Monday, November 24, 2014

Guitar Week: Solo Guitar (Day 1)

An occasional series where we delve into recent guitar related releases. We're kicking off guitar week with a set of solo guitar recordings...

Manuel Mota - Blackie and Headlights

By Chris Haines

The Portuguese guitarist occasionally finds himself being compared to Derek Bailey.  This is not a comparison that I have ever bought into as I have always felt that their styles and techniques are so completely different.  Mota has always had an increased sense of space in his music, which seems almost the opposite to Bailey’s rich and complex tapestry woven by his quick and nimble leaping around the fretboard.  When it comes to these comparisons I think what I’m trying to get at is that the texture of their music is completely different.  Maybe what has driven this argument is that Mota gained high praise from the master himself, but probably gained this accolade because he was creating music that was different to Bailey’s.  Having listened to these two recordings by Mota, that have been released on his own label this year, I’m not likely to change my mind anytime soon.  Both releases are for solo guitar and demonstrate and explore different sides to Mota’s playing.

Blackie (Headlights 2014) ***½
This album features Mota’s sparse fingerpicking style with the sound of the guitar drenched in reverb creating music of a reflective and contemplative nature from the guitarist.  There are four tracks on this album, all with the same overall feel to them.  When listening very closely, which this sort of music demands from the listener, the attention to detail is what generates the interest with careful use of dynamics within a limited spectrum and the thoughtful placement of sounds.  As a limited edition run of only 77 copies I’m sure this one will be sold out soon.

090114 (Headlights 2014) ***
This release shows the other prominent side of Mota’s playing, with the music being a single piece drone-based structure created by the guitarist’s cleverly controlled use of feedback which finds itself being subtly processed throughout the work.  The music gradually evolves throughout the piece whilst creating a consistent atmosphere eventually ending up in a sound world similar to that of Blackie.  Even though the sound is almost continuous throughout, the sense of space that you find within Mota’s music is very much part of the fabric and again requires careful listening to be fully appreciated.  This work is much shorter than Blackie and comes in at just under 26 minutes, however the quality of the piece is good.

Stephan Meidell-Cascades (Hubro Records, 2014) ****

By Ed Pettersen

Bergen, Norway-based guitarist Stephan Meidell takes a bold step to the forefront of new, experimental guitarists with his debut record, “Cascades”.  It hums, rumbles, thumps, growls and purrs its way into your consciousness and hypnotizes with its unique blend of percussive elements, drones and guitar textures.

Recorded in a cavernous old meat storage facility, a silo and a large freezer (!) and improvised before taking the recordings back to his home studio for more work he successfully reimagines the role of the guitar and creates what may best be called “industrial free form crunk jazz” and at times you’ll be challenged to find what is guitar and what is some other mad sound module or effect pedal.

Like his Norwegian predecessors Eivind Aarset and Stian Westerhuis, who also explore large, reverberant spaces, he is wholly original and masterful at his art and is an expert at making you “feel” the largess of their recordings.  The control he exudes over these spaces is nothing less than dizzying.  Anyone who has played in natural, untreated facilities can attest to how difficult it can be to control but Mr. Meidell never seems like he’s struggling or fighting these rooms.  You’d almost think he knew exactly how to restrain himself and play into it beforehand.  The decay on the performances are magnificent.

Schooled at the Jazz Conservatory of Amsterdam, Stephan Meidell also contributes to other projects such as Cakewalk (guitar, synth and drum drone rock), The Sweetest Thrill (indie hypno guitar and drums) and Krachmacher (noise pop) but start here with this fantastic solo debut.  It’s majestic, fiery, scary and alluring.  Highly recommended.

All instruments by Stephan Meidell.

Track Listing: Suspire, Simulate, Sedate, Solace, Serene, Strike, Stage and Sphere.

Gunnar Backman - Gitar / Sin No More (Brakeophonic, 2014) ***½


Gunnar Backman is a guitarist from Sweden whose work has been covered here before, most recently with the group's Baptet and Headjive. Here, we find Beckman going solo with his electric fretted and non-fretted virtual guitar and looping tools, exploring sonic territory that calls to mind the pioneering SynthAxe guitar work of Allan Holdsworth.

Firmly planted in the rock/fusion world Gitar! features loops and effects to create a sort of set of exercises that tries out different approaches and ideas. Throughout the sequence of tracks, some real stand out ones are the hard hitting #9 and the layered atmospheric #11.  Sin No More is an album that tilts a little more to longer structures, and over the course of the six tracks, showcases a quite varied improvisational set. The title track is quite interesting and fits neatly into the Crimson soundscape category, while the opening 'Aquire' offers up spiky peaks mixed with atmospheric lows. 'Sorrow' is very interesting and intriguing track, like a musical squeegee sliding across glass. 

Listen and download (free from Bandcamp):

Corrie van Binsbergen - Self Portrait In Pale Blue (Brokken Records, 2013) ****

I hadn't heard of Dutch guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen before listening to this recording, but from what I've heard, I'll be keeping my eye out for other recordings. From a few YouTube clips, I got a sense of her more fusion / rock playing, which were quite intriguing in their own right, but her solo recording may be an even more enjoyable listen.

The album, which was made on the occasion of a recording date where the band fell through but in which van Binsbergen was encouraged to improvise solo. That turned out to be good advice. The recording begins with an atmospheric, melancholic melody over subtle drones. Her approach is almost classical, the undertaking of each note as important as the note itself. She then begin's introducing layers through effects and loops, the playing shifts to a more legato rock feel. Each track has an arc, sometimes building into delicate beautiful structures, other times, crumbling to dust. 

A keeper!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nels Cline & Julian Lage - Room (Mack Avenue, 2014) *****

By Paul Acquaro

The guitar duo is one of my favorite musical settings – it has it all: camaraderie and creativity, volume and versatility, and so many vibrating strings. In late spring of 2012 I caught the then new duo of Nels Cline and Julian Lage playing as an opening act at a show at Le Poisson Rouge and their music has been lodged in the back of my mind since. I plunked down a little too much cash for a single they released called 'Racy' and crossed my fingers for a full length release. Enter Room.

So, as you now know, I'm biased towards this configuration and with completely clouded judgement I can say Room is a fantastic recording, genuinely living up to my expectations. The album is balance of composed and spontaneous parts and is well served is by the potent mix of the ever inventive and evolving Cline and the disciplined and devilishly good Lage. From avant-garde noise to alt-rock (can I still use that term?), Cline is up there pantheon of guitar greats. Lage comes from a more traditional jazz background and has worked with many prominent musicians such as Fred Hersch and Gary Burton. Here, the two guitarists blend impressively - be it chordal romps, arpeggiated forays or improvised sparring - to create a cohesive sound that remains captivating all the way through.

The album begins with 'Abstract', in which the sounds of crisp clean guitars single note lines and double stops play off each other. With loosely agreed upon passages rapidly breaking into free association. 'Racy' is next, featuring synchronous lines, rapid chase sequences, and nice solo turns. 'The Scent of Light' follows and its a much more open and spacious piece, it builds over nine minutes with repetitive phrases and contrasting patterns, this one in fact reminds me just a little of Cline's work with the Acoustic Guitar Trio. Track-by-track the variety and diversity of styles, approaches to playing, and the mix of straight ahead and free playing all expertly unfold.

Room was worth the wait. These two expert guitarists, coming from different places, have met in a space where their individual voices support each other and virtuosity takes a backseat to their music making.

Cline and Lage are playing on Tuesday the 25th at SubCulture in NYC


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Matthew Shipp Trio - Root of Things (Relative Pitch, 2014) ****

By Antonio Poscic

There’s no denying that Matthew Shipp currently ranks among the best, most prolific, and most innovative pianists in jazz. Whether playing solo, with his trio, or with some of his innumerable collaborators, his technique, style, and compositions are delightful and instantly recognizable. On Root of Things, a new chapter of his musical journey, he’s joined yet again by loyal and skillful collaborators, contrabassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey.

Together they interpret Shipp’s work in a most remarkable way. Their music yearns for the avant garde, but is, in this instance, nonetheless engaged in styles and approaches that do not test sonic boundaries or aim to stress the listener. It is a somewhat more conservative and traditional piano jazz trio. That is not to say the music is unadventurous or boringly safe, quite the contrary. Because even though superficially it might seem like pretty and enjoyable music, quite easy to grasp and to be immersed into, closer listening reveals that it is actually sewn together from elements which will pique the interest of even the most audacious and demanding listeners. This holds true for all of the six songs. The album starts with one tune which I can only deem to be beautiful. “Root of Things” is orchestrated around a soothing, repetitive theme which the musicians use as base for rhythmic, chromatic, and melodic meanderings. Meanwhile, Shipp dictates the mood: pensive and groovy. On the other side of the spectrum there’s “Jazz It” which, as the name implies, really does jazz it. It’s a tune that takes on a traditional notion and evolves it with a rolling, boppy rhythm, with Shipp’s piano following suit. As it gets busier and more frenetic, you might think it could spiral out of control, but it never does. The bass and drums pummel, the sounds are disparate yet cohesive, like a perfect storm. And before you know it, it all clears up and you’re left with the revelation of how good the music and musicians really are.

Bisio gets his solo spot during the first minutes of “Path” which he fills with a mesmerizing bass line leading to quiet, controlled turmoil, while Dickey enjoys almost five minutes of marching, pulsing soloing on “Pulse Code”. His band members join him during the closing minutes of the tune and try and follow in his footsteps. Shipp himself channels some of his solo mastery during the intro to “Solid Circuit”, which also serves as a showcase of how wonderfully Bisio and Dickey complement and understand Shipp’s music. Shipp’s signature mixture of styles and techniques, coming together in a very special and unique way, is as present here as on his recent solo records. Yet, these sonic elements are rather suppressed to accommodate the outstanding phrasing of Bisio’s bass and the rhythmic explosions and trips introduced by Dickey’s drumming. Technical prowess is not imperative, it’s the moods and intricacies of what the band plays that dominate. It’s the very chemistry between the players that impresses.

The length of the album feels just right, as well, and doesn’t fall into the trap of dragging on for too long. Each idea is explored for just the right amount of time. There’s an elusive quality to this music that makes it work on many levels, whether you choose to listen to subtle changes in tone and rhythm of each instrument as the songs progress or just enjoy the resultant soundscape. So the music is clearly great, but what about the production? After all, the piano trio, especially when varied as this one, is often hard to record properly. Luckily enough, the production is great and captures both the quiet passages and busier parts correctly.

In closing, I can’t say much else other than this is another great recording by Matthew Shipp and another worthy addition to his enormous discography. Interesting compositions wonderfully executed by brilliant musicians, what more could we ask for?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Avantbrass - Filum Terminale (Discordian, 2014) ***

By Stef

In a way I love brass bands, the slow marching bands, the funeral brass bands, the simple and powerful tunes of the village bands, music without pretence apart from reflecting the mood of the audience, either festive or sad, and in the best of cases making sad people happy again or making happy people reflect on the deep melancholy that pervades life.

Without pretence, so is Avantbrass, a band from Spain, or Catalonia to be more precise (one has to be careful these days) consisting of Pol Padrós on trumpet, Iván González on French horn, Josep Tutusaus on trombone,  David Parras on tuba, Aleix Forts on double bass, and Guillem Arnedo on drums.

Why are they reviewed here? Because as their name suggests, they color outside the lines, playing nice themes in full harmony and equally nicely arranged, only for the whole edifice to collapse on itself once in a while, with musicians and instruments going their own way, only to regroup and recreate and get back to the main theme, with wild soloing on top. Ferocious at times, melancholy at other moments. Nothing extraordinary, nothing exceptional, but good and clever fun.

If anyone's interested in more of this, I can easily recommend The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Youngblood Brass Band from the US, the Florina Brass Band from Greece, the Jaipur Kawa Brass Band from Rajastan in India, Kočani Orkestar from Macedonia, or Boban Marković Orchestra from Serbia. Check them out on Youtube or elsewhere on the web, and enjoy!

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Andreas Schaerer & Lucas Niggli – Arcanum (Intakt, 2014) ****

By Julian Eidenberger

Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli is one of the lesser known drumming greats working in avant/improv music right now. Despite collaborations with Barry Guy, and a trio recording alongside Elliot Sharp and Melvin Gibbs, he still seems to be largely unknown to listeners outside of Central Europe. This contrasts with the often outstanding quality of his contributions, and witnessing him play with his Avant-Rock/New Music trio Steamboat Switzerland should suffice to convince anyone of Niggli’s supreme abilities. But it would be unfair to focus attention solely on Niggli, as the record to be reviewed here is not a solo effort. His musical partner here is Andreas Schaerer, who happens to be an interesting musician in his own right. He works primarily as a vocal artist, which is to say here that he’s more interested in mimicking all kinds of noises than in “singing”, which he does only occasionally. As a duo, they create experimental music that’s not without a sense of humor, sometimes fast-paced and jumpy, sometimes slow and moody, but always with a Dadaistic playfulness.

Comparisons to Mike Patton are almost inevitable at this point, but arguably, Arcanum is a more interesting and consistent proposition than many Patton-related projects, which are often marred by a somewhat gimmicky approach to music-making. While opener Pipe Tomahawk kicks things off in the most Patton-ish way imaginable, with Schaerer alternating between siren-like and animalistic noises, and Niggli indulging in a wild, constantly time-shifting drum workout, the record as a whole is more varied and subtle than this single track would lead you to believe. Take, for instance, Ancient Glow and Arcanum, two tracks that emphasize the duo’s quieter side, with melancholy drones and vaguely Middle Eastern vocalizing creating an immersive listening experience that’s a far cry from jokey and deliberately weird “experimental” music. Or consider Marblecore, which, for all its “weirdness” – Schaerer’s multi-tracked voice starts to sound almost like a choir of pigeons performing baroque music – is in fact surprisingly and sincerely beautiful.

The duo’s greatest strength is probably the avoidance of a tendency to promote weirdness for its own sake, instead favoring an almost child-like approach. Indeed, this record exudes the genuine sense of wonder of a child who, upon discovering a “treasure chest” in the attic, attempts to figure out the meaning and function of all the arcane objects contained therein. It’s an imaginary journey around the world, leading to many unfamiliar places far apart from each other, both geographically and temporally.

Listen and buy a the label.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

3D - Vermilion Tree (ForTune, 2014) ****

By Stef

Last year we praised the collaboration between Polish trumpeter Tomasz Dabrowski and Tyshawn Sorey on "Steps", recorded when visiting New York some years ago. He then also recorded this excellent trio performance with Kris Davis on piano and Andrew Drury on drums. The trio's music shifts between composed and improvised pieces, between quiet melancholy moods and rawer more adventurous moments.

The young trumpeter finds great kindred spirits in Davis and Drury. Even in the more explorative moments, the three musicians keep their natural kind of lyricism and great sense of pulse, which are kept at a very implicit level, present, noticeable, yet with a subtlety and nuance of delivery that give the music a kind of ethereal beauty.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Daniel Blacksberg Trio - Perilous Architecture (NoBusiness, 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

I like trombones. It was mainly Johannes Bauer who did it for me. Watching him and Paul Rutherford in Peter Brötzmann’s März Combo and later with Jeb Bishop in Brötzmann’s other seminal larger formation, the Chicago Tentet, was absolutely spectacular. The deep tones, the physicalness the instrument demands, the sweet and sassy warmth of the sound – of all the 'typical' jazz instruments I only like the bass clarinet more.

Daniel Blacksberg belongs to the younger generation of trombonists. Spanning avant-garde jazz, modern classical music, improvised music and klezmer, he is a musician who brings the trombone into new, foreign areas. Blacksberg plays old Hasidic melodies or hardcore punk (sometimes simultaneously) in projects as different as the Psychotic Quartet, Superlith or Haitian Rail.

However, when he wants to focus on his pure free jazz roots, he turns to his own trio with Matt Engle on bass and Mike Szekely on drums and to NoBusiness, where he has already released his first trio album Bit Heads in 2009 (one of the NoBusiness heads, Danas Mikailionis, said that this was one of his favorite albums on his labels).

Large parts of the album live from the sound of the low tones of trombone and bass on the one hand which is contrasted by Mike Szekely who is very discreet with the toms and the bass drum and rather focuses on cymbals (which reminds a bit of Robert Wyatt’s drum style after he had his accident) on the other. The effect is that the music sounds like wind blowing through the tree tops of a forest with an upcoming thunderstorm above it all. 

Perfect examples of this are "Arc of Circling Bodies", the first track, which is based on a drone of two notes, a reference point to which Blacksberg returns every now and then, while  the trio bounces lightly through the composition, or "Filament and Void", a fragmented dark blues abyss, into which the band goes down willingly just to rise like a Phoenix in the most elegant way.  The cool jazz elegance of "Scapegrace" and the hardbop velocity of "Roar of Mankind" are additional highlights before "Almost Negotiable", a challenging wrestling match between bass and trombone, closes the album.

And on top of it there is the cover: It’s like a Walker Evans picture from "Let us now Praise Famous Men", a detailed account of three farming families which paints a deeply moving portrait of rural poverty in the American South of the 1930s. The title “Perilous Architecture” refers to this cover but also to the music because the structures of the compositions are dangerous as well in a way that the three are trying to explore unknown territory and they do not know where the musical journey takes them. All about Jazz New York has called Blacksberg "a virtuosic technician with abundant creativity and a drive to engage disparate and unlikely scenarios." True that.

"Perilous Architecture" is available on vinyl in a limited edition of 300 copies only. You can buy it from Instantjazz.

Listen to them here:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Vilde Sandve Alnaes & Inga Margrete Aas - Makrofauna (ECM, 2014) ****½

By Stef

Sometimes ECM still amazes. Once my label of preference, it has become a little less adventurous, but then again, when you hear this music, I am forced to revise my opinion. This is adventurous music, performed by Vilde Sandve Alnæs on violin and Inga Margrete Aas on double bass, fully improvised yet with the critical quality of keeping a strong sense of focus on each piece's character and specific sound.

Just to illustrate the point, "Under Bakken", the first track has a solid foundation of a repetitive monotonous bowing tone, over which the violin plays mainly plucked sounds. The second track, "Sårand", is built around plucked bass, with the violin offering irregular scraping sounds. The other improvisations each have their own nature, and all with the same quality of almost naturally growing interactions, in a very intimate and close relationship building and developing the exploration. Probably their greatest strength lies in the creativity of the moment, with new ideas resulting not only in new timbral possibilities, but also in creating a story through it, one with feelings of anticipation and expectation, with sentiments of anxiety and doom and suprise guiding the movements.

And the next great thing is the phenomenal 'presence' of these two young musicians. There is first of all the willingness to go beyond the known, then the decisiveness of their musical vision and last but not least the unwavering power of the instrumental prowess. In short, they just go for it, no hesitation, no holding in, no shyness or not the slightest inclination to please or to go with the expectations.

And Eicher in all this? Congratulations to him, not only for his daring to give these two young musicians the opportunity, but also for the amazing quality of the recording, and his own production skills.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sten Sandell & Paal Nilssen-Love – Jacana (Rune Grammofon, 2014) ***½

By Julian Eidenberger

Combining piano and drums in a duo setting is hardly a daring proposition, as the two instruments go together quite well. On the one hand, they seem to complement each other almost perfectly, with the piano’s potential for near-orchestral fullness counter-balancing the drums’ “skeletal” properties. On the other hand, there’s also some overlap between them, due to the fact that both generate sounds percussively. It’s a constellation that can yield great results when appropriately exploited, making, in such cases, for a tightly knit yet wide-ranging sonic union. That being established, it’s all the more surprising that the duo of Swedish pianist Sten Sandell and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love doesn’t quite succeed in producing that kind of instrumental union. Indeed, considering the duo’s unimpeachable musical pedigree, which includes incendiary outfits such as The Thing, Scorch Trio and Lean Left in Nilssen-Love’s case, and a history of performing works by New Music luminaries like Xenakis and Cage in Sandell’s, you’d expect nothing but a flawless success of them.

To be clear: Jacana is by no means a bad record. Its three improvised tracks, which were recorded live at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in 2013, offer a fair share of good and even great moments. Sandell, in particular, provides some very fine pianistic moments, from seamlessly woven tapestries of notes to thundering chords that could shake the gates of heaven, and further on to the alien abstractions of extended technique (although that last element isn’t as prominent here as might be expected of a frequent performer of New Music). Moreover, he engages in some very deep and low vocalizing on the second track Kauri, which, in combination with his sinister chords and runs on the piano, resembles Varèse’s Nocturnal, and perhaps some Schönbergian ballads. But occasionally – and this is where we get to the downsides – the music fails to attract the listener’s attention, running on for minutes without producing anything substantial. Nilssen-Love’s contributions here might be part of the problem; he’s a drummer I hold in very high regard, but here, he’s often content to inhabit the supporting role, rarely stepping up with attention-grabbing ideas of his own. Besides, he doesn’t always respond in the ideal way to Sandell’s pianistic propositions, sometimes employing drum-kit-devouring rolls where a sparser, more disjointed approach might’ve been a more appropriate answer.

But then again, this is far from bad, and if this might appear to be a bit of a letdown, it’s only because of the very high standards these excellent musicians have set for themselves on previous records.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

'A' Trio - Live In Nickelsdorf (Roaratorio, 2013) ****

By Stef

The "A" Trio are Mazen Kerbaj on trumpet, Sharif Sehnaoui on acoustic guitar, and Raed Yassin on doublebass, three musicians well known from the Lebanese Al Maslakh label, now featuring on this limited edition LP from Roaratorio. What the trio does is amazing. They create a sonic universe well beyond the known possibilities of their instruments, and nobody (nobody!) could guess which instruments are being played if I had not already disclosed it. It is noise, it is minimal yet dense at the same time, played with a sense of urgency that is familiar to rock music, but then without the bluntness and the fixed rhythm. It sounds like sirens urging you on, to move to act to do something while at the same time stopping you in your tracks because the music (?) is spell-binding and paralysing too, taking the power out of your muscles, weakening your legs.

It is fearful. Listen to the howls of the trumpet after thirteen minutes, or to the uncanny layers of screeching sounds that end the ominous first side. The second track, on side two, start with a strange rhythmic pattern of circling bowed bass and repetitive trumpet phrases that sound like a sax, deepening the intensity of the music, moving the sounds forward in an almost unavoidable way, beyond choice. It is terrifying with intensity, raw, direct and compelling, and the finale is absolutely hypnotic in its relentless violent drive.

This is an excellent album with music that is not easy, but listeners with open ears and strong hearts will appreciate its musical quality and emotional power.

Available from Instantjazz.