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Peter Brötzmann solo at the Guelph Jazz Festival

September 13, 2017, Guelph Ontario. Photo by Owen Kurtz

Joe McPhee and Graham Lambkin, Blank Forms Residency

July 28, 2017. Madison Square Park, NYC. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Danny Kamins / Damon Smith / Alvin Fielder / Joe Hertenstein — After Effects (FMR Records, 2017) ****½

By Rick Joines

So much depends upon a title.

After Effects is Danny Kamins’ first album as bandleader. Kamins (baritone sax), a Houston-native and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, directs jazz ensembles at Rice University and plays in the lo-fi drone band CARL and the noise band Etched in the Eye. He has good company for his first outing: Damon Smith on bass, and Joe Hertenstein and the legendary Alvin Fielder on lots of things percussive. Fielder, Kamins reports, provided the meteorological titles for these entirely improvised songs, so (I’m guessing) the names postdated the playing. Thus, the titles and their themes would seem to have had no impact on the creation of these songs, but knowing the titles influences how, or what, one hears in them—innocent though they were of their names when brought to life.

Because the first track of After Effects is titled “In the Beginning,” the first two and half minutes of low rumbling of bass and drums, which turns suddenly violent and then rhythmic, which lacks form then gains it, puts me in mind of Genesis. Where there was nothing, now there is something, sorting itself out—gathering and yielding, creeping and flying. The quartet sounds loose and shifty, sometimes hurried or harried, so when Kamins’ baritone finally enters, it is like the spirit moving upon the face of the waters, creating order out of disorder. The rest of the songs’ titles indicate this “beginning” may be of a great storm, so my imaginings may be off track, but if this was called “Improvisation #1,” I may not have imagined anything much at all, and I doubt I would enjoy the song as much.

In the next track, “Land, Sand, Water,” Fielder and Hertenstein sprinkle and grind their percussives like sand accreting and eroding at the water’s edge. Kamins’ baritone flows like waves over their cobbled contours. Then Smith’s bass, like land after the flood recedes, appears. At the cartographic edge of things, each instrument maps its own shapes—intersecting, overflowing, demarcating—until it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. “Storms” (Parts 1 and 2), follows hard upon, as if produced by the confluence of land, sand, and water. Here these musicians hit their stride as a unit. The pair of drummers, one per channel, create constant atmospheric rumbles and irreconcilable rhythms through which Kamins’ breathy, ballsy, red-blooded baritone cuts. Smith’s playing is restrained and pushed back in the mix, but his bruising pizzicato and gashing arco arcs like lightning through the thunderous throatiness of Kamins’ sax.

One’s tempestuous imagination continues to roam over the rest of the album, lulled by Smith’s louré bowing in “The Gentle Breeze,” buoyed and battered by the Doppler effects of Fielder and Hertenstein’s bells and skins in “The Wind,” attentive to Kamins’ lyrical, wavering foghorning in “The Shore,” and magnetized by Smith’s scratch tones and rhythmic walking during “The Hurricane and the Calms.” In “After Effects,” each instrument sounds as if it’s been through the worst of it and is piecing itself back together uncertainly, anxiously assessing the damage in the final song, “The Cleanup.”

Perhaps because of the songs’ titles, everything on this record takes on some added significance. There are often moments of near silence, as when the eye of a hurricane passes over, and, like a hurricane, the playing of the rhythm section swirls, its power rising from within. While an alto sax may zoom like a thunder shower, a tenor squall like a storm front, a baritone lumbers like a slow-moving tropical storm over great space, a behemoth laboring to pick up speed. Kamins has a penchant for long, tremulous notes, but he also has a powerful lyrical ability that avoids the familiar, idiomatic, soporific sounds often associated with the baritone sax. His tone is contemplative, stately, and, like the great storms over the ocean and the beasts beneath, he plays majestically so as to inspire the imagination.

Danny Kamins

After Effects

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Joe McPhee / Damon Smith / Alvin Fielder - Six Situations (Not Two, 2017) *****

The 19 minutes of the first track off Six Situations, 'The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy', is a journey through the joys of improvised music making. The core duo of bassist Damon Smith, and drummer Alvin Fielder, first played together in 2010 and their collaborative spirit remains strong through today, as evidenced by their recent duo release Song for Chico. Saxophonist Joe McPhee, of course, is a musician whose presence always enhances the 'situation.'

Launching into a spirited set at Brooklyn's Roulette during September 2016 the newly formed trio's approach is captured well in a line from Smith's liner notes: "What emerged between Alvin and myself is mix of total free improvisation with swinging quarter notes never far away." Add McPhee to the proceeding statement and you have Six Situations in the making: swinging, energetic, and free. It's a winning combination that melds the wild pulse of classic free jazz with edgy and exciting improvisation.

The aforementioned first track begins with a long passage where Smith and Fielder exchange ideas and lay the groundwork for McPhee. He comes in with some hearty sounds which builds momentum over tje looping pulse. Smith's solo passage about half-way into the track deftly incorporates space and dynamics to accentuate the taut scratching passage before an actual howl escapes from McPhee as he re-enters the conversation. The tune winds down with a concise bluesy refrain and an extended percussion outro.

The follow up 'Blue Trees in Wind' is again introduced by Fielder's and Smith's extended techniques – deft plucks and bowed skronks, all applied expertly around Fielder's brushwork. McPhee enters with a laid back melody that begins to fray and fracture as the piece continues. Smith injects a tumultuous counter melody as the tension comes to a head. 'Alternate Diagonals' does indeed offer a different perspective on the previous direction. This time McPhee takes the reins and introduces a Gustafsson-like rhythmic figure that the others rally around. It's short but powerful. 

The next track, a 23-minute track entitled 'Red & Green Alternatives' starts off the second half of the album which doesn't disappoint. The song is more textural, starting off with soft percussion and light smears of sounds from Smith. When McPhee shows up, it's nearly 10 minutes in, following an intense duet. He vocalizes through the instrument before settling into a forlorn solo melody.

All said, Six Situations documents three excellent musicians sharing a strong musical rapport. The rich supply of ideas in their collective possession is enough to make the most of any situation.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Alvin Fielder / Damon Smith Duo—Song for Chico (Balance Point Acoustics, 2016) ****

By Rick Joines

That free, improvised jazz gives pleasure to its connoisseurs seems obvious. Even more obvious is the displeasure it causes everybody else.

Avant-garde music of any genre—for those who play it, compose it, and listen to it—answers a desire to be disoriented, a hankering to indulge in lawlessness, a longing to be free. It makes us happy—we get it, and it gets us. If, like other kinds of music, free jazz resembles language, what sort of communication is it? We often refer to the interplay between musicians as “conversation,” but other than the fact that notes follow notes in linear time, most free, improvised jazz eschews ordinary, idiomatic syntax. To some, it sounds like random noise, yet to us, it is beautiful. Or maybe it’s true: we’re just weird.

The album Song for Chico, with Alvin Fielder (b. 1935) on drums and Damon Smith (b. 1972) on contrabass, contains what lovers of free jazz love in spades. Here is an example of the two of them at work:

Even one versed in the intricacies of improvised music would be hard pressed to describe their playing as a “conversation,” yet we believe there is a sort of communion because the playing sings in a language whose mysteries we feel we understand. But how?

There are six tracks on Song for Chico, and each seems completely improvised (though I’m not certain that is wholly true of “Variations on ‘Untitled’ by Cecil Taylor” or “Roots by Johnny Dyani,” but I’d say their improvisational-to-composed content is high). Watching Alvin Fielder behind the drums and Damon Smith behind his bass, and listening to them, leads one to wonder if they are particularly aware of one another’s presence: what each plays might be what they would play even if the other one wasn’t there. Because what they both play—note by note—so lacks a clear, standard harmonic connection or any melodic sequence, when Fielder quotes “Salt Peanuts” in “Improvisation 1,” even that short bit of something familiar feels, somehow, odd. Yet to me, and probably to them, their songs cohere as songs. Perhaps it is a matter of mood or tone, or of some kind of simpatico.

What is most evident on each of the tracks on Song for Chico is Fielder and Smith’s technique. In fact, the album is almost entirely “about” technique. Fielder wields a battery of sticks and brushes; he makes music using every nut, bolt, stand, skin, cymbal, and underside of his kit. He almost never “keeps time.” In this sort of music, time is not a thing that can be “kept.” It is fluid and unpredictable—like nature. Smith’s technique puts me in mind of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion”: Smith’s playing is “like the wind that lashes everything at once.” He is an aggressive bassist, stormy and dramatic. Scratch tones, ponticello, tremolo, spiccato, ricochet, glissando, trills, detaché, legato, louré, slurs, slaps, martelé, jeté, sautillé, staccato, saltato, col legno, saccadé, buzz, snap, and nail pizzicato—name a technique, or extended technique, and chances are it’s in a song and in Smith’s arsenal. There is nowhere he won’t bow or pluck or strum—hard. Sometimes he even rubs his bass’s belly.

The species of free, improvised jazz on display on Song for Chico is what music sounds like when the “like” language barely holds, or does not apply at all. Yet Fielder and Smith are not just two guys in a room making an erratic cacophony. If free jazz is “like” a language, or mode of communication, it must be something like the communication within a murmuration of starlings, or a school of fish, or like a peloton of 120 professional cyclists, elbow-to-elbow, hurtling down Rue d’Somewhere at 40 MPH. The consciousness of the other and the communication between them about speed and direction is immediate, precognitive, innate. They are all headed somewhere, but who knows where, how long it will take, or how they will get there, exactly? There is a pleasure in the practice of working together as one mind and one body, in the stretching and condensing, in the speed or agility that would be impossible if alone.

Alvin Fielder and Damon Smith are masters of their art. Their communication—with each other and with us, the listeners—seems subliminal; it transmits outside of the range of the “normal” consumer of music. It is a signal broadcast to all, but not all receivers are able to pick it up, or decipher it as theme or dialogue. Yet for those attuned to it, the music they make is magical, and “what they have to say” is persuasive and elegant, even if we have a hard time explaining why, or how, it is. “To interpret language,” Adorno claims, “means: to understand language.” And “to interpret music means: to make music.” “Musical interpretation,” he notes, “is performance.” Fielder and Smith interpret a style of music that demands and rewards our interpretation, and demands performance from the critic, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

On the first three days of the Guelph Jazz Festival…

By Connor Kurtz

The 2017 Guelph Jazz Festival started big on Wednesday with a solo set by the one and the only Peter Brötzmann in the Guelph Little Theatre. Brötzmann opened the night with a long piece on his signature tenor saxophone, which was full of emotion and surprise. Rather than the aggressive bombardments that made Peter Brötzmann such a popular name, he opted for a far more soulful improvisation which carefully drifted from melody to non-melody and from style to style. Themes and motifs came and went through the piece, even making surprise returns on the pieces which would follow on different instruments.

The biggest surprise of the night, for this reviewer, was that his clarinet performance ended up both harsher and quicker than the first tenor performance. Even though there were long stretches of careful melody in the piece, it was dominated by abrasive textual improvisations. Next, he took off his jacket and took out his taragoto to perform a wonderful clash of cultures, focused on experimental repetitions and full body movements.

Finally, he took out his tenor saxophone once again to play a brief piece which, to this review, sounded to be an aggressive younger brother to the first piece, but was later confirmed in an on-stage interview to be a piece from Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. Brötzmann also teased the idea of releasing a Brötzmann Plays Standards CD, and hinted towards future work with drummers Han Bennink and Andrew Cyrille.

On Thursday night in the River Run Centre was the Toronto-based chamber jazz quartet Cluttertones, who were accompanied by Hong Kong-Toronto pianist Lee Pui Ming. In their two-hour set, they covered a huge amount of music ranging from free improvisation to contemporary classical music to vocal pop. Cluttertones' greatest appeal, for this reviewer, was the clear mutual respect and artistic comfortability that all performers shared. This allowed for a huge variety of improvisations using different members of the ensemble, where no members make attempt to steal any unnecessary spotlight.

Gracing the stage of a small performance space simply known as Silence on Friday was the Montreal-based trio known as Jane and the Magic Bananas. Sam Shalabi, on guitar and electronics, and Alexandre St-Onge, on bass guitar and electronics, are both known quite well for their involvement in the wonderful psychedelic rock group known as Shalabi Effect. Michel F. Côté, on drums and feedback, may not be as well known outside of Montreal's musique actuelle music scene, but there's no denying that this trio has brilliant chemistry (upon the end of the trio's first piece a man could be heard yelling "Seriously? Yes!"). All musicians found beautiful ways to mesh their instruments with their electronics, and the result was a psychedelic wasteland which left the whole crowd enamored. The music may have little to do with jazz, but it's difficult to say exactly what genre of music this does have to do with. What this reviewer knows for sure, is that this performance was visceral, inspiring and that it won't be easily forgotten.

Later, in the same night in the River Run Centre was the very exciting international trio of saxophonist John Butcher, analogue synthesist Thomas Lehn and pianist Matthew Shipp (all three performers will be playing again throughout the weekend). The trio's performance was nothing short of dazzling and constantly exciting. John Butcher's improvisation was kaleidoscopic in range, seemingly covering just about everything except traditional saxophone soloing. Thomas Lehn crafted a thick atmosphere of challenging tones and pops which filled the room, and even seemed to make the chairs shake at times. Through (what I assume to be) a MIDI-keyboard, Lehn's fingers move like a mad man's, in direct opposition to the much more careful Matthew Shipp. Matthew Shipp's performance was emotionally controlled, which created a wonderful balance against the two experimentalists. Shipp carefully crafted melodies and repetitions, imposing pseudo-form over the entire piece. It's hard to imagine a much more perfect 2017 jazz trio than this.

Following up the trio's performance in a double bill was the Vancouver-based cellist Peggy Lee with an octet of great improvisers to perform her suite, Tell Tale, written in response to the recent HBO series, Deadwood. Following the trio was surely tough, but the Peggy Lee Octet won over the crowd enough to warrant a standing ovation from nearly the entire audience. The piece drifts from gorgeous themes and songs to extended improvisations and back again, including lengthy unaccompanied solos for both the contrabass and drums. Highlights included pianist Chris Gestrin's reductionist approach, which seemed to take inspiration from the minimalist notion of a pulse, and guitarist Ron Samworth's use of effect pedals, which reminded this reviewer of Alexandre St-Onge's performance just hours earlier. Tell Tale is available on a 2016 CD, released by Drip Audio.

Saturday will include a solo performance from Matthew Shipp in the River Run Centre at 10, a double bill of Way Out Northwest (John Butcher with Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff of the Peggy Lee Octet) and René Lussier’s MEUH (which also features turntablist Martin Tétreault) in the Guelph Little Theatre at 2, and a double bill of Josh Zubot’s MendHam (which also features composer and percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli) and BassDrumBone (Mark Helias, Gerry Hemmingway and Ray Anderson) in the River Run Centre at 8. Sunday will include a double bill of Mark Helias (solo bass) and Tom & Gerry (Thomas Lehn and Gerry Hemmingway, that is) at noon in the Guelph Youth Music Centre, and Barnyard Drama (Christine Duncan and Jean Martin) at 8 in Silence.

Check back later this coming week for continued coverage.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

MOVE - Hyvinkää (uniSono, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

MOVE is an international improvising quintet consisting of Harri Sjöström (sax), Emilio Gordoa (vibraphone), Achim Kaufmann (piano, synthesizer), Adam Pultz Melbye (bass) and Dag Magnus Narvesen (drums, percussion). They’re all part of Berlin’s still prospering Echtzeit scene, a network of musicians and composers working at the interfaces of avant-garde, contemporary classical music, electronics, free jazz and improvised music. Typical for this scene, MOVE is the result of a session that took place at Dag Magnus Narvesen’s studio in 2013. Emilio Gordoa liked the sound of the group, took the initiative to organize some real concerts for them and since that went well too, he and Harri Sjöström decided to keep it active as MOVE.

Like a typical Echtzeit project, the ensemble tries to generate a sonic language which sounds electronic but which is produced by acoustic instruments - like white static produced by etheric noise, extended techniques, and silence. A good example of this approach is Emilio Gordoa’s way of playing the vibraphone: he includes all kinds of preparations, for example cans, cymbals, tambourines, tension belts etc. (it reminds me of Paul Lovens’ way of treating his drum kit). Based on this notion the band’s able to create a huge soundscape within an ample dynamic spectrum.

MOVE’s music is not 100% improvised, there are some preconceived ideas. According to Gordoa the quintet has “roads that we all know quite well and we know where these roads take us in music. This is our sound and the way of working with composed material. Nevertheless, we love to surprise the audience and ourselves, so leaving these roads is the real improvisation.“

Hyvinkää is a 40-minute recording of a live concert at the Hyvinkää Art Museum in Finland. The piece pops up like a bottle of champagne, the music spills and bubbles. However, this all happens very subtly, it’s spherical and floating at the same time. A bass drone is positioned against bell-like vibraphone sounds and piano arpeggios, while the saxophone tiptoes around them like a ballet dancer. In general, Kaufmann’s piano, Melbye’s bass, and Narvesen’s drums are very economical, they rather stress certain textures. The whole piece is the opposite of a dramatic rollercoaster ride, it displays a rather reluctant emotionality, circling around microtonal shifts, shy piano chords and myriads of percussion sounds. Only around the 25-minute mark the music gets darker, the toms and the bass are more menacing, although the sax is trying to fight them with beautiful lines.

MOVE’s music is often collectively improvised, there are hardly any solos or duos. It reminds me of a reduced, yet more expressive version of Wolfgang Fuchs’ King Übü Orchestrü, as if their music was culled from the Orchestrü’s post-minimalist approach. It’s delicate, stripped-down and introspective with lots of fragile short noise intersperses. Very recommendable.

Hyvinkää is available as a CD. You can buy it here.

Watch the band here:

Friday, September 15, 2017

Chamber 4 – City of Light  (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

By Tom Burris

It is nearly impossible to listen to Chamber 4 and take notes at the same time.  I get drawn in so easily and completely that I simply lose the ability to keep the one-foot-in-reality it requires to notate what is happening.  There are worse things than losing the details of a great listening experience while retaining the overall impressions.  And when it comes to Chamber 4, the overall experience is kinda the whole point.  I don’t even want to go back and dissect the parts that make up the whole of the music and figure out what makes it work.  Sure, some of that is laziness – but most of it is I wanna believe in magic and what’s wrong with that?!?

As this blog’s founder says of the group in the liner notes, “they move as one.”  Individually, I’m aware that the sounds of the Ceccaldi brothers (Theo, violin & Valentin, cello) as they lure me into their velvet lair; but once they’ve caught me all of the details are gone.  This happens again as I’m going back for another attempt, sure that I’ll remain fully aware of any and all details and failing miserably.  (I said I want to believe in magic; I didn’t say I actually did.)  Luis Vicente’s melodic buzzing and busy trumpet calls stand out periodically, but only as a reminder that I’ve been missing out on what he’s been doing in the background before I noticed his horn.  The guitar work of Marcelo Dos Reis, while always a marvel, is made even more so by his ability to blend into the mechanics of the band.  And I can even share a detail here as well: Marcelo isn’t afraid to turn the guitar into a one-man rhythm section.

A real standout characteristic of the band is that they show absolutely no avoidance of conventional beauty.  And why is conventional beauty so frequently side-stepped in free music?  If this wasn’t so roundly excluded, would improvisational music be more attractive to the uninitiated?  Would my wife like Chamber 4 better than Ballister?  City of Light is a work that is in constant motion, breaking apart and reforming in new and surprising patterns, folding in and over on itself.  It’s incredible how easy it is to listen to this music move in waves and patterns that exude a type of beauty that starts in the conventional, ties into the unconventional, and magnifies it to the point of obviousness.

See also Rick Joines' review here.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Marcelo dos Reis & Eve Risser - Timeless (JACC Records, 2017) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

The first meeting of French pianist Eve Risser and Portuguese guitarist Marcelo dos Reis is a journey with and within strings, many and strange kind of strings (borrowing the title of Sun Ra's seminal album). Both Risser and Reis employ unconventional strategies that extend the sonic palette of the piano keys and its metal strings and the acoustic guitar's nylon strings, preparing their instruments by attaching various objects to their strings.

Risser and dos Reis already established themselves as improvisers who like to experiment with sounds, textures and formats. Risser who also plays the harpsichord, blurred the distinctions between new music, composition and improvisation with her White Desert Orchestra and explored song formats with the free-improvising The New Songs quartet. Dos Reis has collaborated with like-minded experimental improvisers such as Elliot Sharp, Toshimaru Nakamura and Andrea Neumann, plays in a duo with harpist Angélica V. Salvi and in the free jazz meets free-improvisation groups Fail Better!, Chamber 4, and Pedra Contida.

Timeless was recorded at Jazz ao Centro Festival, Coimbra, Portugal in October 2016. The seven pieces are titled after different artifacts, devices and seasons that measure time, but these free-associative improvisations actually consciously do not surrender easily to any sense of time. Risser and dos Reis flow with the sounds and explore their infinite spectrum. Both focus on shaping and sculpting their resonance and friction qualities until you are lost in sonic turbulence and can not tell any more who does what. Risser and dos Reis at times sound as incorporating ideas from the minimalist compositions of Morton Feldman, blended with Japanese ritual koto traditions as on the enigmatic-exotic “Hourglass” and “Balance Spring”. Other pieces stress the resourcefulness of both as highly imaginative improvisers. “Water Clock” shifts instantly from a leisured, mysterious soundscape to an urgent and intense free-improvisation and “Timewheel” offers an even denser and tougher version of such free-improvisation. “Chronometer” is the only piece that suggests a melodic-playful vein and the dense commotion of “Pendulum” even hides a lyrical theme.

Timeless offers a rare kind of beauty.

And More...

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pedra Contida - Amethyst (FMR, 2017) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

About 7 minutes into “Scree,” the opening track on Pedra Contida’s sophomore album, Amethyst, the slowly building tension threatens to break. Like watching a storm build along the shore, there’s a steady accumulation of pulses, from Angélica V. Salvi’s harp and Marcelo dos Reis’s guitar, to Miguel Carvalhais’s computer and Nuno Torres’s bright alto, and finally to João Pais Filipe’s masterful metallic percussion (set aside some time to scroll through Filipe’s Tumblr, featuring his handmade gongs and cymbals). And then, it’s over. A moment later, “Chalk” kicks off with a brief trio improvisation, with Torres, Carvalhais, and Filipe. But, where were we? Where are we? The mystery prevails, underlining the dynamism in this quintet’s free improvisation. By the mid-point of “Chalk,” Salvi and dos Reis have locked into an asynchronous rhythm that, again, threatens to break open. Dos Reis cranks up his electric for a few effective teases, then quietly recedes back into the rhythmic undercurrent.

The quintet members’ paths have criss-crossed in a number of configurations, including dos Reis and Filipe in Fail Better!, the dos Reis and Salvi duo, and Filipe and Salvi’s recent spot’s on the latest @c album, Three-Body Problem. Like Pedra Contida’s previous album, Xisto, Amethyst was recorded live, this time in Coimbra on November 21, 2015. The Paris and Mali attacks were at the forefront of the news, with Brazil still reeling from a devastating flood resulting from a burst dam. And in Portugal, an election season marked by the rise of the left-wing was well underway. I mention all this just to point out that it was definitely not a time for quiet reflection. The global mood was tense and uncertain, and the quintet’s response is apt. I think a lot about the ways improvisation, especially, is an inherently reactive medium, a mode of performance that allows each player to channel her or his feelings about the world, whether that’s meditating on losing a loved one or making a bold statement for justice. In this way, Amethyst captures five gifted players in an extended conversation that intertwines optimism and uncertainty. Torres’s solo in “Obsidian” traces lines between dos Reis and Salvi, while Filipe and Carvalhais keep the rhythmic structure in a state of unsteadiness. It’s absolutely captivating.

The album ends with “Touchstone,” a deceptively somber piece that really highlights Carvalhais. Unlike most of the other tracks, there’s no obvious center. Instead, the band gently ripples outward, with dos Reis providing ballast near the 4-minute mark in a nice duo with Carvalhais. It’s the rare quintet that manages such a radical lineup with such a strong senses of freedom and balance, but Pedra Contida has definitely cracked the code.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Marcelo dos Reis - Cascas (Cipsela, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

For writing, there’s a maxim that events should be “surprising yet inevitable,” and that can, at times, be applied to music, as well. I’ve probably used this phrase in past reviews, yet here it is again, only this time I’m thinking of the whole release itself. Of course, at some point we would get a solo album from guitarist Marcelo dos Reis, and yet its sudden appearance this summer was the most delightful surprise. Cascas is dos Reis’s fifth album this year, marking the last release of an insanely prolific 2017. Recorded in June of this year, it’s a gorgeous performance. The recording is relaxed and intimate, while dos Reis’s playing remains bold and expansive.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have seen me occasionally talk about my sons’ reactions to different music. It’s a way of sharing the experience of watching people with relatively unformed tastes and opinions react to, especially, free improvisation. They’ve been exposed to the sounds since birth but only recently reached ages where they can both express their sincere opinions about what we’re listening to. My 8-year-old son has grown into a real fan of guitar, sitting rapt at the stereo as Han-earl Park’s Sirene plays. And earlier this year, he was equally captivated by dos Reis’s STAUB Quartet. But even I was surprised by his immediate connection to “Sónica,” the opening track on Cascas. At the opening minute of sustained strumming, he shot across the room, wide-eyed, “What is this? It’s so cool!” And, it really is. Dos Reis has one of the most compelling approaches to guitar, and in this exposed solo setting, you can soak in the tone and technique.

“Sónica” leads into the opening of “Molusco,” where sustained notes contrast with delicately fingered motifs. On several of the tracks, dos Reis’s more experimental techniques are used to good effect, creating multiphonic soundscapes that give the whole album a nice emotional depth. “Crina” features dos Reis on bow, which creates a dissonant and surprisingly suspenseful melody. For “Bostik Azul” and “Minerva,” the plainly described instrumentation of “prepared and unprepared nylon string guitar” is explored through a fast-paced improvisation.

The finale is a pair of dedications, “Ceifa (to Alzira Francisca)” and “Corvo (to Manuel Francisco).” If my Google translation of Portuguese is correct, these titles translate to “Reaping” and “Crow,” apt descriptions of each track’s mood. Perhaps it’s the dedications, but these feel slightly more direct than the previous improvisations, conveying meaning across the sounds and spaces between them. Both end on a variation of ringing, notes echoing slightly as if the songs themselves remain still only partially finished. Even as it comes to a close, Cascas remains alive with possibility.

Cascas' Liner Notes

By Dan Sorrells

“Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you,” said Sartre, maybe. I have never been able to find the source. But it’s an intriguing way to think about the work of improvising musicians—always free to jettison the “rules,” but only free within the boundaries of the occasion: an artist, in a moment, in a place. Even playing alone, a musician brushes against “what has been done” to them. Freedom is often spoken of as an end in itself; really, it’s just a gateway. Freedom allows you to choose your means, but it cannot be the reason for making music.

Marcelo’s music brings all this to mind, because he has consistently approached it in a way that isn’t defined by opposition. His is not freedom from rules or tradition or genre. It’s freedom to make the musical choice the moment demands, unburdened. Here, it’s freedom to sit, alone with a guitar, and gather his ideas. A few he has tried before, reworking and refining them over time. Some existed as a thought, a concept now being realized. Others were born spontaneously in the moment his fingers set to the guitar strings. Each track explores a method, a motif, a mood. Each opens a space for something to happen, creates an interval in which something new enters the world.

A while back, Marcelo and I were talking about ma. An everyday word in Japanese, but also an aesthetic awareness of these spaces, these intervals. The idea that nothing is foundational to something. Ma is the gap we experience between things that allows them to exist, that outlines their contours and supplies their meaning. In solo music, you are responsible not only for the "things" but also the space that defines them. The music here is a personal undertaking, and solo performance is always an act of vulnerability. It is an invitation into a private space. The experience of the music is deeply singular for the musician and deeply singular for the listener, but in different ways. Another gap. But, as you listen to these songs, that small gap is all that lies between your heart and mind and Marcelo’s.

- Dan Sorrells, July 2017.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Just Songs - An Interview with Marcelo dos Reis

Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins

By Antonio Poscic

Coimbra-based guitarist and improviser Marcelo dos Reis first caught our eyes and ears in 2015 when two of his records, Chamber 4 (with Luis Vicente, Theo Ceccaldi, and Valentin Ceccaldi) and Concentric Rinds (with Angélica V. Salvi), topped our annual list of best releases. Two years later, he has become one of the loudest and brightest voices of an explosive and dynamic Portuguese free improv and free jazz scene, producing album after album in tireless fashion, without sign of artistic wear. Whether on acoustic or electric guitar, as a sideman or a leader, his style is unequivocal, shaping Fail Better!, Chamber 4, Pedra Contida, In Layers, Open Field, STAUB Quartet, and others into unique, most excellent projects.

To mark the release of his five new records, we’ll be dedicating this week to his work. And what better way to start things off than with an interview?

If circumstances were better, this would be the point at which I’d describe the wonderful atmosphere at the Piano Negro club in Coimbra, Marcelo and myself sitting opposite to each other, enjoying some fancy imported beers. Instead, because of the distance, conflicting schedules, and the frantic rhythm of modern life, we’re forced to correspond via email. Similar to his music, it’s obvious that dos Reis prefers direct and spontaneous communication, but he easily adapts to the format. His responses flow passionately and earnestly, defying the black on white sparseness of text.

We start by going back, to his roots and inspirations.

What made Marcelo dos Reis the musician he is today?

I started to develop a big interest in music when I was 6 or 7 years old, but my family was not connected with music at all and at that time music education wasn’t included in the primary school. So things in the beginning were a little bit difficult when I was starting to develop my musical capabilities, and also because things started a little bit in the opposite way. For example, I remember that my cousin that was my age had a guitar on the wall, and I used to ask his parents and grandmother if I could play it and their answer was always “no,” so I used to pretend to sing and play a tennis racket, imagining a big crowd—basically what kids dream. Then I started to listen to a lot of music, recording everything I liked on cassette tapes, and soon I started to buy records and believe me, I was like 9 or 10 years old and my parents used to give me some money for me to learn how to manage it, but I was spending it all on records! It took a while until I really started playing, because amongst my friends playing football was what was cool.

Can you think of any defining moments that pushed you from someone who liked music passively into someone who thinks about music creatively and propulsively—a musician?

When I moved to the Lisbon suburbs I finally found my tribe, friends that were much more into sharing records between ourselves, talking about music and playing the first notes, studying in local music schools. When I was almost 15 years old I started my first rock band, and after one year we were already playing live all around Portugal. It was so funny because none of us had a driver’s license, so we were always searching for someone to drive us. I was talking recently with two good friends, Miguel Condeço and Bruno Soares, about that period and I feel we were very lucky we had it that way, because it was so important and inspiring for our development as human beings.

Obviously and expectedly, a connected and nurturing environment inspires creativity in the long-term, regardless of any obstacles. But what was it that propelled you towards free improvisation specifically? Why not some other, more popular genre? I’m sure that most kids want to be rock stars, not contemplative improvisers.

My first musical experiences were rock music, but I always found great pleasure when I was listening to the improvisation and psychedelic parts of the rock bands. I used to have a great naïve pleasure when I was improvising at that time, especially after smoking something, and that led me to learn more about improvisation. I was listening more and more to jazz since I was working in record shops, so I started studying jazz in Lisbon at the same time I was studying voice at the Conservatory. I think the first thing that made me interested in free improvisation was Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their music wasn’t part of the jazz school program, but the studying process at the school was really important for me to understand how theory works and how to use it, and that is still part of my everyday study.

Besides the Art Ensemble of Chicago, were there any other musicians that influenced you early on? I’m guessing that the Jazz ao Centro Clube (or JACC) also had a role in directing you as a musician.

I started to listen to the later work of Coltrane, which led me to Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Bill Dixon among others. I felt they were playing much more outside of the harmonic structures and that was really different from what I was studying, and that was the way of improvising I wanted. Later, I moved to Coimbra and I got involved with JACC and started to meet a lot of musicians from all around the globe. I thought: that's it, this is what I want to do. I feel nowadays we’re very fortunate with all the diversity that exists in the arts and happily we’re able to question it and choose.

Speaking of JACC and the scene(s) in Lisbon and Coimbra, are they at all supported by the local or state government or are you all self-financed and self-organized?

It’s surprising the considerable number of improvisers we have not just in Lisbon, but all around Portugal when you think about the size of our country. Some are really good in my opinion, but the reality is that we have some problems. Since it’s a small country, there aren’t many places to play with proper financial conditions, so you have to be rich or you need to have another job. In my case, I teach music because support for individual artists doesn’t really exist. There is some support, but the government insists on giving the money to bigger associations and corporations, which creates a lot of ignorance amongst the crowd in general, as people only listen to and buy what the media is giving them.

In that sense, did the internet help or hinder the scene? Do you think it perhaps helped you get more exposure?

Since the internet has played a bigger role in opinion-making, I feel like people’s tastes are much more influenced by the mass media nowadays. I think it’s very important to have our “filters” turned on and to have a personal opinion about what is good and what’s not good. There are so many good artists all around, and our efforts as independent artists and small labels and small venues are pushing things forward, but all these small things also make me think about music programmers that keep insisting on programing the same musicians every year in the festivals (here I’m talking about the improvisation and free jazz events). I really love a lot of those musicians, but come on, the programmers have an important role in presenting new things for the listeners, and since there’s such a large number of incredible improvisers around the globe, I feel it’s like a social responsibility to show new things to the audience. But to develop all these questions properly, we would need at least another interview devoted just to this topic!

Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins

But enough about finances and media, let’s talk about dos Reis’ interesting collaborations.

You’ve mostly been working with Portuguese musicians, but one of your new releases is a delightful duo with Eve Risser. What led to that encounter? Do you feel that your collaboration with local artists differs in any way from when you work with internationally acclaimed musicians?

Since I started to get involved with the improvised music scene, I’ve been very fortunate to share experiences with musicians from all around the world. The collaboration with Eve happened after Jazz ao Centro Festival in Coimbra asked me to invite a musician to do a concert and to record an album, so I invited her because I identify with her musical approach. After that, we’re very happy with our album and friendship, and hopefully we can play more together—we’ll see what the future will bring us.

Do you have plans for other, similar collaborations?

As I said, I’m constantly collaborating with musicians from everywhere, but in the end that doesn’t really matter because I don’t care at all about nationality, ethnicity, or genre. It’s all about the music, friendship, and human connection. For example, I’ve been having so much fun working with my brother Luís Vicente. We started working together almost 10 years ago, and since then we’ve done tours, we’ve already done five records together, and we still have a lot of things planned for the near future. I believe those things are happening because of mutual respect, friendship, and a sense of space between two persons. This question made me think that we should keep fighting against racism, homophobia, and gender inequality. In the end what makes me really sad is why these things are still a reality in the 21st century. Hopefully we will witness a world without all this ignorance.

Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins

With those thoughtful reflections in mind, we move on to a somewhat different topic: dos Reis’ playing style, motivation, and artistic generative processes.

Can you explain the frame of mind and motivation that drives you while playing, whether solo or with others? While listening to your music, I always have a feeling that you adapt your style depending on the setting and musicians around you.

I really like the idea of how I can work my “speech” and "sound palette” into the diverse situations I’m in, because I feel that improvisation will sound different every time you play. I think each human being is unique, but I guess it’s also impossible not to repeat yourself, so it’s always challenging trying not to get tired of listening to yourself. That happens very often with me because it’s definitely not a lightning bolt that comes from the gods and you play, no, it requires a lot of work and dedication. That’s why I try to adapt differently in my different projects: it can be changing from the acoustic to the electric guitar, or the use of the prepared or the unprepared guitar. You try to modulate your material in the interaction with others in a way that gives a unique energy and personality to the music, because it’s all about that moment in that place. So maybe that’s why you’re saying I vary my style, because I think each project I’m involved in needs different things so that it will be a different project. Otherwise, I would be always playing with the same band.

Is that also a way for you to keep things fresh? The constant changes?

Maybe this is what keeps things interesting for me. I preserve the same projects, but take breaks from them, and then after a while everyone returns with different ideas because you learn and develop your way of thinking about the music.

Do you keep track of the recent output of other jazz/improv musicians? Or do you look for inspiration in other genres?

In my case, I listen to so many different things, but specifically I don’t listen to much guitar in improvisation. I prefer to listen more to rock, folk, and ethnic styles than free improvisation, but I try to follow as much as I can of what’s happening in free improvisation. But definitely I want to get more inspiration from artists of other art forms, traveling, friends, family, my dog, and to try to avoid my brain thinking about all the shit in the world that makes me very sad.

Marcelo dos Reis by Nuno Martins

Our conversation turns to Marcelo dos Reis the label co-owner.

Cipsela Records is a remarkable young label. While its catalogue might not be the largest with seven releases, it is of the highest quality. How did you envision it?

At first it was an idea José Miguel Pereira and I had to become more independent to release our own work, but since we were organizing the Double Bill concert series and got involved with a huge number of improvisers, the first idea changed and fortunately got much bigger than ourselves.

And where does Joe McPhee’s record Flowers fit in the story?

So in 2009 during the Jazz ao Centro Festival, I worked with Joe McPhee to record his solo performance since it wasn’t supposed to be done, and that was done already with the idea of creating the label. It took six more years until it materialized, and from then lot of things happened and we created our identity, releasing just a few records to give them the deserved attention. We did limited editions of 300 copies, and each release had a very specific image created by Kátia Sá, all with a huge focus on the physicality of the object, since we can’t conceive of the idea of just digital releases. We offer the digital version to our customers after they buy the physical copy.

Can you elaborate on the digital vs. physical conundrum?

We understand the advantages of digital and we use tools from modern technology, but can you imagine a musician or a record label selling a pen after a concert instead of a CD or vinyl?! I think it’s so important to feel the full art and understand the atmosphere and time in which the music was created. I really think people and the industry shouldn’t separate these things, but that’s just our position.

Finally, we briefly touch upon the five excellent records that dos Reis played on and released this year (with STAUB Quartet, Chamber 4, Pedra Contida, in duo with Eve Risser, and solo).

This has been a very productive year for you.

It’s true, I feel very lucky to be involved in a considerable number of things and projects. I’ve been thinking lately about my working process and my development since I started playing, and I think I’m a little bit of a workaholic. But that’s because I really love music. This year I released five records, and I remember when I was 14 or 15 years old that my main goal was to have a record and to play outside of my country. Since then, these things are happening and those objectives have all been surpassed! New challenges are always arising and that makes everything alive.

Do you have any favorites among your recent albums? One of them is also your first solo record, how different was that experience?

I think I really like the ones where I’m playing in group, because I feel all this connection and chemistry in the playing between me and my colleagues. My solo record is a different story, because I think it could have been very different. When I started doing it, I had a very specific idea of how everything would work, but when I finished, I felt most of the material was much more interesting to present live than in a studio setting, so I found myself in a changing process. I think I felt it in a very positive way, because it can be a real turning point in the way you normally feel yourself playing, and that makes you evolve and forget some barriers and show more of yourself. But in the end, I’m so happy that I’m an independent artist. I have all the time in the world to develop my work the way I want, in the path I always dreamed of. So, I’m enjoying songs right now. Maybe the next step will be just songs.