “The Solo Sessions.” On this recording, he avoids playing block chords and using classic piano accompaniment tactics, instead picking apart the harmony and playing singular lines against, within, and on top of Otto’s voice. The result is a openness which pervades the entirety of “Anima.” The two musicians are never competing for sonic space, instead giving each other enough room in which to coexist.

Otto’s virtuosity is especially apparent on the opening track, a slower-than-slow rubato take on the changes to the great ballad “Body and Soul,” in which he lays out the history of the saxophone from Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane to Mark Turner and beyond. “Ground Bloom,” for instance, is a sort of bluesy, funky-free abstract piece which showcases his mastery of extended saxophone techniques. The track reminds me of Joe Henderson’s use of multiphonics and overtones, as well as the bird-like flutters and swoops of sound one associates with Dewey Redman, Sam Rivers, Ornette Coleman and the modern master, Joe Lovano. Another aspect of both Otto’s as well as Thompson’s playing is their thoroughly impressive control over dynamic shading.

Using, as a framework in which to craft their conversations, the harmony from tunes like Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” and Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” among other classics, Otto and Thompson often remind the listener of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh in the way they craft collaborative “solos.” At most points during this album, it’s impossible to tell who is soloing and who is not. The musician’s ego gets lost.

There are a few tracks which act as vehicles for Otto’s unaccompanied saxophone, once again showcasing his mastery of sound, harmony, and melody. Thompson also has moments to shine on his own, though he is mostly content being the other half of this puzzle. The clarity of ideas and communication between Otto and Thompson, coupled with a sense of discovery and impeccable rhythmic timing, further enhance the quality. This is some of the most sensitively music this reviewer has heard in a long time. Jazz fans, musician and non-musician alike will find “Anima” alluring, mysterious, and worthy of countless plays.

Circle of Three, David Friesen (with John Gross and Greg
Master bassist Friesen’s name is synonymous with Portland’s vibrant and fertile jazz scene. John Gross is one of the living masters of the tenor saxophone. Pianist Greg Goebel is one of the young giants of the instrument, anywhere in the world. So it should come as no surprise that, when the three of them come together to record, the result is full of playful inventiveness, solemn beauty, and organic discovery. Recorded in 2009, “Circle of Three” is a very nicely recorded documentation of the group playing one night live in Germany.

One of Friesen’s compositional trademarks is his ability to write tunes with seemingly no beginning or end. His music is circular. You are never quite sure when the top of the from comes around, but you also don’t mind not knowing. This creates an air of open-ness that might not evolve out of playing standard-style tunes with concrete forms and typical harmonic landscapes.

Goebel’s and Gross’s penchant for playing over the bar and phrase lines further mask the landmarks within the music. Friesen’s unique writing forces each performer to play in the moment, unable to rely on things they’ve practiced that merely fit under their fingers. This music is realized in real-time, devoid of any preconceived notions as to where things might be headed -- modern jazz at it’s highest level.

John Gross commands one of the most original voices on tenor saxophone. He resides in a space within jazz history reserved for those who’ve never received the commercial success or public notoriety they deserve, but are regarded highly among musicians as important innovators and flame bearers of the art form.

Gross’s ability to transform a few choruses of a tune into a spontaneous meditation on melody is showcased throughout here, especially on the more subdued titles like “The Light Inside Freswick Castle,” “Serenade” and “One Last Time,” where he starts with a few notes and methodically carves a path through the woods to the other side. You never get the feeling that Gross is playing anywhere but within the moment; he embodies the spirit of spontaneity which all jazz musicians aim for.

Never at a loss for facility, Goebel can start and land on a dime, as is evident in his playing on “This and That,” an uptempo swing vehicle full of harmonic twists and turns. He exudes a harmonic knowledge in line with Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehldau, while retaining a freeness of time and phrasing one would associate with Keith Jarrett. On more subtle, sensitive tunes like “When will you return?” Goebel adds sensitivity, space, and color. He also acts as a catalyst for rhythmic interplay, darting in, out and between Friesen’s heavy bass anchor and Gross’ stream of consciousness float. One only need listen to his beautiful piano intro on “The Light Inside Freswick Castle” to realize his musical maturity is far beyond his age. Not widely known outside of Portland, Goebel is a musician to keep your eyes and ears on in the years to come.

Friesen’s playing is, as always, rock solid, providing both the harmonic stability and undying rhythmic pulse for the other musicians to float above. He is somehow able to simultaneously be bassist and drummer all in one, without losing sight of the conversational qualities of the music. One doesn’t notice the lack of percussion on this record. If anything, it’s a welcome change in texture which opens up a whole new sonic playground for the three men.This might only be a snippet of what this group is capable of doing, but it brings us into fascinating music and the process of creating and capturing beauty as it unfolds.
ITM Records, 2011.

Origin Records
Seattle’s Origin Records has become a powerhouse label responsible for hundreds of releases since it’s inception in 1997. More recently, the label has added two smaller subsidiaries, OA2 and Origin classical records. The label has a knack for releasing high-quality music in beautiful packaging. This month, I’m focusing on a few of their latest releases.

Suitcase, Jeff Johnson.
A stalwart of the Pacific Northwest jazz scene, Johnson is a veteran bassist who seems comfortable in just about any surrounding. With this newest effort, Johnson surrounds himself with like-minded musicians in an effort to record songs he had written over the course of the past 20 years while traveling around the world playing music. In an effort to keep the session “accidental,” the musicians didn’t rehearse prior to recording, instead letting the music unfold in the studio. The resulting album is full of space, beauty, and truth.

The musicians on “Suitcase” are among the best America has to offer. Saxophonist Hans Teuber lends his unique sound and approach to the reed chair. Able to walk the line between straight ahead and avant garde, Teuber’s sound is at once fragile and strong, much like Lee Konitz, and at times he’s painterly in a Wayne Shorter-esque fashion. His bass clarinet sound is especially dark, strong and beautiful. Like all of the other musicians here, Teuber has a way of just letting the music happen. Pianist Steve Moore is unique in jazz. His playing is devoid of the trademark “Mehldau/Herbie/Chick /Keith-isms” that all too frequently make up the modern pianist’s DNA. It’s hard to put a finger on just who Moore has checked out or transcribed, and the listener is all the better for it. With a fresh sound and an organic approach to improvising and accompaniment, Moore should be making more albums under his own name.

The writing is strong and varied throughout, from the open funkiness of “Scene West” and “Soweto Man” to the tenderness of the ballad, “Artist,” and the all-out, free-jazz vibe of “Picasso.” Drummer Eric Eagle seems to squeeze every drop of color out of cymbals and drums, lending a highly nuanced touch to every corner of the sound.

Johnson comes across as no less than a master of his instrument, able to pull off whatever uniquely wacky idea he might have at any moment. Like the other players, one is unlikely to pinpoint just a few influences in his playing; it seems all encompassing at the same time wholly unique. Johnson’s “bag o’ tricks” contains a wide variety, from funk to country to be-bop and free-jazz. He deserves more credit and worldwide recognition; hopefully, “Suitcase” will help to introduce a new audience to his unique music.

The Heart of the Geyser, Dan Cavanagh Trio.
Fans of Brad Mehldau might enjoy this album, which starts off with the groovy 7/4 “Josephine,” which Cavanagh admits is sort of a “Tom Petty meets Brad Mehldau” tune. While Cavanagh doesn’t have the technical proficiency of Mehldau (who does?), he makes up for it with beautiful writing and spacious comping and blowing. The only negative aspect of the recording is the piano sound, which seems to be a bit bright and brittle. I wouldn’t blame this on Cavanagh’s touch, but rather on the instrument itself. Turning down the treble on my amplifier helped mitigate some of the brightness.

Bassist Linda Oh contributes some wonderfully subtle and inventive solos to the session, becoming the standout with her adeptness as both a spark and sponge for the musical ideas of Cavangh and drummer Joe McCarthy, who shines here too, keeping a tight rein on the time while allowing the music to breathe.

Oh’s bass is showcased most of all on Cavanagh’s arrangement of Chopin’s beautiful Prelude No. 4. She takes both the melody and first solo with perfect intonation, tone and pacing. She is definitely someone to keep your eyes on in the future. Aside from the Chopin, the only other non-original on the session is a quick take on Chick Corea’s blues, “Matrix.” While the tune allows the musicians to relax and stretch in a way the other material doesn’t, it seems a little out of place in this otherwise ethereal set. Cavanagh himself contributes the short and beautiful solo, “Londonberry Air,” to close.

Songs Without Words, Florian Hoefner Group.
German pianist Hoefner offers up an interesting set of originals on this excellent quartet outing. From the first flurry of notes over the rubato intro to “Cross Hill,” you get the feeling that this isn’t going to be a typical straight ahead affair. The album is full of beautiful compositions like this.

“Uncertain Times” is an arresting, note-filled Kurt Rosenwinkle- esque jaunt in 5/4, and while there’s a whole lot going on during the melody, the listener doesn’t feel stifled. Both Hoefner and saxophonist Mike Ruby craft understated solos, a trait amongst the musicians through most of the album. Ruby has obviously checked out [saxophonist] Mark Turner. He is strong and consistent throughout, although perhaps he has yet to find his own voice on the instrument, since, at times, his sound and approach are a little too close to Turner’s. At other times, bits and pieces of [saxophonists] Joshua Redman and Seamus Blake also poke through. At any rate, he is a young and gifted saxophonist who I wouldn’t mind hearing again.

“Somtimes” is a solemn ballad with a slow, straight 8th’s feel. Both Hoefener and Ruby play nicely-crafted, if somewhat introverted solos. On “Song of The Past,” a pleasant, minor-key, Latin-tinged number in 6/4 time, Hoefner breaks the mold a bit, playing some interesting contrapuntal lines during an energetic solo reminiscent of Brad Mehldau. “Distraction” is also in 6/4: Ruby takes an energetic solo on soprano; Hoefner cranks things up another notch, revealing some vocabulary in the style of Chick and Herbie that we haven’t yet heard; and finally we hear a little from drummer Peter Kronreif, as he plays an inventive solo over the ending vamp.

The next tune, “Ivory,” is a pretty, seemingly straight-ahead waltz. The melody is often phrased in non-four bar phrases, a nice departure from a typical jazz waltz. There’s also a nice ostinato bass-line that happens near the end of the melody that gives the tune an unexpected flavor. Hoefner takes an inventive solo, playing lines simultaneously with both hands. Ruby follows with a freewheeling solo, perhaps his best of the set, short and sweet with a nice peak near the end. Once again, particularly in the upper register of the saxophone, we hear the Turner influence. The tune finishes with an ostinato vamp, and Ruby blows some nice lines over the top.

“Ankuft” is perhaps the most abstract of the tunes, and starts by featuring bassist Sam Anning for a while before piano and bass play a unison melody. Ruby enters and the tune takes on a more refined sound, while still maintaining an air of mystery with some wide leaps in the melody, which create some nice dissonance.

Anning and Kronreif, while probably the least “featured” musicians on this recording, are the most responsible for keeping the music moving forward. I enjoyed listening to the way they interacted with one another underneath the piano and saxophone solos more than any other aspect of this album. Both are quite obviously virtuoso players who have the discipline and maturity to not overplay. Both know when to take some chances, but mostly spend their time being supportive of the other players.

The last tune, “Behind The Sun,” is a nice Neil Young- Tom Petty-ish rock number, with a nod towards some of Brad Mehldau’s recordings, most notably the album “Largo.” Both Hoefner and Ruby play some nice blues-inflected solos, with Hoefner really reaching into his Mehldau bag at times. Overall, “Songs Without Words” provides a pleasant listening experience, full of nicely crafted songs and restrained, refined improvisations.