The New York Review of Records
(1990-1992, selected reviews)
Contributing Editor

FALL 1990

Parallel Realities,
This project with Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock features lots of dubbing/doubling and writing by Jack and Pat. Workshops like this are unpredictable -- set loose a couple of guys; then pray for more than self-indulgent noodling. Happily, solid compositions anchor a satisfying excursion. The arrangement-extras added to the main tracks are handled with taste and lend touches of sparkle and color without distracting from the solos. Bass parts are unobtrusive (sometimes not even present), giving the music a delicacy uncluttered by a gratuitous bottom.

WINTER 1990/91

After a few decades playing together, these two seem to live inside each other's heads. There's a strongly Bartokish shifting of keys on the edge of atonality, some non-metered textures or implied grooves without rhythm support (Liebman and Beirach play here without a rhythm section). These open-form "compo-improvi-sations" show off their telepathic investigations of line and space, density and motion.


This towering bassist has long used odd meters to release his spacious ensembles from improvisational constraints, and Extensions starts right in with an 11-beat groove, followed by cuts in 5, 13, 17, ... His group of now-seasoned young turks (Steve Coleman, sax; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Marvin "Smitty" Smith, drums) breathes gracefully and powerfully with the Holland we know and love. Beautiful.

The Brecker Bros. Collection, Volume One,
In the mid-70s, the stars of the session scene came together under Randy and Michael Brecker in one of the most adventurous projects of the blossoming fusion wave. Derived from (but not limited to) funky high-tech pop/R&B, the complex compositions often stretched into polytonality, with tight, quirky horn-section motifs, fresh chords, odd harmonies, and dense rhythmic counterpoint. For purists who think "pop/jazz" can't attain depth and sophistication, check this out again -- it did here, before all the clones took over.


Meant to Be,
(Blue Note)
Though noted mainly for his adventurous blues-edged and technically impressive improvisation, Sco is sometimes overlooked as a composer of unusually intelligent, freshly sophisticated tunes. With skronkmeister Joe Lovano on sax and a rhythm section of Marc Johnson and Bill Stewart, this group has all the tools to help him transmogrify his fancies into bouts of playful and inquisitive spelunking.

The Widow in the Window,
Perhaps only occasionally in the hands of Mark Isham does the trumpet ever reach such heights of etheriality as Wheeler's everyday dwelling. Lyrical, intellectual, and harmonically multifaceted, these are the meditations of a philosopher-poet, surrounded by a chorus of ECM pioneers of equal stature. His deeply mature compositions flow inexorably, redolent of a profound wisdom.

This album is just a bit subversive -- or perhaps simply educational. It starts out heavily fusoid, synthed-out, smoothly electronic. But by the fourth cut this band is swinging and emphasizing acoustics over electronics. Bob Mintzer replaces the departed Marc Russo on woodwinds and plays a mean bass clarinet on the cover tune "Brown Zone," an avant-boppish version of Rhythm changes by Steve Kahn. Further pleasant surprises abound.


A Solitary Man,
As one might expect from a longtime veteran of the late Gil Evans' Monday Night Band, the star of this recording is the ensemble itself. The myriad textures of Levin's masterful synth-programming, Jeff Berlin's cavernous bass, Manolo Badrena's bag of percussion tricks, and sparkling acoustic soloists including Lew Soloff and Ray Anderson take these Fusion tunes and celebrate their glossy contemporaneity with envelope-pushing production. Though Levin is not destined to dethrone his influences (Corea/Zawinul/Mahavishnu/Hancock) as an improviser, the sophistication of the band's musicianship more than makes up for it.

Lonely Universe,
This is a band of contrasts, of juxtaposition evolving through hybrid to ultimately form something unlike any of its elements in their pure states. Michael White's trumpet (touching on Isham or Wheeler) and Michel Lambert's intellectual-yet-propellant drums form the acoustic framework within which David Torn and Mick Karn's electronic strings and effects create space and texture, with studio techniques (overdubs and reverse-recording) providing an occasional catalyst. The compositions are both strictly written and freely improvised, adventurous yet contained, always uncompromisingly searching.

Several decades back, traditionalism and modernism in Jazz formed a whole cloth, unlike today's power struggle for Jazz's soul. This happy blend is perhaps best embodied in the music of the late pianist Bill Evans, whose spirit peers over the shoulders of this remarkable duo as they mix tasteful lushness with the exploratory freedom of their own personal approach to the duet format's inherent sketch-orientation. The material is a mixture of traditional and original tunes, with Beirach directing the arrangements. The liner notes mention this is Coleman's debut recording on the soprano sax (on several cuts), and auspicious it is.

The Man Who Cried Fire,
When you cut through all of the analysis, the theory, the sheer verbositizing, Jazz is ultimately about the expressive act, the intimacy and supremacy of the moment. Though showcasing Kirk's legendary multiple instrumentation, what shines through blazingly on these slightly unpolished live club recordings from his last few years is his unfailing fluency within the personal dialect of his music. He uses his skills to bypass the gratuitous and the self-conscious, and to proceed directly to the truth.


Kenny Kirkland,
In retrospect it makes sense that, of the Marsalis inner circle, it is pianist Kirkland who first breaks out with a stronger emphasis on freshly modernistic compositions and electronic synthesis, on this debut as leader. The logically laid-out keyboard lends itself most directly to theoretical expansion of harmony, and augmenting the essentially acoustic core groups with a wide range of subtle synth/sampled colorings gives the arranger flexibility without requiring, say, the entire Harry Connick band just for a handful of accents on one cut. Make no mistake, Kirkland is solidly out of the tradition, but he shows here a real promise to build on it, not just sit on it.


The original bassist of choice for the likes of Gary Burton, John Scofield, and Carla Bley (who all return the favor by appearing on this recording), Swallow has long been known for his empathy and penchant for compositions that apply the intelligent twist to Latin, traditional, or popular-influenced forms. This album showcases Swallow's medium-ensemble arranging for a group of multiple keyboards, Hiram Bullock's nylon-string guitar (countering Sco's electric) and Don Alias on percussion. A tasteful, balanced offering.

The Promise,
Gary Burton produced this album for his impressive protege, and with a stellar band of Bob Berg, Richie Beirach, John Patitucci, and Peter Erskine, one expects a great deal here. Burton, in the liner, notes how the band's rapport developed "during the recording," and though it doesn't sound at all unfinished, with guitarist Muthspiel's facility and sophisticated compositions providing substance, one imagines this group could reach even deeper levels of intensity with more time to nurture its collective spirit.


What good fortune for this drummer to have cut his teeth in the early 80s with maverick trumpeter Woody Shaw, leaving a latent immunity to the trad-dogma of the latter 80s. Though only two of the eight cuts are band originals, the selections show a taste for the unusual and the exploratory. With vibist Steve Nelson, windman Gary Thomas, and bass legend Dave Holland, this group stretches and sketches to Reedus' seamless inspirations.


(Soul Note)
An unsung hero of the Free/Avant scene from its inception, pianist Paul Bley exemplifies that magical process by which contemplative introversion reaches into the depths of a performer's soul, only to reemerge as a thread woven seamlessly into an ensemble's collective tapestry. With bass legend Charlie Haden and the delicacy of Paul Motian's drums, this trio has produced a recording of deep wisdom, glistening textures, and utterly unfettered spirit.

(1994 selected reviews)

Orange and Blue,

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.

With You,
(Knitting Factory)

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.

(Knitting Factory Works)

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.

Now And Then, a tribute to Bill Evans,

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.

The Jazzhole (lp-length CD), Forward Motion (ep-length CD),

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.