Of the seventy or so albums I was fortunate to review this year (with many still waiting in the wings), the releases below (in chronological order) are those that moved me the most and hence that I remember the clearest, even after a year. The quality of the music is uniformly high, and leaving something off this list was a bit difficult. Of course, reactions to music are completely subjective, so one man's gold is another's lead—your mileage may vary.
Pianist Michael Jefry Stevens
has been involved in many projects in his career over the past forty years. The Generations Quartet
started out as a trio six years ago, consisting of Stevens with his long-time musical partner, bassist Joe Fonda
and newcomer, drummer Emil Gross
. The trio became a quartet with the addition of saxophonist (and Renaissance Man) Oliver Lake
, perhaps best known for founding the World Saxophone Quartet
with saxophonists David Murray
, Julius Hemphill
and Hamiet Bluiett
, the group's latest recording, is a smoking, full-bore live performance recorded at Bunker Ulmenwall in Bielefeld, Germany on October 30, 2015, that can only be described as demonstrating what modern "creative improvised music" is all about and how such music can tap into the heart and mind of the listening audience.
While the music is quite free, this is not "free" jazz, but rather compositions that have some combination of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structure which anchors each individual piece and provides the jumping-off point for the group improvisation.
In the notes, Stevens talks about how originally, young jazz musicians apprenticed with a master and learned by doing, noting that today, while this type of learning still exists, the majority of jazz education takes place in the classroom. Stevens then states his appreciation of being able to work with Lake for the past few years, and how Lake's "dedication, passion and intensity on the bandstand" affected his own playing and the experience of performing.
Of the set's seven pieces, two are by Lake ("Rollin'" and "Flow"), two by Fonda ("Me Without Bella" and "Read This") and three are by Stevens ("Mantra #2," "La Dirge de la Fleuer" and "Coda"). The album is not a set recorded straight through, but rather selected performances from two one-hour sets. Both "Rollin'" and "Flow" end with audience applause and cheers, with the former sounding like the end of a set.
In any case, the music is excellently recorded and the excitement is palpable from the first notes of the ominous and driving bass vamp of "Rollin.'" Fonda is an extremely strong bassist, with a deep, broad tone and drive second to none. Gross immediately shows why Stevens thinks so much of him; his rhythmic propulsion has many colors and he is very responsive to all around him. Stevens' playing balances Fonda by adding sharp chordal commentary to Lake's flights of fancy. Lake is not a "pretty" player, having a slightly acrid tone, and he can get quite free with squeals and such. However, everything he does fits and has a searching intelligence about it that ties the band together. The quartet is not merely front man and rhythm section, but a finely tuned group of strong individuals who combine to create a unique sound.
This exciting, intelligent sound continues with the longest tune, Fonda's "Me Without Bella." Taking its time, the six-minute introduction gradually leads to the tune proper, which has another driving bass vamp, amplified by spot-on drumming. The tension is almost unbearable as Lake and Stevens play the long-lined melody; this is the wonder of the unpredictability of jazz at its best.
Stevens' "Mantra #2" has lower energy initially, but its opening is full of drama and low-burn tension. The melody proper played over this is quite pretty, as is Lake's empathetic improvisation, which Stevens answers with simple elegance, leading ultimately to an enigmatic ending. "Flow" opens with solo Lake, eventually accompanied by the band. Tension and density build in this track which is freer than the others; however, lines, development and movement can most definitely be heard, making the title quite apt. Lake really takes off, with the band following after the midpoint, but again structure can be heard.
There is more of course, but more words will not increase understanding the impact of this music. Recording live, truly improvisatory jazz is somewhat paradoxical, but giving the rest of the world a chance to hear something of what the audience heard is to highly lauded. The Generations Quartet is an extraordinary group, creating in Flow
music of power and grace. Fabulous!