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Ballister: David Rempis, Paal-Nilssen Love, Fred-Lonberg Holm

Dialograum Kreuzung an St. Helena, Bonn. March 2017. Photo by Martin Schray

David Torn

Howland Cultural Center, Beacon, NY. March 2017. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Louis Belogenis & Joe McPhee

Alan Krili's Loft, NYC. February 2017. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Sebastian Gramss, Johannes Frisch, William Parker

Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, Germany. Nov 2016. Photo by Martin Schray

Dominic Lash (bass), Steve Noble (drums), Stefan Keune (sax)

W71, Weikersheim, Germany. November 2016. Photo by Martin Schray

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Matt Mitchell - førage (Screwgun Records, 2017) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

I have been a long time fan of saxophonist Tim Bern, catching when I can his concerts and covering his Snake Oil albums and the brilliant BB&C for the blog. His complex and interlocking melody lines have always been a draw, his music wraps around itself, like vines growing up the tree, overlapping and intertwining, beautiful, and sometimes overwhelming.

Pianist Matt Mitchell has been working with Bern for several years in Snakeoil, in addition to many other high profile and adventurous musicians such as Rudresh Mahanthappa, David Douglas, Darius Jones, as well a leader releasing some well-regarded albums like 2015's Vista Accumulation. Somewhere along the way, he found the time to make this illuminating solo piano recording of Bern's music, revealing both his own musical conceptions and the strength of Bern's compositions.

On just the piano, Bern's abstract and complex melodies are unraveled and untangled, then re-positioned, re-layered and re-tangled. The sinewy music strongly associated with the composer holds up remarkably in all of it tough and fragile beauty. The title førage also says a lot: this is not re-interpretations of scores, but rather a mash-up of ideas. Mitchell went through Bern's ample discography, selecting songs and melodies and put them together in his own way.

The first track, 'PÆNË', is calm as the opening chords move in an unusual progression, the melody is almost soothing, but it's not easy listening, rather it's accessibly demanding. The second track, 'TRĀÇĘŚ' is more angular, more jumpy, and the kaleidoscopic melody fills the space around the listener like small shards of colors turning in all directions. The slightly askew melody locks in with the rhythm in such a way that it is unclear if a beat is being skipped, but then again, it locks in so tightly that it's hard to imagine a beat missing. The third track, 'ÀÄŠ', is sublime. A sparse and evocative melody slides between the cracks of a suspenseful chord progression. As the song progresses it grows heavier, denser, and some of the hopefulness felt at first, turns darker, but towards the end, unfolds into a spacious soundscape. Mitchell is an energetic player, his broad use of dynamics and expansive approach reveals a great deal of emotion within the music through out the whole recording. 

It is a true pleasure to get lost in Mitchell (and Bern)'s sonic maze. Over the course of the 58 minutes of førage, Mitchell shows a deep appreciation and understanding of this music, which comes through in every note, shifting tempo, and interlocking rhythmic phrase. Released on Bern's Screwgun records (which had been quiet for a while), førage also features A classic Steve Byram cover on a signature brown cardboard cover.

førage releases on March 31st

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Talking with Paal

Paal Nilssen-Love with Ballister, Blue Tomato club in Vienna, March 18.
Photo by Eyal Hareuveni

By Eyal Hareuveni

Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is one of the busiest musicians on the globe. An “unstoppable train of energy,” as his comrade Mats Gustafsson describes him. Nilssen-Love performs more than 200 dates per year, leads his own 12-musician Large Unit, runs his own PNL Records label (and another new, untitled one that releases live performances), manages the Blow Out summer festival in Oslo (with fellow drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg), and plays in more than dozen outfits, including The Thing, Lean Left, Ballister, Frode Gjerstad Trio and duos with Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark.

This interview was conducted via e-mail while Nilssen-Love hopped between gigs in South America with Frode Gjerstad Trio and continuing European tours with Ballister trio and Lean Left quartet, and prior to a visit to Ethiopia with the Large Unit and a duo tour with Brötzmann in Japan.

You are taking your Large Unit to a short tour in Ethiopia with The Ex in the beginning of April. Can you elaborate about your special connection to Ethiopia and Ethiopian music?

I was invited by Terrie Ex and (his wife) Emma Fischer to join them on a trip to Addis Ababa back in 2009. This was a project that also included Ken Vandermark and Ab Baars. It was probably the most intense week of my life. Almost impossible to describe with words why. The music, the people, food, drink, dancing… late late nights and early mornings full of life changing experiences.

Since that first trip, I’ve visited Ethiopia almost every year. Music wise, I learned something that I had never heard before - Tigrigna - a 5 beat rhythm which is absolutely incredible. It’s from the northern part of Ethiopia called Tigray. I made a tune for Large Unit which has some of this rhythm in it and I first named it Tigrigna, then Fendika (appeared on the Book/Double disc Large Unit 2015, ONL, 2016), which is also the name of Melaku Belay’s club in Adis (and the name of Belay Band), THE most important club in Ethiopia.

When I was looking for a title for the debut 4LP/3CD box-set of Large Unit I simply googled Tigrigna and the name Erta Ale came up. This is the name of an active volcano in the northeastern part of Ethiopia. I thought that the name suited the box-set we were about to release (Erta Ale, PNL, 2014). So, it’s pretty obvious that I have strong links to Ethiopia and its musicians and dancers.

I always bring my iPod to the tours of the Large Unit and I have a playlist of Ethiopian 7” and some of the modern dance music from Ethiopia which are played before, during the intermission, and after the shows, giving a very nice vibe. This Ethiopian music also functions as a sort of tour soundtrack for the Large Unit and we all become in the same mood before and after the shows.

In 2015 the Large Unit did 38 concerts, two tours of Europe and a 15-gig tour of North America. My interest and passion for Brazilian music has been growing stronger in the last years and we were lucky enough to do several concerts in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo during the fall of 2016. When we were discussing what to do next I announced the idea of making a trip to Addis. Per Åke Holmlander, our tuba player said: “if you managed to get us to Brazil, you’ll manage to take us to Ethiopia”.

We will do concerts and workshops and also bring instruments to give to the local musicians. Drumsticks, reeds, a clarinet, effect pedals and microphones are already assembled from the band members and other colleagues. Terrie asked me to bring some used sticks for the local drummers and I wasn’t aware of the desperate need of sticks. Some years ago I managed to get 40kg drum sticks from a yearly Christmas bash which 100 or so Norwegian drummers attended.

Terrie Ex, Gretatchew Mekuria, Paal Nilssen-Love
Photo by Matias Corral from GETATCHEW MEKURIA (1935 - 2016)
We will do concerts at various venues in Addis. Terrie Ex and his family are already there, talking with local musicians and music teachers for shows and workshops (and preparing an exhibition and a tribute concert in memory of the great sax player Getatchew Mekuria). The idea is to work together and perform concerts with local musicians and dancers from Fendika and elsewhere. It’s going to be intense… The trip will be well documented and I’m planning to have another photo book with CDs, to be released later this year.

On the last album of Large Unit, Ana, you incorporated Brazilian rhythms and hosted Brazilian musicians. What we can expect from the 09Large Unit upcoming album, Fluku?

Fluku (Two tracks from Fluku appear on the Large Unit's new Selected Works 2013-2017) was recorded in April 2015 and will be released in September 2017. There are new pieces that for me are stretching the idea of composition. All musicians were given more responsibility and have to make decisions on stage of where the pieces will go. There’s even a ballad(!). It is different from our previous albums and shows the band continuous development. We plan is to tour Europe in October and then a week of concerts in Japan.

Other plans for 2017?

The Spring of 2017 is going to be intense. I’m in Brazil right now, just recorded a second duo album with Arto Lindsay in an amazing studio outside of Rio (following Scarcity, PNL, 2014). I will continue to a tour with Frode Gjerstad trio which starts in Rio, goes on to Chile, and ends in Argentina. I have 4 days off before I hit the road with the Ballister trio which will also have two new albums out - Slag on Dave Rempis’ Aerophonic Records and also a vinyl/DVD on Dropa Disc titled Low Level Stink.

David Rempis, Paal Nilssen-Love
Lean Left goes out on the road just after that tour and also has a new album out on Trost, I Forgot to Breathe. Ken Vandermark and I did two days of recording in the ESS studio in Chicago in mid-January and it was a quite a different situation. Some 5-6 minute pieces and a total of 60 pieces that were as short as of 15 seconds. The material will be released as two (very) different albums, one CD on my PNL Records and the other on a vinyl, on Ken´s Audiographic records and on PNL.

Peter Brötzmann and I are working on titles for two releases on Clean Feed this spring/fall. One vinyl and one CD of material we recorded in Antwerp in August 2015. Quite a special session where Peter had bought his bass saxophone, contrabass clarinet as well as the usual horns. I had an extended drum kit which was extended with Korean gongs and other metal objects. The music is very different than what we’ve done before. We are going to a tour in Japan this April.

My PNL Records just released a duo recording with Frode Gjerstad done in the fall of 2016, Nearby Faraway. A brand new band that had its first concert in December 2016 - the Pan-Scan Ensemble - which consists of Ståle Liavik Solberg and myself plus Sten Sandell, Anna Högberg, Lotte Anker, Julie Kjær, Goran Kaifes, Emil Strandberg and Thomas Johansson, released its debut album on PNL, Air and Light and Time and Space.

There will also be a duo CD coming out with Otomo Yoshihide, a recording done in Moscow from a tour we did in May 2016. I also want to get going a series of 7” releases with various recordings from Brazil but that will have to wait till I have some funds on my account.

Can you tell about the challenges of an independent musician who runs his own label, manage festivals, book most of his performances, runs the tours and performs more than 200 dates every year?

Doing all this work means composing the music, printing the charts, keeping them between each concert and tours, setting tours, booking concerts, dealing with fees with presenters, booking travels, applying for financial support, doing accounts, etc etc… It’s enough work for two persons, full time, I’d say, but OK, no complaints. The challenge now is to set tours as the musicians are getting more and more busy with their own projects and gigs all over. On the end of 2016, I got an agent for the Large Unit, Riccarda Cato, and she has proved to be the right choice.

PNL Records has been a one-man business up until now. I am going to Krakow, Poland, to print the CD’s there since it’s cheaper that way and it gives me a day off with friends there. I am lucky to have Petter Flaten Eilertsen on board. He administrating my Bandcamp page and deals with the mail orders. Most of PNL CDs are produced in quantities of 500 or 1000, depending on predictions of sales. Some sell and some just don’t.

I pulled out of Oslo’s All Ears festival after last year’s festival. I had been running it for 15 years. To be honest, I didn’t feel the same joy as before, and for me that was a clear sign to leave it all to Guro Moe, who’s now running the festival in a great way. The Blow Out festival is still fun, more than fun and Ståle Liavik Solberg and I have a great time putting the program together and not least during the festival. We both do two sets during the festival and keep busy organizing the whole thing with help from some incredible volunteers.

I like playing and it also keeps me in shape :). If the year was 700 days, I’d play 500 gigs, I guess. I prefer to do at least 15-20 concerts per month and the thing is that the more I do it, the more I want to do it. As simple as that. There are still many musicians that I’d like to play with and time is limited, I’m afraid. So is the amount of venues to perform at. Europe is not that easy anymore. There are less clubs, less support for the clubs, more bands touring and more bands that are willing to play for less or even the door. But I’m still doing OK.

How do you manage to maintain such high levels of intensity and energy throughout so many performances and along the years?

For me, music is something serious BUT it’s also fun. And as Joe McPhee says, he takes having fun seriously. It’s important to have fun on stage. That said, it’s still serious. When entering the stage, it’s serious. It can be pleasant and it can be not so pleasant. You’re naked up there... There’s also the fact that people have paid to see and hear you and you can’t walk up on stage with the attitude that it’s just another gig and that you’ll repair whatever mistakes (if that’s how you think) on the next gig. It’s now or never. So, with the music we play, I feel it lies within the nature of the music. The music pushes you, you push the music, the musicians push you and hopefully you walk off stage in the same elevated feel that maybe or hopefully the audience is in. To me, music is a social experience and sometimes an out of the body experience where you loose control... and that kicks at least me into a set of mind where the sense of time or perception of time is gone and you go go go and there’s no way back. No time to think about what’s going on until it’s over... and still then you might not know what just happened.

The intensity feels natural for me. I can’t do anything 50% and for sure not music. It’s a cliché but you have to, and you should do, play the concert as if it was the last thing you did. How can you lie on your deathbed after doing a mediocre gig? You have to give 100% every night! The music gives you energy and not least, the people you play the music with should give you the same energy you’re putting into it. And from concert to concert, you’re also somehow depending on the audience's energy. It’s a situation where you give and receive on all levels. I can’t walk off stage without feeling this high energy level on every show.

You have maintained along the years a close circle of trusted musicians that you continued to play with - Frode Gjerstad, Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee and Lasse Marhaug. What is so unique in such experiences?

I like the idea of first-time meetings and find it challenging and a learning experience and I would not want to be without these meetings. That said, I really enjoy working with bands and the same musicians over a long time. Most of the people I work with are quite active in many other groups and this feeds off to the groups I’m in and vice versa. The experience you get from one group rubs off in all other groups. You develop a language together and you go on expanding this more and more. The music gets deeper and deeper. I have my own rule that is this: you have to be surprised or experience something new from yourself, your band members on every concert, also, you have to experience something new between you and your band members. If this doesn’t happen, then it’s time to wrap it up. I’m not into doing the same tunes over and over again and don’t want routine to run the shows. Of course, you have your own language and you can’t avoid repeating yourself but one has to push things forward and further.

There are several key figures within the pool of musicians I work with and it’s all long-standing relationships; Ken, Peter, Mats, Frode, Ingebrigt, Terrie, Joe, and Lasse and whoever I forgot to mention. They are all very close friends and we all work very hard. We expect the most of each other as we do of ourselves.

You are known as a discaholic. How much does your vinyl collection weigh, compared with the Mats Gustafsson's 2.5 tons? Are you going to hunt vinyl in Ethiopia?

Mats has probably got the most complete record collection of free jazz, improvised music and in fact, mainstream jazz. He was out early when things were still cheap or affordable and not least before vinyl collecting became a business. And these days he’s trading vinyl and what not. I’m into vinyl for sure but it’s about the music. If I go to a country with a strong music tradition - which is why I go there anyway - I always search for record stores to take back music from the country I’m in. It can be CDs, cassettes, memory sticks with mp3 files of whatever. For me, it gives me the chance of extending the trip and all the experiences from whatever country. If in Ethiopia, yeah for sure, it’s great to have bought a few 7” vinyl singles but I also come back home with a bunch of tapes and whatnot but I love just extending every trip I do. I’ve got about a ton of vinyl records and CDs and cassettes from all over the world.

Friday, March 24, 2017

William Parker & Stefano Scodanibbio - Bass Duo (AUM Fidelity, 2017) *****

By David Menestres

I imagine that most of the readers of this blog are familiar with William Parker, so let me introduce you to Stefano Scodanibbio. Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was an Italian bass player of the highest order. A frequent collaborator of composers like Luigi Nono and Giacinto Scelsi, he also commissioned many new works for bass from Bryan Ferneyhough, Fred Frith, Iannis Xenakis, and many other composers. His long discography includes sessions with Terry Riley, Thollem McDonas, the Arditti Quartet, and many more released through labels like ECM, Wergo, New Albion, and others. After his passing a memorial album, Thinking of Stefano Scodanibbio, was released and features performances from many great bass players like Mark Dresser, Joelle Leandre, Barry Guy, and Dieter Manderscheid.

Bass Duo is five tracks spread across sixty-three minutes, recorded live in Undine, Italy in 2006. The music is deeply riveting. My first spin of the album found me transfixed in front of my speakers, rooted deeply to the floor. The second listen, through good headphones, left my mind reeling. The duo unleashes such an unrelenting mass of sound, it’s hard to comprehend that it’s just two men playing together for the first, and only, time. When the grooves do appear, they sit in a pocket deeper than the Grand Canyon. Parker and Scodanibbio have both worked across many musical traditions. Their ability to play in and around these traditions combined with their unending creativity make for a wonderful album. As Mark Dresser puts it in the liner notes “both bassists have singular languages, they also have in common an understanding of musical function – utilizing sound, space, melodicism, pulse, harmonic underpinning, extended techniques, and pedal points to create states of multiplicity.”

I know this album isn’t going to sell many copies. Improvised music is hard enough to sell and bass duos are doubly hard, so thank to Aum Fidelity for making this important document available.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Satoko Fujii - Invisible Hand (Cortez, 2016) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

As a preface to this review of Satoko Fujii’s new solo piano album, Invisible Hand, I looked back at her massive discography and discovered that it’s been 20 years since her first solo album, Indication, with only two others since. For as expressive a voice as Fujii’s, I was a little surprised there had been so few (as was Stef, it turns out! When he reviewed Gen Himmel several years ago, he opened with nearly the same comment). But in many ways, it does make a lot of sense that Fujii, who exhibits a kind of boundless exploration that finds her often in new pairings or with new lineups for her international orchestras, would hold back from releasing a lot of solo piano works. In this way, she reminds me of Agustí Fernández, with their never-ending pursuit of new sounds, new groups, and new collaborations.

Invisible Hand is a two-disc recording of a live performance from 2016 at Cortez in Mito, Japan. The whole first disc is improvised, divided into five tracks, each displaying its own unifying, self-contained motifs and idioms. “Thought” opens the album with a deliberate, transparent approach that works as both an invitation and a warm-up meditation. By the time the gorgeous “Floating” expands into its bright middle section, whole worlds have opened up. Even alone, as she is here, there is an ever-present sense of dialogue. In the notes to the album, Fujii remarks that she originally turned down an invitation to play at Cortez because they only had an upright piano, and she often plays inside the piano. (Eventually, Cortez got a grand piano and invited her back, and lucky for us, she accepted the offer.) Even this simple technical description, “I play inside the piano strings,” understates the interior dialogue Fujii crafts. For a good, long stretch of the title track, “Invisible Hand,” the strings and keys are locked in conversation, as the piece extends into a lengthy self-reflection.

On the second disc, Fujii performs another two improvisations, as well as a couple of songs from Gen Himmel, “I Know You Don’t Know” and “Gen Himmel,” and the title track from Spring Storm. Naturally, “Spring Storm” is a dramatic alteration, the original was recorded with Fujii’s New Trio with Todd Nicholson and Takashi Itani. In the solo reading, Fujii creates an astonishing amount of drama to counter the brain’s desire to fill in with hints of bass or drums. Her take is broad and complex, halting at moments, as she contains the momentum of the piece with her tremendous command of the piano, inside and out. The result is utterly captivating. Equally great is this live take on “Gen Himmel.” Slightly pared down with Fujii’s attack slightly adjusted, the result transforms “Gen Himmel” into an act of in-the-moment self-discovery, rather than rediscovery. There’s a tremendous effect in closing this lengthy album with an expanded take on a previous album-opener. All the expectation that’s built into that studio recording is inverted, as Fujii performs an emotionally rich and reflective epilogue.

Available from Instant Jazz  and Downtown Music Gallery.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Arthur Doyle and His New Quiet Screamers - First House (Amish Records, 2016) *****

Live at the Stone, July 11, 2012

This is for Arthur Doyle, a free thinking spirit in a marginalised world.

When I think of Arthur Doyle, one of the several beautiful things that come into my mind, is his sax playing on Babi. And while Milford Graves seems to be the main figure behind this seminal free jazz workout, it's Doyle, with his thoughtful screams, who joins the dots (more then Hugh Glover) and transfroms the interplay between the artists into something magical to remember.

Beginning with that recording, we have listened Doyle express himself in a fierce, angry, both raucous and melodic way, free from all restraints and preoccupied thoughts. His personal journey began from the free jazz blowouts-in several formats and solo adventures-to the more melodic a la Sun Ra cosmic music of his electro-acoustic ensemble when the 00's arrived.

This shift gave his music a different approach and through this he established a more spiritual way for his art. I guess this was his choice for living too. This LP, First House, finds him, for the last time unfortunately before his passing, leading a new band-The New Quiet Screamers-follows the trajectory of his music from the last ten to fifteen years. It is a live recording from the Stone in NYC and marks a strange coincidence for me, because I was in NYC at that time but for some unknown reason to me did not attend the gig.

Considering how much I enjoy when the term free jazz collides with Doyle's sax, I must admit from the beginning that this is really free jazz. His nine-strong band follows him while he makes love with his jagged tenor sax or his gently blowing through a bamboo flute calls (for) us. This is calling, a shamanistic experience and Doyle is the leader of this ritual. You will not experience the synth or piano driven melodies of his electro-acoustic ensemble here. Tribal rhythms and free reeds are most likely to pave the way for you and me, the listeners, to find our way towards Doyle's (and the music's) wisdom.

To tell you the truth, I did not expect that to happen.Sometimes the music in First House is stripped bare, just the essential but different ones each time, while in other moments the whole of the band plays together with strong interplay and collective willfulness. This is hard to explain, a ritual, as I already mentioned, of sorts. Spiritual healing through a free jazz lens. It works like a prism that gathers all light straight to you heart and soul.


Tenor Saxophone, Bamboo Flute, Vocals – Arthur Doyle
Alto Saxophone – Jeff Tobias
Bass Guitar – Nicholas Emmet
Drums – Jason Robira
Electric Guitar – Jim McHugh, Matty McDermott
Percussion – Jessica Stathos
Piano– Robert Peterson
Trumpet – Dylan Angell
Vocals, Percussion – Eri Shoji

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ballister - Low Level Stink (Dropa Disc, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

Ballister’s albums remind me of the first time I saw Henry Rollins and his band in 1986. I knew Rollins had a reputation as a live performer, and before the gig he seemed to be in a light-hearted mood, chatting cheerfuly. When he appeared on stage however, and the band launched into the first notes, Rollins exploded, the embodiment of aggression and energy. My jaw dropped, and I’ve rarely seen anything like it since – but Ballister’s live performances are of the same intensity.

Low Level Stink is the sister release of Slag (Aerophonics Records, 2017) recorded in Antwerp on the same tour, one day earlier. When Ballister (Dave Rempis on saxes, Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello and electronics, and Paal Nilssen-Love, drums and percussion) started their set, the audience was taken off-guard. A maelstrom of sound blew them away, and it felt like being dragged along by a speed-boat.

As usual, the band’s music takes in Rock’n’Roll thrash and punk rock. Yet never before have Ballister sounded so much like The Thing, Nilssen-Love's other free rock project with Mats Gustafsson and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. But The Thing are more soulmates of The White Stripes and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, while Ballister feel allied to Motörhead or Mudhoney. Their live sound is filthier, rawer and more screechy, with Rempis’s full vibrato, Nilssen-Love’s persistent boom and Lonberg-Holm’s nasty, barely bearable, feedback. The first eight minutes epitomize this: unadulterated improvisation fronted by an unapologetic saxophonist, howling at his audience.

Yet there‘s more to it than volume and ecstacy. Low Level Stink contains quieter and more nuanced moments, crackling and nervous soundscapes leading the listener into a labyrinth of sound. At the 11-minute mark on the A-side, Rempis‘ solo seems to guide us through his full arsenal, loosened up and less bellicose, as if he wants to say: “These are the ingredients of my sound, naked and exposed.“ The track on the flipside concentrates on these elements. It’s still dirty, but with more transparent textures, and Lonberg-Holm sounding like he’s tearing silk. Rempis provides a dreamy solo in the middle, and only at the end does the boisterous Ballister return.

Watch parts of the performance here:

Low Level Stink is available as LP/DVD edition of 300. You better be quick, and can buy it from the label.

Post Scriptum: Since I’m not a native speaker, I try to make sure that my reviews are in reasonable English, which is why I sometimes send them to Colin, who’s kind enough to revise them. I did that with my previous Ballister review. In his reply he wondered why, when writing about such music, it often sounded like the reviewer (not just me) had pulled on a pair of tight leather pants, using images of and analogies with speed, sex, violence, Satanism and death – straight out of Kerrang magazine – and that it would be good if someone tried approaching it from a different angle. I guess I‘ve failed again. Sorry, Colin. I’ll try to do better next time.

Post Post Scriptum: Actually, I think you’ve managed quite well. (Colin)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Earth Tongues – Ohio (Neither Nor, 2016) ****

By Dan Sorrells

As the sotto voce tendrils of Joe Moffett’s trumpet, Dan Peck’s tuba, and Carlo Costa’s percussion slowly worm their way into your brain, early impressions place Earth Tongues’ minimalist music in the company of other “quiet scenes” of improvisation: lowercase, onkyō, Echtzeitmusik. But these are superficial classifications (as is often the case when trying to neatly “sort” improvised music). The trio’s music doesn’t feel like it’s about silence or subtraction or austerity in sound; it doesn’t really feel like it’s concerned with the theoretical elements behind its creation at all. Instead, to the extent it’s abstract, it’s the kind of innate, organic abstraction that can be found by looking at (or listening to) the natural world from an unexpected angle. Indeed, it was only after listening to some of Toshiya Tsunoda’s field recordings that I found the best listening “posture” for Ohio: to hear it as though it were some unfamiliar, ambient environment, the sonic footprint of a place I’d never been to, but where I could also never go.

Ohio is Earth Tongues’ second album, and it pushes even further into improvisational extremes. “Ohio, Pt. II” is longer than the entirety of their debut album Rune. The music—two long tracks totaling an hour and a half—slowly reveals itself, retraining ears to the nuances of its unorthodox cadence and inflection. During “Pt. I”, nearly 20 minutes pass before a horn raises a full-bodied tone, and half an hour before the suggestion of some momentum via hypnotic, pulsing cymbals. “Pt. II” plays with long, overlapping tones and resonances, perhaps a bit louder than “Pt. I”, but no less ascetic. Ohio serves as both a reaction to and an embodiment of the boundlessness of free improvisation: in its restraint, endurance, focus, and discipline it simultaneously rejects the excesses that freedom affords and opens up the sort of immense expanse where just about anything might be encountered.

“Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, and this may well be the mantra of Ohio. Having been re-tuned to a fragile state of listening, huddling close, the listener enters a heightened space where sounds of the smallest size carry significance. But this vulnerability also allows the music to juxtapose its restraint with sudden intrusion, to inflict violence. After such a lengthy, hushed build-up, the blats of Peck’s tuba at the end of “Pt. I” are truly shocking—obscene, even. In its final minutes, it seems intent on jolting you out of whatever peace was to be found in its artificial ambiance, on reminding you how easily and utterly the quiet world can be blotted out by the noisy one.

Patience is rewarded by Ohio, and in the end it raises some interesting questions about the goals of improvisers and our expectations as listeners. Where do the sounds we choose to make fit into the natural order of the universe? And can they ever constitute a new one? Ohio doesn’t mimic the sounds of nature, but at times seems to enact a new realm of sound, one that feels primordial, prior to art and culture, something opaque and truly other. Or, as Tsunoda would say, it “fixes the experience of a landscape,” even if it’s a landscape we can’t literally visit.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

CP Unit – Before The Heat Death (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Chris Haines

CP Unit is Chris Pitsiokos (alto sax) and luminaries Brandon Seabrook (guitar), Tim Dahl (bass) and Weasel Walter (drums). The sound of the quartet borrows as much, if not more, from experimental hybrids of rock as it does from free jazz and improvisational forms. The music is at times highly energetic, dynamic and complex whilst delivering the strong punch and solidity of heavy rock music.

The album opens with ‘Fried’, a piece structurally divided into two parts, the first sounding like it could have been included on Captain Beefheart’s classic Trout Mask Replica, whilst the second part has the quartet punctuating a solid pulse of varying phrase length with what sounds like musical electric shocks. ‘Quantized’, is anything but that and starts with a guitar riff that wouldn’t go amiss on an 80’s King Crimson album or something by avant-proggers Thinking Plague. ‘Guillotine’ the shortest track on the album at just over a minute and a half starts and ends with the whole quartet delineating a single line, which is thrown aside for a chaotic and free frenzy for the middle part. As an antidote to the avant-rockism’s of the other tracks ‘Ballad’ starts like a classic piece of free improvisation – searching sounds in a pulseless environment which eventually forms the backdrop for Pitsiokos’ freeform soloing.

This is a great ‘little’ album, and here’s the rub, coming in at under the half-hour mark by today’s standards it leaves us wanting and expecting a bit more. However, sometimes great things come in the smallest packages and the fact that it leaves us wanting more is a testament to the quality of the music that this interesting quartet delivers.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Stefan Schönegg - Enso (Impakt, 2016) ****

By Martin Schray

Stefan Schönegg is a young German bassist who studied in Berlin and Cologne, where he now lives and works. He‘s a founding member of IMPAKT (a composite of "IMProvisation" and "AKTuelle Musik"), a Cologne-based music collective which produces albums and organizes festivals and concerts in galleries, bars and small venues to provide better access to avant-garde music, ranging from free jazz and new classical music to electronica and noise.

Schönegg is a member of the bands Botter, Die Fichten and Simon Nabatov's trio, Enso is his first release as a leader. What’s immediately striking is the attempt to find a comprehensive musical language, a way to unite heterogeneity and homogeneity, something that can bring together new classical and improvised music in an organic way. Therefore Schönegg tries to balance improvisation and pre-existing material in a different way, though he’s aware that this has been done many times before. His approach is to base each of his pieces on a certain concept - whether there are completely notated parts or sparse guidelines like a melody or just a bass line – which provide some interesting results.

His music can be meditative (up to complete silence) but also tight and energetic. In general, the pieces tend towards minimalism, precise and to the point. Tracks like 'Thaha' are tender and beautiful, occasionally reminiscent of Michael Nyman's soundtracks, but with rough and edgy arcoed cymbals, where you can sense Schönegg's attempt to reconcile tonal congruence with abstract, angular, noisy and atonal sounds.

Sound colors are very important on Enso. Schönegg's bass is supported by Leonhard Huhn (alto and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet), Nathan Bontrager (cello) and Etienne Nillesen’s very individual prepared snare drum, and percussion. This leads to a very string-orientated, light and floating sound, such as 'Peaceful Multidimensionally', where Huhn's and Schönegg's long notes clash into Nillesen's hyperactive drum chattering, creating a dark atmosphere.

The best two pieces, 'Hellblau' (light blue) and the title track, try to capture certain moods. The first is melancholic with an impressionist cello wrapped in randomly whispered reeds and percussion, sounding like the wingbeat of a hummingbird. The latter has the tranquil atmosphere of untouched nature in the early morning. The music stops from time to time, as if awestruck.

Enso is a Japanese character: a circle drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create, symbolizing enlightenment, strength, the universe, and the void - everything and nothing. Like painters, Schönegg and his band create small studies in one elegant movement, effortless and fluid. It’s an intriguing collection from a talented musician of whom we should be aware in the future.

The album is available as a CD in a limited edition and as a download.

You can buy the album and listen to it here:

Watch the band live here: 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Harris Eisenstadt – Recent Developments (Songlines, 2017) ****½

By Eric McDowell

With Recent Developments, Harris Eisenstadt hits a milestone: twenty releases as a bandleader. By now it’s clear—if there was ever any doubt—that the Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based drummer and composer is here to stay, a fixture on the scene whose name, whether it appears on an album’s cover or deeper down in the credits, promises quality. Recent Developments bespeaks Eisenstadt’s veteran mastery not only in the music itself (more on that soon) but also in the details of its conception and production. Like a true professional, Eisenstadt made his initial compositional sketches on a nine-hour post-tour flight back to Brooklyn, working when he could have been resting. Even then he knew which players he wanted to work with, drawing on his established history of collaboration with some—Nate Wooley, Jeb Bishop, Dan Peck, Eivind Opsvik, Sara Schoenbeck—and his well earned reputation, perhaps, to attract others. Then, trusting his artistic process and maximizing efficiency, he refined the counterpoint, rehearsed the material with the band, and tested it live, saving a few final decisions for the day of recording. And the music has found a welcome home on Songlines, the Vancouver label that has become a regular host for Eisenstadt’s work. In short, this is a musician who knows what he’s doing.

Despite its newsletter title, Recent Developments is much more than a grab bag of tunes united only by their chronological proximity. Instead, Eisenstadt presents an ambitious suite of six parts, shot through with interludes and deliberately bookended. Setting up this quasi-novelistic structure, the album opens with a contrasting “Introduction” and “Prologue,” the former a nimbly darting duet for Anna Webber’s flute and Schoenbeck’s bassoon, the latter a dark and droning duet for bass and tuba. With twelve tracks to go—some less than a minute long, others five or six—some generalization may be in order. Parts one through six are longer and tend to be more through-composed, with an emphasis on groove, melody, and the aforementioned complex counterpoint. While they often layer in like Motown hits and feature some strong conventionally structured soloing, they also have a way of bottoming out in challenging solo or duo features and ending without a return to the melody. These six are the tracks most likely to get your feet tapping—“Part 2” positively swings, “Part 4” starts with second line tuba—or move you emotionally—Bishop’s smoldering solo on “Part 3,” cellist Hank Roberts’s surpassingly beautiful playing on “Part 6.” Throughout, there’s more masterful efficiency in the way Eisenstadt repurposes melodic material both within a track, trading it from one instrument to another, and between parts, creating echoes that tie the whole thing together.

Whereas Eisenstadt underpins even the more abstract moments of the main suite with punctuating unison figures, the playing on the interludes is—or at least sounds—freely improvised. And this is where the diverse instrumentation of the Recent Developments nonet really pays off. In an interview on his website, Eisenstadt makes an explicit connection between the album cover’s overlapping color-banded circles and the “wide range of timbral combinations… at the heart of the recording.” From the dark low registers of bass and tuba on one end to the flitting, brittle sounds of flute and banjo (Brandon Seabrook) on the other—with cello, trombone, trumpet, and bassoon in between—Eisenstadt has a veritable palette to paint with, exploiting varieties of density and texture as he layers his players up. The result is perfectly balanced—like Eisenstadt twenty albums in, never satisfied to stay in any one place or play to any one expectation for too long.