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Experimenters turn in lovely results

The Question
The Question
By Bob Nieske's Wolf Soup

A-Records: 1998

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Tokyo '96
Tokyo '96
By Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette

ECM Records: 1998

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Aram of the Two Rivers
Aram of the Two Rivers
By Jonas Hellborg

Bardo Music: 1999

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These reviews first appeared in the January 23, 1999 edition of the American Reporter.

Heading into the new year, it's time to finally clear out the in box from the last. One disc that came in early in '98 but never got reviewed was the latest from bassist Bob Nieske's Wolf Soup combo.

A literate, exploratory group, Wolf Soup is as interesting a band as you'll find working today. Tom Hall and Jim Cameron jointly handle the saxophones, Jon Damian plays guitar, and Nat Mugavero is the drummer.

No, I've never heard of any of them before, either. The point is that, together, they play fun, interesting music that explores the murky area between jazz and avant-garde. The beats are all wrong, the scales are weird, and who told them that was a chord?

But it's never weird-annoying – there's a minimum of affectation and attitude here. Instead, it's just a group of highly talented musicians (check out the dual saxophone intro on their cover of Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" for a definition of lush) who like to go off on tangents. It's good stuff, and the rest of us are fortunate that these guys chose to roll tape when they went exploring.

     ~ ~ ~

More than thirty years since he first came on the scene, pianist Keith Jarrett remains one of jazz's brightest lights. He's still out in front of the field, still one of the innovators, still more willing than most to take a chance, to push the limits.

And, oh yeah, he's still one of the best piano players around, too.

For his latest recording, a live recording in Tokyo, Jarrett took along bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette – and the three of them, three of the most out-there experimenters of the last few decades, sat down and played some riveting if off-center covers of classics from the American songbook.

There are songs from Rodgers and Hart and Jimmy Van Heusen. Covers of Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. We get "Mona Lisa" and "Autumn Leaves."

None are turned too far inside out; all are easily recognizable in their opening bars. But the trio don't play them straight, either – there's some real meat put on the bones of these songs.

     ~ ~ ~

Jonas Hellborg's greatest attribute as a musician may be his creative curiosity – it's difficult to imagine the bassist getting into a musical rut.

Fresh off two power-trio fusion albums (with guitarist Shawn Lane and drummer Apt. Q-258), Hellborg has now headed to Syria for a live album with Arab musicians.

As with Warren Senders' recordings with musicians from India, Hellborg manages a seamless melding of jazz and Middle Eastern styles and traditions. The reason the unlikely (and likely difficult) mating of disparate musics works so well here is that like nearly everything Hellborg has recorded of late, the arrangements are spare and clean. By keeping things simple, with one or two musicians playing the lead and the others providing support, there is more opportunity to simply find a groove and play (and less chance of tripping each other up).

Also consistent with recent Hellborg outings, the performance consists of a handful of long, highly improvised pieces: Only six songs, each averaging about nine minutes.

If not as immediately engaging as his last two albums, "Aram of the Two Rivers" is still an interesting, accessible recording that shows both Hellborg's playing and musical leadership remain at the top of their game.