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Klaus Kugel (d), Joe McPhee (s), John Edwards (b)

September 29, 2017. Manufaktur Schorndorf. Photo by Martin Schray

Luis Perdomo (p), Yasushi Nakamura (b), Jon Irabagon (s), Rudy Royston (d)

October 5, 2017. Karlsruhe, Tempel. Photo by Martin Schray

Mat Maneri (v) & Joelle Leandre (b)

September 27, 2017. Zürcher Gallery, NYC. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Oren Ambarchi (g, electronics)

October 3, 2017. Klosterkirche, Lobenfeld. Photo by Martin Schray

Vijay Iyer (p), Mark Shim (ts), Stephan Crump (b), Steve Lehman (as), Marcus Gilmore (dr), Graham Haynes (co)

October 15, 2017. Mannheim, Alte Feuerwache. Photo by Martin Schray

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sam Sfirri & Taku Unami - zymology (Hibari Music, 2017) ****

By Connor Kurtz

"Zymology, also known as zymurgy, is an applied science which studies the biochemical process of fermentation and its practical uses."

After a long five years, Japanese avant-garde musician Taku Unami's Hibari Music has finally returned with a digital release: an improvised set by Unami with American Wandelweiser composer / performer Sam Sfirri titled zymology, recorded on November 20, 2017 and released on the same day. The artwork shows a guitar and a piano, even though the two are credited as only playing bass and piano. As ironic as this might be, it's ultimately irrelevant as the two instruments are no more relevant to the recording than the ceramic butter bowl.  A typical improvised duo performance may be described as a musical conversation. I'd describe zymology as musical cohabitation.

At the beginning of the album, we hear the sounds of machines ticking and rhythmically buzzing. We wonder if this is a sound being made a performer, or just the sounds of the noisy performance space. Once we begin to understand its prominence and importance in the piece, we wonder what the origin of the sounds even are – could it be the sounds of machines found in the house (although it is not stated anywhere, I believe that this was recorded in a house rather than a recording studio, and I will continue that assumption for the rest of the review), like an oven or an air compressor? Could they be found sound devices that Unami brought along with him, or machines he created himself, serving no purpose more than to obnoxiously click? These are all questions that Unami first asked on his 2015 collaboration with Éric La Casa, Parazoan Mapping, where sounds of found machines and live settings were juxtaposed against Unami's home-made sound devices, combining their contexts into something more confusing and ambiguous. On zymology, Unami advances the argument by making these sounds the soul of an improvisation. The machines are stripped of all original context, existing as nothing more than a contributor to the album's cumulative sound mass. Sound devices or home appliances, bass or guitar, amplifier or newspapers; although you may be asking yourself these questions at the beginning of the album, it will not take long for you to realize that things don't matter within the world of zymology.

In the world of zymology, all that matters is sound. Who's to say that a piano melody is more interesting than a refrigerator opening or closing, or water dripping into a cup? A notable point of reference is Seijiro Murayama and Éric La Casa's 2009 duo Supersedure, released on Hibari Music, which had La Casa play previously recorded environmental sounds while Murayama improvised on his snare drum. The album raised the question of what sounds are musical in an improvisation, and are they still musical when presented alongside proper instruments. The main difference here is that all sounds are created live, proving intent behind every action, and allowing one to follow sounds in a sequence. Towards the end of zymology part iii, Sfirri improvises on his piano while Unami crumples paper. What's so interesting about this interaction is that the two improvisers were simply making whatever sound they thought that they should be making in that moment, and to find that sound Sfirri needed a piano while Unami just needed paper.

For fans of either of these artists, it probably goes without saying that zymology is pretty quiet. Despite the one day turn around, zymology is recorded and edited quite well, allowing the hundreds of small sounds to be heard clearly. The performers seem to travel around the house while they perform, forcing the sounds they make to vary greatly in the listener's perceived dB level. This results in a very dynamic soundworld where the listener has to work to take in certain sounds, as other sounds may be much closer to the mic. This also results in certain sounds being far more prominent in certain channels, while other sounds are more centralized, resulting in a strong headphone experience. There is a peculiarity in the editing of the last track. Firstly, the track is 11:59 while the rest are 12:00. This is possibly an accident, but I'm doubtful. The track cuts off at 10:30. At 11:58, one second of sound fades in. If we loop the album, we find that the track flows perfectly into the first track, meaning that the improvisation actually starts at the last second of the last track and then loops over. I am not going to make an attempt to make sense of this, and I highly doubt that fans will ever know why Unami decided to release the album this way; but still, it's something interesting to think about.

A more interesting peculiarity occurs in the track titles themselves. There are five tracks, and they are titled as follows: zymology part i, zymology part ii, zymology part iii, zymurgy part i, and zymology part v. When one first hears the album, they will likely notice this and think nothing of it, assuming that the album was just cut into 12:00 tracks for convenience and assigned goofy titles by Unami.  On multiple listens and closer inspection, one might notice that the tracks seem to have a vague form to them. At the beginning of the tracks, the performers almost always stop what they are doing, which leads to a moment of silence before they start a new task. My suspicion is that the zymology i-iv and zymurgy i are scores, possibly written by Sfirri, likely of a very indeterminate nature, and that this album is actually a recording of 5 realizations played in succession, rather than being the different parts of a performance as once might suspect. Whether that's true or not, it's an interesting thing to consider as it raises the question of what would a score which results in music like this even look like?

I earlier referred to this album as musical cohabitation, and that's not just because of the sounds of washing machines and vacuums. There is very little interaction in this music. The performers acknowledge one another's existence, but they do not react to it. The instrumental improvisations sound more like somebody practicing or warming up than a serious musician recording a professional improvisation. I think that this is meant to represent the life of the two artists, presented musically and modestly. It's common for improvised music to be called "alive", or "breathing", but that description feels truer than ever with zymology. I've never lived a life that has felt like Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun, but I have lived a life that has felt like Sam Sfirri and Taku Unami's zymology.

One of my favorite things about keeping up with Taku Unami is how his albums seem to follow an order. It's easy to see how albums may be a continuation of each other, and how they may land in different streams of releases, confirming him as a musician who's constantly moving forwards. The Whistler, a collaboration with Graham Lambkin released earlier this year, can easily be seen as a successor to Parazoan Mapping and Species pluralis. In the same way, zymology feels like the long awaited follow-up to Teatro Assente and Motubachii, and it absolutely lives up to the high standard placed by those two landmark albums. Welcome back, Hibari. You've been missed.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Gard Nilssen´s Acoustic Unity - Live In Europe (3cd Set) (Clean Feed Records, 2017) *****

By Gustav Lindqvist

Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity is:

Gard Nilssen on drums, Petter Eldh on double bass and André Roligheten on tenor & soprano saxophones.

Nilssen can be heard together with ‘Cortex Quartet’ & ‘Lord Kelvin Trio’, with ‘Zanussi 5’ and of course with his own ‘Acoustic Unity’ who’s album ‘Firehouse’ got a well-deserved shiny five-star review here 2 years ago. Nilssen's playing is full of vigor, swing and feeling and the connection with Petter and André is something out of this world, as you’ll see in the review. Petter Eldh on double bass is an artist, which seems to be all over the globe playing with lots of different artists. ‘Amok Amor’, ‘Django Bates Beloved’ are the two collaborations I’ve heard most of, but there’s lots more for those who like to dive deeper into the artistry of mr Eldh. And finally, we have André Roligheten, who’s album ‘Homegrown’ I reviewed recently. He can be heard in ‘Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’, his own band ‘Roligheten’ and ‘Team Hegedal’ – in which Nilssen plays the drums as well.

Also featured:

Fredrik Ljungkvist on tenor saxophone & clarinet (On CD2, Ljubljana Jazz Festival) | I was so happy to see Fredrik contributing to this brilliant trio. One of my favorite albums from last year ‘And now the queen – a tribute to Carla Bley’, still gets a whole lot of playtime and his work with ‘Atomic’ is very much worth checking out.

Kristoffer Berre Alberts on alto, tenor & barytone saxophones (On CD3, Oslo Jazz Festival) | Kristoffer can be heard with ‘Cortex’, ‘Damana’ and quite recently in a duo with Steve Noble.

Jørgen Mathisen on tenor saxophone & clarinet (On CD3, Oslo Jazz Festival). Jørgen can be heard on the 2013 live concert album Jonas Kullhammar - Basement Sessions Volume 3: The Ljubljana Tapes (Clean Feed, 2014) , as a side note a highly recommended concert series from the Moserobie label owner, and former leader of the Jonas Kullhammar Quartet, Mr. Jonas Kullhammar himself. Mathisen can also be heard with ‘Zanussi 5’ (Ghost Dance, 2010) and with ‘The Core’.

Reviewing a release featuring 3 live concerts is not an easy task. To really try and hear and feel what the audience heard, to understand why Nilssen choses to release three concerts in one go and to also take into consideration that the concerts are not only with the original trio only makes this one a real challenge. At least that’s what I thought when preparing myself for the review…

What we have here is a live triple album. Three recordings from the summer tour of 2016, with CD2 and CD3 also featuring a couple of additional musicians joining the acoustic unity giving us not only a trio, but a quartet on the second CD and a quintet on the third. Let me just say it straight up: this is a spectacular release. Across the 3 concerts there’s an intensity and creativity that takes hold of me from start to finish. We get to hear 7 of the songs 2 times and even 3, but as a trio, a quartet, a quintet or all 3; (When Pigs Fly (Trio and Quintet), Hymne (all 3), Roundtrip (all 3), Mormor (Trio and Quintet), Rushen (Trio and Quartet), Gammal Rottegift (Trio and Quartet), Zig Zag (all 3). This is a brilliant concept. As a listener I’m treated with hearing some of the songs being performed on different dates, in different cities & countries and as a trio, quartet and quintet.

Nilssen has previously said that they always play without a set list and that songs are performed right off the bat. Having said that there must be a true telepathic connection between Nilssen, Eldh and Roligheten and I find myself nodding along and smiling when hearing great musicianship live on stage like this. On the three-minute-high-intensity song Zig-Zag I go from trio version directly to the quartet on CD2 and then to the quintet on CD3 and back again. It’s like having a mixer table and with the flip of a switch I can add and remove instruments. These guys don’t miss a note.

There’s an aura of historical free jazz heroes like Ayler, Coleman and Cherry which is present across all three concerts, but at the same time melodies are being reinvented in new and unexpected ways, ideas thrown out and brought back in new shapes – and it’s all happening live!

The first CD featuring “only” the trio comes out guns blazing with Nilssen leading the way. The first two tracks are filled with fire and intensity. First ‘When Pigs Fly’ which has this cool intro that the trio use to propel them into different directions of this relatively short tune. But what catches my immediate attention is the intensity of Nilssen which is an ever-present tour de force from the start. And then there’s ‘Hymne-Roundtrip’, which has a fantastic melody line which I’ll write more about further down this review. We will by the way hear this tune twice more on this release. Anyway it has this long and mystical bass solo lasting almost 4 minutes and I find myself turning the volume up to really submerge myself into the world of Petter Eldh. There’s a murmuring and almost soothing sound but he suddenly feels frustrated trying to find a way out. It reminds me of Keith Jarrett on the Bregenz-Munich release on part IV from Munich. Petter solves it very elegantly and brings the song to a close with a sigh… The trio picks up the pieces with the swinging song ‘Mormor’ (Grandmother) in which the spirit of Coltrane floats upon the beat of Petter and Nilssen. Very much needed after the start of this concert. The fourth track, ‘Jack’ is perhaps my favorite of all songs on this triple album. It has a long drum introduction which is equal parts searching and exploring, as it is building up tensions, intensity and swing! Sure enough, after 3 minutes the bass and brass joins in for a tune which has a dissonant yet funky rhythm. I absolutely love it! Towards the end the song trips over its own feet and goes into the Coleman-esque tune ‘Zig-Zag’ in which fierce free jazz intensity is balanced with elegance and dignity. It’s time to rest and charge our batteries. ‘Rushen’ provides such a space before we head into the final song of the first CD; ‘Gammal Rottegift’ (My Norwegian is not perfect but word for word I’d say it translates into “Old rat poison”. I’ll defer from interpreting it further than that…) An extended bass introduction suddenly explodes into yet another simple melody over rumbling drums. And then rhythm changes and the whole tune is dispersed and broken down to small pieces run through a blender and thrown out. But as I’m learning about this band I expect everything coming together again, and yes, they bring it home as a unity and the first concert is over!

The second CD, recorded live at the Ljubljana Jazz Festival introduces saxman Fredrik Ljungkvist to transform the trio into a quartet. The first song ‘Summer’s Ale’ starts with searching and tip-toeing in which the musicians tries to find a common ground. Tension builds up, they’re balancing impatiently. And after about 2 minutes we’re off. After a rough swing there’s a calm break with a melancholic tune before the second round of variations on the theme and more free excursions. I love how Nilssen moves all over the drums to support the other musicians. It’s perhaps not improvised, but it’s full of spark and life. ‘Rushen’ is, as on the first CD, a calmer melody, searching, hesitating and wandering around. And so, for something different… ‘Gammal Rottegift’ (again) starts with a bass intro over 2 minutes. The band is invited to join with big orchestral aspirations. But it comes to a halt and instead the theme is chopped up in pieces. The underlying theme is dispersed across the soundstage and the quartet goes its separate ways. But like a stretched rubber band they find their way back to each other. They then charge all together full speed ahead until its time to close and finish. After an extended drum solo introduction ‘Hymne-Roadtrip’ presents a simple melody traveling over the carpet of drums, and it’s so infectious. I find myself whistling the melody when walking through busy European airports in Denmark, Italy and Germany. It’s hard not to. It’s like with ‘Lonely Woman’. It gets stuck in the system. The interesting thing is how the somewhat naïve tune fits so well with the dissonance from the much more intense rhythm section playing. Anyway, the melody and beat transforms into something different and new. The saxophones start to battle, one in each channel with bass & drums providing a stage for them to use. The theme comes back but spiced up and tweaked. For the closing of this great performance we’re treated with an extended bass solo which builds up intensity, twists, turns and spirals. It’s over. ‘Zig-Zag’. Boom, it’s Ornette – all-over the place but on ecstasy. But it very quickly comes to a halt. A few blips and blops and we’re off again. It’s a song that is lost with an uncertain direction. That’s okay, we can just hold on to our seats and go with the flow. In ‘Salad Days’ that closes the second CD I’m wondering whether the tracks title implies financial struggle. I must try and remember to ask Nilssen if I get the chance to see them live. If so, the character of the song fits well with the melancholy heard and it’s almost a bit hazy. Short unfinished melodies float in space exploring. Salad Days… OK. This is how salad days sound, I think I get it.

On the third CD, from the Oslo Jazz Festival, the trio becomes a quintet and on the first track, ‘Hymne-Roundtrip’ – which I have now enjoyed in a trio and a quartet setting – is heard in full bloom. Coming out of the minute-long drum solo intro, the quintet gives me the melody that is now implemented in my jazz DNA. It has a perfect balance between the simple melody and the manic drums. After rolling and tumbling for about nine and a half minutes or so we are once again treated with an extended bass solo which also ends the song. It’s needed. I’m exhausted after hearing the quintet performing like this. There’s a seamless change into the second track ‘Mormor’ (Grandmother) which a slow paced funky piece with has been extended with 2½ minute from the version on CD1. The combination of these two songs is very interesting. I built a playlist with ‘Hymne-Roundtrip’ from both CD1 and CD3 played after each other and then ‘Mormor’ as trio and quintet. All in all 4 songs but heard as one. It’s a very rewarding experience.

Anyway, onwards to ‘When Pigs Fly’. Again, it’s nice to hear this in a quintet setting. It has qualities that allows for the song to really take off when having several brass instruments playing. I’m not sure which one I prefer. It’s just two different experiences I guess, both great. ‘Utleiemegleren’ (I believe it means The Landlord in Norwegian), is a song that I’m still trying to understand. Slow pace, emotional yet with a bit of an edge. I’m never sure where it’s going. The concert ends with the 4½ minute long (short) sparkling ‘Adams Ale’ which is just a full-blown pack of energy building up to the inevitable end with the group throwing all they have out there. It balances on a thin thread throughout the performance. Madness or elegance? Badaboom. It’s over.

This is my first five-star review on FJB, and it is very well deserved. This is one of the best releases I’ve heard this year and even in the last 2-3 years. Apologies for all the adjectives, but there’s just a whole lot of positive things to write about this release. It’s adventurous, it doesn’t stay in the middle at all. It transforms rhythms, melodies. It bends and breaks. It’ll go on my list for the best albums this year.


CD1: North Sea Jazz Festival July 8th 2016
CD2: Ljubljana Jazz Festival, July 2nd 2016
CD3: Oslo Jazz Festival, August 18th 2016

Album can be heard on Spotify here, and bought as a triple CD or Vinyl+CD box set (January release) from Clean Feed Records.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunny Murray (1936 - 2017)

By Martin Schray

In an interview with Dan Warburton from November 2000 Sunny Murray said: “I'm 64 now, and if it takes me till I'm 94 I'm going to continue to play and try for the new generation to hear me. (…) For me it's like the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre, there's a million prints but you have to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. That's how I feel about me and all the other drummers. OK, they listen to Max as the father of bebop, to Elvin the father of swing, but when it comes to avant-garde there's no father figure ... When I go to New York (…) I feel totally excluded. (…) The young cats look at me kinda strange, like I don't exist. But I'm there. And when I play they know I exist.“ Now Sunny Murray, possibly the most important innovator in avant-garde percussion, passed away in a care facility in Paris.

Murray played and recorded with almost all important free jazz musicians but most of all two names are associated with his work: The first one is Cecil Taylor, who widened his musical horizon when Murray came to New York in the late 1950s. After experimenting and practising for one year he followed Taylor and Jimmy Lyons to Denmark. At that time Murray developed a more open drumming concept, and when they recorded Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come at the Cafe Montmartre in 1962, which was only released in 1965, it was like an early “indication of the existence of such a revolutionary approach to rhythm“ (Valerie Wilmer). The second important name is Albert Ayler. Also in 1965, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity came out, an album that set new standards as to drumming because here Murray consequently neglected the drummer's traditional role as timekeeper in favor of textural playing and sound exploring. His aim was to free the soloist completely from the restrictions of time, so that he can follow his own ideas more independently. Especially his ringing stickwork on the edge of the cymbals and his fierce barrage on the snare became characteristic of his style. Murray worked a lot with Ayler’s ensembles (on Ghosts, Spirits’s Rejoice, New York Eye And Ear Control, The Hilversum Sessions and on European Radio Studio Recordings 1964, an album we incidentally just reviewed yesterday), but he also released great albums under his own name, like Sonny’s Time Now (with Ayler on sax, Don Cherry on trumpet and Henry Grimes on bass). At the beginning of his career Murray’s name is mainly connected with the ESP label, but when he moved to France in the late 1960s, he often recorded for BYG Actuel. Among these albums are lots of wonderful gems like An Even Break (Never Give A Sucker) or Sunshine / Hommage To Africa. In 2008 Antoine Prum made a documentary about his life, you can watch it here. Even late in his life he didn’t stop making wonderful music, for example in his trio with Tony Bevan (sax) and John Edwards (bass).

One of my all-time-favorite free jazz recordings is Murray’s self-titled ESP album from 1966, a sheer explosion of sound and energy propelled by this powerhouse behind the drums. Farewell, Sunny Murray, you will surely be missed, for the free jazz community you will always exist. The new generation has always heard you.

If you want to see what sunny Murray was capable of even at the age of 63, watch this excerpt from a duo set with Arthur Doyle.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Albert Ayler Quartet ‎– European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 (Hatology, 2017) *****

Dedicated to Sunny Murray, the greatest drummer-percussionist of all, whom I never had the luck to watch live, but whose recordings have made my mind and heart move into billions of directions.

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

I must be frank, while writing this review: Albert Ayler’s various formations played a significant role for me as a listener of free thinking music. His holistic vision of free artistic expression made my mind think and communicate in quite different ways than before.

Ayler put his soul in his music. He had no less to offer. The impact of his death, only at the age of thirty four years old, was felt accordingly. And still is today. The day his body – after a probable suicide – was washed upon the banks of the East River, the world lost as much as when Rosa Luxembourg’s body, during the demise of the Spartacist uprising, was thrown in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin by the fascist Freikorps.

1964, some years before his ultimate death, was a good year for jazz. Fire music was beginning to change, forever thankfully, what we now call jazz. Ayler, in his own words, was the holy ghost during all this. Kind of an outsider. But he was not alone.

This quartet, a dream team of sorts, was then four young people struggling to find room to express themselves. Gary Peacock on bass, Don Cherry on cornet, Sunny Murray on drums, and Ayler on tenor saxophone. Very few would give time and space for this crazy shit back then, and most of them were in Europe. Each of the individuals that participates in these recordings (taken from sessions for the Danish Radio in Copenhagen and from Hilversum in the Netherlands, both at the Fall of 1964) made a career of few compromises. But Ayler’s time was limited. It’s as if he knew it and blew so hard and strong so that the voice of his soul could make even with the little time it was offered.

I thought really hard about the possibility of writing a straight-ahead review. Colin Green’s great review of another great recording, SME’s Karyobin, set the bar really high for archival reviews (well, Derek Bailey didn’t like the recording, but what did he know?), but I cannot, really. This is out of the ordinary, adventurous, free from all restraints music, made from people who probably had empty pockets. It needs to be listened with intensity in order to match the ferocity of their collective sound. Sure, there’s a big list of great artists that treated the saxophone as a weapon of critical thought and expression. But none – and I say zero -– achieved the ferocious attack against normality that equals Ayler’s playing. Apart from him soloing, the collective sound they achieve many times acts like a drone, a wall of notes.

Before the end of this so called review I must say this: maybe this piece is full of exaggerations, but, please, stick to the following. Go buy this CD, listen to its wild and anarchic blowing, its syncopated aggressive bass lines, the polyrhythmic barrage of Murray, and the chameleonic playing of Don Cherry. The say with me, blow hard, blow fee for all of us Albert Ayler, wherever you are.


Friday, December 8, 2017

The Few - Fragments of a Luxury Vessel (Two Cities, 2017) ****½

I stumbled upon The Few at a show in a now defunct spot in Brooklyn about a year or so ago. They were either the headlining or supporting Ken Vandermark playing solo, or maybe it was a bit of both. Regardless, if I recall correctly, Vandermark opened up the sonic pathways for the The Few to then make their own. The trio's reserved but insistent approach was captivating, and by the end I was eagerly anticipating what would become their debut album Fragments of a Luxury Vessel.

The Few is violionist/vocalist Macie Stewart, bassist Charlie Kirchen, and guitarist Steve Marquette. Together they paint a musical picture that melds Americana-tinged experimental improvisation informed by classical, rock, and folk. Their music is quiet, but the edges are not smooth.

Stewart is a prominent voice in the group, though there really is no one who dominates. Her violin provides melody, percussion, and textural sounds.  Marquette on acoustic guitar builds a harmonic bed full of melodic elements and crunchy tonal clusters. Kirchen's bass is typically balanced in the mix but can be heard more prominently at times, like on the duo passage on the Albert Ayler homage 'Variations on "Truth Is Marching In"'. Stewart also adds wordless vocals in a warm mid-range that sort of extends her instruments reach, rather than being a focus. 

The opener, 'Responsive Machines', begins with crystalline chord-like jabs from the guitar. Juxtaposed with tiny plucks and the bow bouncing off the violin strings, the track sets the tone for the album: serious, meticulous, and probing. Stewart's vocals appear, accentuating a rhythmic passage but eventually give way to a melody from the violin over an insistent bass line. They pick up some serious steam at this point, showing off another side of the group. 'Do You Still' showcases the trio deep in free improvisation, and the follow up 'Variations on "Truth Is Marching In"' begins with a rather lovely folk tune, expanding and evolving as it progresses.

The Few have a carefully curated sound that emphasizes the group and seamlessly segues between song and exploration. The sonic clarity is important too - each note, hit, snap, and scrape is an aspect of their approach. 

If I recall correctly from the show, when Vandermark joined he did so on clarinet, assimilating with The Few's aesthetic. Their sound is delicate, celebrates nuance, and self assuredly unique. A true soft-spoken gem. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mette Rasmussen / Tashi Dorji / Tyler Damon - To the Animal Kingdom (Trost, 2017) ****½

By Eric McDowell

In 2015, Mette Rasmussen and Chris Corsano released one of the best albums of the year. In 2016, so did Tashi Dorji and Tyler Damon. What made All the Ghosts at Once (Relative Pitch) and Both Will Escape (Family Vineyard) so powerful, in part, was the fresh, fluid energy with which each half-drums duo improvised. Nor did either album take the risk of over-relying on its audience’s powers of attention, choosing instead to grab hold of the ear and lead it on irresistibly. As organic and necessary as these musical dialogues seemed to be to the musicians involved, they were like oxygen to their listeners—easy to take in, hard to do without.

So when To the Animal Kingdom was announced, it was only natural to wonder how these two great duos would survive colliding together. Reconfigured as a trio (it’s tempting to imagine what we’d hear were Corsano on the recording) the saxophonist, guitarist, and drummer come together in a way that epitomizes John Corbett’s description, in A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, of what happens when a group of two improvisors becomes three: “Take the duet and add an X factor.” But that’s not to suggest that Rasmussen’s contributions feel “added” on to the existing Dorji/Damon duo dynamic. In reality, any one of the three can be heard functioning as that triangulating “X factor” at any given moment. In this way, in Corbett’s words, the “possibilities” multiply “exponentially.”
For one obvious example, the title track opener finds Rasmussen and Dorji engaging in a kind of high-intensity joust for almost a minute before Damon enters the fray with abbreviated tom rolls. From there he continually shifts the collective dynamic, adding density, volume, and color to escalate his playing as if to drive a wedge between his two companions—or between us and them. When he tapers off in the middle of the track and again closer to the end, he pivots the context in a way that the trio formation, per Corbett’s “X factor,” is especially primed to benefit from.

Another of Corbett’s comments—that “the trio has an approachable level of complexity”—proves true here, too. As with much free improvisation, part of this complexity comes from the musicians’ playful take on their roles in the trio. While he can certainly pummel and thrash the kit, Damon can also bring a sometimes delicate melodicism to his drumming, the chiming gong-work that opened Both Will Escape in evidence near the beginning of “To the Heavens and Earths.” At the same time, Dorji and his metallic tone tend often toward the percussive, whether stabbing (as on the first piece) or more intricate (as on the night-music opening of “To Life”). And isolating Rasmussen often reveals an amount of repetition in her playing that’s surprising, given the overall effect, balancing lyricism and rhythmic patterning.

The result is sensitive but athletic improvisation that has the flexibility to pull in multiple directions at once without violating the boundaries of the three improvisors’ distinctive voices, at times no doubt approaching, to borrow once more from Corbett, the level of “sublime communication.”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Frode Gjerstad / Paal Nilssen-Love – Nearby Faraway (PNL Records, 2017) ***½

By Gustav Lindqvist

Frode Gjerstad: Alto and bass saxophone, Bb and contrabass clarinet.
Paal Nilssen-Love: Drums

Much like fellow Scandinavian reedist Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love is all over the free jazz globe. Touring with some 200 plus dates a year, running his own record label (PNL Records), leads Large Unit, and much much more. For a deep-dive into the mind of PNL, head over to Eyal Hareuveni’s interview here.

Norwegian reeds player Frode Gjerstad has quite often been mentioned here on FJB, but I would still like his profile to be a bit more raised, simply because he deserves it. He’s leading his own trio with Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Øyvind Storesund, but has of course played in numerous groups and has collaborated with a very impressive number of ‘profiles’ on the free jazz scene. He’s often working in the higher registries and I was really excited to hear how this would work in a duo setting with the style of the straight-to-the-point, hard hitting, intensive and borderline rocker Nilssen-Love. On the other hand, I could see that Frode has brought Bb and contrabass clarinet’s to the session as well. Very promising indeed.

We get 9 songs with lengths of 2:37 to just above the 9-minute mark. I’d say this is a very nice ‘sampler’ that could be used as an introduction to the world of free jazz. I will certainly use it with some of my friends who has not yet realized what they’re missing. This album will give them relatively short songs with 4 different brass instruments, and with a drummer who must be close to the pinnacle of his career.

Some of the songs are more searching, contemplative and slow moving. Others more passionate, intense and fast. The duo setting provides a peeled off and intimate feeling throughout the album and I can clearly hear both Frode and Paal being fully focused on the task at hand. On some songs Frode is in the lead, and on others Paal provides texture and a scene on which Frode can move freely in, out and across, and on some songs they both travel together tightly interwoven. For me, the highlight on this album is the 9 minute ‘Flying Circus’. PNL’s thundering drums rolling constantly throughout the song together with the intensity of Frode is a delight to listen to. This is also how I enjoy PNL the most. No holds barred, full throttle and quick twists and turns.

One thing is for certain; Frode Gjerstad and Paal Nilssen-Love are two of the most bright shining stars on the free jazz heaven today.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Mike Majkowski - Days and Other Days (Astral Spirits, 2017) ***½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Australian, Berlin-based double bass player Mike Majkowski is known as a resourceful and varied improviser. His musical spectrum includes collaborations with Ethiopian keyboards player Hailu Mergia, free improvised sessions with fellow-Australian drummer Tony Buck, pianist Chris Abrahams (both of The Necks) and violinist Jon Rose, and his trio Lotto (with Polish guitarist Lukasz Rychlicki and drummer Pawel Szpura) which explores the outer borders of free-improv, country music and noise rock.

Majkowski is also known for his love for the the solo format. The limited-edition Days and Other Days - a run of 300 LPs plus download option, is his seventh solo release since 2009. It was recorded in Berlin throughout four months at the beginning of 2016 and mastered by Australian sound artist Lawrence English, and like Majkowski's other recent solo projects it is no longer focused on the double bass. Majkowski alternates here on analog synthesizer, percussion, piano, vibes - none of these instruments are played - or, more accurately, employed - in any conventional manner, rather they are samples and field recordings. This album deepens Majkowski's exploration of the intersection between the acoustic instruments and the electronic sounds.

Days and Other Days, like Majkowski's other solo projects, suggests a distinct ambiance. It is divided between four dark and chilly electro-acoustic drones, all insisting on investigating methodically repetitive patterns, the subtle sculpting of fragile textures with only minute oscillations and mutations of the frequencies, as well as an exploration of the resonant timbral qualities of the acoustic instruments.

These detailed soundscapes have an enigmatic, disarming quality. Patiently they alter your sense of time and space and embrace you with their modest, minimalist textures, dissonant sounds and quiet noises. This sensation is experienced better on the second side, with the part meditative, part cinematic “Matter”, and the last, short “Growth”, that offers some rays of hope beyond the dark atmosphere.

These soundscapes may sound as a comment about our daily soundtracks, busy with countless distracting noises and rarely, if ever, deriving pleasure from silence, total silence. Days and Other Days just deconstructs these daily sonic phenomena into slow and sustained, microscopic practicals. It allows us to experience these elements anew and appreciate again the way we listen and sense sounds at all.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Tom Rainey Obbligato - Float Upstream (Intakt, 2017) ****

By Derek Stone

In the world of free jazz, there is no single approach to interpreting the “standards” - you’ve got some musicians (Braxton, for example) who seem to prefer moving within the same harmonic/melodic realm in which the original pieces themselves were composed. Others take a far looser tack that often leads to a complete deconstruction of the source material, after which there’s not much left that’s recognizable to the listener. Tom Rainey’s group Obbligato works somewhere between these two extremes, choosing neither strict adherence to nor extreme deviation from the blueprints of the standards that they’re working with. The result is a fresh take on compositions that, for some, might have gotten a bit stale after decades of more-or-less faithful (re)interpretation. Consisting of Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ingrid Laubrock on saxes, Kris Davis on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Rainey himself on drums, Obbligato will undoubtedly get the attention of anyone who has kept up with these artists - each one of them has been involved with some of the finest releases of the past few years (including a previous release together, reviewed here), and to see them all working together on a set of standards is bound to, at the very least, intrigue even the fiercest free jazz fanatic.

The album begins with the languid romanticism of “Stella by Starlight” - while the piece’s opening moments find the rhythm section mostly reigning in their wilder impulses, Alessi and Laubrock are a bit more exploratory; the two circle one another in sinuous arcs that, despite their playfulness, never spin off into the intrepid excursions that the the players are known for in other contexts. As the tempo picks up, though, Rainey and Davis each unveil tiny hints of the abandon they’re capable of - Davis sends out tiny, supercharged fragments of melody, tinged with dissonance, and Rainey’s constantly-shifting shapes are like the bubbles that form in a pot of boiling water, pushing ever outward against the boundaries of the composition. The next track, a take on Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice,” loses none of the free-floating wistfulness of the original, but nevertheless manages to make itself distinct. The tight interplay between Alessi and Laubrock is a wonder in itself, and the tiny forays into the avant-garde that they make (some overblowing here, a shambolic cluster of notes there) help to maintain a small, yet powerful, element of tension. The endearing mischief of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is here refracted through a cracked kaleidoscope, with Rainey’s restless cymbal-taps and Gress’s walking bass acting as the catalysts that push the others into more and more frenzied territory. When Davis finally joins in around the two-minute mark, it’s in a mode that readers of this blog (and previous listeners of Davis’s work) will already be familiar with - manic cascades of notes, wild oscillations, and a percussive attack. “What’s New,” a 1939 standard composed by Bob Haggart, opens with an evocative solo by Gress that leads perfectly into the soft shades of melancholy that Davis conjures up. Shortly thereafter, Alessi and Laubrock launch into a twisting, diaphanous conversation with one another, while never tarnishing the piece’s delicate mood. Likewise, Rainey keeps a soft touch, his rhythms and brushwork acting more as textural swathes than time-keeping devices. “There Is No Greater Love” moves the album in a more energetic direction, with Rainey taking the first couple of minutes to offer up a spirited, elastic solo. The other players take his lead, Laubrock and Alessi in particular exploring a range of melodic paths that criss-cross one another, flit off, and eventually dovetail again. The one non-standard, “Float Upstream,” is unsurprisingly one of the more adventurous numbers: the horns take more tonal risks, Davis’s exquisite piano-work acquires sinister undertones, and the composition itself is knottier and more abrasive than anything else here. Its explosive conclusion is a wonderful palette-cleanser before the album closes with the dim-lit tenderness of “I Fall in Love Too Easily.”

To many avid listeners of “free” music, the standards can often sound mawkish and overly saccharine. Admittedly, my first listen-through of Float Upstream left me with a syrupy-sweet taste in my mouth that, while not unpleasant, certainly didn’t give me the intoxicating rush that I can get from, say, Davis’s Rye Eclipse or Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House recordings. Upon further listens, however, I came to appreciate the admittedly difficult work that Obbligato have set themselves with this project; approaching the standards as they do, from an angle of avant-garde experimentalism, is very likely to be an exercise in restraint - it calls for toning down your wilder impulses and “playing it straight,” so to speak, while still putting enough of yourself into the arrangements so that they don’t seem sterile. In this regard, Obbligato have definitely put together a sublime set. The standards here are handled respectfully, but not with kid gloves, and the result is a refreshing re-examination of these pieces and the power that they have to capture us and hold us in awe.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Kyle Motl - Katabasis (2017) & Apperception (2017)

Kyle Motl / Drew Ceccato - Katabasis (s/r, 2017) ****
Kyle Motl / TJ Borden - Apperception (s/r, 2017) ***½


By Paul Acquaro

West Coast Bassist Kyle Motl works with two very different duo on the recently released Katabasis and Apperceptions. On the former, he's paired with saxophonist Drew Ceccato, and on the latter, cellist T.J. Borden.

The title Katabasis refers to "a descent of some type, such as moving downhill, the sinking of the winds or sun, a military retreat, a trip to the underworld, or a trip from the interior of a country down to the coast."* Taking this metaphorical trip with Motl is Ceccato, whom Motl works with in drummer Abbey Rader's West Coast Quartet (see First Gathering, 2016).
Ceccato has a sound that is simultaneously raw and controlled. It reminds me of times of the more subdued side of Brotzmann's playing, especially when he's pushing, but still holding back. Motl responds with an empathetic and kinetic approach to the bass. The two have a wonderful rapport and while the song titles all seem to be words that refer to descending, the music doesn't seem so bound by gravity. Lyrical themes and evolving ideas bounce off of each other in unexpected ways.

On Apperception, Motl joins forces with cellist T.J. Borden on a romp through a resonant acoustic landscape. Motl and Borden's approach vacillates between the typical range of their instruments and well into the extended technique. Playing with many timbres and tones, they create a fascinating, if not always easy to digest, palette of sound. While there are less tangible melodies on this album then on Katabasis, there is an incredible amount of textural wealth. In fact, the final track 'Strawman Apology' is a gripping example.
Two strong, adventurous albums that continue to reveal nuances on each listen.

*if you trust Wikipedia definitions, that is.