From The Stacks 2011, Vol. 3: Michel Reis, Pitom, Rhys Chatham, Ken Peplowski, others

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Rhys Chatham: The Man With The Horns. Many, many horns.

It might be only the third Stacks so far this year, but it’s a much overdue one. There’s a whopping seven 2011 releases discussed here, with several other worthy ones being pushed back to a later fourth installment.

Two of these albums are by veteran acts, but the remaining five capture five budding talents at or near the beginning of their recording careers as leaders. Some are already poised to expand the jazz vocabulary, while others are doing a good job of keeping the current language of jazz strong and vital. As we range from the mainstream to the mad, it’s not likely that all of these would run in your tastes, even if you’re already a big jazz fan. Such is the big tent that makes up the idiom these days. Now, if we can only get more fans to come inside that tent, so they can enjoy the sounds and surprises of records like these …

Michel ReisPoint of No Return: It’s not everyday we get to discuss musicians from Luxembourg, but we’re off to a great start in examining the musical talents of the young pianist Michael Reis. Though he earned advanced music degrees at Berklee and the New England Conservatory, learning under Joanne Brackeen, Joe Lovano, Ran Blake and Danilo Perez, Reis maintains a very Euro flavor in his composing and playing styles. Each of these nine songs are his, and all contain strong harmonic components that attest to European classical music influence, flowing naturally and reveals more of itself with each listen. Yes, Reis leaves much space for improvisation, but improvisation that extends as a matter of course from the melody. He begins with a base trio of himself, bassist Tal Gamlieli and drummer Adam Cruz, adding in flugelhorn player Vivek Patel and soprano saxophonist Aaron Kruziki where needed. Reis’ piano personality is both delicate and full-bodied, and occasionally bold. It’s hard to pick the best tracks, because I don’t ever find myself struggling to get through any of them, but “The Power Of Beauty,” “Street Of Memories” and the title cut might stand out just a tad over the rest. Only his second album, Reis’ Point Of No Return is very consistent, pleasing, and deep.

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Eddie MendenhallCosine Meets Tangent: From a second effort to a first one. Mendenhall has played piano since the age of four, was performing Beethoven and Schumann by eight and earned scholarships at Berklee. The fast start for this former prodigy has culminated in his first album, Cosine Meets Tangent. The record brings me back to the Bobby Hutcherson records I used to listen to back in the eighties: a retreat from the boundary-pushing stuff he did for Blue Note in the 60s, but very competent, well performed vibes/piano jazz nonetheless. Unlike Hutcherson, Mendenhall goes without the sax player, but his interactions with Mark Sherman’s vibes combine to form a tone-rich front line, and when Mendenhall plays alone, you can detect echoes of Mulgrew Miller and John Hicks in his approach. Bassist John Schifflet and drummer Akira Tana round out the quartet. The young leader works out his Berklee degree in Jazz Composition, writing eight of the ten tunes, and all are solid if not especially memorable; occasionally, there are some challenging ones like “Blues for Yokohama” and “Rin Ki Ou Hen.” For a first effort this is overall a very professional, smooth and frequently energetic outing. Cosine Meets Tangent, by Miles High Records, came out on February 15.

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Rhys ChathamOutdoor Spell: This former student of LaMonte Young used to layer guitars. These days, he’s layering trumpets. Many trumpets. The long-time post minimalist veteran explores drones and microtonal soundscape creations using not state of the art electronics, but the overall effect is about the same. Like a poor man’s atonal Jon Hassell, Chatham explores the full tonal palette of the trumpet all at once, helping to create a din that’s not just eerie, but rich, too. The eighteen minute long “Crossing The Sword Bridge Of The Abyss” even prominently includes what is essentially spitting through the horn without making any notes, emitting a strange percussion effect. On “Corn Maiden’s Rite,” actual percussion is used in the form of Beatriz Rojas’ cajón. The final of the four tracks “The Magician” adds and electric guitar and drums and somewhat less trumpet overdubbing, bringing the song closer to an actual group improvised performance, and is an indication of Chatham’s punk rock inclinations. To be released April 12, Outdoor Spell will come courtesy of Northern-Spy Records.

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Ken PeplowskiIn Search Of…: When trad and swing jazz tenor or clarinet is called for, Ken Peplowksi is the man. Having played in Glenn Miller’s ghost orchestra as well as Benny Goodman’s comeback big band of the 1980’s, Peplowski has made some thirty records of his own, mostly for the Concord label. He has continued to work lots of dates, including for Mel Tormé, Charlie Byrd and this recent one by Bill Cunliffe and Holly Hoffman. Now comes another one by Peplowski called In Search Of…. This is a enjoyable, no-frills collection mostly performed by Peplowski’s quarter of himself, Shelly Berg (piano), Tom Kennedy (bass) and Jeff Hamilton (drums). For the first nine tracks, this crew runs through a set of originals and covers that swing lightly, sometimes recalling small group jazz of the 40s and 50s that was largely unaffected by the bop movement. It’s also more whimsically inclined: “When Joanna Loved Me” and “A Ship Without A Sail” are perfect companions to a romantic dinner. The last three tracks come from an earlier session with different sidemen; George Harrison’s “Within You And Without You” with Chuck Redd’s vibes and Greg Cohen’s bass is a surprise selection, but Pepolowski demonstrates how adaptive the clarinet is to more exotic sounding melodies. Out since March 15, In Search Of… is Peplowski’s second for Capri Records.

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Ben KonoCrossing: Fluent in saxophone, flute, English horn, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet and shakuhachi (a sort of Japanese flute), Ben Kono hadn’t had trouble finding work in various jazz orchestras, including three of the best operating in New York these days: John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, Ed Palermo’s Big Band and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. All that work (and fun) he’s had playing in these outfits has conspired to push back his recording debut, and at forty-three years old, it’s finally here. Crossing has all the hallmarks of a first record that was many years in the making. Kono’s pieces are thoroughly composed, featuring intricate meter shifts and harmonic sophistication that are more typical of a big band, not the sextet he employs here. His choice of sidemen also indicates a deliberate effort: Henry Hey on keys, Peter McCann on guitars, John Hebert on bass, Hollenbeck on drums and percussion and Kono’s wife providing a french horn and some wordless vocals. Kono’s composition moves from modern jazz (“Tennis”) to chamber jazz (“Shadowdance”) to contemporary, fusion-ish jazz (“Common Ground”, live video below) and even a Pat Metheny Group sounding tune (“Castles and Daffodils”). The wide-ranging epic title tune traverses over nearly all of these territories within one song. It took a while for my ears to adjust to the album as a whole; the Third Stream pieces can’t be appreciated the same way as the looser, more contemporary performances can. Nonetheless, Kono made an album that captures his rangy abilities as a composer, leader and multi-instrumentalist. Crossing is a 19/8 Records release out since February 22.

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Billy Bang/Bill ColeBilly Bang/Bill Cole: This live performance from 2009 recalls the Wadada Leo Smith/Ed Blackwell performance released last year as The Blue Mountain’s Sun Drummer, because it’s a duet of avant garde jazz masters performed at a college auditorium. The Smith/Blackwell remains the better performance overall in my opinion, but the Bang/Cole record has the upper hand in terms of variance and unpredictability. This is due partly to half of the six performances being improvised on the spot by the two and Cole swapping out one exotic wind instrument for another for nearly every song. Billy Bang, on the other hand, sticks with his trusty violin throughout. For the first improvisation, Cole plays an Australian didgeridoo, and the drone pipe creates a ghostly buzz; Bang manages to locate where Cole was going with the song and improvises effectively around it. “Shades Of Kia Mia” is lifted from Bang’s Vietnam and features him more prominently, but Cole’s nagaswarm provides a intensely reedy tone played unhurriedly, countering and combining with Bang’s more urgent lines. For Cole’s “Poverty Is The Father of Fear,” Cole uses a suona, which emits a high-pitched reedy noise that he blends in with Bang’s violin to create a tribal sound. “Jupiter’s Future” stands out in this set for its well-defined theme and Bang inserting quotes from familiar songs (“Take The A Train,” “I’ve Got Rhythm”) throughout a mostly dissonant solo stretch. The meeting of these two whack jazz masters holding little back is a real treat for fans of both of them.

Purchase: Billy Bang Bill Cole – Billy Bang Bill Cole (when available)

PitomBlasphemy and Other Serious Crimes: John Zorn declares that “this [is] a fiery and soulful CD that you will listen to again and again.” Granted, Pitom is signed to his Tzadik Records label, but when Zorn gushes over a record, you ought best pay attention if you like that whacked out avant garde stuff. Pitom, as are most of Tzadik acts, brings Jewish music out to the experimental cutting edge, but unlike other such acts we’ve put on ear on in the past, it’s not entirely accurate to call this klezmer jazz. Founder, composer and guitarist Yoshie Fruchter’s brand of Jewish music is about 60% grunge/punk/noise rock 30% traditional Jewish music and the rest elements of jazz, whack jazz and even surf rock. Of all the attempts I’ve heard to insert Jewish music forms into rock, this is most successful, to the point of making the two incompatible forms sound made for each other. Accompanying Fruchter are Jeremy Brown (violin, viola), Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz (bass) and Kevin Zuber (drums). Brown’s stringed instruments never let you forget the Hebrew roots, while Fruchter’s heavy guitar won’t allow you to forget the punk stance. But the rhythm section is what gets those Semitic grooves going; Blumenkranz in particular is a force and his lead lines on the title cut are other-worldly. Out since February 22, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is the second release by Pitom.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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