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Angelica Sanchez and Wadada Leo Smith

Greenwich Music House, New York, New York. March 2017. Photo by Bart Babinski

Julie Kjær 3: Steve Noble (d), John Edwards (b), Kjær (s)

Club Manufaktur, Schorndorf, Germany. March 2017. Photo by Martin Schray

Ballister: David Rempis, Paal-Nilssen Love, Fred-Lonberg Holm

Dialograum Kreuzung an St. Helena, Bonn. March 2017. Photo by Martin Schray

David Torn

Howland Cultural Center, Beacon, NY. March 2017. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Louis Belogenis & Joe McPhee

Alan Krili's Loft, NYC. February 2017. Photo by Paul Acquaro

Monday, May 29, 2017

Bill Frisell / Thomas Morgan - Small Town (ECM, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

I've always enjoyed guitarist Bill Frisell's duo work, his playing is always supportive, incisive, delicate, and persuasive, really everything a partner should be. Some collaborations that come to mind include his 1998 meet up with pianist Fred Hersch (Songs We Know), a 2006 rendezvous with Jack DeJohnette (The Elephant Sleeps but Still Remembers), his fascinating 1984 intersection with Tim Berne (Theoretically), and even his 1983 ECM debut In Line with bassist Arild Anderson. If I were to draw a similarity with Small Town, it would pass through all of these right back to the first one - the label and the instrumentation notwithstanding.

It's nice to see Frisell on ECM again (after the late 80s, he's been on the periphery, appearing on many albums) and in a duo with the prolific bassist Thomas Morgan, who, like Frisell, is quiet in person and exudes great warmth and humanity in his playing. Together they complete each other's musical sentences, hang off the ellipses, and have made an album that is at once trademark Frisell with its gentle questioning melodies and hints of American folk music, while sporting an hint of outside the line coloring harkening back too compositions that appeared on albums like In-Line and the dissonant Americana laced This Land.

You don't quite know it until you hear the applause and glasses clink that Small Town was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in March of 2016. The sound is lovely and spacious, each note of the guitar rings clear and the use of dynamics are sublime, like on the tasty title track. The bassist fills the spaces between the guitarist's chords but not without creating his own moments of intrigue.

A thoroughly enjoyable album that pairs the master guitar-slinger with a more than up-and-coming and completely sympathetic bassist. Listening is like fulfilling a guilty pleasure without the guilt.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Jack Wright - The Free Musics (Spring Garden Music Editions, 2017)

Jack Wright's The Free Musics has really fired up the collective! Today we have two differing opinions from Rick Joines and Martin Schray ...

On Jack Wright’s The Free Musics 

By Rick Joines

The thesis of Jack Wright’s The Free Musics could be summarized in the immortal words of Groucho Marx: “Whatever it is, I’m against it. . . . And even when you've changed it or condensed it, I'm against it!” But Groucho is not the Marxist who is the presiding spirit informing Wright’s free improvisatory meditation on the problem of “free” jazz; that is Theodor Adorno.

Like Adorno writing about Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, Wright analyzes the social function of music, the financial predicament of the artist, and the dominant musical ideology that only rewards conformity. Both the “new music” of the Second Viennese School and “free” jazz confront an audience that believes itself sophisticated and open to “the new” but who cannot, or will not, recognize what they were hearing as “music.” Such audiences grow hostile when the artist refuses to bow to the dogma that “the customer is always right.” They expect musicians to abjure their identities as artists and be, instead, “entertainers,” “content providers” who supply what the audience demands.

Jazz, Wright argues, is a rule-bound social and economic activity encompassed within a genre that patrols the borders and decides who’s in or out. As a marketable commodity, jazz is capable of infinite reproduction and is a skill a tradesman can learn to replicate with assembly-line, machine-like accuracy. The jazz performer subjects himself to and obeys the rules of playing the changes and improvising on the theme for a prescribed number of bars. The audience obeys the rules of the consumer or concert-goer and expects to be served a dish they have liked before. Audiences, the music industry, and the teaching of jazz in schools and universities police jazz, making sure it will never turn outlaw. But if it does, it wouldn’t matter because there would be no one to hear it, buy it, purchase a ticket for it, or publish a textbook to promulgate it.

Improvisatory free playing, however, refuses to play nicely with what is hegemonic. Though it, too, can be congealed as a commodity one can purchase, collect, or download, it will never be background music at the Waffle House or at a bourgie cocktail party. Neither will it be a luxury item for display at the Lincoln Center. Free music attempts, persistently, to break rules, even if those violations could eventually become a generic commodity—even if this task turns out absurdly Sisyphean. Rebellion gets sold as just another commodity, a lifestyle choice, personal style. In postmodernity, Wright notes, “the individual is freed from the need to put together a self that can sustain itself in the midst of change.” We are set to “random shuffle.” We pull on our Che Guavara T-shirt, pop in our earbuds, and fashion ourselves after the image of your own personally-chosen brand-name commodities. As Adorno says, enjoy your “prescribed fun.”

An oversimplification of Wright’s (and Adorno’s) argument, might be: if people like it, it cannot be any good: it cannot be “art” because “art” offends the many. Art is difficult, and the ruling ideology cannot account for it. But what happens to jazz-as-art in a tolerant postmodern capitalist democracy—where all things are permitted? when everyone has a right to his or her own taste? when the notion of hierarchy or greatness is rejected matter-of-factly at the cash register, or the ticket booth? How do you offend an audience with no values, who is, therefore, incapable of being offended? And how entice it?

Even if we are all trapped within the horizon of late capitalism, Wright believes some freedom was and is still possible in an almost alternate reality of free music, but only for those willing to sacrifice the recognition culture can give (money, prizes, fame, fortune, to be sampled by Kanye).

Who are you playing for, Wright asks?
Hardly anyone.
Why do it?
I must.

Like Schoenberg’s short-lived Society for the Private Performance of Music (1918-1922), free music, Wright argues, exists as a “virtually private music,” with few financial rewards. The artists play before small audiences or perhaps only to a community of other players. There has always been something spiritual in free jazz—a substitute sacredness, a transcendence visible in the distance, a liturgical expansion of time and compression of space, an almost-forgotten sense of utopian hope. There may be moments when the ruling tradition and its audience-as-police-force can be forgotten, but perhaps only for the artist and his auditor during the time of playing freely.

For me, Wright places a little too much emphasis on the romance of free playing, comparing it to the imaginative play of children who compose pleasure out of what presents itself. “Free playing,” he writes, “is the pursuit of pleasure through making sound that is as truly one’s own making in that moment as possible. This makes it distinct from audience interest and from structures culturally known or self-prepared.” The pleasure—the jouissance—of this art is for him “a way of knowing through our sensuous activity, which resists conclusive understanding and is unending.” But is this the idea held by all artists who play freely, or by the audience who recognizes the beauty of their art? For some, free jazz is more intellectual than emotional, more about transcending technique than emotional enthusiasm.

At other points, however, Wright seems right on the nose: “This ‘outside music’ requires a psyche outside that built for sophisticated adaptation, outside of consumer behavior and the contract with culture suppliers.” For this psyche, the music is not a matter of taste. It calls to them, and through it they see who they are. A Marxist Wright does not name, Louis Althusser, calls this process “interpellation.” The audience Wright and Adorno scorns is interpellated by—hailed by—the ideology of easily commodified forms of mass entertainment, and even “high” art if it has a forbidding price tag. It allows them to conform to what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie yet believe their choice of mass-produced commodities really is a “choice,” and their “unique” combos make them “individuals.” They are “subjects” who cannot conceive of any alternatives to the reality they dream in as consumers. They have what they call “good taste.”

Maybe free jazz is just another commodity, and those who love it are as deluded consumers as everyone else. Yet what is “obvious” or “natural” to the many seems ridiculous or tawdry to the devotees of free music. The free jazz musician and the adherent of the music may never fully escape the repressive quality of the dominant culture’s consumerist ideology, but they respond to a different call to which many are deaf or hostile. Maybe everything is, in the end, a swallowed up in the maw of culture, but their values are the values of the Other, which can never be incorporated into the hegemonic body. They love that which never existed until this moment. They love what disappears the next. They love what could never be repeated. Whatever it is, they’re against it.

Jack Wright - The Free Musics (Spring Garden Music Editions, 2017)

By Martin Schray

A critical view on the preface and the central concept of free playing

Books on free jazz, free improvisation and improvised music (or whatever you might call it) seem problematic. There are only a few which are convincing, such as Ekkehard Jost’s Free Jazz (The Roots of Jazz), Jon Corbett’s A Listener’s Guide to Improvisation (at least from a listener’s perspective), Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life (from a sociological point of view), or Felix Klopotek’s How They Do It (if you read German). That’s why I look forward to new publications on the genre, especially when they might provide fresh musical insights, but I’m often disappointed. I found George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself too academic and tough to read, Arthur Taylor’s interview collection Notes and Tones too superficial so far as the music was concerned, and Johannes Rød’s Free Jazz And Improvisation On Vinyl (1965-1985) is really no more than summary of labels and albums. Even Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom, by David Toop – a man I respect for Rap Attack and Ocean of Sound – is too digressive, doesn’t get to the point and is overly-ambitious.

Jack Wright’s book looked promising, and some favourable assessments (among them Tom’s and Fotis’ yesterday) apparently confirm that. Wright’s a well-respected musician who’s been on the scene for a long time and his language is refreshingly absent of jargon. Apart from providing a historical background to free music, his main point is that he distinguishes between free jazz, free improvisation and free playing, the last being the most interesting for him. Tom’s review was right stating that “this book is so packed with ideas and concepts it would take an essay 1/3rd the size of the book itself to even summarize them all“. However, since a lot of rightfully positive feedback has been given, I’d like to focus on some critical points mainly in the preface and the chapter called “Free Playing“.

First of all Wright concentrates on the North American scene. It’s the scene he knows best but on the other hand it’s doubtful if a distinction between North America and Europe makes sense in a world which is highly globalized. Many American musicians tour regularly in Europe (think of the Chicagoans, for example), lots of Europeans live in New York (Ingrid Laubrock, Sylvie Courvoisier, Thomas Heberer).

Already in the preface Wright focuses on the social reality music is said to reflect – he refers to it as “social order“ - and for him, free jazz has lost its revolutionary and collective character.

Free jazz has become a subgenre minimally supported by a music world whose larger job is to maintain and distinct taste categories. Its advocates consider it a marginalized extension of jazz, which itself is promoted as achieved freedom… However, the strength of free jazz rests on reproducing a fixed and even hyperreal image of the earlier age. Musicians are overshadowed by the iconic, resurrected figures of the sixties… Whatever the political intentions of the players, the social order has accommodated them, as if to say, “free“ no longer means trouble-making.

Which musicians are actually overshadowed and exactly how the social order has accommodated the players is not mentioned. He continues:

Free playing may be the originary base of current free jazz and free improvisation, but under the unwritten agreement with art consumers and the music world professionals are pressured to work under the yoke of conformity to what is expected from identified artists. Musicians say "We’re free to play what we want," but they must fulfill a contract. In free playing they might also say that, but they won’t know what they want until they play it.

If Wright was talking about pop, rock or even mainstream jazz I might agree, but he also includes free jazz and - at least in parts - free improvisation (something he sums up in the fourth and the last question of yesterday’s interview). He suggests that mainstream media, companies and even musicians are part of a larger plan to prevent musicians and listeners to play and listen to free music.

...the marketplace pounds it into us that our music is not good enough for the public purchase, and the institutions that fund music have consistently avoided anyone who cannot promise pre-existent form and stylistic homogeneity.

I guess we all agree on the fact that there could be more subsidies for free musics but there are exceptions to the rule as well. Ken Vandermark was awarded with the Mac Arthur Prize (at the age of 35) and Nate Wooley got the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artist, supporting the recording and production of [Syllables] (Pleasure Of The Text Records, 2017), a solo work consisting of four CDs, a book of essays, and a book of scores, which raises questions about the necessity of success and failure in instrumental technique. Here Wright makes it too easy for himself. He tries to solve this by stating that free music cannot be written, that it’s actually not important if the music is good, that it’s the process which is more important. But in trying to present a solution, he plays the genres off against each other by devaluing free jazz and composed music:

The bulk of such music has some compositional, pre-structured element, which enables it to be identified with a known category…The present moment of making sounds is completely open in what it can be, even with no vision a different. The past can be retrieved   from centennial celebrations, predictable festivals, academic biographies, and quasi religious worship. These create a false sense of continuity, identity and completion, yielding an image of us following in larger footsteps, while they only take us around in circles.

What may sound interesting taken out of context, is actually ambivalent. A musician like Ingrid Laubrock is deeply rooted in free jazz, she falls back on the great music of the sixties but she is also a great improvisor trying to explore new musical territories on the basis of tradition without making too obvious use of it.

Wright might have a point though mentioning festivals, if you think of the well-respected Konfrontationen in Nickelsdorf, for example- which, although the music is often of an extraordinary quality, presents many of the same musicians. If Wright had named names his line of arguments would have been much stronger.

As mentioned above Wright claims that it’s the act of playing itself which is the crucial aspect, not the result, suggesting that music can be constantly invented anew. But music isn’t created out of the blue, it has a history and musicians are well-aware of it, they are standing on the shoulders of giants. Wright follows the thinking of Derek Bailey, who felt that free improvisation was no longer “non-idiomatic“ in his sense, as it had become a recognizable genre and musical style in itself*. Bailey was looking for a styleless area in which to work, but even at that time there were other points of view. Evan Parker, undoubtedly a great improvisor, sees his work as “coming out of a particular tradition“ and was “inspired to play by listening to certain people who continue to be talked about mainly in jazz contexts. People like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor - these were people that played music that excited me to the point where I took music seriously myself “. And wasn’t it Cecil Taylor who said that the first step of a “composition“ is the selection of the players because you know what kind of sound and style you invite?

In the end, Wright’s concept is nothing new (in fairness, he doesn’t claim that it is) but one might ask why he puts old wine in new bottles. The most serious shortcoming of this chapter of the book however, is that there are hardly any examples provided to support his contentions (see above). Almost no names are mentioned here, making it difficult to get a tangible grip on his theories. For instance: he says that in more formal and recognized venues or recording studios, internalized pressures often come to life and threaten the adventure. Who has had that experience, where and when, and on what basis is it typical?

At the end of the chapter Wright concedes that free playing is not free of rules, but there is at least one. He demands that playing has to be so interesting, so capable of ambivalence that the end cannot be imagined. The question remains if this isn’t somewhat random and artificial.

In the conclusion to the book, Wright admits that some things he writes might “seem harsh and disturbing where it concerns free jazz, tenured professionals, career pursuits, and the stagnation of the avant-garde, but it’s what many know and hesitate to say in public.“ Again: who and why? The allegations aren’t backed up with any real evidence.

Wright proves that he can do better in the final chapters of his book when he describes what he calls “lower case music“ illustrating his points with the example of Bhob Rainey and Nmperign. I wished he had done this before more often as well.

In a nutshell, I would still recommend Mr Wright’s book to those interested in free music, it provides interesting intellectual approaches even if I don’t agree with him in some aspects. And I guess the ultimate book on free improvisation has still to be written.

*I have used the terms ‘idiomatic’ and ‘non-idiomatic’ to describe the two main forms of improvisation. Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom – such as jazz, flamenco or baroque – and takes its identity from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called ‘free’ improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity. (Derek Bailey)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Interview with Jack Wright

Jack Wright in 2013. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Ιn the following Q&A, Jack Wright claims (and we have no reason not to believe him) that he is not interested in becoming an authority in the areas of free jazz and free improvisation. In addition to being an exceptional improvisor, he has just published a great about it. Enjoy Wright's interesting answers to questions provoked from reading his book, Free Musics.

1. Why write a book about free jazz and free improv? Do you find that, still, there are stories untold?

The stories about the great names have been told, but this is about the collectivities of musicians. First of all, understand that the focus is North America. I only briefly discuss the European origins of free improv and its evolution, with the exception of Derek Bailey, the major inspiration for the music here. The book probes the rise and rejection of sixties Free Jazz and its later transformation into a traditional model, no longer a dynamic and changing movement. It discusses free improv in the states as it evolved in the 80s, a loose collectivity of players, some of whom were interested in free jazz and many others who were not. Besides these two historical genres I have two chapters on what I call free playing, an approach adopted by a few improvisers that is akin to the original approach of free improvisation.

2. Writing a book is, also, about contacting with others your thoughts and views. How different is it from playing music? Especially from the collective nature of free thinking music.

I am not an academic or journalistic outsider to the music but have been exclusively involved with free improv since its origins. My source of information was mostly my own experience of this music community, some fact checking with others, and research into jazz history. The book is organized thought about what we do when we play freely, so it's very different from playing itself.

3. Writing about the past of improvisation can help place its importance in the present and how necessary it is for the future, I believe. Do you agree? 

Free improvisation as a genre is today best accessed as a European tradition, with representative figures who have not ventured far from what they were doing decades ago. Many scorn it as passé, eclipsed by experimental, largely composed musics prepared in advance. It is considered so stable and non-threatening that educational institutions are attracted to it as an object of study and classroom practice. My interest musically is rather in the approach of free playing, which is an underground phenomenon of no cultural importance at present. I don't know what "necessary" would mean; I would only advocate it for people who don't feel the need to achieve the kind of recognition and reward that professionals depend on. If it does achieve significance, it will not be a matter of the music world institutions plucking this or that name out of the hat, but of a collectivity of dedicated players. There would also be listeners who refuse to be instructed who is "the best," and respond directly to their experience of the music. This is by no means impossible, for the official avant-garde today has no life of its own, repeats itself endlessly, and many are bored with it.

4. In the book you are referring to the collapse of the free jazz movement and, on one of the final chapters, to a resurgence of free improvisation. Is this the case today? 

The resurgence I refer to was a grass-roots interest in playing freely, which began in the later 90s and ended about ten years ago. There are still small pockets of players here and there, but free playing that lacks the familiar markers of free jazz is not publicized or known, certainly not to the middle class art music audience.

5. Free playing or writing about the personal, social and political aspects of it? Your preference?

These are just two different activities of mine, although they feed each other.

6. To be an accolyte of free jazz and free improvisation is, for me, a personal choice but also one that is derived from the current structures and every day mishappenings. What do you think?

Every choice originates in a range of cultural options, "current structures"; we merely bend and contort it in directions that make it less recognizable. When people ask, "What are your influences," they're trying to pull us back to what is familiar to them and away from where our freedom has taken us.

7. One of the most interesting parts of the book is, for me, the links with the current situation. Firstly, it makes me think that there will be a companion, kind of a second part. Second, could you comment about the current situation in your country and how does it affect all non-mainstream musics?

I'm not interested to become an authority in this area; there are many other directions I can imagine going with writing. I have been surprised at the strong interest in my book, but it's hard to say if readers have grasped this central point--namely, to become a full-time professional performer of free music, which was assumed among the originators fifty years ago, is no longer possible. Perhaps a few older free jazz musicians earn a living from performing, and a few European improvisers; the icons are either dead or can be adequately known through recordings. All the social order needs is a few names playing and behaving predictably to keep alive the myth that if you're good and work hard you too can achieve the same. This decline of the musician social role means we no longer need to think in terms of the entrepreneurial, ambitious musician. We're cut loose from the career path and can push the limits of playing without being financially punished for doing so. The "free" of free playing is musicological, and only possible when one is free of the limitations that the music-world imposes in exchange for recognition. When players grasp this conjuncture then that word scorned by postmodern culture, "freedom," is given new life and meaning.

Jack Wright Music Reviews on the Free Jazz Blog:

Jack Wright - The Free Musics (Spring Garden Music, 2017)

By Tom Burris

“I am learning how to play and how to write, and that is superior to the pretense of knowing.”
             - Jack Wright

Chances are that if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re aware of Jack Wright.  Often referred to as “the Johnny Appleseed of free improvisation,” his reputation as a fearless crusader of the purest form of musical expression is fairly well known (at least in the U.S. underground).  His own music is as free of studied technique as a proficient musician could create.  It’s admittedly impossible to get back to zero once you know your way around a thing.  You're not going to be a virgin again.  You’ll never experience anything for the first time twice.  But it is admirable to set out on that impossible journey in search of a specific type of purity.  You sure aren’t ever going to be literally born again; but you can be a Holy Fool for life if your commitment is deep enough.  And you can teach humanity a thing or two about life – via music or a book-length essay.  The Holy Fool is always the foremost speaker of truth and wisdom in worldly matters, whether he’s Milarepa, Louis C.K. or Derek Bailey.

But I’m not here to attempt to canonize Uncle Jack into the pantheon of spiritual leadership.  I’m also not going to attempt to tell you everything this book is about.  This book is so packed with ideas and concepts (and personally acquired knowledge, of course)  it would take an essay 1/3rd the size of the book itself to even summarize them all.  This is a meaty pack o’ paper for sure.   I made my way through it with the help of a yellow highlighter marker, knowing there was no way I could ever cover  98% of what's going on within its pages during a short review.  No trees were wasted in the printing of this volume.

The book is divided chronologically into sections “Jazz & Free Jazz,” “Free Improvisation & Free Playing,” then the concluding sections called “The New Old Things,” in which, among many other topics, Wright laments the unchanging divisions between the various forms of free playing, primarily what we call “Free Jazz” and “Free Improvisation”.  Wright seems to prefer the term “free playing” over either of them, which is the style he says that applies to both.

Wright covers all the early bases you expect to see:  the jazz wars, Ornette, Coltrane, Ayler, Cecil – but criticizes free jazz for setting itself up in the way of not allowing for any later purveyors of the form to be considered equals with its earlier titans.  In Jack’s words, “The egalitarianism of free jazz depends on everyone being unequal to the giants of yore.  These have been passing away one by one and leaving no vacancies, not even standards the epigones could hope to match and surpass.  This has set up a dilemma, for the long view would see free jazz in progressive decline with no prospect of recovering from irreparable losses.”

On the other hand I don’t think Jack is saying a listener of, say Mary Halvorson, can’t get the same feeling of temporary samadhi that Coltrane inspired in deep listeners on “Chasing the Trane” from the Live at the Village Vanguard set.  I think he’s simply asking the question “How many more obstacles have been created to this by the structures of a highly codified marketplace?”

This goes hand-in-hand with the reality that artistic innovations have taken a backseat to technological advances.  If free jazz was built on the idea of constant innovation, then where is it in the here and now of the digital age?  Wright applies this pattern of circular logic to every subgenre you can think of – and it is this unflinching eye that makes this book absolutely essential reading to anyone involved in any aspect of free music, including – and maybe even especially – the listener / consumer (for whom those subgenres were primarily created).

I’m including a section of the book here simply because it is instructional and liberating to anyone who has participated actively as a listener, but never as an active participant in freely improvised music:

“For the reader who hasn’t ever engaged music actively, the best way to grasp this is to put yourself into the situation of actually playing.  Just make a sound, then another, without singing.  Do this in private, with no one in earshot to judge you.  You might be surprised how difficult it is, a kind of embarrassment, an attack on your self-image as a mature adult.  Or get your hands on a physical instrument.  Maybe a cello and bow, those aura-endowed objects only a priestly caste is supposed to handle.  The thought of it can be frightening – what could I possibly do?  Why am I doing this?  Draw the bow across the strings and say to yourself, “This is the sound I’m making,” a simple statement of fact.  You are in the existential situation of being free from any external judgment and face to face with your full capacity to humiliate yourself.  The superego voice rebukes you as foolish; it defeats you or you go ahead – your choice.  Each sound you make will fly in the face of that voice, and you will be slashing it to the ground with every untutored stroke of the bow – with no one but yourself to hear it.  You will not approximate a “real” cellist, but in listening you will discover a new relation of your ear and your sound-making body.  You will be drawing energy away from the straw man that has been mediating your relation to music, and gaining power for yourself you never knew possible.  Since you are not aiming to become a musician, this power will have no roots in identity.  Moreover you will be within the circle of those who play freely in performance, and will immediately get what they are doing.  When you ask to play a session with us we will do it.”

Jack wears many hats over the duration of this heavy tome; but it is Professor Jack, Holy Fool, I appreciate the most.  He shows you how to do it.  He is pointing the way toward creative freedom, whether you’ve played music for 50 years or just picked up an instrument for the first time.  The Holy Fool is, again, the wisest man in the room, calmly showing us that to be completely open to the next experience is all there is to freedom.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Noah Kaplan Quartet - Cluster Swerve (HatHut, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Shapeshifter Lab, tucked away in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, is an impressive 4,200 square foot venue. The stage area alone is the size of most venues catering to experimental music. The area is gentrifying quickly - in the few years I've been attending more and more bars and coffee shops have been opening up and I am pretty sure there was some sort of dance party happening at a self-storage place along the canal.

I arrived at the same time as the Noah Kaplan Quartet. Kaplan, who lives nearby, and currently studying composition at Princeton University, just released his second recording for HatHut records, Cluster Swerve, this was the release show. The rest of his long standing quartet, guitarist Joe Morris, bassist Giacomo Merega, and drummer Jason Nazary, were now at the small bar outside the music area, getting our hand stamps and what not.

I grabbed a drink, found a good vantage spot, and watched as the group set up as an intimate crowd filtered in. The group was relaxed though the leader paced about a bit - Morris and Merega sat opposite each other with Nazary recessed between them. Kaplan took a spot center left and began to play. His sound was tempered, soft but not smooth, with a pensive and somewhat vulnerable tone. Morris joined next, throwing out a mix of chords and legato phrases. Nazary then introduced some electronic textures, a crackly fizz, to the atmosphere and Merega started to lay some foundation. The drummer picked up his sticks, a propulsive pulse gripped the group.

As Kaplan picked up the pace, his dark tone filled in the remaining space between his taut microtonal phrases. Moving in a blur of melody and motion, he pushed the sound further and further. Morris jumped in as Kaplan dropped out, beginning with spaciously articulated notes before ramping up the speed and density. Merega responded with with a punchy walk, while Nazary kept up the pace. Coming down from a early peak, Morris and Kaplan engaged in a quiet, but tense duet, the electronics (perhaps a bit too loud, but not overpowering) provided a cushion of sound while Merega shifted the slabs of bass about.

Kaplan's music is an intriguing mix of classic free jazz with bits of rock, sometimes ethereal, sometimes driving. The breadth of musical elements and contrasting styles - moments of intense groove, musical searching, and then enthralling peaks - kept it compelling from start to finish. All but one song that night was improvised (an utterly transformed version of 'Stella by Starlight') and there was nary a dull moment.

On Cluster Swerve, it is obvious that the spirit on display at the show was not a one time event. The album opens with 'Clinamen', the historic name given to the swerving motion of atoms, and in this case, perhaps its also related to the unusual movement of the melody. Kaplan utilizes to great effect the aforementioned clustered notes, craftily swerving around the pulse and accompaniment. The second track 'Entzauberung' - the German word for disenchantment, is actually quite energizing. There is a fascinating passage where the electronics and drums blend into a thick sonic texture, and the song builds to a climax that is not unlike the concert experience - an intensity grips and holds the listener close, until it finally decides to let go.

The version of 'Body and Soul' on the album is like the experience of hearing 'Stella by Starlight' at the concert - unless paying close attention it is easy to get lost in the music without realizing you've heard it so many times before. The kinetic swirling of sound the group achieves on the fourth track, 'Sphex', is the best example of the group's power. The full effect of the kinetic bunching of phrases from both Kaplan and Morris is felt as they reach a fevered pitch. In support, Merega's plays in strong parallel with Morris, at once reactive to his musical directions and at the same time quite independent. Sometimes silent, other time upfront, Nazary's playing is strong throughout, whether reacting to the or helping wind things down with a more straight ahead beat like a the end of 'Virago'.

Check out the Noah Kaplan Quartet. Cluster Swerve captures an exciting group for whom form, melody, and contrast are never neglected, and any given approach seems to last the right amount of time, leaving the listener both satisfied and maybe wanting just a little more.

Here's an older video of the group at work:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jaimie Branch - Fly or Die (International Anthem, 2017) *****

by Tom Burris

Much has been made of Jaimie Branch's move to NYC from Chicago a couple of years ago – especially about the fact that her new city quickly became the birthplace of her long-overdue debut album as a leader. Whatever NYC had to do with inspiring this thing, THANK YOU BIG APPLE. But make no mistake, this record is still the sound of Chicago. It's a sharply focused work that moves from one great idea to another quickly and – while retaining its originality - is also very representative of the last 20 years of a certain Chicago sound, with its musical precision and post-production work in the electro-acoustic realm of Tortoise or Rob Mazurek's many projects.

What you're getting here is 35 minutes of compacted and refined hyperactivity that is also highly sensitive, a bit stormy, and completely brilliant. Textures are extremely important, as Branch casually uses reverb to widen and deepen the landscape, or as in perfectly placed overdubs – like the dubs of Tomeka Reid's cello on “theme 001,” which build tension and add richness to the mix. Of course, before you can play with texture you have to have the goods – and with the lock-in-groove between Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor, the goods are definitely in supply. Then there's Branch herself. She plays the trumpet with skill and purpose, and her approach is both passionate and cerebral. No note is wasted. She knows what to do with every bit of space. I think her days of being a ridiculously underrated musician will be officially over once this record takes off. And there is every reason to expect that it will.

A real standout track is “leaves of glass,” on which Branch is joined by guests Josh Berman and Ben Lamar Gay on cornets. The opening chords are almost unbearably mournful and gorgeous, then the mix goes crazy as the horns start melting all over themselves in multiple washes of echoey effects. This track is followed by “the storm,” where things really get surreal as Reid and Ajemian make rain and Taylor thunders. Branch provides the lightning. Then echoed brass ghosts dance on the plains as the storm passes overhead.

The record is definitely a suite. Branch seems to turn over ideas until every workable outcome has been been revealed, and a suite is the perfect outlet for her writing and arranging methods. And for as much of a Chicago-comes-to-NYC vibe the group presents, I'm reminded as often of big open Midwestern spaces like Kansas or Nebraska – and even the Southwest. Seriously, it sits nicely as a companion piece to Jimmy Giuffre's Western Suite or Neil Young's Zuma.

I have to talk about the magnificent “theme nothing.” Taylor wallops out a horse clomping rhythm that indicates we may be headed toward the Southwest. Ajemian's bass rumble propels the music forward. The way Branch and Reid wind around each other is spellbinding. The melody will stay in your head forever – and not in an annoying way. I think it's my favorite track of 2017 so far.

And then there's the oddity at the end, which is called “...back at the ranch,” Guest musician Matt Schneider plays a freestyle campfire acoustic guitar for a minute and a half. It doesn't sound like a tag to me, although the liner notes call it an epilogue. It sounds simply like we have arrived at a new and different place where anything is possible. So is it jazz? The only answer to that question is “Who gives a shit?”

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Matthias Müller - Solo Trombone (Mamü, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

In his book Into the Maelstrom David Toop claims that there is no solo. "Every sound meets the flaring acoustic space, encounters its own shadow in the higher-pitched resonation of electronic feedback, communes with ensembles of the multiple self, doubles back into its own maker even in the moment of its emergence, cries out to the listener who is performer and the hypothetical listener, the invisible ear which will at some point absorb and decipher the mystery, the arresting physicality, of these concise but strange communications."

In spite of Toop’s statement, Matthias Müller calls Solo Trombone his first official solo album. Like many solo albums Müller’s performance is an oscillation between his band efforts (e.g. with Foils Quartet) and the evolution of his very own introspective vocabulary. Here he crosses different borders than with his groups and tries to map territories he hasn’t been before in these environments. Particularly with his use of extended playing techniques he has developed a spare yet eloquent language.

Müller transforms the fragility and vulnerability of the solo situation into excitement. "Bell", the first piece, is an exposure of pure trombone sound in all its varieties, there is no electronic manipulation. However, Müller does alienate his lines, he delves in hissing, spitting, agonizing, squeaking and he implements the sound explorations he’s developed with his trios Trigger and their performances in show-caves and their surroundings. No traditional trombone sound is audible, only in the last four minutes of the 17-minute track Müller switches to circular breathing and throws in a funky riff he playfully dances around.

Moreover, Solo Trombone is also Müller’s way back to the roots. The album was recorded at St. Lambertus Church in the small village of Kirchtimke, located between Bremen and Hamburg, where Müller comes from and where he learned to play the trombone. "Valve" the second piece, symbolizes this way back, he pays tribute to Johannes Bauer (with whom he played in the Posaunenglanzterzett). Recorded only three months after his death Müller uses lines Bauer could have played, as if it was a last sad reference to the great German trombonist.

In the closing track, "Slide", Müller combines the two different approaches from the aforementioned pieces, sound in all possible varieties disperses in the church. Short shots ricochet through the room, answered by mournful groans. Listening to this piece, David Toop has a point. Müller is in a permanent dialogue with his instrument, he absorbs the atmosphere and vice versa, he listens and responds.

Is this a solo album? Who cares if the music is that good.

You can listen to an excerpt of“Valve“ and buy the album here:

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Jeph Jerman / Giacomo Salis / Paolo Sanna - KIO GE (Confront Collectors Series, 2017) ***½ ​

By Eyal Hareuveni

A free-improvised meeting between three musicians who blur the distinction between experimental sound art, minimalist percussion music and field recordings. KIO GE documents 12 short and untitled improvisations of prolific American sound artist-percussionist Jeph Jerman and the Italian percussion duo of Giacomo Salis and Paolo Sanna, who already have released a debut cassette (My Problem Child, Gravity’s Rainbow Tapes, 2015).

These short pieces offer abstract atmospheres that do not rely on any pulse, suggestive in their inventive, mosly organic sounds, and surprisingly characterized with strong storytelling qualities. Jerman, Salis, and Sanna know how to develop tension and sketch a dramatic texture with only homemade objects such as metal lids, brass bowl and brushes, creating a ritualistic ambience that balances between sudden radio waves noises and static silence or devling deeply into the sounds of skins and wooden objects.

Patiently, the three musicians experiment with a richer palette of sounds and delicate, cryptic textures. The later improvisations suggest some strangely beautiful moments when the prepared instruments, extended bowing techniques, and various field recordings lead to an exploration of new, imaginary sonic environments. Some of these otherworldly sonic environments are even charged with an exceptional urgency and a sense of disturbing playfulness. The last improvisation is the most radical one. It re-contextualize cheery Far-Eastern voices and a brief song in a chilly, distant drone.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Dálava - The Book of Transfigurations (Songlines, 2017) ****

The core of the group Dálava is the husband and wife team of vocalist Julia Úlehla and guitarist Aram Bajakian. They released the first Dálava album in 2014 and like The Book of Transfigurations, it is an exploration of Moravian folk songs collected by Úlehla’s great-grandfather, sung in Czech, and set to the more contemporary downtown NYC sound cultivated by Bajakian. The care and concern put into crafting the music, stemming from Úlehla family roots, plus the adventurous compositions from Bajakian (who worked with Lou Reed, the rambunctious group Abraxas, as well as created the meditative Dolphy Formations) make for a potent combo. 

Let's jump right in on track three, 'Dyž sem já šel pres hory / The rocks began to crumble'. The words, translated are of a young man’s heartbreak, being torn away from the woman he want’s to marry because he’s being drafted to war … 
Get married my girl, my golden heart,
I am not allowed to take a wife
I received a note, a little note, note
I must go to war.
Úlehla’s voice is haunting, there is a compressed urgency and a folksiness that doesn’t quite settle into, or leave, your ears. Bajakian delivers slashing guitar work that captures the internal tearing apart by conflicting romantic and patriotic loves. On the next track, 'Co ste si mamičko za dům stavjat dali / Iron bars, iron lock’, Úlehla’s voice is front an center, while an accordion provides appropriately forlorn accompaniment:
What kind of a house did you build for yourself, mama
Neither windows nor doors, only walls
On a later track, 'Okolo Hradišča voděnka teče / He's bringing something for me’, the music swells from quiet reflection into a wrenching explosion of sound. Such contrasts of old and new, and stylistic juxtapositions make the album compelling, while the language leaves many listeners simply hanging onto the expressive emotion of Úlehla’s voice rather than the meaning - the translations, invoking timeless themes, are provided within the accompanying booklet. 

The Dálava band is comprised of Vancouver musicians: cellist Peggy Lee, bassist Colin Cowan, accordionist/keyboardist Tyson Naylor, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. This isn’t the group that recorded the first album, which was drawn from the guitarists New York City groups. Bajakian and Úlehla have been living in BC for the past several years. While the downtown vibe was mentioned earlier, it is a not omnipresent, rather a calm, assured, expressiveness permeates the album. Check it out - listen closely and let time collapse around you.