December 2020 Jazz Record Reviews

Dave Pietro: Hypersphere

Dave Pietro, saxophones, flute, compositions, arrangements; six others

ArtistShare ASO179 (CD, also available as download). 2020. Dave Pietro, prod.; Tyler McDiarmid, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****½

Dave Pietro is an A-list reed player who works in the finest jazz orchestras (Maria Schneider, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ryan Truesdell). He has released eight of his own albums since 1996. With the last two, New Road: Iowa Memoirs and Hypersphere, he has emerged as a leader of importance.

Both records feature trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, keyboardist Gary Versace, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, drummer Johnathan Blake, and percussionist Rogério Bocatto. Hypersphere adds trombonist Ryan Keberle. Versace, Blake, and Keberle are Pietro’s colleagues in Schneider’s band. Like Schneider, he uses superior players to bring his inspired compositions and well-crafted arrangements to life.

Pietro’s charts achieve remarkable breadth and depth from a three-horn front line. The three-part counterpoint of “Kakistocracy” crashes and careens. On the title track, shifting meters and key centers suggest how unsettled our present moment feels. But Pietro also blends melodic color and harmonic texture to make affirmations, like “Gina,” a love song for his wife.

Once a composition has established its emotional domain, Pietro releases it for elaboration by the band’s exceptional soloists, starting with himself. On his primary instrument, alto saxophone, his outbreaks of singing, piercing, passionate lyricism embody complex messages. On “Boulder Snowfall,” inspired by a winter landscape, Pietro’s enormous improvisation grows turbulent. Even if he had not told us in liner notes that he was thinking of modern man’s precarious relationship to nature, we would have felt it.—Thomas Conrad


Thumbscrew: The Anthony Braxton Project

Mary Halvorson, guitar; Michael Formanek, bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums, vibraphone

Cuneiform Records Rune 475 (CD, also available as download). 2020. Thumbscrew, prods.; Nate Campisi, eng.

Performance ***

Sonics ***½

As a jazz critic, you approach any new Mary Halvorson record knowing that you’re supposed to like it. She has won the DownBeat International Critics Poll on guitar for four straight years.

Thumbscrew is a collective with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Like all Halvorson bands, it operates far left of jazz’s center. Its music is technical, withering, arcane, uncompromised, and fiercely dedicated to its austere aesthetic. If that sounds like fun, read on.

The Anthony Braxton Project contains nine previously unrecorded, mostly early compositions by Braxton, a distinguished elder statesman of the jazz avant-garde. His pieces have starts, stops, jarring intervals, blind dashes, isolated cryptic gestures, incongruous counterpoint, and something called “musical cells.” Fujiwara has said that “composition very much guides and informs our improvisations.” Take it on faith. On “No.52,” a long, squiggly, broken line, it is possible that Halvorson’s solo sometimes references the theme. But “No.14” occurs three times, each member of the trio offering an individual interpretation, and the tracks sound unrelated. Fujiwara and Formanek make formidable, convoluted, autonomous statements. Halvorson’s “No.14” is twangy, droning, and remarkably unattractive. “No.61” is a series of lurches that Thumbscrew expands into something vast and dense, like a Jackson Pollock painting. Halvorson is a stunningly fast guitarist.

I did not like this record, but I respected it. When it was over, I felt a sense of accomplishment for persevering.—Thomas Conrad


Bobby Hutcherson: The Kicker

Hutcherson, vibes; Joe Henderson, tenor sax; Grant Green, guitar; Duke Pearson, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Al Harewood, drums.

Blue Note (LP). 1999/2020. Alfred Lion, prod.; Rudy Van Gelder, eng.; Joe Harley, reissue supervisor; Kevin Gray, mastering.

Performance ****½

Sonics *****

When Alfred Lion, Blue Note’s founding producer, decided not to release a recorded session, he usually had a good reason. But the deep-sixing of The Kicker, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s first session as a leader, was a mystery in 1999, when the label finally brought it out as a limited-edition CD, and it remains a mystery now with its first release on vinyl. Michael Cuscuna, the CD’s producer, who found the tape languishing in a vault, speculates that Lion found the set “too conventional” for the avant-garde direction Hutcherson was headed . The album, as Cuscuna’s liner notes gush, is “fresh” and “wonderful.”

Hutcherson, just 22 at the time, was an extraordinary innovator, stroking the vibes with a percussive glow while evoking the fleet clarity of a horn and the complex harmonies of a piano. It’s more melodic than some of his later works, a collection of ballads and gentle blues. The band—which had played together a month earlier on Grant Green’s Idle Moments—is modally loose and rhythmically tight. Joe Henderson, 26, on one of his first Blue Note dates, is particularly heady, blowing with a master’s surefootedness. Pearson and Green play off one another with an elegant swing. Bebop-era drummer Al Harewood, a comparative fogey at 40, is a bit staid; check out Elvin Jones’s interplay with Hutcherson on Green’s 1964 album Street of Dreams. Still, Harewood is good enough.

The sound is superb: airy, dynamic, tonally true, billowing with overtones. When the musicians play in unison, they remain distinct, with no excessive shmooshing.—Fred Kaplan


Raphael Pannier: Faune

Pannier, drums; Miguel Zenón, alto sax; Aaron Goldberg or Giorgi Mikadze, piano; Francois Moutin, bass.

French Paradox/L’Autre Distribution (CD). Pannier & Zenón, prods.; Mike Marciano, eng.

Performance ****

Sonics ****½

On paper, Faune, the debut album by drummer-composer Raphael Pannier, might sound twee: a slowed-down cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” a frenzied zigzag through Wayne Shorter’s “E.S.P.,” one piece each by Ravel, Messiaen, and Brazilian bandolinist Hamilton de Holanda, and a handful of originals by the leader. The thing is, it works, in its individual tracks and as a moody, sensuous whole. Pannier, just 30, born in Paris, schooled at Berklee, living in Harlem, has roots in the French classics and American jazz standards. His fusions run deep; there’s nothing rickety—neither “chamber jazz” nor “jazzed-up classics”—about this.

The Ornette cover, with Miguel Zenón blowing as lyrically as I’ve heard him, truly captures a lonely woman, different from Ornette’s, more harmonically spare, but authentic and moving. The Shorter swings in its own, clipped way. The classical pieces, where Giorgi Mikadze takes over from Aaron Goldberg on piano, are idiomatically classical but with drums carrying the rhythm: Pannier proves himself a colorist on percussion. The music floats and sways.

A big part of this sensation comes from Mike Marciano’s work at the board. He recorded the session in 24/96 using a Neve console, a stereo pair of AKG 460 mikes over the drums, and two mikes on Zenón’s sax—a vintage Neumann U87 and John Coltrane’s personal RCA 77 ribbon (borrowed from his friend, Ravi Coltrane, John’s son, footnote 1). The sound is spacious and romantic without getting too ambient or lush.—Fred Kaplan

Footnote 1: Mike Marciano used this microphone for the tenor saxophone in the instrumental sessions for Sasha Matson’s jazz opera Cooperstown, which is being re-released this month as a single CD.—John Atkinson

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