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VAX: Devin Gray (dr), Patrick Breiner (s), Liz Kosack (sy)

VAX PREBRONO Festival @ West Germany, Berlin. May 2019
After 20 minutes vamping on the first bar of Girl From Ipanema, VAX hit hard with fiery mix of free jazz, skronk, and doom metal.

Philm - Elias Stemeseder (p, sy), Robert Landfermann (b), Philipp Gropper (sax), Olli Steidle (dr)

5/18/2019; Manufaktur, Schorndorf

PUNKT. VRT. PLASTIK: Kaja Draksler(p), Petter Eldh(b), Christian Lillinger(dr)

XJazz Festival, Berlin, May 2019

OHRENSCHMAUS: Lina Allemano(tp), Dan Peter Sundland (b), Michael Griener(dr)

B-Flat, Berlin. May 2019

Assif Tsahar (sax) & Tatsuya Nakatani (dr)

Carousel Lounge, Austin, 4/16/2019

Gerry Hemingway (dr) & Samuel Blaser (tr)

Sahara Lounge, Austin, 4/11/2019

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Teruto Soejima – Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History (Public Bath Press, 2018) ****½

Part 2 of 3
By Colin Green

Culturally, no country is an island, and it was not long before those outside Japan began to take notice and a series of international exchanges took place. In February 1971, the German All Stars visited Tokyo, and Manfred Schoof, Albert Mangelsdorff, Gerd Dudek, Michel Pilz and Wolfgang Dauner sat in with local musicians at New Jazz Hall, refusing to accept payment (Soejima suggested beers all round afterwards instead). Masahiko Sato and Dauner’s piano duo, Pianology (Express, 1971) is the only record of the first free jazz meeting between these nations, but Joachim E. Berendt, who co-produced the session, arranged for Sato’s trio to play at the Berlin Jazz Festival later that year. The piano was out of tune and their time had been reduced from 40 to 25 minutes. Sato refused to play, and Berendt took flowers to his hotel room to persuade him to go on. As can be heard on the recording, Penetration (Toshiba, 1972), Sato got his 40 minutes, but the piano is still lousy though heavily masked by extensive use of a ring modulator. Perhaps reflecting the importance of such exposure, it was initially released in Japan as a quadrophonic LP in a presentation box with obi-strip, the “sash” that fits over the spine of Japanese LPs and CDs. Sato was provided with better pianos in the recordings he made either side of his Berlin festival appearance, however: Trinity (Enja, 1971) a live studio date in Munich with Peter Warren (double bass) and Pierre Favre (drums) and Spontaneous (Enja, 1972) with Warren, Mangelsdorff (trombone) and Allen Blairman (drums), both highly successful collaborations.

Anthony Braxton visited Japan in 1973. His visa did not permit public performance, but there was a midnight recording session with Sato’s trio, which shows them completely at ease with his idiom and compositions, playing those tricky unison passages flawlessly. Four Compositions (1973) (Columbia, 1973) is one of Braxton’s best early albums, also notable for being one of the first ever digital recordings, made using experimental PCM technology with a now obsolete sampling frequency and bit rate, which might explain why, ironically, the album has never been released on CD. Double bassist Gary Peacock, who’d played with Ayler, Bill Evans and Paul Bley, had been living in Japan since 1969 and appeared on four significant trio albums with pianists Sato and Masabumi Kikuchi before his return to the US in 1972: Eastward (Sony CBS, 1970), Voices (Sony CBS, 1971),Poesy: The Man who Keeps Washing his Hands (Philips, 1971) and Samādhi (Express, 1972).

From 1973, some of the younger free jazz musicians began to visit Europe to do their “knight-errantry”, with Paris a focal spot. From the second half of the nineteenth century and the invention of “Japonisme”, there had been strong cultural ties between France and Japan and in the early 70s Paris had become something of a melting pot for free jazz with many expatriate musicians having taken up residence or working there for extended periods. Saxophonist Mototeru Takagi went for a year, picking up the nickname “monster” and recording Out from the Edge (Angelus, 1974) and Jazz a Maison de Japon, Paris (Nadja, 1974) with pianist Takashi Kako, who’d been turned on to free jazz while studying composition with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, and Americans Kent Carter (double bass) and Ron Pittner (drums). Soejima writes of the track ‘Sekibutsu’ (“Stone Buddha”), “Takagi’s slow, elegant phrasings scream as if melting forever into eternity”.

Trumpet player Itaru Oki made a more long-term commitment to France. Describing himself as creating abstract spaces from internal waves, his trio’s album, Satsujin Kyoshitsu (“School for Murder”) (1970) had been the sole release on the Jazz Creaters label, set up by Soejima while at New Jazz Hall. On ‘A Dialogue with Water – Aporia’, Oki plays while dipping his trumpet into a bowl of water, like an extended mute, and ‘Flight in Space – Papillion’ replicates the movement of a butterfly. Well established in Tokyo, and to the astonishment of many, Oki announced he would be moving to Paris permanently in order to find his own place in European free jazz. In April 1974 he went on a 33 date, “sayonara” tour of Japan with his quartet, produced by Soejima. The performances got better as the tour progressed and audiences were stunned by the group’s intensity, adding extra poignancy to Oki’s departure. The last night was released as Shirasagi (Nadja, 1974), a landscape that echoes with electronically enhanced trumpet and Shoji Ukaji’s growling baritone, followed by music of crumbling density, driven by the friction of forces and counterforces. Oki went to Paris, and stayed, though he returned to Japan on occasions as heard on the recently released, Kami Fusen (NoBusiness, 2017). Drummer Masahiko Togashi’s travels were limited due to his disability but in July 1979 he visited
Paris leaving two records of his stay in the city of lights, consisting entirely of his own compositions: Song of Soil (Paddle Wheel, 1979) with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, and Colour of Dream (Paddle Wheel, 1980) with Kako, Albert Mangelsdorff and J.-F. Jenny-Clark (double bass), line-ups that give an indication of Togashi’s reputation, world-wide. As Cherry observed, “Togashi’s drumming is nothing like New York drumming. Togashi is Togashi”.

Akira Sakata arrived in Tokyo from Hiroshima in 1969, having agreed with his family that he would stay for three years to make it as a professional saxophone player, failing which he would return home. He worked as a driver and in a design studio and after work, absent the Williamsburg Bridge, would practice his alto in Yoyogi Park among the trees (subsequently, his jerky stage manner was attributed to stopping mosquitoes biting his legs). Travel further round the park and you could hear Shoji Ukaji practicing on his tenor. As an aside, parks and other unusual locations seem to have proved attractive. In the 1980s, the hardcore free jazz players, saxophonist Naoji Kondo and drummer Mitsumasa “Goku” Nonaka, nicknamed after a manga comic character (the importance of which in Japanese life should not be underestimated) performed in the corner of a park in Shinjuku, harassed by officials and police but supported by the local yakuza (mafia). Nonaka then raised his sights and played on top of Mount Fuji, no easy task given the difficult ascent, freezing temperature and reduced oxygen levels. In 1987 he decided to follow the route of the ancient Silk Road, across the Himalayas into India, then on to Western Asia and Istanbul, transporting 90kg of drum equipment to play solo shows wherever he stopped. His performance at a refugee camp in Afghanistan was welcomed by an overflowing crowd and his adventures are recorded in his book, Bachiatari (“Accursed”).

Returning to Sakata, his reputation grew. Kaoru Abe was an admirer but unlike Abe, Sakata was a team player, more interested in group performance. He appeared frequently with the Yosuke Yamashita trio and in late 1972 replaced Seiichi Nakamura on saxophone, introducing new energy levels. On Schoof’s recommendation, the trio were invited by Horst Weber to tour Europe in 1974 where they received an enthusiastic response, described in the press as “kamikaze jazz”, more diplomatically by Soejima as “the most powerful and exciting trio ever”. Over the next few years they proved more popular in Europe than Japan. Clay (Enja, 1974), recorded at the Moers International New Jazz Festival in Germany is a good example of their incendiary fervour and stamina, as is Montreux Afterglow (Frasco, 1976) with new drummer Shota Koyama, which contains a stonking version of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’. A quartet with Schoof (trumpet, flugelhorn) in Stuttgart is also recommended: Distant Thunder (Enja, 1975).

Inevitably, America beckoned, primarily for more mainstream musicians but also for some who played free jazz. After Togashi’s paralysing accident, Takagi formed a duo with drummer Sabu Toyozumi, another of those powerful sax and drums combos, as can be heard on If Ocean is Broken (Qbico, 2009) recorded in April 1971. Not long after that date, Toyozumi went to Chicago to check out AACM, arriving unannounced but welcomed at concerts and sessions, and became the first non-American member of the Association. After six months he moved to Paris and played with Braxton. then back to Japan via Bali where he spent four months studying gamelan music. Later, he arranged for overseas musicians to play with him in an annual series of duos, including John Zorn (the first of many visits to Japan) trombonist Paul Rutherford – Fragrance (NOL, 2000) –.and Wadada Leo Smith. On Cosmos has Spirit (Scissors, 1992) Smith plays trumpet, a self-made bamboo flute and kalimba, and Toyozumi “non-tempered” percussion.

In 1974, saxophonist Kaazutoki Umezo went to New York for a year, hanging out in the loft scene and recording Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai (ALM, 1975) with William Parker and others. He played with percussionist Tatsuya Nakamura who was also in New York, astounding the locals with his home-made instruments including a “quarter drum”, thirty pieces of plastic plumbing pipe of differing diameters and lengths with drumheads attached. After hearing the collection of festival performances, Inspiration and Power 14 (Trio, 1973) Bernard Stollman of New York’s ESP Records expressed an interest in making a series of recordings of Japanese free jazz, an exciting prospect given the prestigious status of the label. It was decided that guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions Unit would be the first and recordings sessions were held in April and May 1975. Since it was a foreign release it was given the title April is the Cruellest Month, taken from the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Soejima wrote the liner notes (“a sound like a raging sea…a blast of wind…a jet engine in flight”) and the master tape was sent to ESP, who assigned it a catalogue number. Nothing further was heard. ESP went bust, Takayanagi shrugged his shoulders, “these things happen”, and it was not until after his death that the album was released on CD using a copy master retained by the producer (April Disk, 1991).

From the late 70s Western and Japanese improvisors were brought together in Japan in events often organised by the musicians themselves, picking out combinations that would provide a new challenge. Trumpet player Toshinori Kondo invited Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra, joining in their onstage antics -- Japan Japon (ICP, 1982) – and later brought over Peter Brötzmann, Bill Laswell and Henry Kaiser: Tokyo Meeting 1984 (Dessert/Tojusha, 1985). The 1982 Panmusik Festival, sponsored by the Goethe Institute, was one of Soejima’s favourites, and produced Contrast (Paddle Wheel, 1983) a trio of Togashi, Lauren Newton (voice) and Peter Kowald (double bass, harmonica) in a potpourri of scat, Japanese idioms, reverberant bass scrapes and pattering percussion.  Kowald returned in 1986 and recorded Global Village Suite Improvised (FMP, 1988) with Danny Davis (alto saxophone, flute) and Takehisa Kosugi (violin), and the Japanese portion of Duos: Europa · America · Japan (FMP, 1991), his travelogue of improvised music.

Soejima was not the only person prominent in promoting and organising free jazz in Japan. There was also Akira Aida. Soejima and Aida had collaborated closely after the opening of New Jazz Hall but then fell out when the latter made a speech from the stage inciting the audience to attack the Pitt Inn, whose generosity had allowed the venue to operate. In consequence Takayanagi, who supported Aida’s right to make such statements, broke-off with Soejima. Having introduced Takayanagi and Abe, Aida was then the catalyst for the demise of the duo, telling them after one gig, “it’s still not right, not good enough”. Abe laughed but Takayanagi took umbrage, and that was the end of that. Takayanagi then made up with Soejima but Soejima was never reconciled with Aida – the soap opera that is musical life.

Aida had arranged for visits by Steve Lacy and Milford Graves to Japan and was the distributor for the FMP and Incus labels. He invited Derek Bailey to tour with a collection of leading free jazz musicians from his Hangesha collective – Abe, Kondo, Motoharu Yoshizawa (double bass) and Toshiyuki Tsuchitori (drums). Bailey described Aida as a kind of Svengali figure, but all went well with audiences of up to six or seven hundred each night, making Bailey enough money to buy a car on his return to London. In addition to playing solo – New Sights, Old Sounds/Solo Live (Morgue, 1979) – the performances adopted the permutation format he favoured, as heard on the live Aida's Call (Starlight Furniture Co, 1999) and studio albums, Duo & Trio Improvisation (Kitty, 1978) and The Music...Hardcore Jazz (Kitty, 2003). Bailey was impressed by the different approach to ensemble dynamics and visited Japan again, including Company weeks in 1981 and 1993, as well as playing with Japanese musicians in Europe and America. Aida died in December 1978 at the age of 32, three months after Abe, suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.

Soejima left Japan for the first time in 1977 and visited the Moers festival, one of the preeminent free jazz festivals in the world: “There my eyes were opened wide and every avant-garde cell in my bloodstream went raging through my body.” The following year, producer Burkhard Hennen asked him to recommend musicians for each year’s festival, the beginning of an artistically fruitful relationship, though not financially rewarding. Soejima received no payment for his work and elected to stand his own annual air fare out of respect for the festival. As a result, each year European audiences were treated to free jazz from Japan – in 1979 the F.M.T. trio (Yoshiaki Fujikawa, alto saxophone, Keiki Midorikawa, bass and cello, Sabu Toyozumi, drums), in 1980 Takayanagi’s New Direction (his only overseas appearance, due to increasingly debilitating hepatitis) issued as Live at Moers Festival (Three Blind Mice, 1980) and in 1981, multi-reedist, Keizo Inoue. Much older than the generation with whom he played, Inoue had given Sakata clarinet lessons in Hiroshima and taught himself free jazz by playing along with records before he broke into the Tokyo scene in his fifties. There was a strong theatrical element to his performances: at an outside festival at Ueno Park (those parks again) he stopped playing and dove headfirst into the Shinobazu Pond, followed by members of the audience to rescue him. There was nothing quite as dramatic at Moers where he played solo sets over three days on the special projects stage and sat in with English band Alterations and his former pupil’s trio. The LP In Moers '81 (Trio, 1981), recorded over two nights, has the elemental ‘Himmel’, ‘Wasser’ and ‘Feuer’, played solo on side 1 and on side 2, ‘Passionato’, a sequence of six flickering duos and trios with Paul Lovens (percussion) and Günther Christmann (trombone, double bass) – expanded to the full fifteen sections on the CD release of 2002 – an inspired and serendipitous meeting of like-minded improvisors.

In gratitude for Soejima’s work, early on Hennen gave him permission to film performances at Moers, and thus began his documentary movies, a new one for each festival. For ten years Soejima would travel all over Japan showing them in small coffee bars and the like, shot on 8mm film with sound added from cassette recordings, answering questions afterwards and acting as a proselytizer for progressive music to audiences outside the major centres. As Otomo Yoshihide writes in his introduction to the book, “Anthony Braxton, Han Bennink, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, all names we had only known from records and magazines, were there improvising right in front of us.” In the era of YouTube, we take much for granted.

Soejima was also responsible for promoting the Korean alto saxophonist Kan Tae Hwan. On first hearing his trio, Soejima noticed something different from anything in Europe or Japan and arranged for them to tour. In 1979, after the trio broke up, he organised a solo tour of Japan for Hwan alongside that year’s Moers documentary. His music was an absorbing blend of Asian folk music with textures and articulations associated with free jazz: circular breathing, layered multiphonics and extremes in register and dynamics. He played cross-legged and would use the floor as a resonant sounding board. The free jazz musicians of Japan were intrigued, hearing similarities with their own music but also a unique spirit. Hwan played with Sato and female percussionist Midori Takada at the Pitt Inn in 1990, a meeting of kindred spirits, as a result of which they formed the trio Ton-Klami (“Circle” in Korean). Their set at Moers in 1991 ( In Moers (Ninety-One, 1993) is striking, an imaginative use of quasi-minimalist processes with Hwan’s pulsating saxophone and the gamelan sonority of piano and marimba moving in and out of phase like superimposed waves of light, fading then forming into new patterns.

Particularly in his solo work, there’s a shamanistic quality to Hwan’s playing, slow accumulations that form part of a larger picture which unfolds gradually at a pace where conventional time seems to have stopped; spare, considered music in which each note and dynamic fluctuation are precisely weighted, every inflection carefully graded. There’s something of Abe’s sonic purity about him but projected from a place of internal balance. Two recent albums on the NoBusiness label are representative of his refinement and distillation: Prophecy of Nue with the Ton-Klami trio (2017) and the solo Live at Café Amores (2018), both taken from performances in 1995.

Yamashita in a reunion concert with those who made up the three versions of his classic trio, plus Naruyoshi Kikuchi (tenor) and Katsuo Kuninaka (bass guitar).

<< Read Part 1

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Teruto Soejima – Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History (Public Bath Press, 2018) ****½

Part 1 of 3

By Colin Green 
Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History is the long-awaited English translation, by Kato David Hopkins, of Teruto Soejima’s Nihon Furī Jazu-Shi (“The History of Japanese Free Jazz”) published in 2002. It’s available through the Public Bath Press website and from London’s Iklektic from where I got my copy. Other specialist venues and stores may also be stocking it.

The translator’s subtitle is significant. Free jazz in Japan is a truly vast subject, even for the limited period covered by Soejima. He doesn’t purport to deal with everything, just how he saw it and the part he played, with a liberal smattering of anecdotes some of which you really couldn’t make up. During this three-part review I’ll mention many albums that are invaluable documents from an era full of startling creativity and riches. Most are discussed by Soejima, but it’s not a definitive list and readers should feel free to add their own recommendations in the comments section after the third part of the review has been posted. I’ll be using the Western convention of family names last, which is how the musicians tend to be listed on Discogs and elsewhere. The book places family names first, in Japanese order.

Soejima was at the centre of free jazz during its formative years in Japan, acting as organiser, promoter, journalist, catalyser, confidant and peacemaker. In many respects it’s a familiar story – the more things change, the more they stay the same – mirroring the development of music, culture and politics at the time, both in Japan and internationally. There are formidable egos, fragile temperaments, fights over how to end numbers, petty feuds, cultural fusion, remarkable fortitude, high farce and tragic fatality, but above all a burning passion to create something immediate and new, a conviction that the world was changing, anything was possible, and free jazz was the medium in which to achieve it. In a way, Japan’s separation from the established centres of jazz, previously regarded as a shortcoming, became one of its principal advantages. As in Europe, the distance allowed a less self-conscious break with jazz traditions and a more ready adoption of other influences – domestic and foreign, contemporary and historic – combined with a rate of accelerated growth probably unmatched elsewhere. No doubt, much of the groundwork had already been done in America and Europe but the speed at which Japanese musicians absorbed and innovated is astounding.

The narrative opens fifty years ago in 1969, the year in which free jazz reached maturity in Japan, signalled by landmark performances and recordings from many of the musicians who were to dominate the scene in the following years. Soejima is attending a rehearsal in late August by guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions trio, held in a back room at Shinjuku’s Pitt Inn, Tokyo.
“A tremendous blast of sound seemed to blow the air out of the windowless chamber. It was, in fact, an intensely creative sound. Wrapped around the machine gun staccato of Yoshisaburo Toyozumi’s drumming, Motoharu Yoshizawa’s bowed bass raised its voice in a low moan. And slashing all around them was Masayuki Takayanagi’s guitar. This was free jazz”.
The trio were playing ‘Mass Projection’, one of Takayanagi’s signature pieces, rehearsing for their debut recording the next month, Independence: Tread on Sure Ground (Union, 1970). That number didn’t make it onto the album but can be heard on Live Independence (P.S.F, 1995) taken from performances in 1970 which give a good idea of the kinetic kick that floored Soejima. During the trio’s appearances at the run-down Nagisa jazz coffee shop the vibrational energy was so great that paint fell from the decrepit ceiling onto the audience, like flakes of snow. Takayanagi was the instigator of the Japanese school of guitar-shredding but was far more than a mere noise merchant, having the skill to trap, mould and release unruly swathes of sound, exercising judgment in deciding when to let loose and how to control. “I am not a noise artist,” he said, “I am making noisy music”, and more tellingly, “The goal has been finding concrete expression for the stillness and motion inherent in space”, an indication of a particularly Japanese aesthetic that was to pervade much of the music.

Earlier in 1969, a quintet led by drummer Masahiko Togashi and trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki recorded Variation (Takt, 1969). The title track opens out into variations of a very different kind to those usually expected and ‘Suzu No Uta’ (“Bell Song”) consists of an unbroken piano run against a background of glittering percussion; further signs of the emergence of a fresh conception of musical space. In May, Togashi, along with Takayanagi, Mototeru Takagi (tenor, cornpipe), and Motoharu Yoshizawa (double bass, cello) recorded We Now Create - Music for Strings, Winds and Percussion (Victor, 1969). Something quite new is going on here, from the opening screeching guitar and strangulated tenor of ‘Variations on a Theme of "Feed Back"’ to the flowing but incisive drums of ‘Artistry in Percussion’ and the concluding ‘Fantasy for Strings’, a textural melange of nervous acoustic guitar, plucked cello, twittering cornpipe and microscopic bursts of percussion. The album suggests many possible directions, which may be why it’s considered by some to be the start of the free jazz era in Japan, and shared joint honours as jazz record of the year. The other album was Palladium (Express, 1969) from a trio led by pianist Masahiko Sato (also spelt “Satoh”). Sato had returned to Japan in 1968, having completed his composition coursework at Berklee College of Music two years into the four-year course, when he was told there was nothing further they could teach him. In the following years he would exhibit a dazzling technical and imaginative versatility, producing innovative music in many fields, as pianist, collaborator, composer, arranger and conductor. The compositions of Messiaen were an early influence, as can be heard in the shimmering pianism of his solo, Holography (Columbia, 1970). Palladium featured Yasuo Arakawa on double bass, and Togashi on drums – he and Sato worked together closely – and includes a rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ where the theme emerges from an impressionistic swirl, then floats slowly into abstraction.

Shortly thereafter, the trio recorded a performance given at the prestigious Sankei Hall, Deformation (Express, 1969) which lends weight to Soejima’s claim that Sato’s thinking was about ten years ahead of the rest. During the first half of the concert live electronic sounds are woven into the ensemble texture and in the second half the trio is accompanied at points by a pre-recorded orchestral score (presumably, composed by Sato) which is joined in the final stages by the drones and chants of a choir. During the intermission there was tape of an old woman singing a traditional folk song, retained on the album.

By this stage, Soejima was aware of something important in the air and had begun running a jazz magazine. He was invited to join the newly established (and short-lived) Japan Jazz Association, which in September 1969 put on “Concert in New Jazz” at Sankei Hall featuring Togashi’s ESSG (Experimental Sound Space Group) and pianist Yosuke Yamashita’s trio. Yamashita had started playing with the trio in March of that year, featuring Seiichi Nakamura on saxophones and Takeo Moriyama, drums, in high-octane energy music that swept all before it. They’d been invited to perform “behind the barricades ” in a basement during the student occupation of Waseda University in July, released as Dancing Kojiki (Maro, 1969). The opening track, ‘Agitation’, is a student announcement on megaphone, the remainder incandescent piano pounding, tumultuous drumming and a soprano saxophone that sounds on occasions like a wailing siren. An abridged version of the September Sankei Hall performance was released as Concert in New Jazz (Union, 1969) (the full version appeared on CD in 1991) and was followed swiftly by Mina’s Second Theme (Victor, 1969), named after one of the staples of the trio’s sets. This was music physical and direct, as Yamashita pronounced:
“Jazz is more like boxing or soccer, with sound…What the “player” should rightly be striving for is not “a work of art” in any sense, but the best possible kick he can make at that particular moment. That’s all.”
Fittingly, Yamashita wrote ‘Clay’ for the soundtrack of the film, April Fool: Coming Muhammad Ali (URC, 1972).

Taking a different path, in November a quartet comprising Togashi, Sato, Takagi and Yoshio Ikeda (double and electric bass) recorded Speed and Space – The Concept of Space in Music (Union, 1969), an exploration of Togashi’s notion of Jikanritsu (“Time Law”). The album can be seen as a study in how texture, rhythm and differing rates of change effect our perception of the passage of time in music – the superimposed layers of ‘Panorama’, the floating world of ‘Expectation’, fast-paced and expanding in ‘Speed and Space #1’, and the gaseous state of ‘#2’, the sound of air moving and slow-motion formations made up of cymbal whispers, drifting notes, chimes and rumbling piano. Reflecting the Japanese concern for sonic quality, the LP’s sleeve dealt with the disposition of musicians and microphones at the session and use of the then state-of-the art Neumann SX68 cutting lathe to produce the master lacquer.

It was also in November 1969 that Soejima opened New Jazz Hall. It was the same former instrument storage room at Pit Inn at which he’d heard Takayanagi’s trio rehearsing back in August, a “hall” only in the sense that no drinks were served. From Friday to Sunday it functioned as an experimental laboratory for the new music which continued to flourish. On 19 December, Togashi and Takagi went into the studio to record the soundtrack for Masao Adachi’s film, A.K.A. Serial Killer, concerning the recently convicted mass-murderer, Norio Nagayama, an instance of “landscape cinema” which forgoes actors or narrative in favour of scenes of places where Nagayama had lived or which he visited, with no audio apart from music and the occasional voice-over from the director. Takagi plays tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and cornpipe and Togashi a range of tuned and untuned percussion. The music is completely improvised and attempts to depict the psychological and emotional states of Nagayama during three phases of his life. Togashi tried to forget all his learnt techniques to achieve the right level of spontaneity and authenticity. “I think we pushed ourselves pretty close to the edge” he later observed.

This was the last performance Togashi would record with the use of his legs. Six weeks later he was involved in an accident that damaged his spinal cord leaving him paralysed from the waist down. During his convalesce after discharge from hospital, he edited the soundtrack to produce Isolation (Columbia, 1971), an album that ranks alongside other ground-breaking pairings of reeds and percussion – Coltrane and Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space, recorded in 1967 but not released until 1974, and New Acoustic Swing Duo by Willem Breuker and Han Bennink (ICP, 1967) – and is one of many outstanding recordings in the duo format from Japan. When the movie premiered a few years later members of the audience attended with tape recorders to capture the complete performance.

New Jazz Hall closed in May 1971 due to financial difficulties (its audiences had ranged from five to thirty on a good night) and relocated to the Pulcinella, a small puppet theatre, for ten days each month. One night, a knife-wielding chef from an adjoining restaurant burst in – he’d been putting up with this noise for three years and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Wisely, Soejima did not point out that it had been operating as a music venue for not nearly that long and had a soundproof steel door installed. It was one of a number of small clubs, cafes and bars which hosted free jazz that sprang up in Tokyo over the years; Soejima calls them “incubators”. There was Station ’70, with a mirrored ceiling and wall made up of TV screens, an expense that might explain why it only lasted until January 1971. More frugally, Shoji Aketagawa used the basement of a rice shop to open the imaginatively titled “A Shop Where Only My Uncompromising Jazz Performer Friends Can Appear”, seating twenty people. Later, there was the Om bar, holding a similar number who were encouraged to cheer on the musicians, described by Peter Brötzmann as the smallest jazz club in the world but having the hottest atmosphere. If the proprietor, Hiroshi Torii, thought a performer was flagging he’d jump on the bar, shouting, and splash them with water or drinks.

There were also bigger ventures. In 1973, Soejima was involved in organising the first major free jazz festival in Japan, Inspiration and Power 14, held over fourteen nights and featuring most of the leading musicians from the scene. Trio Records agreed to record the festival and put out a 2-LP set later that year, an album which showcases the variety of music being made, from solo bass to big band. Due to the number of performers, each extract is limited to about ten minutes, including the duo of Sato and Togashi, whose performance marked Togashi’s return to the public stage. After having suffered a disability that would have put an end to the working life of most drummers, Togashi had relearned how to play using a specially designed wheelchair and kit (his bass drum was mounted to one side). If anything, his percussive play was even more inventive, having a lighter tone and crisper edge. An expanded version of he and Sato’s excellent set from the festival was released as Sohsyoh (“Double Crystal”) (Trio, 1973) and complete as Kairos (PJL, 2003). Togashi, a percussionist and composer of immense subtlety and finesse, went on to produce many impressive albums in the ensuing years in groups of all sizes. His duo and trio recordings with Steve Lacy are particularly recommended.

One musician who did not appear at the festival, due to hospitalisation, was the saxophonist Kaoru Abe, a defining musician of the decade – brilliant, volatile and self-destructive, whose paint-stripping alto could also turn sweetly melodic. He first came to Soejima’s attention in February 1969, aged 19, when he saw him perform in a duo with drummer Hozumi Tanaka, and was impressed with his fiery energy, like throwing knives at the audience, two of whom were chatting until Abe stopped and shouted, “Hey you, shut the fuck up and listen”. Soejima invited him to perform at New Jazz Hall in a series of collaborations that were more often confrontations. He played with guitarist Takayanagi, one of the few musicians able to handle him, their first meeting lasting several hours with no breaks, until Abe went blue in the face. There was only one release from this short-lived duo during their lives, Deconstructive Empathy (Sound Creators, 1970), taken from their concert in June 1970, “Projection for the Annihilation of Jazz” – these guys didn’t mess about – an album which still sounds extraordinary: an expression of something primary, almost pre-human, in which stable musical space is replaced by a sound-world wrested from the release of psychic energy, yet avoids disintegrating into chaos (just). Two albums of their sets at Station '70 shortly thereafter were released by DIW in 2001: Mass Projection and Gradually Projection.

Abe was part of the Hangesha collective that recorded with Milford Graves ( Meditation Among Us (Kitty, 1977)) but on the subsequent tour he stood facing Graves, blasting until the drummer gave up. “Milford quit first, so he lost” Abe boasted on leaving the stage and was sacked for the remainder of the tour. He also seemed to occupy another world when not playing, explaining an absence as due to his involvement with a war in Argentina, and once arrived at the Gaya jazz club dressed and made up as a schoolgirl, complete with satchel. He would ring Soejima at 2.00 in the morning, asking if it was possible to kill a person with sound, conversations that would last until sunrise, and was addicted to sleeping tablets, then pain killers – 3 would be left in the morning out of a bottle of 100. They burnt a hole in his stomach, and he died at 7.35 on September 9, 1978 at the age of 29. The drummer Sabu Toyozumi, his duo partner for the previous eighteen months, carried his body back to his apartment. Abe’s wife, the writer Isumi Suzuki, took her own life eight years later.

There have been many posthumous albums of Abe’s music, mostly his sui generis solo concerts such as the various Live at Gaya and Live at Passe-Tamps CDs. The first release after his death was Overhang-Party - A Memorial to Kaoru Abe (ALM-Uranoia, 1979), two duo sets with Toyozumi from August 1978, and the most recent Mannyoka (NoBusiness, 2018) again, a pair of duo performances with Toyozumi from Abe’s final year. Soejima wrote his own eulogy in the liner notes to Overhang Party: “Hardly any other sax players in history have managed to get a tone that so matched their individuality”. Abe is a difficult musician to assess: as a listener you either go with him all the way or decide to do something else instead; like the man there are no half-measures. He’s challenging, compelling, utterly uncompromising, emotionally naked -- at its most potent, his playing has a purity of purpose that acts as a direct transmission of feelings without intervention – but also draining, erratic disturbing. At times it can be akin to witnessing an exorcism. Abe may have accepted all this, taking the view that for him there was no clear division between art and life, reaching for everything and falling short was preferable to accepting limitations, and that expressing the irreducible complexity of things cannot be achieved without risk and perturbation. In 1970, in answer to a survey question, “What are you trying to say?”, he responded:
“How to have a sound that stops all judgement. A sound that doesn’t disappear. A sound that weaves through all kinds of images. A sound that comes from both death and birth. A dying sound. A sound with presence. A sound that is forbidden forever. A sound that can’t be owned. The sound of going insane. A sound full of the cosmos. The sound of sound…”
A collection of scenes from Koji Wakamatsu’s 1995 biopic of Abe, Endless Waltz, based on Mayumi Inaba’s book of that name, accompanied by a searing account of ‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ by Abe and percussionist Yasukazu Sato, taken from a recording made in a classroom at Tohoku University in 1971: Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki (“As Acadia Rain Stops”) (Wax, 1997).

Friday, May 24, 2019

Szilárd Mezei Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble - Citromfa (FMR, 2018) *****

By Nick Metzger

The Tiszán is a river that at one time flowed entirely within the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. It of course flows as it always has; only the immaterial boundaries of human dominion have changed. It passes to the east of the city of Senta, where composer Szilárd Mezei has lived all his life. From there it merges with the Danube (Europe’s second longest river, which passes to the south of Novi Sad, where Szilárd and many of his colleagues perform and where this album was recorded) in the very heart of the Vojvodina province, and then on some 1300 km to the Black Sea. Túl a Tiszán Innen roughly translates to English as Beyond the Tiszán from Here and is the name bestowed to Mezei’s ensemble dedicated to the union of Hungarian folk, jazz, and classical music. For their third release “Citromfa” or Lemon Tree, the 11 piece ensemble presents a 9 song, 2-disc set with a run time of just over two hours, every second of which is filled with intriguing, exotic, and beautiful music. Using the themes of traditional Vojvodinian folk songs as a foundation, Mezei extrapolates remarkable arrangements from the simple melodies that extend and supplement their underlying essence, elevating them to a higher level of sophisticated expression. This advancement is enriched by the implausibly brilliant musicians Mezei surrounds himself with. Joining Mezei on this release are his long time colleagues, drummer István Csík and double bassist Ervin Malina (who make up his trio), as well as the remainder of his Septet: Bogdan Rankovic on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and clarinet, Andrea Berendika on flute and alto flute, trombonist Branislav Aksin, and Ivan Burka on vibraphone and marimba. In addition the ensemble features Béla Burány on baritone and soprano saxophones, violinists Tijana Stankovic and Ákos Keszég, pianist Marina Marina Džukljev, and of course Mezei himself on viola. This album was released late last year and I’ve been under its spell since. The words have been slow to come to me, and so I do apologize for the tardiness of this review. I’ve used the English translation of all the song titles below with the intent of demystifying the content for our non-Hungarian speaking readers.

After a brief introductory passage, the first track "A Young Herdsman from Sándorházi" is centered on the sing-song melody of the original tune superimposed over a piano/double bass ostinato. Berindika's flute playing is beautiful here, fluttering over the surface like dragonflies darting over a pond. Just as striking is Džukljev's piano, which along with the rhythm section provides the beating heart of the piece. "Sour Cherry Grows on High Trees" begins with the main theme sketched out in various shades of contrasting timbre, the embellishments and counterpoint building as the song unfolds. The complex inter-ensemble playing is grounded by the hearty rhythm of the piece. The strings are more prominent here, as is Askin's trombone, and we get a tasty solo from Malina on the double bass towards the end. "Come with me to the Ball, My Sweet Darling" is a moody arrangement that begins with a captivating bit of orchestral-tinted potpourri. It plays out dramatically, with the soft, romantic passages erupting into swells of harmony and bouncing rhythm from the full ensemble. There is a particularly nice segment towards the middle where Rankovic's bass clarinet wraps ribbons of reedy color around Džukljev's velvety piano line. Burka's quavering vibraphone solo near the end is a gorgeous and subtle touch. "My Chestnut Horse's Been Lost" retains the orchestral feeling of the previous track, building up a forest of sound that is haunted by Berindika's flute and Mezei's viola. Dramatically rendered but much more somber than the previous track, it's perfectly placed in the album's track sequence. The last piece on the first disc is called "A Women-Ridiculing Song" and features a romping, ornery melody hovering on a post-bop rhythm which is pocked with piano stabs and soft marimba. Rankovic throttles his saxophone, yielding a fierce solo of fiery passion.

The second disc begins with "My Mother's Rose Tree" which is built around an uplifting, regal melody that’s almost anthemic in its rendering. Csík provides a rolling bed of uneven percussion for the folky strings and the sparse, complementary piano. The ensemble takes turns soloing over this foundation, where a single voice appears and is eventually overlapped and overtaken by the next soloist. The saccharine theme is repeated in intervals by the ensemble like a child returning to an unguarded cookie jar. There is a brief section of group improvisation towards the conclusion of the piece before the final statement of the main melody that imparts a sense of totality and closure. “While the Betyár is Drinking at the Bar, His Sweetheart is Crying in the Window” is a bellicose and animated beast that juxtaposes melodious strands of folk melody with volatile, aggressive playing from the ensemble. The piano passage is especially brooding, finding Džukljev utterly attacking the keys. Burány delivers a terrific solo on baritone sax, resplendent with assertive squelches and honks. The next piece is a medley of descants, "Gosh! What a Bad Place This World Is/When Sándor Rosza Gets on His Horse” and is my favorite piece of the collection. It’s cinematic in its advance, building from the gentle melancholy of flute, bass clarinet, and pizzicato string figures to several swelling crescendos of exquisite orchestral airs. The combination of bass clarinet, baritone sax, and trombone is a favorite of mine and provides a thick bed of roiling thunder for the gentle showers of flute, strings, and piano. Csík’s percussion is faultless and subtle; he illuminates the very edges of their swirling sonic world with light rolls and whispering cymbals. The solos on this piece are a particularly outstanding example of how in-sync the ensemble is with Mezei’s arrangements. The piece sounds like organic clockwork, the players in lockstep with the aspirations of the maestro. The final piece of the collection, the eponymous “All the Twigs and Leaves of the Lemon Tree” features another captivating piano ostinato as the root, at times highlighted with flute, soft reeds, and brass. Mezei and Csík summon beguiling solos that are both mellifluous and full of dynamism, after which the ensemble closes the set with a multifaceted flourish of symphonic verdigris.

Mezei’s sonic brew is intoxicating, and I haven’t been able to get enough of it. This third double disc collection from the Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble is a masterwork of infectious melody and intricate orchestration (if you haven’t heard them I warmly endorse the other two collections as well). This music is his own; it’s where he comes from and where he’s going. Certainly there are allusions to the music of Bartók, Mingus, Szabados (another artist underappreciated in the west), and Braxton but they are mostly peripheral. Mezei’s work is singular in its constitution. He’s a gifted artist, whose drive and passion is the equivalent of the aforementioned masters, but who has emerged at a time when much of the world’s cultural fixations have become moribund and oblivious. But like the Tiszán, Mezei’s course will flow as it always has, towards his muses and passions with determination and ambition; and for those so inclined, the juice is well worth the squeeze. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Solo Piano Research of Søren Kjærgaard

By Eyal Hareuveni 

Danish, Copenhagen-based pianist-composer Søren Kjærgaard researched the concept of Multi-layeredness in Solo Performance at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen in the years 2016-2018. During his research project he has performed solo piano recitals and given talks on his research in Tokyo, Oslo, San Francisco, Zürich and Copenhagen. This research yielded two distinct solo piano albums.

Kjærgaard is known from his trio with double bass player Ben Street and drummer Andrew Cyrille, which has recorded four albums, his work with Danish multi-disciplinary artist Torben Ulrich (father of Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich), which has born three albums, and his free-improvised performance with Fred Frith, Koichi Makigami and Jakob Bro.

Søren Kjærgaard - Concrescence (Ik Music, 2019) **** 

Concrescence was recorded at The Village studio, Copenhagen, on 14-15 July 2017, and offers 18 introspective, concentrated micro-cosmoses that unfold in a dialogue between composition and improvisation, between concept and the immediacy of the moment. 

The short pieces point to the rich language Kjærgaard has developed and the diverse influences that shape his aesthetics, ranging from the iconoclastic ideas of Morton Feldman’s evocative minimalism, to the dense chord clusters of Henry Cowell and the indeterminacy of John Cage, to the contemporary voices of improvising, classical pianist Cory Smythe and contemporary composer Nico Muhly, known for his collaborations with Björk, Grizzly Bear and Glen Hansard. 

Kjærgaard weaves these distinct attitudes into a rich and highly personal thesis about the multi-layered potential of the solo piano format. He employs conventional and extended techniques as a mean to suggest a provocative yet subtle interplay between movements, speeds, textures and dynamics, as well as between avant-garde, scholastic innovations and more song-like but still experimental textures. Piece like the minimalist and exotic “Precipitations”, the lyrical ballad “From Ornette To Sun Ra By Way Of Miss Ann South” or the emotional homage to Cowell, “Bells for Henry,” capture best Kjærgaard's idiosyncratic language. 


Søren Kjærgaard - Live at Freedom Music Festival (Ilk Music, 2019) ****½

Live At Freedom Music Festival captures Kjærgaard performing at KoncertKirken, Copenhagen, on September 1st, 2017. It focuses on six extended improvisations, linked as a five movements suite, that explores a more extroverted and contrast-full use of the piano. 

The live format enables Kjærgaard to explore his deep interest in the tension between different experimental approaches and techniques of playing the solo piano, free-improvisation, and modern jazz. The “First and Second Movement” investigates Feldman-esque expressive, ethereal, and almost silent minimalism. “Third Movement” dives first deeper into the indeterminate, chance-based compositional ideas of John Cage and David Tudor, but later sketches basic rhythmic patterns. On these cerebral pieces Kjærgaard investigates the sonic timbral qualities of the piano, attentive to the singing potential of each tone. 

The last shorter three movements - “Fourth” through “Sixth” - connect the contemporary, experimental approaches with a great lineage of revolutionary jazz pianists. The dense tone clusters of Henry Cowell sound as part of the poetic aesthetics of Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley. The last, most lyrical and emotional “Sixth Movement” converges best Kjærgaard’s imaginative, spontaneous ideas of rhythmic flexibility, abstract minimalism and cantabile melodicism. 

And a litte more here.  

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Fire! Orchestra - Arrival (Rune Grammofon, 2019) *****

By Sammy Stein

In 2013 and 2014 when The Fire! Orchestra released Exit and Enter there were 28 musicians. Then in 2016 Ritual saw the Orchestra sheering off 7 of its players and with Arrival a further 7 have dispersed leaving 14. The central core of Mats Gustafsson, John Bethling and Andreas Werlin remain, along with singers Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg and now a string quartet has been added creating a rhythm and horn sections at minimalist setting whilst the string quartet fulfil the 'orchestra' part of the ensemble's title, providing foils for both horns and vocals. Drummer Andreas Werlin also produced the album. What the new line up does is create more possibilities, it widens the canvas and increases the spectrum for scoring - and this has been taken advantage of, as you would expect from musicians of this experience.

Arrival is a collection of compositions and songs, most composed by Gustafsson, Werlin and Berthling except 'Weekends' which is by Mariam Wallentin, 'Blue Crystal Fire' by Robbie Basho and 'At Last I Am Free' by Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards. The inclusion of covers is a departure for Fire! Orchestra but then again, the unexpected is always expected with this ensemble. Regardless of composition credits, most band members contributed to the development of every track and this collective input is present in no mean amounts.

This CD transverses a range of emotions and moods and is infused with rich, textured layers, providing qualities of which more is found with every listen.

' (I Am A ) Horizon' opens and CD and immediately it is clear this recording is different from earlier Fire! Orchestra recordings. This track, beginning with the searing, achingly beautiful violin opening, draws you in and envelops you. The additions are subtle from the woodwind and additional strings buzz and thrum until a theme is created by the keyboard over which the vocals enter and the song is developed - a sad, yearning, lyrical tale, made poignant by the trumpet improvisation behind, while the second voice, with its high alluring siren call adds more emotion and all this is counterbalanced by the bass clarinet and deep, deep contrabass, which underpins the latter part of the vocals and then emerges from the background to create an 11 riff repeat, before the track ends with a blast of horns and rivulets of sound to finish. 'Weekends' ( The Soil is Calling) is a number of two parts, the first sets off on an Eastern groove, dictated by bass and top drum and countered by steady, lingering brass and then keys before the vocals, in perfect harmony, enter and the song develops along its own, unique groove, until it slows and everything, including the vocals, diverge and travel away before coming back together again. The vibrato on the upper voice contrasted with the tremelo in the accompaniment is glorious. The second half of this track is instrumental with the ensemble free forming and developing the work into an entrenchment of sounds , from which picking out individual instruments, apart from the sax lead, is almost impossible but they are all there and the groove returns for the final third with vocals returning too. A wonderfully didactic piece for anyone looking for an exemplar of free musicians working together. The ending is special.

' Blue Crystal Fire' begins with breathy, rhythmic, contrabass which creates a gentle, relaxed atmosphere, like a sleeping behemoth. Yet, the beast is stirred as the vocals enter, the folky, whimsical tones contrasting wonderfully with the opening. The emotion of the original recording by Robbie Basho is here but changed and more ethereal and pitching it against the sonority of the contrabass is a genius touch. The opening of 'Silver Trees' is , literally, heralded before deep, reedy breaths serve to engage the listener, capturing and accompanying them further into the misty, ether which this track conjures up with its musical manoeuvrings and interplay after the first third between wood and strings, over which mystic words and phrases are imbued with life by the singers, duetting at one point in a conversational questioning, answering each other in beautiful harmonics. There is a lovely cello solo, which then retreats, yet still scaffolds the wood and brass over the top for the second third. The final third is more familiar with deep woods maintaining a set rhythm under the strings, brass and vocals, which now rap, wail and orate rather than sing, sounding like the offspring of a triadic union between Nina Hagen, Crass and a banshee. Rasping strings take this one to the close. It is a song of many, many parts and in places, completely wonderful.

' Dressed In Smoke, Blown Away' is , from the get-go a truly glorious beast. Baritone sax, throaty, loud and with the devil in its delivery, roars and wails, angry, unfettered, only held in check when the ethereal contrasting vocals drop over the top. There follows a bit of a dust-up with vocals trying to be heard over raw strings and rude rasping woods -but they give way and for a short time, the vocals reign supreme - then, once again the ensemble almost drown the lyrics. Yet it works so darn well, with vocals emerging, grabbing air when they can, delivering a few lines before being sucked away by the instrumentation. Then, half way through, everything changes for a vocal solo before sustained keys and then strings weave a different colour into the fabric of the number. This is amazing music, period.

'(Beneath) The Edge of Life' is short, opens with shaum-like percussion set against violins in folk-steeped manner with echoed violins and vocal lines adding to the Celtic feel to this number. ' At Last I Am Free' is a great interpretation of the Chic number with the opening a slowed version of the second verse of the original number and the rest vocally a more or less straight delivery of the song in ballad form but don't expect a Chic delivery - this has been taken under the parentage of the Fire! Orchestra so is warped, waffled and fluffed with some interesting creative lines.

This album has so much energy yet it is a controlled, reined in energy which burgeons and effervesces against the restraints of the compositions. This serves to create a sense of engagement, of wanting more and it is magically entrancing. There are layers under layers - perhaps to be expected given the number of players and different sections within but the amalgamation of bop, swing, straight and traditional music with improvised free playing is complex and almost incomprehensible to anyone not involved in the writing. Which is why it works because the numbers are delivered with such care and the arrangements penned with such attention to detail that the overall effect is deceptively simple - impressive sounds, great music and an album which takes you somewhere else. Explosive, gentle, happy, sad, melancholic, lifting - every emotion is here in spades. This is a wonderful album.

  • Mariam Wallentin- voice
  • Sofia Jernberg - voice
  • Anna Lindal - violin
  • Josefin Runsteen - violin
  • Katt Hernandez- violin
  • Leo Svensson- cello
  • Susana Santos Silva- trumpet
  • Per Texas Johansson -oboe bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
  • Christer Bothén- bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
  • Isak Hedtjärn- bb clarinet, alto saxophone
  • Mats Gustafsson- baritone sax
  • Tomas Hallonsten - keyboards
  • Johan Berthling - bass, electric bass
  • Andreas Werliin- drums.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Mathieu Bec/Michel Doneda - A Peripheral Time (FMR Records, 2019) ****½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos 

As we object fetishists all do, I occasionally search and hunt down new material from artists that I really appreciate. Be it in the ever expanding Discogs database or just surfing the internet. It has proven fruitful in a number of occasions. Michel Doneda is one of those artists. Along a handful only other musicians he has explored, in every direction possible, the sonic possibilities of his instrument. He does not, in any way, confine himself between even the blurred lines of free improvisation, and is willing to explore and dynamics that shape the sounds he produces. Be it those coming from his instrument, those from the recording space and the interactions with other musicians.

Before A Peripheral Time, I wasn’t aware of Mathieu Bec’s work. What never ceased to impress me through is that for over an hour, his limited resources (only a snare drum) proved limitless in regards to sound. His raw, non-technique oriented approach makes him really unique. If there was not any image of him playing I would totally succumb to the idea of him (like a modern version of Paul Lytton) performing with a vast variety of drums and percussion instruments. Even though I consider Doneda a master of the sax, it’s Bec who attracts most attention on this recording.

This is an improvisational duo though, and the interaction is amazing. Bec uses a variety of approaches and Doneda follows eagerly with the same amount of passion. Their playing as a duo is pretty intense, employing 'a raw animistic approach,' as Bec himself describes it, and he is absolutely right. Sometimes it feels like it’s a battle between them. Even though the sheer volume is totally bearable, the levels of energy and pathos are high up in the stratosphere. Considering that all four tracks of the CD last more than ten minutes (with the titular track clocking just under half an hour) the intensity of their playing never fails the listener.

It seems always so difficult that, at some other points during this CD, they incorporate silence as a means of subverting themselves. It’s those moments, and their integration throughout A Peripheral Time, that convince me they are out on a search, not following one single path. Even though this path (high energy improv following a cohesive straight line) takes most of this CD’s time, they dare to change it, re-approach themselves and allow us to look for more. They take risks, do not take themselves so seriously, and present with clarity and pathos all the swifts and changes that real discoveries produce. They feel like this is an ongoing relationship with more audio fruits to come. We will be waiting.

@ koultouranafigo

Monday, May 20, 2019

N.O. Moore/ John Edwards/ Eddie Prévost - Darkened, Yet Shone (Matchless Recordings, 2019) *****

By Stuart Broomer

There’s always some special interest in hearing a musician freshly arrived, more so when the musician is in company as elevated as bassist John Edwards and drummer Eddie Prévost. I suspect, though, that guitarist N.O. Moore would likely attract some attention in any fit company, for he brings a highly personal conception to an instrument often sullied by redundancy.

Moore is an electronic guitarist, a musician whose sounds include ones you wouldn’t necessarily assume are coming from guitar, including some that sound like radio waves, oscillator or synthesizer. At the same time, he eschews effects like looping, instead fixing his playing, as one might assume from his partners here, very much in real time. That quality of his playing, in fact, its nowness, is so strong that after repeated listening to the four tracks of this CD, I don’t have a strong sense of each track’s shape, as if the immediate attention demanded by the music’s instants precludes the imposition of larger temporal patterns, while simultaneously contributing to an ultimate coherence. Listening to this music, one is absorbed in this music, like one of André Breton’s soluble fish.

Moore combines with his sonic arsenal a sense of detailed nuance, subtle shifts in picking and fingering, that unites the trio in its sense of living and interactive detail. The play of volume and timbre extends throughout the group, so that their are patterns of resemblance beyond physical differences. Edwards’ range of arco effects and Prévost’s cymbals and tight snare often cross through Moore’s electronics, creating both strange ambiguities and a special fellowship.

Mindstreaming for metaphors for the way Moore approaches the guitar, I had a sudden flash…it’s as if John Milton or William Blake returned to earth and, finding language exhausted and bereft of sense, turned instead to the electric guitar. There must be something in that slightly skewed title. Googling (both cause and answer to said exhaustion and sense-paucity) for some imagined confirmation, I find, after a few entries for the release of this CD, two germane quotations, one from Milton (Book 1 of Paradise Lost, lines 597-604)—
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs: darkened so yet shone
Above them all the Archangel; but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care
Set on his faded cheek, but under brows
Of dauntless courage and considerate pride,
Waiting revenge.
and perhaps its source:
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that well in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)
That contrast of darkness and shining is everywhere in the contrast of acoustic and electronic sound patterns here, but it also speaks to the bright intensity of the music’s ongoing interaction and the mystery of its larger structures, including, perhaps, the grim embrace of the historical moment.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Rest in Peace Sensei Tetsu Saitoh (1955 - 2019)

Tetsu Saitoh, photo by Frank Schindelbeck

On Saturday, May 18th, just before noon Japanese great double bass player Tetsu Saito passed away after a long battle with cancer. The self-taught Saitoh was born in Tokyo on October 27, 1955, and began playing the bass only when he was 22 years old. In the last three decades he became one of the prominent free improvisers in the Japanese scene, playing with such local heavyweights as sax player Kazutoki Umezu, drummer Sabu Toyozumi and guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi. Soon he proved himself as one of an elite group of musicians who expanded the vocabulary of the double bass and kept innovating the extended techniques of playing the bull fiddle.

Bass aficionados may know Saito from his seminal collaborations with fellow bass masters - Joëlle Léandre (Joëlle Et Tetsu - Live At Yokohama Jazz Promenade Festival 1996, Omba, 1998), Barre Phillips and Nobuyoshi Ino (October Bass Tri-Logue, PJL, 2001), the homage to Peter Kowald with Phillips, Léandre and William Parker (After You Gone, Victo, 2004), the bass orchestra Bassmasse of Sebastian Gramss with Phillips, Achim Tang, Robert Landfermann, Ulrich Phillipp, ‎and many more (Schwarm, gligg, 2013) or the recent homage to another visionary bass player, Italian Stefano Scodanibbio, organized by Gramss, with Barry Guy, Mark Dresser, Phillips, and Léandre (Thinking of … , Wergo, 2014).

But Saitoh was more than a virtuous bass player and imaginative free improviser. He said that “a musician only needs to sing one song in life… I will always try to sing my own song”. But this statement reflected most his modest character; throughout his life, Saitoh sang many beautiful and expressive songs. His musical vision was truly free, genre-blind, brought faraway traditions to the present and encompassed compositional strategies and improvisational techniques from classical music, Spanish flamenco, Argentinian nuevo-tango, Brazilian choro, Japanese traditional folk music, Korean shamanic music and, obviously, jazz. He had worked with Butoh dancers and modern dancers - most well-known is his close friend Jean Laurent Sasportes (who has worked with Tanztheater Wuppertal directed by Pina Bausch), Noh theater actors, painters, poets and filmmakers. His works responded to current affairs as Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, that caused the meltdown of three reactors in Fukushima nuclear plant. No matter what kind of music he played, it was always his own. He always suggested new perspectives and nuances in his interpretations and his improvisations. If you want to experience his idiosyncratic, rich vision you may begin with his most beautiful, last solo album, Travessia (Travessia, 2016).

Saitoh understood music as the healing force of the universe in the deepest sense possible, long before he had to struggle with the symptoms of cancer that forced him to limit his activity. He saw music as a method to self realization, here and now, and free improvisation as one of the truest forms of such enlightening realization. But he was not bound to any kind of ideology or mysticism about his virtuous qualities. He was gifted by a profound knowledge how to connect people with music, manifested in his work with handicapped and disabled, most notably dancer Ryotaro Yahagi who became another regular collaborator. Everyone who knew Tetsu-san, even if only through his albums, DVD’s or correspondence with him, fell immediately in love with music, his uplifting energy, humble manners and his compassionate sense of humor. Once you knew him, he became a dear friend.

Saitoh had plans to perform solo and with friends for the coming months, but was open about his medical condition in his Facebook posts. He kept uploading video clips from recent performances as the last one in his youtube channel with another long-time comrade, sax player Michel doneda and traditional Japanese musician Shun'ichiro Hisada. Unfortunately, sensei Saitoh left us too soon, way too young. He will be missed.

Please visit Tetsu Saitoh website, Travessia:

The Wøøøh - Music For Weddings And Funerals (Ormo, 2019) ****

By Stef

Three Danish musicians, Lars Bech Pilgaard on guitar, Henrik Pultz Melbye on tenor sax and clarinet, and Rune Lohse on drums, meet French bassist Sylvain Didou for this formidable piece of music. One long improvisation is stretched over two tracks ("Wedding" and "Funeral"), and the listener is treated to a haunting mixture of drone, noise and jazz.

On "Wedding", the four musicians create one gigantic wall of sound, that moves forward relentlessly, barely shifting in colour and harmonics, mesmerising and trance-inducing, frightening and horrifying. Pultz Melbye's sax keeps repeating the same phrases frantically, madly over the violence of bass and drums and deafening guitar sounds, and then, near the end, without relinquishing the piece's core idea, they deliver the same but now in a quiet mode of agonising sensitivity, with the struggling sax taking the lead role.

On "Funeral", the rhythm and approach are deliberately hesitant, raw and pumping, chaotic in its intent, yet somehow things coalesce into a crazy blend of harsh distress, until after four minutes a simple sax vamp creates a single anchor point for the three other instruments to move in the same direction, picking up energy by the collaborative effort, power and violence, and before you know it, the funeral has turned into an absolute nightmare. Things quiet down again, luckily, and a repetitive electronic pulse is the only continuity in freely improvised sonic emotions. Anything can happen and it does as you enter a world of eery, disturbing and disorienting sounds, full of agony and darkness (it is a funeral after all (but then the wedding did not sound like a wedding either)), first like free improvisation, then again shifting patterns start to emerge, built around a repeated deep note on the sax, and despite the vague structure, the music remains ephemeral and never turns solid.

This is daring music, and an incredible listening experience.  A kick in the teeth.

Listen and download from Bandcamp ... and definitely watch the video!

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Tetuzi Akiyama/Ken Ikeda/Chihei Hatakeyama - erroribus humanis et antinomy (OTOOTO, 2019) ****½

By Nick Metzger

I’ve probably listened to this record more than any other thus far in 2019, as I’ve been extraordinarily busy tending to the non-music related activities in my life and this type of music lends itself well to both active and passive listening. It sounds fantastic whether you are attending to it or not, and will wriggle its way into your subconscious if given half a chance. “erroribus humanis et antinomy” (translated from Latin: human errors and antinomy) documents two meetings between Tetuzi Akiyama on guitar, Ken Ikeda on electronics, and Chihei Hatakeyama on guitar and electronics. The uber-prolific Akiyama is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. His work has appeared here sporadically in the past, as his musical practices tend to overlap with the interests of the blog. He’s a special artist and one of the most unique voices in modern improvisation today, whether playing solo or with acclaimed artists such as Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, Oren Ambarchi, and Alan Licht. Ambience master and video artist Ken Ikeda has been very active in the free improvisation arena as of late, releasing terrific albums with Eddie Prévost , Toshimaru Nakamura, and David Toop. I’ve also been a fan of producer and guitarist Chihei Hatakeyama since his days on Kranky Records. There’s a meditative beauty to his music that radiates into the listener’s headspace like a narcotic, and when I saw him teamed up with Akiyama and Ikeda for this record I knew it would be a pretty special set.

The first track “I” begins with a quiescent hum of electronics over which Akiyama’s guitar is very subtly strangled. I’ve always enjoyed the unconventional sounds that Akiyama can wring from his instrument, and in my opinion his sense for melodic abstraction is unsurpassed. Examining the underlying hum a little more closely reveals a sort of skittering, fractured dynamic layered with high pitch swells that echo and decay back into the simmering EAI sauce. There are some low tones that simply hang tranquilly, like taut but motionless flags buried far back in the mix. Ikeda, true to his Touch Records roots provides a bed of ambience for the guitarists, peppered with delay modulation noises and light electronic pings. Hatakeyama (I assume) is the source of the swelling, delayed tones, though I’m half guessing here. His playing is like celestial birdsong, a benevolent specter residing in the right-most channel (again, I’m guessing here, but I believe the mix is: Akiyama – L, Ikeda – M, Hatakeyama – R). “II” begins with Akiyama’s scratched out notions as Ikeda and Hatakeyama swell from the ether. A subtle untreated guitar arpeggio grounds the piece as all manner of electronic effects are peppered into the amalgam. It’s truly difficult to tell who is doing what here so I won’t bother any further. The resulting sound field is gorgeous, at once serene yet highly active, like a still pond teeming with colorful, busy fish just beneath the surface. “III” is slightly noisier than the preceding songs, lots of grainy artifacts and unconventional guitar sounds agitated in a vibrant, kaleidoscopic dust cloud of haze and shimmer. Ikeda at times sounds like rain on a paper roof, at others like a malfunctioning public-address system. Akiyama’s guitar work is unmistakable, and it works brilliantly with Hataeyama’s hiccupping, whooping delay undulations and granular fragments. The last piece “IV” is the shortest and perhaps the most straight-forward of the set. The mostly untreated guitar around the periphery surrounds Ikeda’s electronic glow as it radiates from the center of the mix and yields a symmetric soundscape that nicely rounds out the album.

Although this is way outside of the jazz idiom, I find this type of free improvisation just as enjoyable. It’s measured for sure, but there is plenty for the listener to take in. It’s all about subtle dynamics, soft details, and the building of sonic textures and it succeeds marvelously at that. I’ve found that this sounds best on headphones or played at high volume on decent speakers in an otherwise quiet space in order to really get the full experience. And even though I’ve listened through the album a couple dozen times I have yet to tire of it. Highly recommended.