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Peter Brötzmann solo at the Guelph Jazz Festival

September 13, 2017, Guelph Ontario. Photo by Owen Kurtz

Joe McPhee and Graham Lambkin, Blank Forms Residency

July 28, 2017. Madison Square Park, NYC. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Wadada Leo Smith - Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM Records, 2017) *****

By Nicola Negri

In a career spanning almost five decades, Wadada Leo Smith has explored every possible ensemble combination, from solo to orchestra and everything in between. Of all these performative dimensions, the unaccompanied solo is especially important. Smith’s first album as a leader, Creative Music–1, released on his own Kabell label in 1971, was indeed a solitary endeavor, and found the musician already working on what would become Ankhrasmation, a music theory and notation system that provides compositional accuracy while leaving ample room for spontaneous creativity. The solo dimension allowed Smith to investigate the boundaries of composition and improvisation without the external constraints inevitably present in an ensemble setting, in search of his own identity as a performer/composer.

Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk continues Smith’s personal exploration of the solo performance, but is also, in many respects, a real surprise. A multi-faceted reflection on Thelonious Monk’s music and personality, the record comprises four original compositions by Smith and four titles taken from Monk’s extensive catalog: Ruby, My Dear, Reflections, Crepuscule with Nellie and ’Round Midnight.

Even if always aware of the jazz tradition, and often referencing past masters in the titles of his pieces, Smith has usually focused on his own compositional work and has never recorded such well-known standards before. Moreover, as the trumpeter himself points out in the liner notes, Monk is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking about him. And yet, not only Monk has been an early model for Smith, the perfect example of the performer/composer he aspired to be, but many aspects of Monk’s distinctive style may be seen as the stepping stones over which Smith has built his own vision. An idiosyncratic view of rhythm organization, and the crucial importance of silence in shaping the musical discourse, are elements common to both, as is a certain attitude towards improvisation, where the tension between structural integrity and creative freedom makes for a constantly fresh and unpredictable musical experience. On a more immediate level, for both of them, there’s an instrumental voice so peculiar and unique that can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Smith performs the four Monk’s compositions on this record with affectionate respect, presenting the themes in a simple, straightforward manner, while the following developments mark the distance between Smith’s inventive interpretations and any traditional jazz treatment. There are oblique references to the underlying harmonic structures and melodic contours, but the compositions are somehow observed from a distance, caressed and reconsidered, playing with a certain mood inherent in the pieces, while reaching a subterranean dimension that illuminates them from within. The results are breathtaking. Smith shows with disarming simplicity how every little sound, every subtle inflection can alter the perception of otherwise familiar compositions; how creative music can combine composition and improvisation in a seamless musical expression, free of technical or stylistic constraints.

The four original compositions that complete the album maintain the same feeling, and are among the best penned by Smith in recent years – and that is saying a lot, given the constantly excellent level of his writing. Inspired by films and images of Monk – the ring on his finger, the quirky dancing on stage – these pieces manage to evoke his music without openly referencing it, fully preserving Smith’s personality and compositional style.

More than a tribute to a beloved musician, this album is a profound, poignant meditation on the mysterious affinities between two masters of Afro-American music, and a refreshing reminder of how Avant-garde and tradition are indeed complementary aspects of the same musical substance.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Noël Akchoté - All I Have To (Solo Series) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

All I Have To Say (s/r, 2017)
All I Should’ve Said (s/r, 2017)
All I Forgot To Say (s/r, 2017)

Earlier this year, guitarist Noël Akchoté released a solo triptych, All I Have To Say, All I Should’ve Said, and All I Forgot To Say, recorded in March, April, and May, respectively, of this year. For an artist with so many hundreds of albums to his name, both as leader and as supporting member, it’s near impossible to describe something as a must-own or some kind of definitive statement. And while these aren’t necessarily the latter, this triptych does feel like a major statement and sincere attempt to speak, via guitar, as directly and plainly as possible.

The layering of blues, jazz, free improvisation, and rock are all filtered through Akchoté’s singular guitar playing. The overall shape and movement of the three albums takes you through long sections of Akchoté’s catalog, before giving over to his interpretations of a wide array of jazz classics, including Ornette, Haden, and Motian, each of whom he’s previously recorded tributes to. Then, there are the takes on mid-to-late 20th century American classics. His take on “Bird On a Wire” is ridiculously sublime. Restrained and heartfelt, it’s an absolutely gorgeous reading of Leonard Cohen’s classic, made all the more effective as Akchoté finishes this by tearing into Keith Jarrett and Sam Brown’s “Take Me Back.” Later on All I Have To Say, he reprises this moment with a brief reading of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” but instead follows it with Ornette’s “Sadness.” An interesting thing about Akchoté and Mary Halvorson’s continued collaboration is that each can record a solo take on the same track and have such diverse interpretations. (Halvorson also recorded Akchoté’s “Chesire Hotel” on her solo album, Meltframe). The effect is recreated again on All I Should’ve Said when he takes on John Coltrane’s “Cherryco,” which is followed by Ornette’s “Law Years.”

Because I’m not a guitar player myself, I often find it difficult to explain what’s special about a particular musician. But there is something so uniquely unquantifiable about Akchoté, both as a composer and a performer. In a brief interview, Halvorson describes his openness and wide range of music knowledge, and I’m most struck by the remarkable manner in which he synthesizes all this into his expressive style. In that sense, this All I… series is absolutely a must-own and very much a statement release, allowing a listener to home in on Akchoté, very much exposed in this solo setting, and take him at his word.

Available on Bandcamp

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Noël Akchoté - Complete Recordings (Plays Anthony Braxton) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

As far as I’m aware, the only other large-scale interpretations of Anthony Braxton’s music have been the two sets of his notated piano music, by Hildegard Kleeb and Geneviève Foccroulle. Here, however, guitarist Noël Akchoté tackles roughly 40 years of Braxton’s evolution, chronologically tracing a line from 1967’s “Composition 6C” to the final Ghost Trance Music composition, “Composition 360,” one of Braxton’s accelerator whip pieces (most of which, though not this one, appeared on the landmark 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006).

Starting with the obvious, there are no straight covers.. Everything is filtered through Akchoté’s rich, delicate playing, whether on acoustic or electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer. The full 4 hours and 30 minutes were recorded over a 6-day recording session, 14–20 May 2016, in Paris. Even with the wealth of material one could spend decades listening to, I’m still curious if there are alt. takes or false starts to hear, so deep is Akchoté’s dedication to de- and re-constructing Braxton’s mammoth discography.

One excellent place to start is “Composition 255,” which is performed on guitar synthesizer. The multiphonics allow Akchoté to truly explore the different, sometimes contrary, directions Braxton might go in. In the span of “Part 3,” for example, there’s the clear line of a GTM composition, but it's at odds with a contemporaneous improvisation. In the span of 2 minutes and 20 seconds, Akchoté lays bare much of what makes Braxton unique, that is the many ways his compositions balance these varied lines and spontaneous improvs into a cohesive whole. And Akchoté does this over and over again, most often in the span of a minute.

Some of the more recognizable, “classic” Braxton compositions fall into the areas 6, 23, 40, and 69. On many of these, Akchoté plays acoustic guitar, which gives the readings a playful edge, as with “69 A,” where fingerings and fret buzz fill in the space surrounding the melody. “6 I” is incredibly layered, with Akchoté multi-tracking his acoustic guitar and exposing a bluesy side to the notably jaunty melody.

I feel like it’s too easy for me to fall back on noting what an incredible accomplishment this is, purely from a programming perspective, and it certainly is one. But it wouldn’t be as remarkable a collection without Akchoté’s superb performances. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Akchoté, Braxton, or guitar, in general.

The complete recordings are available on Akchoté’s Bandcamp in individual releases:
Or as a single release from various big box digital retailers.

Monday, October 16, 2017

James Blood Ulmer & The Thing – Baby Talk (Trost Records) ****½

By Gustav Lindqvist

This is not a James Blood Ulmer album. This is not a The Thing Album. If that’s only what you’re after I can highly recommend the magnificent Blood’ album ‘Tales of Captain Black’ from 1979, or The Thing’s ‘BOOT! from 2013.

Furthermore, one simply cannot say what James Blood Ulmer is, as far as genres go. Is he jazz? Is he funk? Is he rock or blues? Is he ‘someone-who-took-Jimi-Hendrix-playing-to-the-next-level’?
I’m just going to leave it at this: he’s James Blood Ulmer. He’s a living legend as far as breaking boundaries in cross-genre guitar playing goes.

And what’s The Thing? In short – as I’m sure you all know them; it’s a tour de force jazz mulisha at its very finest, never afraid – always ready to throw bold ideas in the mix, run it over a couple of times, and spit it out. Composed by a trio musicians who’s played with everyone everywhere. Reading their individual discography is exhausting. With reedist Mats Gustafsson, (Fire! Orchestra, and releasing albums with everyone on the free jazz scene, it feels like), bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (Atomic, Fredrik Nordström Quintet, Townhouse Orchestra and many, many others) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (Atomic, Frode Gjerstad Trio, The Peter Brötzmann Chicago tentet just to mention a few) – The Thing is …The Thing.

But it is also a band which happens to often meet with their heroes, live and on tape. We, fans of The Thing, have been blessed with great releases such as Immediate Sound (2001, with Ken Vandermark), Collider (2016, with DKV Trio) and Metal (2012, with Barry Guy), just to mention a few. In that aspect it’s not that surprising to see James Blood Ulmer taking the stage with The Thing during the 2015 Molde International Jazz Festival.

Before listening to this album I sat for a while just staring at the cover. What was this going to be like? I was starting to feel afraid that on this album I would hear The Thing either eat Ulmer alive, especially live, with Mats Gustafsson leading the way like a rabid dog. Or that The Thing would fall flat, not knowing how to see eye to eye with the legendary Ulmer. But all these feelings are of course silly, knowing what these people are capable of, on their own – or with others. What was there to worry about?

On this album I hear nothing else than the greatest of respect to what James Blood Ulmer is, whatever that is, and also with the soul, passion and force that is The Thing, intact.

The 4 original Ulmer compositions are all treated with great care albeit twisted, turned and re-invented.

It starts off with Interview. Ulmer introduces the theme which is a dissonant run of notes which Ingebrigt Håker Flaten follows just behind, like a chase. It’s very elegant. We’re not left with who’s winning though, Flaten leaves Ulmer for another direction and changes the pace. He’s inviting the others to the party. Nilssen-Love and Gustafsson jumps straight in. The elegant chase is transformed into an intense dance. Ulmer’s not late to join The Thing in their typical way of playing while still keeping his distinct and personal tone.

Second song High Yellow is also introduced by Ulmer, however this time there’s less patience shown before The Thing picks up the pace to start twisting the song around. Nilsson-Love can really be heard like the master he is in this song. He’s got such a big sound, yet I love how he’s a participator and a creative force throughout the album. However Ulmer’s never left alone, and is never drowned. Mats joins and immediately brings his best lyrical playing to the table. They all bring on the full intensity for a couple of minutes, making sure they’ve explored every corner of the song, before eventually they start to stumble, almost like rolling an uneven stone down a hill, towards those last notes. Ulmer closes the song and I wonder where this is going.

I couldn’t have expected what was to come. Ulmer introduces a kind of naïve tune, or something from a children’s songbook – Baby Talk is the name of the third song. The Thing accepts the challenge and starts the adventure with changing around the tune in different directions. You can always here Ulmer right there, he never misses a note, even when Gustafsson brings on his best (worst?) nightmare. Eventually we’re brought back to the original theme and it’s over.

The last song Proof is one scary yet fantastic piece of music.

It’s lyrical, simple, bluesy, dark, sad and absolutely brilliant. I sat like on needles waiting for Mats to join in. He does, but perhaps not like you’d think. Not together with Flaten and Nilsson-Love, not like a speeding train, and not alone like a whirling dervish in some manic mental state of mind. The Thing waits patiently while Ulmer sets the stage before Mats edgy baryton starts to sing together with Ulmer; moaning & calling. Ingebrigt’s bass is heard surrounding them like someone walking right beside them. Is he a friend or a foe? Mats pleading and calling builds up with increasing intensity while Ulmer keeps playing the theme repeatedly, with small varations. About half-way through the song, scene changes. The tension that has been built up must be released. There’s no other solution than to ask for help. Nilsson-Love to the rescue. He’s leading the way, guiding Ulmer, Gustafsson and Flaten back to safety. We’re left with that great feeling you get after hearing something very special. If only there was more songs. 33 minutes is not enough. I’m not sure there will be that many opportunities to hear James Blood Ulmer & The Thing together again, if ever.
Having said that, I highly recommend that you pick this one up.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The October Revolution Part 2: Saturday and Sunday

The weekend's festivities kicked off out on the Race St. Pier, which juts out into the Delaware River at the foot of the Ben Franklin bridge. The performance was the work of composer John Luther Adams entitled "Across the Distance", specifically written for a couple dozen french horns.

Saturday afternoon, Race St Pier and Fringe Arts

A member of Orchestra 2001 performing John Luther Adams' Across the Distance
Dozen's of french horn players from Philadelphia's Orchestra 2001 were making their way slowly up and down the Race Street pier. Cars and trucks on I-95 sped by and the commuter rail up on the Ben Franklin bridge passed by with a clatter, but down on the pier a reverential quiet blanketed the otherwise noisy space. Through this atmosphere, at seemingly random intervals, the wandering musicians would play short sequences of notes. Soon, another horn player would begin a similar sequence, and maybe on the other side of the pier, a third voice joined. The overlapping arpeggios and sustained notes created a calming and hypnotic effect, and against the flow of the river, the flow of the traffic, and the deliberate flow of the musicians, a full day of music began.

Son of Goldfinger: David Torn, Ches Smith, Tim Berne
The festival moved back inside Fringe Arts - kind of a welcome reprieve from the unseasonably hot day - and guitarist and soundscapist David Torn took the stage with percussionist Ches Smith and saxophonist Tim Berne under the group name Son of Goldfinger. A small enthusiastic crowd gathered to luxuriate in the guitar tech wizard Torn's live sound manipulations and Berne's obtuse and complex melodic creations. However it was Smith who kicked things off by cuing up an electronic frequency which prompted Torn to unleash the theremin within. Striking, muting, and tapping the strings, he pulled and pried sounds of his guitar and looming cabinet of technology. The group picked up in intensity and Berne, playing a solid stream of melodic ideas, began buzzing in the mid-register of the horn and Torn began tearing it up. The trio interspersed long meditative sections and blistering attacks, of which the noisy parts were the most interesting. Smith took a solo towards the end that wove odd metered and unresolved patterns into a MC Escher like illusion. A rather inconclusive ending came in the guise of a blown amp, but overall a neat set paving the way for Tim Berne's own group, Snakeoil, appearing later in the afternoon.

Zena Parkins and Brian Chase Duo
Harpist/sound manipulator Parkins' harp is much more than a harp - in fact, I wonder if harp is even the right word for it. It's a controller, hooked up to a wild assortment of electronics and finally into an amplifier. As she and drummer Brian Chase kicked off their set, it sounded like she was playing bass. Also to note, she was playing the frame of the instrument, not the harp strings themselves. Chase, with mallets in hand and at a conventional kit, kept it simple, that is until he began to disassemble pieces of his high-hat to get some other percussive sounds. The duo was intense, Parkins provided a mix of tone and attack as she looped her sounds into an impressive stack. Chase's playing was responsive and provided a strong pulse, if not time. There is a bit of theater attached as well in Parkin's lunging and rhythmic swoons at the harp, and here working both the physical and the musical, they reached an apex. They continued through several other improvisations and the range of sounds Parkin's can create is mindboggling: digging into rhythmic strums, pulling out stinging single notes, and scratching out synthesized tones. The two work quite well together and their mid-afternoon set was a highlight.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil
Snakeoil has been Berne's main vehicle for his compositions over the past several years. A spate of albums on ECM have ranged from excellent to even more excellent, the most recent Incidentals is a masterful album, the second featuring the group augmented by guitarist Ryan Ferrier, who was not playing with the group today. The line-up in addition to Berne: reeds player Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Ches Smith. Smith again kicked things off, this time with a bunch of small percussion, while Noriega readied his Bb clarinet and proceeded to play a gentle melody along with Mitchell. Only after a good stretch, Berne came in, while Smith provided some contrast on the vibraphone. Noriega switched to bass clarinet and he worked a melody together with Mitchell, the group pulled together in all their complexity. One complaint is that Mitchell's acoustic piano could not cut through the group 's sound strongly and some of the bass' function was lost, causing the music to float a little more than usual. However, the upshot was that Smith's unusual work on the timpani and vibraphone gained some extra prominence. To my ears, the strength of Berne's compositions is how he sets up his musical contraptions, whose components always come together to create beautifully challenging musical jigsaw puzzles.

Saturday Night, Fringe Arts

Art Ensemble of Chicago
This was it, the event that everyone had been talking about. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, which had been started in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1960s has grown and changed over the years, and as this concert proved, is still a relevant and important force in finding and pushing the edges of the avantgarde. The current version is founding member Roscoe Mitchell on woodwinds; Hugh Ragin on trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet; Tomeka Reid on cello; Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul on double-bass; and Famoudou Don Moye on drums. 

The group came out on stage and faced east. Mitchell played a single note, they took their playing positions, and Paul launched into an extensive bass solo. He was then joined by Shahid and Moye for a brief interlude, and then the second bassist took over. Ragin took a quick turn on the piccolo trumpet as Mitchell readied his soprano sax. As the focus shifted to Mitchell, he let loose a torrent of squeals and squeaks in the extended range of the instrument. Coupled with circular breathing, the effect was both jarring and soothing in some manner. He kept this theme going after cueing in the group, adding more notes from the lower register. Ragin took over next, for an extensive solo, and then it was Reid's turn. She really stood out as she spun a engrossing fast paced passage full of double and triple stops. In fact in a few conversations with concert-goers afterwards they basically said they were utterly smitten with her playing. The quality of the music only increased over the course of the set. Towards the end, Moye's received some spotlight, and the drummer who had moved between hand percussion and kit over the course of the set, led the group energetically into their closing theme. The group came back for a short encore and the audience was left on a wonderfully disoriented high - the hour set seemed to have passed in mere minutes.

Mike Lorenz Trio
Serving up a sweet digestive after the heavy meal, the Mike Lorenz trio (Lorenz  on guitar, James Collins on organ, and  Kevin Ripley on drums) took over the small corner stage of the Le Peg restaurant located in the front of the Fringe Arts building. With people filtering in an out of the biergarten, the group played music from the book of Sonny Sharrock. An unusual cover band for sure, and they shaped the guitarists woolly compositions into a neat trio format. Quite a night!

Sunday Afternoon, Fringe Arts

Saturday's heat became even more oppressive on this rainy Sunday, and an equatorial (or at least Floridian) humidity saturated the air. A performance on the Pier scheduled for noon was cancelled and the show began inside Fringe Arts with the sax and drums duo of Jim Sauter and Kid Millions.

Jim Sauter and Kid Millions 
Sauter is one of the saxophonists from the heavy noise/jazz group Borbetomagnus and Millions (Jim Colpitts) the drummer of rock band Oneida. The two together were a force of nature - and it was loud - from the opening blat of Sauter's sax, nothing but energy poured forth from the duo. The extreme feedback from Sauter's towering amplifier, to the string of pedals he ran his instrument through guaranteed hearing damage for those without ear plugs, but between the textures of his sounds and the structure in Million's patterns, an interesting - though not for the faint of heart - music emerged. It was certainly a jolt of energy in the early afternoon.

Sunday Afternoon, Old City

After the opening event, the action shifted up into to old city. Just a quick walk up Race St, under the thunder of I-95, the old city is a mix of buildings and homes from the 18th century and modern glass monstrosities from the 2017's. How Betsy Ross' home fits into this changing landscape is interesting to ponder as one walked towards Christ Church - founded in 1695 - through the streets teeming with art galleries, book shops, cafes and tourists attending the old city festival. 

Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone
Drummer Mike Reed's septet Flesh and Bone performed in an attic hall of one of Christ Church's outer buildings. Set up against the backdrop of projector screens, the group played an excellent mix of avantgarde/contemporary jazz laced with passionate spoken word. The group, an assemblage of Chicago musicians featured Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Tim Haldeman on tenor saxophone, Jason Roebke on bass, Ben Lamar Gay on cornet, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Marvin Tate on vocals, and Reed on drums. The group recently released their eponymous album which was inspired by an incident in Poland where Reed ran into a Neo-Nazi rally. Underscored by the recent unravelling of America, the incident caused a great deal of reflection on life for Reed and he tried to capture it in music (and words) with the group. The concert was an absolute joy - with Stein and Ward possibly taking top honors. Though I have always been a fan of Stein's bass clarinet playing, his solo performed against the backdrop of crude computer animated vectors ran the gamut of the instrument's capabilities and set a bar for the group. Rooted in traditional jazz and blues but searching for new sounds and open to all ideas, Reed has crafted an exciting concept which was brought to life by the group. In fact, in the second piece a deep bass groove over a straight ahead beat and tandem improvisation from Stein and Ward would have been good enough for me the whole show, but bring in the octet and Reed's contemporary, but timeless arrangements, and it was a sensory feast.

Cortex:  Gard Nilssen, Ola Høyer, Kristoffer Berre Alberts, Thomas Johansson
This quartet of bad ass Norwegians have released several albums on Clean Feed, one of the more recent ones was from a concert at iBeam in Brooklyn from a few years back, and it caught the band's energy well, but nothing compares to seeing them in a several hundred year old church with its aged acoustics and connotations of freedom and revolution. Trumpeter Thomas Johansson, saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ola Høyer, and drummer Gard Nilssen did not let the concert goers down, their precise playing and concise melodic heads gave way to fierce improvisations, showcasing some rare talent - Alberts playing seems to embody the spirit of Brotzmann coupled with jaw-dropping technical proficiency. While Alberts and Johansson are powerhouse improvisers a lot of credit should go the writing - crystalline and punchy, it features the exciting interplay and somehow has a synergistic effect where the two horns can fill a room - a church even - with sound. Nilssen and Hoyer root the group. They are dependable and never let a beat slip, providing a solid underlayment that no doubt lets the two horn players do what they do best.

Burton Greene  (press photo)
Hunched over at the baby grand piano at the front of the church, Burton Greene played a lovely, albeit short, set. His playing was excellent, energetic but patient. Moments of calm and placid notes were punctuated by bursts of rapid tonal clusters. The 80 year old had a youthful air, introducing compositions and pieces with stories laced with details and still had a lot of fight left in him for exploited musicians, yuppies driving up the cost of housing, and the state of politics in the US (as seen from an Ex-pats eyes). His impromptu lecture after the set was as riveting as his song dedicated to Sun-Ra ('Space is Still the Place') and a Monkish be-bop piece he's been working over for 60 years dedicated to Bud Powell. Greene also performed at the original October Revolution festival in 1964, making his appearance here of both historical and musical importance. A real treat.

Ballister: Dave Rempis, Paal Nilssen-Love, Fred Lonberg-Holm 
I was highly anticipating Ballister's set. The trio of Chicagoans Dave Rempis (sax) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), and Norwegian Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) is powerhouse of noisy jazz. In fact, from the first hit, Rempis tore into his sax and PnL was thunderous presence, nearly drowning out Lonberg-Holm's effect laden cello work. That is, until a sudden break where Lonberg-Holm's non-cello sounding cello sounds erupted into electronic shards and splinters. Ballister isn't all power however, dropping the dynamics, Rempis pulled out some yearning melodic lines to play with the cellist, whose instrument's acoustic properties mixed with the crunch of his pedals congealing into a sharp and delicate sound. The band spent a but of time tossing about small interactions in reserved tones, which helped make the next time they went full throttle that much more intense. Between the ebbs and flows, Rempis and PnL slowly brought the music back to boil, while Lonberg-Holm rearranged the audience's ear-drums. When Rempis switched to the baritone sax, the next storm was approaching. 

Perhaps drawn to the pleasures of the old city festival or exhausted from the incredible stretch of music starting on Thursday night, it was a smaller but dedicated crowd. After the Balllister show, the festival returned to Fringe Arts for the performance of local artist Moor Mother and then So Percussion. However, after bidding goodbye to folks outside Fringe Arts, I too headed back to my car and to the reality of the coming week. 

Overall the festival was an incredible survey of of experimental and avantgarde musicians and music. Curated with care and attention paid to details, the whole event was a pleasure to attend and I look forward to seeing how Ars Nova builds on its success. Long live the revolution, I'm looking forward to it coming around again!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The October Revolution: Part 1, Thursday and Friday

The October Revolution concert festival held Oct 5th through 8th in Philadelphia hinged its name on the seminal summit from October of 1964, organized by trumpeter Bill Dixon at an uptown Manhattan space, back when rents were low and revolution was in the air. That festival is considered one of the galvanizing moments for Free Jazz. Cecil Taylor, Sun-Ra, Burton Greene, and many others were involved with the music making and discussion panels.

Last week, located in and near the historic revolution-era old city (currently in a hyper gentrification revolution), this October Revolution was a thoughtfully curated event that showcased some established but very relevant acts like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton to energetic European upstarts Cortex and reps from the contemporary Chicago scene, and beyond.

The organizer, Ars Nova, has been instrumental in organizing concerts in Philadelphia over the past several years, and with this festival, they seem to have set the bar high for themselves. The concerts, while primarily centered at the Fringe Arts building at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge near Penn's Landing, also extended into the old city on its final day with concerts at the historic Christ Church (where George Washington attended) and where the festival mingled with an old city arts and food festival.

Thursday, Oct 5th, Fringe Arts:

The Sun-Ra Arkestra
The revolution started without me. I was in transit as Karuna opened the festival. The group featured percussionists Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph, and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Miles Jones, and I was told, from some reputable sources, that it was an exciting concert.

However, I did get to see was the Sun-Ra Arkestra and band leader Marshall Allen impressed the hell out of me. At 93, Allen is still a force of avant-garde music making to reckon with, leading the group through Sun Ra's seminal album Space is the Place. While his EWI - used to invoke our placement in space - was a bit too loud, his saxophone was right on in pure skronk mode.

Singer/Violinist Tara Middleton, reed player Danny Ray Thompson, and trumpeter Michael Ray (I believe) provided a musical grounding along with stellar solos, while other members of the band helped to carry out the hi-jinx that the band is renowned for. It seems only the guy sitting next to me seemed disappointed that Sun-Ra wasn't actually performing - the overall assessment is that it was a lot of fun. 

Friday Oct 6th, Fringe Arts.

Dave Burrell, solo piano
Friday opened with a 'secret concert' which I was delighted to attend. Upon entering Fringe Arts, we were herded through to the green room, where pianist Dave Burrell sat at the Steinway piano against an unfinished brick wall. He began with a standard, very straight ahead, very sweet. However, that is but one side of the rapidly swinging pendulum of his music, as without pause, the notes became ragged, punchy, abstract, only to be reigned back into harmoniousness a moment later. The gentle swing between in and out playing was mesmerizing, comforting and challenging in the same breath. Burrell played a mixture of his own compositions like 'Tear Drops for Jimmy', and the lighthearted stride piano laced 'Margy Pargy' as well as standards like his reflective take on John Coltrane's 'Naima'.

Following the set, Are Nova announced that the festival will be happening again next year, same weekend.

Claire Chase, solo flute
The first proper concert of Friday night was flutist Claire Chase who appeared in silver pants under blue lights on the darkened stage. On the sparse stage adorned only a table holding her flutes, Chase began with Edgard Varèse's 1936 solo flute piece 'Density 21.5'. The sparse melody was suspended in the room around her through rich ambient reverb and she effortlessly command the audience's attention with her dramatic sweeps and embodiment of the music.

The next song found Chase using a flute with a sliding embouchure hole (glissando head joint invented by flutist Robert Dick). From deep guttural tones to soaring notes, Chase augmented her playing with electronics to create a mesmerizing interplay of sound, motion, and light. Her multiphonic dreamscape expanded in the next piece which incorporated electronic concepts by pianist Vijay Iyer into the performance. Her penultimate piece involved members of the audience and Ars Nova staff, drawing them into a circle on stage and outfitting them with bottles and other small instruments. Chase, at first on pan flute and later the bass flute, instructed her 'orchestra' when to play and improvised over and around them. The final piece was an audience participation exercise from the late Pauline Oliveros. Chase's detailed choreography and improvisational prowess made for an impressive performance. 

Anthony Braxton, Solo Saxophone
Like he was getting up to bat in game of baseball, reedist Anthony Braxton loosened his shoulders and adjusted his grip as he picked up his saxophone. He presented a series of key clicks before a tone even passed through the the instrument, but then his sound was alive - energetic and oscillating between quick runs and legato phrases. Braxton's playing is a rich biosphere, the deep fertile layers of the initial runs provide the foundation for the lighter layers of melody and fleeting asides. The music breathed, there was nothing anaerobic about it.

Braxton held his sax up high and arced his back slightly as he played, and the instrument seemed like a tool in his hands, being used to construct something special, he was not just playing. The audience was enthralled as he launched into the next piece, which began with a series of squeaks and throaty descending runs that brought the piece to a close. Braxton also delved into some standards, playing a lovely rendition of Thelonius Monk's 'Ruby, My Dear' and an ebullient version of the Miles Davis classic 'Four', which spawned variations of the melody that went out, remaining spiritually, if not thematically, connected to the tune.

A humorous moment occurred as someone who was recording on his iPhone accidentally clicked play. As if on cue, what Braxton just played was played back to Braxton, quite audible to all. Taking it in stride, Braxton cracked a joke and then pausing before his closing composition, acknowledged the broader political and artistic climate. "I don't need to tell you about how complex these times are," he said, "But there is nothing like creativity and positive energy to help get through it." And with these practical words and a the subsequent uplift of the final piece, the audience dispersed into the night, some pausing to enjoy the beer garden on the oddly warm evening.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Áine O’Dwyer - Gallarais (MIE, 2017) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Way back in January 2015, Stef reviewed an album called Music for Church Cleaners, Volumes I & II, a recording of improvised pipe organ, performed in St Mark’s Church, Islington, in 2011. Released first in 2012 as a cassette, and later expanded in 2014, it’s a landmark recording, and in the ensuing years, Áine O’Dwyer has consistently one-upped it.

O’Dwyer’s latest, Gallarais, is out now, and it’s another incredible, gripping album. A member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, O’Dwyer has a unique improvisatory sensibility, expertly combining harp, percussion, voice, and ambient sounds to create deeply entrancing soundscapes. As with Music for Church Cleaners, the tracks are simultaneously impressionistic and distinct, marked by their individual shape and trajectory, but given to bold, fascinating shifts in mood and effect.
Of Gallarais, O’Dwyer writes, “Gallarais, or the Gallarus Oratory, translates into ‘church of the place of the foriegner’ or ‘rocky headland’. It is a funerary chapel which takes the shape of an upturned boat, and is situated on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry, Ireland, representing in this instance a touchstone for abstract heritage, and the expression of the female voice.” Recorded over two years, in the Brunel tunnel shaft (“50 ft in diameter and 50 ft deep with an acoustic decay of three to four seconds,” writes O’Dwyer), Gallarais shifts the focus of O’Dwyer’s interests very slightly, and dramatically changing up the instrumentation. “Underlight” opens the album with a three-minute meditation on harp, and it’s immediately followed by “Corpophone,” an a cappella melody that echoes away into the distant tunnel shaft. Later, the funereal impact of “Mrs O’Learys Keen” is particularly chilling. I’d recently read Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, in which a character visiting Greece from London, meets a professional funeral weeper. Kitamura evoked a woman plumbing the depths of her own pain in service of helping others mourn. Here, O’Dwyer recasts herself as an Irish keener, similar professional mourners, her voice not merely wailing but rising and falling, giving her vocals the overall effect of breath being taken away by sorrow.

In the time between Music for Church Cleaners and Gallarais, O’Dwyer released three more albums, the Fort Evil Fruit cassettes Locusts and Gegenschein, and the self-released Beast Diaries. Both cassettes were recorded on pipe organ, and all three are highly recommended.

Gegenschein pairs O’Dwyer’s 2014 limited-run “21.12.12” EP with “A world ending,” a 25-minute improvisation which features some fantastic overtones, especially in its first half.
Locusts is a collection of pipe organ improvisations, recorded in 2015 at both St James’s Church, Barrow-in-Furness, England, and The First Unitarian Congregational Society Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

Beast Diaries brings together six different field recordings, from England, France, Bosnia, and Netherlands, plus one “unknown.”

“Alter Boy (excerpt)” from Locusts

Gallarais is available direct from MIE.

All others available direct from Bandcamp

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Heath Watts & Blue Armstrong - Bright yellow with bass” (Leo Records, 2017) **** 1/2

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

It’s always interesting, as it is puzzling, encountering an artist with no prior knowledge of him or her. I first listened to Heath Watts’ duo with Dan Pell, on the always wonderful Leo Records, a few years back. I’ve listened to nothing from him before or after that. It feels like the pre-internet times, when almost all the info you could absorb came from the recordings themselves. Recordings just like a message in a bottle coming out of nowhere from someone you have never met. Quite exhilarating.

So, Breathe If You Can, the aforementioned duo recording, kind of worked as a guideline for me. While perhaps not being a masterpiece, it definitely made me love the soprano saxophone of Watts. His playing stood somewhere between the impressionistic view of the color of sound and an abstract image of a sound world. In both cases you had to give time, space, and a small distance, so you could enjoy its fruits. His breathing was like lush and big brushstrokes that leave a deep impression. This duality is a also mentioned and highlighted on the Leo Records’ website for the liner notes of Bright Yellow With Bass.

The recording itself is a gentle proposition. There are no special outbursts or blow-outs. Following their amazing interplay (having they been playing together a lot?) the music flows from one composition to the next uninterrupted. It’s like you hear one long track. They play in unison.

I pretty much like and enjoy the percussion qualities of the double bass. Those are quite fitting with the timbre of Watts soprano saxophone. As it happens with numerous combinations of reeds and percussion, this is a duo that cut its teeth –at least for this recording – by using the same fluidity of the aforementioned interaction.

Blue Armstrong’s bass isn’t limited only to accompany the saxophone. He is, through the instrument, an equal player, a strong participant and maker of the recording. This is what we get because of the long and fruitful tradition that’s comes out from free improvisation: equality in all aspects.

Melody and notes do not discriminate from each other. Even though Watts’ playing isn’t based on melody but rather in notes, this is a melodic recording and not, as I already mentioned, a rough blow out. Listening, I often found myself focusing often on the double bass. The plinks and the plonks, the notes and the tonalities of Armstrong’s bass constitute one of the best proposals for this instrument in 2017. 

One more hard fact as this review is coming to an end: the more I listened to this cd, the more I came to appreciate it. Do yourself a favor by doing the same.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Craig Taborn & Ikue Mori (Tzadik, 2017) ****1/2

By Daniel Böker

The first time I came across the name Ikue Mori was with her collaboration with Sonic Youth (as was the case with many unfamiliar to me names and music, i.e. Mats Gustafsson, Merbow etc.)

A few years later, Sonic Youth was history, and I went to a concert on the roof of a museum (very nice evening!) by Body/Head, the duo of Kim Gordon and Bill Nace. On that evening they had a special guest: Ikue Mori. The strange thing about all that is that I was surprised to see that Ikue Mori was a woman. I am not very familiar with Japanese names and still it is telling a lot about me or my expectations on music and musicians. Without giving it a second thought I had expected a male artist. The music that evening was beautiful and I would say especially because of the participation of Ikue Mori.

The music we write about in this blog could be described as avantgarde (more or less). But still there are mostly male artists and my own expectations confirm that. Does Ikue Mori's gender change my perception of her music? I don't think so. Maybe it is just high time to listen to female artists in particular and highlight their approach.

Highsmith is a good example to do so. The duo of Craig Taborn on piano and Ikue Mori on electronics is exactly that - a real duo. Often electronics are an element used to add a little atmosphere or some odd sounds and little surprises, but not with this album. The two artist are, as I said before, a real duo. They are on an equal footing with each other. And that you can hear!

The piano of Craig Taborn and the sounds of Ikue Mori are a perfect match. For example the first track "The still point of the turning world": it starts of with a perfect mingling of the two as Craig Taborn plays short open chords. The piano sounds as if it was excited to meet the strange and wonderful electronic sounds that not only fill the gaps between the piano's chords but have a life of their own. I hope I don't wrong the two artists but while listening to the first track I had the image of two young dogs in my had jumping excited around each other, happy to meet each other.

The second track "music to die by" does not sound that "jumpy" at all. The piano is moving fast through the whole fingerboard accompanied by high clicking sounds. It's an urgent and grave piece of music. The other tracks are different in mood, speed and sound. There are calm tracks like "nothing that meets the eye" on which Ikue seems to lead the duo. On other tracks the piano seems to lead. But never does the one dominate the other.

It is probably not fair to compare two duos, but in preparation for this review I listened to another duo with Craig Taborn. It was Lubljana with Mats Gustafsson, and the whole approach is different: Mats Gustafsson and Craig Taborn improvise a whole set, separated in two sections. The tracks on Highsmith are improvised as well but short as pop songs with one exception. And a sax may not be compared to electronics.

Still, I listened to it and heard a different piano, and with that in mind I return to the beginning of this review. Does Ikue Mori's gender change the music? Change the way Taborn plays? Actually, I don't know for sure. I know the album sounds different, the piano on the album sounds different than the piano on Lubljana with Mats Gustafsson. But maybe I just have to reflect my expectations about who is playing what kind of music. The album Highsmith in the end is one of the best combinations of electronic sounds and more or less a 'classical' jazz piano. And Ikue Mori is an artist worth following, even to the top of a museum. She challenged my expectations, made me reflect on my thinking, and with Highsmith challenged my ears in a very exciting way.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Léandre - Minton (Fou Records, 2017) *****

By Eyal Hareuveni

When it comes to free-improvisation you most likely don’t need more than the surnames of French double bass master Joëlle Léandre and British vocal master Phil Minton. The front cover of their first-ever recorded duo betrays no other information besides the surname and an incidental photo of sky.

Actually, you need nothing more. Just mentioning the surnames of these elder statespersons of free-improvisation (Léandre was crowned earlier this year as a French knight, member of the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres) together is enough. Their names alone act as a powerful incantation, and you, the listener, already know that you had better surrender. Surrender fully to the beautiful, elusive art of creating-improvising-composing in the moment.

Léandre and Minton were captured playing live in Paris in October 2016. The inside cover quotes influential Dadaist poet, essayist and performance artist Tristan Tzara's (1896-1963) poem L’homme approximatif, chant VI. And, indeed, this live recording - as can be seen in the attached you-tube video - radiates a similar anarchist spirit, one that defies all conventions and conceptions.

The recording is divided into three, koan-like titles, the 32-minutes “Si,lence” and the shorter “is” and “blu,ish”. “Si,lence” brings together the hyperactive, trains of thoughts, associations and ideas of Léandre and Minton. Both are wandering through abstract, free-associative textures, chatting and sharing obscene secrets in undecipherable languages, losing their minds and way in colorful-psychedelic labyrinths and sudden rhythms and totally enjoying this close, busy improvisation. Léandre's associative operatic-conversational-vocalizations are answered beautifully by Minton and both sound as not only as master improvisers but also as experienced performance artists-actors who know how to win bemused audiences with their nuanced weird stories and their unique physical performances.

Minton opens the following, short “is” with suggestive bird calls, whistling and singing fragmented melodies. Léandre's surprisingly economic and disciplined playing puts some order to his ornithological stream of vocalizations, but eventually joins Minton's playful attempt to lure as many birds as possible to their stage. “bluish” proves again and again that Léandre and Minton play as inseparable twins, communicating instantly and telepathically. Both transform any idea, strange and bizarre as it may, into a colorful, ecstatic operatic act, and this one even ends with few symbolic snores.