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Switchback. Mars Williams (saxes), Waclaw Zimpel (cl), Hilliard Greene (b) and Klaus Kugel (dr).

W71 in Weikersheim, Germany. Oct., 1st. Photo by Martin Schray

Charles Gayle Trio with Ksavery Wójcinski (b) and Max Andrzejewski (dr)

Schorndorf at the Manufaktur, Germany 10/21/2016. Photo Martin Schray

"Tribute to Johannes Bauer" by Erwin Ditzner (dr), Sebastian Gramss (b), Lotte Anker (sax) and Louis Rastig (p)

Alte Feuerwache in Mannheim, Germany 10/17/2016. Photo by Martin Schray

Monday, December 5, 2016

Muche/Hein (7000 Eichen) - Transferration (Jazzwerkstatt, 2016) ****

By Martin Schray

7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration is a work of land art by Joseph Beuys, first publicly presented in 1982 at the Documenta 7 in Kassel. Beuys and volunteers planted 7000 trees across the city, each with an accompanying basalt stone. The work was a significant artistic and ecological intervention in the urban setting with the goal of enduringly altering the living space of the city. Though initially controversial, the project has become an important part of Kassel's cityscape. Beuys stated that “each single monument consists of a living part - a tree which constantly has been changing in time - and a part which keeps its form, its mass, its size and its weight.“ In a conversation with Richard Demarco in 1982, he further explained: “I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture…The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.“ Completed in 1987 by his son, Wenzel, on the first anniversary of his father's death (and included in Documents 8), the project is still maintained by the city.

Trombonist Matthias Muche and guitarist Nicolas L. Hein have tried to map this piece of land art into sound: music that also focuses on changes in form, structure and content. The two instruments clearly represent a tree and basalt stone. Muche is in the tradition of Paul Rutherford and Johannes Bauer, with an organic trombone style, zigzaging between eruptive cries and tender exhalations, able to switch direction at will due to the freedom afforded by Hein‘s percussive bed of static, brutal feedback and staccato chords. Hein attacks his guitar with an assortment of materials – screws, rulers, iron wool and magnets (but uses no effects pedals). The trombone swirls and bends with the breeze while the guitar is rock steady.

Two examples suffice: “Stahlwille“ (Steel Will) resembles the engine room of a huge ship. The guitar fizzles and scrapes, as if hammering on metal, while the trombone plays almost straight hard bop phrases. This spurs Hein into frenzied chords, on the verge of exploding. In “Dick vermummt“ (Wrapped Up Warm) the duo starts with a pumping pulse before Hein becomes a one-man-Einstürzende Neubauten tribute. Drawn-out notes collide with peircing bell sounds and bubbling noises; swinging trombone riffs are confronted with a gurgling vortex of alienated guitar debris. Here, Hein owes an obvious debt to Thurston Moore.

Muche and Hein consider themselves reductionists, excavating down to the most basic elements, and sound artists exploring new tonal dimensions. In the liner notes Evan Parker says: “The oak tree of improvised music gets stronger each year as it adds a ring to its woody growth and sheds its bark. The old oak tree of my generation drops its acorn on the ground and new trees spring up all around it … The future of improvised music is assured in the hands of creative young musicians like Nicola Hein and Matthias Muche.“

I can’t agree more.

Watch them live here:

John Butcher and Ståle Liavik Solberg – So Beautiful, It Starts to Rain (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½

Today we begin a week long series of reviews on duos ...

By Troy Dostert

In this meeting with Oslo-based percussionist Ståle Liavik Solberg, saxophonist John Butcher shows his dedication to openness, space and texture, forsaking the more demonstrative approaches that often prevail when it comes to sax/drum duos. Fortunately, he has a highly sympathetic counterpart, as Solberg is just as willing to renounce any over-the-top theatrics in favor of close listening and patient collaboration. The resulting recording, while rather brief at a mere 35 minutes, does offer a number of intriguing exchanges between the two improvisers.

As one would expect, Butcher shows little desire to develop an overtly lyrical or melodic conception in his playing here, instead being largely content to explore the sonority of his instruments (both soprano and tenor), which gives Solberg ample opportunity to comment on the multi-tones, extended techniques, and percussive flourishes that Butcher offers in abundance. At times on the opening track, “So Beautiful,” Butcher becomes in effect a second percussionist, countering Solberg with assorted atonal pops and flutters in rhythmic interplay. As for Solberg, don’t expect a lot of fireworks here: while he is quite capable of matching Butcher’s occasional powerful bursts (see the duo’s kinetic, spirited exchange on “In Starts,” when Butcher goes into extended breathing), he’s more content to provide precise, careful small-scale percussion on his kit, with subtle work on the toms or snare rather than a lot of splashy bombast or cymbal crashes. Both musicians are in fine form, with Butcher being (as always) a marvel: his technical palette remains astonishing in its range and variety. This record certainly offers proof that it’s not only in explosive intensity, but sometimes the calmer, more patient explorations, where free improvisation truly casts its spell.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Joëlle Léandre - A Woman's Work ... (Not Two, 2016) III

CD6: Joëlle Léandre solo - June 14, 2005 - Radio France - La voix est Libre, Paris 

By Stef

Ever since her first album, playing solo bass has been a way of expressing her music, her self, and Joëlle Léandre has kept releasing solo bass albums over the years, sometimes re-issuing vinyl albums on CD with some changes, or just re-issuing older material as with "No Comment", reviewed earlier this week. 

Here is the list of her solo bass albums, with re-issues mentioned on the same line: 
  • Taxi (1982) & Urban Bass (1991)
  • Sincerely (1985)
  • Solo Bass - Live At Otis, Hiroshima (1999)
  • No Comment (2001) and (2016)
  • Concerto Grosso - Live At Gasthof Heidelberg (2005) (double CD)
  • At The Le Mans Festival (2006)
  • Live In Israel (2008)
  • Live From The Issue Project Room (Free Music Archive, 2010)
  • Solo (2011)
  • Wols Circus (2012)
On the five tracks of this album, she shows how she has evolved over the years, playing with certitude and full abandon, doing what she thinks is necessary to be herself while at the same time keeping the audience's attention. And the audience is great. They laugh at her free word associations in French, the silliness and the anger of the words, the fun of it. They applaud with enthusiasm after each of the pieces. She gives it all, and she shows it all, the mournful acro-playing, with gut-piercing sounds that resonate between full sound and flageolets, repetitively so, the vocalising with whispered intensity over obstinate and maniacal bowing, the variation between intensity and calm, between rhythmic hypnotic bursts and more intimate caresses of the strings, the insistent whispers and shouts that appear on each track, as part of her art, as a release of anger that tries to find an escape route, the full power staccato bowing on two strings, the rumbling of the wood, the muscular tension and brutal force, the sounding board being slapped, the more intimate, calmer moments with unison spiritual singing, and then giving even more, the extreme beauty of the dark strings resonating together under her bow, moving every note to a higher, more meaningful plane, something that is beyond classification yet that has universal depth and scope, something deeply human that needs precision and tenderness and sounds that are fluent and dissonant to come to live and ends in sustained silence, fully appreciated by this audience of connoisseurs.

CD7: Joëlle Léandre, Zlatko Kaučič, Evan Parker, Agustí Fernández Quartet **** 

By Colin Green

Joëlle Léandre is a musician of many registers, mining the possibilities of her instrument in multifarious settings. Yet it’s not often we hear her in what might be thought of as the standard configuration of tenor saxophone (Evan Parker) piano (Agustí Fernández) double-bass and drums (Zlatko Kaučič), recorded here at the now ubiquitous Alchemia Club, Kraków in October last year.

The grouping is probably the only standard thing about the quartet. The four equally tasked protagonists start with a series of compressed bursts, clearing the air. The abbreviated gestures are gradually opened out into a tessellated patchwork of notes and dense textures familiar from Parker and Fernández’ own quartet work, developing into a kinetic frenzy. As it fades, Léandre emerges with a chant over growling bass, taken up by Parker’s split notes and embellished with chimes from piano and percussion. The consistency thickens with Léandre stirring away, inciting cluster runs up and down the keyboard.

Their next piece is sparser. It opens with soft piano chords, pizzicato bass, Kaučič’s brushes and the bare bones of an Arabic-tinged melody from Parker, whose playing has become even more nuanced in recent years. It comes to rest on a bowed pedal chord from Léandre and develops into a duet between bass and saxophone, joined by clockwork piano and lightweight drums as the pace quickens. There’s then a timbral pollination as the whole quartet indulge in scuffs and squeaks from which the tenor emerges with Parker’s typical, roughhewn phrases.

The final piece is just Léandre and Parker, knotted together throughout in a dazzling display of breakneck exchange, shadowing, anticipation and response. Occasionally, Parker’s circular breathing rises to the surface and the piece concludes with his glimmering waves set against scuttling bass.

A fine example of Léandre’s skills as an ensemble musician, in a quartet from whom it would be good to hear more.

CD8: Joëlle Léandre: Duos with Zlatko Kaučič, Evan Parker, Agustí Fernández **** 

By Colin Green

Two days later the same musicians were back on stage, but in the more familiar format of duos with Léandre (her preferred formation). For Léandre, the double-bass “needs to be filled with everything you have, your whole self, muscles, body and soul.” In these duos we hear this powerful physical sensibility at work, full of animation and activity, always challenging her partner to give more.

In her two duos with Kaučič, crafted textures, resonant with overtones, are atomised and dispersed by his brittle percussion, shattering into fine-scale incidents – brutal and strangely beautiful. The opening and closing of Léandre’s duo with Fernández is also percussive with the latter using the piano’s internals to produce exotic washes. In the central section, her gnarled bass lines are sensuously tactile, tracing a simple melody against the piano’s darting runs and pounding chords.

As with the quartet, the performance ends with Léandre and Parker. They move from a weightless state – multiphonics and plucked harmonics – to the shimmering movement of oscillations and tremolos and then back, for a hushed close.

Léandre has said:
"I have a fundamental belief in tradition, no-one comes from no-where. You have to learn, and then learn to un-learn. And then you’re on your own. It takes twenty-five years to learn, and as much time to un-learn."
She started playing a plastic penny whistle at eight, so we should now be hearing her at her peak, something comfortably borne out by the contents of this box set.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Joëlle Léandre - A Woman's Work ... (Not Two, 2016) II

CD3 - Joëlle Léandre & Lauren Newton - February 27, 2017 at Auditorium Conservatoire of Music of Besançon ****½

The collaboration between Joëlle Léandre and the ever experimental and daring vocalist Lauren Newton began some 20 years ago with their wonderful duo release 18 Colors. The same combination was revisited on the 2012 release Conversations: Live in Ljubljana, proving the exceptional symbiosis of the two musicians. Both these albums document snapshots of Léandre’s and Newton’s important and ever-developing careers, and showcase stunningly mischievous improvisations that come into being through the destructively harmonizing combination of human voice and double bass.

The third CD of the box set A Woman’s Work, recorded earlier this year at the Auditorium Conservatoire of Music in Besançon, is no different, showing that the two artists still burn with that same fire of creativity that we first heard twenty years ago. In fact, they seem even more direct and propulsive in their playing, toying with concepts that range from one extreme to another, from near quiescence to explosive dynamism. Lauren Newton will start with scat singing, improvising in such a way to create a false sense of melody and pleasantness, before choosing an aggressive approach embodied in hisses and screams. As if she was trying to explore the limits of sibilance, she moves through high pitched, impeccably executed screams, and finally returns to the lyricism of spoken word and slam poetry, soulful crooning, and barely heard sounds. Always with perfect control, naturally.

All the while, Joëlle Léandre flexes her approach, adapting and pushing Newton towards a singular narrative. Whether plucking gently at individual strings, swinging her bow furiously, or even choosing to play with silence, there is always a sense of playful tenacity in her tones and vibrations, a sort of vigorous, unbound joy. And when the tension reaches ecstatic climaxes or threateningly contemplative abysses, she starts using her voice to let out cries, hums, and moans, mimicking and resonating with Newton. In a setting in which attention might drift towards the familiarity of the human voice, Léandre remains equally in charge through a spirited delivery.

While the whole performance presented on the CD is delightful, never rehashing ideas or passages, repeated listens will reveal moments of muted genius—”a-ha!” turning to “oh wow!”—scattered throughout. I feel that pointing them out might somehow diminish their value, so I’ll leave it to the listeners to discover them.

A remarkable recording without which A Woman’s Work would clearly be rendered incomplete and an essential part of the 8 CD set.

CD4 - Joëlle Léandre & Jean-Luc Cappozzo - November 3, 2015, at the Auditorium Conservatoire of Music of Besançon ****½

By Stef

If Joëlle Léandre is a nomad, Jean-Luc Cappozzo is not. He's in fact barely known outside of France, if he ever leaves the country, and most of his discography is with other French musicians, and the most recent albums have been reviewed on this blog with great enthusiasm, including his other duet with Léandre "Live Aux Instants Chavirés", dating from 2009. Earlier this year, he released the very sympathetic album "Soul Eyes" with his daughter Cécile, who next to being a dancer, is also a pianist, on that album performing music by Charles Mingus and Mal Waldron, fun but too mainstream to review here. 

Cappozzo's duet with Léandre is of a different nature. Cappozzo may not be a geographical nomad, musically he is open to any tone and timbre, sitting surrounded by many many mouthpieces and many types of mutes, as well as an assortment of flutes. Both musicians know each other very well. They speak the same language, also musically. They enjoy themselves. They make fun. They are sad together. The music is contemplative at moments, intimate, spiritual. Then they are daring enough to change course, and infuse their sounds with folkloric dances or the blues, and growl and shout and sing, or make little jokes, or go completely nuts, or they stake serious slow and precious walks through new timbral countries, full of gravitas and drama. They travel through musical landscapes, hand in hand, exploring their little adventures, taking us along, full of willingness to share what they discover, what they create. And that's maybe the only downside of the album: the audience has been deleted. You hear the occasional cough, but no applause. And that is too bad, because this is performance music. This is music that requires an audience, music that lives, and that even might be co-shaped, inspired by the presence of that audience. Yet don't let that bother you. It is great. Excellent. And the only thing I can recommend is that you clap and cheer after each improvisation. And I don't even have to tell you, it will come spontaneously ...

The video comes from a performance earlier this year at De Singer, Rijkevorsel, Belgium.

CD5 - Joëlle Léandre & Fred Frith -  June 11th 2016 Les Instants Chavirés, Montreuil (Not Two, 2016) **** 

By Eric McDowell

The fifth installment of A Woman’s Work finds Joëlle Léandre “alone together” with guitarist Fred Frith. While not their first time collaborating—both MMM Quartet albums, with Alvin Curran and Urs Leimgruber, come highly recommended—this disc offers a worthwhile opportunity to catch the two masters up close and personal. Recorded this summer at the sound and art space Les Instants Chavirés by Jean-Marc Foussat, the set lasts only 40 minutes but covers a lot of territory, the improvisers being well matched in their exploratory restlessness, even if they arrive at it by different means—Léandre on the one hand incredibly powerful with a handful of relatively traditional techniques (not excluding her voice), Frith on the other turning to an unpredictable assortment of tools and objects, from bows and effects pedals to fabric straps and paintbrushes. These varying brands of resourcefulness lend the Léandre/Frith collaboration some appeal as a visual spectacle, where we have the benefit (or is it a disadvantage?) of seeing just how these musicians produce this array of sounds. We’re lucky, therefore, to have video footage of the bulk of the performance—see below.

While the reason for halving the disc’s extended improvisation into two tracks isn’t entirely clear—in the video, the performance works well as a single half-hour set—it is true that each track has its own character. If the first track smolders, occasionally guttering, the second comes closer to flaming. It’s to Foussat’s credit that the recording catches all the nuances of the first seventeen minutes. The bassist and guitarist start a bit loosely, cycling through ideas and building up potential energy. Here we can appreciate Frith’s technical inventiveness as he sits with the guitar flat across his lap, applying to it various pieces of metal, a shoe brush, and the pads of his fingers—all without losing Léandre’s train of thought, whether she’s slapping the strings or shredding her bow. Elsewhere Frith drums out rhythmic accompaniment to Léandre’s whistling arco; later she stands aside while he employs the Ebow to produce some beautifully eerie organ/theremin effects.

A few minutes into the second half, drunkenly sliding arpeggios herald one of the disc’s highlights, an off-kilter dance between bass and guitar that brings a welcome touch of whimsy to the proceedings. But before long the mood sobers, the soundscape growing dense with feverish arco and fretboard finger tapping. And then this too gives way as, moments later, Frith grabs of all things a pick to sketch out a few licks worthy of a classic rocker. At the climactic moment come Léandre’s vocalizations, stuttering and breathless, unintelligible yet deeply communicative. But the final highlight is the brief encore, packed with by now familiar ingredients but compacted into a combustible mass that well earns its minute-long applause.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Joëlle Léandre - A Woman's Work ... (Not Two, 2016) I

CD1: Les Diaboliques: October 6, 2015, DOM, Moscow *****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Les Diaboliques - Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer, Scottish vocalist (and occasional tap-dancer) Maggie Nicols and French double bass player-vocalist Joëlle Léandre - are the foremothers of the European school of free-improvisation. The three have been working together as a trio for more than 25 years, blending spontaneous improvisations with comic cabaret, throwing into this intense stew elements of South-African jazz, theatrical ploys, delirious humor and operatic tricks, all with a strong feminist and satirical edge.

This live recording is from the first of two concerts that Les Diaboliques played at the DOM club in Moscow. This recording highlights the deep, intimate rapport and the extraordinary, telepathic interplay between these unique and resourceful musicians. It captures the true essence of Les Diaboliques - three highly individual masters, being totally themselves on stage, exploring their differences and their profound affinity, being witty, funny and inspiring.

The trio opens and closes this performance with extended trio improvisations. Schweizer acts on these pieces as the responsible adult who accommodates the hysterical, theatrical games of Nicols and Léandre, including their amusing, gibberish vocalizations, cementing the wild, dramatic interplay with a perfect rhythmic timing and a straight, deadpan sensibility. Nicols and Léandre continue with two intense and highly emotional duets that shift fast between moods - sensual and surreal, energetic and eccentric, spoiled and child-like. The trio improvisation that follows is more contemplative and reserved - in Les Diaboliques terms - but it stresses the immediate manner that the trio move as a tight, perfect unity. Schweizer solo piano improvisation is a magnificent demonstration of her rich, nuanced language that embrace all the history of jazz, from rhythmic-bluesy phrases to more abstract, and open-ended improvisation.

Simply excellent.

CD2: Joëlle Léandre & Mat Maneri duet

By Stef

Léandre likes duets, and she likes duets with a violin. She has made "Les Domestiques" with Jon Rose, "Ecritures" with Carlos Zingaro, "Firedance" with India Cooke, "Elastic" with Théo Ceccaldi, not to mention her duets with cello (Vincent Courtois) and other double-basses (Peter Kowald, William Parker, Tetsu Saitoh, Michael Francis Dutch).

The great thing is that all these artists have their own voice, as is definitely the case with Mat Maneri, whose playing is first of all identifiable from far because of the human voice quality of his sound, his raw bowing, his quiet nervousness, his capacity to create a sense of fluidity despite his short staccato notes that hang together like links in a chain.

Léandre released an album with Mat Maneri in 2004 ("For Flowers") together with Christophe Marquet and Joel Ryan, and I have no idea how many performances Léandre and Maneri had without actual published output, yet on this album the interaction is great. Léandre goes along with Maneri's specific style, and the result is uncomparable with her other violin-bass duets. She goes along with his high intervals, with the short little bursts of sounds, the hesitation, the minimal intense agitation, yet all this without relinquishing this forward flux, this liquid flow without any foundation whatsoever in rhyhm or melody. In contrast of the other duo albums mentioned above, there is more of a conversation here, a parlando style, like a Jackson Pollock painting, with splashes all over the canvas, without inherent structure but resulting in a work of art of substance. And as with the other string duets, it all works well, there is this kind of natural empathy between the instruments themselves, a kind of natural logic to create sounds together.

The live performance was recorded on January 23rd, 2011 at La Java in Paris.

The video below was recorded on Monday this week, at the Eglise Saint-Eustache in Paris, at Joëlle Léandre's 40 Years On The Road celebration.


Thursday, December 1, 2016

Joëlle Léandre - No Comment (Fou Records, 2016) ****1/2

By Lee Rice Epstein

I have to confess, I almost don’t know how to write about Joëlle Léandre, or any other transformative, hugely influential artist. Almost. On the one hand, I really want to step aside and just let each recording tell its own story. For that, all you need to know is No Comment is a reissue of an album originally released, on Red Toucan Records, about 15 years ago. It features Léandre performing solo at and the 1995 Vancouver Jazz Festival and the 1994 Ibleo Jazz Festival. On the other hand, with so many new releases coming every week and so many new artists to discover (and whose hype, admittedly, dominates the news cycle), it’s vital to continue writing about musicians whose art has retained its transformative fire.

In nine tracks, ranging from about 4 to 7 minutes each, Léandre traverses the entirety of her bass. No Comment is, like many, but not all solo albums, a boldly transparent experiment in improvisation. The title reads like a sly reference to letting art speak for itself. And for me, this is often the best way to approach the explorations of a solo artist. Cue up “No Comment #4,” for example, and you’ll hear Léandre’s lyrical arco paired with her melodious vocalizations. Let the album play through the urgent bowing and Léandre’s bold, insistent singing on “No Comment #5,” concluding the first performance. The second performance, #’s 6–9, begins in a wholly different place. This set feels somehow more open and conversational. There’s some glorious bowing in the lower register in “No Comment #7” that’s quickly followed by a high, dampened melody played throughout the opening of “No Comment #8.”

With any prolific artist’s discography at hand, it’s hard to say what’s a necessary release or even a jumping off point. But No Comment makes a good argument for itself as a bit of each. For one, any solo artist should be heard in that format as much as possible, to get the full range of their performances. And as for being a jumping off point, there was, for me, no bad place to start listening to Joëlle Léandre. So, why not jump in right here?

Daunik Lazro, Joëlle Léandre & George Lewis - Enfances à Dunois le 8 janvier 1984 (Fou Records, 2016) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Amazing to think that 30 years of Joëlle Léandre’s many collaborations with Daunik Lazro and George Lewis began with a recording we’ve never heard in full before now. As I’ve been soaking in all the writing this week, I revisited a couple of seminal albums also recorded in the 1980s, particularly the Intakt releases The Storming of the Winter Palace (the epic quintet featuring Léandre, Lewis, Maggie Nicols, Irène Schweizer, and Günter Sommer) and Paris Quartet (Léandre’s album with Lazro, Schweizer, and Yves Robert). A portion of this trio performance appeared on Lazro’s HatHut set, Sweet Zee, but if I’m not mistaken, this is the first release of the complete session. Thinking about how this is likely the first recorded meeting of these three, the clarity of the recording would be enough to recommend it, for its historical value. But the real prizes here are the vibrancy and ingenuity of three great improvisers in collaboration.

The opening 30 seconds of “Enface 1” contain a scattering of percussive noises (think Art Ensemble of Chicago-style little instruments), Léandre’s voice, and the briefest tease of Lazro’s sax. A minute later, the trio is fully awoken. Lazro and Léandre have long been collaborating, and the genesis of their partnership illuminates how well matched they’ve been since the beginning. All three musicians boast tremendous talent and commitment to the moment, but there’s also sly humor and a passionate drive to urge listeners to out of their traditionally passive role. “Enfance 4” is a wonderful examples of this, with Léandre’s arco solo suddenly interrupted by Lewis and Lazro’s riffs and squaks.

“Enface 5” is something of preview of the past 30 years in retrospect. Early on, Lazro takes a lyrical solo, which Léandre quickly picks up on bass. The two continue moving forward, somewhat hesitantly, before ceding the floor to Lewis for an extended solo. The three come together in a swirling passage of singing, bass, trombone, and sax, which contrasts staccato passages with brassy outbursts. Hearing it all hang together in synchrony, I was somewhat on edge, waiting to hear how long the passage would sustain itself.

With most of the tracks clocking in at sub-4 minutes, the 20-minute “Enface 5” and 12-minute “Enface 6” form the centerpiece of the album. Toward the middle of “Enface 6” is a Lazro/Lewis duet, with the two weaving their lines together into a dense run. Gradually, Léandre joins, then quickly takes centerstage for a solo that sets the path forward for the piece’s conclusion. The final track, “Enface 10,” plays like a strident plea that could be a call for peace, a call to action, or a call simply echoing out into space, perhaps never to be answered.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Judson Trio - An Air Of Unreality (RogueArt, 2016) ****½

By Dan Sorrells

An “air of unreality” characterizes the best free improvisation. This performance—captured during last year’s Vision Festival in Manhattan’s Judson Church—definitely ranks among the best on record this year. Part of this unreality has to do with finding beauty and gratification in uncertainty, something that so often makes reality difficult to bear. Another part is transcendence, both of person and pedigree: the idea of a musician effaced by their instrument, and then by their creation. Music that, if not divorced from each musician’s lineage, then certainly—as the truism goes—surpassing their sum. Joëlle Léandre, Mat Maneri, and Gerald Cleaver as bass, viola, and drums, and then as something else entirely.

Absorption is as good a benchmark as any when attempting to evaluate improvisation. Even after several listens, I found myself surprised each time that An Air of Unreality was already concluding. Maneri and Léandre are a proven pairing, neither afraid of all the pitches and ambiguity that lie between the notes. The microtonal improvisation Maneri inherited from his father has parallels with the inflections of many folk traditions, and his close work in recent years with pianist Lucian Ban seems to have drawn even more of that influence into his playing. These deep cultural wells, authentic music of story-telling—and often of stunning virtuosity—are the places Léandre draws from, as well. “Unreal II” develops the meandering, melancholic quality of a Romanian doina, a rhythmically free and largely improvised folk lament.

Cleaver compliments the strings nicely. A robust and almost absurdly versatile drummer, his restraint here is commendable. He bides much of his time focused on color and accent, a palette heavy in cymbals, rattles, bells. He’s often able to anticipate points Léandre and Maneri wish to emphasize, underscoring each with an emphatic kick or thunderous tom hit. Still, he’s unafraid of making leading, muscular moves to goad his companions in new directions. Late in “Unreal I” he finds a vein of rhythm in Léandre’s low grinding drone and opens it into a propulsive groove, an brief and unforeseen measure of order in previously restless music.

The Vision Festival, celebrating its 20th edition in 2015, has become the last bastion for large-scale celebration of this music in a country that is often painfully indifferent to the avant-garde. Its annual rosters consist of none less than titans of creative music, and last year was no different. Listening to An Air of Unreality, documenting about half of the trio’s late Saturday night set, it’s hard to imagine a more earnest statement of improvisation’s vitality, or—even among such a field of giants—that many other performances that week could have reached Judson Trio’s apogee.

Tiger Trio (Joëlle Léandre, Myra Melford, Nicole Mitchell) - Unleashed (RogueArt, 2016) ****

An interesting grouping, with semi-frequent collaborators Joëlle Léandre and Nicole Mitchell teaming up with Myra Melford for a live performance of freely-improvised music. Although each of these players is known for their compositional and improvisational prowess, Melford has done comparatively less work in a purely free vein, so I approached this record with a good deal of inquisitive interest. How would Melford’s lyrical approach to the piano, typically working within well-defined compositional parameters, fare in this unstructured context? Quite well, actually. All three musicians establish a sympathetic rapport that results in a beautiful, graceful musical vision.

The group’s name (and the title of the record for that matter) is a bit misleading. Most of the music here isn’t “tiger”-like at all, and it certainly isn’t out-of-control aggressiveness. On the contrary, as freely-improvised music goes, this is remarkably disciplined and focused, with an emphasis on careful collaboration and mutuality that gives each track a unified feel and strong tonal center. I couldn’t determine if the names of the tracks were assigned after the recording, but they’re all nature-themed: “Bright Sunshine,” “Threatening Clouds,” “Summer Rain,” and so forth. Even here, the titles of the tracks don’t always seem obviously connected to the music itself: “Heavy Hail” moves loosely around a deliberate, even meditative bass figure by Léandre and gentle, yearning phrases from Mitchell, and “Dazzling Snow,” the record’s closer, is one of the record’s more rambunctious and ominous tracks, with Melford’s percussive left hand in punchy dialogue with Mitchell and Léandre.

But no matter. The music is frequently transfixing and stunning in the intricate interplay involved in its creation. Mitchell’s technique on the flute is impressive as always, as she alternately offers multiple tones, rapid runs, and an occasional touch of mysticism (evident on “Heavy Hail” in particular). Melford’s approach typically involves dense clusters of notes, particularly in conversation with Léandre, who is as stylistically diverse and virtuosic as always. Whether in dynamically rich, propulsive arco passages or simply plucking a few well-chosen individual notes, Léandre serves as a vital lyrical force, often referencing and elaborating upon the tonal palettes utilized by Melford and Mitchell. On the second track, “Freezing Rain,” Léandre matches Melford’s agile locutions superbly, the two musicians in perfect rapport, each with the utmost confidence in their own statements but with the care in listening needed to develop their ideas in true conversation. And hearing the three together on “Dust Storm,” with Mitchell’s swirling flurries dancing around the more percussive contributions of Melford and Léandre, we are given a stirring reminder of just how much music can be created through purely spontaneous improvisation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Joëlle Léandre & Théo Ceccaldi - Elastic (Cipsela, 2016) ****½

By Eyal Haruveni
Joëlle Léandre double master is quite picky when it comes to bringing young musicians to her close circle of collaborators but the young, 30 years old, violinist Théo Ceccaldi is already an integral part of that honorary circle. His trio hosted Léandre on Can You Smile? (Ayler, 2013), the two performed together during 2015 as a duo - Léandre favorite format - and Léandre enlisted Ceccaldi for her tentet reimagination of her composition Can You Hear Me? (Ayler, 2016). So, it was only natural for these comrades to finally document their shared affinity on Elastic.
But Elastic is much more than an obvious reaffirmation of the profound, immediate interplay of Léandre and Ceccaldi, cemented in the aforementioned settings and live performances. The mutual trust, their distinct experiences as free-improvisers and their commanding mastery of their instruments enable both to charge this recording with a unique, surprising spirit. Their intimate, chamber-like improvisations - in the most innocent meaning of chamber music - radiate a rare restraint and humility.
There are no brilliant sparks of humor or stormy, intense eruptions on Elastic, as one can find aplenty on both recorded work, no dazzling explorations of extended bowing techniques or operatic vocal gibberish and even less focus on virtuosic playing that takes your breath away. But what is left is much more important. The lyrical, melancholic atmosphere reflects the confidence in each other, a deep confidence that enable both Léandre and Ceccaldi to bear their naked souls and most fragile feelings.
Léandre and Ceccaldi improvisations tell us volumes about the essence of music of the moment. Sometimes less speaks clearer and stronger than more, you can engage in riskier emotional adventures when you fully trust your partner to hold you when you fall and you are stronger as and because the ones around you. This is music of true compassion and great sensitivity, of sharing feelings, ideas and insights, and of believing in the your comrades, believing that music and art at all can make a difference. When you open yourself, even surrender, to this kind of experience you can aim higher, much higher, and touch even deeper.
I can not agree more with the Free Jazz blog comrade, Stef Gijssels, who wrote the liner notes. These masters transform their elastic strings into beautiful sounds “and then transcend into emotional bonds between musicians and listeners. Wonderful magic".   

By Stef

And here are my full liner notes of the album

French theater maker Louis Jouvet once said : “L’improvisation ça ne s’improvise pas”, meaning that improvisation can only be done properly with lots of preparation and practice, and that is what you get here. Music that at first hearing sounds like modern classical music, composed, well-structured, balanced, with lyrical lines and interactions that could only be the result of carefully annotated written music. But listen - and think - again. The dynamics, the tension, the rawness and authenticity, the inventiveness, the liveliness you hear, can only be the result of improvisation: it is the music coming out of more than one mind, or one heart, the music that creates itself on the spot, out of the tension and the harmony between two people, full of confidence in each other, musically and technically, two musicians who have something to tell. It is a personal story. Two personal stories of likeminded people merged into one. 

They clearly love what they do, they love their instruments, the sound of strings, the resonance of wood, the scraping of the bow. They follow each other’s movements, the low bass and the high violin, they echo, or they challenge, they tease, they take the sound a step further … and enjoy it. You can feel that. Théo Ceccaldi confirms that not one word is spoken about the pieces before they start playing. Joëlle Léandre says it is all one big adventure. It is the music of surprise, even to them. But is it? It is, yet in a way it is not. You can feel that they know each other. There is no surprise there. They trust each other so completely that they open up. They listen with incredible concentration. They value what they hear. They like what the other one is doing, what the other one is feeling. And it is exactly then that the element of surprise hits. Possibilities open. The other one gives ideas, and they mutually reinforce one another. They like what they can add to this, to co-create, to co-compose, expressing their feelings, while rationally keeping the focus to keep the free ideas tight and compact, cherishing the new sounds. It is the moment of magic. When seemingly paradoxical elements come together, like frivolity and gravitas, sadness and playfulness, serenity and exuberance, control and abandon, sensitivity and rawness, intimacy and austerity, often alternating but even more magically within one sound, like life itself, full of conflicting feelings and unspoken sentiments. If this is a journey, or an adventure, the two travellers set out seemingly without luggage, yet they carry with them the skill to transform emotions into sound, they carry the mastery of many musical idioms, whether classical or jazz or folk to create something new, something never heard before, something that moves, that touches the emotion, that touches our sense of aesthetic beauty. 

The title refers to the flexibility of the taut strings, stretched to the limit, tense and unyielding, another paradox, yet it is also a wordplay on the French word “elastique”, or rubber band, which, when stretched and pulled, also produces sounds. A rubber band is also meant to keep things together, compact and coherent. This is a story of strings. They bend, they vibrate, they are muted, they stick together, and all other technical things that can be done in the hands of masters, who transform these strings into sound and then transcend into emotional bonds between musicians and listeners. Wonderful magic indeed!