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Jon Irabagon(s), JP Carletti(d), William Parker(b) (1/18/17)

Arts for Arts: Evolving Series, Justice is Compassion / Not a Police State
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center, NYC

The Mess: Chris Corsano(d), Brandon Lopez(b), Sam Yulsman(p) (1/18/17)

Arts for Arts: Evolving Series, Justice is Compassion / Not a Police State
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center, NYC

Michael Wimberly(perc), Newman Taylor Baker(d), William Parker(b), Andrew Lamb(s) (1/18/17)

Arts for Arts: Evolving Series, Justice is Compassion / Not a Police State
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center, NYC

The Ghost: Zach Rowden(b), Derek Baron(d), Michael Foster(s) 1/13/17

Arts for Arts: Evolving Series, Justice is Compassion / Not a Police State
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center, NYC

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unnatural Ways - We Aliens (Tzadik, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

John Zorn’s Tzadik has long been a label that supports artists of the uncompromising variety - one of the newest on the roster is Brooklyn-based guitarist Ava Mendoza and her group Unnatural Ways. Standing at the white-hot intersection where noise-rock, punk, jazz, and free improvisation meet, Unnatural Ways make songs that flirt with recognizable structures, then proceed to send those same structures toppling to the ground in incendiary vortexes of sound. Basically, imagine if the rapid-fire shards produced by math-rockers the Dazzling Killmen were married to the relentlessness of the DKV Trio - then, you might get something similar to what Unnatural Ways have served up here.

Things start strong with “Cosmic Border Cop,” in which Tim Dahl’s fuzzed-out, overdriven bass and Mendoza’s explosive shards of sound engage in what can only be described as sonic combat. Sam Ospovat holds down the fort, so to speak, pounding the kit with unshakable force and keeping the guitars from spiraling off into the stratosphere. For the most part, this is the M.O. of Unnatural Ways and what makes them such a thrilling listen: they find some serrated groove, slice it and dice it up even further into a hundred different rhythmic and melodic offshoots, then return, invigorated, to the root. On tracks like “Most of All We Love to Spy” and “Extraterrestrial Suicides Are on the Rise” they explore more varied textures - Mendoza uses guitar effects to her full advantage, producing sounds that squelch, stutter, and occasionally screech, while Ospovat clatters patiently underneath and Dahl stretches his bass-tones into shapes that are more comparable to alien transmissions than anything resembling rock music.

We Aliens is an album that simultaneously calls to mind the best noise rock groups, as well as the best free jazz trios - despite the jittery restiveness of the players, the musical ideas on display here are fully-formed, functional, and ready to fuck you up.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Momentum - Momentum (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½

By Derek Stone

Momentum is a trio from Norway, featuring Jørgen Mathisen on soprano and tenor saxophones, Christian Meaas Svendsen on bass, and Andreas Wildhagen on drums. If you keep up with the ever-burgeoning Scandinavian jazz scene, you might recognize those names: Mathisen is a member of the Zanussi Five (whose Live in Coimbra is reviewed here), and Svendsen and Wildhagen have done work with Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit. Wildhagen, in particular, was behind one of my favorite releases from last year, the Jonas Cambien Trio’s A Zoology of the Future.

On Momentum, they bring together some of the best elements from all of the different projects with which they’re involved, resulting in an excellent recording that reveals more each time you listen. The first two pieces here are all about setting the scene: “Gaining” is a writhing mass of clattering percussion, saxophone wails, and creaking bass. “Maintaining” is the sparsest of warm-ups, with each player offering only a repetitive, pointillistic stream of clipped notes. When the title track (and presumably the group’s anthem) appears, it’s a pleasant surprise - it’s free jazz, to be sure, but it lurches and swings with a relentless and infectious energy. Mathisen’s moans are Ayler-esque in the way they warble and stretch, while Svendsen attacks his bass with admirable resourcefulness: from lumbering cascades of notes, to bowed screeches, he’s got it all. As I expected, Wildhagen is as creative as ever, always dancing wildly on the line between controlled rhythm and torrential release.

Momentum is an excellent primer for those who want to familiarize themselves with the Norwegian free jazz scene - it’s short, it’s concise, and it often makes you want to flail around the room.

Momentum live:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Butcher, Lehn, Shipp / The Core Trio

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Matthew Shipp - Tangle (Fataka, 2016) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

The trio of saxophonist John Butcher, pianist Matthew Shipp, and analog synthesizer player Thomas Lehn deliver powerful and unique music on 'Tangle'. Shipp, who has been making waves recently discussing his decision to stop making albums, is in fine form, as is Butcher and Lehn, in creating intense climatic and dense passages, accentuated by sparse atmospheric moments.

The opening track 'Cluster I' is a fine example of the Shipp and Lehn pinging ideas off of each other - snippets and sounds, and inviting Butcher to respond with his own rich array of techniques. The peak that Shipp and Butcher reach here, with Lehn interweaving visceral textures, is mouthwatering. The other tracks achieve similar brilliance, engaging with soundscapes sounding at times like underwater laser battles ('Cluster II'), or long walks down crumbling passageways ('Cluster III'). All of what they do is wrapped lovingly in melodically engaging and rhythmically driven improvisation.

The chemistry of Butcher, Shipp and Lehn is apparent and with the analog synthesizer,  their music is a truly refreshing. Let's hope that Shipp's decision doesn't thwart a second entanglement!

The Core Trio Featuring Matthew Shipp - Live (Evil Rabit, 2016) ****

The Texas based core of The Core Trio is Thomas Helton (double bass), Seth Paynter (sax) and Joe Hertenstein (drums). However, it may be okay for The Core Trio to admit they're actually a quartet as Live is the third album to feature Shipp, and his intense attacks and gentle accompaniment are an integral part of the group's sound.

The album's execution is flawless, the attention to detail is impressive, and the music simply flows. Paynter's sax work runs from breathy to fiery and compliments both Shipps' ruminative moments as well as his bold and crushing crescendos. Not 10 minutes into the first track and the quiet that the track opened with has blossomed into a soaring musical arc, the type that is often described as spiritual. Groaning bass and minimalist percussion follow the early climax foreshadowing the next peak, which is signaled by deliberate middle register block chords from the piano.

A solid hour of the Core Trio's music passes quickly. Live is an excellent follow up to 2014's semi eponymous album, The Core Trio with Matthew Shipp.

On Bandcamp there is a also a Core Trio, as a trio, recording from 2015, name your price.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

John Lindberg's Trios

John Lindberg BC3 - Born in an Urban Ruin (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½

By Derek Stone

John Lindberg has been actively performing and composing for around 40 years now, but he’s yet to slow down. His most recent recordings appeared on Clean Feed in September of 2016, and they are definitely a treat for those who appreciate exciting, inventive trio work. The first release I’ll talk about, Born in an Urban Ruin, features Wendell Harrison on Bb clarinet and Bb bass clarinet, Kevin Norton on vibraharp and other percussion, and the inimitable Lindberg on bass.

After an opening track that allows a solo Harrison to set the mood for the album (a mood that is decidedly cinematic), things kick off with the infectious “Vermont Roadside Family.” Here, Lindberg’s bowed-out bass melody seems to be the key component - vaguely sinister, with a hard-driving forward movement that carries the piece along wonderfully. Norton’s vibraharp is a terrific addition, adding as it does a noirish sensibility that complements Lindberg’s compositions well. The next three pieces are actually a unit, called “The Left Wrist,” and dedicated to Roy Campbell, Jr., the celebrated free jazz trumpeter who passed away in 2014. Moving through a variety of moods and containing a number of compositional surprises, the only thing that would make “The Left Wrist” better is an appearance from Campbell, Jr. himself. “Swooping Deep,” the full-band version of the piece that Harrison starts the album with, is a somber, downtempo number that acts as a bit of a breather before the more varied “Devastation of Vegetation,” which bounces nervously from idea to idea, ultimately resulting in the most abstract piece on the record.

Lacking a traditional percussionist, it might seem that Lindberg’s compositions would fall flat or run out of steam - that’s not the case, however. The arrangements and bouts of improvisation are intriguing enough to maintain interest, and the ability of this trio to build up a specific atmosphere is top-notch.

John Lindberg Raptor Trio - Western Edges (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½ 

With Pablo Calogero on baritone saxophone and Joe LaBarbera on drums, Western Edges gives us a chance to see what Lindberg’s compositions look like with slightly different instrumentation. As expected, the result doesn’t disappoint: though it’s still a trio, LaBarbera’s percussion adds a vibrancy that helps transform the overall “feel” of Lindberg’s incredible arrangements. Even on slower numbers, like “Ethereal Extensions,” LaBarbera’s drumwork is vital, lending the piece a kind of anxious energy that is constantly bubbling beneath the surface. That’s not to say that LaBerbera is the V.I.P. of the trio, however - on the aforementioned track, Lindberg’s bass is as restless and exploratory as ever, always seeking out new melodic and rhythmic possibilities within the confines of the composition. “T’wixt D and E” is a heady, fast-paced piece where Calogero truly gets the chance to shine; on this track, his deep, full-bodied tones veer off in numerous directions, from rich clusters of melody to moments of caustic over-blowing. “Raptors” is a showcase for Lindberg’s mastery of technique, with basswork that is overwhelming in its physicality, as if Lindberg were trying to beat the instrument into submission. Western Edges might not be as delicately atmospheric as Born in an Urban Ruin, but it makes up for that with more fervent playing, and with compositions that seem to be more imaginative and complex.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden

A few months ago we dug into a bunch of German jazz festival recordings from the 60s and 70s. It was a joy to spend time with those recordings, suffused in their history and importance, fortunately, it is suffice to say Germany is a still fertile ground for free jazz. Whether it's the rapid-fire ping-pong exchanges, tonal explorations, or extrapolations of the music from Ms. Pac-Man, ideas seem to be flowing free!

Gropper, Graupe, Lillinger - Riot (WhyPlayJazz, 2016) ****

This isn't a debut - Berlin based saxophonist Philipp Gropper, guitarist Ronny Graupe and drummer Christian Lillinger have been sufficiently busy as Hyperactive Kid for well over a decade. They released a few albums on Jazzwerkstatt, and now as it seems that label is winding down a bit, the trio has hooked up with WhyPlayJazz, releasing a live album celebrating their first 10 years together (10 Year Anniversary Live, 2015), and have taken the opportunity to shed the old name. Their new release, Riot, is a texture rich album rife with exploratory electronic sounds, abstract rhythms, wrapped in the musical ease that a long time association can bring.

The opening track's title 'Being Dark is Easy' may as well refer to how naturally the spacious ambience of the night slowly passes until the melodic dawn. Once awake, the group stretches out its arms and embraces the new day. The musicians bring a range of approaches - the guitar is often minimal, offering judiciously placed single notes or chiming chord fragments, and sometimes flat out rocking. The sax, possible the most prominent of the voices, switches between staccato lines and flowing melodies, weaving between the drums and guitar. Of course, Lillinger is more than just the glue that holds the group together, providing pulse and texture, and injecting a lot of personality into the music. The longer tracks are interspersed with short sound exploration - like the 10 second clatter of 'Repeat!' and the minute and a half electric crinkle of 'Demons'. A great listen!  - Paul Acquaro

Themroc 3 (WhyPlayJazz, 2016) ****

Two wind instruments and drums, the Berlin based trio of drummer Michael Griener, trumpeter Richard Koch, and clarinetist Benjamin Weidekamp excel in energetic, enjoyable music making. Parts and passages are obviously composed, there is no way that the syncopated and jaunty melody on tracks like opener 'Post für den Tiger' are made up on the spot, however, they are alive and delivered with as much fresh excitement as if they were. As the track progresses, the three splinter effortlessly into free improvisation.

The songs have elements of humor and reference to more traditional and folk music. Also, as melodic and entertaining as the winds are, special mention of drummer Griener is warranted - he is as much a melodicist as a percussionist, his work on 'Jippi Brown’s 18th Birthday' stands out. By the third track, 'Marsch' it seems like the group is establishing itself in the free-jazz/avant-traditional of the great Zentralquartett.  - Paul Acquaro

Punkt 3 - Ordnung Herrscht (Clean Feed, 2016) ****

Leipzig's Punkt 3 is a trio comprised of Tobias Pfister (sax), Noah Punkt (bass), and Ramon Oliveras (drums). Ordnung Herscht, their album on clean feed records, is a bright, rhythmic work that combines improvised jazz with punk rock sensibilities. Noah Punkt in particular recalls Mike Watt in his playing, with strong notes and deft movements throughout that works well with Pfister's nimble saxophone play and Oliveras' drumming. Standout tracks are "Dieter-Miguel," showcasing Pfister's lyricism; "Rummeln," with its latin tinged polyrhythms, building towards a powerful closure; "Pacgirl," riffing off of the arcade game's theme song, and "Ponk," a free jazz skronk fest. All the tracks are short and to the point, no extensive jams here. And with its brevity, the smart variety of music, and excellent execution makes Ordnung Herrscht a delightful listen. Recommended.  - Stefan Wood

Zur Schönen Aussicht -Willkommen Zuhause (Whyplayjazz, 2016) ****

On this recording from the Dresden based trio Zur Schönen Aussicht, the playing is telepathic and the many pieces mesh delightfully. The website mentions that this was a recording of first takes - good energy coming from high stakes!

The group is saxophonist Paul Berberich, guitarist Joachim Wespel, and drummer Florian Lauer, all new names to me, and while the line up is similar to Gropper, Graupe, Lillinger, the music takes a different path. Whereas Gropper,, really dig into the textures, Zur Schönen Aussicht are more straight ahead, melding choppy melodies, hints of modern jazz, and a little prog-rock into the mix (tell me 'Wir mit wem?' doesn't have a hint of 90125 in its DNA). There are moments, like in the track 'Kritische Masse' that I am reminded of the music of the Mary Halvorson Trio's album Dragon's Head - it has that same lean, angular, irregular, and accessible approach.

From the Ornette Coleman inspired riff on the opener 'Schwingen ohne Club', to the emotive squall and dramatic climax of 'Phlegma und Enge', and finally the woozy drone and gently unfolding melody of 'Herbstlichst', there is a lot to hear, here!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson - Crop Circles (Relative Pitch, 2017) ****½

By Derek Stone

Sylvie Courvoisier’s new album with Mary Halvorson, called Crop Circles, marks the first time that the two have worked together, and it’s indeed a rare treat: a meeting between two of the most inventive musicians working in improvised music today, and an opportunity for listeners to hear the magnificent sounds that result. Recorded in August of 2016, Crop Circles is, as the title suggests, a sublime collection of shapes and figures, one that is alternately awe-inspiring and inscrutable. Sometimes repeating , sometimes spiralling off into new configurations, these shapes are irrefutable proof - not of extraterrestrial life, of course, but of the creative prowess of these two musical heavyweights.

“La Cigale” (literally, “the cicada”) is an introduction that somewhat typifies the approach that Courvoisier and Halvorson take throughout the album: elliptical melodies, played in conjunction, that soon scatter off in oblique, sometimes unexpected, directions. What starts in “La Cigale” as a duet between the two that is slightly disjointed, soon becomes a frenetic dialogue - Courvoisier using the piano’s action as a way to evoke the distinctive vibrato of the insect after which the piece is named, and Halvorson running at a breakneck pace through a wide variety of chord shapes. The brief “Eclats for Ornette” follows a similar structure, but it is even more frenzied; here, Courvoisier issues rapid-fire sequences of notes that occasionally amass into violent, pounded bursts, while Halvorson holds her own with blazing runs up and down the neck. One of the most melodic pieces is “Double Vision,” which is based on an angular theme that is somewhere between whimsical and sinister - this is due to the fact that Courvoisier and Halvorson never seem to fully adhere, leaving an uncanny valley of sorts between the lines that they produce.

Not all of the pieces are so high-strung, of course. “Absent Across Skies,” while always seeming to teeter on the brink of eruption, maintains a kind of nervous tension - the central melody acts as a check, so to speak, for the wilder, more impulsive, stretches that occasionally bubble up. Although it’s the longest track, the sense of constant pressure pushing on all sides of the piece keeps the listener invested in what may or may not happen. Compared to a few of the other tracks, “Your Way” is downright lovely; rather than obliqueness, the musical motif here seems to be rooted in a whirling, dream-like impressionism. “Woman in the Dunes,” while not explicitly “beautiful,” is an exploration of the textures and tones that Courvoisier and Halvorson can conjure up. Courvoisier moves from notes that are knotted together in pristine, twinkling clusters, to rumbling undertones. Halvorson’s use of pedals to shape and alter the sound of her guitar is in full display here, with notes that bend, stretch, and moan.

Calling the album Crop Circles was not a bad move by Courvoisier and Halvorson, as it captures some of the reasons that the recording is so special. First and foremost, the two musicians are masters of combining the familiar with the, well, unfamiliar; like flying over the commonplace sight of a corn-field, and seeing cryptic symbols laid out beneath you, the two always seem undercut their melodies with moments that are perplexing, unexpected, or slightly slanted. In addition, the rhythms and shapes that the two produce together are never straightforward or easy-to-read - as it would be in the event of having to decipher an alien language, the listener is expected to tilt their head, toss away their preconceptions, and open their ears.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ned Rothenberg, Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier - In Cahoots (Clean Feed, 2016) ****½

By Derek Stone

Husband-and-wife duo Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman have a long musical history, appearing in several projects together over the years (including their wondrous entry into Zorn’s famed Book of Angels project). As such, seeing their names together on an album’s credits should be enough to excite any fan of improvisational jazz - with a past discography as extensive and interesting as theirs, you’re bound to get something that’s, at the very least, compelling. Joining them on this latest effort, titled In Cahoots, is Ned Rothenberg, who brings his mastery of various instruments (clarinet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and the Japanese shakuhachi) to the proverbial table. The result is a recording that entices, intrigues, and continuously keeps the listener on their toes.

For that latter sensation, one need only listen to “Inter-State,” a piece that roars along with all the inexorability of a freight train, before reaching a conclusion that roils quietly beneath the weight of what came before. Otherwise, most of the pieces here are slow burners, taking their time to unfold and reveal themselves to the listener. The opener, “Light and Variable Sins,” features a gradual stirring from each of the players - ethereal twinkling from Courvoisier, a series of hesitant plucks from Feldman, and Rothenberg’s searching alto, all of which eventually develop into more complex modes of expression. “Epic Proportions” is where the magnificent sense of interplay between the musicians starts to become more readily apparent; Courvoisier acts as the glue of the group, producing rhythms and textures that, while not terribly straightforward themselves, serve to hold the more abstract wanderings of Feldman and Rothenberg in place. Feldman, as always, is a pleasure to listen to, moving from high-pitched wails to muted figures that are best compared to ripples in a still pond, slowly pushing outward. Likewise, Rothenberg slides through a variety of articulations, constantly surprising with his ability to wrench such a wide-ranging set of timbres and tones from his instrument. He brings that same sensibility to the Japanese shakuhachi, which is played to great effect on the brief, swirling “Shudder to Think.” The longest piece is the self-titled track - at thirteen minutes, it features the trio at their most playful and conversational. Here, Courvoisier seems intent on being as slippery as possible, wiggling her way through tightly-wrought clusters that bubble up, bounce about, and break apart into vibrant splotches of sound. On bass clarinet, Rothenberg dips into melodic streams that are substantially different from those he sticks with on the alto: he’s downright mischievous, gliding through scales with all the alacrity of a squirrel. On another long-form piece, “Dark Shimmers,” Rothenberg’s bass clarinet takes a turn towards melancholic introspection, Feldman provides a mournful underpinning, and Courvoisier’s notes drop like dots of bright ink on an empty map.

In Cahoots is a musical shadow-lantern of sorts, casting all manner of impressionistic images onto the mind of the listener. Because of the tight connections between the players, their inventiveness, and the way the lines they produce seem to spool around one another in perfect sync, one would be forgiven for thinking that the pieces here were meticulously composed. With musicians like Ned Rothenberg, Mark Feldman, and Sylvie Courvoisier, however, efforts at composition could only serve to diminish their vision - the real beauty here lies in the ties between players that are truly, undoubtedly, “in cahoots.”

See Stefan Woods' review of In Cahoots here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chris Corsano, Sylvie Courvoisier and Nate Wooley - Salt Task (Relative Pitch, 2016) ****

By Philip Coombs

A large portion of what these three musicians need to say to each other either happens or is alluded to in the first 10 minutes of the opening track, the record’s namesake, Salt Task, which sets the gears in motion for a journey full of secret handshakes, nods, winks, smiles and ultimately a full album’s worth of discovery as these three gifted musicians sit down for an evening of improv.

Sylvie Courvoisier (Piano) runs the gamut of sounds that can come out of a piano from fingernail shattering percussive hammering to passages that evoke nursery rhymes throughout the opening track to delicate introspective runs in 'Last Stat' (Track Two) to plenty of prepared movements on 'Tall Stalks' to even what could pass for a strummed acoustic guitar on the albums closer, 'Stalled Talks'. There are often times when she is the glue that keeps this project together especially when Wooley and Corsano really go for it.

Then there is Nate Wooley. Without burning through another thesaurus, trying to describe the sounds that one man can squeeze out of a piece of brass, Wooley as with Courvoisier, can turn on a dime and alternate between rich melodic passages and extended technique often in the same measure. Depending on the track, 'Salt Task' for example, he combines with the piano in such a way that sounds like a falling airplane with screaming passengers audible throughout the horrible descend.

Chris Corsano is the wild card here for me. After listening to the album a few times, I realized that Corsano had slipped through the cracks. With a re-evaluation of my focus, he jumped into the forefront and ran with it. On 'Tall Stalks', he sits out for a few seconds and slowly enters with thunderous rolls and an equally delicate hand on the cymbals. The sheer speed that he generate on this track is stellar. Highly listenable on is own, he still becomes the edges of the puzzle that everything else eventually fits into.

So there are the parts of its sum. The sum of its parts is the weaving of these minds, lips, fingers and techniques that produce a very enjoyable listen indeed.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Ikue Mori, and Evan Parker - Miller’s Tale (Intakt, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

Sylvie Courvoisier is a Brooklyn-based pianist, composer, and improvisor that the readership of this blog is probably well aware of; with over 25 records released as a leader, and around 30 as a sideperson, she’s an undoubtedly prolific force in the world of contemporary jazz. Luckily for us, 2016 and the early part of 2017 seem to mark a rather active period for Courvoisier, after a relative dearth of recorded output in 2015. Her studio output has surged recently, and now there is a steady supply of recordings with which she can pull listeners into her captivating sound-world. Recorded in 2015, Miller’s Tale is the first of these I’d like to draw readers’ attention to. Along with Courvoisier, Miller’s Tale features Mark Feldman on piano, Evan Parker on tenor and soprano saxes, and Ikue Mori on electronics.

One of the most distinctive aspects of this album lies in the track sequencing; while the first four pieces are full-group improvisations, the last five feature various duo configurations, so that Miller’s Tale becomes a kind of treatise on the dynamics of improvisational group interplay, and how the basic building blocks (e.g. the players) can be switched and substituted to produce results that are often quite divergent. Compare, for instance, “The Reason Why” and “Nothing’s Planted,” which are sequenced side-by-side on the album. While the former has the structure of a conversation, with Parker responding in kind to the melodic phrases that Feldman turns out, the latter seems more like a soliloquy held in the middle of some dense, sweltering jungle - Parker’s ever-inquisitive tenor is on its own, with Mori’s electronics offering little in the way of footholds for him to latch onto. When Feldman and Mori get the chance to engage in a duo improvisation, as in “Riding on a Smile and a Shoeshine,” the effect is equally disquieting; Feldman plucks and pulls at his instrument, drawing out a range of uncanny tones that, in the context of Mori’s enveloping waves of digital detritus, sound absolutely ghostly.

When held up against the dialogic intimacy of the duo improvisations, the tracks in which the full group plays are almost narrative in the way they unfold, with voices constantly bubbling up and dissipating. Considering that Miller’s Tale seems to be either an homage to or an account of the life of famed playwright Arthur Miller (all of the track titles are direct references to either works that Miller has produced or quotations within those works), this is hardly surprising. “Death of a Salesman” opens with Feldman’s distinctive violin, and soon introduces a range of characters: Courvoisier’s percussive plinks-and-plunks, Mori’s understated gurgles, and Parker’s breathless runs.

If the first track is a rapid-fire exchange between old friends, the second, “A View from the Bridge,” is the moment when the conversation has dipped into the bittersweet well of history - atop Courvoisier’s rumbling, drone-like foundation, Parker and Feldman construct minor-key monuments to the past.

The longest piece, “The American Dream,” could very well be taken as an indictment of that which its title references, especially given the current political climate (and considering that two members of the group, Courvoisier and Mori, immigrated to, and have become permanent residents of, the United States). Here, Feldman’s violin can only be described as anguished, shifting through a series of lamentations that always seem to be on the verge of buckling under their own emotional weight. Mori accents this sense of despair with her own burbling rivulets and insectile chirps - anyone familiar with her work knows that she has long been a master of such textures, but they have yet to lose their power to disarm and unnerve. With little-to-no rhythmic underpinning, and a similar lack of melodic anchors, these group improvisations rely on the ability of the players to emulate conversation - the turn-taking, the constant recycling of old ideas, the unplanned arrival of new ideas, and the strained silences. Miller’s Tale has all of this and more, and it represents some of the finest that free jazz has to offer.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Philip Gibbs…

By Chris Haines

Philip Gibbs is a prolific improviser whose work quite often flies under the radar. He self-taught himself how to play the guitar at the age of 13 and has been developing his style, technique and vocabulary ever since. One of the key developments in his playing being a two handed tapping technique that he developed in the ‘80’s and has been refining in different contexts through to the present day. He seems to use this with great effect and it appears to have become quite a significant feature in his armoury of techniques in a very adaptive and flexible way where he has such control that it is more of an approach to playing the instrument as opposed to just another trick or quirky effect. Having been an erstwhile colleague of Paul Dunmall he has appeared on many of the saxophonist’s recordings, including some of the albums recently reviewed as part of our Paul Dunmall week (here, herehere). Here are a couple more recently released albums in which Gibbs features.

Philip Gibbs – Infinite Spirit Perfect Now (Environmental Studies, 2016) ****

This is a set of solo guitar improvisations, which gives us the chance to hear Gibbs’ intricate and often delicate sound structures and textures that have furnished other recordings, often groups, without any other distraction. Derek Bailey comments in his book Improvisation (1992) that for the majority of improvisers the work is about playing with other people, however at some time or another most improvisers explore the notion of solo playing, even though it may seem to contradict the relational content of improvisational collectivism. Personally, I find the exploration of solo playing to be at the very point of improvisation, with the development of a personal vocabulary, complete self-exploration, inward focus, sustainability and a singular vision honing the overall musicality of the musician into something coherent, consistent and individually creative. With Infinite Spirit Perfect Now this is exactly what we get.

The album consists of a set of pieces ranging in length from one minute through to thirteen minutes that provide us with explorative playing, a unity within the material and a coherent outlook throughout the whole of the album. The album starts with one of the shorter tracks ‘A Mad Dreaming’ which is a beautiful vignette with harp-like glissandos and something which sounds like a cross between an African instrument, such as the Kora, with a slight hint of Flamenco guitar added in. This is then followed by the longest piece ‘The Cosmic Mirror’, a much more worked through piece with relation to the material and technique being presented. With an array of similar but subtly differentiated sounds resembling percussive drumming, prepared piano, hammered dulcimer, and musical boxes all being produced through a tour de force of his two handed tapping technique. ‘Alignment’ offers another slight colouration with the exploration of a narrow envelope administered through a ‘wah-wah’ type pedal to good effect, whilst ‘Multiversal-Dance’ a binary form piece contrasting what sounds like the imitation of a balafon (Wooden African Xylophone), produced by virtuosic tapping in a smooth legato style, with that of an object being slid and bounced over the strings in the latter half. The use of pointillistic textures, the gradation of subtlety of tone and the variation of references to ethnic instrumentation produces a complex and interesting set of pieces presented in a very modest way.

Langford, Gibbs, Skerman, Anstey, Kirkbridge – Exchange (Freetone, 2017) ***½

If Infinite Spirit Perfect Now showcases Gibbs’ solo playing then Exchange clearly demonstrates his contributions as a highly experienced musician within an improvising collective, which he has done so effectively for many years. Gibbs’ style of playing is very empathetic with others playing and his own contributions tend to blend in so well with the overall sound environment that often his highly rhythmic patterns and complex percussive textures tend not to sound like a guitar at all. The group on Exchange consists of Mark Langford (bass clarinet & tenor sax), Roger Skerman (drums), Paul Anstey (bass), Hugh Kirkbride (bass) and Gibbs (electric guitar). It is a similar line-up to the group which released Fringe Music (2014), but incorporating another bass in Kirkbride and with Skerman taking up the drum role instead of Bob Helson.

There are eight tracks on the album, each with a suggestive title such as ‘Scuttle’, ‘Fizzle’ or ‘Stream’. I’m not sure whether these titles were applied afterwards or if they were given before the improvisations for semi-instructive purposes and the connotations that they might hold for a performance. From a listeners point of view it’s very tempting to ‘read’ meaning into these musical events especially with such pregnant titles. Tracks such as ‘Chaser’, a two horse jaunt for the double basses, with its naturally sounding overlapping dialogic phrases, whilst the undulated, growing and then fade out of ‘Ripple’ seems to buy into this thinking. Gibbs’ distorted guitar is at the forefront of ‘Trag’ with it’s pyrotechnic display of wails, screams and swirling waves of uproariousness, making full use of the space that Langford’s tacit sax has left. The last track ‘Bird Fish Snake’ moves away from the more direct improvisational approach, that the rest of the album takes, and bears a distinct free jazz feel to it, with Langford’s sax providing a more linear melodic line over the comped chords of Gibbs’ guitar.

Overall the playing on this album is a careful balance of equality between the sounds and the musicians intent, a true collective, with individual instruments coming to the fore on occasion or by circumstance such as when certain others aren’t playing.

Philip Gibbs seems to have been quite prolific over the years with performances such as these within improvisational collectives, and it is also satisfying to hear his solo work with the craft and creativity that his singular vision brings to this.