Recent Listening: Graham Collier, Efrat Alony

Collier Pollocks.jpgGraham Collier, directing 14 Jackson Pollocks (GCM). Long before he wrote his recent book, Graham Collier’s music made it plain that Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Gil Evans were profound influences on his work. Collier followed Ellington’s and Mingus’s lead in fashioning pieces with his soloists in mind rather than the common concept of arrangements into which a leader could plug whatever soloist was at hand. As for Evans, I must say that I heard in Collier’s earlier recordings more of the Evans of “La Nevada” or “El Matador” – roiling, abstract patterns under soloists — than of the tonal tapestries in, say, Sketches of Spain. I still do. Collier amalgamated his inspirations into an orchestral style that coalesced at a moment in the late 1960s when musicians and listeners in Great Britain were ready to expand their ideas about what constituted jazz.
Collier was his own bassist for years before he concentrated entirely on composing,Collier.jpg arranging and leading. Among the members of his bands were adventurous players including saxophonists John Surman and Art Themen, trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Harry Beckett and drummer John Marshall. In directing 14 Jackson Pollocks, Collier reaches distillation of the notion that the orchestra, the written music and the improvising soloist comprise a trinity, each element inseparable from the other. The music makes obvious what the CD title means, unless you don’t know who Jackson Pollock was. The two-CD set consists of music recorded at concerts in London in 1997 and 2004. The astonishing Beckett, Themen and Marshall are among the players, along with pianist Roger Dean, bassist Jeff Clyne and others who long since absorbed Collier’s ethos of individual independence amidst collective dependence.
The music has something in common with the free jazz that emerged in the United States in the sixties, but where free jazz often fell by the weight of its pretensions of liberation from guidelines, Collier’s coalesces around his frameworks. His composing and arranging dictates, or suggests, shape, harmonic character and rhythmic direction of the solos. He infuses much of his music with wry humor at which titles like “Between a Donkey and a Rolls Royce” and “An Alternate Low Circus Ballad” can only hint. In any case, humor is only an element In Collier’s work, important but minor. He produces serious music that makes demands on its listeners and gives generous compensation to those who welcome it on its terms.
Alony.jpgEfrat Alony, Alony (Enja). Bob Brookmeyer called my attention to this Israeli singer who has had success in Germany’s avant circles. In Brookmeyer’s words, “She is very gifted and very motivated–into electronics, arranging, always composing her own stuff. Been in Berlin for 15 years.” He thinks she deserves wider exposure. After spending a couple of hours of a long motor trip with her CD, I agree.
Alony’s voice, round and spacious, sounds classically trained. It is in the mezzo range, although she sometimes takes it higher, maintaining fullness and pitch unless she is purposely bending notes, which she occasionally does to great effect. The songs on Alony are not standards; she wrote most of the lyrics and music, with contributions from pianist Mark Reinke and one piece from the Israeli songwriter-singer Etti Ankri. In addition, Alony set to music William Butler Yeats’ bittersweet poem, “To a Child Dancing in the Wind.” Reinke and drummer Christian Thomé are the primary accompanists. They also provide electronic effects. A string quartet contributes backing and atmospherics. Alony now and then overdubs voices in unison or counterpoint. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all integrated, allowing concentration on the music as a whole. At their best, Alony’s lyrics achieve a haiku-like sensibility that distinguishes superior art songs:
fading shadows of joy
I slowly unlock the shackles of thought
my safeguard
freeing feelings I lost
sweet longing
You are unlikely to find Alony at your corner record store. It is available as a download from Amazon and, evidently, as a CD only from the Enja web site. YouTube has a clever promotional video of “Lights On/Off,” the song that opens the album.
I’m not sure that there is a category for what Alony does. I’m not sure that there should be. Call it music.
We’ll have more Recent Listening soon. Well, reasonably soon.

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  1. says

    Thanks for turning me on to Alony’s music, Doug…all I can say is WOW!
    I watched the YouTube video and immediately bought her album on Amazon. Digesting it now.

  2. says

    Incidentally ‘Between a Donkey and a Rolls Royce’ was the original title for the Forty Years On suite. It came about because when we lived in Spain the next door neighbour used to go off to work every day on his donkey, while on the other side was a rich builder who had a cream coloured Rolls Royce Corniche (which looked a bit stupid in the narrow lanes of the town, but there you go!) The title seemed an apt summing up of where I was, both literally and figuratively, in that I was beyond the donkey stage but never wanted a rolls, and was certainly never able to afford one, but I was comfortable. Which I consider a proud achievement for a jazz musician.