The last couple of years has seen a new facet to John Zorn‘s music series based on mysticism and religious texts. The Gnostic Trio, comprised of guitarist Bill Frisell, harpist Carol Emanuel and percussionist Kenny Wollesen, create music of a serious beauty. Supremely melodic and possessing a motion that remains fluid no matter how much the trio tweaks it. On their newest, Transmigration of the Magus, they expand their lineup to include additional musicians on harp and percussion (Bridget Kibbey and Al Lipowski) and John Medeski on organ. The result isn’t a change in sound, but a shift in the music’s perceived depth… by doubling down on existing instrumentation and adding an additional element (organ), the music’s heart beats stronger and resonates with greater strength from within.
Neither the melodicism nor the spiritual aspirations of the music show any sign of faltering when Frisell and newcomer Medeski work a catchy groove into the seams of the song on title-track “Transmigration of the Magi.” This is true, also, when the tone takes on a sense of urgency on the compelling “Providence.”
But, mostly, this music falls right into line with the trio’s four previous recordings (The Gnostic Preludes, The Mysteries, In Lambeth, and the Testament of Solomon). “The Three Fold Thought” is emblematic of that potent mix of supreme melodicism and a captivating, flowing motion. Wollesen’s insistent vibraphone lines intermingle with Emanuel’s sweeping harp passages as Frisell fires off one melodic gem after the other. It’s just now, the music includes elements like the shimmering harmony of Medeski’s organ adding texture to the thin divides between melody and rhythm.
Simply another beautiful album from a beautiful series of collaborations.
Your album personnel: Carol Emanuel (harps), Bill Frisell (guitar), John Medeski (organ), Kenny Wollesen (vibes, bells), Al Lipowski (vibes, bells) and Bridget Kibbey (harps).
You can also buy the CD directly from Tzadik, and the price is comparable to Amazon’s. Plus, it’s always better to buy directly from the artist/label.
You can read my recommendation of the Gnostic Trio’s The Mysteries on this site (LINK). It was slotted as the #9 album on the Bird is the Worm Best of 2013 list. I still listen to it quite often. It is mesmerizing.
There is a raw energy to The Brandee Younger 4tet: Live at the Breeding Ground, which is a potent quality for a contemporary jazz fusion album to possess. A forward-thinking contemporary jazz sound, harpist Brandee Younger‘s quintet doesn’t treat the thick grooves as the reason for the season, but instead simply utilizes those grooves as fuel for some great solos and interplay. The result is a live performance recording that will make a listener feel like they are there in the moment, and that the moment is already transitioning to something new.
Also important, Younger keeps her harp in the middle of the pack. Too many times, a musician leading a jazz unit with a non-traditional instrument either stays too far to the back of the stage, almost hesitant to make a peep or swings in the opposite direction and insinuates their sound into everything… as if saying, look, my instrument is a real jazz instrument, too! But Younger doesn’t lean to either extreme, instead finding her spots in each song, leading from the center of the music, and displaying not a little bit of confidence… a remarkable thing considering that, aside from a 2011 EP and some singles in the time since, The Brandee Younger 4tet: Live at the Breeding Ground qualifies as her debut behind the steering wheel.
And really, why shouldn’t she be confident? Aside from the obvious talent, harp really isn’t an unheard of thing in Jazz. Back in the day, Dorothy Ashby showed the world that harp could breathe bop air via some nifty collaborations with the great Frank Wess. Alice Coltrane obliterated a number of doors by serving as a driving force in husband John’s later, heavy free period, and then on her own with some outstanding spiritual jazz sessions in the late 60s and into the subsequent decade. In the modern era, there’s Carol Robbins carving out territory in the straight-ahead sphere and Iro Haarla creating all kinds of beautiful serenity on the Nordic jazz subset of the modern landscape.
And, thankfully, Younger seems intent on claiming her own patch of Jazz. Even as she includes compositions by her harpist forbears, Ashby and Coltrane, both the bop and the spirit are clearly focused through Younger’s perspective, looking ahead as she honors the past.
Not for nothing, this album is very cool.
Your album personnel: Brandee Younger (harp), Stacy Dillard (soprano sax), Chelsea Baratz (tenor sax), Dezron Douglas (electric & acoustic basses), and E.J. Strickland (drums).
Stunningly beautiful follow-up for the trio of Bill Frisell, Carol Emanuel, and Kenny Wollesen, on the heels of 2012’s The Gnostic Preludes. Performing the compositions of John Zorn, who, with his mystics series, attempts to wed spiritual music of the past with modern approaches, the trio offers up rich, simple melodies upon a foundation of dynamic, vibrant rhythms. 2013’s The Mysteries doesn’t differ dramatically from its predecessor, but there is a subtle shift in the complexity of the music’s motion… the newest offering possessing a greater intricacy of activity, of rhythms within rhythms, and thus a greater tableau across which the trio intersperses fragments of succinct melodic expressions.
Ultimately, this results in an album imminently more engrossing, in which the presentation of additional facets blurs the lines between song and dance, between melody and motion.
Your album personnel: Bill Frisell (guitar, effects), Carol Emanuel (harp), and Kenny Wollesen (vibes, bells). All compositions by John Zorn.
Opening track “Sacred Oracle” has Frisell skipping across Wollesen’s stream of melodic lines. Emanuel slips in and adds a complementary line on harp, first as partners to Wollesen’s vibes, then in tandem with Frisell’s flight pattern.
“Hymn of the Naasennes” takes a more straight-forward approach, with all three members moving at the same speed, contributing differing motions to the same cadence, endowed with the enveloping tranquility of a skipping stone gliding over choppy waves.
“Dance of Sappho” moves with a different motion, of tight circles orbiting a song center that rotates in the opposite direction. The trio’s different parts mesh into a kaleidoscopic high-speed melodic revelation, its gentle features punctuated by sharp rings of bells.
“The Bachanalia” has Frisell bringing a ghostly twang and his blurring of melody with effects to create a strange crosshatch with Emanuel’s sunny notes on harp… a match made further complex by the rhythmic cross-currents seeming, at first, quite dissimilar until a wider view shows them flowing into the same confluence. Wollesen’s bells are like the resonant sound of buoys out on the water’s surface.
“Consolamentum” illustrates the lovely way Frisell is able to take flight with melody from a head-start of rhythmic dynamism. He takes shuffling steps with his notes at odd intervals, building a cadence that doesn’t, immediately, sound fluid or indicate a motion gaining speed, and yet, the pattern emerges, one that displays an almost loping momentum… and from there, he takes off.
“Ode to the Cathars” begins with Frisell’s use of effects and loops, instilling a moody ambiance that borders on spooky. But this dwindles away, and after a few steps down his guitar’s bass string, the trio jumps off into a deeply melodic tune. Frisell throws in a few pings and whirrs of effects, but Wollesen’s deeply affecting run on vibes immerses the trio in warmth. Even when Frisell turns up the heat on guitar, an intensity matched by Emanuel’s harp, it’s the underpinning of vibes that maintains a steady course that sees the song to its end.
“Apollo” takes on darker tones. Melodic lines are cut short, interspersed with silences, occasionally flipped over to the dissonant side of the pillow, creating an uneasy tension that contrasts nicely with the comforting fluidity of most other album tracks. Here, Frisell lets little effects bubble to the surface.
“Yaldaboath” is a fully immersive track, with all three artists creating a sonic wave that spreads out like an ocean enveloping the entirety of a shore line.
The album finishes strong with “The Nymphs,” a composition that accretes intensity with the thoughtful purposefulness of a skyscraper constructed slowly upward to the clouds. Though presented with a rapid pace, Wollesen’s vibes have a timeless quality that accentuates the idea of motion and much as the quality of stillness. Frisell takes quick leaps and hops across the surface of the vibes’ rhythm, but with a grace that belies its rate of speed. Emanuel bridges the gap between the two, sometimes matching Wollesen’s percussive energy, sometimes synching up with Frisell’s intervallic expressions of melody.
Don’t dismiss harpist Carol Robbins because of her instrument. My immediate reaction is to state that this isn’t your typical jazz harp album, but the relative rarity that is the jazz harp album precludes use of the word ‘typical.’ Moraga has got some ballads and it’s got some swing, and Robbins coaxes her harp into seamlessly blending its innate elegance with the allurement of the former and the boisterousness of the latter. This album keeps both feet in conventional jazz far more than another recent jazz harp release, Iro Haarlas’s Vespers, which focused more on the harp’s tendency to soar like mad, or say, another harp contemporary, Rachel Gladwin, who, lately, has been channeling the sound of Alice Coltrane’s spiritual jazz with Nat Birchall’s outfit.
The thing of it is, the use of harp in jazz is so infrequent, that it’s easy to make assumptions based on the singular voices of those rare harpists who do get into the spotlight. And often, the harp position in the ensemble is sufficiently compelling as to impose its will upon the other instruments. Robbins displays that this doesn’t have to be the case.
Your album personnel: Carol Robbins (harp), Billy Childs (piano), Gary Meek (saxophones, clarinet), Larry Koonse (guitar), Darek Oles (bass), and Gary Novak (drums).
For instance, on the sublime “Three Rings,” clarinet is the bird singing into the night, and harp’s interaction with it is to ruffle its feathers with a soft breeze and carry its voice out into the darkness. But on album opener (and title-track) “Moraga,” Robbins play it straight, fitting expertly into place with the rest of the ensemble and keeping the jazz bounce going even during her solo. No different on the up-tempo “Straight Away,” where Robbins tosses out a few sheets of revved up elegance, but shows a similar comfort riffing with the rhythm section. The album ends with the mysterious “Rotadendron,” a song that is as much soothing as haunting, and which features interplay between harp and piano that ends this solid album on a very high note.
Forget preconceptions of what a harp jazz album should sound like. This is a little gem of a straight-ahead jazz album.
I’m almost at the point of feeling self-consciously repetitive by announcing yet another excellent Matthew Halsall recording. Though separated by almost exactly a year, 2008’s Sending My Love and 2009’s Colour Yes were like a quick one-two punch. Halsall’s voice on trumpet is clear and fresh, sounding very modern while also sounding startlingly reminiscent of Miles Davis. He built on his growing reputation with 2011’s excellent On the Go, an album that didn’t break any new territory, but sounded to take a stab at new shapes, even if forgoing any new directions. If any fault of Halsall can be drawn out, it’s that he puts out consistently excellent albums, all sounding consistently alike. It’s a pretty impressive “fault” to have.
2012’s Fletcher Moss Park is a revealing glimpse into the shape and directions of Halsall’s music that never made it onto prior recordings. Of the seven album tracks, the first five were recorded between 2010-2011, at or before On the Go. In explaining why the Fletcher Moss Park tracks were left off of On the Go, Halsall explained in an email correspondence, “I normally record around ten to fifteen tracks and then I pick the ones that I think work well together. With the ‘On The Go’ album, I composed a lot of the music very late at night and tried to create a kind of sixties smokey jazz club feel.”
It was a wise choice. I’ve made no effort to hide my love of an album that displays a strong cohesion, and there’s little doubt that the Fletcher Moss Park tracks wouldn’t have made such a great fit on albums like On the Go or Colour Yes. The surprising thing about it is that the Fletcher Moss Park “leftover” tracks all work so well together. As Halsall explained, “It just so happens that all the tracks on this album were actually composed in Fletcher Moss Park, and even though they were written and recorded over two years, they had a certain sound and feel that brought them all together.”
Let’s talk about that music…
Your album personnel: Matthew Halsall (trumpet), Nat Birchall (sax), Rachael Gladwin (harp), Adam Fairhall, Taz Modi (piano), Gavin Barras (bass), Gaz Hughes, Luke Flowers (drums), and guests: Lisa Mallett (flute), Holly Simpson (violin), Davinder Singh (violin) and Adrianne Wininsky (cello).
What the music reveals is a more expansive sound, one that rises up and out of the classic late-night jazz club imagery and blossoms outward from there. The trumpet has a greater tendency to soar. Harp is given wide latitude to seek new territory. A string trio adds an element of luxuriant harmony. Sax speaks more to spiritual jazz than modal, a quality buoyed by a well-placed flute section.
“Cherry Blossom” opens the album with a nice harp and sax/trumpet pairing. Sax and trumpet walk stride for stride a bit, before the song enters a new section. Piano gives a few simple chords with brush work by drums. Trumpet then enters, slow and easy. It has now come back to a more typical Halsall composition, but he’s thrown out some signals that it isn’t going to be business as usual.
On the title-track, harp takes a large role, giving this album a texture lacking from previous ones. A pattern starts here, whereby harp lays out the canvas, while piano chooses some colors, drums and bass set the light and form of the room, and then trumpet and sax begin painting.
Third track “Mary Emma Louise” is notable for harp and bass trading some nice lines. There’s an easy pace to the song, a sensation not contradicted by its quick shuffle and hop tempo.
Another notable addition has to be the addition of a string trio for two album tracks. “Sailing Out To Sea” is a short interlude of strings, brief but beautiful. It leads right into “Wee Lan (Little Orchid),” which has harp and string trio in conversation. Harp twitters patiently while string trio draws out the sound of each lush word.
Also added to the mix, flute floats prettily to open “The Sun in September,” with harp buffeting it skyward from below. Trumpet enters in the last section of the tune, calling out a few times, but letting flute maintain its spot in the light.
Album ends with “Finding My Way,” which has a pleasant scattering of rhythmic bursts which draw Halsall’s trumpet into their orbit. It has a nice stop-and-go feel to it, creating a tempo that gives piano plenty of space to breathe clearly through the patterns.
So, here I am talking about yet another solid Matthew Halsall release. Except, this time, while the standard of excellence expected from a Halsall album is still achieved, he’s also raised the bar on expectations and the level of inquisitiveness on where Halsall goes from here.
If you check out the personnel section for this album, you’ll find those names appearing on some excellent albums of their own in the span on the last year. Pianist Adam Fairhall released The Imaginary Delta, which will likely place in my Best of 2012 final list (review HERE). Earlier this year, bassist Gavin Barras released Day of Reckoning, and a few months before that, as part of the EU Quartet, released The Dark Peak (reviewed HERE, along with other Barras albums). Nat Birchall has brought his sax to all of Halsall’s recordings to date, and Halsall has repaid the favor by appearing on all of Birchall’s albums, including his latest, the intriguing Sacred Dimension (reviewed HERE).
I asked Halsall about the Manchester scene…
BirdIsTheWorm: Jazz has often been signified by its geographic pockets of musician communities. I can’t help but notice that over the course of your recording history that many of your sidemen have been releasing some excellent music of their own. Do you get the sense of something special happening in the Manchester scene? Do you have any observations about what’s going on there that could give some insight to those outside looking in?
Halsall: “Manchester is full of amazingly talented musicians and DJs, and there’s a really nice sense of community. Everyone’s checking out each other’s work and supporting each other. A lot of people have a real passion for music and want to share it with each other. You see many jazz musicians at folk, classical, electronica and various other gigs (and vice versa), and the city has a number of great venues and festivals that support musicians and give them the opportunities to try out new projects and explore new sounds. Manchester also has a number of great independent record shops (Piccadilly Records, Vinyl Exchange King Bee Records, Vox Pop Records), which have a broad selection of music and knowledgeable staff.
It’s this community that makes Manchester special and you only have to ask around to find the right people. For instance I found Nat Birchall after listening to a load of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders records, and I asked a friend if he knew any saxophone players who where into that sound and vibe and he recommended Nat. I met Adam Fairhall through a couple of hip hop producers I was mates with. I met Rachael Gladwin through a folk singer-songwriter who was working with her brother on the design of her album cover. I met Gavin Barras at a jazz jam session.”