At WSJ on John Hollenbeck Claudia Quintet

Arts Arts in Review Music Review

‘Super Petite’ by Claudia Quintet Review: An Unusual Combo’s Varied Terrain
Claudia Quintet alludes to everything from Argentine tango to Pakistani qawwali music.

Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair.

Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair. ENLARGE
Drummer John Hollenbeck leads the group with subdued flair. Photo: David Kaufman
By Martin Johnson
June 27, 2016 5:48 p.m. ET

Drummer John Hollenbeck is one of the best and least-heralded composers in jazz, and his experience ranks among the most diverse even in an eclectic age.

In the late ’90s, Mr. Hollenbeck, who is 48 years old, apprenticed with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, playing forward-looking traditional big-band music and in the discreet and intensely lyrical ensembles led by contemporary-classical vocalist Meredith Monk; both influences still resonate in his work. His music thrives on unique harmonies, appealing melodies, and innovative blends of percussion. His primary small group, the Claudia Quintet, has been together for nearly 20 years, and their rapport shows on his new recording, “Super Petite” (Cuneiform).

“Super Petite,” the band’s eighth recording, is aptly named—each piece sounds like a miniature of a larger work, and the Claudia Quintet often sounds like a much larger band. It’s a characteristic derived from Mr. Hollenbeck’s precise compositions, which result in layers of sounds melding together in beautiful fashion, and from the unusual instrumentation of the band. He is joined by bassist Drew Gress, vibraphonist Matt Moran, saxophonist Chris Speed, and accordionist Red Wierenga. These musicians enable the band to explore a wide range of sonic allusions—such as, thanks to Mr. Wierenga in slower and midtempo pieces, the stately ease of Argentine tango and the solemn devotion of Pakistani qawwali music. Mr. Moran’s vibes work particularly well with the leader’s style. Mr. Hollenbeck is not a basher; instead he propels the music with subdued flair.

The recording begins with “Nightbreak,” Mr. Hollenbeck’s reworking of Charlie Parker’s famous alto saxophone solo from the classic “Night in Tunisia.” This version slows down the tempo to a nearly hypnotic pace and builds from a zigzagging contrast of sounds to deliver a compelling work. Two pieces dedicated to airport dogs, “JFK Beagle” and “Newark Beagle,” offer moody music with a noirish effect. In the JFK piece, the bass and accordion create catchy rhythms; the Newark tune showcases the drums and vibes. The band tackles a straight-ahead burner on “Philly,” a dedication to the great jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones, and it highlights virtuosic play from Messrs. Speed and Hollenbeck.

Mr. Hollenbeck, who was born in Binghamton, N.Y., attended the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City and participating in the vibrant lower Manhattan scene of the ’90s. He leads not only the Claudia Quintet—which takes its name from an acquaintance of the drummer from his early days in New York—but the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, a big band that has been twice nominated for Grammy Awards. The Claudia Quintet deftly covers a large amount of musical territory and—like the bands led by such drummers as Tyshawn Sorey, Allison Miller, Rudy Royston and Jeff Ballard—is helping to define jazz today.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal

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At WSJ on new music from Rhys Chatham and Jeff Parker

Arts Arts in Review Music Review

‘Pythagorean Dream’ by Rhys Chatham and ‘The New Breed’ by Jeff Parker Reviews
New albums from veteran guitarists offer hypnotic nuance or subdued funk.
Rhys Chatham ENLARGE
Rhys Chatham Photo: Roland Owsnitzki
By Martin Johnson
June 20, 2016 5:28 p.m. ET

On their new recordings, veteran guitarists Rhys Chatham and Jeff Parker are heading in opposite directions, but both make compelling music. Both men have a foot in important niches of rock. Mr. Chatham, who is 63 years old, created some of the dark, reverberant work that inspired some of the most important downtown New York rock bands of the ’80s, such as Sonic Youth and Swans. Since 1997, Mr. Parker, who is 49, has been a member of Tortoise, the influential, Chicago-based, mostly instrumental rock band, and he has been an integral member of that city’s current jazz and experimental music scene. On “Pythagorean Dream” (Foom), Mr. Chatham returns to his roots, employing the minimal style of composers Terry Riley and Tony Conrad to create a hypnotic work full of nuance. By contrast, Mr. Parker’s “The New Breed” (International Anthem) shows him working in a subdued but funky style.

Although Mr. Chatham also plays flute and trumpet, he has become nearly synonymous with the electric guitar. His composition “Guitar Trio,” which was released in 1977, featured three guitars, each with special tunings, along with electric bass and drums. After relocating to Paris in 1988, he began creating works with unique sonic heft. His 1989 piece “An Angel Moves Too Fast to See” featured 100 guitarists, and the French capital commissioned his 2005 work “A Crimson Grail,” which featured 400 guitars and was created to take advantage of the natural reverberations in the basilica at Sacré-Coeur.

By contrast, “Pythogorean Dream” is almost shocking in its subtlety. Mr. Chatham plays guitar, flute and trumpet on the album, which is divided into two sections, each about 19 minutes long. The first segment focuses on his guitar, the second on flute. The echoes, overtones and artful repetitions of his guitar are reminiscent of the work of early minimalist composers. Chatham’s flute provides a more tranquil sound. The music has a distinctly New York feel to it. The dark, guitar-based resonance from the first part feels like the alleyways of downtown in the more foreboding ’70s and ’80s, while the serene second part evokes images of the well-groomed riverfront areas of lower Manhattan today. In some ways, “Pythagorean Dream” shows how minimalism has developed since its early days, 50 years ago, when it was ascetic and almost deliberately cold; it sounded like nothing else on the scene. Mr. Chatham’s music, though rigorous, has warmth to it, and the connections to other music are easy to hear.
Jeff Parker ENLARGE
Jeff Parker Photo: Lee Anne Schmitt

Mr. Parker straddles the blurry boundaries between rock and jazz. Besides his work with Tortoise, he leads a trio of his own and has participated in Rob Mazurek’s Chicago Underground projects. Mr. Parker’s new recording showcases a different side of his work. On “The New Breed,” the guitarist, who recently relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago, explores the subdued funk and hip-hop that young West Coast bands like the Internet and many groups on the Los Angeles BrainFeeder roster are reviving.

Parker’s relocation sparked the project. During the move, he found some sampled beat experiments that he had done several years before. He revisited them and began to build a band to play alongside the samples. The group features bassist Paul Bryan, saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Jamire Williams. As is the case with Tortoise and his jazz groups, Mr. Parker’s guitar work is nuanced and complex, and the music spans an impressive amount of musical territory with deep and varied grooves.

Like the Robert Glasper Experiment, another group that adapts contemporary pop structures and techniques into their music, Mr. Parker’s band never lets the samples overtake the drive and energy of the ensemble. “Executive Life,” the first track, recalls the early jazz funk of the ’70s, and it is highlighted by short innovative solos. The ringing tones of Mr. Parker’s guitar lead two of the album’s most compelling pieces, “Here Comes Ezra” and “Jrifted,” and his solo at the start of the latter is the recording’s signature moment. The only misstep is the vocals—by his daughter, Ruby Parker—in the final track, “Cliché,” where the music falls dangerously close to its title.

Messrs. Parker and Chatham are both deep into their careers, but they have found interesting new ground in genres of instrumental music that deserve more attention.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on the new Carla Bley album


‘Andando el Tiempo’ by Carla Bley Review: Big Force in a Small Group

On a recording that’s more pastoral than her earlier work, a pianist gently pushes music into new realms.

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. ENLARGE
Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and Andy Sheppard. Photo: Caterina di Perri / ECM Records

During her lengthy career, Carla Bley has established a formidable reputation as a composer, a big band leader and a businesswoman. To celebrate her 80th birthday, she has just released a recording that focuses on her piano playing. “Andando el Tiempo” (ECM) is a showcase for Ms. Bley’s intimate music, and it features superb, reserved performances in a trio setting featuring two longtime collaborators, bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard.

Ms. Bley has worked with both musicians for more than 20 years, and their rapport is easy to hear; there are few unaccompanied solos, and most of the interplay sounds intuitive and spontaneous rather than composed. Ms. Bley’s pieces are elegant and contemplative. Unlike her work in the ’60s, which featured a biting, urban edge, these compositions are nearly pastoral, perhaps an effect of her living just outside of Woodstock, N.Y., for more than a quarter century. Some of her early work—written in the late ’50s and early ’60s—was recorded by a Jimmy Giuffre-led trio of the same configuration found on “Andando el Tiempo.” This new recording has some of the same subtle complexities of that earlier band, though this ensemble’s temperament is more relaxed and the music is more contemplative. Unlike many pianists, Ms. Bley isn’t a flamboyant soloist; instead her style pushes the music gently into new realms.

Ms. Bley first made her mark on the New York jazz scene as a composer, but in 1964 she helped organize the Jazz Composers Guild, a collective that led to the formation of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, which featured many of the era’s finest musicians, including trumpeter Don Cherry and trombonist Roswell Rudd. In 1971, the Orchestra released her best known work, “Escalator Over the Hill,” a sprawling two-hour piece with poetry by Paul Haines—often called a jazz opera—that involved more than 30 musicians. She also started two labels, JCOA and WATT, as well as the New Music Distribution Service, which channeled the work of independent jazz labels into the marketplace.

At a May 11 concert and reception to celebrate both the new recording and Ms. Bley’s birthday, the trio performed “Copycat,” a new composition, as well as music from the new album. Afterward Ms. Bley spoke enthusiastically about a gig early next month in Hamburg, Germany, where she will present another new work, “La Leçon Française,” for the NDR big band and a 40-member boys’ choir. In addition, this summer she will direct the Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Clearly Ms. Bley’s efforts in small groups haven’t dimmed her passion for large ensemble presentations.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Nik Bartsch and Mobile

‘Continuum’ Reivew: An Album That’s Expansive and Expandable

The mesmerizing music of Nik Bärtsch and his Mobile ensemble is hard to label.

‘Continuum,’ by Nik Bärtsch and his Mobile ensemble, is out now. ENLARGE
‘Continuum,’ by Nik Bärtsch and his Mobile ensemble, is out now. Photo: Christian Senti

The mesmerizing music of Nik Bärtsch and his Mobile ensemble is hard to label, but it may appeal to the constituencies of many contrasting styles. The repetitive nature of his

grooves evokes the work of minimalist composers like Phillip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The tonalities and rhythms are reminiscent of Balinese gamelan music and traditional West African percussion ensembles. The rhythmic focal point resembles an acoustic form of such contemporary dance music styles as trance and techno. The easygoing grooves suggest a commonality with jam bands. And Mobile sounds like a more austere version of Mr. Bärtsch’s other band, Ronin, which has toured the U.S. in recent years.

Mr. Bärtsch, who is 44 years old, was born and is based in Zurich. He calls his amalgam “ritual music” and cites the 1968 György Ligeti composition “Continuum for the Harpsichord” as a cornerstone influence. He formed Mobile in 1997 and put together marathon performances that often included video arts, lighting design, and even swordsmanship. (Asian battle techniques are a fascination of Bärtsch; Ronin derives its name from freelance samurai.) Some Mobile performances lasted up to 36 hours; the eight compositions on the ensemble’s new recording, “Continuum” (ECM), last only 68 minutes, but it’s not hard to see how they could be expanded into much lengthier experiences.

Mobile—which features Mr. Bärtsch on piano; Sha on bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet; and two percussionists, Kaspar Rast and Nicolas Stocker—makes captivating

sounds from gently repetitive figures. “Continuum” begins with “Modul 29_14,” a piece that starts with gentle, stately chords from Mr. Bärtsch’s piano that are accented with bass drum beats and then a triangle, before it opens into a full ensemble performance with Sha’s reedwork providing a bass line as the others form complex melodies. Then the ensemble sections alternate with piano-triangle duets as the piece winds down.

Another highlight is “Modul 5,” which features stellar, up-tempo piano from Mr. Bärtsch subtly accented with small percussion instruments and bass clarinet murmurs. The piece moves from furious, strident chords to smoother resolves. Several tracks feature what Mr. Bärtsch calls “Extended Mobile,” in which the quartet is joined by violinists Etienne Abelin and Ola Sendecki, violist David Schnee, and cellists Solme Hong and Ambrosius Huber. On these pieces the mood is stately, but the music remains focused on short figures that are repeated and develop from simple chords into fascinating, elaborate statements.

Mobile is touring the U.S. for the first time, with stops this week in New York City and Troy, N.Y. Mr. Bärtsch has built a devoted following for Ronin; Mobile’s distinctive fusion of disparate genres should receive a similar reception from a diverse crowd.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.


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At The Root on Jeremy McQueen and the Black Iris Project

Jeremy McQueen is probably the next chapter in the diversification of ballet.  He and his collective are looking to tell archetypal African American stories via ballet.

He was an excellent interview and his collective will play NY Live Arts in Late July.

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On Game 7 of the NBA Finals

NBA-Basketball-07-08-SeasonLike most basketball fans, I’m excited about tonight’s game seven of the NBA Finals.  Yet, I’m also annoyed.  It seems like two superficial narratives have overtaken one of the most compelling stories of the series.

First off let’s deal with the complaints.  This isn’t the first NBA Finals where there have been some questionable calls.  Here’s the issue simply.  Steph Curry isn’t as good a defender as his teammates.  Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are elite defenders who move their feet to deny opponents space and access.  Curry defends with his hands a lot and reaching generally results in foul calls, and it will specifically result in more foul calls when it’s such a conspicuous contrast to the rest of the Warriors.  Were some of the foul calls in Game 6 ticky tack?  Sure, but no more so than those in any other finals.  Secondly, Game 7 isn’t a referendum on Curry or LeBron James greatness.  If LeBron decided to retire over the summer he’ll still rank as one of the 10 or 12 greatest NBA players.  Curry has won consecutive MVP’s, very few players in the history of *any* league have done that.  This game isn’t going to prove which one is better; it’ll prove which team played better Sunday night.

Now, then the narrative that excites me and it should excite every Cavaliers is the rapid maturity of Cleveland coach Ty Lue.  Lue has been an NBA head coach for less than six months!  One of the Warriors biggest advantages going into this series was the difference between Lue and the Warriors Steve Kerr.  Kerr is a Coach of the Year recipient who has won titles as a coach and as a player, and he has played for two of the best coaches in Association history.  Lue got the job after a controversial midseason firing of David Blatt in Cleveland.  Yet late in this sereis, Lue is outcoaching Kerr, out X’ing and O’ing the guy.  In the early games of the series the Warriors attacked by running plays right at Cleveland’s weakest defender, Kevin Love.  Lue took note; in games five and six, the Cleveland offense ran pick and rolls right at un hunh, Curry.  Meanwhile on defense, Cleveland is doing exactly what the Oklahoma City Thunder did using their rangiest frontline player on Green and enabling him to rotate between defending the interior and trapping perimeter pick and rolls.

What annoys me is that this kind of strategy 101 is obscure.  I’m at best a casual NFL fan (it’s what happens when you work on Sundays for 12 years), yet NFL telecasts take pains to let you know the different offensive and defensive alignments on the field and sometimes even point out zone rotations in the secondary.  NBA telecasts don’t do this and neither does the coverage in nearly every avenue outside of ESPN’s Zach Lowe and some excellent blogs.  We need to smarten up; the NBA has a playground element to it but there’s a lot more going on.

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At The Root on Roots

I watched a lot of TV last week.

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