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Saturday, 2 April 2011

Reviews: Dave Holland & Pepe Habichuela, Fernando's Kitchen, and WorldService Project

Dave Holland & Pepe Habichuela - Hands (flamenco/ jazz)
Dare2 Records DR2-006, 2010, CD album, 56m 45s, $9.99

When the musics of different traditions collide, sometimes the result is a fusion, as when (to stay in acoustic guitar territory) Rodrigo y Gabriela appropriated some of the techniques of flamenco to their thrash metal based practice, and sometimes the result is an encounter. This is definitely the latter: Dave Holland has come to flamenco humbly, as a student, although he comes as a master musician as well, which is why he is received as an equal and a collaborator by a figure with the stature of Pepe Habichuela.
Habichuela comes from a sprawling dynasty of Sevillano Gypsy musicians (and yes, they like to refer to themselves as Gypsy, not Roma, before anyone jumps down my throat). He has pursued a career as a solo guitarist, which was once a relatively novel thing in flamenco, where cante is the pre-eminent aspect, and the guitar’s traditional role is to accompany it; he is not a stranger to collaborations with jazz musicians, having worked in the past with Jaco Pastorius and Don Cherry, although I’m not familiar with those recordings. There are other flamenco musicians of similar and greater renown, his older brother among them, but Habichuela is one of the real heavyweights.
So what happens when heavyweights from differing traditions make recordings together? In this case, Holland went to Spain, literally and metaphorically. There is no bass instrument in flamenco music, and although I’m sure he would make no claim to have completely mastered this musical tradition in so short a space of time, he has done a very convincing job of exploring what it might sound like if there was.
Holland contributes two compositions to this album, on which the flamenco musicians show themselves adaptable to the non-diatonic tonal harmonies and complex rhythms of music from outside their tradition, and Habichuela performs some stunning single line improvisations. The rest of the time Holland is firmly in the other players’ territory, and aside from the obvious adaptations to flamenco modalities and compás (rhythm), you can hear how this supremely responsive and sensitive musician has adapted his whole approach.
The earthy groove and furious invention of his jazz work is replaced with a breathtaking rhythmic delicacy, and a sweet, stirring lyricism. Holland is obviously a giant among instrumentalists, but I have always admired him most as a bandleader, and as a player that is where his practice is usually contextualised: here, despite his name on the sleeve, he is very much a part of the ensemble, rather than its lynchpin, and this allows him to showcase a (latterly) rarely heard aspect of his musicality. His voice is often prominent, but it is not the point of the music: it is a strikingly colourful thread in the warp of a cloth that is most obviously characterised by the glittering quicksilver of his collaborators.
The sleeve notes don’t say who plays when, but, aside from the two big names, the album features another two guitarists and two cajón/ percussionists. There are typically two guitarists, one percussionist and Holland playing at any one time: Holland’s role is usually to spell out the big stresses of the compás, although there are times, as in the tangos of ‘Subi La Cuesta’, when his rhythmic role allows him to utilise some of his remarkable technical facility. Flamenco is, like jazz, an improvisatory art form, so there are ample opportunities for him to blow, which he does honestly, without attempting to hide his background in jazz, but with a clear understanding of, and pleasure in, the musical materials he is using.
Although it is clearly Dave Holland who has travelled the greater distance, these two spectacular musicians have come to meet each other with a great deal of openness, generosity and mutual respect. You can hear them both smiling broadly through the sounds they’ve committed to disc, which are far more than an exercise in virtuosity, or an experiment in cultural exchange. It is easy for master technicians to rest on their facility, and to unquestioningly reproduce the stylistic gestures of their musical tradition: many great jazz musicians have produced albums of vapid shredding alongside their masterworks. To produce interesting and rewarding musical meanings requires a continual alertness, a refusal to take things for granted; for mere mortal musicians this entails a good deal of compositional thought and creativity, and while such is in evidence here, the real heart of this music is the consistent intensity of passion and commitment with which every note is performed. Not every phrase: every single note. This is some of the most powerful and involving music I’ve heard in a long while, and it is possessed of such rich, deep complexity that I will be listening to it closely for a long time to come.

Fernando's Kitchen - Calle Compás (latin/ flamenco/ fusion)
self released, 2010, CD album, 70m 39s

Fernando’s Kitchen set out their stall with this album’s opener: it’s title, ‘Gitano Moro’ (‘moroccan gypsy’, roughly) points to the origins of flamenco as a fusion music; there’s initially little that departs from tradition, at least to the ears of the uninitiated, but around halfway through the track, the upright bass starts to drop a funky, blues based descending ostinato, and a muted trumpet makes an appearance a little later, playing very much in a jazz idiom. And then the next tune, ‘Krakowska’, kicks off with a heavy tumbao that sounds like Cachaito, and we’re in Cuba. Yes, this is ‘world music’.
I encountered this band while walking across the market place in Cambridge: without seeing them I became aware that the music I could hear was not recorded, and then that it was extremely good. I wasn’t at liberty to watch for long, but I caught two or three songs, bought a CD and continued on my way. With all the time I spend seeking out high quality unsigned music online, it’s very pleasing to discover an accomplished, completely DIY band by randomly stumbling across them in a city I rarely visit.
This album is mainly acoustic guitar, cajón and bass, with some singing, some trumpet and some saxophone. The cajón is a Peruvian percussion instrument which Paco de Lucía introduced to flamenco, and since then it has found its way into most acoustic settings for ‘latin’ music of any origin, and a lot of other styles as well. With its bass thump and wooden snare it does a good job of standing in for a drum kit, but it allows a greater dynamic control. It is used to excellent effect on this album, from the mellow latin jazz groove of the classic ‘El Manisero’, to its prominent part on ‘Bulerías’ with its twelve beat flamenco rhythm.
The guitar is very much the predominant voice on this recording, and it is very nicely played, with a lyrical sensitivity that is equally well adapted to each of the many stylistic ports of call on the band’s voyage. The bass is solid and secure, with a lovely tone and tasteful choices when asked to step out on ‘El Manisero’. The vocals are beautiful, and the wind instruments are played with skill and relish. Basically, it’s very hard to fault any of these players, and as a whole the band is locked together like an intricate mechanism, but one with a beating organic heart at it’s centre. Passion with precision is their stock in trade.
Fernando’s Kitchen throw so much into the pot with this album that they run the risk of sounding incoherent, or conversely, of presenting an anodyne and meaningless middle ground, a lowest common denominator of latin music. Luckily, they do neither: certainly the uninitiated will miss the sheer stylistic diversity on display, and hear just ‘some latin music’, and there’s an argument that it would be better for those people to hear these traditions in their unalloyed forms. But to be honest, I don’t believe in authenticity: every pure strain of music that has ever been adulterated in a fusion started its life as a fusion itself. The kind of authenticity that matters is the kind that this album has in abundance, and that’s a faithfulness to the artistic truth that these musicians have discovered by immersing themselves in the musics that they love. This is music to listen to closely, to dance to wildly, and to enjoy for its evocative and ever changing atmosphere.

WorldService Project - Relentless (jazz)
Brooke Records 001, 2011, CD album, 56m 42s, £? (they don’t make it easy to get a copy)

World Service Project touch a certain number of bases: many enough to paint a portrait of their enthusiasms, and deeply enough to provoke some thought, but lightly enough to still sound very much like themselves. As an ensemble they are rooted very firmly in the mainstream of modern jazz, which enables them to appropriate sounds and feels from all over without their music sounding like fusion. Of course it is a fusion, as all jazz is a fusion, and it’s a fusion they have made rather than one they have inherited unquestioningly. Jazz is a set of shifting stylistic conventions, in complex negotiations with a set of shifting artistic practices; this has generated a historical progression of generic conventions, conventions which WSP make their own, and turn to their own ends.
Of course purists (a curse upon their houses) will hear the electric bass and electric piano, and turn their blinkered attention elsewhere. Their loss. Because this band has been busy constructing some of the most rewarding and entertaining pretexts for improvisation I’ve encountered in a while.
The front line often recalls for me one of the finest front lines of recent years, Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks, and not just because it consists of saxophone and trombone; Tim Ower and Raphael Clarkson have the same knack of blowing at harmoniously fruitful cross purposes that the aforementioned pair have demonstrated in Dave Holland’s various bands over the past decade or so. That sense, of thoughts spiralling outward in different directions, descends from a tradition whose origin in modern jazz is the marshalled chaos of Mingus’ 50s ensembles, which drew an explicit link between the free jazz movement and the collective improvisation of early jazz. It’s pleasing to hear such a historically rooted awareness in such forward looking music. The comparison is a good one, also, for the fire and intensity with which they blow.
In fact everyone in this band puts themselves right out there when they improvise: Conor Chaplin’s bass solos are thoughtful and complex affairs, with a great deal to say about the harmony, and a contemplative mood; David Morecroft’s keyboards range from a sweet acoustic piano voice and a melodic approach, to a heavily processed and filtered electric piano sound, often utilised in a way that owes as much to noise rock as it does to conventional notions of jazz improvisation; Neil Blandford’s drumming is consistently spot on, always finding the right texture and the right groove, with fills that don’t sound like fills because they are such an integral, essential part of the whole ensemble’s phrasing.
That for me is the main quality of this recording: the telepathic togetherness this band has achieved. They are all great players, but they’re working in a field where the bar is extremely high technically, and they won’t be redefining anybody’s sense of what their instruments can do. This is not about virtuoso blowing, but virtuoso teamwork; this is a band that can turn on a dime, and though its individual voices are intact, it is a band that speaks with one voice. A lot of jazz musicians, good ones included, don’t bother to put in the work to achieve that.
The arrangements on this album are very creative, and there is a lot of attention to detail. Rhythmically they are often spiky and angular, with complex stop time passages that are gripping and kinetic. The grooves run the gamut from latin jazz to punk (yes punk), and the bass and keyboards shape their sound accordingly, without ever undermining the band’s very distinctive sonic identity.
I was disappointed to note that ‘Business Transaction’, which is also on their earlier EP, has lost the bassline that sounded so much like ‘Only So Much Oil In The Ground’ by Tower Of Power, but there is still a lot of funk on this album. ‘Bye Bye’ has a piano section that is highly reminiscent of Esbjörn Svensson’s playing, and an ensemble arrangement that pays tribute to EST while still sounding decidedly like WSP.
So clearly there’s a lot of variety, but the album is a very coherent statement. For me the creative high points are ‘The Screamer’ and ‘Back So Soon’: it’s on these tracks (as well as other moments throughout the album) that the band sounds less like anything else you’ve ever heard. This is when you realise WSP is truly an ensemble with something to say, and like a punk band it is going to get right in your face and say it, whether or not you want to hear it. I like music with an agenda, because it makes the playing purposeful, and encourages it to shed any baggage or flab. This is lean, intense, and highly rewarding music, that I can’t recommend strongly enough.

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