The most compelling moments of my Covid life have come from bassists. Nick Dunston’s evocative Instagram solos, Pavogüchi’s clever ditties, Jorge Roeder’s piercing recital, Mark Helias’ Dewey Redman duets, and now this panoramic ensemble music from Eric Revis. The sound of the leader’s instrument is one of modern jazz’s most fetching ; the thumps and strums he uses to ignite his mates are full of feels, and with Ron St. Germain’s production enhancing their textural verities on this quintet date, they’re riveting enough to be deemed first among equals. That’s a good thing. Revis exudes mucho savvy when it comes to the nuances of sound combinations, and Slipknots Through a Looking Glass explores myriad moods. In his hands, the bass, as well as the band, presents an orchestral character.
This approach bolsters the 53-year-old’s rep as a cagey polyglot. You can sniff out a few of his intentions by the way he’s built the unit for his eighth album as a leader: out of essential cogs from previous iterations of his squad(s). Darius Jones and Bill McHenry graced In Memory of Things Yet Seen; Kris Davis lifted Sing Me Some Cry; Chad Taylor drove both of those impressive dates. Revis has been inching towards this particular cohort for a few years now, and the players’ collective reach not only broadens his vision, but casts cohesion as a fait accompli. Even better: each participant revels in trouncing presumed stylistic demarcations while advancing the greater good. Like the US Postal Service, they deliver to a variety of zip codes.
That means the saxophonists balancing between rip-snort romps that conjure Griff and Jaw’s lyrical skyrockets and lilting passages a la Braxton and Rivers on Conference of the Birds (let it be known that Revis writes some of the prettiest stuff around). It means the pianist plinking prepared strings like feisty pan drums or rumbling like a rainy day at Andrew Hill’s house. It also means the drummer deploying ornery backbeats or aerated pulse patterns (Justin Faulkner sits at the traps for two tracks as well). Noirish allusions, poetic introspection, storms blowing in on “Shutter” and the sun breaking through on “ProByte” – Revis perpetually contours the action. And upsells the bass. Three discrete versions of the album’s ghostly title track find him exploring emotions with presto-chango elusiveness – try to grab ‘em and they’re gone. Breadth is key to his vision, and it seems he’s most at home in a playground of contrasts, because on this must-hear date, one of his goals is finding ways to reveal their hidden similarities.
For the last two decades, Nicole Mitchell’s polyglot perspective has made her discography one of creative improv’s richest and most daring. She has used both swing and abstraction, recorded solo and with large groups, and experimented with poetry and theatre. This homage to Octavia Butler, a collab with conceptualist/vocalist Lisa E. Harris, is especially evocative, arriving with an astute Afrofuturist sensibility that reveals parallels between fantasy and reality.
Butler is the only sci-fi author to earn a MacArthur Grant, and a philosopher who has said her work is fundamentally about “social power.” Mitchell’s mom, an artist who painted black women thriving in cosmic worlds, was enamored of the writer; the flautist also fell under Butler’s spell, previously recording a pair of albums inspired by her tomes. The mid-90s Earthseed series depicts the fraught future of 2024, with violence erupting between the classes, and a scarcity of natural resources. Adaptation to this new world becomes paramount, but is it possible? Mitchell and Harris stitch their fabric with a very timely thread.
The music, from a 2017 Chicago performance, trades conventional storytelling for swooping aural poetry, giving Harris plenty of room to share the skills she’s developed in her progressive opera and sound-art presentations. Avant arias are bent for interplay; conversational exchanges fly by. “Ownness” addresses the duty of loving each other as flute, strings and electronics hover below. “Biotic Seeds” declares “Your enemies and saviors are within.” “Whole Black Collision” feels like a pocket symphony – cataclysm and transcendence portrayed in under six minutes. The leader’s Black Earth Ensemble amplifies each emotion that passes. Mitchell has said she wants her music to create “visionary worlds.” EarthSeed does just that, boasting an eloquence that matches its imagination.
It was obvious by the third piece. Wayne Horvitz and Sara Schoenbeck’s onstage rapport at January’s Winter Jazzfest hushed the audience and commanded all eyes forward. It wasn’t because their piano/bassoon duet was quieter than the music preceding it; more like the bittersweet ruminations they were essaying had a distinct poetic authority. That cryptic yet charming tone defines their debut disc as well, a well-planned excursion that arrives with the casual feel of an impromptu stroll.
An air of mystery has distinguished Horvitz’s palette from the ’80s on, and during the last four decades the 64-year-old composer has nurtured it enough to insightfully tint experiments in classical, jazz, and prog-funk situations. On paper, this new duo is a subset of his Gravitas Quartet, a brass/strings/reeds ensemble with a penchant for making modest maneuvers seem plush. Schoenbeck is key to that inspired foursome, but here her accord with the pianist resonates deeper.
Sure, you can get lots of these classiques at Screwgun’s music page, but the big news is that today the label’s 9Donkeys subsidiary is rolling strong by dropping four key releases (after a pair of discs introduced the new imprint last month). Fierce and agile duets between Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell, graceful live essays of Ornette Colman, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Julius Hemphill tunes by Broken Shadows (put your head inside the slinky way their spin on “Body” works), a galloping jumble by Adobe Probe, and…wait for it…the disturbingly gorgeous string/reed duet from Hank Roberts and Tim Berne that’s been OOP for a while, Cause and Reflect. I dug this last one upon its initial release, but it’s really gotten to me this time ’round. Had morning coffee with it for the last 10 days, and it’s feeling like a cornerstone of summer 2020. The musicians have always had a deep rapport (check those Miniature discs) and when they connected at Cornell to record alone together, their lyrical sides were front and center. From pizzicato cello gambits and bowed swooping, to bari moans and alto plaints, the interaction is wildly communicative. There’s an unmistakable singing quality to these improvs which all spill together into a rich whole. Extra points for the pesto veggie fusilli on the cover. this weekend I’m promising myself to jump on the Adobe Probe horse and go explore the rugged terrain right there over the next hill. Bet it’s fun.
There’s a fetching conundrum at the center of Liberty Ellman’s ensemble music. Though spry and potent, it carries itself with a grace that puts a ceiling on exclamation. That kind of self-containment seems like it could be a bummer – improv’s fun often stems from the music’s enthusiasm, right? But in Ellman’s case, it adds a dollop of intrigue by foregrounding etiquette; even as his tuba/trumpet/sax/guitar front line issues a tapestry of frisky salvos, a chamber temperament dominates. The pieces feel just as natural at a muted volume as they do cranked up.
The guitarist’s producing and mixing skills gave 2015’s Radiate the kind of complex air that marks this new disc. Refining his approach, and bolstering a dedication to melody, Last Desert is an apt bookend for its predecessor. A tad more polished, a bit more stabilized, its attack arrives with poise. “Last Desert II” is a baroque dirge that moves with stealth as it delivers both thorns and cushions.
The rhythmic percolation that marks the work of Ellman’s occasional boss Henry Threadgill is front and center here. The smooth gusts of Jose Davila’s tuba and Steve Lehman’s alto also boost the Threadgill parallels on “Rubber Flowers” and “Liquid.” But the attractive lyricism that the guitarist brings to his sideman role with Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio comes into play, too. His solo on “Portals,” and picking on “The Sip,” have a signature lilt that makes the music glow a bit brighter, swirling rather than chopping – a clever way to pacify and provoke at the same time. Call it fetching conundrum number two.