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There is so much music out there, even a music journalist can’t keep up. Even a music journalist who largely focuses on jazz, which ought to be a small corner of the music scene, finds himself overwhelmed.


That’s why there are certain artists I’ve taken a pass on over the years. Not because they are in any way unworthy, but merely because you can’t eat everything at the buffet, right? So, with unfair arbitrariness, I happen to have never listened to music by the prolific composer Elliot Sharp, by Mike Reed’s band People, Places & Things, or by free-improvising veteran Joe McPhee.


And this month new releases by all these artists came knocking on my door once again. Like future friends who keep inviting you to parties even though you’ve never even RSVP’d in the past, these artists have a benevolent persistence. Really, it’s about time I gave them the time of day.


Here, then, I get my first taste of three strong jazz voices, each one now making my life a bit richer.


Press photo of Elliott Sharp by © Andreas Starzing from Elliott Sharp.com

Press photo of Elliott Sharp by
© Andreas Starzing from Elliott Sharp.com


Elliot Sharp—Aggregat


Elliot Sharp is the ultimate ignored artist on my list. His discography is huge and wildly diverse. A quick hop over to allmusic.com shows 66 albums under this name, and I know for a fact that undercounts by dozens. And while I’ve certainly heard some Sharp over the years, I have mostly systematically avoided him.


Why? Partly it’s the quantity of his music—who could possibly catch up? Partly it’s the breadth. Sharp not only plays both electric guitar and reeds, but he also composes for string quartet and other classical ensembles, creating a range of music from avant-garde classical to noise rock to frenzied free jazz, not to mention a range of other related styles. Any one slice of Sharp is going to be incomplete. Beyond that, to be honest, I always feared that Sharp’s music might be a chore to listen to—ragged and loud and harsh. I like that kind of jazz, but it can still growl at you at times.


So ‘til now, I kept my distance.


But no more. Here, on the wonderful Clean Feed Records, is a new disc recorded by Sharp’s trio in Brooklyn last year, the band filled out by Brad Jones on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Aggregat delivers a rich slice of Sharp’s sensibility—searing electric guitar as well as nuclear saxophone—but does so with a propulsive sense of fun. Take, just to start, the 3:44 of “The Grip”, which swings in a straight 4/4 jazz sense: walking acoustic bass and drums as fleet and straight as something from Elvin Jones.


cover art

Eliot Sharp Trio

Aggregat

(Clean Feed; US: 16 Mar 2012; UK: 16 Mar 2012)

Atop that traditional sound, however, is Sharp’s multi-directional electric guitar, improvising in ten directions at once. The playing is not so much beyond traditional harmony as it is daring: using the tone of metal and a non-linear melodic sense to explode musical ideas with true surprise. But each idea is interesting and followable, if not traditionally “pretty”. More importantly it’s fun and thrilling—the work of a musical mind that wants to create adventure.


The first track is downright sensible jazz in a hiply loose Sonny Rollins vein. Sharp on tenor sax plays a melody that worries a single motif while Jones and Smith dance beneath him in a complex Latin groove. The improvisation is hardly constricted by jazz tradition, but the notion that Sharp would be somehow forbidding or boring (all too often the same thing) turns out to be silly. Sharp bends notes with soul, he creates delicious little buzzing patterns by playing repetitive licks in a small cycle, and he overblows with a careful sense of melody. In short, Sharp finds ways to use “advanced technique” to fulfill classic musical principles of interest and thematic development.


“Gegenschein” is a composition that grooves mightily. Jones sets up a simple set of three-note bass variations, Smith improvises a set of tricky rhythm syncopations, and then Sharp enters on soprano saxophone playing long tones that simply and plaintively float above the busier action. As the tune develops, the saxophone line grows more busy and three partners all intertwine with increased variation and play. “Positronics” works in the other direction, as Sharp’s staccato guitar work creates the model for the rhythm section to copy, drawing the trio into a skittering discourse in tap-danced counterpoint.


Is there some noisy stuff to wade through? Sure. But the noise is used with compositional intent and never even comes close to being a straight-up freak-out. “Allelia” contains honks and screeches but also a slow, bluesy walking bass section over which Sharp’s tenor sounds just a bit like Coleman Hawkins. “Global Swarming” sounds like insects gathering—on purpose. And “Hard Landing” certainly lets Sharp’s guitar descend into some nastiness, but it develops from a swinging theme that features Sharp laying behind the beat like he was Miles Davis.


After listening to Aggregat twice, my ears simply wanted to hear more. Happily, there’s a ton more Elliot Sharp to be discovered. Time to dig in.


cover art

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things

Clean on the Corner

(482 Music; US: 15 May 2012; UK: 16 May 2012)

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things—Clean on the Corner


Mike Reed is a drummer based out of Chicago who has been performing, presenting music, and recording for the last 15 years. He has managed to show up just about everywhere in that context, and my resistance to listening to him—particularly his acclaimed band “People, Places & Things”, which has taken on the task of channeling the vibe of late-‘50s and early-‘60s jazz from the Chicago area—can only be described as silly and self-defeating.


What was my problem? I read somewhere that he had a hand in programming the Pitchfork music festival and associated him with those hipper-than-thou Pitchfork record reviews where the critic rates an album as “7.3” out of 10. There’s so much music out there, I must have thought, that I can skip stuff even slightly associated with a pointlessly specific rating scheme.


What I’ve been missing! Reed’s People, Places & Things is a richly rewarding band that lives in precisely the sweet spot that I value most in modern jazz.


This is music that sits on that delicious cliff’s edge between post-bebop tonality and adventurous freedom, jazz that is loosed from the moorings of harmonic constriction. Six of the eight tunes on Clean on the Corner are by Reed, with one zipping bopper by Chicagoan John Jenkins and a loping blues variation by Chicagoan Roscoe Mitchell. But all of them share a sensibility of gracious melody and momentum, combined with the open plain of freedom that allows the primary soloists to play whatever their heart requires in the moment.


So, dig the scurrying phrases of tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman on Mitchell’s “Old”, which solo plays out over a martial beat set up by Reed as bassist Jason Roebke plays a very staccato kind of walking quarter note. Mostly, this is a piano-less quartet, and so the solo is also accompanied by interjections from Greg Ward’s alto sax, setting up blues signposts along the way. The tune exudes a gleeful relaxation.


“House of Three Smiles” adds cornetist Josh Berman to the quartet, and the band’s other main influence emerges more clearly: the great Charles Mingus bands of the early ‘60s. Channeling a dose of Ellington along the way, Ward and Haldeman play a smooth saxophone melody over which Berman can play a vinegary counter-tune. Roebke owns the bottom while Reed, a quiet leader to be sure, is all brushes and subtlety.


The other guest on Clean on the Corner is pianist Craig Taborn. Taborn adds harmonic underpinning to the Jenkins tune and is a lovely colorist on “The Ephemeral Words of Ruth”.  “Ruth” is a beautiful slice of jazz impressionism that spurs a wistful solo from Ward but also contains a thrilling double-time section that creates a contrasting mood. When it’s time for Taborn to solo, pulse is suspended and the whole landscape opens up so that the pianist can work freely into two-handed counterpoint.


But the guests on this project are not the stars. The thrill is in the writing and sensibility—interesting, moody themes that provide generous room for exploration. “Where the Story Ends” takes a lazy tempo and simply trusts the soloists to generate interest through their own incredible storytelling. As the improvisations unfold, the band works together to create a single sound—with the whole of group working together to further individual expression.


It’s a jazz ideal, People, Places & Things. And before this disc, there were several others. Time to get listening!


Press photo of by ©  Peter Gannushkin from Joe McPhee.com

Press photo of by ©  Peter Gannushkin from Joe McPhee.com


Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten—Brooklyn DNA


The final in my trio of foolishly neglected artists is Joe McPhee, the multi-instrumentalist who has been a part of the “free jazz” or improvised music scene since the late ‘60s. McPhee is another player whose sheer body of work is intimidating for its size and breadth. For many of us, nevertheless, his presence on the US scene was limited, with his most prominent work released on European labels (most notable hat Hut, which was founded to feature his work) and some of his best work coming in collaboration with younger artists (such as Ken Vandermark) in the ‘90s and since.


I’d been meaning to dig into those classic albums for a while when I caught McPhee live at a midnight show at the Blue Note in 2011 (which show I wrote about here, “An Infectious Case of Jazz Fanaticism”) when Clean Feed (again: thank you Clean Feed Records for releasing the music that so many of us need to hear) sent me a duet record by McPhee and Haker Flaten, how could I leave it on my table, unspun?


cover art

Joe McPhee and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten

Brooklyn DNA

(Clean Feed; US: 16 Mar 2012; UK: 16 Mar 2012)

And in this latest work from McPhee there is everything that made him compelling in person—but it’s concentrated because of the lovely duet format with an obviously sympathetic partner. McPhee is the most sonorous and (one is tempted to say) “classical” of free jazz players. While he will honk or squeal or distort his sound if that is called for, McPhee is mostly a player possessed of a truly lovely tone. So, on “CBJC”, McPhee moves his alto sax in counterpoint with the bass, shifting tone from moment to moment, constantly capable of a rich sound or a more strident one—achieving fluid flurries of sound, long held tones, and even (very nearly at the track’s end) a seemingly impossible slide upward over an interval of a full third without losing tone.


The music on Brooklyn DNA is credited to both musicians and seems to have been wholly improvised based on limited cues or moods between the musicians. Set themes are few, but that does not prevent each track from having a distinct identity and concept. “Putnam Central” finds McPhee on his original instrument, the (pocket) trumpet, etching against the lower tones with a Brillo Pad action. But on “Blue Coronet” McPhee’s alto saxophone is rich in whole and half notes, sounding highly vocal as he calls out melodically. It’s a plaintive sound, almost soothing but carrying too heavy a weight at times to be less than serious.


My favorite track here is the closer, “Here and Now”, where McPhee plays the soprano saxophone, making him sound less like Ornette Coleman, his most obvious referent here, even though there are moments when he carries the history of Rollins and Coltrane with him just as much. McPhee stays mostly in the straight horn’s lower range, and he has a distinct way of catching his phrasing on certain notes to give it a lurching, irregular rhythm. He finds a theme and worries it several times, then he speeds it up and pulls the horn up into a higher register. 


Haker Flaten is with him all the way, walking at a faster tempo and pushing the horn player into a more frenzied state. But McPhee never entirely loses track of his melody, bouncing back to it as necessary. It’s a spectacularly unified five minutes of music—exactly the kind of thing that proves just how “composed” improvised music can be at it’s best.


***

In every case here, I wish I’d gotten around to listening seriously to these artists sooner—a testament to the richness of the jazz scene in 2012, even at a time when it seems like the music is listened to by a smaller and smaller part of the American public. But, of course, jazz hasn’t been pop music since the ‘30s, and getting “market share” hasn’t much been the point of this music ever. Elliot Sharp, Miek Reed, and Joe McPhee are artists, making music for history or for themselves, not for me.


Still, it’s great to be onboard and listening. If I had 50 hours in every day, I’d catch up with all the great musicians that deserve a listen. But for now, at least, I’m three closer to the ideal. Thanks, Elliot, Mike, and Joe.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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