Catching up (1): Plunge, Asmussen, Koorax
2009 brought to the Rifftides doorstep an unprecedented number of albums hoping for attention. If I had listened all day every day this year, I could not have paid proper attention to even a small percentage of them. I have been attempting to catch up with some of the CDs in the stacks that occupy what's left of my floor space (shelves are no longer available). In this series of posts, I will call to your attention a few of them. Some of these items will be not so much reviews as listening suggestions. I won't bother you with music that bores or disappoints me, and I know that I run the risk of overlooking a masterpiece. C'est la vie et l'coute.
Plunge, Dancing On Thin Ice (Immersion). Plunge is among the best post-Katrina jazz developments in New Orleans music. In the city's tradition of absorbing, assimilating and combining disparate elements, this unorthodox trio is indeed on thin ice at times, without losing sight of the shore of New Orleans convention. Trombonist Mark McGrain, saxophonist Tim Green and bassist James Singleton are out there with chancy harmonies, elastic time and forays into electronics, but they are also inside the blues and slow-drag feelings of their city. They generate moments reminiscent of music as various as the Jimmy Giuffre trio's folksiness, 1960s free experimentalism, and that long march to the cemetery uptown or out by the lake. This is a lot of music from three people. The deep tones of Singleton's bass are as evocative in Plunge as in Astral Project, the group with which he is most closely associated. He is centered, bold and eager for adventure, as he was when I first heard him in a New Orleans jam session more than thirty years ago. In McGrain and Green, Singleton has kindred spirits.
Asmussen turned 93 three days ago. He is not as overtly astonishing a violinist in the Arbors CD recorded this year as he was when he made the tracks in the Storyville compilation in 1953 and 1958. He is a deeper one. In the reissue, the novelty recordings that helped make him a Danish national figure include a couple of his vocals that are discomforting on grounds of taste ("Carry Me Back To Old Virginny") or execution (his rush through Darktown Strutters Ball"), but there is little of that. His playing is impeccable throughout and in several places palpably exciting. He has two exquisite duets with guitarist Ulrik Neumann.
On Makin' Whoopee, if the nonagenerian Asmussen is less acrobatic than his 45-year-old self and slightly less sure of bow, his tone is darker, his expressiveness deeper, his celebrated harmonic sense intact and his swing steady. Highlights: his samba called Fiddler in Rio," a gorgeous reading of Django Reinhardt's Nuages" and a swaggering solo in Ellington's Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Among his accompanists, pianist Richard Drexler and Asmussen's longtime guitarist Jacob Fischer are superb.
Ithamara Koorax & Juarez Moreira, Bim Bom: The Complete Joo Gilberto Songbook (Motma). Gilberto's influence on Brazilian and much of the other music of our time has been pervasive for half a century. Yet, his repertoire primarily consists of songs composed by others, most prominently Antonio Carlos Jobim. In the development of modern samba Jobim was to Gilberto as Dizzy Gillespie said Charlie Parker was to him in bebop, the other half of his heartbeat. Gilberto has written only 11 songs, most of them less familiar than Bim Bom," each of them exquisite in its own way. This gem of an album by the Brazilian singer Ithamara Koorax and guitarist Juarez Moreira gathers all of Gilberto's songs under one cover for the first time. Gilberto himself has never done that. The purity and tonal accuracy of Koorax's voice, the perfection of her phrasing and interpretation, beautifully serve the songs in ways that should delight the composer. Moreira accompanies her with subtlety and harmonic resourcefulness that suggest Gilberto's own guitar playing. He has two tracks to himself. You may be familiar with Bim Bom," H-B-L-L" and Minha Saudade," but unless you're a Gilberto completist, Vce Esteve Com Meu Bem?" Bebel" and the others may be new to you. Koorax and Moreira are a fine way to meet them. Early in the collection, Koorax sings H-B-L-L" in Portuguese and later, in a separate track, in flawlessly unaccented English. I'd be hard-pressed to say which is the more charming.