John Blum Astrogeny Quartet

John Blum Astrogeny Quartet

Eremite Records MTE-49 CD


Blum piano
Denis Charles drums
Antonio Grippi alto saxophone, alto-clarinet
William Parker bass

Track Listing:
  1. Simultanium (12:20)
  2. Astrongeny (15:17)
  3. Encomia (06:27)
  4. Dieci (09:03)
  5. Astrogeny Reprise (03:12)

11 February 1998, The Open Center, NYC
producer: Michael Ehlers
engineer: Alen Hadzi-Stefanov
photography: Jennifer Heller
liner notes: Ed Hazell

John Blum Astrogeny Quartet: John Blum Astrogeny Quartet

there are few sessions to rival this one for sheer urgency and gusto.  it's as if something pent-up in these four musicians waited for this combination of players to unleash it--the music explodes into action. pianist john blum is a secret hero of new york's free jazz community, known as a proficient & forceful improviser in the tradition of his mentors, borah bergmann & cecil taylor.  blum's performance on astrogeny is his shining moment on disc to date.  the legendary denis charles was at his best when paired with william parker; together they formed one of the great, yet under-documented, rhythm-sections in the music.  antonio grippi, a shadowy figure in free-jazz history, makes an appropriately rousing contribution on alto saxophone.

Pianist John Blum was born in New York in 1968 & has been a mainstay of that city's free jazz scene for well over a decade, but he remains woefully under-recorded, despite an exceptional pedigree: studies with Bill Dixon, Milford Graves, Borah Bergman & Cecil Taylor. His work is quite distinct from that of Bergman & Taylor. Both have always been highly note-sensitive  --even in the latter's more exuberant moments, there's an implacable logic of pitch & interval --but Blum is more concerned with shape & contour than individual notes.

This is Blum's first release under his own name since Naked Mirror, his impressive 2002 solo debut, but was in fact recorded four years before that, & is the first --& as it turned out only-- concert by the Astrogeny Quartet, in which the pianist was joined by expat Italian altoist/clarinetist Antonio Grippi & the titanic rhythm team of William Parker & Denis Charles. The quartet was short-lived because Charles died barely six weeks later. But the percussionist is with Blum every inch of the way, punctuating his stream of consciousness texts with strategic commas on tom toms & snare. Parker lays down his asymmetrical grooves, powering the music forward without ever dragging it into regular tempo.

Grippi's contribution is not to be overlooked: in addition to penning all the music, with the exception of the elegiac collective improvisation "Encomia," his modally inflected lines & occasional passionate forays into the upper register provide the harmonic & melodic link between Blum's expressionism & the rhythm section's ebullient free-bop.

-- Dan Warburton, The Wire

Even the most ardent free jazz aficionados may not know pianist John Blum, but his credentials are rock-solid. After studying with Milford Graves & Bill Dixon at Bennington College in the '80s, he traveled around Europe a bit, finally settling back in New York. Since then, he's studied with Cecil Taylor & Borah Bergman, & worked in a variety of contexts, from solo to large ensemble (both his & those led by Dixon & Taylor). In 1998, Blum formed the Astrogeny Quartet, with reed player Antonio Grippi, bassist William Parker, & drummer Denis Charles. Like Blum, Grippi is a name that will be new to many listeners. The Palermo-born musician ended up in New York in 1980 where he hooked up with many of the players in the loft scene. The quartet played just a handful of times, & this recording captures their final performance in February 1998, just a month before Charles' death. From the unfurling alto riff against rumbling piano, dark arco, & cymbal splashes, it is clear that this is music informed by the music of Cecil Taylor & Jimmy Lyons. But as the group builds momentum over Grippi's simple, modular themes, they connect & develop a collective sound. The quartet builds the improvisations with mounting waves of collective energy. Parker is in his element probing at the pulse with muscular grace & stalwart tone. Charles is one of the often overlooked masters of free drumming. While a contemporary of drummers like Rashied Ali, Sunny Murray, Milford Graves & Andrew Cyrille, his light, darting style was often overshadowed by the powerhouse approach of his peers. Here, his elastic sense of time & light, musical cascades provide a buoyant undercurrent for the music. & his concise solo that opens the final cut is a model in musical percussive freedom. Blum has absorbed the energy of Taylor & Pullen, his ferocious ebullience & torrential alacrity a defining force in the ensemble. Grippi plays with full-on zeal, acting as an effective foil for Blum's scorching intensity. & when he shifts to alto clarinet on one piece, the tawny timbre provides a more lyrical arc to the group sound. It is a shame that this band didn't have more time to develop. As evidenced by this live set, they were clearly on to something. This one is a nice find for Eremite & one of the strongest free jazz releases of the year.

-- Michael Rosenstein, Signal To Noise

Special note should be taken of Blum. The dude is sick; he's like a free-jazz Frank Hewitt, only much younger --a monster player shamefully ignored by the New York City critics and overlooked by the labels. He should be heard.

-- Chris Kelsey, JazzTimes