Bjorn Meyer and Kaspar Rast of Nik Bartsch's Ronin perform in London… (Andy Sheppard / Redferns )
"You've gotta see them live." That's a common response when talking to someone about a new musical discovery. And yet, live albums are viewed with a bit of disdain in the pop and rock realm, where they're often little more than a perfunctory, last-gasp release to fulfill the record company requirement.
In the world of improvised music, however, live albums are where the rubber meets the road, where the music can venture from a sketch to a widescreen portrait. In the last few months there are have been a remarkable bounty of live albums in jazz, and each expresses artistry that existed for only one night, but now it's in your hand.
The trio of Sam Rivers, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul was a key pivot point in the freewheeling "loft jazz" scene of the 1970s, with a variety of new worlds being explored at Rivers' Studio Rivbea in Lower Manhattan (a few examples were captured in the rich "Wildflowers" compilations). Though the trio performed extensively, there are few recordings available, including Holland's landmark "Conference of the Birds" album from 1972. In 2007, the group reconvened for the first time in 25 years, and the results were finally released last month on "Reunion: Live in New York" (Pi Recordings).
In two nonstop, fully improvised sets, Rivers — who died in 2011 — immediately draws the ear here with a fluid and ever-evolving sort of movement on saxophone, flute and even piano. But it's the interplay that can take your breath away. Listen to Holland's woodsy bass and the restless drums of Altschul expertly walk around Rivers' free but never grating exploration at the close of "Part 2" on the first set, or the locked-down swing of "Part 4" in set two, but even that can't capture the rich ground this trio covers.
Playfully dubbed Enfants Terribles on "Live at Blue Note" (Half Note), saxophonist Lee Konitz, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Joey Baron stretch their legs on six standards in a freewheeling meeting of veteran jazz artists who came into the night without a set list. Does the world really need another run through "Body & Soul" and "Stella by Starlight"? When it's done with as much nimble grace as this — particularly in Frisell's steady advance toward the end of the latter — of course it does.
Following a similar path, pianist Fred Hersch continues his inspiring comeback from a medically induced coma a few years back with the recently released "Alive at the Vanguard" (Palmetto), which follows his live solo album from last year with bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson. Spread over two discs, the record draws from a wealth of inventive originals and lush covers, which include a transformative turn early in the set that brilliantly merges Ornette Coleman with Miles Davis on "Lonely Woman/Nardis."
Another pair of keyboard ensembles round out the recent run of live riches in "Free Magic" (Indirecto) by longtime jazz-funk explorers Medeski Martin & Wood and a two-disc set by Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, called simply "Live" (ECM). Together for 20 years, MM&W don't always get the accolades they deserve in jazz circles given how well their groove-oriented outings play on the "jam band" circuit, but this live acoustic recording deserves wider notice. Amid a few ventures into free, avant-garde territory over five tracks (four of which clock in at over 10 minutes), the group delivers a head-bobbing take on Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square," and John Medeski's piano goes from the outer limits to a smoky juke joint and back again on "Blues for Another Day."
Similarly, yet even more firmly anchored to the groove, the Swiss-born Bärtsch leads his group Ronin through nine knotted "Moduls" recorded during concerts in five countries. Layering his fidgety piano into and above ever-evolving patterns from a locked-in rhythm section, the group flirts with rock, funk and some kind of cosmic, Steve Reich-informed varietal of jazz. When bassist Björn Meyer and drummer Kaspar Rast start percolating, Bartsch touches on a new form of musical propulsion, one that isn't necessarily swinging but always moving, evolving and expanding, ever forward.