‘Bird Is Like Shakespeare’: Downbeat Player’s Feature

April 2017

On one of his previous Clean Feed albums, 2012’s Spun Tree (with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Tom Rainey), alto saxophonist Michaël Attias took a deliberately through-composed approach on exacting pieces like “Ghost Practice,” “Subway Fish Knit” and the knotty title track, each brimming with polyphony. His sixth release for the Lisbon, Portugal-based label, Nerve Dance, finds Attias exploring more expansive musical terrain with his highly elastic quartet of pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist John Hébert and drummer Nasheet Waits.

“Some of the greatest, most radical and lasting music in jazz has been blowing sessions,” Attias said. “I’m a big fan of those things and wanted to bring some of that energy to this new one, but it’s not just a collection of blowing numbers. The compositional agenda is more masked or more imbedded, in a way.”

While Attias remains firmly rooted in the avant-garde, one can readily hear the inspiration of Charlie Parker in his fluid lines and familiar cadences on furious blowing vehicles like “Scribble Job Yin Yang” and the intense opener, “Dark Net.” “For me, everything is inspired by Bird,” said the 48-year-old native of Haifa, Israel, who grew up in Minneapolis and later relocated to Paris before moving to New York City in 1994. “Bird is like Shakespearean literature; everybody after him takes one little bit of it and extends it. Lee Konitz’s Bird is the solo on ‘Yardbird Suite.’ Jimmy Lyons’ playing with Cecil Taylor is total Bird. He takes that very nervous, speech-like rhythm and goes over the barline with it, freeing it from a grid. Ornette Coleman’s version of ‘Klactoveedsedstene’ with Paul Bley, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins on Live At The Hillcrest Club (1958) … that’s just so Bird! Cannonball Adderley does one version of Bird, Eric Dolphy does another, and Anthony Braxton is constantly addressing Bird throughout his work. He’s the big generator of ideas for everybody for generations after him.”

What carries the Nerve Dance session is the interplay and conversational quality between the four like-minded participants. Hébert, who contributes the lyrical ballad “Rodger Lodge” and the 3/4 tribute to the group’s drummer, “Nasheet,” is the anchor on Nerve Dance while also providing key contrapuntal lines throughout. Ortiz’s comping is often unpredictable; his solos cascade freely while Waits underscores the session with a looseness and intuitive brilliance on the kit that elevates the proceedings. “Nasheet has this kind of melodic rhythm, almost like a Morse code melodic approach to the drums that comes deeply out of bebop,” Attias said. “He has that kind of linguistic thing in his playing that Billy Higgins and Max Roach had. And he also has this gift—both he and Aruán— of being able to rebalance from moment to moment, like where there’s total commitment to what’s happening in every moment of the music. They are constantly balancing it and throwing it off balance, stabilizing and destabilizing the music in this very elastic way that is very intuitive but very grounded.”

Since settling in New York more than 20 years ago, Attias has played duets with Braxton and appeared on the 1999 release of Braxton’s opera Trillium R: Composition 162; gigged at the old Knitting Factory with Anthony Coleman’s Self-Haters Orchestra, appearing on two recordings from the late ’90s; played the Village Vanguard with Paul Motian’s Trio 2000 + Two, and contributed to the late drummer’s 2009 album On Broadway Volume 5; and collaborated with fellow saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Eric Revis and Anthony Coleman.

Attias has also recorded nine albums as a leader, with Nerve Dance being the most adven- turous and satisfying to date.

– Bill Milkowski