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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 8

Big Bands to Watch for this Summer

by Félix-A. Hamel / May 11, 2008

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Barry Guy: Portrait

Intakt CD 123


Record labels devoted to improvised music rarely produce compilation albums, due to the very nature of the music they champion. This 2007 release, a joint project between the Swiss Intakt label and Barry Guy’s own Maya imprint, is a notable exception. It presents the double-bassist and composer in various settings, from solo bass work to the 21-piece first edition of his London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, over a period of 34 years. Throughout the 12 tracks of this beautifully packaged CD (which comes with an extensive, illustrated 87-page booklet), Guy has tried to put together a “virtual composition”, in the process presenting us with some of his closest musical collaborators, such as saxophonist Evan Parker (present on over half of the pieces), drummer Paul Lytton, pianists Marilyn Crispell and Agusti Fernandez, trombonist Paul Rutherford, and Guy’s companion, baroque violinist Maya Homburger. The large ensemble excerpts give a good idea of Guy’s use of a wide variety of compositional devices for the creative orchestra, from the massive first part of the landmark recording “Ode” (1972) to the multiple features of “Inscape-Tableaux, Part VII” (2000) by his 10-piece New Orchestra. His long standing trio with Parker and Lytton (appearing in Montreal on June 26 for the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival) is represented with an excerpt from 1993’s “Imaginary Values”, while a quieter side of Guy’s playing emerges during “Odyssey”, a trio performance with Spaniards Agusti Fernandez and Ramon Lopez. With the LJCO appearing only scarcely these days, much of Guy’s writing energy since 2000 seems to have been put into his New Orchestra, which will appear at the Vancouver Jazz Festival this summer. While this compilation will probably not create converts, although it does provide a fascinating overview of Guy’s diverse skills. Devoted listeners are strongly advised to look for the BGNO’s two Intakt albums, “Inscape-Tableaux” (CD 066) and “Oort-Entropy” (CD 101), as these are two of the most important large-ensemble works of creative music in recent times.

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: A Love Supreme

Palmetto PM 2106


Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don’t be afraid... the music of Charles Mingus

Palmetto PM 2114


How should we play today music that has been so deeply associated with great musicians of the past? That is the question that Wynton Marsalis and the LCJO have tried to answer on these two recent recordings, with somewhat mitigated success. Marsalis’s arrangement of John Coltrane’s immortal “A Love Supreme” for orchestra comes off as a strange hybrid, with frequent quotes from the original recording, but also some standard (albeit very clever) big band effects that seem strangely out of place in this context (the dazzling tutti at the end of “Pursuance” makes about as much sense as Harry James playing “The Flight of the Bumble Bee”). Ultimately, and despite some inspired solos by saxophonist Wess Anderson and Marsalis himself (impressive on “Pursuance”), the whole thing falls flat, and what’s missing is obvious from the start: not only the fire and passion of the original Coltrane quartet, but also a fresh approach that would justify playing that music today. The Mingus set works somewhat better, in part because most of the great bassist’s music was originally designed for a large ensemble setting. But again, these versions of “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” and “Meditation on Integration” veritably pale in comparison to Mingus’s own, tempestuous interpretations. One cannot help but wonder for whom is this sort of recording made? Those who already know the original works would have little interest in hearing such remakes, and, if Marsalis’s aim is to bring jazz to new audiences, then they should also be directed to the original recordings. That said, the LCJO is probably the greatest repertory band in jazz at the moment, and should be seen on a concert stage. But they are also a proof that the correct ingredients (“swing”, skilled improvising musicians, top-level charts) do not always amount to a great recipe, and ultimately, the customer leaves the table with more of a full stomach than real muscali sustenance.

...and what about Sun Ra?

No discussion on contemporary large jazz ensembles should be complete without mentioning one of its founding fathers, Sun Ra, whose Arkestra, under the direction of saxophonist Marshall Allen, is still alive and kicking after the maestro’s departure from our lowly planet in May of 1993. With its riotous mix of fanfares, electronics, noisy interludes, dance, frenetic solos, swinging themes and percussion, the Arkestra was always a unique live experience, and some of its best recordings were concert appearances like “Nothing Is” (ESP-Disk’, 1966), “It Is Forbidden” (Total Energy, 1974) and “Live At Montreux” (Universe, 1976). Of course, Sun Ra’s back catalog is one of the largest in the canon, and is growing by the month (starting by a whole slew of reissues on the American Evidence label in the 90’s, with more material emerging on Atavistic and London’s Art Yard Records, both of whom are now actively reviving old “Ra-rities”). The Arkestra’s own El Ra Records is a modest operation, with only two post-Ra recordings available from elrarecords.com: 1999’s “A Song For The Sun” and 2003’s “Music For The 21st Century”. The Arkestra will perform in Montreal on June 14, a co-presentation of the Suoni per il Popolo and Off Festivals. Don’t miss them while they’re still around on our planet!

Iro Haarla: Northbound

ECM 1918


Although released in 2005, this quintet recording under the leadership of Finnish pianist (and harpist) Iro Haarla is of particular relevance now, as the group will embark on a cross-Canada jazz fest tour this coming June. With 11 cuts spanning more than 77 minutes, this disc is quintessential (no pun intended) ECM fare: lyrical and spacious music evolving in medium to slow tempos with occasional yet unresolved tensions building (as in the fourth cut ”Time for Recollection” and the final track which gives its title to this side). The pianist, who first accomplished duties in the markedly more energetic ensemble Sound and Fury of her late husband, drummer Edward Vesala, crafts a music totally in keeping with the trademark ‘Nordic Sound” that has become the label’s signature. Contributing to the group sound here are the noteworthy veteran drummer (and percussion colorist par excellence) Jon Christenson, a household name for ECM habitués, bassist Uffe Krokfors, a long-time associate of the leader, and two younger players, tenor and soprano saxist Trygve Seim and trumpeter Matthias Eick, the latter offering the most poignant solos of the album. While the length of this side and the general evenness of mood may challenge the attention span of some, this is good late night musical fare, best listened to before turning in for the night (but don’t nod off so as not to miss all of the fineries of this generous musical offering). MC

The Iro Haarla Quintet plays festivals from Victoria to Montreal and most points in between. Check individual festival programs for specific times and places.

Charles Lloyd Quartet: Rabo de Nube

ECM 2053


Almost hot off the press, this CD is the latest in a long series of ECM recordings issued by the peripatetic reedman Charles Lloyd. This early spiritual son of John Coltrane, who first found fame in the late sixties in a quartet featuring a then emerging piano whiz kid by the name of Jarrett (who, like Lloyd, has been part of the ECM fold for years), disappeared from sight at the height of the early 70s hippy days, only to re-emerge a decade later at the behest of another piano player, the late Michel Petrucciani. For over 15 years now, the saxman has now found a secure home for his music pursuits, and this latest one turns out to be one of his best. Backed by the usual three-man rhythm section, the leader shows that he can stoke the fires and really cut loose when he wants to. Recorded live in Basel, Switzerland, in April 2007, the setting is an obvious incentive for the performances. More important though are his sidemen, drummer Eric Harland, double bassist Reuben Rogers and especially pianist Jason Moran, whose sterling solos on at least three of the seven tracks are totally uplifting. Lloyd’s tenor is both soft but imbued with a kind of wail not unlike that of Wayne Shorter’s, and he supplements his arsenal with some dreamy alto flute on track three “Booker’s Garden” (a tribute to B. Little?), followed by some pinched tarogato (a kind of wooden soprano sax) on the next cut, “Ramanujan”. While those instruments add variety, it is his tenor that really carries the day here (or evening, shall I say), with kudos to his band mates, too. On March 15, Lloyd just turned 70, but when hearing a recording like this, we can qualify that by saying 70 years… young! MC

The Charles Lloyd Quartet plays the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival on June 25 at Harbourfront Centre.

The Chris Tarry Group: Almost Certainly Dreaming

19/8 Records (www.nineteeneight.com)


A self-produced effort (as wont be in this Do It Yourself age), this release marks the debut of a band lead by a one-time Vancouver resident, now based in New York: electric bassist Chris Tarry. Having previously made his mark with the once popular quartet Metalwood (whose style turned it into a kind of Medeski-Martin-and-Wood-North), Tarry has carried over some (but not all) of those stylings into a quintet format. Of his band mates, only tenor saxophonist Kelley Jefferson is a fellow compatriot, and his muscular tenor solos show how much he has grown since his Montreal days. Keyboardist Henry Hay sticks to the acoustic grand for the most part, and to better advantage than the electric piano he uses on one cut, whereas Pete McCann’s twangy guitar sound is not to everyone’s taste, but not complaints on drummer Dan Weiss, who’s on top of it all times. Overall, this is a contemporary jazz that wears a pop-like sensibility on its sleeve, albeit not in a cloying or overly predictable manner. This may well be due to the leader, whose bass eschews the usual thumpyness of the instrument and the eternal finger popping and redundant riff routines that come with it. Both light and breezy, this music will certainly be an outdoor stage crowd pleaser at one or the other of the Canadian Summer festivals venue near you. MC

Duo Henneman Baars: stof

Wig Records Wig 13


For those who like distinction with a difference, a duo of viola and wind instruments (tenor sax, clarinet, shakuhachi and no-kan) certainly fits the bill. Hailing from that pocket-sized nation of seemingly boundless musical creativity, Holland, the musical and life partners Ig Henneman and Ab Baars present here a project that, on the face of it, may appear far removed from anything customarily jazzy; but with improvisation lying at the heart of their musical pursuits, they have earned a spot on several of the upcoming festivals. As a duo, this is most obviously an intimate kind of music making, all the more considering the instruments. In fact, Baars’s arresting post-aylerish tenor is little heard here, whereas his second horn, clarinet, is more prominently featured as well as the shakuhachi, a new addition to his arsenal. Of course, the zen-cliché can be used here to describe the music, and there is truth to that in the very pointillistic way they play, but this is not an East-meets-West shindig either. For the most part, it is more like abstract sound painting, carried out in very deliberate gestures rather than broad strokes. While some cuts were created on the spot, others have a compositional basis to them, and of the 14 tracks contained on this 57-minute side, the title track and longest one (at about 10 minutes) seems to bring together all of the strands explored on this record. This is music of great subtlety, best appreciated on record, but also in the intimacy of a good sounding room..

This duo will be performing at several Canadian festivals in late June, including Montreal and Vancouver. Consult on line listings of events for exact dates, times and places.

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