The Chris Kelsey 4
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The Chris Kelsey 4

Pawling, New York, United States | INDIE

Pawling, New York, United States | INDIE
Band Jazz Avant-garde


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"The Crookedest Straight Line, Vol. 2"

Strangely enough I find this sequel better than the first album, which certainly was also fine. Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were recorded during the same session with Chris Kelsey on soprano, John Carlson on trumpet, François Grillot on bass and Jay Rosen on drums. The first CD, which was released a year ago, was very much an inside-out thing, with structured compositions and free improvising. I have the impression that some of the freely improvised pieces found their way to the second CD, and that's not bad at all. The CD starts with "61715" which brings an evolution of freely improvised duets between the various band members, joining for short quartet moments and back to duets. It is followed by a slow and bluesy "All Small Not At All", on which the inside theme still generates very agitated soloing by Kelsey, less so by Carlson who remains fairly subdued, but no less intense. "Charming" again brings lots of variation, starting with a clear theme, then moving into free dialogues, even fierce conversational pieces, full of excited chatter between the two horns, and a drum solo by Rosen. "Inside Pout", which starts with a long bass solo, brings the most beautiful composition of the album, very melancholy and sad, and is in stark contrast with "It's Yer Birthday", which is more uptempo and joyful as the title suggests, setting the pace for the last two pieces, equally energetic free bop. Nice!
© stef - By Stef Gijssels, Free Jazz Blog


Rating: 4.5 Stars [out of 5]

Chris Kelsey's triumphant return to the CIMP label after several years of hiatus delivers results that justify the wait. Sticking to soprano sax, and fronting a first-rate quartet with longtime collaborator Steve Swell on trombone, Kelsey produces a tour de force that highlights strong heads, tight arrangements, and compelling solos. Not only is this one of Chris Kelsey's best albums, it is one of the best jazz albums of 2004. While nothing here is unprecedented, from the two-horn piano-less quartet to the angular Ornette-ish melodies to the extended improvisations, the consistently high quality of the playing, combined with the pristine sound quality and the continuing state of tension, make this a wonderfully accessible album, yet one filled with quirky surprises. Kelsey stars as composer, his tunes absorbing the influence of George Russell in their harmonic constructions. As a soloist, Kelsey commands his "stick" with an uncommon confidence, snaking his way around chord changes with confident gusto. He blows the soprano aggressively, much more so than, say, Steve Lacy, but, like Lacy, Kelsey is a technically adept performer whose improvised lines are logically constructed and fascinating to follow. He especially shines on "Charlie Parker's Last Will and Testament," where he is the only horn, backed by bass and drums for a 15-minute romp. The growing legion of admirers of trombonist Steve Swell should be thrilled by his lengthy solos on the remaining four pieces, where he explicates alternatively spunky and gruff flights that might be characterized as Roswell Rudd meets J.J. Johnson by way of Jack Teagarden, as retold by Lewis Carroll. Bassist Francois Grillot and drummer Jay Rosen round out the quartet, which has the makings of a classic. - By Steven Loewy, All Music Guide

"Beyond Is and Is Not"

I like the title of soprano saxophonist Chris Kelsey’s new solo session, Beyond Is and Is Not, but he could have drawn on the sole original composition “Memoir” for an apt, albeit more prosaic name. Whatever it’s calledBeyond Is and Is Not is a session that uses standard literature as a starting point for musical autobiography. This is quite a different matter from the usual standards session as airplay grubbing, or even the more honorable enterprise of musicians using well-worn tunes to set their places within the tradition. Instead this is a kind of musical coming-of-age novel. The epitome would be vocalist-percussionist David Moss’ My Favorite Things on Intakt from 1990. Interesting that while writers tend to offer their coming-of-age narratives early in their careers, musicians tend to do them later—do musicians just take longer to grow up? Regardless Kelsey’s recital is fully mature work. His serious, deliberate deconstruction of these tunes is as much a reflection of his musical personality as Moss’ wildman approach was of his.

Kelsey’s program clearly reflects the signposts of his development starting with “Afro Blue”, one of Coltrane’s great soprano performances. Yet the Mongo Santamaria classic also shows how Kelsey makes each song his own. He opens by worrying a phrase that sounds like a lick that may have clung to his inner ear after listening to Coltrane’s Birdland performance. He reiterates it with variations, letting it lead him to the original melody. On Shorter’s “Footprints”, Kelsey interjects his approximation of the bass vamp into his exploration of the melody. On Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”, he tips his horn to Johnny Hodges in the theme statement, before reverting to his own voice for a joyous extemporization. His whinnying at one point evokes the trick brass work of Nanton, Miley, and Williams as much as Hodges.

“Memoir” explores the intersection of Monk and Tristano. Think “Work” meets “Wow”. This highlights his link to the Tristanoite hornmen Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz as well as Monk acolyte Steve Lacy. Kelsey closes with two pairings: Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas” flowing into “Blue Monk” and, in a greater reach, Ornette Coleman’s “Chronology” linked with a dramatic descending figure to “Stella by Starlight”. Kelsey introduces the title of each number in a dispassionate voice that may betray the influence of Jamey Aebersold. Throughout Kelsey’s lines are relentless. Closely recorded, you can hear him breathe—circular breathing, I believe, at least in some spots. This adds to the session’s sense of intimacy. Beyond Is and Is Not has a listenability and appeal not common among solo horn sessions.

Usually I have one of two reactions to new versions of old songs. One, admittedly, the most common, is to let the listening experience fade from memory. Other better recordings will send me to refer to the originals or other notable renditions. In the case of Kelsey’s tributes, though, it provided such insight into his work that it made me want to go back and listen to his CDs devoted to his original compositions.

- By David Dupont, One Final Note

"Not Cool"

As playfully glib as ever, saxophonist Chris Kelsey couches his latest effort in an oppositional framework certain to arch a few eyebrows and maybe even roll a few eyes. His commentary to the disc commences with a caveat clarifying that his decision to sight Paul Desmond in his crosshairs isn't strictly motivated by disdain. Sure, he still attaches signifiers like “sappy", “wimpy" and “nerdy" to the much-lauded surname, but he's also careful to concede the Caucasian altoist's stature as “an accomplished and distinctive improviser".

That's where the compliments cease as virtually nothing on the album aligns with Desmond's genteel sensibilities or singularly aerated style of improvisation. From start to finish, Kelsey and his colleagues favor fire-spitting free jazz fare of the sort that's been idiomatic for nearly half a century. The saxophonist takes obvious pleasure in wrinkling and warping his delivery with liberal doses of raspy vibrato. One of his earlier sessions for CIMP carried the title The Crookedest Straight Line and that diametric phrase holds true here too, his dense patterns canting and slicing at sharp diagonals against the controlled rhythmic tumult generated by his regular confreres, bassist Francois Grillot and drummer Jay Rosen.

The date is also notable for a number of other reasons. First, there's the presence of trumpeter Chris DiMeglio who boldly matches Kelsey in the frontline, doling out tonal unpredictability with a colorful array of brassy slurs and smears. Second, Kelsey's addition of tenor and alto to his usual soprano playbook opens up fresh avenues of expression. His phrasing on the straight horn is curiously the cleanest of the three, the other two suggesting spiral staircases of oddly stacked phrases. The pieces follow similar schematics of knotty ensemble statements followed by bristling solos. Kelsey leaves little time for coasting and his puckish propensity is also present in the clever titles he hangs on the compositions (cf. “If Jazz is Dead (Can I Have Its Stuff?)). In a lone overt concession to the canon, the set signs off with a comparatively mellow stroll through Ayler's “Ghosts" and the closest thing to Desmondian decorum on the date.

Kelsey is a provocateur in the best sense of the term: a player (and writer) who thrives on pushing buttons, but does so with both intelligence and an underlying respect for both the audience and art form he chooses to work within. It's a thin tightrope to traverse sometimes and invites the occasional tumble, but Kelsey's hardly one to wince at any resulting bruises. As enjoyable as this session is as a Desmond-antipode, I'm still half-inclined to airmail him a copy of Quartet and see if I can't inveigle a revision in his opinion. - Derek Taylor, All About Jazz

"Not Cool"

Jazz critic and saxophonist Chris Kelsey now releases his new album under his own name after having published several on CIMP in the past, with "The Crookedest Straight Line, Vol. 2" being his latest. The band plays very much in the same vein as on the previous releases, finding a great balance between composed themes and furious and intense improvisations. Except for Chris Dimeglio, who replaces John Carlson on trumpet, the band is the same, with François Grillot on bass and Jay Rosen on drums.The line-up is not by coincidence the same as the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, and stylistically there are also ressemblances, albeit in a more modern version.

In a very unusual attitude, Kelsey positions his music against the stylistic straightjacket of mainstream jazz, illustrated by Paul Desmond. His liner notes offer a quite long explanation for this, summarised in "I couldn’t embrace the music I loved without repudiating what I found appalling", a kind of rebellious attitude vis-à-vis the context of his own youth in the sixties. You can read all this in the liner yourself, as they're part of the free download package.

The music itself his excellent without breaking boundaries. Kelsey's compositions are angular in the Coleman tradition, with highly rhythmic melodic themes, as lead-ins for free improvisations. In contrast to much of today's free jazz, the rhythmic backbone remains the anchorpoint during the improv. Even in the slower pieces, as in "Raw Sun", the music is intense and quite dense, with the various instruments being active most of the time, interweaving sounds and giving perspective to each other's improvisation. The only voice to get real solo moments - as in the only instrument playing - is Grillot's bass, which offers some breathing space to the horn players and to the listener on several tracks. The slow "The Past Is A Frightening Prospect" is the best piece of the album, together with the last track, a long rendition of Albert Ayler's "Ghosts". Like Ayler, this music is expressive, intense, iconoclastic, and paradoxically also reverent, and with quite some emotional power. - Stef Gijssels, Free Jazz Blog

"Not Cool"

The title to Chris Kelsey's new CD is apt. Not Cool {...As in, "The Opposite of Paul Desmond"} (Tzazz Krytyk) is a burning ode to music making in the cauldron of molten sound. Chris Kelsey (his soprano, alto and tenor, his music) has been around for quite some time. After a hiatus from playing he returned in full flower in recent years and this is his latest. From the moment the band hits the deck running on the first cut, my first listen made me realize that I had been missing out on some strong playing. Chris burns through reeds with extreme power. He is "old school" to the extent that his music assumes the blowing ensemble format of pre-free bands, and the routines have a certain tip of the cap to avant garde traditions, but beholden debts all end there.

What you have is a crack post-bop free band of "first chair" quality. Kelsey plays incandescent reeds and writes out some drivingly sane charts for the band to cook over their hot stove. Chris Dimeglio, on trumpet, as Kelsey notes in the album liner, has absorbed the lessons to be learned from Don Cherry and Lester Bowie and taken things from there, and the rhythm section of Francois Grillot and Jay Rosen, bass and drums, stoke the flames with dedication, energy and flair.

Chris Kelsey shows that he is at the forefront of the fiery reedists today. The music is exhilarating, overflowing, brilliant. Check out this CD by all means (, then, like me, you are probably going to want to hear the recordings he made with Bob Rusch in the Cadence/CIMP series. - Gapplegate Music Review


Not Cool ( ... as in, "The Opposite of Paul Desmond") (Tzazz Krytyk)

The Crookedest Straight Line, Vols. 1 & 2 (C.I.M.P.)

Wishing You Were Here (C.I.M.P.)

Renewal (C.I.M.P.)

Beyond Is and Is Not (Cadence Jazz)

The Ingenious Gentleman of the Lower East Side (C.I.M.P.)

Observations (C.I.M.P.)



The Chris Kelsey 4 plays state-of-the-art avant-garde jazz inspired by such legendary artists as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Anthony Braxton. The band showcases the iconoclastic compositions and improvisational style of its leader, saxophonist Chris Kelsey, and the extraordinary instrumental voices of trumpeter Chris DiMeglio, bassist Francois Grillot, and drummer Jay Rosen.

Kelsey has been called “at the forefront of the fiery reedists today … (his) music is exhilarating, overflowing, brilliant,” by the Gapplegate Music Review, and “a provocateur in the best sense of the term: a player (and writer) who thrives on pushing buttons,” by Derek Taylor at All About Jazz. Steven Loewy at AllMusic called Kelsey’s album Renewal “One of the best jazz albums of 2004 …wonderfully accessible…filled with quirky surprises,” and Acoustic Levitation Editor Steven Koenig named Kelsey’s latest release, Not Cool ( ... as in, “The Opposite of Paul Desmond”) one of the top releases of 2009.

Kelsey is also a perceptive and influential writer about jazz and improvised music. His blog at is one of the most widely read by devotees of the jazz avant-garde.

Chris Kelsey has been a longtime presence on the New York City Downtown jazz scene, performing with such musicians as the bassists Dominic Duval, Reuben Radding, and Ken Filiano; drummers Jackson Krall, Jay Rosen and Lou Grassi; trombonist Steve Swell, guitarists Dom Minasi and Bruce Eisenbeil, and trumpeter John Carlson, among many others. Since the early 2000s, his band has included Rosen (Cosmosamatics, Trio X) and Grillot (Steve Swell Septet, Matt Lavelle's Morcilla). Trumpeter DiMeglio (collaborations with Steve Swell, Jason Kao Hwang, and Daniel Levin, among others), is a recent and exciting new addition.

Kelsey's previous recordings as a leader include the CDs Beyond Is and Is Not (Cadence Jazz), a solo soprano saxophone album featuring Kelsey's interpretations of jazz standards; Wishing You Were Here, a trio recording with Rosen and Grillot; Observations (C.I.M.P.), a duo with Swell; The Ingenious Gentleman of the Lower East Side (C.I.M.P.), by a trio featuring bassist Duval and drummer Ed Ware; In Search of Emmett Hardy (Saxofonis) by his Un-Ironic Quartet, and Hear With Your Ear (Saxofonis), by his Unacknowledged Ensemble.

Kelsey was born in Bangor, Maine. His father was a jazz saxophonist and music teacher, his mother a librarian. His family moved to his father's native Oklahoma when Kelsey was a child, and lived in a series of small towns in the region. Kelsey studied music education at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Central Oklahoma, receiving his Bachelors Degree from the latter. While in college, he worked a variety of musical jobs, from the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus to the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra. Mostly, he played with rhythm and blues, jazz and rock ensembles around Oklahoma City.

Kelsey moved to New York City in the mid-1980s and began playing in experimental venues with an assortment of improvisers and composers, many of them only tangentially involved with jazz. By the early '90s he had moved firmly into the jazz realm, playing regularly with some of New York's most well-respected avant-gardists. Kelsey led groups annually at the Knitting Factory's "What is Jazz?" Festival, and such subsequent incarnations as the Heineken Jazz Festival, the Texaco Jazz Festival, and the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. He recorded his first album, Stomp Own It for the Saxofonis Music label in the early '90s. In 1996 he began an association with producer Robert Rusch's C.I.M.P. label, for which he's recorded seven albums.

In the '90s Kelsey began a parallel career as a jazz critic and writer. In addition to his blog, Kelsey has been a contributing editor to He's written for most major U.S. jazz publications, including Jazziz, JazzTimes, The All Music Guide to Jazz, Signal to Noise, Cadence, as well as general music publications such as Home Recording and Onstage. His book, Murder the Dead and Other Sublime Inconsistencies: Rants, Raves, and Reflections on Jazz (and Life), will be published in the Fall of 2010. Kelsey has also written for such non-music magazines as Ms. and Inc. Kelsey also teaches music privately.

Kelsey is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. He currently lives in Pawling, NY. His wife, Lisa Kelsey, is Art Director of Family Circle magazine. They have two children: son Jasper, 10, and Meret, 7.