Archive for January, 2011

Marbin: Breaking the Cycle

The second album from the Chicago, by way of Israel, duo Marbin finds them expanding the band’s line up. Added now to the roster are a bassists, drummer and percussionist. Having already deftly mastered the layering of sound on their first album via multi-tracking, the enlarged ensemble allows for more sonic possibilities occurring with a live feel. From their last album to this current one should not be seen as a radical departure but just a further evolution using to great effect the different device of other players.
Loopy starts off with tribal sounding drums sounding out the beat under some fat synthesizer like lines. Here the band shows that it can draw inspiration from sources such as the Robert Fripp/Adrian Belew era King Crimson while avoiding some of the more indulgent aspects that could come to the fore with progressive rock. There is a rapid fire soprano sax solo by Danny Markovitch which forgoes the nasal cadence sometimes utilized by players and is bolstered by the switch of emphasis in the rhythm from tribal tom-tom beat to cymbal work. Both Jamey Haddad (percussion) and Paul Wertico (drums) are able to tightly weave their percussive patterns together which give the piece not just a greater sonic complexity but also mass and density while avoiding sounding like merely pulses of sound. The guitar solo by Dani Rabin which closes out the song has the classic overdriven tube amp cadence and has a forward thrust momentum furthered by the rest of the band and despite its virtuosity never seems overly fussy. Although the song starts off in the more traditional band sounding mode it climaxes with the dense layering of sound that made their first album so enjoyable. The tension is resolved at the songs finish by the initial theme and melody being re-instated.
Aside from their just music being genre defying, on parts of different pieces the band likes to sometimes blur the distinction of an instrument’s identity, the cadence of a lead line being possibly midi-guitar or synthesizer. They will then add the more easy to recognize voices to that which keeps the listener invested in the song as it allows for the maintaining of an overall organicness.
A Serious Man starts with a samba flavored percussion and legato sax. Steve Rodby’s bass has a full tone which manages to really fill out the song while remaining subtly below the main action of the sax’s lines and doubled up guitar, which strums in a more traditional jazz sounding idiom and also Gitane finger picking style. As with a lot of pieces in their oeuvre, this piece has a cinematic feel. One could imagine a deco hotel lobby with well turned out guests looking at each other sideways waiting for the mystery to play out.
Mom’s Song starts with a vocalese and sort of guitar mélange that radiates aspects of 60’s folk and 50’s ballad-twang type of an atmosphere. The song has a deceptively simple melodic structure, the enjoyment of which becomes apparent by the piece’s ability to sort of seem timeless in regards to its duration. It is not the most dramatic song to be found on the album but one of the best examples of the luscious headphone landscape to be traversed as subtle electro blips and bass swells among other things become more apparent with headphones.
Bar Stomp is one of my favorite tracks on the album. It is raucous blues which upon first listen is a showcase for guitar but the duel drums’ rhythmic pattern upon repeated listens proves to be equally as impressive as they lock into a groove. The song shows the change brought about by the addition of more band members. Dani and Danny can continue using their innate talent of painting their sonic collages with overdubbing but now with a further expanded palette brought about by the presence of musical confreres.
Burning Match again returns to the cinematic, the soprano sax sounding slightly like a clarinet and with the noir strolling bass intro giving the feeling of a Poirot like hero contemplating the mystery or maybe just a women. The song morphs with the introduction of a sustain heavy guitar, still image rich but perhaps turning the movie into a double feature of which this is the second part.
The Old Silhouette starts with a soft voiced soprano statement and percussion beating out an arabesque type of pattern. The guitar comes in with the flinty cadence of a good white wine, verging at times on sounding like lap steel played through a vintage tube amplifier. The song has a sort of desert vibe to it, is the old silhouette that of the sphinx or maybe merely the equally as old dunes themselves. This song shows how seamlessly the new members have been both integrated and utilized to further the artistic evolution of a new and worthwhile band.
The album clocks in at 43 minutes long and as was the case with their debut stands up to repeated listening. A lot of newer bands that embrace jazz or at least some aspects of it rely on mannerisms more than a style; from album to album the songs may change but not the execution. They also avoid any sense of gimmick, clearly there is some rock in their roots but there is no attempt at novelty by attempting Beatle or Nirvana covers. Here is a band who holds steady to their vision while avoiding repetition and allowing the audience to witness their growth.

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Witness to the Two: Aaron Alexander & Julian Priester Conversational Music

When jazz was still in its nascence from New Orleans to Chicago, its structure was more open ended. The most constant aspect, no matter who the players were was the flights of improvisation via the solos. One player would feed the next the theme to expound upon. A lot of great early moments happened spontaneously and live, in the small semi secret clubs and rent parties. As capturing it for posterity was not necessarily a consideration nor even an ambition, there were none of the time constraints due to the then technical limitations of 78 records.
Hot Jazz gave way to swing and then big band. There would still remain socio-economic and racial barriers not just in music but throughout the country but with the start of swing jazz did start reaching a wider audience. As jazz shed and grew out from some of its Storyville past a populist (entertainment) aspect slowly crept in. As a way to compromise, not artistically but to be able to keep audiences entertained while also achieving the artistic satisfaction akin to what was felt at the after hours jams part of the stage show would often encompass duels or cutting contests. It is a little like the chicken or egg argument in regards to whether this started to inspire partnerships, duos within a group such as Herschel Evans and Lester Young in one of the early incarnations of Count Basie’s band.
A bunch of factors which included the big bands having been pared down losing members due to World War II call up, a record making strike due to both materials and a union dispute and greater exposure Western Classical tradition coalesced to help usher in a musical revolution whose chief progenitors gathered initially at Minton’s Playhouse (NYC). During the first flush of this new art form came also the desire to be respected more as artists than entertainers. During this slow move towards a new way of looking at musicians, cutting contests and duos still existed; desired by both audience and the artists themselves.
The stripped down size of an ensemble, usually a quartet or quintet became the accepted post war norm. As jazz continued to increase in complexity and possibilities a long chain of great partnerships emerged which would be one part battle one part duets, typified by such tenor teams as Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin et al.
The late fifties, early sixties saw jazz birth genres and sub-genres. By the mid-sixties forms were not merely stretched but shattered or ignored. The until then typical duets of two saxes occurring within the framework of an ensemble. Now there were duets of two different instruments with no others to bolster the start or finish of a duet or provide framework in which they would occur.
Musician/composers such as Max Roach, Anthony Braxton, Mal Waldron, Archie Shepp and others created albums and concerts which in their best moments showed what only two musicians in simpatico with each other could achieve.
As rock became the new soundtrack of youth and the outsiders, jazz found itself becoming greatly marginalized. Acts that did not want to graft on rock leanings or peddle nostalgia found themselves largely out in the cold stateside. Commercially it was bleak times for jazz musicians but artistically there began a cross pollination of ideas and inspiration from ethnic musics, especially Africa and India and modern European classical. This further breaking of boundaries created a body of work in some artists that, although containing or built off of improvisations is only tenuously jazz and to which it would be both more respectful and accurate to describe it as (a type of) modern classical.
The best of these duet offerings gives the feeling to the listener that they are being allowed to ease-drop on a good conversation or voyeur like, witness two artists explore, as Picasso described himself and Braque inventing cubism;
“Like two mountain climbers roped together.”
The aptly titled new CD Conversational Music by Aaron Alexander and Julian Priester reiterates for all to hear the appeal of this type of work.
Chicago native Julian like many of his generation initially cut his teeth on the R&B circuit, playing with such luminaries as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. He would participate in a mid-50’s incarnation of the genre defying Sun Ra orchestra; home at one time or another to many forward thinking greats. By the end of the 1950’s Julian found himself in New York as part of Lionel Hampton’s band. A tour of Australia where costs had to be cut pre-tour found Julian out of a job. Saxophonist Eddie Chamblee who was then part of a newly formed group backing Dinah Washington was able to hire Julian on. When Chamblee moved on Julian was offered the position of musical director but he also departed. An introduction via sax titan Johnny Griffin to Orrin Keepnews landed him a job in the shipping department of Orrin’s Riverside Records. This was not necessarily as disheartening as it may sound for other up and coming greats including Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Drew and Wilbur Ware also worked the department from which talent was recruited to also record.
From this initial loose knit federation of musicians started Julian’s career as sideman and eventually, leader. Julian was called upon to join Max Roach’s band after tuba player Ray Draper left. The foreword thinking of Max’s compositions and execution would inspire Julian and become a hallmark of his own art as well.
Julian would find himself playing with the who’s who of progressively minded musician/composers including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers and Booker Little. 1969 saw him playing with Duke Ellington briefly (six months). This was not a step back to nostalgia as Duke had always embraced musical possibilities brought out by what was new and by this time had created a large body of work which contained equal parts songs, suites and works whose au courant air was organic and showed that Duke moved organically with the times.
After Duke Ellington started an association with Herbie Hancock. Herbie had been in Miles Davis’ second great quintet and the start of Mile’s electro-African experiments (On the Corner/In a Silent Way/A Tribute to Jack Johnson) which served as a template for his own with his Mwandishi/Headhunters ensembles which Julian would become part of (Mwandishi). The music Julian helped create with this group largely stands the test of time and avoids a lot of the noodling indulgence that would become a later hallmark of the fusion movement. Songs like the Julian penned “Wandering Spirit” and “Water Torture” easily show themselves to be among the early precursors of techno-ambient movement.
The one constant in the diverse list of artists with whom Julian worked is a sort of questing and exploration which ultimately leads to artistic evolutions. Post Mwandishi Julian was able to record as leader for ECM (1974 Love, Love 1977 Polarization) while living in San Francisco. The 1980’s the early part of which was like a harsh winter for jazz saw Julian moving to Seattle where he started to teach at The Cornish College of the Arts while also playing in Dave Holland’s quintet. The next decade he continued his work with the quintet while also contributing to Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Towards the decade’s end Julian was in ill health and needed a liver transplant which happened in 2000. Post transplant he released his first album as leader in twenty five years In Deep End Dance (2002 Conduit Records) the start of another phase of his career which has included more collaborations and explorations.
Conversational Music was recorded in 2007 with drummer composer Aaron Alexander. Aaron first met Julian as a student at Cornish in 1982. Aaron is a perfect foil for Julian on this album as like the music itself he is not tethered to the traditional structure and idiom of jazz. Aaron is a strong composer in his own right whose writings are flavored by his association with his Klezmer and world music projects. In common with Julian is the diversity of projects Aaron has been involved with, from his own “Midrash Mish Mosh” ensemble to his associations and collaborations with Hasidic new wavers “Babkas”, The Klezmatics, Satoko Fuji Orchestra and many others. His busy schedule has seen him tour the globe appearing at many world music festivals and multi media appearances including BET Live (with Hasidic New Wave), A Prairie Home Companion (Klezmatics) and The Joseph Papp Public Theater. Although separated by an age difference, artistically they are similar in drawing from a rich broad spectrum of influences and inspirations. Also in common with Julian, Aaron would eventually find himself taking on the role of educator while still delving into sundry projects.
“Ariella Carmen” is a slower tempoed piece which features soft, beautiful brush work by Aaron that bolsters the contemplative murmuring of the Julian’s trombone. This piece serves almost as an artistic mission statement for the rest of the album in conveying the intimacy involved in the overall execution of each piece.
“Gerald Stephen” is of a quicker tempo and finds Julian playing near bop like runs punctuated by bass drum pulses and percussive washes which sonically fill in the empty spaces while never distracting by being overly busy. Julian’s tone is almost flugel horn like and possessing a great fluidic cadence. Aaron shows within the space of the piece how he can vary his attack and create great tension not just by merely switching tempo but texture too, something not every straight out jazz drummer bothers with.
“DrumBone” shows the sense of drama the duo is able to achieve via layering and also their amazing sense of interplay. Upon hearing this piece the fact that this is improvised music one is listening to is made all the more impressive.
“Life on Mars” makes fantastic use of pauses and empty space. The warm ambience to be found throughout the album is really highlighted alongside the musicians on this piece. The recording quality is pristine and although the program consists of fifteen original songs, one could easily listen and mistake it as one modern suite or perhaps a grand day dream movement.
“Wex” is bluesy and one of my favorite tracks. It conjures up the blues and the infinite coolness of all things nocturnal. The drums have a sort of swinging sensibility to them which with the bubbling and plaintive lines of trombone show that this duo has not forsaken the bluesy roots of jazz but respectfully built off of them.
“Kocmierozki’s Shed” has a sort of Gamelan feel to it. It is a sonic haiku of what is remembered upon waking from a dream. With its gongs and the small patterns that emerge and disappear it is that unexpected mystery one may encounter which turns out to be such a joy, leaving it unsolved is its own kind of pleasure.
“Cymbalinese” starts with sort of dense cymbal splash patterns and throughout the piece is without trombone. From the initial percussive pattern others emerge and the effect is like watching the rings made in a puddle by a rain drop overwritten by the next to fall in.
“Evolver” underlines the dialogue which has occurred between these two artists. Here the trombone lines are played out in a series of long slow lines while the drums dance all around them. Here one colors the other, spurring each on in contemplation that is then shared.
Conversational Music is a little under an hour long with brief liner notes on inside cover. This aptly titled album shows two artists of different generations that have combining head and heart in their works in common. Improvatory modernism need not be a by word for (sonic) discordance, yet can still pack an emotional punch as is proven over the course of fifteen highly recommended tracks.


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