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Alexander von Schlippenbach (Piano) & Dag Magnus Narvesen (Drums)

Soweiso, Berlin. July 16, 2016 Photo by Paul Acquaro

Snakeoil in the Palmengarten 8/4/2016

Tim Berne (as), Oscar Noriega (cl), Ryan Ferreira (g), Matt Mitchell (p) and Ches Smith (perc). Frankfurt, Germany. Photo Martin Schray

Flin van Hemmen Drums of Days 6/18/2016

FvH (piano/drums), Todd Neufeld (acoustic guitar), Thomas Morgan (bass) Firehouse Space, Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra – Passages (Leo Records, 2016) ****

Here’s proof that there’s always something new to discover in the world of creative jazz and improvised music. The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, which I hadn’t heard of whatsoever before reviewing this, their most recent release, has been around for decades (since 1973, to be exact), and they’ve released over a dozen albums in that time, most of them for Leo and Nine Winds. The constant presence since the orchestra’s inception has been Mark Harvey, who founded the group and has long been a fixture in the Boston-area improvised music scene. Harvey’s well-honed compositions and adventurous improvisational strategies are what give the group its character, making this an engaging and valuable release.

The record includes four pieces: “Spaceways,” a punchy and dynamically rich Sun Ra tribute that features some especially strong ensemble work from the horns and some delightfully jagged interjections on guitar from Richard Nelson; “Saxophrenia,” a sprawling 18-minute feature for the group’s saxophonists which moves in and out of a catchy Latin-themed rhythmic structure, and which offers terrific use of the orchestra as a whole in supporting each soloist; “Twilight,” a spare collective improvisation that effectively establishes a mood of mystery and introspection; and the album’s centerpiece, “Commemoration (Boston 2013),” a three-part suite in homage to those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing of a few years ago. What is striking about this suite is its emotional range: from the jarring dissonance and turmoil of the first part, “Maelstrom,” we move into the much more somber “Aftermath” and “Elegy,” both of which gain their power not from the orchestra’s physical force but from its more subtle harmonic textures and poignant melodicism. The overall effect is quite compelling, as Harvey refuses to resort to easy sentimentality; there are suggestions of hope by the conclusion of the suite, although they are tinged with a certain irreducible sorrow, as one hears in the stirring flute and arco bass passages at the heart of the haunting “Elegy.”

A very engaging release, especially for fans of creative improvisation with larger ensembles.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Virginia Genta - Rough Enough (Holidays, 2016) ****1/2

By JA Besche

If various internet sources are accurate, Virginia Genta has been playing music since she was a young child, always self-taught and in the vein of free improvisation. I heard her play not long after her most consistent group, Jooklo Duo, started releasing music in 2007 (to the best of my knowledge, it’s a little murky). Her playing, predominantly on tenor saxophone (though she plays almost all variations of the instrument and is as likely to sound like Peter Brotzmann as she is Yusef Lateef), has always bent towards free improv, cosmic exploration, and passion. Over these ten years or so, she has also picked up a lot of technique, lyricism, and overall virtuosity.

So then, it comes at a perfect time for Holidays to release her first (not including a self-released lathe 7”) release of solo sax recordings. It’s brief, only a two sided single, but fits nicely into the great tradition of the solo jazz/improv record. In my estimation, the solo recording has always been about making a statement, stripped down from the trappings of structure, interplay, etc. It’s a chance to put the artist’s voice on full, idiosyncratic display, typically by soloists who are more used to leading groups, but also in the artists who worked mostly in this medium (such as the incomparable Kaoru Abe).

So on this short recording, Genta makes sure to state her voice early and quickly. This is no calm introduction, but a blast of dense, high-pitch noise coming deep from the gullet, peppering the listener’s ear drums with pointillist, staccato notes that are hardly discernible. If you had never been introduced to VG before, this is not the restrained, beginner’s version. If you’re going to dive headfirst into this, you had better like your saxophone squelching, rumbling, stabbing, noisy, piercing, burning…anything but what you might expect.

And as much as the saxophone itself is being pushed to the limits, I felt my own ears were at times, too, especially because of the high register that dominates both pieces. There is also time for more thoughtful, drawn out playing, and the bursts of silence really highlight the incredible intensity that precedes them. Typically, the phrases last as long as she can keep her breath going.

Genta has played in so many different set ups on so many albums that you could just as easily find drone, psychedelic rock, noise, and folk in her oeuvre as you can jazz and free improv. These pieces are a nice encapsulation of this, though more in the urgent, intense mood than anything else, they touch on the fire of New York loft jazz, the absence of structure found in European free improv, and the experimental technique of the ‘post-jazz’ improvisational melting pot. This is a fine recording, and the length is set very well for the level of power, which probably could exhaust you if it was a full LP, or at least make your cats go crazy.

As Genta continues to explore different musical realms while defining her individualistic style, this record will stand as a fiery summary of her unpredictable and idiosyncratic style circa 2016, while also highlighting the technique and vision she’s built over decades.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Roberto Del Piano - La Main Qui Cherche La Lumière (Improvising Beings, 2016) ****

Roberto Del Piano has been a stalwart of the Italian free jazz scene of the 1970s, with stints in some of the most significant ensembles of the period, from Gaetano Liguori’s Idea Trio to Guido Mazzon’s Gruppo Contemporaneo. After a period of voluntary retirement, in recent years he resumed playing in both jazz and free improvisation, and this double CD is actually the first release credited solely to him. 

The first disc gathers a series of collective improvisations by a group consisting of Del Piano on electric bass, Silvia Bolognesi on acoustic bass, Massimo Falascone on saxophones and Pat Moonchy on vocals. Live electronics, handled by Falascone, Moonchy and a few guests, have and important role in defining the general mood of the album, combining old-fashioned sounds with a forward-thinking attitude that give the record a dark, intriguing cinematic atmosphere. "Scarlinga Merlùss" exemplifies the complex character of the album, with Bolognesi and Del Piano's probing bass lines contrasted by Falascone’s pungent sax excursions and Moonchy’s eerie vocalizing, over an electronic backdrop complete with sampled voice readings and shifting noise modulations. The research for a more readable dimension comes to fruition on a couple of later pieces: in “Waisvisz”, after a long introduction of high-pitched exchanges between voice, saxophone and electronics, Bolognesi launches a bouncing ostinato that provides the musicians a springboard for a busy exchange of melodic ideas. The synth of the following “Swami Takabanda” wouldn’t be out of place in the soundtrack for an Italian sci-fi movie from the Sixties, but it eventually leaves space for the basses to build a throbbing pulse over which Falascone builds an agile, continually inventive solo.

The second disc features a more familiar concept and instrumentation, focused on distinct free jazz traits and tighter instrumental exchanges, but the results are far from predictable. The record is organized in different instrumental combinations, with a series of duets by Del Piano with Marco Colonna on clarinets, trios with Stefano Giust on drums, and quartets with Falascone on alto and baritone saxes. The opening “Meeting in Milan” features clarinet and baritone at their most aggressive, screaming over a thunderous base of bass and drums – a declaration of intents, establishing an uncompromising space of action for the following tracks. But soon the atmosphere changes, with the musicians free to follow their diverse attitudes. “Quiet Place” highlights Colonna’s passion for melodic explorations; “Mirrors” his mastery of circular breathing technique, complemented by Falascone’s concise delivery. Giust’s taste for unusual timbres and broken rhythms is evident in pieces like “Scratch” or “Polyphonic Organization”, while Del Piano participates in the performance without indicating any particular direction, sometimes suggesting clear-cut rhythmic lines (“Tired Blues”), but mostly using the electric bass as a pure improvising voice.

Combining an unusual free improvisation session and an equally engaging free jazz meeting in the same package, La Main Qui Cherche La Lumière is not only an effective overview of Del Piano’s distinctive style and different activities, but it also offers a precious occasion to discover some of the excellent voices that animate today’s Italian free music scene.

Roberto Del Piano: electric bass 
Massimo Falascone: alto and baritone saxophones, Ipad, crackle box, live electronics 
Pat Moonchy: vocals, TAI machine 
Silvia Bolognesi: double bass 
Roberto Masotti: crackle box 
Robin Neko: crackle synth 
Paolo Falascone: double bass 

Roberto Del Piano: electric bass 
Marco Colonna: clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet 
Stefano Giust: drums 
Massimo Falascone: alto and baritone saxophones 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Introducing the Danish Insula Label

By Eval Hareuveni

Insula Music is a record shop (in the true, original sense of the word, i.e. vinyl) in downtown Copenhagen. The shop runs its own label - Insula Music/Insula Jazz, that releases limited-edition cassettes and vinyl of local free jazz and free-improvisation groups, often together with other labels who offer download options.

Lars Greve / Thomas Harres / Eduardo Manso / Felipe Zenicola - Live at Audio Rebel (Insula Jazz/Hiatus, 2016) ****

A first time, free improvised meeting is always unique. The elements of surprise, danger and the constant sense of treading uncharted territories are built into the setting. Such was the meeting between Danish reeds player Lars Greve, known from the popular Girls in Airports quintet but also from more experimental collaborations with bass player Peter Friis Nielsen and sax player Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard, with three musicians of the Brazilian experimental scene - guitarist Eduardo Manso, bass player Felipe Zenicola - both known from their collaboration with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on Bota Fogo (Audio Rebel/PNL, 2014) - and drummer Thomas Harres. The four performed at the Audio Rebel studio-club-label-luthier shop in the beachfront part of Rio on December 2015.

The four musician connected immediately. On the first side, the meeting sounds as if Greve is drawn into the cathartic-noisy mayhem of the Brazilian musicians and submits to their refined Afro-Brazilian rhythmic patterns. But as the music progresses his role becomes more crucial and he charges the dynamic interplay a strong sense of contemplative abstract, sometimes even lyrical playing. The second side enjoys the already established interplay and now the four musicians experiment more with textures, rhythmic patterns and dynamics. The music changes fast from gentle and dreamy to wild and chaotic to abstract and sparse sonic searches, slowly gaining momentum towards the powerful-rhythmic coda.

Yes Deer – Get your Glitter Jacket (Insula Music/Gaffer Records, 2015) ***½

Yes Deer is a Scandinavian power trio featuring Danish-born, Sweden-based sax player Signe Dahlgreen, Norwegian guitarist Karl Bjorå, who plays in another Norwegian like-minded trio Brute Force, and Danish drummer Anders Vestergaard, known from his previous collaborations with pianists Jacob Anderskov and Kasper Staub and the power-noise duo Laser Nun. The trio was founded in 2010, aiming to engage "in the friction between intellect and libido, pre and post, collectivism and individualism."

Get Your Glitter Jacket is the sophomore release of the trio after The Talk of Tennis (Gaffer, 2014). Yes Deer's music is indeed libidinal, but in the most manic and brutal sense of the term. The trio unleashes its thunderous-chaotic, improvised attacks, noisy and dirty ones, from the first second and never looks back. The collective onslaughts sound as taking the explosive energy of seminal groups as Peter Brötzmann’s Last Exit, John Zorn’s Naked City and Napalm Death but raising it a few steps louder and noisier. The 34 minutes of Get Your Glitter Jacket offer concise strategies of cacophonic sonic meltdowns, but it feels as if the time passes in few seconds. Beware, later you will need few hours to balance your hearing with the so-called normal, daily sounds.

Jesper Elving / Anders Mathiasen / Bjørn Heebøll / Felia Gram-Hanssen – Bekeks (Insula Jazz, 2016) ***

Poet Jesper Elving has been experimenting in the last decade with different forms of writing, publishing, and performances, often with improvising musicians or in art exhibitions. Bekeks presents four improvised sound poetry pieces that Elving developed in the last four years together with songwriter-guitarist-sound artist Anders Mathiasen, who released with Elving the duo album meker (2013) and plays here on prepared acoustic guitar; free jazz drummer Bjørn Heebøll, known from his collaborations with sax player Peter Brötzmann and pianist Agustí Fernández, plays here on prepared drums; and visual and performance artist Felia Gram-Hanssen, plays on singing bowls, cymbals and homemade xylophone.

You need to understand the Danish language to fully appreciate Elving poetics (and, unfortunately, I don’t). Still, the four pieces on this double-cassette release emphasizes Elving unique manipulation of the Danish language syntax as he dissects it into a series of disjointed syllables. The three musicians wrap his dramatic, sometimes possessed delivery with busy and weird percussive sounds that accentuate Elving reciting.

Tom Prehn Kvartet (Insula Jazz/Centrifuga, 1967/2016) *****

This legendary album is considered a milestone in the history of Danish jazz, a revolutionary album that shaped the local incarnation of free jazz. The quartet of pianist Tom Prehn with tenor sax player Fritz Krogh, double bass player Poul Ehlers and drummer Preben Vang began to work in 1963 in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city, far from the vibrant and updated jazz scene of Copenhagen. Maybe that distance enabled this quartet to develop a sound that was so far away from anything else, fully matured on this self-titled album, originally released in 1967.

This album was already re-released on the Unheard Music Series of the Atavistic label under the direction of John Corbett, who also re-released the quartet debut album Axiom, originally recorded in 1963 (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2015). The new. remastered and vinyl-only edition (the debut by Danish label Centrifuga) features the original liner notes plus new ones by Danish jazz scholar Tim Thorlund Boisen and Danish pianist F.E. Denning and a collection of reviews from the time of the album release, one including that calls this “type of music” not exactly “Sunday morning coffee music choice”.

It is certainly my choice for a morning coffee, any day of the week. The music sounds today, almost fifty years its release, fresh and kicking. Denning summarizes it best: “The Quartet doesn’t sound like an imitation of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman. It sounds like all three at once. It takes the explosive energy of Coltrane, mixes it with abrupt avant-garde of Taylor and adds Coleman’s lyrical sense of melody”.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Flin van Hemmen - Drums of Days (neither nor records, 2016) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Brooklyn-based, Dutch drummer/pianist, Flin van Hemmen has created a delicate and adventurous album with Drums of Days. His well-disciplined trio is bassist Eivind Opsvik, acoustic guitarist Todd Neufeld, and himself on drums and piano.

The album opens with 'Drums of Days I', van Hemmen on piano, striking open-ended tonal clusters, while Opsvik draws out some long droning tones. Neufeld provides deliberately cool strokes of chord tones, striking hotly on occasion as well. They create an atmosphere fraught with tension and possibility. The follow up 'Morsel!', featuring guest saxophonist Tony Malaby, begins with an eerie whistle and tentative melody played high on the bass. It's short, a bridge to the percussive clatter that ensues in a three-way dialog of 'Dream Tree'. The next big track is 'Aching Arches', which finds van Hemmen back at the piano playing over some taped ambient sound. Two plus minutes into the track, the trio rises again, fragmented chords trail off into silence, the arpeggiated melodies flicker like sparks against the void, as a musical glow begins to appear, then gives way to a spoken section - the poem 'Tide' by musician/poet Eliot Cardinaux - and the words intertwine with the instruments.

The three-part suite 'Sensitive Chaos' is a musical poem of sorts, no strong melody lines, rather an exploration of textures and times. 'Field, Sound' offers more coherent melodic phrases and a stronger pulse, and 'Vorpmi Tsal', is one of the more song-like tracks of the album, and a nice morsel to sink your ears into. Ending with a bright piano refrain, 'Drums of Days II' takes on a solid groove and proves that there is nothing quite like the sound of the classical guitar in avant-garde jazz. The closing track is called 'Ives', and I will go out on the limb to say that it is in some way an homage to the early 20th-century modernist composer. After a long deliberate start, the song opens up into an energetic exchange of ideas, and fitting end to the album.

Drums of Days is a quiet and exploratory album. van Hemmen has created something unique and worth a deep listen.

Available at Downtown Music Gallery.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Nels Cline - Lovers (Blue Note, 2016) ***½

By Martin Schray

When Nels Cline announced his Blue Note debut his fans were excited. How would an album for a major differ from his recent collaborations with Michael Wimberley and Thollem McDonas, White Out or The Nels Cline Singers, all on independent labels?

Cline is possibly the most versatile and interesting guitarist currently working. Among other things he's a member of the alternative rock superstar band Wilco and Rova::Orkestrova, he’s played with Medeski, Martin & Wood and in duos with Thurston Moore and Elliott Sharp. Now, he’s made an album about love.

According to his website:
“I have been dreaming rather obsessive idea of this record for well over twenty-five years, and it was always going to be called Lovers. It is meant to be as personal in its sound and in its song selection as it is universal in its endeavor to assay or map the parameters of “mood” as it once pertained, and currently pertains, to the peculiar and powerful connection between sound/song and intimacy/romance.”
In order to realize this idea, Cline is augmented by a chamber orchestra consisting of some of the most prominent members of the New York avant-garde scene: Devin Hoff, Steven Bernstein, Kenny Wollesen, Zeena Parkins, Erik Friedlander, and many more. The collection includes covers of songs from the great American songbook, more recent composers, and some Cline originals.

Notwithstanding his familiar elegant touch, the first four pieces still raise an eyebrow – mellow and straight, with no edge or irony, sounding like the score to a Fifties movie. Cline admires great jazz guitarists like Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Joe Pass, and Bill Frisell, and although the performances are laid back, possibly a little saccharine, there’s real tenderness in his interpretations. On Jerome Kern’s New Orleans swing number “Why Was I Born?“ or “The Bed We Made“, he has a feathery touch which is beguiling. However, in this first part of the album there already are more ambitious covers, like Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry Want“ and Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor“. The first one with the orchestra only delivering sound snippets, the second based on a monotonous beat.

The other half of the album takes a different approach, including adaptations of songs by Arto Lindsay, Sonic Youth and Annette Peacock: more offbeat compositions. The arrangements, by Michael Leonhart, are rougher here, sometimes dark and minimal, and Cline’s playing more direct, with glimpses of his crystalline, rock accent. But throughout, the album remains true to the underlying theme, reflecting the differing emotional connections which can make up a romance. Behind an urban jungle groove, Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl” brings Thurston Moore’s melody to the fore, played more like a country&western tune, with the orchestra largely absent. It provides a nice contrast to Sammy Fain’s lively “Secret Love“ from the Calamity Jane soundtrack.

The highlight is “The Night Porter/Max, Mon Amour“, joining two songs by Daniele Paris and Michel Portal. They‘re from movies dealing with unexpected romance. The Night Porter is about a sadomasochistic relationship between a Nazi death camp survivor and her tormentor, Max, Mon Amour about the love between a woman and a chimp. The surprisingly beautiful principal tune of the first is interrupted by eerie, mechanistic sounds. The second part’s cool theme eventually wanders astray.

Lovers is both restrained and experimental, with standards and lesser known tunes imaginatively set. Clear your mind, sit back, and enjoy a great collection.

The album is available as a CD and double vinyl.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Roscoe Mitchell - Sustain and Run - Ao Vivo Jazz na Fábrica (Selo SESC SP, 2016) ****

Roscoe Mitchell. Do you really need an introduction to this man? Founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and the Creative Arts Collective. An unrelenting explorer of all aspects of music who is currently the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition at Mills College. Mitchell’s work stretches across the music spectrum, from solo improvisations to compositions for orchestras around the world. There is a strong argument to be made that Roscoe Mitchell is THE great American composer of the last 50 years.

Sustain and Run - Ao Vivo Jazz na Fábrica is Mitchell’s new solo album recorded live in Brazil in 2013. Right from the start, Mitchell shows a fire-breathing intensity unmatched by most other players. The music is heavy, exploring the more extreme registers of his horn. The name of the album is actually a good description of the music. It is like listening to Mitchell deliver a monologue from Samuel Beckett, the notes and rhythms twist back upon themselves emerging as new ideas that drive the improvisations forward. This is an album that demands your attention, one that won’t allow you to do anything else but listen. It should come with a warning about operating heavy equipment while listening.

A rewarding listen and an excellent addition to the massive Roscoe Mitchell discography. It’s beautiful to see Mitchell is continuing to be this creative after more than five decades.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil - Anguis Oleum (s/r, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

The last time we heard from the masterful Snakeoil, it was on 2015’s You’ve Been Watching Me, a widely-acclaimed recording that perfectly captured the sizzling, enigmatic energy of Berne’s quartet. Anguis Oleum, their newest release, was originally paired with Berne and artist Steve Byram’s limited-edition collection of drawings and photographs, Spare. Now, it’s available for download on the Snakeoil Bandcamp page, and everyone can get a taste of what this group sounds like when it loosens the reins a bit. Anguis Oleum is not actually a collection of all-new compositions, but a live recording - it contains a couple of pieces that have previously appeared within Snakeoil’s studio output, as well as some unreleased material. As on You’ve Been Watching Me, Snakeoil consists of Berne on alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and Ches Smith on percussion. Guitarist Ryan Ferreira is nowhere to be found, unfortunately, but the rest of the players more than makeup for his absence.

The opening composition, “Deadbeat Beyonce,” is one of those that was previously unrecorded. It opens with a lovely run by Matt Mitchell, notes cascading over one another and gradually increasing in both intensity and complexity. After four minutes, the reeds join in with intricate figures that are instantly recognizable as coming from Berne’s compositional toolkit - minor-key, tense, and suggestive of a convoluted system of alleys in a bleak metropolis. As it unfolds, “Deadbeat Beyonce” gives way to a wild fervor; Berne is practically shooting flames from his alto, and Ches Smith pounds with an unbridled force that is particularly striking when compared to the restraint he exhibits at the beginning of the track. Even in their fiercest moments, however, the members of Snakeoil maintain a certain rigidity, a disciplined single-mindedness. The passage through the alleys may be winding, with sudden shifts and unexplained detours, but the destination is clear. At one point, it seems that the piece will close with Mitchell’s twinkling keys and Noriega’s wounded bird-calls, but that’s just a misdirect: the group come together in one last eruption, one that swells, sinks, then swells again, eventually coming to an abrupt close.

“Spare Parts” moves at a slower pace than “Deadbeat Beyonce,” taking its time to develop and stretch out. In the composition’s opening minutes, Ches Smith is on vibraphone, which is admittedly the perfect instrument to accompany the noir-ish sound-worlds that Berne constructs. As Smith taps the vibes and Noriega moves through a series of labyrinthine shapes, one can’t help but re-imagine that shadowy metropolis, steam rising from the gutters and streets perpetually soaked in rain. After some time, Smith is back on the drums, Mitchell comes in with his expressive, dramatic chord-changes, and Berne is blowing with his icy fire - a sound that is simultaneously fervent and frigid, searing and cool. “Lamé 3” is a shorter piece, but it somehow condenses the cinematic scope of the longer compositions into eight minutes - there are twists, turns, unfettered peaks, and trembling moments of tension. Also, some of the players here hit their stride: at one point, Ches Smith abandons all pretensions towards restraint and just pummels his kit. Likewise, Berne engages in a short stretch of insanity that was somewhat surprising at first; instead of that cool reservation that he typically exhibits, he practically screams with his alto saxophone, sending the track into the stratosphere.

“Oc - Dc” is the final piece here, as well as being the longest. Here, the group shows off their marvelous sense of interplay, with an almost lighthearted exchange of notes - melodies that bounce off of each other, diffract, and inexplicably change shapes as the composition moves forward. That lightheartedness is refreshing, especially in the context of Snakeoil; with this group, Berne has primarily delved into tones and textures that are on the “bleaker” side of things, and the pieces can occasionally feel airless. That airlessness is not necessarily a bad thing - in fact, it might be required in order to convey the atmosphere that the group wants us to hear. Thus, despite the fact that many Snakeoil compositions seem to work with “one note” (serpentine, minor-key, filmic), that note is played exceedingly well, and Snakeoil scratch a musical itch that no other groups can. Anguis Oleum is proof that, among Tim Berne’s manifold projects, Snakeoil is the most consistent and the most fully-developed. Now we wait for the studio follow-up to You’ve Been Watching Me!

Friday, August 19, 2016

Three Day A’Larme!

Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Kristoffer Lo
By Martin Schray with a little help from Paul Acquaro

In 2012 Louis Rastig and Karina Mertin launched the first A’Larme! Festival in Berlin, presenting a program of contemporary jazz and improvised music, both radical and polarizing. Free jazz legends met with a younger generation, which has more of an inclination for pop and rock.  There were the old guard: Peter Brötzmann, Sven-Åke Johansson, Irène Schweizer, Han Bennink, and Uli Gumpert, and a younger generation: Mats Gustafsson, Neneh Cherry, Ken Vandermark, Peter Evans and Caspar Brötzmann. The program was praised by both press and audience, and further festivals followed in 2013 and 2015 (in 2014 there was only one concert, which doesn't really qualify as a festival).

This year the festival's tag-line was Inner Landscapes and Unknown Chambers, with an ambitious, diverse and challenging line-up of musicians. Most of the bands were from Europe and there was a focus on string instruments – cellos, harps, guitars and violins –  and the human voice. The program included only few free jazz top dogs like Brötzmann and Gustafsson. Artistic director Rastig’s strategy was to attract a younger, alternative rock audience with an affinity to art, theater, and electronic music, for example: the festival began at the Berghain, Berlin’s legendary techno club (notorious for its stringent bouncers). This year, it was standing room only throughout, familiar from rock festivals where the audience is wedged together.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend the first day at the Berghain, and missed Laniakea (with Massimo Pupillo on bass), Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld and Fire! feat. Oren Ambarchi. Talking to guests who had been there, all the three gigs were described as deafening, a feature of the techno-designed speaker system. As to the music, especially Fire! feat. Oren Ambarchi, it was "wild, energetic and loud" (Peter Gannushkin).

Thursday started with Mohammad, one of the projects eagerly awaited, since their albums Segondè Saleco, Lamne Gastama and Som Sakrifis received favourable reviews. Originally a trio, they were reduced to a duo (Ilios on contrabass and Nikos Veliotis on cello) and looked like a goth-metal band. Most striking of all was the physical presence of the bass, you could feel it vibrate through your whole body. The performance however, was surprisingly stale. There were hardly any changes in the compositions. Emotionally and musically, it was rather boring. About half of the people left the hall.

Luft: Mats Gustaffson and Erwan Keravec
Things could only get better, and Luft (German for “air“), Mats Gustafsson’s duo with Erwan Keravec on bagpipes, had an easier time. After a short passage finding out where the set should go, they were an excellent example of mutual listening and communication. Keravec delivered a spectrum from minimal music to saxophone-like sounds and Gustafsson showed that he is much more than a fire-breather. The third part on tenor was excellent, his circular breathing technique providing an interesting contrast with the bagpipes.

The day closed with Transfer, a project that The Ex’s Andy Moor and Anne-James Chaton have been working on for several years. Situated in an art rock context (including videos) it was musically coherent. But what sense does it make when at least 90 percent of the audience cannot understand Chaton’s spoken word performance (in French)? Subtitles would have been helpful here. Again, many left early.

Joe McPhee was announced to play on the Friday in a trio with Lasse Marhaug and Paal Nilssen-Love but the gig was canceled before the festival started. In any case, Friday was supposed to be the lucky day for the festival, however, the first band was not our cup of tea: The Great Hans Unstern Swindle, a darling of Germany’s alternative magazine Spex, which also supported the festival. The performance was reminiscent of arty farty New Wave, including some slightly pretentious lyrics (“when will burning up cars finally be regarded as street art“).  Maybe we're too petty bourgeois for this kind of music, or maybe it's just a bit old hat – we decided to leave after ten minutes. As with the day before, another false start.

This gig was followed by Seval, which is Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Fire! Orchestra’s Sofia Jernberg (vocals), David Stackenäs (acoustic guitar) Emil Strandberg (trumpet) and Patric Thorman (double bass). This was one of the positive surprises of the festival. Lonberg-Holm's compositions are in classic song format, often referring to jazz standards of the 1920s and 30s or modern pop. The songs are given a different spin with off the wall soloing and especially Jernberg's voice, bearing a distinctive timbre. An unusual set.

The day was completed by Trondheim Jazz Orchestra featuring Kristoffer Lo. The orchestra included some prominent names like Thomas Johansson (of Large Unit and All Included fame) and Mette Rasmussen. Again, the music didn’t have much to do with jazz, the compositions were more rock orientated, say Radiohead played by a big band. Nevertheless, the group was in good shape and the performance contained the outstanding moment of the festival: Mette Rasmussen’s enthusiastic alto solo in "Make Fame". The audience freaked out, and even her band members smiled approvingly.

The final day reputedly contained the most promising artists - Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh, Anna Högberg Attack! and Sabina Meyer/John Butcher/Matthias Bauer. It started with a solo performance by Berlin-based Israeli bassist Yair Elazar Glotman. He focused on bowing on an amplified double bass, and with the assistance of pedals, he created a series of layers and oscillations which resulted in a trance-like atmosphere. But it became a bit tedious after 15 minutes. Brötzmann followed, the duo with pedal steel guitarist, Heather Leigh - a pairing which has previously proved  reliable. It was an odd performance, however. There were beautiful moments, as when Brötzmann played romantic passages on tarogato, and the last section, with a splendid break on tenor (cut off out as he had to replace his reed). Leigh tended to deliver static phrases and textures, a choice that didn’t seem to fit with Brötzmann. When her playing sounded more like Sonny Sharrock, there seemed a better match. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen often. It was also striking that Brötzmann took a lot of breaks, leaving the field to Leigh. Usually, he steers the performance, but when he took a break he was coughing and seemed unwell. Worrying.

Anna Högberg Attack!
To conclude, there was Anna Högberg Attack! in a smaller hall and Meyer/Butcher/Bauer in the studio loft (limited to 100 people). It’s a concept the festival has established in previous years and it makes sense when the bands play two normal sets so that you can choose whether you want to see both or two sets by the same ensemble. Both groups played 25-minute-sets which cuts matters short just as you’re getting into it. As to the music, Högberg’s band played well, mainly pieces from their very good eponymous album. Högberg (on alto) and Lisa Ullèn (on piano) are excellent musicians.

Bauer, Butcher, and Meyer (l-r)
Mayer/Butcher/Bauer, on the other hand was an entirely new collaboration, and on the fifth-floor space with large floor to ceiling windows looking out over nighttime Berlin, the trio cast an unusually captivating spell.  Though not having performed before as a trio, the three musicians seemed to have quickly found common ground. Vocalist Sabina Meyer stuck to mainly wordless singing, mimicking the instruments at times and at others making the sort of haunting tones only the human voice can. Saxophonist John Butcher alternated between his dazzling command of multiphonics and more traditional playing. Bassist Matthias Bauer, brother to trombonists Conny and the late Johannes, provided a strong backbone as his partners circled and swooped about.

It was disappointing that these two acts, arguably the strongest of the festival, were presented simultaneously as a full set from each would have been deeply satisfying. Regardless, exhausted after three days of concerts, we decided to skip Fovea Hex, the final act of the festival.

In a nutshell, A’Larme! Festival Vol. IV left mixed feelings. Some performances were disappointing, a few were good, and sadly, none were outstanding. Louis Rastig succeeded in attracting a new clientele but he might put off traditional fans of improvised music, not only due to the selection of artists but also because the organizers decided to offer standing room only, which is tiring after a while. This led to a some disturbances during the sets and it was harder to concentrate on the music. Then again, Radialsystem V, the main spot, is a beautiful location. It would be great if there could be another festival next year (as always the organizers have to fight for cultural funding, without which such a festival would be impossible). But it would be nice if they‘d go back to line-ups like first two festivals. And seats. We’re not getting any younger.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

FOR EXAMPLE: Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978 (FMP, 1978/Destination: OUT, 2016) *****

Martin has already covered the background of the Workshop Freie Musik series in his intro, but I’d like to bring back a few basic details to set the stage, so to speak. WFM started in 1969, the same year FMP released its first album. It ran until 1998, apparently cancelled due to a lack of financial backing. (An aside: I wonder, now that FMP itself has been resurrected for the digital age by Destination: Out if we won’t also soon see the return of both WFM and Total Music Meeting.) FOR EXAMPLE: Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978 is a previously out-of print, LP-only set documenting 10 years of FMP’s Workshop Freie Musik. The whole set is divided into 3 albums: Nr.1 Soloists, Nr.2 Groups, and Nr.3 Orchestras.

For the collector/completist, it’s a no-brainer, you’re looking at a history of the moment European free jazz came into its own. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, the neophyte, this particular set is also a no-brainer, a one-stop introduction to some of the biggest names in free jazz. And, hey why not, let’s go ahead and make it required listening for everyone in between! What makes this particular set so necessary is the range of both groups and years recorded, in addition to the sheer quality of all performances.

Interestingly, there are no recordings from 1969’s inaugural Workshop. Instead, the earliest recordings come from the 1972 Workshop, well represented by Schlippenbach Trio, Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink with Mangelsdorff, Frank Wright Unit, and Willem Breuker Orchestra. As a snapshot of early ’70s free jazz, these feel so comfortable and familiar, imbued with all the rich nostalgia of a past era, and conjuring what so many think of when you say the words “free jazz.” The tempos are frenetic, the horns wailing, the improvisations simultaneously precise and primal.

Most readers of this blog know the classic trio of Alexander von Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, and Paul Lovens. They’re the only artist here with two tracks, and both are fantastic. “With Forks and Hope” begins with all three in staccato mode, Lovens gradually opening up, as Parker teases out longer, piercing lines. “Then, Silence” contrasts Schlippenbach’s bluesy piano intro with a high, frantic solo from Parker. Later, Lovens breaks in with a swinging rhythm, and Schlippenbach settles into the upper octaves for some wild runs that fade abruptly.

The Brötzmann/Van Hove/Bennink trio, another classic group, had just released an album with Mangelsdorff on FMP, Live in Berlin ’71. “Things and Stuff” settles into a comfortable rhythm pretty quickly, but the final few minutes are where the group shines, cooling down for some beautiful interplay.  

For Frank Wright, “Chapter Ten” was the start of his work with Alan Silva, making his recorded debut with Wright’s group. This is the group—Wright, Silva, Bobby Few on piano, and Muhammed Ali on drums—that went on to record Center of the World and Last Polka In Nancy?, so this represents one of the truly historic moments captured on this set.

And that leaves the Willem Breuker Orchestra’s five-part “Biannale,” a fifteen-minute tour de force. Breuker’s great skill at arranging these compressed mash-ups is only matched by his group’s ability to pull them off. There’s Weill, of course, and Bach, but most of all there’s Breuker. Anarchic, hilarious, brilliant Breuker. The recording is a bit creaky, however, and there are cuts between each section that don’t seem quite lined up. Nevertheless, these are pretty minor complaints when you consider the scope of the set.

Only one track comes from 1973, and that’s Globe Unity Orchestra’s “Thin in the upper crust,” credited to Brötzmann. It’s a sweeping that sounds almost as if it’s dissolving into a puddle of acid, as it winds down. (In case there’s any doubt, that’s meant as a compliment.) For a Brötzmann piece, there’s an impressive amount of restraint.

There are three tracks from 1974. First, Steve Lacy’s solo performance of “Bone,” from the Tao suite. Lacy opens on a bright, bouncy statement of the melody, eventually gliding into a languid middle section. Schweizer/Carl Quartet’s “Konrad usw.” opens with a fierce solo from bassist Arjen Gorter. About two minutes in, Schweizer and Heinrich Hock join, creating a tense, tightly wound rhythm under Carl’s urgent sax. The piece builds in intensity for eight straight minutes, before a brisk statement ends the piece. And last from that year, an outrageous take on “Tetterettet” from the ICP Tentet. It’s superbly played, humorous, and swinging, everything ICP compressed into 10 glorious minutes.

The real surprise comes from the 1975 sessions: Vinko Globokar’s Brass Group, a group with 11 trombones, a French horn, and tuba. “La Ronde” opens with a tumble of low brass, featuring some extended techniques, that gradually reveals itself to be a call-and-response. The one other track from 1975 is Paul Rutherford “Berl in zil,” a nicely lyrical trombone solo, with Rutherford accompanying himself on piano.

The bulk of the solo performances come from 1976, beginning with Reichel’s otherworldly “Mariahilf.” Fred Van Hove’s “Daar Spelt de Baiaard Weer” is a brief, sparkling solo on prepared piano. Tristan Honsinger performs the phenomenal “I Didn’t Care,” a cello solo juxtaposed with Honsinger’s wordless vocalizations, and Derek Bailey is captured in fine form on “Improvisation 27376.” Just to settle on Honsinger and Bailey for a moment, their solos are of particular historical importance, capturing the cellist and guitarist just after their early duo albums, and about 2 months before Company 1.

The final two recordings, from 1977, are just fantastic. The first, a trombone solo from Albert Mangelsdorff, “Question at Midnight,” begins in a stately and bold fashion that’s gradually undercut by a variety of extended techniques. Mangelsdorff closes out with a humorous and twisted marching refrain. I don’t know what others will think, but the set’s absolute best moment, for me, comes from Johnny Dyani. “Soweto-Simbabwe-Mississippie-Child-Cry” has Dyani on bass, percussion, and his glorious vocals. His is the final track on the Soloists set, as well as the last track, chronologically speaking. It’s a wonderful moment to go out on: when Dyani ends, the crowd bursts into applause.

All minor complaints aside, it’s impossible not to give this set my highest recommendation. As I mentioned, the range of performers and years captured represent some of the highlights of 1970s European free jazz. As I mentioned above, there’s a bit of a nostalgic glow to this era, but FOR EXAMPLE makes a strong case that this is a high water mark in the development of free jazz globally.