Old And New Hats

An analysis of four recent (or less) releases and reissues kindly sent by Werner X. Uehlinger, deus ex machina of the Hat labels. More to follow.

TAYLOR HO BYNUM SEXTET – Forking Paths

A brilliant album, sharp and concise but at the same time full of snappish irony and unceremonious turnarounds. Bynum’s cornet stands alone at the beginning and end of the program in two intelligent solos, and there’s a couple of trios featuring him together with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, in which the articulateness of the initial propositions leaves space to mildly dissonant frolicsomeness, generated by a kind of interplay that goes well beyond the classic jazz formats. The apex of compositional complexity – still informed by an utter transparency – is symbolized by the three movements of the impossible-to-type “whYeXpliCitieS” (the dedicatee being Anthony Braxton, the leader’s foremost mentor) that add Jessica Pavone on viola, another guitar (Evan O’Reilly) and Matt Bauder on tenor sax and bass clarinet. Here, the balance between the elastic restrictions given by the written parts and the actual enfranchisement from them reaches points of absolute exquisiteness, the music pointing towards structures à la Stravinsky one moment, to the acoustic portrayal of six stumbling toddlers the next, to a genuine fusion of influences in general. Throughout the 45 minutes the air remains invitingly fresh, the musicians’ cleverness shining bright, the adjective “lukewarm” all but forgotten.

LEE KONITZ / DON FRIEDMAN / ATTILA ZOLLER – Thingin

Third edition of an ear-gratifying meeting of kindred spirits, recorded live in March 1995. You know that I’m not averse to criticizing the standardization of a set of rules that have transformed jazz into a museum of commonplaces, but when one sets aside overhasty conclusions and just goes with the flow, there’s still a lot of admiration to convey for musicians of this pedigree. Since the very opening – Konitz’s “Thingin” – the path is clear: Friedman’s piano dictating refined progressions through which the saxophonist and Zoller communicate in an ever-sympathetic mutual acknowledgement. The guitarist’s immaculate tone is splendid, to the point that I pretended to miss a few wrong notes that pop out here and there during certain soloist flights, keeping in mind the overall warmth and nicely aged qualities of his playing instead. Konitz shows a proclivity for a controlled administration of the melodic stream, which matches the unparalleled ability for detecting thematic openings. A musical wisdom permeated by an uncommon self-restraint. Truth be told, Friedman is my choice as the cementing element in this trio: a pianist that sounds uncompromising and mild-mannered at once, the actual harmonic string-puller behind seven chapters after which pronouncing the word “purity” is not a sin anymore. His own “Opus D’Amour” – at times reminiscent of Gordon Beck – is perhaps the record’s top, offering romantic transport and contrapuntal perspicacity in a worthy combination of moods.

LOREN CONNORS & JIM O’ROURKE – Are You Going To Stop… In Bern?

These four tracks were recorded in 1997 (they were previously released as In Bern on HatNOIR). A pair of guitars for two entirely singular kinds of expression: O’Rourke is technically grounded, a considerate fingerstyle groundwork characterizing the refinement of enthralling passages – there are many – which keep the whole album’s configuration coherent enough. Connors looks to establish his celebrated blues-tinged stasis, tentatively placing sparse pitches that twitch, tremble and – sporadically – completely fall out of the harmonic border in moments of atrocious stridency which, in a way, characterize this man’s nearly mythical status more than the “right” notes (let’s be frank, certain twanging bloopers played by other people would have branded them as slouches). That said, this is not an album that must be dissected to separate good from bad. Its quality lies in the attractive kind of roomy resonance that the axes generate through superimposition of phrases and layering of chords. Based on this criterion, grace is delivered in abundance with nary a moment of ruthlessness, not even when Connors introduces distortion at the end. My only doubt sprang after reading Thierry Jousse’s final statement in the liners: “If John Cage had ever composed any country music, it would certainly have sounded like this”. Why in the world, one wonders.

JOHN ZORN / GEORGE LEWIS / BILL FRISELL – More News For Lulu

More News From Lulu is the second and final recorded chapter of this short lived trio, surely to be picked if you want to belatedly dip the toes in the particular stylistic choice that Zorn, Lewis and Frisell were exploring in those years (we’re talking 1989), namely the tackling of hard bop “classics” (…) penned by composers such as Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark and Misha Mengelberg, whose “Gare Guillemins” is rendered spectacularly in what’s probably the CD’s most enjoyable track. It is also one of the preeminent “technically soulful” expressions of each member: Zorn – of whom I’ve always preferred the saxophonist persona rather than the composer’s – is deceivingly sociable as ever, a biting tone ready to escort the listener across the rendition of a piece with fastidious exactitude only to squash a just apparent easiness with squeals and triturated notes that many people find odious, but that are instead coups of actual genius. Lewis’ trombone is a splendid machine for corpulent riffs, bass lines and thematic prepotency, executing tasks sharply and ironically at the same time in a genuine revenge for an often underappreciated instrument. Frisell has been a lost love of mine for over a decade now, and listening to those wild eruptions of modified digital delays – not to mention a spicy comping ability punctuated by sudden shards and controlled turbulence – enhances the feel of depression that this writer experiences in front of the unhealthy sugary wailings that he churns out today in a hundred useless records; a typical Philip Glass-like case in which success and wealth seem to have destroyed any artistic legitimacy in a musician’s spirit.

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