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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Contemporary Music

Whenever I see those ‘best CDs of 2012’ lists that appear around this time of the year, it always reminds me of how much current music I don’t check out and how behind the curve I often am when it comes to the music that’s hot off the presses – or whatever the Mp3 equivalent of a press is.

There are a couple of reasons for my not being totally up to date – I think as you get older, your desire to hear every single new note coming out of the jazz scene becomes less strong. I’m still interested in new things, but not to the point of obsessively checking the jazz media to see what’s coming out, and who’s doing what. I used to be like that. Even in the pre-internet days when information was harder to come by, I was still absolutely up to date with what was going on.

I made it my business to know everything about everyone. I was hungry for the new – new influences, new techniques, new compositions, new genres. New was good. Now, although I’m still interested in new things, I’m also very interested in deepening my listening to music that I know, trying to glean more from that, explore its depths more. And I’m also interested in trying to deepen my own music, but not necessarily by constantly adding new things to it. Some of that is a byproduct of age – reflection is more a function of one's later years than one's callow youth.

Another reason I’m not so obsessed with checking out everything new is that I find myself a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the new music that seems to get the critics’ juices flowing these days. I find that a lot of the music that’s raved about – particularly music coming out of NY – is either complexity for complexity’s sake, or virtuoso mainstream music – music that idolizes soloists, (this is particularly true of the current crop of guitarists), for the speed they can play at, but ignores the fact that their music is essentially doing the same thing, (soloist with rhythm section, and solo following solo), as has been done for the past 60 years.

But every now and then I go on a trawl of recent music to see what I can find, and last week I hit pay dirt – three great recordings, all recently recorded, all quite different and yet all showing both personality and originality – particularly in composition.

All three recordings are connected in some way – all three feature alto saxophone and piano, two of the recordings share the same pianist, and two of them share the same altoist. 

Dave Binney

I should start with the oldest CD - Dave Binney's 'Third Occasion' which is not the prolific Binney's newest recording, (which I think might be the wonderful 'Graylen Epicenter', another recording which I've enjoyed very much). 'Third Occasion' is from 2009, but features many of the qualities that make Dave an important figure on the contemporary jazz scene. Although he's a virtuoso player in every sense of the word, his compositions are not just vehicles for his playing, but also form a vital part of what is clearly an overall musical concept rather than an instrumentally driven ethos. His music is not easy to play and often features complex rhythmic and harmonic structures, but he has a unique leaning, (in this very contemporary jazz setting), towards melodic hooks in his pieces that not only serve the music well, but are deeply attractive in their own right.

He has an ability to use simplicity to great effect - I'm always surprised by how much unison melodic writing there is in his pieces, even when there's more than one horn. Ones instinct when you've more than one melody instrument is to write contrapuntal lines, but Binney often eschews that and goes for repeated unison hooks that are almost anthemic at times.

Dave also has a great sense of the right collaborators for his music, and here with Craig Taborn, Scott Colley and Brian Blade he has chosen musicians which, like Dave, are all virtuosos but play for the good of, and from the inspiration of the music. This is not a playing by rote/soloist with rhythm section recording, it's a true collective, all playing for the good of the music and stepping out to make individual statements when called upon. I find Craig Taborn to be a particularly inspired choice as the pianist on this recording - he is a true individualist and his playing has a crystalline brilliance that really works well with the alto, creating a transparent sonority in the ensemble and brilliantly original solos. Check out "Squares and Palaces' as a great example of all the things I've mentioned.

Michael Formanek

Taborn's presence on the second recording I'd like to mention, Micheal Formanek's 'Small Places', also contributes in no small measure to the success of the music. Here Taborn's originality and control of sonority is captured beautifully by the ECM recording. Taborn is a true original, he is clearly a contemporary jazz pianist, yet he borrows none of the clothing of the usual modern jazz piano suspects - he is resolutely his own man, unpredictable and endlessly creative. He is getting a bit more credit for his brilliance these days, but I still think he is very underrated.

As is Michael Formanek. A real musician's musician and one of those 'super bassists' (like Drew Gress and John Hebert), who can really play anything, from very straight ahead to complex rhythmic music or completely open improvisation. But as if his versatility as a bassist wasn't enough, Formanek has always been a formidable composer. I've been listening to an old recording of his, 'Wide Open Spaces', for over 20 years. Small Places is his most recent album and again features wonderful writing - writing that suits the ensemble so well and sets them up for improvising. Again there is that crystalline alto with piano sound that I also remarked upon in Binney's recording, and some of this probably has to do with Taborn being on hand again. And once more the ECM recording with its molto-reverb policy, suits the music very well. Again this is music of complexity, and although it doesn't have the more conventionally melodic hooks of the Binney recording, it is often deeply attractive music, with an astringent lyricism. As it is with Dave's recording, there is never a dull moment here, since all of the players - Formanek, Taborn, Tim Berne and Gerald Cleaver - are great soloists and when you combine this with the very original writing, the interest never flags for a moment.

To hear what I'm talking about, have a listen here:

Tim Berne

Part of the fascination of Michael Formanek's album is hearing the very unique Tim Berne negotiating the harmonic landscapes of Formanek's music. Berne is a true original, with a sound all his own, and he has created music that is almost genre-specific to himself. He has almost created his own genre - something that only a very few can claim to have done. His playing owes almost nothing to the jazz mainstream, yet is clearly part of the jazz tradition. His music is acerbic, very rhythmic and has a concern with sonority that is all his own. I've been an admirer for along time and was looking forward to hearing this new band. What I wasn't expecting was how different this recording would be to what I'd known of Tim's music up to this point.

In a career liberally studded with unique recordings, this still qualifies as being pretty unique. It's almost like a chamber music recording - the instrumentation of alto, clarinet (Oscar Noriega), piano (Matt Mitchell), and drums/percussion (Ches Smith), gives it a lightness of sonority and clarity that took me completely by surprise. When I think of Tim's music I usually associate it with density and the gnarlier end of the spectrum when it comes to timbre. Here so much of the music has a transparency that is both refreshing and delightful. There's a brightness about the music that I believe is unprecedented in Tim's recorded output. There were hints of it in the past - I first noticed it on the coda to one piece on 'Science Friction' - but here it's given full reign and I've been listening to this music constantly since I bought this, amazed over and over by the sound of the music as well as the content.

What really strikes me about this recording is how European it sounds. I don't mean that as a criticism, or as a means of praise, just an observation. So much of this music has echoes of European art music in it. If someone had played me some of this music as a blindfold test, I would definitely have ventured that they were European musicians. At least up to the point where Tim took a solo - that would have been a give-away. As would the opening of 'Scanners' Both that composition (and Tim's soloing), are completely Berne-esque, and there's no mistaking the author of both alto sound and music. But there are other sections where the music has such overtones of European late 20th century art music, and also it has to be said, of European contemporary jazz of a certain stripe, (I'm not citing that as an influence, it probably just shows a common interest in similar musical idioms), that one could be forgiven for believing these musicians to be from the old rather than the new world.

But that observation aside, I must say I think this music is extraordinary. So original - there's a passage at around 5.25 of 'Simple City' that has a mesmerising harmonisation of the melody line - magical is not too strong a word to describe it. I love the ECM recording effect on Tim's sound too - he does have a very brawny sound and the ECM reverb takes some of the edge off that, which I think suits this music very well. I really regret missing the band when they were in Dublin last year - I hope to get to hear this amazing music live sometime. If only all through-composed contemporary music was as good as this..........

You can get a taste of the music here:

Three great musicians, three great bands, three great albums - although I don't follow everything that's going on as assiduously as I used to, it's so great and inspiring to come across wonderful music like this. Jazz is dead? Bullshit!

Here's Dave Binney with Taborn, Colley and Blade, live in Paris