Lena BLOCH & Feathery: Heart Knows – Fresh Sounds New Talent 531, 70:31 (9/25/17) ****½ :
(Lena Bloch – tenor sax/ Cameron Brown – bass/ Russ Lossing – piano/ Billy Mintz – drums)
Collective improvisations in a low-key Lee Konitz inspired linear concept approach quartet.
I was listening to a recent release from Denmark the other day in my accustomed attitude of skeptical but alert scrutiny. I was not feeling especially susceptible to emotional revelations, especially given the mood of placid contemplation evoked by the redundant cerebral noodling of two guitars (Jakob Bro and Bill Frisell) and the curious offbeat messing around on the kit (Paul Motian). All the more surprising, that I nearly burst into tears at the entry of an alto sax that played no more than half a dozen notes, each one delivered with a hesitation, an exploratory uncertainty, a tender-but-wobbly intonation. However, there was so much feeling in these notes that it amounted to a small revelation. It raised the old question of whether musical tone is a representation of human feeling, but of a kind so precise as to slip through the wide net of language. Five more notes, at least one badly muffed, and I was certain it was the old master Lee Konitz, playing his instrument into his 9th decade. In an extraordinarily long career, Konitz has made hundreds of recordings in every type of configuration. Nevertheless, throughout all the changes in jazz, there persists a unique quality to his playing that will set him apart as a representative of an exacting discipline at a significant remove from popular acclaim and commercial success.
For youngsters not hip to the music of Konitz, the obvious starting point is the remarkable 1961 session called Motion, on which the alto player deconstructs a number of standards according to a new linear melodic approach often attributed to Lennie Tristano. In it, every bebop lick and formula were excised from the language. One of the sources of musical energy–vertical harmony/dissonance–is scanted in favor of sequential narrative.
With Elvin Jones making one of his most enduring statements, the music on this epic session is simultaneously utterly new and tremendously exciting. Jumping forward a quarter of a century later to a memorable outing on ECM led by Kenny Wheeler’s Angel Song and you can hear that the cerebral linear style has developed a warmer depth without losing any of its intense concentration. It is as if every note counts towards a vital testimony. Twenty years on you can hear this pared-down musical wisdom on the above-referenced (hard to find) Balladeering from the fine label Loveland in Denmark. (This is a very fine issue, available on LP too, far better than the guitarist’s two recordings on ECM)
I have always thought that this noteworthy episode in the development of jazz style, call it the Lennie Tristano/Konitz/Warne Marsh school, would not be forgotten, but that also, it would spawn few imitators. After all, Jazz is supposed to be about excitement and these players flirted cannily with its opposite, non-emotion, some might even say boredom.
The album under review, Heart Knows, features a student of Lee Konitz and a former collaborator with Connie Crothers, who is closely associated with the Lennie Tristano legacy. Lena Bloch immigrated to Israel from Russia in 1990, a country now prodigal in its export of Jazz and other sorts of musicians to Europe and United States. Her band calls itself Feathery and features superb bassist Cameron Brown, pianist Russ Lossing, and Billy Mintz on drums.
“Compositions” sounds overly determinative in describing what appear to be open-ended, lightly sketched out frames for collective improvisation. It is precisely when there seems to be the least direction that the band sounds best. In fact, the group appears to be puzzling their way through twining melodies and minimal harmonic forms, trusting in quick ears and a common sensibility.
The latter, you might even call it, the aesthetic, recalls the ideals of her teacher; Not a single note is ever wasted. There are odd note choices aplenty but no overt use of dissonance to ratchet up intensity. Piano and tenor play in unison on the compelling Three Treasures, on which Billy Mintz has thrown aside his stick and plays with his hands. The pianist makes shimmering Paul Bley-like clouds of dissonant chords which dissolve into heavily-pedaled mists. This is Free Jazz in every sense of the word.
More typical is the title track, Heart Knows. Here Ms. Bloch leads her tenor through a melodic labyrinth step by cautious step. No pretty notes or extra shine on the tone, but a human voice.
French Twist shows off Russ Losing on a more typical chord progression and lyrical theme. She plays the tenor softly, her tone cracking now and again. Cameron Brown’s solo in the middle of this slow tune is a stand-out moment on this disc.
Esmeh returns to the linear investigation of static sound scape. A darker groove is peppered by the eccentric work from the kit. Mintz, is Konitzian too; he avoids obvious time keeping notions in favor of whimsical sound inspirations. Counter Clockwise has little momentum, a diffident unison theme and lots of breathing space. Munir finds the pianist messing around on the inside of the piano to great effect. The melody, repeated for once, is memorable, Middle Eastern mode subject gives way to a intent melodic investigation by Ms Bloch. This piece shows off her beautiful artistry, which relies on so few notes and even fewer “pretty” phrases.
The valedictory Newfoundsong has a simple minor-themed subject that recalls Charles Lloyd, whose tenor is likewise happiest in the alto range of the instrument. We arrive at the end of this impressive recording surprised at how much of modern jazz was left out. A mutually attuned unit worked with a fertile musical concept at the low end of the expressive dynamic and collectively made a durable work of art. As an homage to a great musician, Lee Konitz, Heart Knows, succeeds without qualification.