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Four Games of Hopscotch

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Assif & amigos down by the schoolyard.

Four Games of Hopscotch

August of 2003 was busy month for Israeli-born reed player Assif Tsahar. Three out of four of the recent releases on his Hopscotch label were committed to tape during that month. The fourth, under the helm of resident downtown NYC raconteur Cooper-Moore, comes primarily from a September gig at Roulette. Tsahar’s been using the label as the primary means of circulating his work and that of his peers for several years. As with previous releases, these fresh ones carry a distinctive look – white cardboard sleeves embossed with red and black handwritten or typed print with stark illustrations or silk-screened photos serving for graphics. The music included covers a lot of ground from rambunctious improvisatory duets to composed piano trio terrain. Across the entire clutch, Tsahar’s appreciation for and fostering of grass roots forms of musical expression carry through in strong evidence.

As of this writing, Tsahar and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani have recently completed a month long tour of the latter’s native Japan. Their itinerary included a score of cities and several dates found them teaming up with local talent. From what I gather it was a resounding success. Come Sunday dates from a bit earlier in their associations when the germinal idea of the tour was just starting to sprout. Tsahar and Nakatani are no doubt well aware of the long lineage of reeds-drums duets in free jazz, but the duo’s own take on the configuration shows them hardly beholden to any precedent. The disc’s title phrase, also a Duke Ellington tune, reflects the session’s overarching feel of a call to worship whether the holy place be church, synagogue or Shinto temple.

Nakatani draws on his experience with inner space improvisors like Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley in his fastidious manipulations of his kit and accessory percussion. His eccentric beats and rhythms break routinely at irregular junctures. Tsahar often resorts to such gradations as well, especially on bass clarinet where he ekes out lonely drones from the instrument’s tapered tubing. Sometimes the merger falters as in the ill-meshing chitter-chatter of “Street Cleaning” that feels long at five minutes. But more often, as on the gorgeous “J Walk,” the tactic turns up true beauty. The title piece features Tsahar’s weathered tenor, the weight of worldly troubles audible in its somber explication of the theme. Nakatani accents his friend’s legato arcs with sparse bell strokes and tiny clatter. The two also make space for requisite blowouts like the burly and unruly “West 4th.” Despite the presence of an accommodating pocket within the cardboard sleeve, liner notes are suspiciously absent, leaving the music to stand without explication.

Tsahar’s activist inclinations find mouthpiece on America, a joint venture with Griot hero Cooper-Moore, a colleague of numerous years and former band mate in William Parker’s In Order to Survive ensemble. The pair dispense with any delay in announcing their opinions toward the current state of the Union on the eponymous opening piece. A thick, reverberating rhythm sculpted on what sounds like Cooper-Moore’s amplified diddley-bo supplies the foundation for several stanzas worth of earthy incriminating vocals. This sort of impassioned finger pointing is right up Cooper-Moore’s alley. The man’s never been one to shy away from leveling an admonishing glare at hypocrisy and injustice when he sees it. Tsahar shows himself just as willing to step atop the soapbox with ominous peripheral tenor lines trailing reverb echo. Despite these underlying aggressive attitudes much of the music is relaxed and ripe with melody.

In addition to piano, Cooper-Moore also holds court on banjo, mouth bow, drum-skins, cymbals and various other sundry sound implements. Tsahar alternates between tenor to bass clarinet and on “The Tortoise and the Buzzard,” turns to classical guitar for a bit of African-style finger picking. “Back Porch Chill” shows a less combative side to Cooper-Moore’s diddley-bo in concert with Tsahar’s bass clarinet. The two men craft a laidback and spacious ode that carries the aural scent of iced mint juleps perspiring in the summer heat. Tsahar’s heavy reed also oscillates with flute on the tonally itinerant “Tuscarora’s Cry,” a tune that eclipses its welcome in terms of length.

Two versions of “Lament for Trees” stand as the disc’s twin high points. The melancholic theme stated first on world-weary tenor and eloquently spare piano almost works like an aged folk melody in its ability to seize at an emotional core. A second longer version carries even more heft and girth, pairing the turgid throb of Cooper-Moore’s diddley bo with the same sad tenor in an invocation that would make The Lorax weep. The diversity does well for the program and distracts from the feeling that several of the pieces are more jam session style sketches than fully formed compositions. “Wounded Knee” closes the set out with an extended tussle between spouting tenor and frenetic piano that turns deceptive placid in spots before an abrupt end. It’s indication again of strong political leanings; indication that these two refuse to exit quietly.

Bowery poet Steve Dalachinsky uses associative verse to set a stage in his liners to Jam. Cataloging the term’s various connotations from the sweet nectar taste of Grandma’s fruit preserves to the joyous fallout that comes with active listening between like-minded improvisers, his words paint aural images that accentuate the music. Tsahar teams with electric five-string violinist Mat Maneri, one of downtown NYC’s most prolific sidemen, and drummer Jim Black, arguably most known from his fixture role in Ellery Eskelin’s working trio. The order of the day is wild and wooly give and take, but the action takes some time to gain focused momentum.

Sequenced into nine sections, the program’s first track feels a lot like a sussing-out session as the three men calibrate to each other’s bearings. Given his instrument, Maneri’s expected role is as harmonic fulcrum. It’s a duty he accepts, but only one of the roles he holds in the ensuing improvisations. His signature tone-flaying scribbles and jabs regularly goad his partners into high gear. Black acts as both engine room and texturalist, carving his share of stuttering beats, but also embellishing with space-suffused accents. It’s a dual role that allows him to step away from his usual powerhouse persona. Tsahar raises his bass clarinet for the second part and the three engage in a colloquy of ‘little instrument’ sounds, trading linearity for a patina of tonal colors. Track three maps similarly subdued territory – a terrain of sliding tones, choppy percussion patterns and measured reed flutters – before turning tremulous under Maneri’s agitated arco stabs.

Of the four discs in the clutch, this one is certainly the most demanding. Part four of the performance presents a forest of whirring drones, from bowed cymbals, strings and fibrillating bass clarinet that staunchly resist any semblance of conventional melody or rhythm. These forays to the outer edges of familiar tone and tune structures test both listener trust and the players’ abilities to sustain the same compass readings in situations devoid of consistent magnetic pull. Tsahar’s willingness to embrace such ambiguous settings and the restraint with which he does so shows just how far he’s come from the filibustering free jazz intemperances of his younger years.

Tsahar has more of a tertiary role on Triptych Myth, that of mixing engineer. The musical end is left up to Cooper-Moore on piano, Tom Abbs, bass and Chad Taylor, drums, who fall under the collective catch-all of the disc’s title. Tracks originate from two separate locations. Fidelity is raw in places with Abbs’ strings a bit underserved in the balance, but the flaws are hardly distracting. Just how long they’ve been operating as a unit is unclear, but based solely on their interplay a convincing case could be made that they’ve been in league for quite some time. Examples of Cooper-Moore’s piano skills have been in short supply the last few years. His recent recorded work with Steve Swell (This Now! on Cadence Jazz) brought the paucity into sharp focus while suggesting just how sorely he’s been missed in such a capacity.

True to form, Cooper-Moore capitalizes on a formidable command of his keys. He’s not the sort to stay in one stylistic stance for too long and it’s almost as if his wily digits each have separate minds of their own. He moves from rowdy stride-inflected stomping on “Stem Cell” to contemplative lyricism on “Nautilus.” Taylor sheathes his nimble patterns in a shifting patchwork of rhythms while Abbs anchors with fleshy pizzicato hooks. “The Fox” affixes a fat syncopated dub beat wrought by Taylor’s rim shots and Abbs’ loping ostinato pulse to Cooper-Moore’s skipping right hand wanderings.

The three listen acutely and their shared awareness translates to a pivot-on-a-dime versatility. “Ricochet” is just that – a Pachinko-like display of colliding and deflecting notes that is dizzying in the sheer degree of rampant activity. There are also solo features for both Taylor and Abbs. The formers percussive lullaby march on “Harare” uncovers a tide pool of cadences from pattering brushes, luminous thumb piano, scuttling snare and dampened toms. Abbs turn on “Raising Knox” is replete with resonating flamenco string strumming that reaches for the full tonal weight at his instrument’s disposal. Taylor flanks his friend’s massive lines with steady metronomic accents. Aside from a few minor typographical errors, this disc hits a near dead-center bull’s-eye in terms of genuine quality and appeal.

Considering the label’s shoebox-sized resources, these four releases are something of a windfall from Hopscotch. Each is strong and engaging in its own way and any glitches seem largely the result of the admirable desire to get the music into circulation as quickly as possible. With the ambitious and industrious Tsahar as residing curator and CEO, the catalog remains in good hands.

By Derek Taylor

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