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JAZZ | Spotlight

Fascinating Rhythms From the Fringe Set

May 28, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Call it the jazz fringe. That territory in which different ideas abound, sounds are not always what we expect them to be, and unexpected vistas keep popping up. It's an area that is only rarely home to well-known jazz stars, a region in which less familiar figures are more commonly found--players focused primarily on the adventure of the quest rather than the rewards of the conclusion. Here are a few of those offbeat but ever-fascinating artists:

* NOJO with Don Byron. "You Are Here" (*** 1/2, Koch Records). NOJO is a convenient acronym for the more cumbersomely titled Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra, a Canadian band that is one of the most imaginative large ensembles on the current jazz scene. Co-leaders Paul Neufeld, piano, and Michael Occhipinti, guitar, are composers with perspective-shifting musical ideas who have assembled a 16-piece band with the talent and receptivity to render their offbeat compositions. Clarinetist Byron is the primary soloist here, but there is plenty of other cutting-edge improvising from various members of the ensemble. But the real fascination of the album is the work of the co-leaders, compelling in virtually every composition, and often free of the sectionalized approach to instrumentation typical of most big-band writing.

* David Murray. "The David Murray Octet Plays Trane" (*** 1/2, Justin Time). Murray has been recorded so many times over the past 25 years that it may seem strange to include him in a fringe survey. But he has never felt especially compelled to move to the center of the mainstream current, preferring to build a career via the exploration of the music's less familiar tributaries and byways. His octet, in existence since 1978 in one form or another, has always been one of the most felicitous settings for his playing, and this recording is no exception. What is unusual is the focus on John Coltrane's works, since Murray is one of the few important post-'60s tenor saxophonists who has maintained considerable separation from the legendary jazz icon. Typically, and to his credit, he makes no effort as a soloist to simulate Coltrane, and it is fascinating to hear familiar pieces such as "Naima," "Giant Steps" and "Acknowledgment" (Part 1 of "A Love Supreme") rendered from such a different tonal perspective.

Even more compelling are some of his arranging choices: "Giant Steps" features an orchestrated five-horn arrangement of Coltrane's classic solo in which the voices do more than simply repeat the improvise line, intertwining around each other in a fashion that illuminates and enhances an already remarkable musical expression; and the opening of "Acknowledgment" resonates with the sounds of the avant-garde '60s, flowing with the spontaneous, primitive dissonance characteristic of one of the decade's few Coltrane competitors--Albert Ayler--before transmuting into the familiar devotional mantra.

* Sam Rivers' Rivbea All-Star Orchestra. "Culmination" (***, RCA Victor). Rivers may be 77, but both his writing and his playing for his large ensemble are filled with an irrepressibly youthful spirit. Although he tends to provide riff-oriented compositions that serve primarily as framing for extended soloing from an ensemble that includes extraordinary soloing from the remarkable saxophone lineup of Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Chico Freeman, Gary Thomas and Hamiet Bluiett, Rivers' tonal combinations are filled with unusual timbres and a loose, improvisational feeling. As with both the NOJO ensemble and the Murray Octet, the sounds are unique, the expression of a musical mind with clear and present creative identity.

* David S. Ware. "Surrendered" (***, Columbia Jazz). Talk about fringe--Ware is so dedicated to his personal artistic muse that he drove a cab for 14 years "until I was ready to do my own thing." His "own thing" is a post-Coltrane style that tosses in a bit of seasoning from Sonny Rollins and Archie Shepp and emerges as one of the rare uniquely recognizable tenor saxophone voices of the past two decades. Ware's extended soloing on pieces such as Charles Lloyd's "Sweet Georgia Bright," Beaver Harris' "African Drums" and a set of his own tunes is presented in a rough and burry voice, a demanding experience for most listeners. But there is never any doubt--regardless of the improvisational demands of a given piece--that Ware is in full command of what he is doing, a soloist who is, indeed, ready to do his own thing, and do it with an articulate command of the instrument comparable to both Coltrane and Rollins.

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