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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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

On the last two days of the Guelph Jazz Festival…

By Connor Kurtz

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes," says Monk; Matthew Shipp's Saturday morning solo performance in the River Run Centre was a clear continuation in that thinking. Shipp's set, much more-so than the previous night's trio, was largely filled by emotional exploration using juxtapositions of beauty and dissonance. The dissonant sections were intense and maniacal; the crowd sat in uneasy expectations for the profound emotional relief that Shipp so expertly brought. Shipp used plenty of melodic patterns within his performance, but they refused to let themselves become obvious. The pace flew freely as Shipp drifted from high to low notes, drifting from incomprehensible mayhem to minimalist pseudo-waltzes. Much like Peter Brötzmann's performance just three nights earlier, Matthew Shipp gave a masterful and challenging performance which resulted in a strikingly honest presentation of emotion which could resonate with the entire audience.

Photos by Owen Kurtz

Not long later, the crowd moved to the Guelph Little Theatre for the first of the day's two double bills. The first act to play was Way Out Northwest; the trio of John Butcher, Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff (the latter two performed alongside Peggy Lee the previous night). Although the whole cast was present in the previous night's double bill, Way Out Northwest sounded quite a bit different than either act. The largest difference was that they focused on a form of acoustic improvisation that was far more subdued than what was earlier heard. Müller in particular drifted towards a much more minimalist approach, calling reference to musicians like Eddie Prévost in several sections. Due to the contextual changes, Dylan van der Schyff was allowed a larger role in the spotlight; he took this as a possibility to focus on more quiet and more varied explorations. Butcher completely set aside his electronics, as well as most of his ultra-extended-techniques, to perform a set which was more traditional, yet true to his distinctive language. Butcher often occupied the role of the main focal point, but, to this reviewer, it was Torsten Müller' multifaceted drumming which was the highlight.

On the second half of the double bill was René Lussier' MEUH, which features Pierre Lavoie on lap steel guitar, Martin Tétreault on turntables and Lussier on electric guitar. MEUH hit the audience with great surprise by opening with a track that might be described as a slight perversion of the country & western musical formula, but the greater surprise was to find that the group's entire set was based on this type of song, and not just that, but that it was incredible! Lavoie held the songs together with his impeccable lap steel playing which, while hardly eccentric, simply oozed technical and creative ability. Martin's turntables were abstract and scratchy; they largely existed to cast otherworldly ambience over the tracks, but there were several moments where he was directly cued by René to provide beautifully imaginative counterpoints to his guitar improvisations or even just the song's own melodies. It was typically impossible to detect the source of his LP's, which switched many times through the set, but the brief moments where they played near 33rpm to expose old jazz recordings filled the crowd with joy. René's guitar rested some place between the two performers. Largely, he played bluesy riffs alongside Lavoie to keep the songs rolling, but he often unexpectedly broke into wild improvisations, sounding completely out of place in the context of the song, but in the context of the festival right at home. René also had microphones placed on the floor to amplify his feet, so he could tap away to create an awkward pseudo-percussioninst which came and went. The set, although an odd addition to the festival, was wonderful, sincere, joyous and a huge success.

The day's second double bill brought us back to the River Run Centre to listen to Josh Zubot's Montreal quartet, MendHam. MendHam burst right into a powerful riff, which seemed to be largely inspired by John Zorn's Masada. The quartet played with extreme focus, all sticking closely together both figuratively and literally. Drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli's swinging rhythms are complimented by Nicolas Caloia's walking bass, and this is the first time that something so blatantly "jazz" was performed in this festival. Baritone saxophonist Jason Sharp belts out thick coughs of sound, leaving the melody to Zubot's violin, which often lays closer to classic Canadian fiddling. When the group breaks into improvisation, the song seems to drift away instantly. The improvisations are surprisingly minimal and sparse, especially in comparison to the bombastic themes. During improvisations, Zubot shines brightly, performing a vast amount of styles including the knocking of the instrument's base and col legno bowing.

BassDrumBone, the trio of drummer Gerry Hemmingway, bassist Mark Helias and trombonist Ray Anderson, started off their set with a gigantic mess of free improvisation. It sounds bizarre, conflicting and all wrong. Not too long later, the trio bounced up into a lengthy repeated theme which is both lovely and accessible. During what was certainly the best banter of the festival, it's announced that the piece was written by Hemmingway and was largely inspired by Don Cherry. Throughout the set we were exposed to lengthy compositions by all three performers, and they all had their own eccentricities and strengths. Gerry Hemmingway proved himself to be one of the most talented drummers in contemporary jazz (or in the festival, at least). He performed with a large array of tools and techniques, all mastered to his own unique style, and they were all executed in their perfect moments. One unaccompanied drum solo was easily the most virtuosic of the night. If this were any other ensemble, I'd likely have already gone into Mark Helias' genius. Especially during his own composition, he shines as a marvelously talented improviser who seems to be largely influenced by minimalist classical music. Trombonist Ray Anderson keeps his sounds subtle and sophisticated. He rarely does anything to draw much attention to himself, but he provides an essential counterbalance to the other performers. His own composition is another beast in itself, calling new age ambient music to mind.

The festival's final double bill, the second last event, began on Sunday at noon with a solo performance by Mark Helias. He opened with a gorgeous longform minimalist improvisation, seemingly influenced by Stefano Scodanibbio: a wonderful way to start the day, in this reviewer's eyes. He played melodies that were enchanting and comforting; this level of beauty was rare in the festival. During the improvisation, Helias made subtle switches between traditional and non-traditional styles; resulting in an exciting performance. Next, he played an original composition titled Like I Said. The piece is much more focused on harmony than the improvisation, and cements my belief that he must take strong influence from minimalist composers like Scodanibbio. The last piece played was a piece by Don Cherry, which was a spectacular ending to an otherwise subdued set.

Following up Mark Helias was the very exciting reunion of Tom & Gerry (analogue synthesist Thomas Lehn and percussionist Gerry Hemmingway). As a big fan of the duo's 1999 Erstwhile Records release, this was the most anticipated event for this reviewer; and it came very far from disappointing. At the beginning, the duo played with remarkable restraint and maturity. Just as the 1999 CD was an essential document in the era's budding reductionist improvisation scene, Sunday's performance paid homage to the contemporary reductionist improvisation scene which is quieter than ever. But not just was the set the festival's quietest performance; it was also the loudest. When havoc appears, the whole room begins to shake and it becomes the only moment of the entire festival where earplugs may be recommended. But not just are these moments bombastic and visceral; they are also welcomed, warranted and deserved. Nothing is simply done for shock or anything so easy, this music is careful and methodical. Gerry's toolkit had only grown since the previous night's performance, but Lehn's had actually shrunk as he moved towards a more refined and subtle method of improvisation. Although the performance does have a comfortable spot in the field of contemporary improvisation, it carried much more emotional weight than may be expected in this form of music. In certain moments, Thomas Lehn emitted high tones and beeping LFO's to create brain-shaking pseudo-techno beats. A long section of Gerry simply humming into a harmonica while Lehn worked on harmonizing high pitch tones with soft waves of static was a highpoint, and another was when one of the highest dB catastrophes quickly collapsed into Gerry ringing tiny bells over Lehn's soft processed static. In short, Tom & Gerry continue to be just as spectacular, contemporary and provocative as they were nearly 20 years ago.

The festival ended with one last performance at Silence.: the local duo of Barnyard Drama (singer Christine Duncan and Drummer Jean Martin). Very quickly, Barnyard Drama established themselves as a powerful provocative force; as Duncan shouts out oddball poetry, and gives shoutouts to a large amount of the audience. Jean Martin creates an equally oddball beat, which moves around randomly and often detaches from any form. Martin also controlled electronic modifications of both performers through a laptop and MIDI pad, where he enabled delay effects, tones and sequences. The set was enchanting, and the hour-long performance floated away like minutes. Barnyard Drama had cast their spell, and they had brought the Guelph Jazz Festival to an ending which was both intimate and weird.

The 2017 Guelph Jazz Festival was the first for artistic director Scott Thomson, and he's put together a wonderful string of concerts. There were plenty of surprises and odd decisions; but there wasn't a single ticketed event that I wasn't grateful for having attended.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Continuing Adventures of Damon Smith

John Butcher, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter - Catastrophe of Minimalism (Balance Point Acoustics, 2017) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

Bassist Damon Smith writes in the notes for this release, which was taped live in Oakland, California in 2008, that he likes to let recordings age: "You are very sure about the music when you live with it for a few years before putting it out in the world."

It makes sense: let the ingredients over time interact, if done right, perhaps an unanticipated richness develops around them, ideas that perhaps didn't seem right at the time turn out to be brilliant moves, something perceived as a mistake when it was played has somehow completely melted into the whole. While uncertain what, if any of these things apply here, what is certain is that Catastrophe of Minimalism is a sumptuous and intense album, sure to tickle the most fickle palette.

Saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Weasel Walter round out the trio. The first track 'An Illusionistic Panic Part 1' begins among a spate of percussive hits, saxophone smears, and bowed bass. The melange of ingredients exist both together and seeking their own space. Coming together with a cymbal crash, the tone is set for how these three musical provocateurs will proceed. 'A Blank Magic' follows, featuring skittering multi-phonics from Butcher, expressive and unexpected anti-patterns from Walter, and textural friction from Smith. The fevered pitch that Butcher brings the group to with a repetitive circular phrase and the subsequent percussive tangent that follows on 'Modern Technological Fetishes' is worth the price of the album alone.

Each track provides a different angle on the inner workings of this trio, each offering it's own complex arrangements of overtones, undertones, and meaty notes between. The titles, like the ones for Six Situations are inspired and borrowed from the mid-20th century artist Dan Flavin

Here, have a whiff of this particular good vintage:

Leap of Faith - Domains (Evil Clown, 2017) ****

Smith has relocated a few times over the years, from his website: "After many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, and six great years in Houston, Texas working regularly with Alvin Fielder, Sandy Ewen, David Dove & Chris Cogburn, Damon moved to the Boston area in the fall of 2016.” So, though he is a recent arrival in Boston, it obviously wouldn't be long before he was beckoned into the Leap of Faith multi-verse. Leap of Faith is the work of Boston based woodwind player David Peck (aka PEK), along with the core group of cellist Glynis Lomon and drummer Yuri Zbitnov. The trio is joined on Domains by bassists Silvain Castellano and Smith.

Those who have ventured into Leap of Faith's musical world know of the rich rewards and decadent dangers contained within. Domains starts quietly, a bed of sound is made through various percussion instruments and what sounds like a subconscious accordion. There is a rumble from down in the bass register, and as tempo and temper pick up, the bowed sounds of the low strings swirl about, while the contra-alto clarinet spins a rich suspended gossamer web around the skittering percussion. It would be quite hard to pick out which is Castellano and which is Smith, however a Leap of Faith recording isn’t so much about the individual voices, but rather, the totality of the improvisation. Veering from bowed to bouncing to bitonal, the basses dominate, and the group weaves their dark magic around them (check out the music around the 55 minute mark - its intense!).

Recorded live at Outpost 186 in Cambridge, MA in August 2017, Domains is a unique album. With the tilt towards the strings, the set is dominated by the low frequency instruments and features a different level of gravity. Absolutely captivating.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Alvin Fielder / Frode Gjerstad / Damon Smith — The Shape Finds Its Own Space (FMR Records, 2016) ***½

By Rick Joines

The Shape Finds Its Own Space is a set featuring Norwegian Frode Gjerstad on clarinet and alto saxophone and Americans Alvin Fielder on drums and Damon Smith on double bass recorded at the No Idea Festival in Austin, Texas, on February 25, 2016. The album’s title, and the title of the three-part 38-minute improvisation—“angles, curves, edges, & mass”—comes from an artist’s statement by Ellsworth Kelly:
I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges, and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness.
Ellsworth Kelly is an apt muse for an improvising, free jazz musician. He sought to escape representation and the conventions of easel painting on a rectangular canvas, yet his abstractions always abstract from real objects: windows, frames, and the wall around them, the tombstone curves of Tour de France kilometer markers, the way light bounces off rippling water. “The form of my painting is the content,” Ellsworth proclaimed.

Can free jazz musicians transpose this visual artist’s goals into their medium? Kelly’s method of composition was to avoid composition: chance eliminated the need to decide where things go. Likewise, Gjerstad, Fielder, and Smith play without knowing how things will unfold. They work their instruments and shape their music, revealing its plasticity, but music also resists and makes its own demands. It has limits both the body and imagination must respect. Fielder modulates in and out of rhythm, riding a cymbal and at times positively swinging as Smith walks growling, fat-fingered bass lines. Smith’s strings whisper into hazes of harmonics and dive in glassy shrieks. Both flirt with mixtures of pure improvisation and conventional musical beauty, unlike Gjerstad who opts for the unrestrained. I am not a fan of his frightened-wounded-nearly-dying-animal-spinning-on-a-rusty-turnstile-whose-tea-kettle-is-at-the-boil style, but he’s been at it for decades, and others find it enthralling. Like the abstract artist, these improvising musicians wander out to the edge of the real and the imaginable and wobble there on the precipice where the aesthetic ends and its opposite begins.

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...