Mats/Morgan Band – “Live” (Jazz Fusion)
Sao Paulo Underground – “Tres Cabe?as Loucuras”
The Sao Paulo Underground sound dares you to define it, knowing that even when - not if - you fail to do so, you’ll still be so deliriously immersed in the group’s dizzying swirl of styles that you’ll simply be happy to surrender to its unnamable charms. Along the way, you’ll reach for such sonic signifiers as “jazz,” “Brazilian music,” “avant-garde,” and “electro-acoustic” in an attempt to tag Tres Cabe?as Loucuras, the ensemble’s third album and first for Cuneiform. Sure, when American cornetist Rob Mazurek gets together with his Brazilian buddies Guilherme Granado (keyboards, electronics), Mauricio Takara (drums, percussion, cavaquinho, electronics) and “fourth member” Richard Ribeiro (drums), all of the aforementioned flavors are on the musical menu, but ultimately, it’s best to just term the end result a kind of joyful “chef’s surprise” that gleefully upends expectations. Mazurek, a fearlessly forward-looking musician, has been battering down the borders between musical genres since the ‘90s, recording with everyone from Stereolab to Tortoise, and leading Isotope 217, the Chicago Underground collective, and the Exploding Star Orchestra, among other things. But it was only after his move to Brazil in 2000 that Mazurek began to follow the path that would lead to the formation of the Sao Paulo Underground. The journey began in earnest when the cornetist/composer found a kindred spirit in Mauricio Takara, and they released the first SPU album, 2006’s Sauna: Um, Dois, Tres, together as a duo. After adding Guilherme Granado and Richard Ribeiro into the equation, an expanded Underground unleashed Principle of Intrusive Relationships two years later. But in the creation of Tres Cabe?as Loucuras (Portuguese for “three crazy heads”), the group pushed towards an even more expansive approach. Mazurek’s jazz-schooled cornet skills come to the fore on the album, with a fiery force that echoes everything from the frenetic, freewheeling fusion of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis to bop masters like Art Farmer (with whom Mazurek has studied), but he claims avant-jazz trumpet legend Bill Dixon as his main inspiration, declaring “His absoluteness is a constant feed.” When Mazurek’s hard-driving hailstorm of cornet lines collides with the polyrhythmic percussion and electronic textures of his Brazilian compatriots, a new paradigm is created, where Brazilian grooves, ambient atmospheres, and post-bop harmonic leaps come together for a vital, vibrant feel.
In making Tres Cabe?as Loucuras, the Undergrounders didn’t close the door to the outside world, either – along the way, contributions from bassist Matthew Lux (Iron and Wine), vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz (Exploding Star Orchestra, and Jason Adasiewicz’s Rolldown, a jazz group that records for Cuneiform), Tortoise drummer John Herndon, and Brazilian guitarist Kiko Dinucci (Paulistano) all add to the exhilarating experimentation and strangely spiritual glow of the proceedings.
The Claudia Quintet +1 – “What Is the Beautiful”
“Soon it will/Be showtime again,” recites Kurt Elling at the outset of the Claudia Quintet’s sixth CD, What Is the Beautiful? “Somebody will paint beautiful faces all over the sky.” The sentiment expressed by those lines, penned by poet/visual artist Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972), captures something of the anticipation proffered by the release of a new Claudia album. Bandleader/percussionist John Hollenbeck’s evocative, richly luminescent compositions definitely possess the suggestive power to encourage listeners to look heavenward, searching for those faces in the sky. Most of the material on What Is the Beautiful? was commissioned by the University of Rochester for its 100th birthday celebration of Patchen in 2011. Patchen “has a wide palette, which I like,” Hollenbeck says. Hollenbeck immediately thought of singer Kurt Elling to give voice to these poems – wholly unaware that Elling is something of a Patchen aficionado. “Kurt is a scholar with this stuff,” Hollenbeck says. “He knew Patchen and knew exactly what to do. He’s amazing.” Elling inhabits these poems as an actor would a role. Surprisingly, Hollenbeck discovered that engineer Andy Taub was also a Patchen fanatic, with his own collection of the poet’s works. Hollenbeck recalls: “More than your average engineer, he was really involved in the creative process. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, probably Hollenbeck’s most frequent collaborator, was also enlisted to lend a dreamier, more song-like atmosphere to several of the poems. Two of the session’s three instrumental tracks were commissioned by the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival and inspired by the Scottish island of Islay, renowned for its wintering geese. As on their previous CD, Royal Toast, the Claudia Quintet is again supplemented by a +1, in this case Philadelphia-based pianist Matt Mitchell. His virtuosity and spontaneity make him a perfect fit with the long-running core group – Hollenbeck on d rums, Drew Gress on bass, Matt Moran on vibraphone, Ted Reichman on accordion, and Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax.
Dead Cat Bounce – “Chance Episodes”
The term dead cat bounce denotes a small, brief recovery in the price of a declining stock, but to composer and saxophonist Matt Steckler it means more; Dead Cat Bounce, both in name and as a group, evokes an artistic vision. “It signifies one’s dedication to creative rebirth and renewal even as time, tradition, and masters move on,” says the Boston-based Steckler, who founded DCB in 1997 to explore new sounds within the classic confines of jazz. Bolstered by bassist Dave Ambrosio and drummer Bill Carbone, DCB features an interactive and inventive frontline quartet of saxophonists: Steckler, Charlie Kohlhase, Terry Goss, and Jared Sims. Drawing inspiration from blues and funk, as well as Caribbean, Brazilian, and West African traditions, DCB’s fourth studio album, Chance Episodes, presents a cosmopolitan and international sound, all in a stunning interpretation of Steckler’s original arrangements. Chance Episodes is Dead Cat Bounce’s first release on Cuneiform Records. Originally commissioned by Chamber Music America for its New Works Creation and Presentation program for jazz-oriented composer projects in 2003, and with the further support of American Music Center’s Composer Assistance Program, the music that evolved into the album Chance Episodes reflects, in Steckler’s words, “memory’s haphazard way of bringing to the fore seemingly unrelated events, so that an episodic personal narrative is created, as if ‘by chance.’ Chance Episodes is awash in the voices of the past, but synthesizes them into a dynamic voice of its own. Fundamentally, it asks the listener to appreciate the foundations and history of jazz, but simultaneously embrace all that is new. Steckler, himself, defines the ideal listener and frame of mind for Chance Episodes, imploring listeners to experience the album “free from distraction and with an ear toward positive experience and renewal.”
Blixt – “Blixt”
If the British power trio Cream was the first guitar-led supergroup, Blixt is a 2011 aftershock. Five decades on, the sound is heavier and darker, the mix of ingredients more transgressive, the origins of the musicians more global, and the harmonic and rhythmic palettes more complex. But at the core of both Cream and Blixt is an unholy marriage of rock and jazz, riffs and improv, the viscera and the cerebrum. And both bands, at their most confrontational, can peel the ears clean off your head.
Blixt is bassist Bill Laswell, Swedish drummer Morgan ?gren, and guitarist Raoul Bj?rkenheim, the group’s initiator. The trio first got in the same room in September, 2010. “We played a gig in NYC at the Bowery Poetry Club,” says Bj?rkenheim, “and then we spent two days recording in Bill’s studio. Morgan had paid me a visit in Helsinki the previous summer, when we talked about the material, and I reciprocated with a visit to Stockholm. That time, we recorded some jams, and out of those we extracted some of the main material for the CD. In the studio, Bill came up with his own parts, so although some of the riffs were pre-composed, the session was essentially an improvisational cooperation between the three of us. The two days he had for this first disc didn’t allow us a lot of time to polish things up, so it’s quite a raw and roaring proposition. ... Bill and Bob Musso mixed it, so there was some post-production involved, but a bare minimum.” Blixt is, indeed, a raw and roaring piece of work. The most intense tracks kick off at levels with which most bands climax a jam – and keep on lacerating. “Black Whole,” “Moon Tune” and “Tools,” the pieces which start the disc, are full frontal assaults from the get go. But there is shelter and cooler heat on the disc too, and Bj?rkenheim’s gift for novel sonorities is not confined to high decibel, shamanistic pyrotechnics. For close on thirty years, Bj?rkenheim and Laswell have been rattling the cage of normality, and shoulder to shoulder with ?gren, they break the bars and let the spirits soar.
Mats/Morgan Band – “Live”
As much as we all love recordings, the experience of LIVE music is what separates the wheat from the chaff, the Rodney Dangerfields from the Tom Greens. While touring Sweden, Frank Zappa—one of progressive music’s prime movers from the mid-1960s until his death in 1993 and one of the most exacting bandleaders EVER—was SO taken with the acumen and energy of acolytes Mats ?berg and Morgan ?gren in performance that he asked them to play with his band! Cuneiform Records founder Steve Feigenbaum, whose Wayside imprint distributed discs by Mats/Morgan Band in the US, caught them live in Paris (with members of Magma in the audience too!) and was so impressed he caught up with them backstage and asked them to be on his label. The proof’s in the pudding: Live is that rare CD that encapsulates a band at the peak of their powers, with dazzling creativity and immediacy in full flower. Live was remastered for this Cuneiform reissue. Swedish musicians Mats ?berg (keyboards) and Morgan ?gren (drums) remain one of the longest-running bands (30 years!) in the sometimes-overlapping spheres of fusion jazz and progressive rock. The Mats/Morgan Band has released nine albums and played countless concerts and music festivals. The album’s one-word title – Live – is as potent as a single-malt whiskey. Mats/Morgan is first and foremost a live band, and this is one of their most powerful recordings to date. The band’s lineup here is one of its best, featuring Morgan on drums, Jimmy Agren on guitar, Tommy Thordsson on bass, and an arsenal of three keyboardists: Mats, Eric Carlsson, and Robert Elovsson. Recorded June 1999 at Club Fasching in Stockholm and first released on their Ultimate Audio Entertainment imprint in 2001, Live bristles with the burning, confident energy of a band at the peak of their powers, relishing the joy of exacting yet passionate music-making. Fans of old and new progressive rock, math-rock, jazz-rock fusion, funky fusion, post-rock and the Rock In Opposition (RIO) axis of bands—you’ve got one band of Swedes to unite you: the Mats/Morgan Band.