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Schlippenbach Trio: Alex von Schlippenbach (p), Evan Parker (ts), Paul Lytton (d)

Karlsruhe, Jubez, 12/13/2018. Photo by Martin Schray

Nana Pi (ts), Akira Sakata (as), Asger Thomsen (b), Steve Heather (d)

Berlin, Kuhlspot, 12/2018

Ayler Xmas: Klaus Kugel (dr); Mars Williams (s); Mark Tokar (b); Jaimie Branch (tr); Knox Chandler (g)

Weikersheim, Club W71, 12/8/2018.

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik: Christian Lillinger (d), Petter Eldh (b), Kaja Draksler (p)

Schorndorf, Manufaktur, 11/22/2018. Photo by Martin Schray

OM: Christy Doran (g), Urs Leimgruber (s), Bobby Burri (b), Fredy Studer (dr).

Schorndorf, Manufaktur, 12/7/2018

Monday, January 21, 2019

Corey Mwamba - (s)kin, volumes 1–12 (self-released, 2018) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

Mid-way through 2018, I noticed that my writing had fallen into discernible, repeatable patterns. Certain phrases and a lack of a kind of precision I aspire to had worked into my reviews, and so I spent several months writing, rewriting, and editing a large number of write-ups. The downside for the artists I’d intended to cover is there was less coverage of their work than there should have been; about this, I feel fairly guilty. The artists in this niche field of free, improvised, avant-garde, and creative music suffer enough from a lack of coverage, however I personally felt it would not be worth covering the album with mediocre writing. One person I’ve found will always be available for a conversation about the write-edit-repeat process is vibraphonist Corey Mwamba. A deeply thoughtful and open person, Mwamba and I have developed a nice online dialogue, sometimes out in the open, other times between only the two of us. Like me, Mwamba is discontented by the languages of music criticism, the recurring phraseology that communicates, more than anything else, this new thing sounds like that old thing, like a semantic recommendation engine. “People who like echoing sonorities also like these echoing sonorities,” or whatever. Which makes the challenge of describing (s)kin that much more, well , challenging.

A Bandcamp subscription series, (s)kin consists of roughly one EP-length album per month, plus over a dozen single releases. Overall, the collected releases have the feel of time-boxed experiments, with vibraphone at the center, yes, but often layered with drum machine, vocalizations, and ambient recordings. And despite the regularity of the releases, (s)kin is not merely building to a single endpoint; Mwamba is circling something, some many things, in fact, called up by the title itself. Race, family, identity, all recur in thematic eddies, with track titles, spoken word, and melodic fragments referring to or reflecting back upon and at each other. If there is a central question, it could be, not why? but why not?

As a player, Mwamba has chosen to wind down his public performing. Instead of future gigs, it’s possible projects like (s)kin and similar studio work are all we’ll hear of his compositional voice. That would be understandable, if unfortunate (mainly for myself, as I’ve yet to travel to England and therefore have not yet had the pleasure). But (s)kin is more inviting and personal than a club gig could be, anyway, so I am left wondering, “What would I be missing?” There is, of course, the physical, the real-word body standing up there onstage, and isn’t that what I pay for? There’s plenty to stew over there—white man pays for black man to stand onstage and entertain him—so why not instead make a long-term investment in the art? There’s no true return, in a traditionally commodified sense—(s)kin asks more of me, emotionally and intellectually, than any single gig could. The starkness of the music… strike that, actually. Stark’s one of those words to lean on. And anyway, it isn’t stark, it’s often lush and symphonic, with layers of detailed moments setting a scene that appears in the mind’s eye for very brief moments, the pulse and timbre shifting so the image remains unfixed. A library hall? A dining table? The waves?

One of my all-time favorite novels, The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn, begins with a powerful refrain, “the hills only come back the same: I don’t mind.” The sense of time and scale, of an indifference that settles onto a landscape, which remains forever there and forever changing, no matter our intent. For me, in 2018, (s)kin is part of my landscape, part of the big music that’s surrounded me; it arrives electronically, the releases accruing, never mind me. Mwamba is thinking and considering, working through some big ideas. I would urge each of you to purchase a subscription. Mwamba’s music is engrossing, witty and clever, with all the depth and range of a combo or chamber group. And Mwamba’s variety of techniques on the vibraphone get a chance to shine in isolation. Mixing mallets and materials, tones simultaneously float through the air and spike dramatically downwards. Yes, yes, metallic overtones and clashing sonorities abound; all the previously tossed-about phrases apply. As long as this project continues, I’ll try to find a way to write about it, and perhaps next time I’ll have some new phrasing.


From '(s)kin 12':

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Okkyung Lee - Dahl-Tah-Ghi (Pica Disk, 2018) ****½

By Stef

Some years ago, I qualified South-Korean cellist Okkyung Lee as the Jimi Hendrix of the cello, because she manages to speak a language with her instrument that is richer, more expressive, more violent, more heart-rending than was thought possible before. Or to put it differently: every other cello you listen to afterwards sounds somewhat more simple and childish.

The album's title means "Moon Gliding", and that image may be confusing in the sense that it doesn't really reflect what you may expect to hear (such as a romantic night, or a spiritual reflection). The intertwined hands on the album's cover are more telling. In this 42 minute solo improvisation, Okkyung Lee demonstrates again the strength of her uncompromising and unique musical vision. The performance was recorded in the Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum in Oslo, in June 2013 for a limited group of 30 people. The Mausoleum is a special place, and I share some pictures of its interior below, because they surely have an effect on the performance itself. The inside of the building is 'covered with frescos that depict human life from conception till death, in dramatic and often explicit erotic scences'.

If anything, Lee's improvisation is a wonderful reflection of this space, with its inherent agony and beauty, the contrasting pains of life and death, the howling of lust and pain, the unrelenting violence that interacts with subtle vulnerability. She uses a lot of drone-like repetitive phrases, harsh high-pitched powerful playing on several strings together, yet she also uses silence and slow moments to enhance the full resonance of the space, she makes her instrument laugh too, or weep like the whales, and all these as part of one long suite-like improvisation that is nothing less than "life expressed". There are moments when you want her to end the harsh sounds - and of course she doesn't, because that would be missing the point - there are moments you want her to continue what she's doing - and then she doesn't - of course not. It's raw, hard at times, yet what a listening experience! It will not leave you indifferent. And that's how it should be.

You get it all. Here.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Okkyung Lee - Cheol-Kkot-Sae (Steel.Flower.Bird) (Tzadik, 2018) ****½

By Martin Schray

Founded in 1921 the Donaueschinger Musiktage is an annual festival for contemporary music that takes place on the third weekend of October. It consists exclusively of world premieres and is internationally regarded as the oldest and most important festival for this kind of music. The first concert 97 years ago featured the Quartet for two Violins, Viola and Violoncello, op. 16 by Paul Hindemith. Subsequently, world premieres of works by Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez took place there (actually, almost every important composer for new music had a program focus at the festival). In 1970 the Musiktage also opened up to new forms of jazz, displaying works by Wolfgang Dauner and his composition for five musicians, a choir, three amplifiers, six boxes, three reverberators, three wireless and other microphones, two potentiometers, record players, tape recorder, optical devices, and other various instruments, as well as Albert von Schlippenbach's premiere of Globe Unity 70, Peter Brötzmann’s Drunken in the Morning SunriseManfred Schoof's Ode for Free-Jazz-Ensemble and Sun Ra’s Black Forest.

In 1996 the management of the SWR broadcasting station informed the other organisers that they will have to reduce their financial commitment by 50 per cent from 1998 on and that the aim was to turn the festival into a biennale. However, a worldwide unique international wave of protest forced them to come up with a new financing concept which included public and private sponsors. Nevertheless, especially the new jazz section has had to cut back its expenses, only two program items could be maintained. Since 2013 Julia Neupert has been in charge of this part of the festival. Among others she organised Mazen Kerbaj's ARIHA Trumpet Ensemble and Lotte Anker’s Electric and Acoustic Habitat. In 2016 Okkyung Lee’s Cheol-Kkot-Sae (Steel.Flower.Bird) was on the program.

Okkyung Lee’s idea was to bring together all her musical influences, beginning with the music of her childhood. "As a child in Korea my formal musical training was largely based on the European Classical tradition and its ideal sense of beauty. It never occurred tome how absurd it was that I was never asked to study Korean traditional music", she says in the liner notes. Later she listened to a lot of pop music and other stuff but when she was studying in Boston she realised that she was singing Korean traditional songs whenever she was alone. She wondered whether she was connected to these melodies because of her Korean heritage and if these melodies were in her musical DNA. So it seemed almost logical that her project for the Musiktage had her examine her Korean roots in order to combine them with noise and improvised music. According to Cecil Taylor’s famous quote that the composition begins with the selection of the players she chose an all-star band which included herself on cello, Song-hee Kwon (vocals), Jae-hyo Chang (Korean traditional percussion), Ches Smith (drums and percussion), John Butcher (saxophones), John Edwards (bass) and Lasse Marhaug (electronics).

Cheol-Kkot-Sae is a long form piece with a coda, but actually it can be divided into several parts, which are introduced by solos. At first Song-hee Kwon begins with traditional Pansori singing. She is accompanied by Lee's cello however, the piece is soon 'disturbed' by noise parts. Marhaug’s electronics sound as if he was tearing up the sheet music, while gradually the other instruments are added timidly to the whole (except for the saxophone). Lee's cello is like a humming insect flying through the music of the others.

In the following there are several fixed points that structure the composition: Edwards' bass repeating a small riff, a brutal noise attack by Marhaug, drums/percussion solos by Jae-hyo Chang and Smith, as well as little melodies by Lee and Kwon. In the first part the traditional Pansori vocals become more and more intense, merging with the improvised cello, bass and saxophone parts, but in between there’s always room for tender passages, for example John Butcher's almost classical saxophone solo. On the one hand the music is an orgy of scraping, scratching, rattling, rumbling. The roaring volume and tempo of the playing, the rhythmic contrasts and the different sound colours make the composition so exciting and forceful. On the other hand there are quieter parts as well, when the electronics beep, hum and hiss, before the vocals creep in very dominantly. It's as if Lee's musical past always shines through. Natural sounds and tradition penetrate the modern influences again and again- this seems to be another structural leitmotif of the music. Finally, Lee’s duo with Song-hee Kwon sets the final point, the piece returns to the beginning.

Cheol-Kkot-Sae is an outstanding combination of improvised and world music. It’s one of the best albums in 2018.

The album is available as a CD. You can buy it here: or from the label's website.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings (International Anthem, 2018) *****

By Nick Metzger

I got completely hung up on this album for the better part of a month and a half this fall. From its release date at the end of October to the present I've listened to it more than any other record this year by a good margin. Several things about it draw me back, some having to do with my own personal tastes, some to do with the remarkable talent assembled across these discs, but none more so than its genuine projection of community. This album dispenses that sentimentality in a mosaic of harmonious interplay and universal vibes from a global cast of musicians brought together by one of the true masterminds of the Chicago jazz scene. Universal Beings finds percussionist and producer Makaya McCraven playing with some of the best talent in creative music across four cities and two continents. The material from these meetings was then treated to McCraven's considerable post-production skills (also see Where We Come From - CHICAGOxLONDON Mixtape for a great companion to this album) and the resulting elixir has often been the only suitable treatment for my existential anxieties as we close out one of the most bizarre years in memory. That McCraven was able to work with such a diverse cast and have the resulting record sound as cohesive as it does is testament to his vision as much as his talent behind the mixing board. The album progresses linearly across four sides, marked by changes in locale and personnel which impart their distinct flavors to McCraven's ‘organic beat music’. The first two sides (New York and Chicago Sides, respectively) draw their material from live dates, while the second two (London and Los Angeles) are derived from studio sessions. Since jazz is all about celebrating the individual as a member of the whole, it's fitting that almost every song has a different featured musician (and every ensemble is coed).

New York Side features a set recorded at Queens’ H0L0 in August of 2017 with the quintet of McCraven, Brandee Younger on harp, Joel Ross on vibes, Tomeka Reid on cello, and Dezron Douglas on double bass. After the brief, mood setting A Queen's Intro, Holy Lands (feat Brandee Younger) gets the album started properly with the featured artist's elevating harp figure floating on the groove provided by Douglas and McCraven. Joel Ross and Tomeka Reid in turn provide accents beneath a gorgeous solo from Younger. The refrain will have you unwittingly bobbing your head. Young Genius (feat Joel Ross) continues the feeling of the previous song, finding Younger and Ross providing the touchstones of the piece on harp and vibes, with Ross taking the fore as the featured musician this time around. Next is the more moody Black Lion (feat Dezron Douglas), finding the bassist rocking to a minor key vamp against McCraven's pyrotechnics. The combination of Reid, Ross, and Younger play counterpoint, leading naturally into Tall Tales (feat Tomeka Reid) where the American cellist lays down a gorgeous solo over the thudding foundation of McCraven and Douglas. Mantra feels like the statement piece from this group, with each member contributing to its minimalist vision of beat music.

Chicago Side consists of material taken from a concert held at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in the neighborhood of Bridgeport in September of 2017. Here the quartet is comprised of McCraven, cellist Tomeka Reid, Junius Paul on double bass, and Shabaka Hutchings on tenor saxophone. Pharoah's Intro is comprised of some tasty saxophone/cello/drums interaction that warms you up for one of my favorite pieces of the year, Atlantic Black. There is some tremendously quick interplay between Hutchings and Reid right off the jump that quickens into a vamp before the counterpoint resumes, after that McCraven works his studio magic, snatching samples of the interplay and weaving them into kaleidoscopic displays of rhythm that dissolve at around six minutes then built it back up again slowly around extremely soulful saxophone passages. Inner Flight is initially systematically rhythmic before breaking down into a great back-and-forth between Reid and Hutchings. Wise Man, Wiser woman (feat Shabaka Hutchings) contains another great saxophone riff played with sincerity by Hutchings and complemented with delectably overdriven runs and bow slashes from Reid. On Prosperity's Fear (feat Junius Paul) the band plays like fire, consuming all the available air in the room and leaving ash behind.

London Side was recorded at Total Refreshment, a nightclub in Stoke Newington where the material for the aforementioned Where We Come From was taken. This session features the quartet of McCraven, Nubya Garcia on tenor saxophone, Ashley Henry on Rhodes, and Daniel Casimir on double bass. “So d’you guys wanna play something?” begins Flipped OUT, which hops along on a strident beat from McCraven mounted by Henry’s Rhodes and Casimir on bass. Periodically Garcia shows up, providing an angular sax riff or emphasis. Flipped OUT drifts right into Voila (feat Daniel Casimir) , where Casimir plays splendid arco over the solid rhythm mechanics and post production. Garcia again emerges towards the latter half with smooth accents and a short but powerful solo to round out the piece. Suite Haus (feat Nubya Garcia) highlights the saxophonists’ Sonny Rollins-esque tone throughout, setting up a chopped and screwed loop + Rhodes section to close out the piece. Next comes The Newbies Lift Off (feat Ashley Henry), where Henry is given ample room to stretch out on the Rhodes, which sounds tremendously warm and at home over the crisp beats, sax swells, and Casimir’s absolute noggin’ bobber of a bass line. The side winds down with The Royal Outro, laying down some chatter from the London session over top of the smooth instrumental hip hop.

Los Angeles Side was recorded in guitarist Jeff Parker’s current residence in Altadena, Los Angeles County at the end of January, 2018. The line-up on this side consists of of McCraven, Jeff Parker, Josh Johnson on alto saxophone, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on violin, Anna Butterss on double bass, and Carlos Nino on percussion. The Count Off (feat Carlos Nino) begins more suddenly than any other song on this absolutely laid back collection. The drums are fast and the guitar and sax are blistering. It's short and sweet and serves as mental smelling salts to snap the listener from their trance. McCraven again spices these songs up by utilizing outtakes of quips and banter from the recording session, a reminder of the humanity involved in the process. Butterss's (feat Anna Butterss) is a palm-muted guitar and violin fantasia built off a backbone provided by the smooth as satin bass playing of Anna Butterss. Turtle Tricks features the familiar guitar sound of host Jeff Parker, who many of us grew up listening to as a member of Tortoise and who is also a huge influence on McCraven's music. His brilliant playing adds the tint of nostalgia to these LA pieces and is also a central component of The Fifth Monk where the groove is built around the guitar and violin and highlighted with melodic lines from Josh Johnson's horn. The next piece Brighter Days Beginning (feat Josh Johnson) is a quiet, understated piece of airy saxophone, guitar, and rustling percussion. Overdubbed a top the music is a conversation among the musicians discussing the potential of humanity and the frustration at our lack of progress, invoking the album title in their talk. Universal Beings (feat Migel Atwood Ferguson) closes out the album with over a scrappy McCraven beat, pocked with Parker's staccato guitar and accented by Johnson and Nino all riding out the storm that is Atwood-Ferguson. By the time it's over I'm exhausted from the weight of the album, but when I go to put something else on this is all I want to hear.

The key to what makes this all so compelling for me is the concise minimalist hip hop style underlying the entire effort and the understated recording technique finding McCraven using only a couple of room mics to capture the performances. The way he and then slices and dices the results to mold it into his signature sound is a unique approach that works marvelously. The audio artifacts provided by the local ambience are treated the same as the rest of the source material giving the sound a natural resonance that lacks in a lot of sample based music. That the improvisations are augmented in the studio is an obvious nod to dub and to modern studio magicians like Jeff Parker and Tortoise and it makes McCraven’s music unique in that the overall effort is a group one (again with that community thing), even if the maestro still has the final say. Anyway, it's an exciting and innovative time for Chicago jazz and International Anthem is doing a phenomenal job of getting it recorded and out to the people, highly recommended.

Universal Beings Teaser:

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Pandelis Karayorgis' New Trios

By Eyal Hareuveni

Two new trios from Boston based pianist-composer-educator Pandelis Karayorgis, both recorded in informal house sessions last summer.

Pandelis Karayorgis / Damon Smith / Eric Rosenthal - Cliff (Driff Records, 2018) ****

Pandelis Karayorgis and drummer Eric Rosenthal share a long musical relationship dating back to the early nineties. For this session they are joined by double bass player Damon Smith who has recently relocated to the Boston area and has played with both several times over the past couple of years. Cliff captures their first, free-improvised encounter as a trio on a hot July day in Cambridge. Karayorgis was in charge of the recording, mixing and the cover art.

The four extended pieces explore different aspects of a resourceful improvising unit dynamics as density, energy, timbre and palette of sounds, tension building and release, texture and pulse. From the first second of this session, this trio sounds as willing to take more and more risks, literally - as if it hangs from a huge cliff. Karayorgis and Rosenthal completes each other gestures in a fast and muscular flow, and often both play as a tight, organic unit.

Smith adds a subversive dimension to this session. He refuses to follow or intensify any pulse, loose as it may be. He insists on confronting and sometimes even provoking the immediate interplay of Karayorgis and Rosenthal with his inventive suggestions -including a total different perspective of this trio syntax and harmonic possibilities - articulated with masterful, extended bowing techniques and rich palette of deep-toned sounds. The tension that Smith introduces to the interplay keeps this trio from falling down from the adventurous cliffs it has explored.



Pandelis Karayorgis / Nate McBride / Luther Gray - Pools (Driff Records, 2018)***½

Pools reunites Karayorgis with long-time comrades from past piano trios and other outfits. Bass player Nate McBride has played in Karayorgis' trios with drummers Randy Peterson and Curt Newton. Drummer Luther Gary has played in another trio of Karayorgis with bass player Jef Charland. McBride and Gray play also with Karayorgis in the quintet Cutout and recently have collaborated again in a quintet led by guitarist Jeff Parker.

This new trio was recorded too in July 2018 in Cambridge. Karayorgis wrote all the pieces except for a free-improvised piece and a variation on a blues theme, and, again, recorded and mixed the session and did the cover art. This trio emphasizes the concept of restrained intensity, a three-way dialogue that enjoys the strong musical bond that these three musicians have established over the years. This informal session is an opportunity for this trio to stretch out and refine its shared language and common pool of ideas.

The free-improvised piece, the most intense one here, “Last one”, captures best the immediate flow and exchange of ideas between Karayorgis, McBride and Gray in a true democratic interplay. The other pieces offer different dynamics and textures. This trio rages through the opening “Roll”; enjoys a loose ballad on “How Daisies Jiggle”; playing with fast-shifting rhythmic patterns on “Entanglement”; explores a minimalist, ritualistic texture on “allbyitself” , that introduce the following, playful, improvised “Blues”; sketches a sparse, quiet playing of Karayorgis, opposed by the nervous rhythm section on “Neumes”, and concludes with the contemplative “Slack Tide”.

Atomic @ NuBlu, NYC. 1-14-19

Fredrik Ljungkvist (sax) Magnus Broo (tpt), and Håvard Wiik (key) of Atomic

Atomic is a band which features players from Norway and Sweden.  New York was the first stop on their short tour for their newest recording, Pet Variations.  The recording is mostly made up of covers, including material from Carla Bley, Steve Lacy, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Jan Garbarek. 

The show was sparsely attended.  This is likely due to the fact that NuBlu’s website did not list the show in a timely manner, and there was little advance publicity.  Despite this shortcoming, the show itself was terrific.  The band members have clearly put a lot of thought into how they are presenting these songs.  Each player seems to have carved out his own sonic space so that each instrument was uniquely showcased.  During one song, for example, the bass-player  Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Hans Hulbækmo had a chance to do an extended duo during which the percussionist played a polyrhythmic pattern below the sound-space of his partner. This enabled listeners to get a sense of the interaction between the players without losing what each was bringing forth. 

The band kept a somewhat slower pace than many of their free jazz contemporaries. The volume was never excessive. The result was to highlight the compositions. There were, of course, a few great solos, including one from the trumpeter Magnus Broo.  There was still an edginess to the music despite its controlled pacing. 

Håvard Wiik played an electric piano to good effect. The rest of the band were playing acoustic instruments, and I suspect that Wiik would have preferred a real piano.  Fredrik Ljungkvist  acted as leader by announcing the songs and providing some patter between songs.  His sax- playing blended well with Broo’s contributions, and there were more than a few hot moments. Despite the fact that this was the first night of the U.S. tour, the band members were clearly comfortable together.  

A note should be made regarding NuBlu 151, which is clearly making a bit more of an effort to present this music.  Last week they were part of the Winter JazzFest, and later this week they will play host to Arts for Arts “Justice is Compassion” series.  The club does have two major downsides, a lack of seating and no piano.  Still, it is my hope that the club continues to book this type of music as NYC desperately needs new venues for its presentation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Eave - Eave (Astral Spirits, 2018) ****

By Stef

"Eave" is a new quartet of young Canadian avant-garde musicians, of whom Anna Webber is possibly the best known to visitors of our blog, as she was reviewed only a month ago as a member of Adam Hopkins' "Crickets" album, and of course known by her own acclaimed albums with the Anna Webber Trio, the Anna Webbber Percussive Mechanics, and her collaborations with musicians such as Jim Black, Matt Mitchell and Harris Eisenstadt (most of them reviewed). She is joined on alto by Erik Hove, on drums by Evan Tighe and by Vicky Mettler on guitar. The latter also performs as an 'avant-garde singer-songwriter' - if that exists - under the alias of Kee Avil.

The four musicians create quiet but intense soundscapes, as if the order word is to create as little volume as possible, with as much possible power, very much in the idiom of European free improv. And they succeed. Together, the small bursts of sound clutter together and bind themselves like atoms clicking together to form molecules, and once in a while a tone on one of the saxes is sustained. Rhythm is totally absent, but that doesn't mean there isn't a good sense of pace. There are no real outbursts of energy, the sound is contained and disciplined, raw, harsh and still in constant flux. It is at times wonderful to hear how they find a common voice as in the long "Axe Or Chisel". Despite the self-imposed restraint, there is a lot of violence and discomfort in the music, with suppressed emotions getting expressed in more subtle ways than usual. Some tracks such as "Denver Bob" are extremely dark and depressing even.

The interaction between the musicians is impressive, as is their common language and sense of direction. They manage to create a sonic universe full of contrasts, paradoxes and intensity, rich in texture and ideas. This is not music made to please - it is actually rather the opposite of a crowd-pleaser - and this headstrong uncompromising vision is what we like. No pleasant walk in the park, but a rewarding hike that demands effort, over hard sonic rocks, and thickets of thornbrushes and thistles: hard authenticity.

Really strong.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Mike Faloon - The Other Night at Quinn's: New Adventures In The Sonic Underground (Razorcake / Gorsky Press, 2018) ****½

Beacon, NY is an old town, certainly by American standards. It was named after beacon fires that burned at the top of the nearby mountain to alert the Continental Army about British troop movement during the Revolutionary War. The town exudes history, from the beautiful Victorian buildings, to the ruins of an early 20th century casino and cable car on Beacon mountain, to the mid-20th century era downtown that has weathered more than its fair share of downtrodden times. It's here, in a somewhat refurbished, but utterly transformed diner turned hip Asian fusion joint with properly sourced local IPAs, in which author Mike Faloon sets his story,

The Other Night at Quinn's is a post-modern love story between man, music, and the community he's discovered. Using a clever threading of cultural references and open minded listening, Faloon chronicles each step in venturing further and further down the rabbit hole. Throughout the book, he is a keen observer of not only the musicians on stage, but of the audience and their reactions, and the personalities that make it all happen.

In short chapters, which themselves are composed of small vignettes, Faloon tells stories that connect the music that he grows to love and the scene that embraces him to the seasons, memories, and seemingly unconnected events that, even if they don't entirely dovetail, share deep common threads. Instead of delivering concert reviews - which have a certain amount of appeal - he presents patterns, textures, impressions, and pictures. In a later chapter, trombonist Steve Swell calls Faloon's writing  "schizophrenic", in a very positive way: "when we play music or write poetry we are dealing with everything we already know or have been exposed to ... all of the information, disparate as it may seem, comes to the fore when we are creating". Taken as a whole, these piecies tell how a small dedicated group of people can create something whole out of disparate parts.

This is true of many small (and not so small) places. It may be just one or two people who in their own quixotic ways create a place for the like-minded and curious on lookers to gather. For Beacon, it began with James Keepnews, who leveraged years worth of connections in the improvised music world with Quinn's restaurant, which was lucky enough to have an owner willing to give some often outlandish music a place to be.

Each chapter in The Other Night at Quinn's is formed around, well, another night at Quinn's. The bands were not always known to Faloon, and he approaches each one with respect and openness, sometimes watching them interact, sometimes feeling the music, sometimes watching the audience. The set of characters is rich: trumpeter/saxophonist Joe McPhee is a recurring character, fleshed out as both a performer and an audience member (he lives nearby); Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey perform sans sound system and in opposition to a birthday in the booths towards the rear; and the wild sounds of Katherine Young's Pretty Monsters and the blasphemy of a bassoon behaving nothing like a bassoon, just scratches the surface. The concert descriptions are juxtaposed with moments of the author's life - a poignant description of moving his mother into a smaller apartment as she became to old to care for her long-time home, or fragments of pop culture like the Inception-like reference to a Japanese movie that itself references the Coen brother's Fargo, or building a patio in his backyard and discovering a 1950's Buick buried below the ground. The humor is brittle, and it crumbles delectably around the musical and life stories. Faloon also drops in question-less interviews with the key figures and musicians without warning, which is surprising at first, but make sense within the framework Faloon has created.

I am happy to say that I chanced upon this scene myself. I have always had a deep appreciation for this area, located just north of New York City, the hiking is fantastic, and the river is gorgeous, and the chance to experience avant-garde music amongst it was more than tempting. My first show at Quinn's was 'Son of Goldfinger' with David Torn, Tim Berne, and Ches Smith (Smith has a chapter in the book as well, a solo show. "Smith," Faloon writes, "concocts snare/bass combinations that pulverize, and the way he favors syncopation over speed allows you to savor each pop and punch.") and the last show I caught was a solo Eugene Chadbourne gobbling up the stage. My impression was that what was happening there was indeed something special, and Faloon confirms it.

Things like this do not always last (though I hope this one does!), scenes move on, venues change, and people come and go, but fortunately Faloon, in this physically small, but dimensionally thick book, captures not only a time and place, but a personal intersection with the world of creative music. It is his story and his community, but it's also the story of other communities, and of nearly anyone drawn who has been drawn into the vortex of improvised music.

The Other Night at Quinn's: New Adventures In The Sonic Underground is available through Razorcake/Gorsky Press and I'd bet that if you venture to Beacon, you'll stumble upon a small crammed bookstore with a copy as well (but that's not a guarantee...just a feeling).

Check out a chapter of the book here, "Another Candle on the Cake - Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey".

Monday, January 14, 2019

Rosalind Hall & Judith Hamann - Gossamers (Caduc, 2018) ****

By Stef

"Gossamers" is a free improvisation album by two young Australian musicians: Rosalind Hall on alto saxophone and Judith Hamann on cello. Both explore timbral variations and interaction on a drone-like monotonous foundation, resulting in a wonderful shimmering sonic landscape, as its title suggests. The unrelenting weaving of single tones from the two instruments, and especially the vibrations and flageolets result in a strong listening experience, where psychophysical effects are generated in a very deliberate way. Some will call this noise, because there are no patterns, melodies or rhythms to be discerned: there is nothing but shimmering sound, but then of a fragility and vulnerability that is so precious, that all other so-called music is noise by comparison, or blunt, brutal and superficial. This is music that requires the utmost concentration and listening skills and self-control from the musicians, as well as close attention by the listener.

Their music builds on both modern classical music as well as the AMM legacy, Kim Myhr, Ingar Zach, Jim Denley and Xavier Charles. And somehow, despite the monotony, you don't want this to end. It's that addictive.

I hope we will hear much more of both musicians in the future.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Winter Jazzfest, NYC 2019

By Eric J. Stern

The Winter Jazzfest is back and with it returns the old debates of “what is jazz?” or, more precisely, why call this a jazzfest? Over the years I have sometimes wondered how much of this event is really just a weeklong pub crawl featuring some occasional music. Local people I asked did not even know that there was a music festival going on. This is bad news, considering that I was at The Stone the first night of the festival when I asked this question. Comedy aside, to some extent this is a shame as there are many exceptional musical performances that have been happening over the past week.

On January 5th, I attended a pair of shows, which I will summarize quickly.

Ghost Train Orchestra Plays Moondog at SubCulture. According to the band’s website, this was the first public performance by Ghost Train Orchestra of this music. The material consists of big band arrangements of the songs of Moondog. Moondog, as you may recall, was a polymath who built instruments and worked in wide range of musical styles. He was also something of a street performer, having been known as “The Viking of 6th Avenue.” This was a fun performance by a group of exceptionally talented players including Mazz Swift, Curtis Hasselbring, Brandon Seabrook, Rob Garcia and Andy Laster. Honestly, I had no idea that this performance was happening until it was about to start, and this was a very lucky accident indeed.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound at the Sheen Center. A seventeen piece band with so much going on that I can’t really claim to have been able to process it all. The leader splits himself between trumpet and santur. The band is similarly divided between western instruments and those more common to Middle Eastern traditions. But there is more here than that. I get the sense that this is a group concept that will continue to expand as the composer develops these arrangements over time. English horn and oboe are not first call instruments in either tradition, and I think that their placement here demonstrates that ElSaffar is less concerned with exploring an old idiom than he is in fleshing out his own vision. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Often, when I discuss music with knowledgeable friends, we will use the band members’ names as a shorthand to express what was on offer. Knowing, for example, that this band included Miles Okazaki, Dan Weiss and Aruán Ortiz may give you some ideas, but in this case that probably is not as helpful as it normally might be. Here the musicians’ abilities are subsumed into the needs of the arrangements, and the music is an expression of ElSaffar’s unique soundscapes.

Ben Goldberg’s Unfold Ordinary Mind at NuBlu on January 7, 2019. As Ben Goldberg pointed out early in his set at NuBlu on Monday night, part of the rationale behind this band is to incorporate his work with the contra-alto clarinet. In this context the contra-alto clarinet functions to undertake the duties normally performed by the bass. The result forces the listener to ask questions about the way a rhythm player works in the context of this band. Unfortunately, the trade-off is you do lose the opportunity to hear the leader as soloist.

In recent months, I have had the good fortune of getting to see Goldberg frequently and that has meant watching him seek out opportunities for the less common members of the clarinet family. One example was a pairing he did with Kurt Knuffke. Sadly, my trainspotting is not good enough for me to remember exactly which horns were paired on that date. I have also seen his recent Steve Lacy project where he has taken the opportunity to consider the use of intervals. You can see how Goldberg’s methodical approach informs all of his projects.

Assisting Goldberg here was an all-star band which included two tenor sax players, Donny McCaslin and John Ellis, guitarist Nels Cline, and drummer Ches Smith. The band played several compositions from the 2012 recording from which the group takes its name. The compositions had a strong element of swing, and the energy level stayed high throughout the performance.

Cline’s playing was of particular interest as he showed his enormous range of ideas for the electric guitar. Even for someone as reliably diverse in his playing as he is, his performance covered so many different aspects of what he does as to act almost like a career retrospective. It was a staggeringly impressive display. Each musician in Monday’s set displayed their incredible talent and versatility. Even a cursory listen to what Ches Smith was doing prompts the listener to reckon with the immensity of his skills. The pleasure of just getting to hear these two sax players, McCaslin and Ellis, to trade off a bit was itself enough to have made the evening worthwhile. Going back to my earlier comment, in this case knowing which players were involved definitely enables the would-be listener to get a sense of what the performance was like, as each player infused the music with his personality. 

After coming to New York City in 1983, Eric Stern has practiced law by day and followed the improv music scene by night. He presently coordinates the House of Improv which organizes monthly performances.