Blunt notes from casual CD listening — reactions, not reviews

On Saturday, while making chopped liver for a dinner party and emptying a bookcase in need of repair, I listened to and commented on Facebook about 14 cds from the stacks of dozens of albums that have arrived since the first of the year seeking my review. I chose what I heard almost at random, pulling discs from the tops of piles, and rather than pre-selecting artists in whom I have established interests and prior knowledge, I mostly checked out people and groups I hadn’t encountered before (I acknowledge a couple exceptions). I employed this standard for rating the cds, allowing no half-points into the process:

5 — great, everybody ought to hear it
4 — really, really good or peculiarly interesting, recommended to aficionados
3 — good, not bad at all, good, maybe even very good (no half-points!)
2 — ok, but maybe flawed, commonplace or I don’t get it
1 — stay away, waste of time, who cares but the artist’s mom? 

Years ago when I was reviewing recordings regularly for such publications as Down Beat, The Chicago Daily News, Illinois Entertainer, the Village VoiceMusic & Sound Output, Audio and Jazziz, I would listen closely and many, many times while writing, trying to get far into the music so as to do justice to efforts artists had put enormous personal energy into. The comments that follow are based on much less attentiveness than that; my judgements were hasty and my notes are blunt. But from my experience working as a teenager in Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart, hanging around various public radio stations over four decades and having informal listening sessions with friends and colleagues, this casual way of encountering new releases is more typical than concentration and immersion. So for what it’s worth, I’m posting what I wrote for my Facebook “friends” for my blog readers to see, too. Take what follows as reactions and responses, rather than reviews. 

In the order I put them on, with the intention of listening ’til I felt I understood what was being offered. I am not posting links to each of them, but assume most can be ordered, if you’re interested, through

Ancient FuturePlanet Passion — 2 (ok introduction to worthy genre, popularization of world music styles and soloists within easy-listening context) 

Fareed Haque + The Flat Earth Ensememble — Flat Planet — 4 (sharp, sometimes raucous Chicago electric guitarist, fusionist South Asian background, tendencies, rhythms, collaborators; includes three-movement suite)

Fat Cat Big BandMeditations on the War for Whose Great God is the Most High You are God — 3 (modestly original melodies but nice charts and admirably loose swing from Mingusesque youngish New York Village hangout 11-tet ed by guitarist Jade Synstelien; don’t fear the title, there’s also a tune called “F*ck the Man (Please Vote)”)

Aki Takase/Rudi MahallEvergreen — 4 (wacky chamber jazz as spiky pianist and masterful bass clarinetist stretch but don’t break “Mood Indigo,” “Tea for Two,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon” and other old favorites, akin to Steve Lacy w/Misha Mengleberg; quite well recorded in Berlin)

Marc Courtney JohnsonDream of Sunny Days — 3 (debut of a Chicago neighborhood-kinda singer inspired by Kurt Elling and similarly interested in startling re-evaluation of crooners’ possibilities, working towards his own image/sound/style. Various settings include pianist Dan Cray’s trio, horns and strings; repertoire from standards (“I Wish You Love,” “Old Devil Moon”) to original “Brand New Day” based on Coltrane and Obama). 

Sound AssemblyEdge of the Mind — 3 (fancy writing/angular orchestrations by NYC co-leaders David Schumacher and JC Sanford reminiscent of Michael Mantler’s for the Jazz Composers Association but less extreme and Jim McNeely’s for the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra; new music elements worked with improvising soloists; John Hollenbeck drums, Andrew Green on breakthrough guitar, Kate McGarry sings one song; impressive and/or pretentious?). 

SubmergedViolence as First Nature — 4 (for brash originality: unruly urban ugly electronic mixes, analog & digital sources plus slamming beat, processed vocals, stretched rubber explosions, white noise and dark slurs, the usual; disc 2 makes further hash of it all, opposite of easy listening).

Ramana Vieria & Ensemble — Tears of a Queen — 2 (She sings fado dramatically, in Portuguese, with precision accompaniment, all crisp, expressive, professional. Not my thing for more than a couple of tunes).

Nels ClineCoward — 3 (Unapologetic distortion from gizmos and post-folkie guitar/autoharp, sometimes both together, by the Wilco member and longtime West Coast avant-gardist who favors Andrew Hill. Self-produced in his home studio. Is it indulgent? Well, there’s a six part Onan Suite. . . )

Denny Zeitlin TrioIn Concert — 3 (Zeitlin’s maturely buoyant and brilliant pianism expanding on the jazz tradition of virtuosity out of Art Tatum, past Bill Evans and Don Friedman, stopping just short of ’60s esthetic innovations (Hancock, Hill, Tyner, Corea, Jarrett) or radicalism (Cecil Taylor, who else?) but with elegance and fresh surprises anyway, fast-fingered bass by Buster Williams and perfect rhythmic touches from Matt Wilson.)

Will SellenraadBalance — 2 (Wake up you guys! Drummer Victor Lewis is one of the finest with straight hardbop momentum but the material all by guitarist Sellenraad and bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa is undistinguished, the guitar esthetic/approach/sound/attack is understated though complicated, saxophonist Abraham Burton not overly inspired, nor am I to keep listening, though they’ve got it together, it’s not just *lame* . . . )

Alex Heitlingerthe daily life of uncle roger — 3 (Heitlinger is a trombonist who’s written moody material for trumpet & clarinet/alto sax to join him in the frontline, piano or Fender Rhodes, bass and drums. Maybe Uncle Roger has a farm and is threatened by changing circumstances; reminiscence, regret, determination, defiance, reluctant acceptance, self-assertion seem to come up, but the title track finds wry bounce in the cyclical nature of ‘most everything. The good playing, sudden shiftsRak and not over-politeness by the entire company might grow on me). 

Rakalam Bob MosesFather’s Day B’Hash — 2 (From the freedoms that veteran drummer Moses encourages in his band mostly comprising students from New England Conservatory, you can tell he’s a true-believer in the art and universalism of intuitively improvised music. But 17 minutes into it I’m waiting for a theme to emerge from the twittering, for ideas to take hold and move. Here’s Moses playing frenetic piano with a cymbal or tambourine clattering — inside the well? — and horns massed a la Ayler et al on New York Eye and Ear Control. Elsewhere, massed dissonant tutti. The solo “Drums for Shompa Lodro,” Moses’ father aka Richard Moses, is happening. . . Not sure I’ll return to this, however attractive the cover and transparent the engineering. I’ve given it a good chance.)

Flow Trio — Rejuvenation — 3 (it’s a lot easier to get into an improvisational ensemble’s stream of consciousness when there are three well-attuned players than nine, as in Moses’ recording. Tenor saxophonist Louie Belogenis goes deep into himself and far to the edge with his horn; Morris is not as good a bassist as guitarist, but serves the function, and Charles Downs simmers on drums. The music’s discordant but nonetheless comforting, companionable. Thanks for that.)

I’ll try this again sometime — or is it too dismisive a way of “reviewing” cds? 

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  1. says

    Please do it again. I don’t think it is dismissive at all. It is more coverage than these discs would get otherwise, and it is quite similar to the way I would discuss a new disc with a friend in passing conversation. I think both listeners and artists would be better served with more mini-reviews like this.

  2. Jason Byrne says

    I disagree completely with the comment by Jeff Albert that states “It is more coverage than these discs would get otherwise . . .” – I am a publicist and believe me many of these discs will get far more coverage than this.
    These reactions and responses are great, interesting and kind of fun to read, but they cannot take the place of proper in-depth reviews. From what I have read so far, they sometimes miss the subtleness and point of some of this music and can therefore be misleading. However if readers take them for what they are (reactions and responses) then they can still be open to checking out the music and forming an opinion of their own.
    HM: Jason’s right that these reactions and responses do not take into account the various productions’ subtleties, varieties, details — and maybe I’m mistaken about their points, I can’t judge about that. I sure hope there are reviews that will do more on them. For instance, the Fat Cat Big Band has a second album released at the same time I haven’t listened to yet; it may shed a different light on the first. I’m glad Jeff liked what he read though, and if I’ve helped anyone sort through some new releases, I hope it’s to the good.

  3. Michael J. West says

    I think it’s a great idea. So much so that I’m strongly considering stealing it.

  4. says

    This was a quick, entertaining read, and you’ve interested me in checking out at least a couple of discs that I didn’t know about before.
    Given the sheer volume of new music out there, and the accompanying sipping-water-from-a-fire-hose difficulties inherent in trying to keep up with it all, I’d like to see more short-takes pieces like this.
    But I’d agree with Jason that, in the larger scheme of things, they’re a useful supplement to full reviews, and not necessarily a substitute for them.
    With shrinking freelance budgets and less space devoted to longer-form music coverage in many newspapers & magazines, online is one of the few places where those with the knowledge and writing ability, like Mr. Mandel, have the chance to “go long” when the subject merits in-depth treatment. I’d hate to lose that.

  5. says

    Dear Howard Mandel,
    Glad you got the chance for a casual listen. Repeated listening to ‘Planet Passion’ will slowly reveal its true complexity. If you are interested in studying some of the musical knowledge behind that release, please visit
    We have mixed feelings about the movement to short instantaneous reactions on the Internet that is happening in the midst of the economic cutbacks at print media. On the one hand a lot more people are involved in the process, but on the other it is too bad that there is not more support for delving deep into subjects that can only come with financial support for the written word.
    We’ve also attached a list of bullet points on the world fusion music process.
    PD Ancient-Future.Com Records
    World Fusion Music:
    *Not a genre; the results of world fusion process can fit in many genres
    *Based on cross-cultural collaborations, expanding musical understanding and skills of collaborators
    *Process not associated with any one belief system, religion, or demographic group
    *Process produces a variety of results and encourages innovation; can create new traditions
    *Many great traditions are the result of this process: Blues, Jazz, Flamenco, etc.
    *Process encourages music for the sake of music
    *Results often worth stretching a genre or radio format for
    *All tempos, rhythms, melodies, harmonies and tone colors possible
    *Deep knowledge of musical traditions important
    *Exciting process can create vital music based on the great music of the world
    *Worthy of greater support
    World Music Traditions:
    *The repositories of musical knowledge
    *Must be preserved for future generations
    HM: Thanks for your note. I’m aware that I didn’t give AF’s Planet Passion the full monte of listening deeply. However, after 35 years of music reviewing, including stints as an editor at Down Beat, Ear and Rhythm Music, as well as several classes including one called “The Arts: World Music” at NYU, I’ve come to trust my reactions to some extent.
    If I had been in the position of trying to analyze and explain the cd to a broad audience unfamiliar with the world fusion music process I would have detailed many of the excellent bullet points as to how the band embodies them. My personal bias is towards more investigation of the world’s musical tradiitons rather than fusing them, but Ancient Future’s dexterity in drawing on a vast range of musical knowledge and concocting entrancing blends is admirable and results in genuinely original, pleasing sounds; that the band has been at it for 30 years also reflects commitment and creativity at an early stage to a process that has itself become a new genre. Congrats on the album and the anniversary.

  6. says

    yo HM
    thanks for doing a quick write up on my s**t.
    I’ll send you my first album, with Kondo on it, it will tear your tits off. hit me up.