No Comparison

Enrico Rava’s New York Days is a warm, impressionistic tribute to the city that has contributed much to the Italian trumpeter’s career. With saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Stefano Bollani, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Paul Motian, Rava paints a moody, intellectual landscape that belies the soaring skyscraper vistas. This is the city at ground level, with little of its bustle and much of its emotional and artistic appeal.

Rava has garnered more than a few comparisons to Miles Davis—what trumpeter hasn’t?—and there’s much here to justify it (Rava has cited Davis as an important influence). But dismissing him as a Davis clone, as some critics have done, is a stretch. While there’s plenty of Miles-isms in Rava’s New York Days, the music’s form and style is anything but Davis like. Saying that one trumpeter is like another because of spareness and melodicism reminds us of how pianist Brad Mehldau was dismissed early in his career as a Bill Evans clone because they were both “lyrical.” You might as well have lumped them together, as Mehldau suggested, because both are white and had dependence problems.

Another generality: New York Days is right out of the ECM-Manfred Eicher mold. What’s described as the ECM sound is usually more reflective of feel—somber, considered, meditative—than any particular sound. For every ECM recording that fits the description, there’s one that doesn’t. Rava, with his spareness and ability to find just the right note, is especially adept striking a contemplative stance. New York Days is full of such moments. There are a few impassioned instances in his play and their infrequency serves to make them all the more passionate.

Rava’s skills as an improviser are free-verse poetic. The similarities to Miles–the way he cuts off a particularly poignant line, squeezes into the upper register or, from a silence, bleeds into a wounded note—all add drama. But listen to his unhinged lines on “Outsider” or his rhythmic punctuation in “Thank You, Come Again” and you’re reminded more of the trumpet’s avant gardists or be-boppers than its lyricists.

Stefano Bollani makes full use of the piano, adding color, rhythmic accents and lyrical highlights. During improvisations, his classical training comes into play, with fugue-like variations and complex figures gracing his solo before he melts into warm, pastel embellishments. Saxophonist Turner plays the perfect companion, serving both as complement and foil. He’s able to extend the contemplative feel with long, somber tones and lyricism of his own. He’s also comfortable racing against the rhythm section, as on the ascending theme of “Outsider.” He’s relaxes into acceleration the way an over-stimulated caffeine consumer settles into a coffee shop couch. His tandem playing with Rava on “Improvisation I” and “II” and “Lady Orlando” is at once responsive and assertive, like a couples dancer who leads and is led.

Grenadier’s own sparse support and his ability to make unlikely notes ring true gives the music’s foundation a certain tension, as if it might give way to silence. The exception, again, is “Outsider,” in which he challenges the soloists with speed and intensity. Motian is currently the drummer of choice for this—and several other—kinds of music. His play brings to mind all sorts of painterly images. He’s more a colorist than rhythmicist, less a timekeeper than a source of propulsion. When the music blossoms in different directions, he’s like a bee, pulling a buzz from his cymbals, delivering each accent as a sting. The pastoral image may be contrary to a recording named for that bastion of glass and concrete. But that’s Rava’s genius. He’s found delicacy and unexpected natural beauty in a place known for its grit.–Cabbage Rabbit

Walter Mosley’s Socrates

The hell with Easy Rawlins. We think Socrates Fortlow, despite his unlikely given name, is Walter Mosley’s best series character. After reading Mosley’s recent The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow we went back and read Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the 1998 collection of stories that introduced the killing hands of Socrates to Mosley’s readers. Always is no mystery, even though Socrates–as implied by the name–is full of questions, even if it’s only, “What you doin’ there, boy?”  Fortlow has spent 27 years behind bars in Indiana for rape and murder and is now in L.A. seeking something he doesn’t call redemption. He lives with the constant fear of what he is capable of.  While his immediate story is of a black man’s struggle to enter society–even at its lowest level–the more personal story is about how one makes good on past acts of evil. Fortlow’s slow-to-develop solution is a sort of self-inflicted karma. There’s no reversing what he’s done, the dead do not come back to life. Instead, his question is what can be done, what acts,  if only peripherally in the name of the dead, will make good. To begin, Socrates engages an at-risk teen who coldly slashes the throat of a pet rooster (the young man plays a central role in the follow-up book). Somewhere in the middle, he wields a death threat to achieve his end. To close, he faces death; not his own but that of a suffering friend. Murder is redeemed through murder, a finality that isn’t as contradictory as it seems. We often separate Mosley’s “thoughtful” books (The Man In My Basement,  Diabliere ) from his Rawlins and other mysteries. That’s the wrong approach. Mosley books frequently deal with redemtption as a sort of justice. Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow is a great American symbol of how evil, once renounced, can be subdued–by acts– if not fogotten. It’s a lesson, even the best of us, should take to heart.–Cabbage Rabbit