CD reviews

By Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, Mar 12, 2013 - Page 12

Strong Place, Ingrid Laubrock Anti-House, Intakt; Capricorn Climber, Kris Davis, Clean Feed

Ingrid Laubrock, a saxophonist, and Kris Davis, a pianist, share an aesthetic of unsettled calm and unhurried revelation. Together with the drummer Tyshawn Sorey, they make up Paradoxical Frog, a trio that can make free improvisation feel structurally inevitable, like the logical conclusion to a far-reaching argument.

With their own bands, Laubrock and Davis favor a slightly more careful arrangement of ideas, and compositions with discrete parameters. They both like chamber-group dynamics, but shot through with rough texture and a vigilant avoidance of sentimentality. That they appear on each other’s new albums is no surprise: It confirms that their interaction is adaptable as well as sturdy, and suggests that they haven’t begun to exhaust its potential.

Both albums — Laubrock’s Strong Place, released in January, and Davis’ Capricorn Climber, due out on March 18 — feature quintets driven by the alert and sinewy drumming of Tom Rainey, who happens to be Laubrock’s husband. Each album also includes a resident mischief maker with a melodic instrument: on Strong Place it’s the guitarist Mary Halvorson, and on Capricorn Climber it’s the violist Mat Maneri.

On both albums it’s the second track, more than the first, that pulls you in.

The second track on Strong Place is Der Deichgraf, its title a nod to Laubrock’s German origins. The piece opens with a stern rumble of pianism, before the ensemble gives halting chase, and then tapers off into balladic terrain, without relaxing its intensity. (At one point the rhythm drops away to leave only Laubrock, circular-breathing a single note, and Halvorson, playing a wobbled-pitch version of the same.)

Laubrock’s band, Anti-House, has an insistent rhythmic footprint: One track here, From Farm Girl to Fabulous Vol. 1, pushes the idea almost to the point of irritation, with a strobelike repetition assigned to piano and guitar.

But the ensemble, anchored by the bassist John Hebert, also has a way with drift and flow. Cup in a Teastorm (for Henry Threadgill) features Laubrock’s focused meanderings over a garden of exotic chords outlined by bass and guitar; Alley Zen revolves around a swirl of arpeggios played, with lovely impassivity, by Davis.

The second track on Capricorn Climber is Pass the Magic Hat, which begins with a fluid piano solo over an amorphously syncopated groove. Gradually Laubrock enters the picture, and into sync with a melody that briefly surges before its ebb; what follows is a solo by Maneri, slipping through the cracks between tempered pitch. The entire track is an engrossing lesson in ensemble flux, carried out with finesse.

A similar energy spills over into the next track, Trevor’s Luffa Complex, named after the band’s bassist, Trevor Dunn, and featuring an initial melody played on glockenspiel. Several other tracks begin in hazy but thoughtful quietude, only gradually picking up heat and speed.

The quieter moments aren’t necessarily more placid, since Davis is wizardly with tension. And like Laubrock, who also does some serious work on this album, she’s comfortable leaving an open-ended impression.

— Nate Chinen, NY Times News Service

Aquarius, Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal, Delmark

One thing Chicago jazz musicians did really well at a crucial time for the music — the 1960s, after the death of John Coltrane and the serious peak-Motown thinning of the jazz audience — was create mystical art with its feet on the ground. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton: these people did the most unlikely and far-flown things, in composition and presentation, without scoring points off the terrifying or sublime or climactic. It was avant-gardism as an everyday solution, not as an eternally leading question.

For the last few years the flutist Nicole Mitchell has been living on the West Coast, teaching at University of California, Irvine, in the Integrated Composition Improvisation and Technology MFA program. But she lived in Chicago for almost 20 years, eventually becoming president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the cooperative organization that encompassed and defined most of the Chicago experimental jazz scene. And she is mystical for sure, but she’s also internalized some of the association’s other practical lessons: ambition and realness.

Aquarius is the first album by her group Ice Crystal, a quartet with three Chicago-based musicians: the vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, the bassist Joshua Abrams and the drummer Frank Rosaly. It’s smaller concept than usual for her; in her past work, with groups of varying size and sound, there are a lot of suites and big themes, works inspired by the science fiction author Octavia Butler and the first lady, Michelle Obama, and the planet Earth.

This record, by contrast, is more like a day in the working life of a small band: self-contained songs and structures, swinging or free, all representing the Chicago ideal of unassuming art that reaches far beyond its matte finish.

Aside from everything else, Mitchell is an excellent flute player, fast and fluid, hypermelodic, alert to the moment, interested in negative space and breadth of sound. It’s not surprising to hear a jazz flutist influenced by Eric Dolphy; what’s surprising is to hear one who can play at his level, and a few tracks here, particularly Aqua Blue and Expectation, pretty closely approximate the sound of Dolphy with the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson from the 1964 album Out to Lunch! with the rhythm section’s hard midtempo swing.

Adasiewicz has his own versions of Hutcherson’s hard clanks and glassy shimmers; he’s always building a bed of texture for Mitchell to play over, and though she solos more, they turn out to be a team you’ll want to hear more of, one of jazz’s special front-line relationships.

Not every song on Aquarius unfolds so concisely as those, with such clear landmarks. Some, like the title track and Above the Sky, are more like instrumental chants or sun-salutations, with deeper grooves or rustling rubato; others, toward the middle of the album, use various strategies of slow or frenetic movement for collective improvisation; in Diga, Diga, the musicians leave rhythm behind and explore the possibilities of sound — Adasiewicz and Abrams using bows on vibraphone bars and bass strings, Rosaly using hands on drums.

Even when a piece sounds like it’s going to be simple, Mitchell is too rigorous a composer just to set up a cycle of rhythm and chords and yield control. She guides the movement of these pieces into a unity and purpose. Her melodies and arrangements can suddenly bloom and intensify, deep in the middle of a repeated structure, or even toward the end of a piece, when you expect nothing but cruising.

And she pushes her own playing: in Sunday Afternoon, the album’s best argument for her technique, over a shuffle rhythm and a single chord, she makes harmonics and buzzes and vocalizations, getting inside the music rather than showing off above it.

— Ben Ratliff, NY Times News Service