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A Light Beyond These Woods:
My Favorite Jazz Releases of 2001

by Chuck Obuchowski

Thank God for music! No matter how horrible the latest acts of terrorism, how dismal the current war news or how depressed the economy, music-lovers like you and me can always take solace in sounds created by artists who've dared to open their hearts and minds to the world-at-large.
A few thousand-life lessons ago, while suffering from post-relationship heartbreak syndrome, I first heard Nancy Griffith's "There's a Light Beyond These Woods." Heard it on Bill Domler's folk show on WWUH, as a matter of fact -- years before I had any notion of sitting behind a microphone at 91.3 FM. The simple eloquence of Nancy's paean to friendship helped me see "beyond" self-pity and rekindled the ability to perceive my self as part of a loving, supportive community of friends.
I didn't realize it then, but simple eloquence was characteristic of Bill Domler, too. He was a no-bs kind of guy who never hesitated to speak his mind on matters of conscience, regardless of how unpopular his opinion might be with listeners or fellow staff members. Bill died early last year. Our region has lost one of its most impassioned supporters of traditional folk music, and we've all been robbed of the opportunity to hear Bill's bold commentaries about recent threats to our civil liberties, the anthrax scare, etc.
Let's face it -- most Americans couldn't wait to put the past year behind them, as though the act of pinning a new calendar to the wall would somehow erase 9-11's nightmare images from their minds. If only it were that simple... However, continued acts of violence, prejudice and greed in subsequent months have made me more aware than ever of our obligation to promote peace and justice in whatever way we can as individuals.
With that in mind, just how important is it -- in the grand scheme of things -- that I offer my thoughts herein about the jazz recordings issued in 2001, which most impressed me? Well, while I wouldn't be foolish enough to suggest that sharing great music might help the Afghan refugee situation, I really do believe that the performing arts have the potential to positively impact our lives. Not by providing escapist distractions from the madness of terror and war (as that brightly glowing box in your living room so often does) but rather, by presenting us with alternative ways of perceiving our world, and by allowing us constructive, creative opportunities to react to our life experiences. So, listen... and open yourself to joy, healing and transformation!
The following nine (editor's note: I had to cut one short review due to space issues, Chuck will still feature his ten favorites during the soon to be mentioned show) favorites are arranged in alphabetical order by artists' last names; this list reflects my personal tastes and has not been consciously influenced by industry hype, popularity or record sales. In the case of the most obscure items, I have included contact information to help you track down a particular disc, if you so choose. Be sure to listen to Out Here & Beyond, Tuesday, January 8, 2002, 9 a.m.- noon, Eastern on WWUH if you'd like to hear a sampling of the music on these recordings.

Kenny Barron & Regina Carter: Freefall
Verve Music Group

Stunning acoustic duets for piano and violin. Chamber jazz, in the best sense of the term. Barron and Carter are each brilliant technicians, but more importantly on this recital, they project feelings so powerfully together. Right from the start - a searing rendition of "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" - one is drawn in by the beauty and the depth of their musical conversations. The journey also includes transcendent re-creations of music by Monk, Sting, Hodges and Shorter, as well as the demanding impromptu exchanges of the title track.

Marilyn Crispell/Gary Peacock/Paul Motian:
Amaryllis - ECM Records

I was doing my weekly radio show on Tuesday morning, September 11, when I heard about the latest gruesome, sad chapter of man's inhumanity to man. Within minutes, I found myself playing "Requiem" from this exceptional trio release. Perhaps it is unfair to associate this music with that horrific day, but to my ear, many of these improvisations convey quiet strength, a combination of melancholy and grace, that offer the listener a sense of peace. Just a glance at the song titles confirms the contemplative nature of this disc: "Voices from the Past," "Silence," "Circle Dance," "Prayer"...
Crispell's piano playing has never been more lyrical; here, she sets aside the fury of her earlier work in order to explore more subtle spaces. And she'd be hard-pressed to find more attuned collaborators: bassist Peacock and drummer Motian have accompanied Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, some of the most sophisticated pianists of the past forty years.

Dave Douglas: Witness

Dave Douglas illustrates the theme of Witness with a quote by progressive thinker/writer Edward Said: "maintaining a state of constant alertness ... not to let half-truths or received notions steer one along." Unfortunately for the trumpeter, this politically charged recording was issued just days before 9-11. And while its messages of freedom and social justice should be more relevant than ever now, they've been largely drowned out by knee-jerk cries of patriotism, xenophobia and vengeance. Not to mention that the corporation-formerly-known-as-RCA probably decided that marketing this baby might not be p.c. at this time, even though Douglas is one of the last (living) artists on their jazz roster, following a little "house-cleaning" in 2001.
To his credit, Dave does point out in the liner notes that we might "enjoy this purely as music." Indeed, even stripped of its narrative, Witness makes for powerful listening. Douglas has honed his arranging skills and fronts as many as 10 performers on some of these tracks. The only disappointment is a long, meandering tribute to author Naguib Mahfouz. Guest Tom Waits, rasping excerpts of Mahfouz's writings, is buried in the mix, rendering the words completely incomprehensible.

The Charles Flores Quartet: Reminiscence
HeyJon Productions

If there's any justice left in the jazz world (as if there ever was), then bassist Charles Flores will get his due during this new year. In classic "DJ-speak," This album burns! It's hotter - and hipper - than the vast majority of jazz discs that basked in the glow of national attention last year; too bad indie projects like this one are rarely given a listen by the media establishment most fans count on to alert them to new music. And, believe it or not, Mr. Flores, saxman Jonathan Bell and guitarist Rich Goldstein are all Hartford-area residents! Take note, would-be Capitol City music moguls: give these guys some decent gigs before we lose 'em to the Big Apple.
Flores is a native of Cuba, home to numerous legendary bassists. However, his hard-hitting postbop sketches appear to receive as much inspiration from North American role models like Charles Mingus as they do from the intoxicating rhythms of Latin America. By having percussion maestro Horacio "El Negra" Hernandez guesting on the date, Flores assures that the rhythms will be uniformly superb, no matter what their ethnic origins. In fact, this quartet seems capable of doing no wrong: whether serenading the listener with the acoustic guitar poetry of "You Don't Know What Love Is," or smoking through a straight-ahead original like "Stop and Go," they offer a Reminiscence that's hard to forget!
This CD is available at several local music retailers and at most Charles Flores gigs. You may also wish to visit the web site: www.heyjon.com

Martin Fondse Oktemble with Ernst Reijseger:
Ere Ibeji - BVHAAST

During the past several decades, a number of jazz composers have fallen under the spell of the Yoruba culture of West Africa. Julius Hemphill, Chico Freeman and Bill Cole each recorded pieces devoted to the Yoruba peoples. This release by Martin Fondse, a Dutch pianist/composer and bandleader, is the most ambitious and detailed study of the Yoruba that I've yet heard.
But, before you dismiss Fondse as a fanatic student of arcane anthropology, let me say that his octet ("oktemble") has created a thoroughly captivating, unique musical suite. By turns hilarious ("The Joy of Living") and sublime ("Inhale/Exhale"), these compositions stand up very well by themselves, minus the programmatic details provided by the composer. His notes, in fact, add even more emotional weight to the music. Fondse explains that his mother gave birth to twins, but only he survived. His lifelong attempt to come to terms with "the essence of being a lone twin" led him eventually to the Yoruba, who, it so happens, "maintain a very rich and extensive culture regarding twins."
Although most of these players may be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, the improvising on this disc is top-notch. Special guest Ernst Reijseger, one of Europe's greatest improvising cellists, gets the lion's share of solos, but American expatriate Michael Moore squeezes in some fine moments on clarinet, as does Nils Wogram on trombone.
I believe BVHAAST Records are available in the U.S. via North Country Distributors. However, to be sure, you may email them directly at bvhaast@xs4all.nl Martin Fondse has his own web site: www.martinfondse.com

Drew Gress: Spin & Drift
Premonition Records

Bassists, given the supportive role of their instrument of choice, tend not to take to the spotlight as readily as horn players or keyboardists. Further, I suppose if you're lucky enough to be a sideman in high demand - like Drew Gress, for instance - then there may not be a whole lot of motivation to take the risks of leading your own recording session.
On the other hand, if you're as creative a composer and arranger as Gress, then perhaps you realize it's a chance you must take, if you're to be true to yourself as an artist ... at least as often as you can afford to incur the likely financial loss. In this case, it's been three years (Heyday, Soul Note), and Spin & Drift proves well worth the wait. Gress has selected three prominent envelope-pushers with whom he's worked often in his more-usual sideman role: saxist Tim Berne, drummer Tom Rainey and pianist Uri Caine. The results are surprisingly accessible (especially in the case of Berne, who sounds downright melodious on some of these tunes!), while still managing to avoid all the cliches and boredom of the current retro- school of jazz thought.
Premonition Records, based in Chicago, has decent national distribution, but in order to find out more about its catalogue (including most of vocalist Patricia Barber's recorded output), visit: www.premonitionandmusic.com

Kakalla: The Voice of Blood
Weltschmerz Records

Exotic, engaging sounds from six relatively obscure musicians based somewhere in Massachusetts. An independent project, which, like the aforementioned Charles Flores disc, stands head-and-shoulders above 95% of last year's commercially released jazz product, in terms of artistic merit.
WWUH received this recording in August; it still gives me the creeps to hear how it foreshadows the country's post-September 11 mindset. One composition (and the record and publishing companies, for that matter) is named "Weltschmerz," a German word meaning "melancholy weariness of life; sentimental pessimism over the state of the world." A number of the pieces are based on Middle-Eastern and Balkan folk motifs. The title song refers to an ancient Incan sacrificial rite that also seems to have implications for the future of our society. Except for a few passages inspired by folk dances, the moods here range primarily from hauntingly beautiful to dark, probing intensity. Ornette Coleman meets Astor Piazzolla, as sung by Nick Cave and Marianne Faithful.
For more information, visit www.weltschmerzrecords.com or phone (508) 529-4684.

Jason Moran: Black Stars
Blue Note Records

The term "young lion" seems to have fallen out of fashion, but that's ok, because it wouldn't really capture the intellectual essence and artistic boldness of this 20-something pianist. How many guys his age would hire 70-year-old Sam Rivers as a sideman? And how many could successfully collaborate with the iconoclastic reedman? How many young lions would dare play their own tunes side by side with Ellington, and could pull off stride pianistics and Don Pullen-isms with equal aplomb? Listen here, and know the answer: one - Jason Moran.

Michael Occhipinti: Creation Dream
True North/Rounder

The full title of this album is Creation Dream: The Songs of Bruce Cockburn. I imagine more than a few "jazz purists" might bristle at the thought of a jazz guitarist covering the music of a Canadian singer/songwriter. But, come to think of it, the notion of "jazz purism"is a rather odd concept, isn't it? Considering that jazz is the bastard child of a pretty eclectic bunch of musical styles. And considering that jazz, throughout its first century, has frequently turned to folk and popular music for source material and inspiration.
So who's this Cockburn (pronounced "co - burn") person, anyhow? Well, he started off a folkie back in the late 60s-then turned-rocker-turned mystic poet-turned social commentator and misunderstood "if I had a rocket launcher" guy. Nowadays, he's singing Fats Domino, world beat and whatever else he feels like. And how about Monsieur Occhipinti? He's a 30-something jazz guitarist living in Toronto, who co-leads NOJO (the Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra), a 16-piece ensemble with several fine albums to its name (but barely any recognition in the U.S. - that may change soon, however, if WWUH has any say in the matter ... stay tuned for more details ... as we like to cryptically intone from time to time!)
Which leads us back to Creation Dream. Putting aside those bristling purists, I think that a lot of folks might really enjoy this album, if they're ever given the opportunity to hear it. Sadly, you won't have that chance on commercial radio - ol' Bruce himself has a tough-enough time getting U.S. airplay these days, let alone (God forbid!) instrumental versions of his songs performed by even-more-obscure musicians. Musicians like Don Byron, one of the best clarinetists on the face of this planet.
Get this, though: virtually every time I've played a track from Creation Dream during my radio program, at least one listener has called to request more information about the music they've just heard. Some of the people I've spoken with are regular listeners; some consider themselves jazz novices and others jazz fanatics. So there you have it...music for the early 21st century - stealing, begging and borrowing from everywhere to create something new. Same as it ever was. Only different...
For more info about this CD, you may email the record company: trunorth@istar.ca or you may visit the NOJO web site: www.nojomusic.com

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2002

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