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Jazz for January

By Josh Potter

Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra

We Are MTO (MOWO Inc.)

Ever since Tonic, the hub of the downtown New York City jazz scene, closed two years ago, musicians like slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein have been forced to improvise in more logistical ways. Paradoxically, homelessness has sparked in this scene some of its most creative work. However, far from the punk-jazz freakout that his other band, Sex Mob, deliver, Bernstein’s nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra are an adventure in tradition. It’s Bernstein the arranger who asserts himself most prominently on this one, offering only one original track (the title track) amid a host of tasty covers. Relying on the blues in a time when most progressive jazz musicians spurn it, the band shuffle and cakewalk in a way that sounds surprisingly relevant despite the clear nostalgia. Insistent without sounding urgent, mournful without sacrificing humor, they establish (and maintain) a sepia-toned mood that might just get young hipsters Lindy Hopping with their grandparents.

Fight the Big Bull

Dying Will Be Easy (Clean Feed)

The fact that Steven Bernstein gave this Virginia nonet his stamp of approval should say a lot about both their compositional merits and ability to stretch out. Building from a crepuscular vamp, the big-band formula on Dying’s title track opens to frenetic soloing from brass and distorted guitar. Far from a free-for-all, each piece is punctuated by horn charts that recall Sketches of Spain, but with considerably more groove orientation. Clarinet and tenor sax temper the trumpet-and-two-trombone brass assault, and lend a surprising degree of delicacy to the mix. For long stretches, certain songs unfold over simple clave and hand-clap patterns, infusing an element of air into the large ensemble. If the album calls to mind images of matadors dodging snorting toros, don’t consider it a coincidence.

The Bad Plus (joined by Wendy Lewis)

For All I Care (Telarc/Heads Up)

When the first few lyrics to Nirvana’s “Lithium” arrive—that’s right, the trio have a vocalist on board for this one—it seems like a proper fuck-you to all the naysayers who have over the years called the Bad Plus’ propensity to cover pop music “gimmicky.” (Jazz critics seem still to be reeling from their 2003 rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) As the disc proceeds, however, it becomes clear that this is a strict exercise in interpretation. Heart, Yes, the Bee Gees and Wilco are all covered in a fairly perfunctory fashion with Wendy Lewis offering a deadpan vocal treatment not unlike what you could imagine Terry Gross sounding like if she were to sing. There are certainly some gems, like Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” and the one-two punch of Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon” set beside “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” by the Flaming Lips. The effect, however, is precisely what the band have tried to avoid throughout their career: The novelty of the song selection trumps the musicians’ virtuosity. The only time we get a taste of the band’s chops is on early avant composer Milton Babbitt’s notoriously “unplayable” piece “Semi-Simple Variations.” It’s just enough to make you wish the band would stick to their own great compositional strengths.

Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra

Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey)

Cosmic exploration has been a motif in free jazz ever since musicians started chucking chord changes. Trumpeter Bill Dixon was there when Sun Ra took his Arkestra out to Saturn’s icy rings, and even lent his horn to projects with Archie Shepp and Cecil Taylor, but rather than making like a comet, Dixon spent the bulk of his career teaching at Bennington College. The 83-year-old literally came out of the woods to work on this project with the Chicago-based Exploding Star Orchestra. The 24-minute centerpiece “Constellations for Innerlight Projections” is abutted by two 18-minute bookends, and was conceived as the soundtrack to a film projected from seven laptops. Damon Locks, singer for another Chicago band, the Eternals, opens the piece by reading what function as operating instructions: “The sound is the image/The notes are the cosmic debris/Push from the center into space/The center is you.” In a manner far more listenable than the voyages of other celestial musicians, the ensemble cobble chaos into constellations that frame Dixon’s searching horn with spatial motifs more common to electronic music. The effect is smooth and majestic, never smarmy like some of Miles Davis’ more atmospheric pieces, although it’s just as transportive.

Lafayette Gilchrist

Soul Progressin’ (Hyena)

When a national publication dubs an artist the “heir to Thelonious Monk,” as Entertainment Weekly did for this young Baltimore-based pianist, it can either be a blessing or a curse. While it’s true that Gilchrist’s playing and horn arrangement bear the indelible angularity of the aforementioned bebopper, the comparison fallaciously omits the influence of about 50 years worth of music. As the title to this one suggests, Gilchrist’s music is above all soul-centric. The title track connotes more Les McCann than Monk, and most of the other uptempo numbers move more like funky fusion than swinging bop. The comparison is most apt on the one solo ballad, “Uncrowned,” that stands for Gilchrist as “’Round Midnight” did for Monk. He’s at his best, however, when supporting his perfectly rowdy horn section. “Those Frowning Clowns” is the track to throw on repeat.

Avishai Cohen Trio

Gently Disturbed (Sunny Side)

Of all the above musicians, Avisahi Cohen is, most likely, the only one you’ll see grace the cover of Downbeat. The Israeli bassist has been heralded as a wunderkind for some time, first cutting his teeth with the Chick Corea Sextet. At the helm of his own trio and record label, Cohen is rapidly earning his place as a virtuosic bassist-composer in the vein of Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland. Unabashedly acoustic and straight-ahead, his compositions reach in directions uncommon to the mainstream. A fractured quality runs through even the most tender ballads. Never flaunting of his virtuosity (of which there is plenty), Cohen writes melodically and performs similarly. Everything on this disc remains decidedly in-bounds, but this turns out for the better. Cohen gives the cerebrum plenty of puzzles without neglecting the heartstrings.





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