Updates, Not Throwbacks

Gypsies and Jews, Afro-Cubans and avant-gardists, led by two smashing piano players

Pick Hits

MATTHEW SHIPP
Harmony and Abyss
Thirsty Ear

Shipp's early records were minimal affairs, often duos where he would project long melodic lines like Bud Powell swept into the avant '90s. Until he hooked up with Thirsty Ear he never showed much interest in rhythm, but working for a rock label brought out his inner David Bowie as he veiled his increasingly percussive play behind horn leads. This one is the breakthrough he advertised on Nu Bop and promoted on Equilibrium, because finally the masks are gone: no horns, no vibes, just a piano trio plus programmer Chris Flam. Shipp's piano (or synth) is always up-front, the pieces are all differentiated by rhythm, and the rhythms are as diverse as Shipp's melodic lines once were. A

DON PULLEN
Mosaic Select[1986-90]
Mosaic

Pullen had a gimmick: he would turn his hands over and smash out huge clusters of notes with his knuckles. It was an astonishing sound, and he could produce it long enough to take your breath away. But it was less a gimmick than the ultimate example of his unprecedentedly physical attack on the piano. He built up harmonies with explosions of dissonant color and rhythmic complexity, as fast as Art Tatum with his curlicues. But he died in 1995, at 51 neither a shooting star nor a living legend, and his records have vanished—especially the eight he cut for Blue Note from 1986 until his death. This limited edition squeezes the first four onto three CDs. The first two are quartet albums with r&b-flavored saxophonist George Adams. Both are rousing, especially the first. The next two were trios, where the focus is even more squarely on his piano. He was also the most interesting organist to emerge since Larry Young, and his later Ode to Life is poignant and moving. But this was the pinnacle of his pianistic power. A

RABIH ABOU-KHALIL
Morton's Foot
(Enja/Justin Time)

The Lebanese oud master's albums shift as jazz collaborators come and go. Tarab features Selim Kusur's nay flute and is in the improvisational tradition of Arab music, while Charlie Mariano's alto sax turns Blue Camel into his most cosmopolitan showcase. This mostly Italian band showcases a new mix: with accordion, tuba, and clarinet it sounds gypsy (meaning a genre, not the ethnic Rom), while Gavino Murgia's traditional Sardinian vocal style can be taken for doo-wop. A MINUS

GERI ALLEN/DAVE HOLLAND/JACK DEJOHNETTE
The Life of a Song
(Telarc)

The achievement here is sonic as well as musical. Holland's bass line has rarely been rendered so clearly. It is the center of the universe, the pulse all heavenly bodies orbit around—even the Detroit horn players who crash the trio on the last cut, a serenade for Mal Waldron. A MINUS

STEVEN BERNSTEIN
Diaspora Hollywood
(Tzadik)

What if the Jews who scored '40s Hollywood movies and the Jews who chilled West Coast jazz in the '50s had reached deeper into their ethnic legacy? That's the concept here: traditional pieces played soundtrack-style not as social music but for atmospheric effect. Special treat: X drummer D.J. Bonebrake on vibes. A MINUS

BIG SATAN
Souls Saved Hear
(Thirsty Ear)

Tom Rainey's perpetually broken time gives this trio a lurching stutter step that Tim Berne's abstract sax only renders more cartoonish. Marc Ducret's guitar provides the sinew that keeps the works from flying apart, and fills in stretches of relative calm when his cohorts take a breather. Berne's albums always hew close to the edge. It's a pleasure to hear one that doesn't crash. A MINUS

CHICAGO UNDERGROUND TRIO
Slon
(Thrill Jockey)

The first cut is acoustic, with Rob Mazurek's cornet racing over a fast beat. The second is electronic, a fractured beat with the cornet providing a bare wash of color. The rest work between those poles, with the electronics more prevalent, but the real kick coming from the cornet soaring over Chad Taylor's drums. Synthesis isn't the point; why be "underground" if not to experiment? A MINUS

DENIS COLIN TRIO
Something in Common
(Sunnyside)

An update, not a throwback to the black power jazz of the early '70s. The trio is French; the instruments are bass clarinet, cello, and zarb; the lead song is Wyclef Jean's "Diallo." But black power is the spirit. Most songs have vocals: rappers, soul sisters, gospel group. They play Hendrix ugly, Stevie Wonder sweet and sour; they channel Coltrane, Rollins, Shepp, John Gilmore; they go Pan-African to Beaver Harris. If the years haven't blunted anger at injustice, that's because they haven't blunted injustice. A MINUS

SATOKO FUJII QUARTET
Zephyros
(NatSat)

Her crashing entrance shows why she gets compared to Cecil Taylor. Then she backs off and lets the band do some work. Propelled by Takeharu Hayakawa's electric bass, the rhythm section was built for speed. But husband and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura prefers to wax lyrical even when surrounded by chaos—which gives this music a touching voice on top of the finely drawn manga violence of Fujii's piano. A MINUS

JERRY GONZALEZ
Jerry Gonzalez y los Piratas del Flamenco
(Sunnyside)

In the flamenco that Gonzalez encountered when he moved from New York to Madrid he found a third ingredient to add to his fusion of rumba and Monk. The old world is evident in Nino Josele's guitar and Diego El Cigala's vocals, but the beats sound Afro-Cuban. This record came from a rehearsal tape, with most tracks limited to two or three musicians. One is just conga and cajon; others muted trumpet, guitar, and percussion. And, of course, Monk goes flamenco, with hand claps. A MINUS

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