AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Gebhard Ullmann / Steve Swell / Hilliard Greene / Barry Altschul – We’re Playing in Here? [No Business Records NBLP 149]; Kirk Knuffke & Michael Bisio – For You I Don’t Want to Go [No Business Records NBCD 158]

“We’re playing in here?” is something every improvising or experimental musician must’ve said at some point, given the all-too-often unavoidably shoestring-run venues that tend to host the music. It’s also the name of an album of impeccable contemporary acoustic jazz by the quartet of saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullman, trombonist Steve Swell, double bassist Hilliard Greene, and drummer Barry Altschul.

The album’s five tracks, all but one of them written by Swell, strike a balance between free flights of solo improvisation and tightly scored melodies for ensemble. The post-bop swing of the opener Planet Hopping on a Thursday Afternoon leads to La Mariposa, a feature for Ullmann’s vocal-like acrobatics on bass clarinet. Like Ullmann, Hilliard on this track reaches into his own instrument’s upper register, which he plays with a beautifully clear articulation. Sketch #4, the third track, is like the first track driven by Altschul’s propulsive swing, but at a higher velocity. The title track moves from an opening gambit of extended technique for trombone—air notes and other unpitched noises—into a loosely structured, collective polyphonic improvisation that culminates in an unexpected unison melody. The final piece, Ullmann’s Kleine Figuren #1, is a high-energy piece that includes a long-lined melody and a solo for Altschul. Superb music from four superb musicians.

No Business has another release of high-quality acoustic jazz with For You I Don’t Want to Go, a duet of cornetist Kirk Knuffke and double bassist Michael Bisio. The recording consists of a single 37 minute-long track that flows seamlessly from a free improvisation to Knuffe’s composition For You I Don’t Want to Go, back to a free improvisation and then into Bisio’s composition Sea Vamp. The playing is energetic and thoughtful, moving the music along with a momentum that never lags. Knuffke and Bisio complement each other well over the course of the performance’s many evolutions, with Bisio’s rapid pizzicato put on particularly prominent display.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: The Sam Rivers Trio – Ricochet [No Business Records NBCD 128]

From the beginning, multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers’ trios of the 1970s featured bassists and percussionists of exceptional quality. On his freely improvised excursions of the time, Rivers was joined by musicians like Richard Davis, Cecil McBee, Arvil Anderson, Norman Connors, and Warren Smith. But it was Rivers’ double bassist and percussionist of the mid-to-late 1970s trios that many consider to make up the classic free trio rhythm section: Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. On Ricochet, the third entry in No Business Records’ superb Sam Rivers Archive Project, they are featured on a performance recorded at San Francisco’s legendary Keystone Korner on 12 January 1978.

Ricochet’s single track captures the seamless flow of the group’s nearly hour-long, continuous performance. The piece is structured as a typical Sam Rivers Trio set, with Rivers moving from one instrument to the next while maintaining a running dialogue with bass and drums. In addition, both Holland and Altschul get ample solo space of their own. The performance launches with Rivers’ acerbically bright soprano saxophone, followed by an interlude for solo bass, a piano section, a cello interlude, a tenor saxophone section, a percussion solo, and finally a section for flute. The energy level is especially high, as is brought out in the recording’s mix which puts Rivers and Holland both to the front. Holland in particular is shown to be a motive force in structuring the flow of the music as he centers Rivers’ solos with rapid walking lines and rhythmically dense repeated figures. The Keystone set was done at a time when he was playing cello; his long cello solo between the piano and tenor saxophone sections is exciting for its forward motion and for its introduction of a new voice into the set. The subsequent extended interplay between the cello and Rivers’ kinetic tenor lines is intriguing for the way the two instruments converge in range and diverge in timbre. As is typical of his work with the Rivers trios, Altschul brings a restless, abstract swing to the table; his playing is volcanic throughout.

That January night at the Keystone the Sam Rivers Trio played cathartic music of an especially high order; surely this has to be among the Rivers-Holland-Altschul trios best performances.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Recent Releases from NoBusiness Records

NoBusiness Records, the Lithuanian label that specializes in reissues of adventurous jazz from the generation of the 1960s and 1970s as well as new improvised music in the jazz tradition, approaches the year’s end with a clutch of releases highlighting unusual instrumental ensembles.

First is Zenith, the second installment in the label’s essential Sam Rivers archival release series. Zenith is a live recording made at the Jazztage Berliner 1977 with an unconventional quintet of Rivers on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piano; Dave Holland on double bass and cello; Joe Daley on tuba and euphonium; and both Barry Altschul and Charlie Persip on drums. The quintet was a subset of the larger orchestra Rivers brought to Europe; this may have been their only performance together as a quintet. And an intense performance it is: a single, 53-minute improvisation that establishes and maintains a high energy level throughout. The two drummers mesh well and don’t overwhelm the rest of the group; Holland and Daley, who developed a finely-tuned working relationship in the Rivers quartet during this period, complement each other well and avoid any redundancy of line or color in the lower registers. Rivers’ playing is explosive and inspired, which is no surprise in light of the rich textures his bandmates weave.

Reptiles is a recording of the Israeli trio Bones, comprising bass clarinet (Ziv Taubenfeld), double bass (Shay Hazan), and drums (Nir Sabag). While the pianoless saxophone trio is a well-established configuration within jazz, the pianoless bass clarinet trio is less so. Bass clarinet and double bass are known for being among the quieter instruments in any ensemble but on this raw, forceful recording they show a more aggressive side. Taubenfeld’s sound tends toward the acerbic while Hazan favors a blunt-edged pizzicato on most of the tracks; Sabag’s free polyrhythms provide the trio with a propulsive push. Odd-numbered tracks are collective pieces, while the even-numbered tracks are solo performances for double bass, bass clarinet, and drums, respectively.

Recorded in an intimate live setting in Yamaguchi, Japan in 1997, The Aiki represents a rare meeting of pianist Masahiko Satoh and drummer Sabu Toyozumi. The two long duets that make up the release are the product of a chemistry that is as deep as it is rarely given occasion to combust, as Satoh’s tightly coiled, knotty lines find a fine foil in Toyozumi’s muscular excursions ranging over the entire drum kit. If the pairing of piano and trap drums implies a relatively restricted palette of timbres, Satoh and Toyozumi compensate by building their improvisations through a sophisticated use of space and dynamics.

Another recording from the 1990s, Blue Cat is a 1991 session for the quartet of cornetist Bobby Bradford, alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, double bassist Kent Carter, and drummer John Stevens. The four play a finely crafted free swing especially notable for the mutually supportive, motivic interplay of the two horns and solid playing from the rhythm section.

Finally, Brain in a Dish from the trio of Steve Swell on trombone, Robert Boston on piano and organ and drummer Michael Vatcher is a freely improvised collection of eleven pieces that takes Swell’s extended vocabulary of growls, squeals, air notes and buzzes and situates them within a sympathetic and stimulating setting. Particularly intriguing are the pieces for the timbrally distinctive combination of trombone and organ.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Bob Gluck – The Miles Davis Lost Quintet & Other Revolutionary Ensembles (U of Chicago Press: 2016)

9780226180762Until the recent opening of the archives and subsequent series of releases, the 1969 Miles Davis Quintet—the so-called Lost Quintet—was something of a legend, much talked about but rarely heard by itself except on a few hard to get bootlegs: The music world’s equivalent of apocryphal texts concealed in jars in the desert. This quintet–which in addition to Davis included Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette–is now the focal point of Bob Gluck’s engaging narrative history of some of the most innovative American music of the late 1960s-early 1970s.


The Lost Quintet proper only lasted for a single year, from March 1969-March 1970. The group never made a studio recording by itself, although as early as 1968 its members recorded studio material with Davis as elements within larger ensembles—the best known of these probably being the expanded group that recorded Bitches Brew in August 1969, just after the quintet had come off of a European tour. The group was active at a time when Davis famously—or infamously, for some contemporaries—was turning his attention to funk, rock, and the integration of electronic instruments into the basic acoustic jazz ensemble. This turn signaled a significant change in the sound of his music, for while his mid-1960s working quintet of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams had undoubtedly pushed against the boundaries of jazz conventions, the new group, in both its core and expanded versions, would push further still.

The mid-1960s quintet opened up time, using it as an elastic structural element that allowed rhythmic cycles to expand and contract as if they were following the variable measure of the breath, all while maintaining continuity through a steady, underlying pulse and a basic preservation of song forms. By contrast the Lost Quintet brought timbre—at the local level—and texture—at the global level—to the forefront in order to shape performances and to structure improvisations. Consequently, their sound was deeply rooted in a plasticity emerging from the dynamic interaction of timbral forms. The Lost Quintet was able to open up timbre in this way in significant part because of Corea’s innovative use of the electric piano in a predominantly acoustic setting. Through his use of tone clusters, open space, percussive attacks and liberal application of ring modulation, Corea took the instrument and converted it from a conventionally harmonic role to one of providing intermittent blocks and slabs of sound verging on pure, pitchless timbre. Holland similarly explored an expanded role for the double bass, drawing on extended arco techniques as well as a rapid, flamenco-like pizzicato that blended individual notes into abstract, mobile masses.

Whereas the mid-1960s quintet hinted at a dissolution of tonality, the Lost Quintet took the hint and dismantled it, getting as close to free jazz as a Miles Davis quintet would. As Gluck shows, Davis had been paying attention to developments on the frontiers of jazz, particularly those of his former sideman John Coltrane but also those of Ornette Coleman, with whom Davis had a complex, often uneasy relationship marked by a sometimes sublimated, sometimes overt competition for leadership of the new music. Gluck shows that Coleman’s use of collective improvisation was a source of inspiration to Davis, and played a role in the Lost Quintet’s move into open forms. With Coleman’s example before them, the group opened up a creative field that Holland and Corea were subsequently to explore further on their own.


By the second half of 1970, Davis was beginning to move toward music centered on firm rhythms and foundational ostinati. After playing the Isle of Wight Festival with him in August, Corea and Holland left Davis to continue pursuing open form music. Earlier in the year they had gotten involved with the Chelsea loft scene—a mix of free jazz sounds and countercultural ambience centered around saxophonist Dave Liebman and others. There they met and formed a trio with drummer Barry Altschul, with whom they recorded the classic The Song of Singing that April. At the Village Vanguard the following month, Anthony Braxton sat in with the trio, and the quartet Circle was born.

Braxton, originally from Chicago’s South Side, had recently spent time in Europe with fellow members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians such as Steve McCall, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. While overseas he encountered and played with, among others, the avant garde group Musica Elettronica Viva and forged a long-running musical relationship with experimentalist Richard Teitelbaum. Braxton, whose influences included Cage, Stockhausen and Schoenberg as well as Coltrane and Coleman, would bring into Circle a characteristic blend of adventurous improvisation phrased in the angular language of advanced Western art music.

In tandem with Braxton and Altschul, Corea and Holland took the timbral experiments they had been conducting with Davis and pushed them further, albeit now in an acoustic context. In addition to Braxton’s vast collection of reeds of all ranges, the group drew on the disparate sounds of double bass, cello, acoustic guitar, piano played inside the case, chimes and various other tuned and untuned percussion. Combined with its generally open-textured approach, Circle’s instrumental color and chromatic vocabulary gave it the sound of a new music chamber ensemble improvising collectively—although in concert the quartet might also play the standards Nefertiti or There Is No Greater Love.

Circle dissolved after only a year or so, and the 1970s found its four members taking different directions. Corea went on to play more accessible music, eventually forming the successful electric fusion band Return to Forever. Holland and Altschul played for a while in a trio with Braxton and later became the rhythm section for that epitome of stream-of-consciousness collective improvisation, the mid-1970s Sam Rivers Trio. And Braxton focused on developing his own unique system of combining composition with improvisation.


The third group Gluck considers is the Revolutionary Ensemble. This trio of Leroy Jenkins, Jerome Cooper and Sirone (Norris Jones) was—for the 1970s—highly unorthodox in its makeup, its main instrumentation consisting as it did of violin, percussion and double bass. Like Circle, the Revolutionary Ensemble was formed in New York in 1970. Jenkins and Cooper were back from Europe; Sirone had come from Atlanta. The Ensemble made an early connection to Ornette Coleman, holding initial rehearsals in his studio as well as in the studio of visual artist Fred Brown. Here was another parallel to Circle, which had also gotten its start in a loft milieu. Unlike Circle, though, the Revolutionary Ensemble would for the most part remain in the world of lofts and alternative performance spaces like Joe Papp’s Annex and the Mercer Arts Center, the usual commercial jazz venues being largely closed to them. Despite the lack of a professional organization to promote them, though, the Ensemble was active in the New York area, playing on radio programs, giving concerts and even playing a Sunday afternoon date at the Village Vanguard. They also released five recordings between 1972 and 1977, albeit mostly on small labels.

The group’s style of improvisation, which Gluck describes as the “parallel play” of three musicians playing as individuals, was as unorthodox as its instrumentation and marked one of the outer boundaries of open-form playing.  Early releases and recordings of live performances show the group building improvisations from fully independent lines that exploit the pungent, microtonal possibilities inherent in having two unfretted string instruments playing simultaneously. But the Ensemble could also employ walking bass lines and song forms structured by opening melodies played by both violin and double bass in parallel motion.

Of the three groups Gluck focuses on, the Revolutionary Ensemble was the least integrated into the network of relationships making up the economy of jazz at the time. And yet ironically, it was the longest-lived, lasting from 1970-1977 and then reuniting in the early 2000s. During its initial lifetime, the group showed that performers could get their music out through an alternative infrastructure of noncommercial venues and what we now would call DIY spaces. In this respect, it may have had the most lasting relevance for today’s experimental musicians.


Before now, the stories of the Lost Quintet, Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble could be pieced together from scattered and sometimes fugitive sources. Gluck’s book is valuable not only for narrating the collective history of a not-well-enough-known moment in exploratory music, but for describing three different ways of settling the field opened up by 1960s experiments in formal organization and instrumentation. Gluck’s analyses of the differences among the three groups, and of the underlying similarities that nevertheless made them commensurate, are astute and make accessible a music that can place great demands on the listener. The inclusion of a detailed timeline and thorough discography helps to situate these three groups precisely within a time that, in retrospect, was uniquely fecund.

Daniel Barbiero