Mellow Cello

Jazz cellists are a rare lot, often whittling from their own eclectic stick. That’s certainly true of Hank Roberts, a veteran of gigs with outside-thinking musicians including saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Marilyn Crispell, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Dresser’s Arcado String Trio.

Lately, Roberts has found a point of inspiration in Americana, a direction that sees him working folk and traditional-sounding originals as well as rock and jazz-influenced compositions. Everything Is Alive and Well follows suit, its all Roberts-written program performed with long-time associate Frisell, bassist Jerome Harris and drummer Kenny Wollesen. The music ranges across horse-and-buggy rhythms and middle-eastern flavored stewing to backbeat of the sort that goes 4/4 a count better. The themes, often played in a twisted unison with Frisell, are accessible but not necessarily easy.

Roberts’ pizzicato solos dance and leap while carrying their own strange sort of melodicism. In support, he’s constantly employing double stops that make the group sound larger than it is. At times, he sings along with his play, not in the absent-minded way that a bassists grunts to his pluck, or like Keith Jarrett whining along with the piano, but consciously, as if to give the pieces a more natural, more human feel. This is a relaxed, soothing date – music to get comfortable with – not stuffy or tiresome in the least.

Myra’s Way

Pianist Myra Melford takes on more projects than the Army Corps of Engineers. Most of them are unusual, ambitious undertakings that involve a variety of cultural inspirations, a mix of artistic disciplines and media; innovative instrumentation, and distinguished instrumentalists.

There’s her five, sometimes six-piece ensemble Be Bread in which she plays harmonium (she traveled to India to study the instrument) as well as piano. Knock On the Sky, a project premiered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2006, combined architectural set design, Japanese butoh choreography, video, and Melford’s compositions inspired by jazz and Asian folk tunes. Happy Whistlings, featuring ensemble works inspired by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s  Memory of Fire Trilogy: Genesis, a history of indigenous America’s fall to the old world, has morphed to include dance, film and a broader array of music. The effort’s name has changed, too; it’s now Snowy Egret. Currently, her most visible collaboration, the one making an appearance Wednesday [MARCH 28] at the Gig, is Trio M with the bassist Mark Dresser and the drummer Matt Wilson. Excluding her infrequent solo work and duos with free-thinking saxophonist-clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, it’s the most modest of her projects in size. And it focuses exclusively on music, though music inspired by everything from classical Middle Eastern poetry to bit-part, comic actors.

Trio M was conceived when Melford moved to California in 2004 to teach improvisation and jazz at UC Berkeley and discovered that bassist Dresser, whom she knew from the New York music scene, had relocated to San Diego. “We used to live across from one another in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and had played together in other people’s bands,” Medford told Pasatiempo in a phone call from her campus office. “But we had never worked together just the two of us. Mark suggested, ‘now that we’re both in California, we have to play together.’ So we started playing duos and trios and we talked about who should be the drummer and we both thought of Matt (Wilson). We played a concert in La Jolla at the Athenaeum Arts and Music Library and it was such a great first concert we started brainstorming about how we could keep this going.’

The threesome released their first recording Big Picture on the Cryptogramophone label in 2007. Their most recent came late last year from the German Enja label and takes its name, The Guest House, from a poem by the 13the century Persian poet and mystic Rumi. “Basically, the poem says you should welcome everything that comes into your life whether sadness or pleasure or firestorm; that you’re like a guest house and whatever comes into your life should be welcomed. I’ve titled a number of pieces after poems from Rumi.”

The Guest House is a diverse collection of rhythms, moods and attitudes. All three members contribute compositions which explains why there’s so much varied personality on display. Melford’s pensive chamber piece “Even Birds Have Homes (To Return To)” has impressionistic qualities. Drummer Wilson’s bouncy, comedic “Don Knotts” is a smile-inducing jazz portrait. Bassist Dresser’s “Tele Mojo” begins as a free-form exchange between piano and bowed bass before becoming something of a twisted samba. Their approach, Melford said, is democratic. “We’re a trio, yes, but not a piano trio in the traditional sense. We’ve taken off from the place where (pianists) Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett took the trio is the last half of the 20th century. We really think of it as less of a piano-led group and more of it as three individual instruments finding common ground. There’s no hierarchy. Anyone can solo at any time. It’s a three-way conversation between friends.”

Melford grew up in Evanston, Illinois and shows the influence of Chicago’s Association For the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the free jazz organization that’s included such stalwart improvisers as saxophonist Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, composer-saxophonist Anthony Braxton, saxophonist Henry Threadgill, violinist LeRoy Jenkins and composer-pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. She attended the Cornish College of Arts in Seattle and The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington where she studied with pianist Art Lande. Early on, she worked in the bands of Threadgill, Jarman, Jenkins and cornetist Butch Morris, experimenters all. Along the way she took lessons from respected improvisors Don Pullen and Jacki Byard, both of whom had ties to jazz legend Charles Mingus.

“Even after taking a few lessons from Don [Pullen] and Jacki Byard, people who were huge heroes to me, I still consider myself something of an autodidact,” Melford said. “At the time I took a few lessons from them, I was still trying to be a jazz pianist, learning standards and the jazz lexicon. Both of them had found their own way out of jazz stricture through working with Mingus, found their own means of breaking through those conventions that I was dealing with. When I started to do that for myself and looking for guidance, I asked [Pullen] about it and he said, ‘that’s a great problem and I know you’ll find a good solution.’ He knew it was something I had to find for myself.”

She cites Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell as being highly influential to her compositional style. She didn’t meet Mitchell until a tour of Europe on which she shared the bill with Mitchell’s large ensemble. “His approach to playing and composing, the way he develops this enormous palette of sound and color, the way he uses space, it was all terribly inspiring. It’s not that I want to sound like [Mitchell, Jarmen, Pullen, Byard] but they showed me how to find my own voice and why I should be willing to consider any idea, any art form as material for the music.”

Is that why she takes on so many projects? Does she ever feel like she’s taken on too much? “I ask myself the same thing when I’m overwhelmed with everything. Every project I do, every different person I work with brings out a different aspect of my musical expression. It puts the music in a new context for me. I’m always looking for fresh approaches and fresh ways of working. But why I take on so many [projects]? It’s just my personality, I guess.”

Wilson and Dresser have had equally distinguished and unique careers. The drummer, who’s recently gained accolades for  the recording An Attitude For Gratitude from his Arts & Crafts ensemble, is a first-call percussionist who’s worked with guitarist John Scofield, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Lee Konitz, bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Dresser, who’s resume includes recordings with saxophonist’s John Zorn, Jane Ira Bloom, and Time Berne; trumpeter Dave Douglas and composer Braxton’s large ensemble, is also known for his multi-discipline projects, having teamed with sculptor Robert Taplin, experimental film maker Sarah Jane Lapp and, like Melford, San Francisco celebrity chef Paul Canales (“Like jazz, there’s a lot of improvisation involved in cooking,” Melford said.) Melford has also been involved in Dresser’s “telematic” concerts, collaborations between musicians in different locations who communicate through wireless and various computer technologies. His first such concert in 2007 featured 30 musicians split between Stanford University, the University of California-San Diego and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. Melford said she was skeptical of the concept at first but the results have made her a convert. “It’s more than recreating a venue at the virtual level,” she explained. “We have to ask, what is this venue, what role does the space between us play, how can we make music in the same way we communicate? It’s a fantastic project to be engaged in.”

Melford said her teaching duties have become a necessary part of her creative process as well as her career (Trio M will conduct a workshop at the Gig the afternoon before the concert). “It’s a lot to juggle but I have a really wonderful synergistic relationship with my students. I’ve become more aware of my process, more reflective and inspired by my students. Teaching is time consuming, of course, but also very nourishing to my work.”–Cabbage Rabbit




Musical Networking

Are artists creating symbols and new representations of our technologically-enhanced culture? Certainly they’re employing technology to make art, in the form of computer generated images, synthesized audio and enhanced videos. But where are the symbols, even if made using traditional methods, for the way contemporary society shares, relates and communicates? Consider cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s four-part suite Apparent Distance, commissioned through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundations’ Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works Program. Despite its mostly acoustic instrumentation, it’s all here to be heard: inter-connectedness, flashing images, viral content, the rants and alienation, the unexpected crash. And it’s all done in clashingly brilliant style with old-school cornet, tuba or bass trombone, saxophone, drums, acoustic bass and one electric instrument: guitar. What’s different from all the other avant garde music produced in the last 60 years is the relationship—you might say interface—between instruments, how one speaks its mind while another, or several,  comment in real time. Tempos range from hyper to dial-up.  Mary Halvorson’s guitar provides all the static, feedback and raw power that the suite needs, even as saxophonist John Hobbs wails in human frustration. Bynum’s function is to malfunction. His cornet stutters and short-circuits before it comes up with things truly amazing. In its abbreviated-way, Apparent Distance is as distracting as texting. Ironically, the only section not available as an MP3 is titled “Source.”

Suite Seasons

Seasons, recorded live at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a collaboration between a rising guitarist-composer, three of his guitar-virtuoso colleagues and a master guitar maker. The guitar maker, John Monteleone, commissioned this work for a quartet of acoustic instruments he built, each designed with a particular season in mind. Likewise, the music commissioned to be performed on these instruments, like Vivaldi’s famous suite, was inspired by seasonal moods and climates. Composer Wilson is best known for taking the guitar from its traditional jazz roles into wider context. Here, he writes without regard to category, bringing lyrical finesse and the kind of harmonic depth available only to this unique string quartet. His fellow guitarists are equally distinguished:  Steve Cardenas, who’s worked with a broad swath of musicians including Norah Jones, Paul McCandless and the late Paul Motian; Brazilian Chico Pinheiro who teamed with Wilson on the excellent 2007 recoding Nova; and Julian Lage, a recent member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s quartet. The four combine on Wilson’s expressive material for a harmonically rich, intuitively agile sound. Their play is so seamless it’s as if Monteleone had designed a 24-stringed instrument and bred a 40-fingered virtuosos to play it. Each guitarist’s style is showcased in a seasons-inspired solo turn. An accompanying DVD documents the suite’s live performance and serves as a meditation on guitars, guitarists, and the composer’s craft. Watch, listen, and marvel.   —Cabbage Rabbit


Playlist, 12/11

DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE PLAYS NAT KING COLE EN ESPANOl;   Motema. Nothing like the original except the tunes. Murray, always adept at finding new ways to frame his music, works with a nine-piece ensemble and strings to do what he does best: cry, caterwaul, lose control (never; it only sounds like it) and get fresh during ballads. More to come on this outstanding recording.

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian; Concord Jazz, release date: January 17,2012. Recorded live at the Blue Note in NYC and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Bill Evans Explorations this two-disc set warms us with the sort of interplay that LaFaro and Motian attained on the original. Nobody would mistake Cora for Evans and that’s the beauty of it. For the late Motian, an extension, a perfect circle.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY SOUNDTRACK  by Alberto Iglesias; Silva Screen Records. Pedro Almovodar’s favorite composer has strung together a variety of downbeat themes that sound as a continuous whole. We hear some John Adams, some Phillip Glass, even some Steve Reich in this moody music. More on this later as well.  

Joe Henry, Stripped

Joe Henry is best known in service to others, a writer of songs for stars (Madonna “Don’t Tell Me To Stop”) and producer to everyone from Meshell Ndegéocello and Ani DiFranco to Elvis Costello and Mose Allison. His own recordings tend to be noisy affairs with confessional, expressionistic poetry set to pop-savvy melodies framed in cartoonish cacophony. Over the years, he’s included jazz musicians including Brad Mehldau, Don Byron and Ornette Coleman to bring added spark and soulfulness to match his often surreal words. Reverie manages the soulfulness without the static. It’s stripped down Henry with even more obscure lyrics (“I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire/In the light of old ties, piled and on fire”). The acoustic quartet of guitar, piano, bass, and drums is occasionally decorated with pump organ, added guitarist Marc Ribot’s ukulele, and backup vocals from Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. The effect is even more melancholy than the often down-beat singer has conveyed in the past, and with reason. “Room At Arles,” dedicated to the late, tragic Vic Chesnutt, is particularly somber (“The curtains wave a flag to say/This afternoon is done/And giving in to evening who has/Beat him like a brother”). Despite the mood and minimalism, Reverie is still “raucous and fractured and noisy” as he asserts in the liner notes’ dedication to his parents. And that’s just the way we Henry fans like it.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Jarrett Miniatures

Pianist Keith Jarrett’s quarter-century of trio recordings with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette sustains his reputation as one of music’s most inventive improvisers. But it’s his infrequent solo work, beginning with his 1971 release Facing You, that best displays his improvisational genius. Rio, recorded live in the Brazilian city in April of this year, reflects the 66-year-old keyboardist’s entire canon, a body of work that includes excursions into Bach and Mozart as well as jazz standards. Unlike his early solo recordings with their long, evolving variations on rhythmic and melodic themes, Rio is a collection of 16 miniatures that range across blues, impressionism, contemporary boogie-woogie and the avant-garde. The wide variety of material here, including tango-tinged dances and Middle-Eastern moods, spotlioght the pianist’s wide and ambitious vocabulary. It’s hard to believe that these are spontaneous improvisations, as Jarrett has explained in recent interviews. Even the most modern, formless excursions have a substance that lends shape to their off-beat harmonics and aggressive tempos. Best are the sensitive, emotionally-revealing pieces (Jarrett recently divorced after 30 years of marriage) that develop narratives a short story writer could envy. If he sometimes lacks a way to end his stories—more than a few seem to just tail off—it’s easy to excuse him by the wonderful path each piece has taken. —Cabbage Rabbit