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Strength And Power
Rare Noise RNR060

Sunshine Seas
Rare Noise RNR065

Review by Craig Nixon

"Love Is Proximity" the late Herbie Nichols once said as the name of one of his many celebrated compositions. Indeed, proximity and love both helped foster this recording.  Roswell Rudd and Jamie Saft live within a few miles of one another, in the region between New York's Hudson Valley and the Catskills, what would be referred to as upstate by those in NYC, but laughably downstate from Buffalo or Syracuse. Saft has built himself a considerable home studio, logically centered around a distinctive 1966 Steinway L piano.  Rudd has recorded at Potterville International Sound in the past for his own projects, so it was only logical that he and Saft team up for a date with the host actually at the piano and not entirely in the recording/mixing booth.

The rhythm section is a Rare Noise family affair, all having been involved in a variety of projects for the label in various combinations.  Saft is part of The Spanish Donkey, a downright face-melting electric trio with guitarist Joe Morris and drummer Mike Pride that released the scorching Raoul  on the label last year.  Red Hill  found Saft, the Hungarian drummer Balazs Pandi and Morris (on bass this time) joined by Wadada Leo Smith for another productive date from the pianist's studio. Bassist Trevor Dunn, in addition to having met with Saft on various John Zorn projects, was also involved in the band Slobber Pup, along with Saft, Pandi and Morris, that has recorded for the label as well.

As for the trombonist, Roswell Rudd is 80 years old this year, but time has certainly taken nothing at all from his playing or his considerable stamina.  Nearly mirroring the development of his close associate Steve Lacy, Rudd began as a Dixieland-styled player in the 1950s and gradually moved on toward more progressive forms of jazz, at various times anchoring ensembles of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp and several with Lacy.  His range is immense and fairly encapsulates the history of jazz, from extensive work on the compositions of Monk, Nichols and Lacy to fearless free improvisation.

Fearless free improv was indeed the order of the day for the 64 minutes that make up this disc.  Nothing mapped out ahead of time, no visual cues, “nothing but trust, deepest intuition and mutual respect” states Saft.  The album is front loaded with its two longest pieces, the 18 minute title track and the 16 minute “Cobalt Is A Divine”.  Both are fairly grand statements and the two could comprise a single LP of their own, not to mention the other half hour of music here.

The track “Strength And Power” begins quietly, the four players feeling each other out, but things are in full swing inside of three minutes.  Rudd is at the forefront for another nine before giving way to Saft, who introduces a deliciously dramatic shift at 12 minutes in. It turns out that the trombonist is only gone long enough to catch a breath and regroup, returning to the fray and hanging in until the piece's grand finish.

Throughout the date Dunn provides big toned support. It's perhaps easier to hear him as an improvisor here than in the context of Zorn's largely composed projects.  Drummer Balazs Pandi has become comfortable in styles ranging from speed metal to free jazz, and provides his characteristic reactive support.  Listening was the hallmark of the day for this session, or in Rudd's words: “When you're lucky enough to be in the company of very proficient musicians who can not only play but can also listen deeply, this is what I think I love more than anything else in the performance of music.”  The listening and mutual respect paid off here, and Strength And Power is as fine an example of group improvisation as you'll hear this year.

One of Saft's ongoing projects is his New Zion Trio, which makes its Rare Noise debut with Sunshine Seas, convening a rarefied intersection of dub, reggae, and  Kabbalah Jewish mysticism with an entire host of other sounds and influences courtesy of their guest, Brazilian percussion wizard Cyro Baptista.

Saft and Cyro's association goes back a good 20 years.  They've worked together on countless projects, many of them under the aegis of John Zorn, and Saft had produced two successful recordings for Cyro's Beat The Donkey project, as well as the two having toured together several times.

New Zion's rhythm team of Brad Jones on upright bass and drummer Craig Santiago have been in place for a while and have developed the deepest pocket.  And it's a deep pocket that's needed, as New Zion as a band has grown progressively more dub influenced as Saft has immersed himself both in the music and culture of Jamaica. The keyboardist has found a deep co-mingling of Rastafari and Jewish heritage, often speaking of their similar trance like meditative states.  But make no mistake, this is no amateur cross cultural dabbling, Saft has done his homework, both musical and spiritual, and his dub groove is the real thing: deep, authentic and infectious.

On this release adding the sounds, voice and spirit of Cyro Baptista only serves to kick the flavor up yet another notch.  He weaves in and out of these sultry grooves as if they were tailor made for him, picking up and putting down various instruments and objects from his huge arsenal, vocalizing and even getting off a killer Jew's harp solo on the track “Ranking”.

Saft employs several keyboards (listened to after the disc with Rudd the sound of his Steinway is easily identifiable here), acoustic guitar, and also lays down a few electric bass parts, leaving Jones to his upright.  Vanessa Saft contributes a sweet and breezy vocal to the title track.  She had worked on some of the Zorn projects, and also with Beat The Donkey, and fits in beautifully here.

Much of the creation of dub is in the hands of the producers, who use the studio and various effects in order to give the music its distinctive sound.  Sunshine Seas reunites Saft with co-producer Christian Castagno, who gets plenty of credit from the leader in shaping the sound.  Saft and Castagno had worked together extensively years ago, prior to Castagno's relocating to the jungles of Colombia, and the pair have joined together here to lend authentic dub to these tracks, rendering them something special and more than just an endless groove.

Seen live recently the band is a touch different.  On gigs Brad Jones is on electric bass throughout and incendiary master drummer Oscar Debe was in for Craig Santiago.  If anything the groove is even deeper live, and you have the added visual benefit of watching Cyro as he utilizes just about every object one could think of, including frequently vocalizing through a bullhorn. Without aid of the studio techniques Saft uses piano, Rhodes, organ and effects to recreate an authentic dub sound.  It kept people on the dance floor, even in a venue not exactly known for dancing, and commanded two encores.  With its infectious, breezy grooves and deep dub breaks Sunshine Seas is bound to be commanding encores in CD players and on many turntables this year.


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