Loopin’ The Cool enja ENJ-9049
Downbeat Magazine June 1996
Mark Helias covers all the bases on this intensely satisfying record: surprising compositions, intriguing arrangements, hot blowing, moments of tenderness, earthiness and constant imagination. Helias’ fifth date as a leader for enja, Loopin’ The Cool, is, in fact, so strong it reminds me how we came to expect music of this caliber from NYC in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and how slippery the slope has been for some of that milieu’s main figures ever since.
On the bottom, Helias’ fat, Mingusy bass makes a big bed for the tunes. He’s outward-bound but loves to groove, and his superb feel lends the session irrepressible momentum. Drummer Rainey and Guinean percussionist Bangoura tangle their percussives intelligently, providing space as well as interaction; on the opening tune”Munchkins” as well as “Seventh Sign” they manage to be unobtrusive but-- even without explosive dynamics-- propulsive as hell. From his work with Edward Blackwell’s Project, Helias adapts his tune”Thumbs Up” with its totally funky bassline and great African feel. All but three of the compositions (“Pentahouve”, “Hung Over Easy” and “El Baz”) utilize dramatic tempo shifts; as a writer, Helias knows how an abrupt leap from fast to slow or a quick sneak from one time signature into another can introduce a new mood or catalyze a soloist.
With the Carter/Eskelin frontline, Helias has created a provocative combination--the tenor/violin mix is startling, especially on the many unison sections that feature the two in tandem. Best vantage on this unique texture is “Pacific Rim” though it is contrasted interestingly with a Balafon/bass through-line on “Pentahouve” and juxtaposed against a bass/tenor passage at the end of “One Time Only”. In her solos, Carter exercises complete control, avoiding the high-harmonic flurries to which other violinists often gravitate; check her feature “”El Baz”. Eskelin is one of the great emergent talents of our time, and he’s in his element here, tackling extendo-line charts and leaping headlong into flowing solos. He’s developed an outrageous method of combining overtones into straight-toned runs, much the way Derek Bailey does on guitar. Helias’ aching blues “Hung Over Easy” brings the Sheppishness in Eskelin’s approach into full, swaggering view, right up to the flutter end.
Loopin’ The Cool ; true grit with an intellect.
Stereo Magazine (Germany)
A good ensemble sound results where the leader succeeds in featuring the individual voices of his musicians through his themes and arrangements and gives them necessary soloistic liberties. With ten original compositions bassist Mark Helias has created such a result. The exotic rhythms of El Baz, the fanciful melodies of One Time Only make any mainstream concept look old. In the melody section violinist Regina Carter shines as she answers Ellery Eskelin’s emotional tenor sax playing and bluesy improvisations. Helias’ springy bass motives weave the excursions of African percussionist Bangoura and drummer Tom Rainey to patterns full of contrast. --Gerd Filtge
The Nation April 15, 1996
On The Corner
Bassist Mark Helias is pursuing a different marriage, of African-derived rhythms and the lengthy, cantilevered themes he shares with pals like Tim Berne. Growing up in New Jersey, where he played in soul and funk bands, Helias trained in avant-jazz by working with pianist-composer Anthony Davis and the late, great drummer Edward Blackwell. Like other folks, including Mary Ehrlich who came out of New York’s Knitting Factory scene over the past decade, Helias has forged an interesting musical language that, in this period of dollar-dominated sounds, can’ t seem to find an open doorway into the larger music-biz world. If it were thirty years ago, he, Ehrlich and others would have graduated to the bigger clubs at this stage in their careers; now, since they don’t have major-label deals, club owners are too scared of taking a fiscal beating to book them.
There’s no musical reason to fear that Helias couldn’t attract larger audiences if he got the shot. Pick up either Attack The Future or his latest, Loopin’ The Cool (both on enja), and you’ll be implicated into the crisp rhythms and subtle multifacets--as if Kurosawa’s Roshomon were translated into multidimensional beats. The lineup is also slightly askew; violinist Regina Carter, an ace with the yearning yet biting attack who has her own deal now; tenorist Ellery Eskelin, also a leader, whose muscular tone and incisive solos both offset and reinforce Carter; drummer Tom Rainey, a heads-up rhythmatist who never goes for the expected; and percussionist Epizo Bangoura, whose colors and interplay are the group’s glue. Along with Helias, of course, who likes his impacted lines to go against the grain of the beat--a lesson he learned well from Blackwell. The compositions are sturdy and nicely diverse; they lift you into joy even when you’re just dancing in your head at the Knitting Factory or Dance Theater Workshop.
New York Times August 1996
Skill for the bassist Mark Helias--as it was for his mentor, the drummer Edward Blackwell--lies in transforming the simple into something much greater; it serves as the basis for “Loopin the Cool” (enja), the fourth (sic) album with Mr. Helias as leader. Mr. Eskelin’s tenor saxophone blends on the melodies with Regina Carter’s tart violin; Mr. Helias’s solid lines bounce on the rhythms of the drummer, Tom Rainey and the percussionist, Epizo Bangoura, and often turn without warning from a simple ostinato to a little melodic essay. Mr. Helias is open-minded without trying to be all encompassing; hints of African, Arabic and Spanish melodies blow through, but they’re an integral part of a musicianly imagination, not tacked on as learning modules.
On the Internet
Although every musician is important on this stimulating session (the tightness of drummer Tom Rainey and percussionist Epizo Bangoura is not to be overlooked), one's attention is generally drawn to the three main voices. Bassist-leader Mark Helias contributed all of the compositions and arrangements and functions both as a member of the rhythm section and as a lead player. Violinist Regina Carter blends in colorfully with Ellery Eskelin's tenor and comes up with many inventive and unpredictable solos. Eskelin, who takes honors throughout the date, at times recalls both Clifford Jordan (in his sound) and prime Archie Shepp (the tonal distortions). The music in general is more conventional than the improvisations but also contains some unexpected moments and hints of both folk and Indian music along with advanced jazz. Easily recommended to adventurous listeners.
-- Scott Yanow
Loopin' the Cool
Produced by Mark Helias
Recorded by Mike Marciano
Half a dozen or so dates into his career as a leader and bass player, Mark Helias is still a pretty obscure cat. This exhilarating and unique album should change things. Helias has played with dozens of avant garde jazz giants from Anthony Braxton to Anthony Davis, but the music that informs this album probably entered Helias' far-flung palette when he was part of a group called Nu with the late drummer Ed Blackwell, the late trumpet player Don Cherry, alto player Carlos Ward and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.
Loopin' the Cool maintains the two-drummer format of Nu--with Tom Rainey on trap kit and Guinean percussionist Epizo Bangoura on a variety of percussion instruments. It also takes inspiration from the North and West African music that Cherry and Blackwell helped bring into the jazz vocabulary. But Helias hands over his original melodies to the unusual frontline of tenor sax and violin. The pairing works fantastically, in part because of the sweet-and-sour mix of Regina Carter's woody violin tone and Ellery Eskelin's nasty, in- your-face tenor sound. The way they work goes something like this--Helias and the two drummers set up a loping, syncopated riff and groove, then Eskelin and Carter enter playing a long-lined melody that darts and snakes and has rhythmic accents in unusual places. Yet, with Helias' music, nothing stays in one place very long.
Loopin' The Groove is a thrilling series of musical episodes that cooks from start to finish. In fact, you could say that about the album as a whole. There are also gorgeous, delicate moments here--like the tenor/violin melody on "Seventh Sign" that could have come from a romantic era classical sonata, but here is placed over a funky seven-beat ostinato. Throughout, Eskelin is remarkable, cutting free of any preconceived notion of where a solo should go or how it should traditionally be shaped, and using his aggressive tone to tear into the songs the way a chainsaw tears into wood. Carter provides a nice contrast with solos that are bluesy and ordered.
The sound on the disk is good, in a distinctly non-audiophile way. It sounds like all the instruments were tightly miked and then pan-potted into a reasonable facsimile of a soundstage, but there's no overarching sense of five players in a single room. Yet the pan-potted stage is a pretty fair re-creation of the actual array of instruments. Rainey's drum kit is left in proper order. Violin and tenor stand up just in front of the rhythm section. And Carter's violin tone is nicely rendered with a woody quality too often lacking on pop recordings. Yeah, the cymbals are too bright and lack the refined shimmer they have in real life, there's not a lot of air around the instruments and you don't get the ultimate in microdynamics, but whaddya want, perfection? If most rock albums sounded this good, the world would be a much better place.
Serge Loupien, Liberation (Paris)
Mark Helias (who was equally appearing in the Ed Blackwell Project ) is a musician used to playing in the most varied contexts. This explains the thematic richness of Loopin' the Cool, His fourth CD released by the Munich label Enja (following The Current set, Desert Blue and Attack The Future) and a chance to present a completely new formation built around the drummer Tom Rainey (the only survivor of the preceding album), Ellery Eskelin (grand admirer of Gene Ammons and Sonny Rollins) on the tenor saxophone, Regina Carter (replacement for Billy Bang in the String Trio of New York and discovered on a video of the Montreux Jazz Festival) on violin, and Epizo Bangoura (Guinean met at the Village Vanguard) on Djembe and percussion. An instrumentation which has nothing of whimsy nor improvisation, Mark Helias applies himself to compose ( a little in the manner of Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington) as a function of unifying forces under his direction and not only, to the contrary, adapts somehow to make the most of the capacities of the personnel available the themes previously decided upon. The immediate consequence: the indisputable cohesion of the quintet in which each of the members plays a determined role sacrificing individual facile effects to the benefit of a well made collective