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Kaja Draksler/Eve Risser (p)

BASF Gesellschaftshaus, Ludwigshafen, 10/11/2018. Photo by Martin Schray.

Tom Rainey Obbligato

Tom Rainey (dr), Ingrid Laubrock (ts), Ralph Alessi (tp), Drew Gress (b), Jacob Sacks (p); Karlsruhe, ZKM, 10/12/2018. Photo by Martin Schray.

Luc Houtkamp (cl) and Martin Blume (dr)

Manufaktur, Schorndorf, 10/5/2018. Photo by Martin Schray

The Attic: Gonçalo Almeida (b), Rodrigo Amado (ts), Onno Govaert (dr)

Bonn, Dialograum Kreuzung an St. Helena. August 2018. Photo by Martin Schray

Vario 34: Paul Lovens (dr), Alexander Frangenheim (ba), Mats-olof Gustafsson (sa), Thomas Lehn (el), Günter Christmann (ce)

studioboerne45, Berlin Germany, August 2018. Photo By Cristina Marx

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Denman Maroney, Leroy Jenkins, Rich O’Donnell - Unknown Unknowns (Live) (2018, self-released) ****½

By Keith Prosk

Maroney (“hyperpiano”), Jenkins (violin), and O’Donnell (percussion) have appeared together before on Leroy Jenkins’ Driftwood’s 2005 The Art of Improvisation, also featuring Min Xiao-Fen on pipa. Recorded in 2004, it is among Jenkins’ last recorded performances and in the midst of Maroney’s fruitful partnerships with Mark Dresser and Ned Rothenberg. Both recordings display a mastery of musical time, space, timbre, and soul but, whereas the primary draw of The Art of Improvisation’s succinct 42 minutes is the interplay of Min and Jenkins, Unknown Unknowns’ 149 minutes provides a fuller exploration of the core trio’s communicative capabilities.

Unknown Unknowns is comprised of two sets. The first, “Cooler in the Shade,” covers 85 minutes across six tracks and was recorded in 2003 as part of the New York music series of the same name. The first track provides a digest of what this group is about: Jenkins bows haunting vamps, allowing Maroney and O’Donnell to timbrally run wild, until eventually the trio converges and then they’re off, guiding each other through changes in structure and volume and space until climaxing with Jenkins sawing, with O’Donnell scraping cymbals and drum heads, with Maroney producing what sounds like a circus organ of nightmares. Jenkins’ fusion of jazz, blues, classical, and gospel is here along with the full gamut of extended techniques for violin. When O’Donnell isn’t matching the stringy timbres of Maroney and Jenkins, his playful technique reminds me of Gerry Hemingway and Gunter Sommer. And Maroney’s tonal transmogrification of the piano is on full display. The next three tracks are modular performances recalling the beginning of Cecil Taylor’s One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, with duos of Maroney/O’Donnell, Jenkins/Maroney, and Jenkins/O’Donnell, before the united trio returns for the last two tracks. The second set, “New Music Circle,” covers 64 minutes across four tracks and was recorded in 2005 as part of the St. Louis music series of the same name, of which O’Donnell was music director at the time of recording. The set demonstrates a continued exploration of the dynamics presented on both “Cooler in the Shade” and The Art of Improvisation, but the trio is more instantly reactive to each other here and able to satisfactorily express their language much more efficiently.

Each set stands alone perfectly. However, if you can spare two and a half hours, the release is not exhausting like some longer releases can be. It’s a varied journey that could be mentioned in the same breath as Jenkins’ solo, Revolutionary Ensemble, and AACM outings, or Maroney’s work with Mark Dresser, Ned Rothenberg, and Hans Tammen.

Unknown Unknowns (Live) is a digital-only release.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rempis / Piet / Daisy - Throw Tomatoes (Astral Spirits, 2018) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Last year, Dave Rempis, Matt Piet, and Tim Daisy debuted their new trio with Hit the Ground Running and Cure for the Quotidian, two excellent sessions that impressed several reviewers of this blog. Now they’re back with Throw Tomatoes, which features the group’s third and fourth shows together. Altogether, the three releases tell the story of less than a year’s worth of collaboration, improvisation, and inspiration. Beginning with Cure for the Quotidian, recorded November 9, 2016, continuing with Hit the Ground Running, January 21, 2017 (a pair of auspicious dates here in the States), and picking up with May 8 and July 2, 2017.

On “To Play Is the Thing,” recorded last May at Chicago’s Elastic Arts, Daisy opens with melodic cymbals, introducing and accompanying Piet. As we’ve discussed here numerous times, Daisy is a remarkably musical performer, with a style and approach that defies the personnel listing “drums” (just as Rempis is much more than “saxophones” and Piet beyond “piano”). Rempis enters a couple minutes in, and the three tackle a circular, pointillist interlude, with Piet employing some preparations.

It’s not just the name Matthew that brings to mind Shipp in Piet’s playing. There’s a similar depth to Piet’s approach to the piano as a complete instrument, with the full range of its keyboard and dynamics simultaneously deployed, as on his first solo section in “The Thousand Natural Shocks,” recorded at The Hungry Brain last July. Daisy is in a particularly driving mood on this date, shifting into a mellow swing at one point, before urging Rempis and Piet back into high gear. All three seem to be constantly supporting, poking, and prodding each other.

In the liner notes, Piet writes about a moment near the 20-minute mark of “To Play Is the Thing,” when he and Daisy tried to end the performance. Daisy adds some solid punctuation to Piet’s playing, but in context it does sound unfinished without Rempis. The proper ending is much weirder and more surprising, and therefore apt.

I mentioned to someone recently that Rempis has reached a new stage in his playing. Maybe it’s the modern horror show we’ve been cast in against our will, but I’d mark Perihelion as the point when something notable changed. For a saxophonist who always seemed capable of doing anything, Rempis now does absolutely everything. Throughout the album, Rempis plays with an open, fluid voice, which pairs well with Daisy’s resonant pitches and warm rhythms. And his sly references and unvarnished fury cut straight through Chicago’s thick night air.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Albert Cirera / Abdul Moimême / Alvaro Rosso - Dissection Room (Creative Sources, 2018) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Lisbon-based trio of Catalan sax player Albert Cirera, Portuguese prepared electric guitar player Abdul Moimême and Uruguayan double bass player Alvaro Rosso, also known as the AAA Trio, was established in 2015. The debut album of this trio was recorded live at the experimental space of Lisbon, O'Culto da Ajuda, on December 2017.

The title Dissection Room already suggests the approach of these fearless improvisers - a methodical exploration, deconstruction and reconstruction of various extended techniques, never surrendering to the known and the familiar. Cirera, Moimême and Rosso are seated and each on his own highly independent way investigates the uncharted, topographical organs of this free-improvised body of music. This kind of Frankenstein, mad sonic scientists approach promises an uncompromising, demanding and often otherworldly journey. But, somehow, as Stuart Broomer comments in his insightful liner notes (the notes are titled after John Dryden’s poem “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day”, the patroness of musicians), throughout the fragile and reserved interplay Cirera, Moimême and Rosso still communicate and weave a “shroud of harmonics, a transparent veil through which one another’s activities pass discreetly”.

Cirera, Moimême and Rosso use different kinds of objects to alter and expand the sonic range of their instruments. Cirera injects objects into the bells of his tenor and soprano saxes and sketches fractured, percussive patterns, He also employs extended breathing techniques that introduce electric-ethereal drones. The prepared guitar of Moimême has nothing common with an electric guitar. It becomes an imaginative sonic lab with a vulnerable and tangible resonating entity. The extended bowing techniques of Rosso dig tortured sounds, and more tortured overtones and cries from the double bass, transforming it to an instrument with a seductive, human voice. Mid-piece, around the 28-minute mark, as Broomer adds, something happens, a sudden blackout, and the interplay instantly shifts to a nervous and urgent mode. From this moment on Cirera, Moimême and Rosso begin to build the climax, injecting more bizarre components, confront wild hallucinations and struggle with frightening colors and shades of this Frankenstein body of music.

But when you dive deeper and deeper into this music, allowing your ears to grow to it, you may realize that this kind of Frankenstein music is highly addictive.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Bobby Naughton/ Leo Smith/ Perry Robinson - The Haunt (No Business, 2018) ****

By Stuart Broomer

Lithuania’s No Business label has a fine track record for bringing lost music to light, and this 1976 session led by vibraphonist Bobby Naughton is an excellent example. Naughton became interested in free jazz in the late 1960s, meeting clarinetist Perry Robinson in New York, and was active in the loft scene of the 1970s. He met trumpeter Leo Smith in Connecticut and would appear with some regularity in Smith’s ensembles of the ‘70s and ’80s. Naughton had a few credits on some other major recordings as well, including documents of Anthony Braxton’s 1978 European Creative Orchestra and his Ensemble (Victoriaville) 1988 and recordings by Roscoe Mitchell and Mario Pavone. Much of Naughton’s time, however, has been spent away from music, earning a living as a locksmith before recently returning to music. In the 1970s he released a few recordings on his own OTIC label, of which The Haunt is the first to appear on CD. Hailed on its first release, it’s a lost masterpiece by musicians of the first rank.

It’s a music based on keen familiarity. The absence of anything like a rhythm section immediately places it in the special creative lineage of the chamber jazz avant-garde, one that began with the Jimmy Giuffre Three circa 1961 with Steve Swallow and Paul Bley and developed with the Creative Construction Company of Anthony Braxton, Smith and Leroy Jenkins. The pieces heard here are all Naughton‘s compositions—pieces in which written and improvised elements flow together, whether the movement is from composed ensemble to solo or collective improvisation. Naughton’s works here are distinguished by an abstracted lyricism, a floating quality with an immediately engaging collective sonority. There’s literally nowhere to hide in this music, with each voice cast in high relief whether in solo or ensemble.

In the first moments of the opening title track, the three voices arrive alone, first Robinson with a keening wail and a wide vibrato that will link him to Sidney Bechet, albeit by way of Albert Ayler, then Smith, lower, more reflective, assembling materials, then Naughton, pianistic rather than percussive, notes ringing under the others. Some of his writing here has an Ornette Coleman feel, a vocal and rhythmic inflection that lives here even without bass and drums. On “The Weight” and “Slant” the improvisation is insistently collective, a spirit of continuous creative dialogue shaping the music. Sustained individual statements arise on the pensive “Places,” first Smith, all concentration, then Robinson tending always toward flight, even here sounding like his clarinet might come untethered and soar, but instead fading gently into a collective passage that’s literally both improvisation and theme (Robinson eventually explodes into wild squiggling lines in the upper register, but it takes an added alternate take of “Slant”). That commitment to Naughton’s music is evident everywhere here, arising again in the quietly intense, naked knitting of sounds that distinguishes “Rose Island.” By the time one reaches “Ordette,” the final track in the original LP configuration, the album’s cumulative identity is so strong that you feel the presence of the trio even in the series of unaccompanied solos, the music assuming its shape in the concentrated presence of the other musicians.

The special challenge presented by The Haunt’s spare, subtle intensity may be what has kept it so alive during its decades of neglect.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Kirk Knuffke/ Ben Goldberg - Uncompahgre (Relative Pitch Records, 2018) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Uncompahgre is the sixth highest peak in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The word is from the Ute language and means "dirty water", in reference to the red spring water from the area. I don't know if this was flowing through the minds of cornetist Kirk Knuffke and clarinetist Ben Goldberg when they got together and came up with these set of improvisations, but the music that poured forth was subsequently named Saguache, Basalt, Blue River, La Junta, Ouray, Gypsum, Rocky Ford, Leadville, Granby, De Beque, Paonia, Fairplay, Carbondale, and Cortez. A little more digging and I realized both Knuffke and Goldberg come from Denver, and the titles were a homage to their origins.

What bubbled to the surface is the product of forces that operate deep in the core, culminating in a series of miniatures - 'Granby' is the longest at a smidge over 5 minutes, while the closer, 'Cortez', clocks in at less than a minute. These improvisations are succinct but whole ideas, no fluff, nothing over staying, no searching for 'the moment', it's the work of two masterful musicians engaged in an effortless dialog.

Both Goldberg and Knuffke have many duo recordings to their name - Goldberg recently released Practitioner, which was an interpretation of saxophonist Steve Lacy's Hocus Pocus. There is also the recent release with pianist Myra Melford, Dialogue, and his Clarinet and Drums duet with Hamir Atwal. Knuffke released the excellent Fierce Silence with drummer Whit Dickey in 2016, and the absorbing Moon with Karl Berger in 2015, among others. So both are well versed in the spontaneous dialog of the duo format, and the listening, reacting, and empathy it takes to make such an intimate type of recording.

The album begins with 'Saguache', following a snippet of dialog. Goldberg's lone clarinet plays a climbing etude with a bluesy ellipses at the end two times though and then Knuffke joins, responding but also taking the idea in a slightly different direction. The two are off and the musical chemistry is obvious. Keeping upbeat and bouncing rhythmically, Goldberg's theme appears over and over, though never quite the same, as Knuffke chases several ideas to their end, only to return to the core and start again. 'Basalt' follows, and it begins on the squeakier side of things, but settles into long held notes, interspersed with melodic figures. 'Blue River' begins again with Goldberg, a trilling and vibrant melodic figure, a cross between a scale and bat flying too and fro during dusk. Knuffke offers a melody that touches in that place where it's almost familiar, but at the same time, it's nothing you have ever heard before. Here, Goldberg offers choice accompaniment - spare and effective - to give the cornetist something to work from.

As previously mentioned, the camaraderie is apparent from the get-go, but as they get further into the recording, they seem to grow even more comfortable and willing to stretch out. 'Gypsum' is a laid-back affair with an evolving theme, and featuring a vulnerable sounding clarinet counter melody to the cornet's legato tones. 'Rocky Ford,' the follow up, was most likely just a marker made in post production, as the ideas seamlessly flow, until finally petering out with the clarinet. Fast-forwarding ahead almost to the end, 'Carbondale' finds the two reprising the swinging types of lines, laden with blue notes, that the recording opened with all the way back in 'Saguache'. The 54-second 'Cortez' offers a succinct closing statement from Goldberg, where he seems to play the reverse sequence of the album's opening arpeggio.

Unlike the place, Uncompahgre, the album, is a crystal clear flow of ideas and spontaneous duets, featuring the technical prowess and musical compatibility of two top notch musicians, and is sure to find a featured space in your collection.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Vergara/Jackson/Baker/Sudderberg - The Hallowed Plant (Relative Pitch Records, 2018) ****

By Alexander Dubovoy

When I first listened to The Hallowed Plant, I was immediately captivated. It’s a work that grabbed my attention and made immediate, intuitive sense. It seems that that the artists had a similar experience; after all, the band recorded it after having only played together twice previously. Chilean trumpeter Benjamín Vergara (trumpet) traveled to Chicago a few years ago and met Chicago-based musicians Keefe Jackson (reeds), Jim Baker (piano/synthesizer), and Phil Sudderberg (drums). It seems the connection was instant, and the music that resulted excellent.

One of the characteristics that makes this album special, and one of the reasons why it is immediately relatable, is the obvious chemistry between Vergara and Baker. The first track (“The Halloween Plant”) begins with just the two of them. They have an unusual knack for combining trumpet and saxophone, playing simultaneously and egging each other on, yet maintaining an expansive concept of space and never overpowering the other.

As Baker and Sudderberg join, it is apparent that this band really understands texture. Though the album contains great melodic content, small shifts in texture drive the organic evolution of each improvisation. Take the second track, “This moves to that” for example. It begins with a dense and jagged set of rhythmic gestures. Over time, the band unexpectedly coalesces around a tonal center and meter, and the piece becomes a sort of abstract blues. It is this sort of shift that makes me appreciate that the album is completely improvised. Each piece is formally concrete, as though intricately planned but comprehensible as such only through the privilege of hindsight.

On the final track “La Repentina Ola”, Baker switches to synthesizer, introducing a new type of spectral exploration to the album. With this change, the band reaches even higher levels of fire. Eventually, however, the music simmers down to excruciating near-silence and a satisfying end. The Hallowed Plant is a concise and well-executed musical statement. After just 30 minutes, it ends where it should, but somehow I can’t help wanting more.


Sadly, Relative Pitch Records's co-founder Mike Panico passed away tragically last week. He has left quite a legacy, and one for which we are grateful. We wish his label co-founder Kevin Reilly the best in continuing the label's support of challenging and exceptional music.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Tyshawn Sorey - Pillars (Firehouse 12, 2018) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Tyshawn Sorey returned to Firehouse 12 Records for his latest, Pillars, which seems an appropriate reunion given the scale. Sorey’s debut, that/not, was a “this is who I am” artistic statement that still resonates. For Pillars, Sorey assembled a mighty octet, with Stephen Haynes on trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, and small percussion; Ben Gerstein on trombone and melodica; Todd Neufeld and Joe Morris on guitar; and Morris, Carl Testa, Mark Helias, and Zach Rowden all on double bass. Sorey adds drum set, percussion, trombone, and dungchen, a horn used predominantly by Tibetan Buddhists (though the sound is markedly different, I was reminded of the Jewish shofar, the blowing of which is both sacred and symbolic). The music displays all the hallmarks of Sorey’s composing, but in a highly focused, distilled format, which might appear counter to the size of the group. Nevertheless, there’s something clarifying about Sorey’s art that really clicks on a recording of this length.

Of course, Sorey himself is just one element of this album’s brilliance. The entire group delivers some incredible playing. Haynes, reunited with Morris, who played on the masterful Pomegranate, pairs expertly with Gerstein, who has recorded with Sorey for over a decade. The two primary horn players perform several stunning push-pull-push improvisations. These burning passages are balanced by long stretches of where one or all members of the supporting bass quartet—Morris, Testa, Helias, and Rowden—take center stage. Take the first several minutes of “Pillars II,” with its darting, aching bass lines bouncing rapidly off each other, almost Xenakis-like. And just to capture another key moment, late in “Pillars III” is a sparse, abstract Neufeld solo that harkens back to some of the excellent albums he and Sorey have recorded.

In the liner notes to his guitar trio album Koan, Sorey talked about the different ways we perceive time and sound. I was reminded, as I often am, of Masahiko Togashi, whose album Speed and Space names the other two axes upon which one could chart Sorey’s four-dimensional work. Like Sorey, Togashi also seemed to perform in multiple dimensions at once, using silence as a powerful compositional element. His late ‘70s albums, like Voice From Yonder and Story of Wind Behind Left were a couple of albums brought to mind by this octet’s excellent performance. There’s also an unmistakable connection with Bill Dixon—through label, design, and scope, Pillars is a recognizable cousin to Tapestries for Small Orchestra, but I was also reminded of Dixon’s Considerations 1 and 2. Like Dixon, Sorey’s work always feels incredibly personal, whether he is the one playing at that moment or not. And here that’s partly due to his conducting, which has grown into a wholly unique expression of Sorey’s ideas. You can hear this on Matt Mitchell’s A Pouting Grimace, and especially towards the end of “Pillars I” and the middle of “Pillars II” come sections defined more by overall movement that seem defined by Sorey’s conduction.

Okay, yes, the album is massive, thick and heady, with ideas atomically colliding. But it’s also music to simply listen to, which is one aspect of Pillars that shouldn’t be ignored. You can dive headlong or simply dip in and out of the album, let the music filter in from wherever it’s playing, leave the room and come back at a wildly new section. Much like Max Richter’s similarly beautiful Sleep, perhaps you’ll never listen to the whole album straight through. But it’s not enough just to know it’s there when you need it, you have to start by letting it in.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Chaos Echoes & Mats Gustafsson - Sustain (Utech, 2018) *****

By Stef Gijssels

Breaking boundaries, destroying preconceived notions, and then building up something new entirely is often a high risk, but when it works, as it does on this album, the result can be an absolutely unique listening experience.

The French avant-garde death metal rock band "Chaos Echoes" invited Mats Gustafsson to add his part over an improvised performance by the band, already recorded in November 2016. Gustafsson, recorded his parts with Andreas Werliin at RUD Studio in Stockholm, Sweden in May 2017, and the final result was again remixed in France. A rare approach, but not unique, and more importantly: the outcome is nothing short of spectacular.

The band are guitarist Kalevi Uibo, his drummer brother Ilmar Uibo, bassist Stefan Thanneur and second guitarist Fabien W. Furter. The 45' vinyl album or cassette offers two sides of only 12 minutes each. And that is the only disappointment of the release, that it's so short.

The first track, "Spellbound", creates a crushing, slow eery wall of sound, with hard to identify instruments, in a long shifting drone, over which Gustafsson's baritone hovers full of agony and despair. We are in a sonic environment from which there is no escape. It is harsh, subdued and intrinsically violent, intense and measured.

The second part, "Harvest Of Souls", starts with the most incredible collective power beats, hammering in all the energy of the band in slow, precise measures. It qualifies as one of the darkest pieces of music I have ever heard, ominous, apocalyptic, haunting, and built over a steady repetitive drum beat, that gives the whole sound a level of inevitability like time progressing.

Gustafsson is his magnificent self: well-paced, precise and howling and roaring like only he can do it, expressing all the deepest emotions of torment and doom and pain that he can muster. And the French band is throughout at the same high level, keeping the unique sound steady and terrifying, without losing themselves in unnecessary excursions, which gives the whole improvisation that compact and coherent sense of direction that the listener's last minute is arriving, steadily, slowly, in all its horrifying terror.

The limited editions vinyl and cassette are probably already sold out, but the digital version is available on Bandcamp.

Don't miss this!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Full Blast: Live at Cafe Oto 10/4/2018

Photo from
By Sammy Stein

Full Blast are Marino Pliakas on bass, Michael Wertmueller on drums and Peter Brotzmann on reeds. Together this trio deliver something very special. From the first note, the intent is clear - devastating sound delivered either at full throttle, full volume or cut back, suddenly falling into near silence with an almost aching, searching quality.

Once the music started, it mattered not a jot the setting, the space or the place. Close your eyes for a moment and you were lost, borne away on the driving, full pelt drive that is Full Blast on top form. Drums vying with the bass, fast, powerful and together with the sax, clarinet and other reeds the magnitude, momentum and noise build and build. Walls of sound, loud, relentless, wave after wave becoming ever more textured, sonorous and then suddenly, at some sensed moment dropping down with the suddenness of an axe to leave the sax or clarinet emotively searching, climbing scales and descending, over the top of a low volume thrumming bass and tremulous drums. The points of these changes were dictated by some kind of intellectual and musical connection unfathomable yet perfectly placed, as if the listener was provided with that which their hearts secretly knew was coming and expected, now made whole, a gift from the ensemble.

Marino Pliakas is mesmeric on bass, his fingers racing up and down the frets and lower strings, creating patterns and waves of sound which flow out and engulf. Michael Wertmueller on drums is sensitive to the tiniest change in atmosphere and will change accordingly yet is also not afraid to dictate a change of tempo and noise, which the others follow. At times, the heavy rock style of both players felt like a competition in noise and speed. Then, effortlessly stealing the stage with his eyes shut tight, there is Peter Brotzmann.

Somewhere between the time the air leaves his lungs, is controlled by his lips and tongue, enters, travels through and exits his instrument, alchemy takes place. Molecules of ordinary air have been squeezed, pushed together and transformed into things of beauty and power. They can now deliver ferocious passion and emotion which enters souls, whether playing loud and fast or exquisitely gently and emotively, Peter Brotzmann delivers with a strength still as magnificent as when he started.
At times, the bass and drums turned up the volume enough to literally make the floor of the packed Cafe Oto shake, yet they too displayed a sense of perception which showed a trio in total communication on stage, something which the audience could not fail to pick up.

Peter Brotzmann has long been the epitome of a free players, someone whose heart and history is delivered in his playing. The more you know the man, the more you understand his music and the depth of feeling which comes across. At Cafe Oto, this night there was a sense of a shift, an even deeper meaning behind the emotive playing , like we were witness to a change and the whole place felt charged and crackling. Peter's delivery, however, belied anything which may be behind that feeling and the emotion he put into his delivery was simply immense. Beautiful , prosaic interludes contrasting with forceful, rapid-fingered, overblown, searching sections are felt by even the coldest of listeners and cut through to the soul.

For Peter, as he has told me before, music is about connection and tonight he did what he does best, aided and abetted by stalwart fellow musicians. The unengaged became engaged, the inanimate stung into life, the bored interested. This was the effect of Full Blast, played at full blast.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Recent Releases from Yoni Kretzmer and Assif Tsahar

By Nick Ostrum

Consider this an unofficial companion to Eyal Hareuveni’s recent review documenting some recent output from the Israeli-American free jazz nexus. That post covers a good deal of musical territory and is high recommended. Fortunately, however, it left space for me to review some new releases by two extremely talented Israeli saxophonists: Yoni Kretzmer and Assif Tsahar.

Yoni Kretzmer’s New Dilemma – Months, Weeks and Days (OutNow Recordings, 2018) ****

Months, Weeks and Days is the second recording of Kretzmer’s New Dilemma experimental chamber group. That is, with a completely new line-up. (I guess that would make this the New New Dilemma.) Consisting of an international/New York-based line-up of Frantz Loriot on viola, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Josh Sinton on bass clarinet, Pascal Niggenkemper on double bass, and Flin van Hemmen drums, this group has a powerful sound. According to the release’s webpage, the group explores “the intricacies differentiating and combining the written and improvised.” Fair enough. In so few words, exploring how partially compose music can take on different forms with each performance, even with the same personnel and directions, is a worthy pursuit, but it is hardly new to experimental music. What is novel, however, is how well this group pulls it off.

Months, Weeks and Days spans two discs. Each song is titled after a date, presumably the date on which it was recorded or conceived. The only exception is the final track, “Tishma,” which is Hebrew for “You will listen.” Each track seems to follow the same, basic parameters. Ebb and flow. Tension and release. The glue that holds the pieces together are the long, undulating melodies and rhythmic rumblings laid by Niggenkemper, Loriot, Hoffman, and Hemmen. Sinton and Kretzmer, meanwhile, bob in and out of the baseline harmony – a harmony that is at times sweet and unified, and at times ominously discordant - with percussive clucks, muffled trills, and more pronounced melodious phrasings.

The tracks can bleed into each other. It takes an attuned ear to decipher, for instance, “March 14th” from “June 14th” once they get rolling. Although the introductions are distinctive, each track collapses into dense, oscillating swells of sound. This similarity, however, does not imply sameness or monotony. Each track has its own feel and expression. This is where the contemporary chamber/new music inspiration really shines through. The tracks have movements of inexact repetition and incremental melodic development. The jazz appears in the more spirited sax and clarinet edifice continually reconstructed atop that protean chamber foundation. The result is deeply engaging and is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Thomas Heberer, Yoni Kretzmer, Christian Weber – Big (OutNow Recordings, 2018) ***½

This album is a marked departure from Months. It is “big” (as per the title) but not big not in the sense of length or loudness. Rather it is big in the sense of vastness, of the balance of quiet and sound, of concepts, of alternating energy and restraint. The first stand-out track is “Münchhausen Trilemma,” a piece that begins with punctuated clucks, squeaks, and plucks, but evolves into a disorienting series of rapid swings from calming extended passages to buzzes, quiet breath, and frantic screams. The extreme upper and lower registers are often present, even when just ominously skulking in the background. The piece then ends in a lamentation imbued with either peace or resignation. “The Sky Above” serves as a counterpoint to the cacophony and fluctuations of “Münchhausen.” It begins with contemplative drones that seem to mimic the slow, serene passage of clouds overhead. Not much happens (or, rather, the dynamics are subtle), but the piece still draw the attention and imagination as one hears forms seamlessly develop and dissipate. The final track, “Everyone in the Cemetery is Dead,” is the longest and serves as a fitting end. As the name implies, this track is spirited, but mournful. At times, Kretzmer sounds like he’s invoking Albert Ayler or maybe even Tsahar, with whom he had studied; Heberer, like “Sketches of Spain”-era Miles Davis. For his part, Weber provides at first the thuds and walking bass, then the mournful arco that anchor the track.

Big does not make any definitive statement, nor does it intend to. Especially in this age of digital distribution, there is ample space for provocative recordings like this, sessions where three talented and accomplished musicians sit down and simply work through ideas through dialogical improvisation. It does not always work out. On this album, however, it does.

Assif Tsahar, William Parker, Hamid Drake – In Between the Tumbling a Stillness (Hopscotch Records, 2018) *****

Let me start by saying In Between the Tumbling a Stillness exceeded my already elevated expectations. Tsahar, Parker, and Drake are in expert form. Their playing is tight, responsive, creative, and emotionally exhausting. I envy those who were lucky enough to be in Tel Aviv at Levontin 7 (a club owned by Tsahar) on the night this was recorded.

The album consists of three tracks of straight-forward, spirited free jazz. On the first track, “In Between,” Drake lays down tight, endlessly varied grooves for Parker’s bass to dance over. Tsahar weaves rapid scale runs, melodic phrasings, and free blowing – think some combination of Charles Gayle, Peter Brötzmann, and Ornette Coleman (I am trying not to say Albert Ayler, here, but it is difficult) – through the rhythm section. Around the 18-minute mark, Tsahar steps aside and opens space for Parker and Drake to really shine. The overall result is a relentless, toe-tapping onslaught of soulful improvisation. The second track, “The Tumbling,” Parker switches between rapid bowing and pizzicato variations of a deceptively simple, pulsing theme. Drake plays a contagious and endlessly varied groove around Tsahar and Parker’s deconstructions, abstractions, and reconstructions of the refrain. This piece is every bit as dynamic as, if slightly less itinerant than, the first. The third track, “A Stillness,” is the shortest and closes the performance with that same type of melodic assault that introduced the performance.

Although In Between is not ground-breaking, it holds its own with aplomb. Rather than pushing the boundaries of what can be done conceptually, it shows how powerful, vibrant, and cathartic this type of energy music can still be. Especially for those of you who were excited by Ein Sof (Tsahar, Parker, and Susie Ibarra) and the Live at the Glenn Miller Café releases (Tsahar and Drake), here is another one to add to the top shelf.