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Heather Leigh and Peter Brötzmann

Islington Mill, Manchester, England. March 2016. Photo by Peter Fay.

Parkins, Cline and Rainey

Andrea Parkins (accordion, electronics), Nels Cline (guitar), Tom Rainey (drums). Ibeam, Brooklyn, NY. April 2016. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Yoni Kretzmer Five

Yoni Kretzmer (tenor sax), Steve Swell (trombone), Thomas Heberer (trumpet), Chad Taylor (drums), William Parker (bass). April 2016. Arts for Arts, NYC. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Nick Fraser Quartet - Starer (s/r, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

As far as quartets go, Nick Fraser’s is a peculiar beast. With Fraser on drums, Rob Clutton on double bass, Tony Malaby on saxophone, and Andrew Downing on cello, it’s a configuration that many people likely haven’t heard before, and one that many probably didn’t even know they wanted to hear. Needless to say, it’s a unique set-up, one that requires (or possibly even forces) you to be open and receptive to new sounds. The quartet’s previous album is called Towns and Villages, and it bears witness to this requirement: over the course of twelve bold tracks, the group mapped out the possibilities available to them, landing on a sound that was fresh, idiosyncratic, and occasionally uncanny, with Downing’s cello acting as a link between the jazz and chamber music traditions - like Perelman’s Villa Lobos Suite of last year, the melodies occasionally carried hints of Bartók’s serrated set of string quartets. It’s not just the addition of another string instrument that makes this comparison apt, however; it’s the folksiness of the compositions themselves, the way they vacillate between simple, tuneful melodies and spikier, more serpentine sections.

Three years later, the group returns with a new album, one in which they often move their sound in decidedly different directions. Starer is undoubtedly a step forward, but it also houses some lateral movements, some oblique detours. Just listen to the opener, “Minimalism/416-538-7149,” and its repetitious, transfixing strings. As the title implies, it is a minimal exercise in restraint for cellist Downing and bassist Clutton, while simultaneously being something of a blank canvas for Fraser and Malaby. Fraser provides elastic, fluid rhythms that practically drip across the mesmerising back-drop, while Malaby’s soprano saxophone warbles (and occasionally screeches) its way through a series of a circular, knotty note-clusters.

The title track returns to the folksy melodicism of Towns and Villages, but imbues it with even more rousing piquancy. After the development of the initial theme by Malaby and Downing, the two (on tenor and cello, respectively) embrace each other in an ardent dance that gradually gets more wild and loose-limbed. Many of the tracks here are labelled as “sketches;” I wouldn’t say it’s because they are half-formed or skeletal, but more because of their spacious, uncluttered nature - like a drawing done in pencil of a landscape or city-scene, uncolored and scribbled impressionistically across the page, these pieces leave a lot to the audience’s imagination. In other words, they never give up too much of themselves, and it seems necessary that we, the listeners, invest a bit of our own energy into teasing out just what is going on. “Jupiter: Sketch #15” is indicative of this: over Fraser’s abstract drum-work, the other players move about with near-liquid ease, never quite settling down into a stable structure, but never going completely crazy either. Melodies occasionally pop up, or should I say the impressions of melodies: like smoke, they are quick to transform or dissipate entirely.

The longest piece here, a combination of “Sketch #20” and “Sketch #22,” progresses at an almost funereal pace, with the cello and soprano saxophone again moving in tandem. This time, however, they do not dance, but mourn. Midway through, the composition shifts, with the cello, bass, and saxophone all coming together to form a queasy vibrato. After that, Downing switches to pizzicato, Fraser clatters and taps with an increasing sense of agitated energy, and Malaby’s tenor appears. For the remainder of the piece (which I assume to be “Sketch #22”), the group does its best to replace the oppressive gloom established in the first half - not with outpourings of joy, but with frenzied convulsions.

The final composition, “Sketch #21,” is considerably calmer, again returning to a sound that quietly suggests Eastern European traditional music. The strength of Fraser’s compositions lies in their slipperiness; there is a constant sense of entropy here, of rhythms veering off into chaos and melodies collapsing in on themselves. It’s that push-and-pull (between order and disorder) that makes this such a vital and compelling listen.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Carate Urio Orchestra - Lover (Klein, 2016) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

The septet Carate Urio Orchestra offers a tricky, eccentric, and surreal sonic experience. After many listening to the group sophomore album, Lover, following Sparrow Mountain (2013), it is still difficult to discern what this group is really about. Is it free, experimental improvisation? Art sound meets noise? Art rock? Not that it really matters after surrendering to its alchemical experience.

The CUO has succeeded in keeping its international lineup, featuring highly original and resourceful improvisers and is planning to release another album later this year on the Clean Feed label. CUO is comprised of Belgian reeds, keyboard, and occasional vocalist Joachim Badenhorst, known from the trio Baloni; his partners from that trio, the French, Zürich-based viola player Frantz Loriot and German, New York-based double bass player Pascal Niggenkemper (the two collaborate also on the latter Vision 7 group); Belgian, Denmark-based bass player Brice Soniano, who plays with Badenhorst in the Rawfishboys duo; and three guitarist - Irish Seán Carpio, who doubles on drums and sings on one piece, Catalan Nico Ruig, and American Sam Kulik, who doubles on trombone. Kulik replaced original member of CUO, the Icelandic trumpeter Eiríkur Orri Ólafsson.  

Somehow all of CUO sonic contrasts, conflicts, loose threads, and searches connect and find thier own coherent rationale in Lover. The instrumental pieces emphasize CUO's rich spectrum and highly versatile language. The opening “Preacher” begins as uncompromising double bass duel between Niggenkemper and Soniano but suddenly takes on a distorted and abstract metallic texture. “Iron Bird” is a playful, innocent piece, based on simple kalimba pattern, intruded by eccentric improvisations, while the longer “Crazy wind laid down” is a quiet and minimalist cinematic piece, intruded upon by eccentric and tortured improvised sounds, but still while maintaining its suggestive spirit. Roig short “Feet History” is a gentle, moving piece, revolving around a repetitive guitar riff.  

The songs even expand CUO's highly unique and original sonic experience. Carpio sings the dreamy “År Antiphon” in a fragile voice, slowly obscured by disturbing noise storms. Badenhorst sings the title song in a synthesized voice, surfacing out of a mysterious-percussive soundscape that brings to mind the dreamy-melancholic delivery of Mark Hollis from Talk Talk. The last song, “Fremdenzimmer”, originally the title of Baloni's debut album (Clean Feed, 2011), is another melancholic piece, arranged as a chamber-choral piece, where Badenhorst voice is multiplied, eventually leaving him reciting this appealing prayer with commanding pathos.    

Lover comes with beautiful handmade artwork by Rie Iwatake, printed in three color editions: white, black, and fluorescent orange.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

notes (8 pieces): source a new world music: creative music - Wadada Leo Smith (corbettvsdempsey, 2015)

By David Menestres

notes (8 pieces): source a new world music: creative music by Wadada Leo Smith was originally self-published in 1973 in a run of 200 copies. The current edition was reprinted in an edition of 1000 by Corbett vs Dempsey to accompany the exhibition Wadada Leo Smith - Ankhrasmation: The Language Scores, 1967-2015 presented October 11-29, 2015 at The Renaissance Society of the University of Chicago.

notes is (or was) Smith’s attempts to lay down his philosophy as an improviser. After the dedication and a quote from Addison Gayle, Jr., the first we see of Smith’s writing is an afterward as prologue, which makes a lot of sense for this book. A description of the AACM follows, covering the organization’s goals, history, and educational programs. “The contribution of the AACM to creative music is in evidence throughout the musical world” is just as true in 2016 as it was in 1973.

CREATIVE MUSIC (one of the few uses of capital letters in the text), thoughts from an improviser, and (sources) a new world music: creative music the improvisors & improvisation all lay bear Smith’s ideas of what it means to be an improvisor/composer, the history of creative music, and how to keep this music alive in the future. Smith’s take on the history of this music alone is worth the price of the book.

notes on my music (parts 1-3) close out the back portion of the original text. The first sentence is a perfect description of the role of each performer in Smith’s music:
the concept that i employ in my music is to consider each performer as a complete unit with each having his or her own center from which each performs independently of any other, and with this respect of autonomy the independent center of the improvisation is continuously changing depending upon the force created by individual centers at any instance from any of the units.
Part 1 continues into more specific aspects of Wadada Leo Smith’s music, a discussion that is continued in Part 3. Part 2 might be my favorite passage in the book, discussing the role of heritage, nature, and spirit/wholeness that powers creative music. It certainly feels like the most emotional section of the book.

After the original 1973 text, there are a few new additions from Smith written in the last few years, as well as an afterward from both Smith and publisher John Corbett. The book itself, as an object, is wonderful. A facsimile of the original, the ribbed lines of the pages, the darkness of the ink, the heft of the cover, provide a physical weight that balance the weight of Smith’s ideas. I keep touching it, hoping to absorb the ideas through my finger tips.

The philosophy laid out in these pages is too deep to dig into in a short article. I’ll be thinking about these ideas in one way or another for a long time to come. notes is an essential text for anyone interest in creative music. It’s a good thing this is available again, the ideas expressed here will be a great asset to any performer or listener and hopefully will help play a major role in the future of our music.

Buy the book from the publisher.

More information on the exhibit.

Note: In line with Smith’s views on criticism expressed in the text, no star rating is provided.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Arashi - Semikujira (Trost, 2016) ****1/2

By Nicola Negri

Akira Sakata - alto sax, clarinet, voice
Johan Berthling - bass
Paal Nilssen-Love - drums, percussions

A couple of years ago Akira Sakata, a powerful saxophone player who has been on the forefront of Japan’s free jazz scene since the early ’70s, teamed up with Johan Berthling and Paal Nilssen-Love, each one part of some of today’s best rhythm sections (Fire! and The Thing, respectively) and both tireless musical explorers. The result was the record Arashi, that true to its title (meaning "storm") presented a band with a huge, powerful sound, but also capable of a variety of different moods, and despite recording together for the first time they already showed clear ideas and a strong interplay. This new album picks up from there and further develops the same discourse, mostly working on the band’s strengths but also looking for new formal solutions. In the meantime, Arashi has become the name of the band, and the time passed touring together had a clear effect on the ensemble sound, making it even stronger and more cohesive.

The first track, Snowing on the Temple Garden begins with a sparse base of bass, bells and percussions, over which Sakata evokes the atmosphere described by the title with a beautiful, understated theme on clarinet, creating a tangible tension that prepares the ground for the rest of the album. The following Blow of Humpback Whale returns to more familiar terrains, with Berthling and Nilssen-Love providing an explosive free jazz vehicle for the fast winding lines and high register cries of Sakata’s alto sax. Saitaro Bushi, based on a traditional Japanese song, opens with a fast dialogue between bass and drums, soon joined by the wild, theatrical vocals of Sakata, screaming over the free rhythm base, then picking up the alto sax for one of the most intense solos of the album. The following section features a bouncing drum solo leading to a layered coda of reverberating metal percussions, revealing a perfectly calibrated compositional structure. Again Sheep Said “Wolf is Coming” is another showcase for Sakata’s vocal explosions, a chaotic intermission before the more nuanced final track. Semikujira (Right Whale) begins with a passionate, blues-tinged solo on the alto over a steady percussive base of single drum hits that recalls Japanese ceremonial music. The performance then slowly morphs into an intense free jazz excursion, with solo spotlights for all the musicians, before returning to the sparse atmosphere of the beginning, with Sakata’s lyrical playing flowing over the textural backdrop of bass and percussions until the album ends with another high energy collective exchange.

Semikujira is a major new addition to these musicians already vast discographies, and one of the most satisfying listens of the year so far – a powerful, thoughtfully constructed work that blends familiar but disparate musical dimensions into a convincing whole, while preserving the spontaneity of instant creation. The same qualities are mirrored on the cover artwork, an apparently traditional illustration (by Sagaki Keita) that on closer inspection reveals a quirky, irreverent world of strange creatures.
Highly recommended.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Ken Vandermark & Nate Wooley – Islington Mill, Manchester, 17.05.16

Photo by Peter Fay
By Colin Green

As a brief coda to the week of duo reviews we have Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley’s double-act at Islington Mill, a location rapidly affording Manchester with a regular venue for free jazz and improv.

The pair draw inspiration, and took the opening ‘And She Speaks’, from the classic duo of John Carter and Bobby Bradford. With Vandermark on clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones and Wooley on trumpet this was whistle-stop tour of what seemed like the whole of jazz history, drawn primarily from their two albums: East by Northwest and All Directions Home. It was a bravura display, inspiring and terrific fun, executed with a sparkle and bounce mirrored in the wit of their between numbers patter – ‘Deconstructed Folks’ was dedicated to Jerry Lewis, using its bebop rhythms as a springboard for excursions into other territory. On ‘Best Coast’ they moved between nimble unisons and free flow, with smeared microtones on trumpet, and ‘Another Lecture’ gave us an earthy baritone with agile trumpet, percussive bursts set against scurrying runs. On ‘I Prefer the Company of Birds’ (Wooley’s not very convincing claim to be a sociopath) the duo careered from slapstick to mournful. ‘Such Science’ saw some dexterous counterpoint with them cuing each other in.

They concluded with a rendition of ‘I Heard it on the Radio’, written by Ornette but never recorded by him. After pretending to have left the stage (it saves a lot of hassle) they turned round and played an encore of ‘Jim the Boy’. 

The duo play in Zurich tonight and the tour ends in Stockholm tomorrow (details here) before Wooley heads back to New York and Vandermark teams up with Paal Nilssen-Love for a summer tour of Europe. Catch them if you can.

Vandermark and Wooley with Ornette’s ‘Peace’:

And many more ...

By Paul Acquaro

We conclude this week of duos with four recordings featuring the saxophone and a stringed instrument - in this case cello, bass, bass guitar and guitar, and then close out with two classic sax and drum duos. The problem is, it's hard to stop here. Just in the time of the creation of this week of reviews, a new recording from OutNow called Esoteric Duos hit the shelves, as did a Clean Feed release of Evan Parker and Alexander Hawkins ... and so many others. What to do. What to do.

Leila Bordreuil and Michael Foster - The Caustic Ballads (Relative Pitch, 2016) ****

Michael Foster (sax) and Leila Bordreuil (cello) are two young musicians from Brooklyn, whose musical partnership extends back to their meeting while studying music at Bard College.

On Caustic Ballads, the duo starts on the outside - way outside - and that old loaded term extended technique is the perfect descriptor to be applied here. This track, 'Born of its own Asphyxiation' sports a creepy title and is an engaging introduction to what has already been presented, by the cover art, as a somewhat sadomasochistic outing. Foster begins with air and fizzy dissonance while Bordreuil exploits the upper harmonics of the the track proceeds, all sorts of unusual sounds are used. The extra-instrumental materials and techniques are varied, especially on a track like 'Pleasure and Cruelty', which seems to incorporate the sounds of jackhammers and chain links.

There is an unusual intensity that builds during the first two tracks, and by the time 'Intimate Shrinkage of My Body and the Castration of My Life' comes together, the music reaches a climatic skronk. Fast forward a bit and track seven, "Wherever the Orgasm Discharges Its Internal Rottenness," is another peek of energy and sound. 

The energy on Caustic Ballads is focused and intense, and the vision is complete, as these two musicians already display a great amount of control over their instruments in creating otherworldly soundscapes. Like another recent release, Premature Burial's The Conjuring, and I'm sure many other, there seems to be a style emerging from the depths of Gowanus that is challenging, provocative and a bit disturbing!

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Keir Neuringer & Rafel Mazur - Diachronic Paths (Relative Pitch, 2016) ****

Another recording of a long standing duo, Philadelphia-based saxophonist Keir Neuringer and Kraków-based bassist Rafal Mazur deliver an extraordinary album with Diachronic Paths.

The recording is split into six tracks. Taking the album title literally, each a 'path' would seem to suggest a study, or a variation, of how language changes through time. Over the years that this duo has made music together, they have developed a kinetic approach that is as personal as it is inspiring. With the peeling sounds of circular breathing and the occasional honk of the alto saxophone along with the 16th note runs and choice chord voicing on the bass guitar, the sheer amount of musical ideas that pours forth is vital and fresh from the initial to the final path.

For example, the 'Third Path': the track begins with Neuringer playing an extended tone, it's imperfect in that it wavers and trills come and go, but all the while, Mazur is darting about, playing above and below the line set by Neuringer's single-minded note. This type of energetic matching of energy and ideas is a constant, they respond to each other, egg each other on, and make daring music together.

Diachronic Paths is an album that rewards repeated and attentive listening, and it a valuable documentation of a duo deep into a 17-year-old conversation. 

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Adam Pieronczyk & Miroslav Vitous - Wings (ForTune, 2015) ****

Adam Pieronczyk (tenor & soprano sax, zoucra) is a Kraków-based player with an impressive discography, and Miroslav Vitous (bass) hardly needs an introduction and is of course well known for his work with early Weather Report and more recent titles on ECM. Together, they create gentle, yet insistent improvisations on Wings.

The opening track, 'Enzo and the Blue Mermaid' starts with a bebop line as if written by Raymond Carver - there are hints of the blues, and suggestions of syncopation, but only just what is necessary. Vitous brings an undercurrent of tension to his melodic lines that Pieroncyzk reflects back and soars over. 

'Bach at Night' is a lively piece. Its framework falls away quickly as the duo participates in a trading of phrases. 'I'm Flying! I'm Flying' is introduced with a melodic hook that provides a reference point for the improvisation that follows. The restraint in which they start with gives a fiery track like 'Hanly' - which appears midway through the album - that much more power. Pieroncyzk switches to the zoucra for this one which from what I can tell sounds like a double reed instrument, and its unusual tonality is a nice change.

I know I'm coming to this recording a bit late, as it was released in December, however, Wings is a wonderful album that requires patient and dedicated listening. It doesn't jump out at first, rather it suggests a story that fills in over time.

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Tobias Brügge Matthew Grigg Duo - Vocabularies (Unknown Tongue, 2016) ****

Adopting the practice of dedicating songs - or tracks - to their inspirations, Tobias Brügge (saxophone) and Mathew Grigg (guitar/amplifier) deliver a wide-range of ideas on this release from Unknown Tongues. The improvisations styles range from lowercase passages to explosive forays. The flow of brittle intersections of sax and guitar to powerful scorched earth moments is both organic and born from a certain extrasensory perception.

Vocabularies begins with 'Peace & Fire (for Mats Gustafson)'. There is an interesting contrast between Brügge who uses short phrases to connect with Griggs' textural approach as the track begins. After a moment of quiet, they launch into an exploration of 'small' sounds, like the pops and clicks of the sax's mouthpiece and the pluck of strings on the other side of the guitar's bridge. They then slowly re-build momentum into longer, denser passages. 'Arch Duo (for Derek and Evan)' begins with much drama - Brügge's sax leaping from the speaker and Griggs' guitar particularly snarling, capturing perhaps the well know energies in the partnership of Evan Parker and Derek Bailey.

In distilling the creative spark of their influences, the duo of Brügge and Grigg develop their own challenging and rewarding music.

Matthew Grigg has been a contributor to the blog, check out some of his reviews here.

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John Butcher / Paal Nilssen-Love - Concentric (Clean Feed, 2016) ****

Clean Feed's re-release of Concentric is an unexpected and welcome re-addition to its catalog! First released in 2006, the sax and drum duo of John Butcher and Paal Nilssen-Love is an expansive collaborative exploration of music and sound that needs to be heard.

Butcher is a master of the saxophone - both musically and technically. His unfettered idiosyncratic approach mixes short rhythmic attacks, otherworldly sounds, and unusually constructed melodic passages into cohesive and often evocative statements. Love - an extraordinary percussionist and band leader - compliments the saxophonist with inventive and responsive percussion, matching and contrasting moods, tempos, and textures. Concentric is also a nice companion to Love's well-documented duo work with both Ken Vandermark and Joe McPhee, as it showcases yet another unique and virtuosic approach to the duo.

Definitely worth discovering or rediscovering, Concentric is replete with fascinating sounds and textures - a riveting set of duos!

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Paul Dunmall & Tony Bianco – Autumn (FMR, 2014) ****½

So, to wrap up this series of reviews, I wanted to pick up on an excellent recording that has been eluding my 'pen' for a bit too long.

Paul Dunmall (sax) and Tony Bianco (drums) are another long-standing duo that operates more in the 'fire-music' mode of free jazz. Their partnership has produced several tributes to John Coltrane, modeled after the seminal drum and sax pairing of Rashied Ali and Coltrane.

Dunmall's playing is absolutely captivating, he has an intensity of sound that rises like a high tide, and as its waves break over you, its undertow will sweep you out into the rising ocean. Recorded at Delbury Hall, in Shropshire, England in November 2014, the first two tracks of Autumn are teasers, brimming with life, their condensed arcs set expectations for the half hour "Autumn", which again features Dunmall's effortless flow of ideas and notes, the absolutely air-tight connection between himself and Bianco.

If you haven't heard this one yet, do yourself a favor ...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Garrison Fewell & Gianni Mimmo – Flawless Dust (Long Song Records, 2016) ****

By Chris Haines

Last year Inverso, the album of duets by Garrison Fewell and Alessio Alberghini, was my top pick of the year, and completely coincidentally the review of this album was posted on the day that Garrison Fewell sadly passed on.  As a wonderful guitarist, Fewell was an expert accompanist, giving just the right support to those he played with whilst allowing them the space to soar and sound magnificent. He was also an outstanding soloist and could easily traverse the line between playing standard material as well as more out-there excursions and flights of fancy.

It is therefore very satisfying to welcome another set of recordings into the canon of his work.  Flawless Dust is another set of duets and another chance to hear this late and great guitarist in an intimate setting, this time with soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo.

The album starts with the title track, and the same subtlety that the Inverso pieces had, with Fewell bobbling and sliding a ‘found object’ on the open strings of his guitar, whilst Mimmo gradually enters over the course of the piece initially with multiphonic tones that sound more akin to electronic feedback.  These then blend with the notion of the electric guitar and the expectation of it, whilst creating a sustained contrast to Fewell’s higgledy-piggledy sounds.

In contrast to this is the next track ‘Song’, with Mimmo playing a free melodic line whilst Fewell accompanies underneath with some quick and choppy chords played chromatically in progression, before providing an atonal countermelody to Mimmo’s.  Having moved from sound based improv, with emphasis on texture, we now find ourselves in a short and traditional piece, in the sense of melodies, harmonies and instrumental roles that are liberated from tonality in its strictest sense.

These points, just from these first two tracks seem to create stylistic markers for the album, with subtle and discreet playing, textural based improv and explorative melodic passages forming the key areas within the music.  Flawless Dust consists of ten tracks of variable length, from the short and concise nature of “Other Chat” at just over a minute to the fourteen minutes of “A Floating Caravan” with its sparse nature of exotic sounds that conjure up the image of a slow trek through an arid desert, with added percussion in bells and Mimmo producing flute-like tones, whilst Fewell plays his guitar more like a hammered dulcimer.

Flawless Dust is an interesting and creative set of dialogues that are both fluid in their execution and uncompromising in their direction.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Michael Bisio & Kirk Knuffke – Row for William O. (Relative Pitch, 2016) ****

By Eric McDowell

Following last year’s excellent Accortet, Michael Bisio and Kirk Knuffke are back together in the Relative Pitch catalogue—this time as a duo—with Row for William O. Better known in the jazz canon as Bill Smith, the clarinetist, composer, and teacher (Bisio’s) to whom the album is dedicated also holds parallel status in the modern classical world, where he identifies as William O. Smith. This strictly demarcated either/or divide between jazz and classical is perhaps belied by Smith’s association with the both/and Third Stream genre (for example his “Schizophrenic Scherzo,” composed for the Dave Brubeck Octet). A sense of balance and blend surfaces here not in style of the music but in the playing itself, which is as consonant as the album title’s rhyme and evocative of its image: Bisio and Knuffke both “rowing” with equal effort to keep the course true.

I’ve been in love with Bisio’s playing since first seeing him live with Matthew Shipp a few years ago. His approach to the bass has an energy and versatility that suits it well to the responsibility and attention required of and afforded by the duo (or even solo) setting. Whoever he’s with, Bisio is an intensely focused and deliberate musician, which allows him to achieve and maintain a profound sense of presence on his instrument. In some places, this means letting single tones hang and decay, as in the middle part of the title track. In others, as in his solo on “Oh See O.C.,” it means deploying a relentless barrage of notes (in this case building toward an obligatory but pleasingly deft “Lonely Woman” quote). His arco playing can be rich and densely textured at one moment and nimbly syncopated the next—for evidence see the album’s final track. Bisio’s ability to shift fluidly and convincingly from any one of these modes to another is part of the captivating magic of listening to him play. And yet for all his virtuosic capability and improvisational prowess, it should be noted that Bisio isn’t too proud either to lay down a straightforward walking line—which he manages to make as absorbing as anything else, the way great drummers can outplay technical show-offs with simple quarter notes on the ride.

In theory, this is where Knuffke has room to step in, but in practice, he finds his own openings. His cornet tone is intimate, almost dry, but not without bite, leaning sometimes towards the tactile (“December”), sometimes towards the lyrical and outright jazzy, as on the theme of the opener, “Drago,” or on the cathartic heights during the Neruda-inspired “I Want to Do to You What Spring Does to Cherry Trees.” A solo spotlight at the beginning of the final track “To Birds” further highlights Knuffke’s playing nicely. Ultimately, though, while the possible gradations of interactive dynamics in improvisation are many, my favorite moments on Row for William O. are those that ground the album’s overarching principle of tribute and influence on a concrete, fundamental level. These are the moments, again, of consonance, mutual reflection, and “rhyme,” where Bisio and Knuffke pay homage not only to Bill Smith (and to Ornette, and to Neruda, and to…) but also, in their sensitive interactions, to each other.

Row for William O. will be released on May 20.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Nine/Two at Constellation (Constellation, 2015) ***½

By Eric McDowell

The title of this compilation album refers to nine short duo sets recorded at Mike Reed’s important Chicago venue on September 2, 2015. With eighteen different local musicians of varying prominence in intimate pairings—some improvising through first-time meetings, others playing familiar compositions—the album’s risk is that its advantages and drawbacks can look (sound) alike. Last year, Makaya McCraven’s In the Moment (also recorded live in Chicago and featuring several Nine/Two contributors) enjoyed the benefit of culling the best moments of a year’s worth of gigs yet lost points in some people’s books for the resultant sense of fragmentation and incompletion. Though its premise is fundamentally different (many musicians playing one night vs. one musician playing many nights), Nine/Two is likely to run into similar combination of praise and criticism: the parts are solid, but the whole may be scattered. As a sampler, it’s fantastic—but does it amount to more than that?

Whoever compiled the nine tracks was smart to capitalize on the inherent variety and diversity available to give the album shape. (It’s also possible that the tracks are presented in the order they were played in, which would mean the musicians themselves were responsible for interacting not only with their immediate partners but also with the other duos—I suppose this is true to some degree in any case.) Either way, considering the whole over the parts highlights the contrasts between the sets, for example from guitarist Oscar Jan Hoogland and drummer Ryan Packard’s weird and frantic three-minute improvisation (track four) to bassist Katie Ernst and clarinetist James Falzone’s lyrically graceful ten-minute back-to-back pair of compositions (track five). Or compare Katherine Young and Amy Cimini’s awesomely eerie bassoon and viola improvisation, full of inventive textures and smoldering tension, to the follow-up composition by pianist Dan Pierson and bassist Charlie Kirchen, rhythmically playful and harmonically satisfying.

None of the above is to undersell the compilation’s individual highlights. The usual suspects of the Chicago scene don’t fail to deliver—see the opening set between Joshua Abrams and Dave Rempis, Keefe Jackson and Jason Adasiewicz’s in the middle, or Mike Reed and Jeff Parker’s towards the end. But I suspect that ultimately my favorite use for Nine/Two will be as an entry point into the work of some musicians whose names are new to me. In addition to some musicians already mentioned, Steve Marquette and his Derek Bailey-inspired guitar playing (in duet with drummer Charles Rumback) will go on my list of players to look out for. And perhaps my favorite duet of all comes from Ben LaMar Gay (trumpet/vocals) and Will Faber (guitar/electronics), a soulful, probing improvisation that speaks to a history of collaboration together that promises to reward exploration. Whereas the beauty and intensity of some of the tracks on the album comes in part from their fleetingness, even at eleven minutes this duet feels too short, leaving the listener tempted to go start looking for more and save the rest of Nine/Two at Constellation for later.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey – Buoyancy (Relative Pitch, 2016) ****½

By Troy Dostert

Recorded at the end of a 2014 US tour, Buoyancy is the second duo release from saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey, a team who have collaborated on so many recordings that it’s really gotten hard to keep track of them all. Last year they played together on at least three records, including Laubrock’s Ubatuba project  and the under-recognized trio album Hotel Grief  (with Mary Halvorson). What’s clear in this more intimate format is the undeniable rapport Laubrock and Rainey possess, as their lines and ideas weave and develop through close conversation on each of these four freely-improvised tracks. Although the album feels relatively brief, at just under 45 minutes, there’s a lot of fine music on hand.

Laubrock is someone who seems to become more compelling with each recording. She has more than enough chops to hold her own with any of the fire-breathers, but she also brings a vital musical sensibility to her playing, with well-crafted phrases that always reveal a thoughtful logic. Listen to her bluesy sound at the opening of the title track, for instance: self-assured, languid lines that subtly begin to dance over the top of Rainey’s supportive contributions on the ride cymbal. And as Laubrock gradually moves into a more rhythmic, punchy mode, Rainey is right there to follow, creating an almost martial pulse as he elevates his volume and dynamism to match Laubrock’s. The ebb and flow of the track, whether in its quieter moments or in its more pulse-quickening ones, is always informed by the players’ impeccable sense of purpose and intuitive knowledge of what “fits” – clearly the result of years of shared music-making and a well-honed musical vision.

Other moments on the record are startling in their understated minimalism and delicacy: listen to the opening of the second cut, “Twenty Lanes,” as Rainey goes to his bag of tricks (crumpled paper, perhaps, and/or brushes) to make some unsettling sounds on the snare while Laubrock teases out long, sustained, barely-there notes. Or the album’s closer, “Thunderbird,” ironically titled as the track consists largely of Laubrock’s breathy, low-register drones, with Rainey offering only the most subdued support on brushes again, along with the occasional strike of a cymbal or a drum or two. It takes confidence to produce music that is so restrained and comfortable with space and openness, and it’s a tribute to these superb musicians that these moments seem so seamlessly integrated with their more feisty ones. This is a wonderful recording, well worth repeated listenings.