The New York Review of Records
DAVID LIEBMAN & RICHARD BEIRACH
DAVE HOLLAND QUARTET
THE BRECKER BROTHERS
JOHN SCOFIELD QUARTET
KENNY WHEELER QUARTET
RICHIE BEIRACH & GEORGE COLEMAN
RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK
DECEMBER 1992 / JANUARY 1993
Orange and Blue, (Bluemoon)
Ever since Al DiMeola replaced Bill Connors in Chick Corea's Return to Forever, he's had a prominent claim as one of the world's fastest guitarists. Extended by Corea's compositional prowess, he contributed to some genuinely groundbreaking music with RTF in the mid to late 70s that has constituted a particularly high standard to live up to in the years following Corea's dissolution of the group.
DiMeola's first ventures as a solo artist were technically expert, but only on occasion achieved the level of RTF's compositional depth, leaving him open to criticisms of "machinelike" performances ("nobody plays a major scale better than DiMeola..."). Over the years he has produced recordings notable for rich productions of technically crystalline performances with material that sometimes seemed to be keeping crossover audiences in the corner of its eyes.
However on this recording DiMeola has set his sights on the promised land and never strays as he stretches into fluctuating time signatures, freely modulating keys and influences from latin, rock, jazz and classical threads. With the support of keyboardist Mario Parmisano and multi-instrumentalist Hernan Romero, DiMeola creates a sophisticated compositional landscape capable of showing off his playing with its potential more fully explored, shining in the light for all to see.
He even includes a reworking of "Theme of the Mother Ship" from RTF, complete with Fender Rhodes electric piano, just in case one would otherwise miss the point. Orange and Blue is a worthy homage to the spirit of a band that invented its own kind of music two decades ago and can stand shoulder to shoulder beside the work of that group, while reinterpreted for 90s sensibilities. He closes with a tune entitled "On My Own" as if to underscore his independence and the originality of this work, notwithstanding its honorable inspirations.
The challenge DiMeola faces now is that people will subsequently hold him to his own standards, instead of RTF's. But, then, that is the goal of all artists. He has demonstrated that he holds his fate in his own hands, with expectations measured only from within.
The violin is not typically envisioned as having a jazz essence, even though it has a venerable jazz history going back at least six decades to Stephane Grappelli (with Django Reinhart at the Hot Club in Paris) and Joe Venuti. It went electric/fusion in the 70s with such Mahavishnu Orchestra alumni as Jean-Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman, continuing through the 80s with experimentalists like Billy Bang, and more recently finding a voice in the Downtown/Avant-Garde scene with, for example, Mark Feldman and now Jim Nolet.
Situated directly on the border between the East Village and Lower East Side in NYC, Knitting Factory provided an unexpected haven for austerely artistic musical explorations when proprietor Michael Dorf came to town. Dorf lacked any preconception of what to present and surprised everyone by providing a hospitable refuge from abject commercialism and the obscurity of artistic integrity. KF isn't exactly plush, but it has survived by staying true to Dorf's organic vision, expanding in the last few years to record production for many regular KF performers.
Nolet here presents a series of delicate, sketchy, intimate combos with free-improv spirit and rewards for those willing to pay attention and address the music on its own terms. Reedist David Murray is the best known guest artist, followed by guitarists Dave Tronzo and Bern Nix. No guest appears on more than three cuts, and only two cuts include more than two accompanists. Perhaps the most striking matchup is with Aurora Reyes doing a middle-eastern flavored voice/hand-foot-percussion deal ala Bobby McFerrin. There are a variety of textures among these cuts, including a solo-viola version of Thelonius Monk's "Reflections," often leaving implicit the body within the outline, often stretching free of all outlines, all with facility and nuance.
To say that Dave Tronzo plays slide guitar is something of an understatement. "Recombinant guitar" is more like it. An artist who spelunks in sound space like an Explorer's Club member, Tronzo deals directly with the acoustics of guitars, even when using electric instruments. The digital electronics of MIDI systems simply do not apply to his realm of sketchy, animated expressiveness; this music is about examining the voices of physical objects that happen to be made of strings, frets and soundboxes or wire-coil pickups and are acted upon by various flotsam and jetsam in some humanly-directed manner. Whether the improvisation arises out of jazz, blues/rock or avant garde threads, the touch of Tronzo traces textures that transmit truths that are by turns tactile, taciturn and triumphant. With Stomu Takeishi on bass and Jeff Hirschfield on drums (and a variety of guests on alternate tracks), Tronzo's music sometimes speaks obliquely or half-swallowed in the back of the throat, but if you take the care to listen to what he's saying you'll be rewarded with the insights of a genuine original.
Anyone who stakes a claim as a "modern jazz pianist" will inevitably be able to trace significant influence directly or indirectly to Bill Evans, who helped collaborate with Miles Davis in creating the silken textures of "cool jazz," most significantly on Miles's breakthrough classic "Kind of Blue," which included a youngish, developing John Coltrane on tenor sax. Cool was the first of Miles's several stylistic genre-revolutions propagated upon the jazz world following the revelations of Be-Bop, and Evans can be held personally responsible for defining much of the role of the piano in that context, contributing a whole catalogue of signature motifs, arrangement approaches and personality to the genre, particularly in a trio setting, plus several classic compositions.
Mitch Forman has been knocking around the acoustic jazz world for some time now, and has taken care to assemble this tribute with reverence for Evans's inspiration, yet allowing his own voice to express itself lucidly. Forman's touch is often somewhat sharply high-tech where Evans was more consistently delicate and introspective, and this is matched by Jack DeJohnette's spirited, skittery drumming. However the presence of Eddie Gomez (who logged more hours with Evans than any other bassist), and a composition by Scott LaFaro (Evans's famous original bassist of record) plus two of Evans's classic waltzes and several standards associated with his repertoire, makes unmistakable where the center of gravity of this album lies. Forman's title cut clearly quotes prototypically Evansian (Evansual? Evangelical?) chromatically-modulated-2/5/1 chord progressions, with that lilting rhythmic momentum so favored by Evans. A truly glowing rendition of "But Beautiful" closes out a thoughtful and affectionate homage to a musician who has touched generations of jazz pianists for over half a century.
First a disclaimer: I can't claim any expertise in the area of Rap, though I heartily acknowledge its legitimacy as a form of performance, with resonances back to 1950s Beat poetry (often spoken to the accompaniment of, say, conga and upright bass in Bohemian basement jazz clubs in Greenwich Village - "Beatnicks" for those too young to have watched Bob Denver as Maynard G. Krebs in the TV show "Dobie Gillis") and the same urban street-rhyming oral traditions that led, in one famous case, to the couplets of Muhammad Ali. But my interest has always been primarily for music in its own service, rather than as multimedia support for linguistic content, and Rap stands as close to the opposite end of that spectrum as anything besides pure unaccompanied poetry.
What I find fascinating about The Jazzhole is the explicit embracing of key elements of Jazz spotlighted with cameos in a Rap setting: muted trumpet (ala Miles Davis), saxophone, acoustic piano, bebop guitar and even an occasional upright bass. Mostly these are just presented in snippets during breaks and interludes, like a live collage-arrangement of digital samples. But once in a while they transform the entire rhythm track into something that could have come straight from a 1960s modal-jam (the kind that led directly to Miles Davis' electric bands and 1970s "fusion").
These performers clearly have locked-on to the musical wealth of Jazz, as typically presented in little "watering holes" (hence the name "Jazzhole" - my best guess), and have let their Jazz enthusiasm spill into their own creative expressions. This can manifest itself in form as well as content: their self-titled CD is set up almost like a long jam session complete with intro, guitar break, piano break and "outro" framing the nine full-length cuts, while an EP-length release provides four different mixes of "Forward Motion" in the improvisational spirit of Jazz where no two performances of a composition are ever quite the same.
Make no mistake, this is Rap with Jazz flavors, not some kind of Rap/Jazz fusion. And that means the words come first, with rhythm tracks forming context. Don't ask me to comment on that! I have a hard enough time picking up lyrics in mainstream rock/pop, without being blasted with the supersonic stream of Rap's linguistic laminations, without a lyric sheet included with the liner notes. But if this project can prod a few ripe Rap fans to explore Jazz, then I'm all for it. Jazz rewards only those who accept its demands, which makes it that much more notable when it can be introduced to the relatively small portion of contemporary listeners who will find enlightenment there. The Jazzhole should communicate easily to Rap fans, while giving them a chic taste of something else. The few who go beyond and really delve into Jazz on its own terms will be able to point to this project as fulfilling the role of the nonexistent uncle who might have otherwise showed it to them personally. The existence of these recordings proves that there can be a real overlap between the audiences of these two forms, contrary to the niche-marketing of music in today's radio-format-dominated marketing environment. That is good news to creative people who want to express themselves on their own terms, and good news to an audience that prises diversity over monotony. And a challenge to music marketers still locked into today's distribution channels. You can only wish them well as they look up the hill towards success.