Chick Corea / Eddie Gomez / Paul Motian, Further Explorations (Concord Jazz)
One approaches Bill Evans tribute albums knowing what to expect, or more accurately, knowing what not to expect – only in this case, there’s little of Evans’ storied impressionism, and an abundance of group interplay at times approaching the fiery. Perhaps such qualities are the result of this not really being a Bill Evans tribute album, not with Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” and Thelonious Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” receiving loving treatment. Or perhaps it’s attributable to this not being a staid studio remembrance of a past master, but rather live performances selected from over a week’s worth of music at a Blue Note residency. Not that these bargain-priced two cds skimp on Evans. With bassist Eddie Gomez and recently departed drummer Paul Motian offering tangible connections to the ostensible subject (Gomez being Evans’ accompanist for over ten years, Motian as a key component of the ground-breaking Scott LaFaro-era trio that helped stretch the boundaries of piano jazz before a car crash ended it all), Corea’s project celebrates Evans the working jazz artist rather than Evans the tragic gone-too-soon icon. And if Corea seems an odd choice to helm the celebration of a musician far less beholden to the dramatic gestures and crossover moves of a man who propelled both the frothy likes of Return To Forever and the MOR kitsch of The Elektric Band, one shouldn’t forget Corea made his name with 1968’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, a path-breaking trio album that forged beyond questions first raised by Evans. Not that Corea goes cerebral where his subject stayed soft – the prominent Scientologist takes care to thank L. Ron Hubbard in the liner notes. But it’s no slag against Bill Evans to suggest that the ho-hum moments within these nineteen tracks come when Corea most echoes the great man he’s celebrating.
"Blue" Gene Tyranny, Detours (Unseen Worlds)
Someone like Tyranny (born Robert Sheff) helps highlight the limitations of such classifications as “avant-garde” and “classical,” two of the more commonly deployed descriptors for the music he’s created over the past thirty years, since “avant-garde” makes him sound scarier than he really is, and “classical” breezes over the fact that he’s toured with both Carla Bley and Iggy and the Stooges. None other than Kyle Gann compares Tyranny’s prodigious gifts to Cecil Taylor and Charles Ives, and while to my mind Tyranny is warmer and funnier than either of those two 20th century titans, that description at least suggests his equal adherence to modernism and Americana. These four pieces are all more or less solo piano, with the final two incorporating electronic textures that serve mainly to boost rhythmic possibilities and add color to his semi-improvised lines, with “She Wore Red Shoes” especially indulging in a juicy synth pulse. Opener “13 Detours” is a relaxed series of what might be called jazz preludes, twelve minutes of evenly-spaced miniatures in which Tyranny’s chops never overwhelm his ability to communicate with rich simplicity. And while the exploratory middle section of “George Fox Searches” may perplex the less adventurous, his deconstruction of the 1860s Baptist hymn “How Can I Keep From Singing?” actually reclaims this old chestnut from the glop of Enya’s Shepherd Moons. Following his own logic through variations growing more sharp and abstract before returning with grace to the original melody, he’s like Matthew Shipp taking apart old spirituals – he doesn’t think he needs to mess with a piece of history so much as he takes the piece seriously enough to investigate its full harmonic potential.
Group Of The Altos, Altos (self-released) http://altos.bandcamp.com/
Longish EP from a Milwaukee collective whose 12-person lineup fluctuates with enough consistency that their live shows sound markedly different depending on who can make the gig. Their sound is an approachable avant-garde committed to the basic vocabulary of rock, with enough nods in the direction of contemporary classical to guarantee their musicianship holds up, which, as any devotee of what used to be called post-rock could tell you, isn’t always the case. So the performances ebb and flow, employing purposeful climaxes that arise logically from the overall structure, lovely violin lines sharing space with indie guitar drone, group vocals sometimes split along gender lines, or mumbled solo, as on the high lonesome quasi-Calexico shuffle that closes the album. For all their conceptualism, some of these songs bring to mind melodies at least half-familiar (I hear echoes of “Parsely, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme” throughout “Him vs. hymn”), even if I suspect that’s the result of a musical commitment to formative melody rather than a deliberate echo, which I likewise credit to a Midwestern progressivism that operates at ground level. Politics communicated through actions rather than words, plus guitars and a backbeat? Forward-thinking, says I.
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur (Zoe Records)
No use trying to avoid this album’s backstory, in which the Canadian songwriter entered a Wisconsin studio under the eye of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who she hooked up with after divorcing her longtime collaborative partner. The reason such gossip matters is that Voyageur is explicitly posited as a breakup chronicle – the “voyageur” is none other than Edwards herself, the terrain traveled her emotional landscape. Coming from an artist previously committed to speaking through the voices of others, this turn towards the literal highlights her formal limitations, which include a too-small voice and a too-small narrative palette. When she’s on, her words help set mood and place with winning detail, as when undercutting “I’m moving to America” with “it’s an empty threat,” admitting “God knows I want it” on “Taste of Mint,” or noting “maybe I don’t listen/ in a way that makes you think I do” on “House Full Of Empty Rooms,” this last the most affecting portrait of marital dissolution on an album full of them. But these flashes of lyrical insight are weakened by a production that jettisons country for shimmer, making room for backing vocals that range from acceptable to ridiculous (just check out Vernon’s whoops at the end of “Chameleon/ Comedian”). And relationship albums would do well do avoid the kind of hubris that finds Edwards comparing her travails to those of North American fur traders and Jesus Christ Himself. “Hang me up on your cross,” she wearily rebukes, which is fair enough. Only she sees fit to add, “For the record/ I only wanted to sing songs”. Even if it doesn’t strike you as blasphemous, that kind of self-pity is anathema round these parts.
The Big Pink, Future This (4AD)
When this duo surfaced in 2007, you heard a lot of nonsense about “shoegaze” (even worse – “nu-gaze”), which I guess just means they had guitars. In the intervening years, their fealty to the excesses of early-90s UK baggy has replaced all that guitar talk, even if these revisionists were always more The Farm than Happy Mondays. And while it would be foolish to expect consistency from a band whose best single advocates literally knocking women to the ground, at least “Dominos” had hooks and a production ethos that carried it along without too much fuss. This right here is a bunch of big dumb songs with all the subtlety of a Gatorade commercial and with nearly the same amount of emotional weight. I suppose when a band deriving so much of their raison d’etre from the Stone Roses drops a line like “I wanna be great / I wanna be adored,” they’re daring you to call them on their audaciousness. But maybe they just don’t have any ideas other than the ones they stole from twenty-year old records. So I’ll note that they do dig deep enough into musical history to lift a sample from Laurie Anderson’s 1981 “O Superman”. Her mind-blowing original subverts Massenet’s Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père while citing Herodotus via mangled US Postal Service creed, quotes the Tao Te Ching, and makes oblique references to the Tehran Embassy crisis. Our lads are decidedly less ambitious: “I don’t wanna hit the ground / I’m Superman!”
The Weeknd, Echoes Of Silence (self-released download)
By sneaking this album out in the final weeks of December, the “best musical talent since Michael Jackson” (according to MTV wag John Norris) managed to boost his official output of 2011 to a bloated 145 minutes, a statistic all the more impressive since Abel Tesfaye didn’t even get started until late March. Those less inclined to measure success through running time alone may take note that, say, John Coltrane - What’s that, John Norris? Too hyperbolic a comparison? - released a mere 73 minutes of music in his rather epochal year of 1964. OK, so why fret about quantity when one could talk up the quality, including this sex fiend’s take on his fellow sex-fiend’s “Dirty Diana”? How about pondering what it means when an admirer like Pitchfork’s Andrew Ryce talks up this release as the artist’s “strongest work” in the lyrics department, hoisting as evidence a track described as “a cringe-inducingly detailed tale of drug-fueled kidnapping and gang-rape told through the part-grunted, part-rapped exhortations of an inhuman goblin”? That’s from somebody who thinks you should listen to the album.