Cecilie Strange

Blikan
(April Records)

There are so many recordings to catch up on from the dark days of the pandemic, and this is definitely one of them. Cecilie Strange is a tenor saxophonist from Denmark full of rich, thoughtful ideas, as she demonstrated on her 2020 album Blue (April Records). She does so again on Blue’s companion piece, Blikan, released this April.

With Blikan, an old Icelandic word that means to shine or to appear, Strange weaves a beautifully Nordic jazz noir, never hurrying the music, letting it take a pace that is calming, folksy, bluesy and, yes, a bit mystic.

Strange doesn’t try to wow you with technique. It’s there, but she chooses to transfix with her tone, at times hushed and breathy, at time wailing and moaning, but never over the top. Strange and her cohorts on this record and the last consistently choose nuance over throwing bombs.

Speaking of those cohorts, Strange is joined here by Peter Rosendal on piano, Jakob Høyer on drums and Thommy Andersson on bass. She chose them based on what she heard them play in the past. Before recording Blue and Blikan, this group had not worked together.

But work they do, beautifully, as an ensemble, listening, feeling and moving the music forward.

Take, for instance, the lovely “When Sunny Smiles,” written for her sister. It’s a wonderful blues number. As Rosendal solos, Høyer and Andersson comp with such grace and taste, punctuating just the right spots, allowing the listener to experience the full sound of each instrument in incredibly sophisticated ways. You can hear the soul of each musician moving to complete the whole of the group.

The same can be said for each or the six tracks on this record, which is a breath of fresh air. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, it should be enjoyed in one sitting, like a late-night set from your favorite club, laid down for posterity.

Cecilie Strange and the band certainly shine on Blikan. It’s shimmering, egoless, lovely music.

Denny Zeitlin/George Marsh

Telepathy
(Sunnyside)

Telepathy is the third all-improvised duo album by Bay Area-based keyboardist Denny Zeitlin and drummer George Marsh, longtime friends who share a musical rapport that dates back to the 1960s. These two likeminded, free-spirited veterans have explored a full spectrum of musical styles — from jazz and classical to rock, electronics and free improv — over the course of their wide-ranging careers, frequently working side by side over the decades in various configurations with a virtual who’s who of esteemed bandleaders and sidemen. Their musical bond has strengthened further since 2013, when they began meeting every couple of months at Zeitlin’s home studio to record spontaneous compositions constructed entirely in the moment, right out of the ether. These regular get-togethers, which led to the 2015 release of Riding The Moment followed by 2017’s Expedition, continue to this day, and Telepathy is a brilliant showcase of just how far Zeitlin and Marsh have come as a creative team. It’s also a testament to the power of recent advancements in sound-shaping technology. Marsh plays acoustic drums and percussion throughout, while Zeitlin supplements his Steinway piano with a massive pallet of electronically generated tones he can access on the fly from his keyboards and breath controller: electric basses, synth basses, nylon- and steel-string guitars, pipes, wooden flutes, human voice samples, celestial choirs, analog horns, sci-fi synths, organs and lush, ambient pads aplenty; like a master painter, he always seems to find interesting combinations in his selection of tonal colors, and he deploys appropriate playing techniques to match the character of each virtual instrument he emulates. Like Marsh, who has a tendency to keep multiple balls in the air at all times, Zeitlin is a master of right-hand/left-hand independence, laying down serious bass lines while simultaneously conjuring an entire symphony of melodic statements and harmonic movements. These guys have become so adept at reading each other’s minds, and so comfortable responding to each other’s spontaneous moves, that many of the tracks on Telepathy come across as preconceived tunes performed by a full band. Other tracks smack of more traditional free-improv conversations. All taken together, Zeitlin and Marsh collectively succeed at assembling wildly divergent sounds and rhythms into coherent working structures while allowing the music — their music — to emerge entirely on its own.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog

Hope
(Northern Spy)

Just to be clear, I love the work of Marc Ribot. He’s a guitarist and artist who takes music wherever the muse goes, diving into jazz, punk, blues, downtown, inside, outside, all sides, avant garde, spoken word. He’s the “beyond” in DownBeat’s tagline, “Jazz, Blues & Beyond.” That’s especially true with his longtime trio Ceramic Dog with Shahzad Ismaily on bass and keyboards, and Ches Smith on drums, percussion and electronics.

With the group’s latest offering, Hope, we find Ribot in the mood to talk. Take, for instance, the opening number, “B-Flat Ontology,” from Hope, Ceramic Dog’s latest recording. It’s a bit of punk-ass, talking blues with lyrics visceral and true questioning the meaning of fame and the fawning over fame. Or the reggae-esque “Nickelodeon,” a free-flowing, summertime jam with New York-hip lyrics of epic nonsensical joy. Fans of Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos records will connect on this one.

Hope is not a jazz record, other than its anything-goes sensibility, but Ribot has credentials as a guitarist and artist who can morph into any style and still come out sounding only like himself, which is central to the jazz aesthetic. “Wanna” offers the flavor of reminiscent of the Pixies at their best. “The Activist” slams with all the rage of Bohemian-era Lenny Bruce. “Bertha The Cool” (my favorite title) is what it might sound like if Ribot jumped inside George Benson’s body for a tune. When saxophonist Darius Jones jumps in to guest on “They Met In The Middle,” the energy skyrockets with angst, only to give way to the calming, then epic beauty of “The Long Goodbye.” Ribot rounds out this great set with “Maple Leaf Rage,” which shows off his guitar genius, and “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” an offbeat ballad with plenty of overdrive.

There’s a great deal of anger here, fueled by Ribot’s concerns over COVID, a president he despised, global warming and not being able to see the ones he loved due to the pandemic.

It’s a raw, honest album, one most of us can absolutely understand. It’ll make you want to throw a fist in the air and shout, “Hell, yes!”

Joshua Abrams/Chad Taylor

Mind Maintenance
(Drag City)

Much music has been made in the last year and a half with a mind toward coping with the state of the world and oneself. Some of this music sought to make you dance — even if it was home alone — and some of it sought to make you think, feel and beyond. Here, Joshua Abrams and Chad Taylor seek to maintain their minds and ours. The duo, who have been playing music together in one form or another since 1994, take up guimbri and mbira, instruments African in origin, with the end result proving almost meditative.

Abrams and Taylor first tried the combination of guimbri and mbira for a show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, then took the idea into the studio with engineer Cooper Crain (Cave, Bitchin Bajas).

On “Entrainment,” the two take a simple pattern and let it unfurl slowly as notes bounce around each other. By limiting themselves to these two ancient acoustic instruments, they exhibit brilliant use of space. You practically feel like you’re in the room with them as their tools buzz and pulse together. The wonderfully playful “The Ladder” creates the sensation of climbing up and down one. The longest track here, “Valence,” explores a darker side of their simple formula in a manner that well displays Abrams and Taylor’s 27 years of experience playing together.

Sometimes one does wish these song would reach out a bit. “Slack Water” is aptly titled. And it’s difficult to say what use there would be for more of this. You’d need to add some instruments to grow this idea, naturally.

Still, this recording feels like a great choice for an evening of close listening on the home stereo system, or as a pleasant distraction in your earbuds as you go about your daily routine.

Kick The Cat

Gurgle
(Self Release)

Kick The Cat is back on the prowl this summer, playing live gigs in support of the group’s first album release in more than a decade. Proving itself well worth the wait from the initial needle-drop, Gurgle features the fusion team supreme of Chris Siebold (guitar), Vijay Tellis-Nayak (keyboards), Chris Clemente (bass) and Kris Myers (drums), longtime collaborators based out of Chicago and Nashville whose camaraderie dates back to the late 1990s. The group’s fourth album overall, Gurgle marks a major new entry in the annals of progressive jazz-rock and announces Kick The Cat’s renewed dedication to their craft. It also shows what’s possible when crafty musicians — with the daring of mad chemists — apply large doses of modern ambient effects to already complex fusion formulae. The result is a tasty mixture of prog-rock tones, advanced harmonies, angular melodies, cerebral improvisations, cathartic ostinatos, funky hooks, fuzzy analog warmth and extra-dimensional atmospherics. An abundance of musical humor lightens the mood of this seriously ambitious 11-track program, which consists of all original compositions written by band members Clemente (five), Tellis-Nayak (four) and Siebold (two). Listeners with an ear for the music of Weather Report, Return To Forever, King Crimson, Yes and other chops-busting ensembles of the plugged-in variety will easily relate to Kick The Cat, whose arena-level audacity and ass-kicking attitude should make their live shows a thrill for just about anyone who’s ever felt the urge to rock out, or space out to otherworldly sounds. Upcoming performances include a July 8 gig at City Winery in Nashville; a July 14 set opening for Big Something at the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, Colorado; and a July 15 encore appearance with Big Something at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver.

Vernacular

The Little Bird
(Astral Spirits)

The Little Bird is an album with a lot of history, and a lot of freedom, behind it. Coming together as students at Cleveland State in 2001, Lawrence Caswell (bass, vocals), Chris Kulcsar (drums, guitar) and R.A. Washington (trumpet, percussion) first looked to heady, if predictable, reference points like local hero Albert Ayler and the 1973 experimental horror film Ganja & Hess. This is immediately apparent in their music. “The Blood,” which begins The Little Bird, starts with Caswell laughing to someone off-mic, then singing a harrowing melody, “I know it was the blood for me, and I’ll tell you that one day when I was lost, don’t you know that he died upon that cross.” After a minute and 47 seconds of grasping with heaviness of such biblical proportions, a piercing trumpet, droning bass and crashing percussion ease in and build to a cacophony.

The three practiced constantly, feeling untethered by their technical abilities and rather set free by the desire to play. Their first gig was at a party at a member’s apartment, but they soon moved on to small venues and then upward to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

When it came time to make and The Little Bird in 2004, the production was, by all accounts, casual and inexpensive, and only released on CD-R. Seventeen years later, the time has come for this bird to fly — at least as a digital release and cassette. This is a good thing, as more people need to hear the voodoo turn the tables on jazz, and the trio does just that on “The Voodoo Runs Rafeeq Down.” Elsewhere, Vernacular rages on “Memphis (First Song)” and terrifies on “The Wretched Of The Earth.” This is not for the faint of heart, but also not to be missed. It sat on someone’s hard drive for way too long.

Dyke & The Blazers

Down On Funky Broadway: Phoenix (1966–1967), Message: Hollywood (1968–1970)
(Craft)

Funk bands lost to history are legion, as the recorded works of many were issued as singles and one-off albums that landed in dustbins all over the U.S., then were later coveted by crate-diggers and beat-makers, and, luckily, compiled for those lacking the patience to crawl through thrift stores and online auctions.

Hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, Dyke & The Blazers are beneficiaries of one such act of musical excavation, emerging on the mid-’60s soul scene alongside artists like James Brown and The Meters. They were characterized by tight guitar riffs, grooving jazz organs, upbeat horns and frontman Arlester “Dyke” Christian’s coarse yet commanding vocals.

Craft Recordings has handed the public not one but two compilations of this act: the 20-track Down On Funky Broadway: Phoenix (1966–1967) and the 21-track I Got A Message: Hollywood (1968–1970). Together, they span the group’s short career with new stereo mixes of their handful of hits and jams, previously unreleased material including demos, radio spots and previously unreleased songs and remastered audio.

The four sides of Down On Funky Broadway: Phoenix display a deftly funky band, with Christian issuing the funkiest possible plea for solitude on “Don’t Bug Me,” while “Uhh” (full-length version) is six minutes of up-and-down grinding as Christian makes his romantic intentions clear — all in thick, glorious mono. Elsewhere, Dyke and the band playfully pay homage to the filthy yet fun venues one encounters in every town on “City Dump.”

The true star of the show, though, is “Funky Broadway,” which was covered by Wilson Pickett, The Supremes, The Temptations, Jackie Wilson, Count Basie and Steve Cropper. L.A. was interested.

But Dyke & The Blazers’ original lineup dissolved by the end of 1967. From then on, Christian would be the sole remaining member of the group, accompanied by a variety of touring and session musicians. He recorded his new material in Hollywood at Original Sounds, where he was backed by The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.

This brings us to I Got A Message: Hollywood. The music is immediately less scrappy, tighter, more social in its politics. Christian name-calls other leaders in his field like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. His track featured here, “Let A Woman Be A Woman–Let A Man Be A Man,” a kinetic treatise of gender roles, hit the r&b Top 10 and the pop Top 40; breaks from the song were sampled by hip-hop groups and artists including Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, Cypress Hill, Stetsasonic and Tyler, the Creator.

Dyke died young. On March 13, 1971, the 27-year-old artist was fatally shot in Phoenix. At the time, he was prepping for a tour of the U.K., as well as a recording project with Barry White. One wonders what might have been.

Charles Owens Trio

10 Years
(la.reserve)

Tenor saxophonist Charles Owens can blow — fast, furious and flowing — with just the right dollop of soul. With the release of 10 Years, there’s no question about what his trio is all about. Bassist Andrew Randazzo and drummer Devonne “DJ” Harris (both members of Butcher Brown) drive the groove for Owens to bop, weave and dance around and through. It’s especially true on the recording’s opening number, “Cameron The Wise,” an afrobeat-inspired jam that has been a fan favorite at the trio’s live gigs, but laid down on recording for the first time here.

This trio is out to have a good time and entertain, as experienced by covers like “Caught Up In The Rapture,” made famous by Anita Baker, Todd Rundgren’s “I Saw The Light,” a wicked cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Were 9” and Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop.” And let’s not even go into the set’s final number, “The Rainbow Connection,” from The Muppet Movie. They actually make it kind of cool, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion.

To balance that out, there’s also a wicked cover of John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” and Randazzo paying homage to Jaco Pastorius with a cover of “Continuum.”

There’s great musicianship throughout this set, and the kind of love and chemistry that can only come from playing together for, well, a decade. 10 Years sounds like a long time, but here, it’s a very enjoyable journey.


On Sale Now
August 2021
Carla Bley
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