Now and then, the Rifftides staff calls your attention to recordings selected from the stacks of more or less recent arrivals. Comments are brief, in an effort—no doubt doomed—to catch up with worthwhile releases.
Dutch Jazz Orchestra, Moon Dreams: Rediscovered Music of Gil Evans & Gerry Mulligan (Challenge)
Languishing in the stacks, this 2009 album called to me. I’m glad it did. It features arrangements that Gil Evans, in his mid-30s, and Gerry Mulligan, in his early 20s, wrote for the Claude Thornhill band in the late 1940s. Their work from that period anticipates what they, John Lewis and John Carisi created in 1949 and ‘50 for the nine-piece Miles Davis band later indelibly labeled Birth Of The Cool. Impeccably played by a fine Dutch repertory big band, the pieces include Evans’ chart on “Yardbird Suite” and his medley of “Easy Living,” a stunning “Moon Dreams” and “Everything Happens to Me.” There are buoyant Mulligan arrangements of “Rose of the Rio Grande,” “Joost at the Roost“and “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Sixty years later, all sound remarkably undated. In another 60, Evans’ treatment of “Lover Man” will still be fresh. If The Cool was born with the Davis band, it had a rich gestation period with Thornhill.
Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira, Dark Lady Of The Sonnets (TUM)
Smith suggests imagery for each of the five pieces. If you are capable of envisioning 60,000 Zulus dancing on the surface of a lake in “Zulu Water Festival,” fine, but you need not hear this as program music. It may be best to let it wash over you and discover what your mind develops in response. Like all of Smith’s recent work, this transcends the category of free jazz with which the trumpeter and composer is usually identified. It is no surprise that the formidable percussionist Pheeroan akLaff, a longtime colleague, works hand-in-glove with Smith. Min Xiao-Fen, born in Nanjing, is a surprise. A collaborator with John Zorn, Jane Ira Bloom and Björk, she makes remarkable music with the pipa, an ancient Chinese stringed instrument, and with her voice. She and Smith occasionally play carefully crafted unison lines that have the precision of electricity. Her singing on the title track is haunting. The three players alternately blend with and highlight one another. Space is an essential element of their music. Smith calls the trio Mbira, the name of an African thumb piano, although there is no African thumb piano on the CD. Consider it part of the mystique of the music, which in his notes Smith says is in “a creative contextualization defined in the contemporary music language.” That language encompasses the blues. A pronounced blues sensibility washes through and beneath the surface of the playing, which manages to be at once contemplative and daring.
Phil Dwyer, Changing Seasons (Alma)
The composer and orchestrator Phil Dwyer allows Dwyer the tenor saxophone virtuoso a solo in the “Summer” section of this beautifully realized album. He gives fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen a trumpet slot that is integral to the success of “Winter.” Most of the solos, however, are by Mark Fewer, a dazzling violinist who glides lyrically through Dwyer’s seasonal suite. The work may have been inspired at least in part, as any music with such a theme must be, by the example Vivaldi set 250 years ago. Clearly, though, Dwyer’s experience in modern jazz and classical music provides the basis for the pieces. He integrates a full string section and a big band in what amounts to a violin concerto blended into a concerto grosso. He and Fewer, who is not only the featured soloist but also conducts the strings, get what could have been an ungainly machine to swing mightily in the “Winter” section. In an unusual achievement for our length-obsessed CD era, the suite runs 35-and-a-half minutes, but it is so satisfying that it’s hard to imagine why it should be longer
Anthony Wilson, Seasons: Live At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art (Goat Hill DVD and CD)
Wilson’s album appeared at about the same time as Dwyer’s. Aside from subject matter and titles, they could hardly be more different. John Monteleone, an American guitar maker respected by his fellow craftsmen and revered by guitarists, created four magnificent archtop instruments named for the seasons, then commissioned Wilson to write a suite for them. Wilson engaged fellow guitarists Steve Cardenas, Chico Pinheiro and Julian Lage to perform the work with him in concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fittingly, the Monteleone guitars—subtly tinted and illustrated by the luthier—will be on display at the museum through July 4th as works of art. Each of the guitarists is featured in a movement of the seasonal cycle, with the other three playing Wilson’s often-intricate ensemble accompaniments. Cardenas begins with the moody “Winter;” the young Brazilian Pinheiro dances through the samba “Spring;” Wilson celebrates “Summer” with an Ozarks twang; Lage has the central part in “Autumn’s” harmonic complexities, wrapping up the 32-minute suite. The DVD has the suite, masterfully photographed and directed at the concert, a documentary about Monteleone making the guitars and Wilson writing the music, and an extensive slide show. The CD has the suite, each of the guitarists in a solo feature, then all of them together in a ‘round robin on Joni Mitchell’s ”The Circle Game.” This is a remarkable guitar chamber music experience.
More reviews coming soon, listening and contemplation time permitting.