Michael Formanek & Elusion Quartet – Time Like This (Intakt Records)
There is an ominous cloud permeating Time Like This, the new and first release by bassist and composer Michael Formanek with his group Elusion Quartet. Titles such as “The New Normal”, “This May Get Ugly”, and “The Soul Goodbye” speak loudly about our current political predicament. That said, it’s hard to imagine music being made since November 2016 to be anything but glum.
The seven Formanek originals on the album also exude a density and complexity, all while leaving ample room for this top-shelf ensemble of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and percussionist Ches Smith to freely emote and explore, in a way not dissimilar to Coltrane Quartet’s “Alabama” … as they do on the album opener “Down 8 Up 5”.
Serious times call for serious measures and bearing witness and commiserating are crucial first steps in exacting socio-political change. Formanek and company have done so with their art at the absolute highest level on Time Like This and for that, this listener is most appreciative.
Devin Drobka’s Bell Dance Songs – Amaranth (Shifting Paradigm Records)
Not only is Amaranth Milwaukee drummer Devin Drobka’s debut album as a leader, it is also an impressive showcase for his adept writing and versatile playing. Released on the Minneapolis label, Shifting Paradigm Records, this is a collection of effective compositions deconstructed with inspired improvisation, making for a sound that isn’t quite like anything out there today.
Drobka’s group Bell Dance Songs weaves a tapestry of sonic goodness that resides primarily outside of the constraints of time keeping. The triple sax threat of Chris Weller, Patrick Breiner, and Daniel Blake absolutely tear it up and then sew it back together again with the acumen of a somewhat incensed but highly skilled fiber artist. Boston bassist Aaron Darrell completes the rhythm section with Drobka and is the anchor by which the ship escapes the tempest of raging waters.
On Amaranth, close friends gathered to make art that is meaningful to them. I hear a love for the music and between the musicians that is both pleasing and refreshing. More of this, please.
Jakob Bro – Bay of Rainbows (ECM Records)
The music of Danish guitarist Jakob Bro is an exquisite dance and it is never bettered than when the consummate master Joey Baron is behind the drums, especially with a pair of brushes (or anything really…or nothing) in his hands. As on 2016’s stellar Streams, this is the case on Bay of Rainbows, the new live album by Bro’s trio, rounded out by Bro’s “musical soul mate”, rock solid bassist Thomas Morgan.
To take the surface simplicity of this music as anything short of entrancing would be a mistake: what is not played by these three most astonishing listeners is of far greater importance than what is actually played. The tune selection is wonderful and is from Bro’s ever-growing arsenal of originals, going as far back as his independent releases from the late aughts, Balladeering and Pearl River.
The album is named after the deed to a plot of land on the moon given to Bro’s infant daughter, in Latin called Sinus Iridum…a fitting title for a collection of celestial and transcendent sounds at which to marvel from afar.
Master Oogway – THE CONCERT KOĀN (Clean Feed Records)
Master Oogway is the elderly and wise tortoise and now resident of the spirit realm who created the ancient martial-art of king fu and is responsible for the maxim “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift; that is why it is called the present”…he is also the inspiration for the name of a collective of four Norwegian musicians responsible for one of the more satisfying releases of 2018, The Concert Koān.
Saxophonist Lauritz Lyster Skeidsvoll and electric guitarist Håvard Nordberg Funderud take turns artfully disrupting stasis alongside the telepathic and sometimes psychopathic rhythmic propulsions of Karl Erik E. Horndalsveen and Martin Mellem, double bassist and drummer respectively. It’s not all shrapnel and smoke though: on the substantial “Mørk Materie”, one is lulled into thinking that the time has come to settle in for some typically Scandinavian blissed-out action, but pleasant as it is, the letup is only fleeting as the pummeling vibe returns with a welcome vengeance.
This is a terrific record to ready oneself for the hopeful catharsis of election day 2018, America, due in no small part to Funderud’s ferocious guitar tone and playing, at times reminiscent of McLaughlin’s work with Lifetime or Ribot’s Shrek project. I am very much looking forward to hearing what the future has in store for him and for Master Oogway.
Satoko Fujii and Alister Spence – Intelsat (Alister Spence Music)
On the staggering ninth of twelve 2018 releases celebrating Japanese pianist and composer Satoko Fujii’s 60th birthday, she has rung in another year of fruitful musical explorations in top form! The effect of Intelsat, a duo with Australian keyboardist Alister Spence, is situated along the lines of Musique concrète and film noir: intricate mystery leads to great wonderment.
The material is culled from a September 2017 performance at Intelsat Jazz Club in Kiracho, Nishio, Japan, and evidences a workout for the improvisational instincts that these two adventurous performers have in abundance. Both Fujii’s piano and Spence’s Fender Rhodes are dutifully prepared for maximum expressivity that makes for, at times, a totally alien soundscape.
When two musicians from somewhat disparate scenes convene, one never knows quite what one will get. While this is not Fujii and Spence’s first duo performance together, it is their first duo release. The reason that this improvisation works is the same reason that it always works: the musicians are actually listening. Here’s to more actual listening and more duets between these two!