Give The Cellist Some: Okkyung Lee / Daniel Levin / Peggy Lee / Alexander von Schlippenbach
The cello has become somewhat like the bass clarinet in jazz—there are a significant number of practitioners on the instrument, yet it still wears the flag of rarity quite proudly. Even if it hasn’t been prominent, the instrument still has a long history in jazz, most notably beginning with Oscar Pettiford and Calo Scott in the Fifties and continuing with players like Joel Freedman, Abdul Wadud, Muneer Al Fatah, and Alan Silva in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Four recent discs each display absolutely different approaches to the instrument in this music: transplanted New Yorkers Okkyung Lee and Daniel Levin; Vancouverite Peggy Lee’s highly composed octet; and New Hampshire native Tristan Honsinger, a stalwart of European free improvisation since the 1970s, in chamber trio with longtime associate, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach.
Okkyung Lee – Check for Monsters (Emanem)
Okkyung Lee, born in Korea, has been an integral part of New York’s downtown scene since the turn of the millennium, having played in John Zorn’s Cobra and Butch Morris’ orchestras as well as with experimental and noise figures like Thurston Moore, C. Spencer Yeh and Christian Marclay. Somewhat surprisingly, Check for Monsters is only Lee’s third recording as a leader. She’s joined here by multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford (on piano) and trumpeter Peter Evans on four group pieces. The three players work extraordinarily well as a unit, as each has a clear relationship to both scumbled mass and elegant poise. The short improvisation that rounds out their Roulette set, “Egokrlo-nar,” manifests this perfectly. Beresford plays with Satie-like song fragments and Mikrokosmos clusters as Evans’ breath darts in high arcs and splays out in metallic circular breathing, while Lee is devilishly swooping and percussive. This trio has made scrabbling power into elegant play.
Daniel Levin Trio – Fuhuffah (CF 129)
Daniel Levin’s Fuhuffah is, by all accounts, a true power-trio date, his blood-red double and triple stops, maddening glissandi and spiky exhortations supported by the whirlwind of drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on six originals and a staggering rendition of the folk tune “Hangman.” The title track finds him pulling out most of the stops (pun intended) in his technical palette, yet he’s essentially a “traditional” player. Knocking wood and hushed microtones aren’t particularly part of his language (as they sometimes are with Okkyung Lee or a player like Fred Lonberg-Holm). In saxophonist terms, he’s the J.R. Monterose or Frank Gratkowski to, say, Lonberg-Holm’s John Butcher, and listeners whose mettle is toward intense but lyrical lead instruments over rhythmic waves would do well with Fuhuffah.
Peggy Lee Band -New Code (Drip Audio)
Peggy Lee’s octet falls rather far from the free improvisation tree on New Code, on which she’s joined by luminaries of Vancouver jazz and new music on twelve tunes, including one piece each by Kurt Weill and Bob Dylan. The latter’s “All I Really Want to Do” starts off the set beautifully, and perhaps placing Lee’s approach as an arranger somewhere between the music of Nels Cline and Beirut, via a somewhat Balkan brassy waltz supplanted by wheat-belt guitar twang. “Preparations” pits dust-bowl electricity and ponticello strings against a drifting march that, in its opening statements, recalls Amon Duul’s spaciousness before the tune’s stately head rears itself, lying quietly behind Lee’s tense and dangerous saw. Tenorman Jon Bentley, trumpeter Brad Turner and trombonist Jeremy Berkman each acquit themselves as forces on their instruments, but the twin guitarists tie the music to contemporary rock, which holds Lee’s work tightly between several distinct compositional poles.
Alexander Von Schlippenbach – Friulian Sketches (Psi)
Friulian Sketches is the latest outing from German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, yet this particular trio is clearly tied to a classical chamber lineage rather than anything traditionally “jazz.” He’s joined here by fellow Globe Unity Orchestra conspirators Tristan Honsinger and Italian clarinetist Daniele D’Agaro for twenty short improvisations that, whether due to instrumentation or “feel,” reside firmly in a tradition beholden more to Bartok than Cecil Taylor. D’Agaro’s reed sallies forth with crisp swing and only occasional unruliness, supported by the interlocking rhythmic arcs of cello and piano, lending infectiousness to the uptempo pieces. Honsinger’s “earmeals” and frequent vocalizations root the group’s urgency in madcap energy, or he puckers his lines tersely next to muted piano and chamuleau tiptoe. It’s a wonder that this sort of chamber approach rarely enters the sparser moments of the GUO; perhaps this is a step more firmly in the classical tradition for von Schlippenbach’s music.