Muscling Up and Rocking Out

Some get by with subtlety, but thrashing ferocity works great too

 Pick Hits

Wolfgang Muthspiel
Bright Side

This Austrian guitarist is hard to characterize. He avoids power chords and single-note bebop runs, and does without a funk lick or even a blues move. He gets a soft, metallic tone, sometimes tweaking it with effects. His early work suggested fusion, but lately he's gravitated toward a kind of chamber music. He cites Bach's lute works, Glenn Gould, and Bill Evans as influences–indeed, he plays more like a pianist than any guitarist I know. Solo offers a detailed exposé of his bag of tricks, but his small-group records are more immediately accessible–Friendly Travelers is an engaging dialogue with drummer Brian Blade. But richer harmonically is this record by his trio, with a pair of twins on bass and drums doing his bidding. A MINUS

Anders Nilsson's Aorta

A second album, Janus, is more varied and virtuosic, with saxophonist Mattias Carlson much more prominent. But this debut stakes guitarist Nilsson's conceptual claim to the mother of all arteries and its pulse of life. Bass and drums thrash as in dozens of Scandinavian post-punk fusion bands, only the fretwork here is something else–fond of power chords, but able to pick around them when he wants, with the sax adding menacing overtone to the flash and finesse. A MINUS

Club D'Elf
Now I Understand

As the name implies, this is less a group than a meeting place, with a website listing more than 100 conspirators beyond a core–bassist Mike Rivard, drummer Eric Kerr, and oudist Brahim Fribgane–that favors fast grooves and world fusion. Special guests abound, with keyb whiz John Medeski, avant-violist Mat Maneri, and turntablist DJ Logic the best-known. My faves are the kids on the reggae track "Just Kiddin'" and the rapper who sounds like Dr. Dooom. A MINUS

Satoko Fujii Four
When We Were There

The high point of her eight albums last year, mostly because the Mark Dresser–Jim Black rhythm section relishes her fusion groove as well as her predominant and wildly varied avant interests. Also because trumpet-playing husband Natsuki Tamura continues to mature as a steadying, lyrical accompanist. A MINUS

Gato Libre
No Man's Land

Ten pieces, named for cities and months of a tour through Europe, with Spanish guitar by Kazuhiko Tsumura and Italian accordion by Satoko Fujii establishing a folkish milieu for leader Natsuki Tamura's plaintive trumpet. Tamura has been working his colors into Fujii's chaotic canvases all along; here, his impressionism flowers. A MINUS

Vijay Iyer + Mike Ladd
Still Life With Commentator
Savoy Jazz

We are living through an era of endless war and atrocity, but experience it as virtual, as sight and sound filtered through media, quarantined from experience, interpreted by commentators. Iyer's programming is appropriately synthetic, chilling Ladd's words, which flit through the ether, not making sense so much as suggesting profundity–an effect heightened when he translates some into Japanese, others into operatic Italian. A MINUS

Steve Lacy Quintet
Esteem [1975]

After 50 prolific years, the soprano sax legend's posthumous career gets under way with widow Iréne A sorting through some 300 private cassettes for a series titled "The Leap." The first installment is a raw and deliciously noisy quintet, with Steve Potts doubling the sax on alto and second soprano, plug-ugly bass and drums, and A herself. I never could stand her arch vocals, but there's acid wit in the cello and violin. A MINUS

Joe Lovano & Hank Jones
Blue Note

Third time's the charm, as they clear away the concepts and clutter–the ballad trough on I'm All for You, the all-star rhythm that made Joyous Encounter routine–and get down to business. Three tricky pieces by brother Thad are highlights, as is Lovano's "Charlie Chan," about a saxophonist Jones made sense of 60 years ago. A MINUS

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Where Mother Tongue looked to natural languages for transformation tricks, this one moves on to ciphers and encodings. More importantly, the leader's post-bop alto sax has matured enough that he can no longer be pigeonholed as one of Coltrane's minions. For once, Vijay Iyer's piano doesn't steal the show. A MINUS

Bob Reynolds
Can't Wait for Perfect
Fresh Sound New Talent

This tenor sax debut reminds me of the young, fighting-weight Ben Webster, suggesting that Reynolds has a great ballad album in the distant future. Main difference is that he grew up on funk instead of swing. Less impressive are one cut on soprano and some synth programming, signs of the overheated times. A MINUS

Sound in Action Trio

Two drummers: Robert Barry from the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Tim Daisy from Triage and numerous Ken Vandermark projects, including the flagship 5. One horn, Vandermark's, constantly on the spot. Half originals, all dedicated to drummers; half modern jazz pieces, with Dolphy offering a clarinet feature, and Coltrane setting up some ferocious tenor sax. A MINUS

David Torn

Rip Torn's cousin played guitar on some fusion albums in the '80s, working with such usual suspects as Bill Bruford and Tony Levin before moving on to soundtrack/production work and the group Splattercell. Here he employs Hard Cell–Berne's trio, with keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Rainey–for a dark, demonic comeback. Berne's alto sax adds bite to Torn's power chords, Taborn juices up the electronics, and the always-superb Rainey muscles up. A MINUS

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