Atlas marks the second incarnation of Chicago-based saxophonist Ken Vandermark's Territory Band. Originally conceived as a group of pairs (Jeb Bishop and Axel Doerner on brass; Dave Rempis and Vandermark on reeds; Kent Kessler and Fred Lonberg-Holm on strings; Paul Lytton and Tim Mulvenna on drums) plus pianist Jim Baker, the second version adds Per-Ake Holmander on tuba, Fredrik Ljungkvist on reeds, and the brilliant electronics of Kevin Drumm.
With this beefed-up instrumentation, Vandermark's episodic compositions blossom with fresh textures and a brute strength that pummels the traditional "big band sound." Vandermark has a way of composing that allows his band mates to push their own limits of creativity, patience, and freedom.
Far from being a feature record for Vandermark, Atlas implies its strong group concept through breaking down into various combinations of players and then growing, almost to the point of bursting, before breaking down again. It is, oddly enough, through this constant shape shifting, this "breathing instrumentation," that you are able to hear the group as a whole entity.
Although this is an intense CD (continuing the Okka Disk concept of "pushing the envelope of Jazz and Improvised Music"), moments like Jeb Bishop's soupy and humorous trombone solo and Kevin Drumm's spectacularly obtrusive electronic blasts on "Neiger" (Vandermark's appropriately titled dedication to Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow) speak to the quirkiness that many of today's avant-garde albums lack.
--- Josh RutnerPengo
A Nervous Splendor
A Nervous Splendor opens with a prayer bell; a call to the heavens that will remain unanswered. For this outing, Pengo's vinyl debut, the Rochester trio's lingua franca seems to be a combination of any or all of the following: sundry folk instruments, feedback, found recordings, burbling electronics, distortion (of instruments and of the recording itself), infrequent drumming, and post-Beefheart garbled vocals.
The LP's artwork incorporates stolen imagery of mid- to late-1970s Africa and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. But not all the pieces of the design puzzle fit together perfectly. Without the Charlie Manson namecheck, the full-color jacket could pass as some sort of African Brass Band thing.
The fact that Pengo has managed to piss so many folks off (myself included) is a testament to the band's willingness to forge ahead as major risk takers in a town where burning bridges can mean the end of your musical life. A Nervous Splendor's highly developed and unique musical language will be shared and enjoyed far outside the most toxic city in America.
--- Dave CrossSlide Hampton and the World of Trombones
Spirit of the Horn
Over the past several weeks it has been difficult to get trombones out of my ear. The same instrument that can grunt its way through a solo is capable of the most beautiful harmony, and poignant melodic tone. Spirit of the Horn, Slide Hampton's latest venture, leaves no doubt that the veteran horn giant is still in top form. The 12 trombonists he's assembled are among the best in the business, including special guest Bill Watrous, David Gibson, Steve Davis, and Benny Powell. His arrangements, of classics like Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," Duke and Harburg's "April in Paris," and contemporary tunes like Stevie Wonder's "All In Love Is Fair," are exquisite.
But the killer is Hampton's arrangement of J.J. Johnson's "Lament." In fact, the voicings here are so irresistible, the same Hampton arrangement is featured on Steve Turre's new album, One 4J. Turre has also assembled an all-star trombone cast, including Joe Alessi and Robin Eubanks (and a great rhythm section with Stephen Scott, piano; Peter Washington, bass; and Victor Lewis, drums). His title tune is a beautiful up-tempo tribute to everyone's trombone hero, J.J. Johnson. It's followed by an equally bewitching Harold Maybern homage, "Mr. Johnson." The album includes no shortage of great tunes by Johnson himself, among them "El Camino Real," "Enigma," "Kelo," and "Shortcake," and his excellent arrangements of tunes like "What is This Thing Called Love?"
--- Ron NetskyMichel Petrucciani
Days of Wine and Roses: The Owl Years 1981-1985
The great French pianist Michel Petrucciani had barely celebrated his 36th birthday when he died of a pulmonary infection in 1999. His career had already stretched over the better part of two decades. Fifteen of the finest tracks from his earliest recordings --- six albums made on the Owl label in the early 1980s --- have been collected into a two-CD set that leaves no doubt about his precocious and formidable talent. On these sessions, some recorded while he was still a teenager, Petrucciani plays with the elegance of Bill Evans, occasionally slipping into flights of fancy reminiscent of 1970s-era Keith Jarrett.
On solo performances of standards like "'Round Midnight," "Prelude to a Kiss," and "My Funny Valentine," Petrucciani's coloration, dynamics, and range are often astounding. The piano becomes an orchestra with deep chords resonating under adventurous solos. His sense of harmony is no less bold; at times you might think you are listening to a piece by Bartók. About half the cuts find Petrucciani in duo or trio settings with some of France's finest musicians. On one, "I Hear a Rhapsody," Lee Konitz joins Petrucciani for a fine performance on alto saxophone.
--- Ron Netsky