Continuing with the recent spate of releases, today we have reviews of new John Zorn material as interpreted by the guitar heavy Abraxas band, a much more traditional sax led quintet and Kris Bower’s new debut release.
I believe that part of the secret to lunatic genius John Zorn’s extensive output of consistently high quality work in recent years is in part his tendency to hand out compositions to, or write specifically for, different bands of frequent, or infrequent, collaborators and bands that often do not include him as an instrumentalist. Perhaps I would personally like to see more albums with him on saxophone, since he has a staggering command of the instrument, but the benefit of this system of passing out music to other artists is the ability to create a wide and diverse repertoire of music, where each release can explore sometimes very different things with a band best suited to do so.
The most recent release is called Psychomagia and features the Abraxas band that had previously contributed to Zorn’s “Book of Angels” series of albums, which had a range of different musicians exploring music from Zorn’s Hebrew tinged Masada songbook. The band is a two guitar quartet led by bassist Shanir Blumenkranz and prominently featuring Eyol Maoz and Aram Bajakian on guitars. Like Zorn’s other guitar driven bands, particularly those with Marc Ribot, this band is flexible, moving from surf rock inspired sounds to heavy, distorted guitars over overactive drums with ease. To my ears this is one of Zorn’s most successful recent releases, and given the strength of his catalogue, that is no small praise.
In typical Zorn fashion, part of the album’s strength is its melding of different musical styles. In the first track alone the album treats us to a mix of Hebrew tinged jazz, surf rock, solemn incantation like playing and metal in a suite incorporating different styles, sounds and time signatures. The whole album itself can be read as something of a diverse extended suite, treating us to surf tinged exoticism on the track ‘Sacred Emblems’, giving way to noisy, avant hard rock on ‘Circe’, and coming back halfway on ‘Squaring the Circle’. The album combines the hard driven, noisy rock sound of some of Zorn’s more hardcore albums with the melodicism of some of his other work in a way that is simultaneously deep and engaging without being too obscure. An excellent album all around.
Reeds Ramble is a double tenor quintet led by Seamus Blake and Chris Cheek on saxophones supported by Ethan Iverson, Matt Penman and Jochen Rueckert. The music is firmly meshed in the straight ahead bop of yesteryear and this is certainly a band capable of the material. (If you know Ethan Iverson only as the pianist in the Bad Plus and think he might be a strange addition to a straight ahead band, I highly recommend looking into his non-Bad Plus bands, particularly most recently his trio with Tootie Heath and to read his fabulous, in depth blog Do the Math, both of which evidence a wide knowledge of the history of jazz.) Blake and Cheek are both fabulous saxophonists, indeed Blake graced my last year-end best-of list as a sideman, and there’s something fundamentally satisfying about hearing them rip through the blues “1974 Blues” or “De Dah”.
Yet, I can’t give the album an unqualified recommendation. It somehow sounds static next to the 50’s and 60’s era bop it seems to be following, let alone compared to the other music reviewed here today. Partly I think the double tenor setup is to blame. There are only so many melody heads played in unison I can really take in any one sitting. Somebody brought in a soprano on the tune “Holodeck Waltz” and the resulting interplay is a breath of fresh air. Still, it’s hard to be too critical here; sometimes you really need some unaffected swing in your life.
Three and a half stars
Kris Bowers also made the 2013 best-of list as part of Next Collective, the forward thinking group of younger musicians who put their spin on rock, R&B and hip hop songs. Bowers’ new debut as leader, Heroes + Misfits, keeps the forward thinking attitude and the grooving instrumentation but delivers original compositions. Joining Bowers’ piano, keys and synths is another band of great younger musicians, including Kenneth Whalum on sax, Casey Benjamin (possibly best known of Robert Glasper’s Experiment band) on sax and vocoder, Adam Agati on guitar, Jamire Williams on drums, and a handful of guest vocalists on some of the tracks. When it delivers, and it does more than once, Heroes + Misfits is great, although I can’t but feel it’s a bit uneven as an album, and once or twice falls victim to its own concepts.
When the band coalesces around a groove, the results are electrifying. The second track “Wake the Neighbors” is worth the price of admissions alone. Hearing Bowers’ unaltered acoustic piano seem to emerge from the wash of synth and electric guitar is just fabulous. The third track, “#Protestor” stays on track to be even better, until a minute or two from the end Casey Benjamin comes in on vocals and vocoder. Benjamin would really do us all a favor to permanently shelve the vocoder, but that isn’t quite the problem I have with this song and some of the other vocals.
The liner notes seem to imply that the songs were initially written as instrumentals and then a friend of Bowers’ wrote words to accompany them, thus, even the songs that remain instrumentals on the album have accompanying lyrics in the liner notes. Far be it for me to judge the song writing process, but on occasion I think you can tell this was how they were written, vocals and lyrics sometimes seem to have little to do with each other. I do not reject vocals out of hand, but everything needs to work together. One song doesn’t really have lyrics so much as it has two lines repeated over and over again for the length of the song. The guest vocalists are all plenty talented, to be sure, but that sort of composition doesn’t do much to showcase either the vocalist or the band. I generally prefer the instrumental tracks.
I’m torn about rating this album. It is falls into the sort of quintessential debut album trap. Bowers’ is clearly a talented musician, and when I liked it, I loved it, but it isn’t tight package. It does, however, promise great things to come. On this trajectory, I imagine that albums number 2 and 3 I will recommend wholeheartedly.