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Jazz Changes 

New directions, fresh juice

Wednesday, Aug 26 1998
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However carefully the course is plotted, a balloon can end up in Oz or the Indian Ocean - artists need to be wind-sensitive. Seeing that jazz performers improvise for a living, it's odd how narrowly many of them define their directions. Some, though, turn themselves around and manage to scrape ground in wild new destinations. For example:

For Greg Osby, novelty had become a rut. Until a few years ago, the saxophonist had been typecast as a guy who walked around with an AC plug in his hand, trying to inject some funky electrical current and hip-hop energy into jazz moderne. Truth was, he hadn't been that successful. The connections among the genres seemed to be mostly in his mind, and the jerky angularity of the music sounded forced.

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Then, after the "new traditionalist" acoustic-jazz movement had petered out and there could be no accusation of selling himself to the prevailing trend, Osby unplugged. There's still nothing traditional about his sound, but sympathetic accompaniment and an increasing familiarity with his new path have edged him closer to the "extremely high level of communicative exchange" he calls "zero," as in the Zen notion of "no-mind."

Improbable as it would seem, Osby has finally made his control-freak tendencies work for him. You'd think that his insistence on writing detailed charts for the band on the new Zero would rub against the intercommunication he claims to desire, but the open-minded, exciting young ensemble (keyboardist Jason Moran is 22, drummer Rodney Green 18) really breathes. The suspension-bridge ballad "Ozthetica" achieves an uncompromised beauty; the organ blues "Deuce ana Quota," with its guitar and sax lines bouncing gently against the bass and drums, radiates a stunned stonedness; Moran's rainy piano, Green's seed-sowing drums and Dwayne Burno's viscous bass act as a static storm center for Osby's lightning flashes on "Interspacial Affair."

A lot of the credit rests with Osby's compositions. While he's touted for his sax technique - playing along with his childhood record player, with its inaccurate rotation speed, made him facile in unusual keys - Osby says he thinks like a pianist; so it's natural that he writes well for keyboards. In fact, since his overall conception has changed but his sax methodology hasn't, the most attractive atmospheres on Zero arise when he lays down his horn and lets the band churn. A typical clash occurs when Osby stubs his pointy alto sax into the delicately complex web the band has established on "Savant Cycles" - he almost wrecks the thing. Strange, but the same kind of fragmented lines on "Concepticus in C" blend right into the color scheme when he chooses a lower range for his horn. (Of course, if he wanted to play tenor he just would.) Anyway, Osby, suddenly 37, has picked up the pace along his artistic axis. If he isn't at "zero" yet, he can't be further away than minus-2.

Munich's ECM Records was due for a change of tack. For some 25 years, producer Manfred Eicher had provided the soundtrack for the planet's depressives - misty, low-ceilinged, rhythm-resistant jazz to clean your Mauser by during those long Northern winter nights. And what used to be high tech had begun to look old hat.

ECM was always known for its precision-machined studio sound, but Eicher never let the machines wear stocking caps and smoke animal tranquilizer till Khmer, Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer's session-leading debut. Without sacrificing the sensual despair ECM made famous, Khmer perfectly integrates the kind of up-to-the-minute bass-boost and gargantuan stomp you find all over Hip-Hop Nation and Techno World, and climbs new peaks in the genre-fusion territory Osby left behind.

The trick is that when you add, you must also subtract. An appreciator of world musics and hip-hop, Molvaer has practiced mostly in jazz and rock - he led a Defunkt-style band as early as 1982. And he recognizes that bigness must have its space. Each freestanding, godlike bass boom on the title track is its own reward, carrying more impact than several measures of funky popping; let the trumpet wander around, he figures, keep some sinister rattle stuff going, allow a touch of dulcimer, spare not the reverb, and you possess fullness. And that's just the beginning. The power really kicks in with "Tlon," whose deffening crescendos of bass drum are certifiably scary; distant opium chants and Molvaer's muezzin trumpet bolster the tone of terror. Then it's on to the slogging, bloodshot beat of "Access/Song of Sand I," with classic ECM guitar howl provided by Eivind Aarset. The rest is a hardly less satisfying melange of moods and noises, from the jowly bass beat of "Platonic Years" to the Spanish melancholy of "Phum." Phantasmagorical but always simple, this is music that virtually bypasses the intellect - and strikes somewhere deeper.

The limited-edition American release of Khmer also arrives with a quite unnecessary short CD of remixes by The Herbaliser, Mental Overdrive and Rockers Hi-Fi. While these are listenable, the original tracks, which benefited from considerable hands-on studio involvement by Eicher, are actually more radical. Didn't anybody notice that two of the seven Khmer musicians were credited exclusively with samples and sound treatment? This load was pre-remixed.

The matters under discussion compel us yet again, embarrassing though it may be, to bend the knee before the sepulcher of Miles Davis, who was fusing and cutting up before Molvaer or Osby saw Spot run, and whose Bitches Brew (1970, to be reissued in November with 170 minutes of unreleased material), Aura (recorded with Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg in 1985) and underrated Doo-Bop (with Easy Mo Bee, 1991) remain templates for all this concatenation. But it's significant that when the World Saxophone Quartet genuflect, they do so with spray paint at the ready to scrawl Miles' name backward on the tombstone.

Selim Sivad: A Tribute to Miles Davis is both a departure and a tradition for the WSQ. The quartet (Hamiet Bluiett, David Murray, Oliver Lake and, on this occasion, John Purcell) have rarely recorded with drums, an exception being the fine Metamorphosis, which they laid down with African percussion in 1990. Once again, now with a Miles link through drummer Jack DeJohnette, the kick of African skins promotes high energy. Once again, the WSQ indulge an urge to reconsider an icon. (Past subjects include Duke Ellington and '60s R&B.) And you can tell from the first cut - a tumbling, joyful take on the appropriate "Seven Steps to Heaven" - that they're having a blast.

It's almost as if they were mocking the idea: You mean Miles has been dead seven years, and we're the only ones who haven't done a tribute? A glance at the titles reveals no fewer than three titles from Davis' well-worn Kind of Blue - choices that appear exceptionally lazy until you start to see what the World Sax guys are getting at: Miles has been tapped too often for imitation, too little for inspiration, and they mean to demonstrate that there's no reason to paint images of his perennial fruits when you can squeeze 'em.

"Freddie Freeloader" - oh yeah, how many musicians have freeloaded on Miles' tab? But look what you can do with this easy stroller: big ol' dance beat; African roots acknowledged via thumb piano; blaring, honking horns all over the place. "All Blues"? No quiet meditation, Bluiett's arrangement is all blues, son: Flip the accents around, rev up the percussion and rollick it on out. "Blue in Green" isn't just a melancholy ballad anymore: Purcell's conception, with DeJohnette on piano, gives it passion, rising higher and higher to a coarse, gorgeous yearn of dense harmony. This is the territory where the men of WSQ excel, and where they show their admiration for Davis' most hard-headed work; in the same vein, the static dissonance of "Selim" (originally heard on 1970's Live-Evil), with its waterfall percussion, is the album's best track.

A tribute? No, Selim Sivad is more of a raucous New Orleans wake. Bring Finnegan.

Hamiet Bluiett's trio plays the Jazz Bakery, Wednesday-Saturday, September 2-5.

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