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Bassdrumbone: Gerry Hemingway (d), Mark Helias (b), Ray Anderson (t)

Eric's House of Improv @ Zurcher Gallery, New York, NY 11/09/2019

Schnell: Christian Lillinger (dr), Pierre Borel (as), Antonio Borghini (b)

Manufaktur, Schorndorf, 11/15/2019

Anna Högberg Attack

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/22/2019

B.A.N.: Peter Brötzmann (sax), Farida Amadou (b), Steve Noble (dr)

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/22/2019

Fred Van Hove (p), Peter Brötzmann (sax)

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/23/2019

Hanne De Backer (sax) / Paal Nilssen-Love (dr)

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/22/2019

Biliana Voutchkova (v), Susan Alcorn (g), Isidora Edwards (c)

Berlin, August 2019. Photo by Christina Marx

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Interview with John McCowen

John McCowan. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

By Keith Prosk

We’ve fondly reviewed clarinetist and composer John McCowen’s Solo Contra, 4 Chairs In Three Dimensions, and Mundanas I-V. With his nuanced approach to the multiphonics of the clarinet family, he’s surely one of the most exciting players to have developed in the past decade. Here, we touch on the thought behind his music, where he’s coming from, and where he’s going.

K: One aspect of your work is exploring the “dimensionality” of the clarinet. I interpret this as anything from multiphonics from a solo clarinet, to using clarinets in duo or quartet, to cataloging the techniques and timbres of the clarinet. Maybe the physicality of it too, from how air and sound physically acts at a certain point on or in the instrument to interactions with the environment and resonances. What do you actually mean by this? And why choose the clarinet?

J: You're pretty dead on. I use "dimensionality" to describe the layers of sound and the interactions between those layers. An aspect of this type of playing that I love is those interactions(which include beating patterns and pitch fluctuation), and how they vary depending on air pressure. I guess these are common aspects of what can be considered drone music.

I chose the clarinet because I was a saxophone player with an amazing clarinet teacher, Eric Mandat. I didn't feel I had a distinct voice on the saxophone, and my attitude was pretty set in thinking the ground had all been paved in regards to the sax. But as Eric opened me up to the possibilities and I kept experimenting, I found my own voice and saw a lot of possibilities. Everyone reading this should check out the music of Eric Mandat. My approach is directly related to his. His work is extremely deep and unique. He's influenced me greatly.

K: A decent chunk of Mandat's work focuses on clarinet duos, trios and so on up to sextets, a path that you appear to be following at this point. I'm guessing this is primarily to create layers that are physically difficult or impossible for one player to create simultaneously, opening up new possibilities for layer interactions. But is there something else Mandat is trying to achieve with these ensembles? Is there something else that you're trying to achieve with these ensembles? And do you think you'll compose for clarinet ensembles and solo clarinet for some time, or are you already thinking of incorporating other instruments in the near future?

J: I’ve been most influenced by Mandat’s solo music, pieces like The Jungle, Illinois Central, and Chiral Symmetries.

I’m always trying to expand the layers one clarinet can create. That’s my main focus. But my duo music for instance, was due to the limitations of one instrument as well as ideas of counterpoint in that style.

I’ve mainly composed for clarinet due to my immediate access to the instrument. But I don’t have any interest in being a “clarinet composer” exclusively. I’ve written works that don’t involve the instrument and I am working on music for chamber situations. I’m also trying to hear what a working group for my music would be like. I just try to follow what I’m hearing.

K: Beyond mentioning the dimensionality of the clarinet, you've also likened it to an acoustic synthesizer. Some of your work does sound like the undulating sine waves of early analog synths, but is there another meaning there?

J: The acoustic synthesizer is essentially a polyphonic tube based on the interactions of a fundamental and it’s partials. “Dimensionality” is a descriptor of these relationships. This is essentially additive synthesis within a tube controlled by air pressure. The relationships between partials can create combination tones, etc. I’m way into it.

K: Ah, OK. But just to drive the point home and clarify for both me and our readers, you can play a tone (a fundamental) with overtones (it's partials) and the waveforms of those overtones interact to produce new waveforms (combination tones, etc.), which is the definition of synthesis (an aspect of dimensionality). I was hung up on the image of a Roland TR or something, but now I'm thinking any polyphonic instrument can be a synthesizer.

It's my understanding that partials and their interactions become more difficult and eventually impossible to hear or consciously sense. But, of course, they're still occurring and interacting. Is this where your use of Boethius' musical classifications comes in, with some of your work referring to musica humana and mundana, which I understand to refer to the unsounded yet felt vibrational harmony between humans and the unheard vibrations of the natural world respectively? Or is there another reason that you refer to this classification system?

J: I should clarify that this begins with multiphonic playing. This phenomenon occurs when the air is allowed more than one exit point in the tube, then through air speed and pressure, air can be guided through multiple exit points. I’m referring to a multiphonic as having a fundamental and proceeding partials (aka harmonics, overtones). Due to the long tube of the contrabass clarinet, the ability to create dense and multifaceted multiphonics is increased. The partials I can access only go up into the 20s or 30s at most. Which isn’t really that high because the clarinet, due to it being a cylinder, only has access to odd harmonics. But the most partials I can access simultaneously is around 5-6, but this is only a few, more commonly 2-3.

My interest in the concepts of Boethius doesn’t go beyond audible sound, really. It has more to do with my interest in what may constitute “music of the spheres” or “human music”. I’m very interested in sounds that have nothing to do with human creation. For instance, those videos on YouTube of what are supposedly the sounds of tectonic plates moving that sound like brass from the gates of hell. But also the idea of “human music” as sounds from the industrialized world, like the spectral drones of U.S. muscle cars from the mid-20th century.

K: That's super interesting. I feel like I would characterize the car as an instrument. And that human music comes from the body, like what a body communicates to an audience with a rapid or a resting pulse, a heavy or a light footfall, a yawn, a sigh, a laugh, grinding teeth (for audible examples) - the dynamics of our movement. Imagining what music of the spheres could be leads you down interesting paths for sure; since we talked about waveforms, I'm currently imagining the "compositions" that the earth writes, like a tsunami wave from a marine earthquake, when a terrestrial earthquake writes its waves on the surface or in a fence, how a river becomes increasingly sinusoidal as it approaches the coast, or the ripples of a tidal flat preserved in rock, for instance.

Since you've mentioned tectonics and Eric Mandat, I'll mention that I actually attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which is your hometown, for some graduate work in geology (never finished though). Beyond the mentorship of Mandat, does your music reflect southern Illinois or your experience there in any way? The geography, culture, climate, history, people, etc?

J: Oh whoa! Such a small world. Go Salukis.

Being from Southern Illinois is a big influence for me. I had a lot of space and time to develop. Most people think of Illinois as corn fields, and for suuuure we have those. But, we also have the Shawnee National Forest.

Carbondale had a bustling DIY scene the whole time I lived there. It was a regular touring stop for a lot of bands from all over. So, the scene I came out of was DIY eccentrics improvising and playing in bands. I booked a regular improv series there for a year or so. Which was groups of all local musicians doing free improv. The local radio station had a DJ named Dave X, who also booked a regular noise/improv festival. He also had a weekly 4am-6am slot where he played noise, improv, field recordings, etc. A good number of musicians I grew up with there have continued to develop awesome work to this day.

K: Unfortunately, I never visited Shawnee or the other parks and forests in the area but I spent some time paddling the beautiful lakes there. And I wasn't even aware of this kind of music when I was there, but it sounds like a rich scene.

I understand you started as a vocalist in that scene. Do you carry your experience as a vocalist over to your clarinet technique in any way, or have any interest in doing so? Like through non-traditional embouchures (something like Nate Wooley's Syllables comes to mind) or speaking/sounding through the instrument (for example Josh Sinton's krasa). Or do you have any interest in composing for vocalists in the future?

J: Yeah I started out as a vocalist in a hardcore band. I did that for maybe four years? I feel like the main lessons I took away from that time are the dangers of being egocentric. After that period I became a quieter person and wanted to focus on wind playing. Which was a less painful way to express myself. I heard Albert Ayler and didn’t see much difference between what he was doing and what I was doing in a punk band. But even when I was a vocalist, I was listening to a lot of late John Coltrane and Sun Ra. I think I was just interested in extreme music no matter what the style.

I don’t really see that vocal style influencing the playing I do now. I don’t use that vocalizing-while-playing style of multiphonic, either.

I have composed for vocalists in the past, but I currently don’t have any plans to do. But I am interested in the voice for sure; whether it’s madrigals, modern auto-tuned pop, or what Charmaine Lee is developing.

K: I'll have to check out Lee, I haven't listened to her before.

Beyond Lee, Mandat, Ayler, Coltrane, and Sun Ra, are there any musicians or specific recordings or performances that have particularly inspired your work, especially recently? And beyond what you've mentioned about southern Illinois, anything outside of music and sound that has inspired your work, especially recently?

J: A lot of recordings by the late recorder player, Frans Brüggen. Especially his recordings of the Handel Recorder Sonatas and Jacob Van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-hof.

Besides that, seeing live music is incredibly inspiring for me. A good performance leaves me focused and inspired for days.

As far as influence goes, I have to give respect to Roscoe Mitchell. He was an equivalent mentor just like Eric Mandat. Roscoe really helped me clarify what I was trying to do. He’s a true master of structure and form.

Others that have really influenced me is the glacial patience and development of Elaine Radigue, and the work ethic of athletes like Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant.

K: I've been spending some time with Radigue's Occam Ocean 1 & 2 recordings lately (and saw Nate Wooley perform his occam earlier this year). It's an absolutely breathtaking project, and I particularly enjoy the focus on the individuality of the performers and their technique. And you studied with Mitchell while attending Mills College. Between her legacy with the school and collaborations with Radigue, I feel like there's a connection to Pauline Oliveros somewhere...
But I suppose my final official question is, who are you rooting for in the 2019-2020 NBA season?

J: Oh, for sure. Pauline has also been an influential person. I had the privilege of taking a few classes with her. I’m a huge fan of the early electronic music she did (like II of V, etc) while in Toronto.
Hah! As far as basketball goes, I mean, I was living in Oakland during the reign of the Warriors, and now I live in Brooklyn and the Nets have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Deandre Jordan. But I’m also rooting for teams like the Clippers and the Trailblazers. Just anyone but the Lakers, really. I just wish tickets to NBA games were cheaper.

K: The Nets certainly have the capacity to blow up. And all those western conference teams are looking great - they all have ex-Spurs talent on them ;)

Thank you so much for your time, John!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Variable Geometry Orchestra - Mare Tranquillitatis (Creative Sources, 2019) ****

By Stef

The "Mare Tranquilitatis" is the "Sea of Tranquility" on the moon. It is the place where the first moon landing took place, 50 years ago. It is unclear whether the album in any way wants to join the celebrations of this event, since the performance itself was recorded live recording on November 10th 2018 at O'Culto da Ajuda, Lisbon, during the CreativeFest XII. 

We've reviewed albums by the orchestra before, and I think this is one of their best. Ernesto Rodrigues, acting as the conductor of this large ensemble, leading his 28 musicians through sonic soundscapes that alternate between light-textured minimalist moments to dense and dramatic eruptions of sound, does it with verve. The music's unpredictability and especially the cohesion of the orchestra within this unpredictability is fascinating to listen to, and a testament to Rodrigues' skills to move the music forward along his wishes. This is no small feat. 

But what does "Variable Geometry" mean? In the European political context, it refers to different levels of cooperation between countries in the European Union (like their willingness to participate in the Schengen zone, or participate in the common euro currency). It means integration and participation at different speeds and levels. In the context of aerodynamics, it means that an airplane may change the configuration of its wings during a flight. Whatever the real and original name that triggered Rodrigues to use the term for his orchestra, the concepts of collaborative difference, of changing dynamics and openness to variation appear essential. 

The orchestra's sound is a collective sound, one that avoids solo voices, and even if they are discernable at times, often in short phrases and shouts, emanating from the voluminous mass of the orchestra's groundswell, they are more like birds straying from a flock to return before you've noticed their separate movement. The sound is not about the voices, it's about the total sonic experience of changes in depth and intensity, the dynamic swirling of sonorities and pitch, the flowing of harmonies and dissonance, of unity and chaos. 

In case you wondered, the "Mare Tranquilitatis" may be tranquil at some moments, and there's even a short span of absolute silence, yet there is more to it than tranquility. It's worth the trip. Join us to the moon. 

The Variable Geometry Orchestra on this album consists of:

Maria Do Mar - violin
Guilherme Rodrigues - cello
Yu Lin Humm - cello
Helena Espvall - cello
Miguel Mira - cello
Ricardo Jacinto - cello
Johan Moir - double bass
Miguel Almeida - classical guitar
Gianna de Toni - acoustic guitar
João Silva - trumpet
Paulo Curado - flute
Andre Holzer - clarinet
Juan Cato Calvi - bass clarinet
Noel Taylor - bass clarinet
Bruno Parrinha - clarinet
Mia Dyberg - alto saxophone
José Lencastre - alto saxophone
Etienne Brunet - alto saxophone
Catarina Loura - piano
Armando Pereira - toy piano
Mariana Carvalho - accordion
Rui Sousa - electric bass
Carlos Santos - electronics
Carla Santana - electronics
Biagio Verdolini - objects
Ramon Lopez - percussion
João Valinho - percussion
Pedro Castello Lopes - percussion
Ernesto Rodrigues - conduction

At another time, another performance by another iteration of the VGO, so that you get a flavour of what to expect:


Thursday, December 5, 2019

Gaël Segalen – Sofia Says (Coherent States, Erratum, Sofia, 2019) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

I’m not a fan of music that tends to observe the past. Either it’s nostalgia, history, or memories; I prefer any work of art that interacts with the present in any way. That is telling a story for its time and place. Sofia Says, after being released on cassette from Coherent States early in 2019 is finally released on vinyl, bears the traces of industrial music’s past but it is deeply rooted in the present. This dystopian present we are all experiencing by feeling the strong reverberations of a planet getting ready to throw us out.

By using edited improvisations Segalen (an artist with a diploma from the prestigious GRM in electroacoustics) moves from a linear narrative up to small chaotic ambient noise bursts. Those are mostly noise experiments but, thankfully, not those boring droney sounds that we are so often exposed lately. Even though they are also a representation of the present…

There are echoes of natural sounds here and there that work cohesively with the, sometimes, ecstatic electronics that dominate Sofia Says. There might be five individual tracks on this release, but I felt that they pretty much relate one to the other forming a unity of ideas and thoughts about our pessimist perception of our present.

On the final and longest track, 'I’ll See You Again', which seems like the centerpiece of Sofia Says, this narrative of pessimism seems to break. Apart from its title which brings the light of optimism at the forefront, it seemed to me like trying to escape from this dystopia, with love and pathos as her guides. Now that I think of it – and after the necessary repeated listenings - I would definitely comment that Sofia Says is a recording that moves gradually from darkness to light. At least an inner light that does not necessarily reflects the real world. Sofia Says is a very strong personal statement.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

ECM 50 years - Catalog Favorites (part III of III)

We continue our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of ECM with  three favorite ECM recordings from each of our writers. Please note, there is no order to sequence of writers...

Lee Rice Epstein

Lester Bowie

The Great Pretender (1981)
All the Magic! (1983)
I Only Have Eyes For You (1985)

Channeling, honoring, and spoofing Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Fats Domino in equal measure—with lineups ranging from solo to his boldly deranged Brass Fantasy—jazz's court jester and master magician reached, arguably, the peak of his career with his first three albums for ECM.

Martin Schray

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble - Towards the Margin (ECM, 1997)

On the Ensemble’s first album each member of the original Evan Parker trio (Parker plus Barry Guy and Paul Lytton) was given a technical/musical partner (Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi, Phil Wachsmann) who would process their acoustic sounds electronically. “Towards the Margins” is a programmatic title and it’s as adventurous today as it was 22 years ago.

Paul Bley - Open, to Love (ECM, 1973)

Bley’s solo piano album brings two worlds together: angular dissonance and meditative, pointillistic melody - a sound which helped to define the label’s sonic philosophy. It’s like a matrix of what was to come later on. Just listen to “Closer“ and “Ida Lupino“. To die for.

Jack DeJohnette - Special Edition (ECM, 1980)

Usually known as a drummer DeJohnette also plays piano here and is joined by David Murray (sax, cl), Arthur Blythe (sax) and David Warren (b). It’s mainly DeJohnette’s passionate, high-voltage homage to Eric Dolphy (‘One For Eric’) that will knock you out.

Olle Lawson

Michael Formanek - Small Places (2012)

Beauty, mystery, depth: Small Places – the second album from Formanek’s quartet with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver, definitely has a slight edge over the first (the impressively atmospheric The Rub and Small Change, 2010) – there is something hypnotically immaculate about the composition and playing. Sophisticated urban tension.

Billy Hart Quartet – All Our Reasons (2012)

Quite possibly Billy’s greatest recorded document. There’s something deeply moving about how the quartet – a generation younger – moves with what is being constructed – nurtured, even – from the drum kit. I went to NYC to find Billy on the strength of this recording. A modern classic.

David Virelles – Mbókò (2014)

I couldn’t decide between Craig Taborn Trio’s trance inducing Chants; Formanek’s epic, leviathan Ensemble Kolosuss – The Distance; Bobo Stenson Trio’s luscious Cantando or Ches Smith’s utterly unique, oblique narrative strangeness on Bells – so I chose Virelles’ Mbókò.
Mbókò may have the honour of being the only true spiritual ceremony on ECM.
Subtitled: Sacred Music for Piano, two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá – Mbókò takes the listener to an actual space other records may not even acknowledge exits.
After years of deep listening, there are still new dimensions to be found here. Incantatory.

Paul Acquaro 

What my colleagues on the blog said is true, it is really hard to pick 3 albums from the ECM catalog to call out, so I focused on guitar based recordings ... but that only went so far as you can see I'm missing Bill Frisell (In Line blew my mind, subtly), Raoul Bjorkenheim, Jakob Bro, Steve Tibbets, Bill Connors, and so on ...

David Torn - Cloud About Mercury (1986)

One of my first ECM records. I picked up this progressive rock-y, soundscape-y recording replete with time-bound synth sounds and scintillating electric guitar on a whim, and like the best serendipitous finds, it grew on me. Mark Isham's trumpet and synthesizer work, Tony Levin's Chapman Stick and synth bass, and Bill Bruford's electric drums and percussion make for an appropriately other worldly setting for the experimental guitarist.

Gateway - Gateway (1976)

John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland came together on three Gateway albums, all on ECM. I always enjoyed the flow of the playing, and the fact that they would build up to some intense moments.

Ralph Towner - Solstice (1975)

Guitarist Ralph Towner's 1975 release featured the work of Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, and Jon Christensen. The expressive bass and sharp drumming mixes sublimely with the flat tone of the sax and the wonderful textures of the 6 and 12 string guitar.

Steve Griffith

Kenny Wheeler - Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990)

For every long road trip I take, this gets packed. When things start to drag, I put in disc 1 and Norma Winstone's soaring vocals over the controlled surges of the charts make the highway not quite as endless. Then I'm ready for the more intricate charms of disc

John Abercrombie- Timeless (1979)

Who'd have thought a best of list would include something with Jan Hammer, but his keyboard work perfectly fits what the guitarist and Jack DeJohnette contribute. Forty years later this still sounds fresh, like the title suggests.

Hal Russell NRG Ensemble - The Finnish/Swiss Tour (1991)

One of Steve Lake's most inspired decisions was to give one of music's most unique characters, and his band of future Chicago stalwarts in progress, an international platform for three wonderful releases of sheer raw honking joy. Either one of the releases would fit, but this was the first and most ear opening. Plus it was live so more infectious fun. Assuming none of you pranked the site, Wikipedia said People magazine included this as one of the top 5 albums of the year.

Phil Stringer

Charlie Haden/Carla Bley - The Ballad of the Fallen (1983)

Well worth playing this loud and it all comes to an amazing climax on the final track. A terrific band in co let unit of purpose. Politically and emotionally charged music that is as relevant now as it it was in the 80s.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Full Force (1980)

They always sound so much more than the sum of the parts and that is the case on this album. A playful, riotous joyous collection. The feeling that I get is that they had a lot of fun making this music and for me, it simply makes me glad to be alive. Another album that was relevant yesterday, is relevant today and will be relevant tomorrow.

Paul Motian - Conception Vessel (1973)

This is less riotous than my other two choices but doesn't lack in energy, it's of a different kind. An album that conceptually and emotionally hangs together. There is a brilliant solo track from Paul Motion and the final track, 'Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullaby', features an utterly transporting contribution by Leroy Jenkins.

Antonio Poscic

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016)

A collection of subversive and musically intricate piano/trumpet duets by two contemporary greats. Freely improvised, the music often finds itself in quiet spots, but even then it burns with an achingly bright fire, a fierce meditation.

Mette Henriette - Mette Henriette (2015)

A most impressive debut by the Norwegian saxophonist who leads us from chamber jazz to freer forms through 35 short and shorter pieces, all of them equally interspersed with silence and negative space. Especially neat are the shifts in approach as Henriette transitions from a trio to a larger ensemble.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Shadow Man (2013)

Tim Berne, Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega and Ches Smith endulge in a game of patience and explosions, controlled gradation and feverish intensity. Beautifully introspective and, at times, quite dark music

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

ECM 50 years - Catalog Favorites (part II of III)

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of ECM, the collective was asked to provide three favorite ECM recordings and tell us why they are special. The most common comment that folks made was that narrowing down to listing three ECM recordings is basically impossible. Some suggested a top 10 … or even top 100. Anyway, here are the picks: (Please note, there is no order to sequence of writers.)

Tom Burris

Arvo Part – Tabula Rasa (1984)

Possibly the most beautiful music ever recorded. If you've never heard it, preparations are in order. Be alone. Shut off your phone and maybe the lights. Melancholy never sounded so warm. Orthodoxy never sounded so inviting. It's impossible to think of Arvo Part as anything less than a holy man after hearing this recording.

Dave Holland Quartet – Conference of the Birds (1973)

An absolutely essential recording. The Holland / Braxton / Altschul axis never sounded better – then throw in Sam Rivers as the wild card & the magic never stops happening. Shortly after, it would be Holland / Rivers / Altschul taking this thing out further than could've been expected – but Conference smokes those later recordings – and even Braxton's Arista records! One of my Top Ten Free Jazz Records ever.

Steve Reich – Music For 18 Musicians (1978)

I spent an entire winter one year sleeping to this CD on repeat. The music spins it's web of chordal changes via sixteenth-note intervals in ways that lulled me to sleep within minutes – but pulled me back out just as easily to hear some subtle shift before dropping back into dreamland. It was a weird time – and I don't think I really got decent sleep the whole season, but my dreams were a nice strange escape from my daily work life. Thanks Steve Reich for helping me get to sleep during the hard times; and for keeping me aware of the possibility of change, the only constant in the universe.

Colin Green

Old and New Dreams — Playing (1981)
A live date from Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, an Ornette tribute band that was so much more, bringing new life to his tunes as well as their own compositions. They were at their best stretching out before an audience, spurred on by Blackwell’s infective drumming and calmed by Haden’s lugubrious bass lines.

Charles Lloyd Quartet — Fish Out of Water (1990)

A good example of the recently departed Jan Erik Kongshaug’s exemplary engineering and the famous ECM Steinway which he’d have retuned for each session, here played with characteristic clarity by Bobo Stenson. A recording that captures every stutter and cymbal decay from Jon Christensen’s kit, the skeletal bass of Palle Danielsson and Lloyd’s sinuous tenor and flute, a soundscape described by Manfred Eicher at the time as resembling a painting by Giacometti.

Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell ‎— Angel Song (1997)

Wheeler’s piercing trumpet/flugelhorn and bittersweet melodies in a sumptuous mix with Konitz’ weeping alto and the watery strains of Frisell’s guitar, all anchored by some sturdy bass work from Holland. The ensemble was put together at Eicher’s suggestion, one of his many inspired combinations.

Nick Metzger

Marion Brown - Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (1971)

Brown's lone ECM album is a stunner, the first half builds up an almost cinematic suspense that explodes like a glass vase shattered on a marble floor, the shards scattering and aggregating in ways that are unpredictable. A classic of the genre and a must have for collectors.

Dave Holland Quartet - Conference Of The Birds (1972)

A well known and loved album by many, this second offering from the prolific Holland/Braxton partnership finds them paired with frequent collaborators Barry Altschul and Sam Rivers. The track sequencing alternates layers of saccharine and tart, with the title track finding Braxton and Rivers weaving aural magic on flutes.

Steve Reich - Music For 18 Musicians (1978)

Mathematical yet terrestrial in ways few albums of this kind are. Definitely my favorite Reich album and one of the greatest pieces of minimalism ever put to tape. The development of it's structure from beginning to end is hypnotizing, and it remains all time favorite of mine.

Keith Prosk

Joe Maneri / Mat Maneri / Barre Phillips - Angles of Repose (2004)

With only two recordings, both on ECM, Maneri / Maneri / Phillips is in the running for my favorite grouping of musicians I've ever heard. The atmosphere can be ascetic, hermetic, pastoral, resembling a kind of pain, sorrow, or joy flowing over a dam of stoicism. Sonic knight-errants. Making dolmen music. Both intellectually and spiritually arresting. I think about Joe's vocalizations a lot.

Dave Holland / Barre Phillips - Music From Two Basses (1971)

Two bassists both at the intersection of the sublime melody and rhythm of the music before and the
wandering structures and timbres of the music after free. Emotive and exploratory. Has the low-end ever seemed so lyrical?

Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips - Sankt Gerold (2000)

Modular groupings improvising modally and freely, transversing tonalities. Each playing at the height of their technique. Reverent, of each other, the locale, the music. Ascendant.

Kian Banihashemi

Kenny Wheeler - Gnu High (1976)

My introduction to ECM, and a record I bought for the cover alone. The star studded line up consists of Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland. The soloing of every musician on this album is gorgeous and deeply introspective. It's a personal affair and this record is a gift that keeps on giving with every listen.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago - Urban Bushman (1982)

For me, this is the definitive album by the Art Ensemble. A live album which contains the multiplicity of musical ideas that span their career. Moments of serene beauty are found alongside sections of intense instrumental and vocal concoctions, leading to a catharsis that is not easily found elsewhere. While this may not be the ideal introductory Art Ensemble album, it truly is their magnum opus.

Robin Kenyatta - Girl from Martinique (1971)

This rarely discussed album is a unique and beautiful release within the impressive 1970's ECM catalog. This recording session is a fantastic fusion of American and European jazz forms, as Robin Kenyatta and Fred Braceful provide soulful roots that are expanded upon by the intricate playing of Europeans, Wolfgang Dauner and Arild Andersen. Kenyatta's saxophone solos and Dauner's clavinet playing are exceptional features of this album that create a pleasantly memorable experience.

Nick Ostrum

Anouar Brahem, Dave Holland, John Surman – Thimar (1998)

I originally bought this because Dave Holland was on it. Anouar Brahem, however, blew me away. Serene, almost chthonic, and spacious.

Arvo Pärt – Te Deum (1993)

I usually do not go for church music, nor does it appear on this blog with much frequency. This album, however, is absolutely stunning. Pärt is a treasure.

Tomasz Stanko – Matka Joanna (1995)

This might not be, hands down, Stanko’s best on the label, but I do find myself returning to it over and over again. As we came to expect from the trumpeter and his comrades (on this recording, Bob Stenson, Anders Jormin, and Tony Oxley), the music is dark, pensive, and compelling progressive jazz.

Eyal Hareuveni

More than forty years ago when my listening habits gravitated from prog-rock to jazz (in the broader sense of the word), ECM was my gateway, my favorite label and default choice, simply because the immediate availability of all its releases, compared to scarcity of releases by more established, American labels.

Dave Holland / Barre Phillips - Music from Two Basses (1971)

Classic ECM, offering a duet that was unthinkable by other labels terms and the album that cemented my love to the deep-end notes of the double bass. Still sounds fresh and invigorating and its inventive, wise and intense dynamics are timeless.

Terje Rypdal - After the Rain (1976)

My favorite guitarist in ECM catalogue. Rypdal’s solo album, accompanied only by the wordless vocals of his wife, in his most personal and touching album. You can hear the seminal influence of his atmospheric, sustained guitar sound on generations of guitarists.

Jan Garbarek - Dis (1977)

Quintessential ECM, suggesting a spin on its chilly Nordic image. Norwegian sax legend, guitarist Ralph Towner playing-experimenting with tones and overtones of the winds of the North Sea. Untimely music that that exposes you to the most beautiful and intimate sonic sensations.

Gregg Miller

Wadada Leo Smith - Kulture Jazz (1995)

I love this record. So simple, soulful, direct. Mbira, singing/chanting, trumpet, flute. The quality of every sound is very present.

Anouar Brahem (w/Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Django Bates) - Blue Maqams  (2017).

I have found this record indispensable since it came out. On permanent rotation. A perfect balance of structure and improvisation; each tune has a distinct identity, yet all the pieces feel of a piece. They produce an atmosphere.

Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips - Time will Tell (1995)

I put this record on mostly for the first, memorable track, “Poetic Justice,” with Parker’s contribution just perfect. It never fails to remind me of what interplay should sound like.

Monday, December 2, 2019

ECM 50 years - A Calm Sea with the Occasional Storm (Part I of III)

Over the next three days we are celebrating ECM's 50th year anniversary.

By Stef

As a young man, I went on my weekly round of the records shops to find new vinyl albums. This was - obviously - in the pre-internet time, so as a listener the amount of information you got on new releases was very limited, especially because of the lack of local language jazz magazines, and the lack of availability of the American ones. Record stores were the only option for new discoveries, including the possibility to listen to records before buying them. This was also a time without dedicated radio stations: public broadcasting offered either classical music or popular music and private radio was still rare. In the late 70s and early 80s there was one label that was essential to me: ECM. In my record store in Belgium, the German quality label even had a separate section next to the Jazz section. All ECM albums were together, under a clear ECM label, as if they were outside the realm of jazz. This was then just testimony to what has been labeled the "ECM sound", and which the label's boss, Manfred Eicher, always denied existed. Ignoring the "sound" discussion for the moment, there's no denying the unique "branding" that Eicher gave to his label: the unity of the package, the unity in the cover art, the choice of top-level musicians and a top-quality sound.

The imagery of the ECM label took jazz out of its usual habitat. Instead of smoke-filled lounges and late-night bars, the natural environment for jazz (as perceived by my young mind), ECM presented images of wide horizons, clouds, seas and nature. In my opinion this also reflected the music, and the so-called non-existent "ECM sound". Says Eicher: "The water is wide. In my mind, I often bring the music we do together with water music. I see a sea, a big ocean. And it’s extremely calm. Then, two and a half minutes later, the waves start moving and it becomes a storm. It changes, and the tide changes. That is inside ECM I think. A continuous movement of undercurrents and unexpected drifts, winds coming from different directions to become a central storm. But sometimes the sea is tranquil, and stays tranquil." (Excerpted from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, edited by Steve Lake and Paul Griffiths, published by Granta, 2007)

ECM replaced the tobacco-darkened ceilings of jazz clubs with skies and seas without limits. Instead of close and intimate and soulful warmth, the imagery projected distant and abstract and intellectual austerity, to a large extent accentuated by the icy sax of Jan Gabarek or the piercing guitar of Terje Rypdal, filling the open outdoor space and resonating without end. At ECM "jazz" becomes a personal spiritual transcendence instead of a physical community experience. On the downside, ECM brings jazz stripped of its natural sense of nervousness and agitation, stripped of its communal soul and clearcut feeling such as anger and joy. Its sound has more aesthetic pretenses than a willingness to reach deep soulful emotions. Purity wins against rawness. It is more cerebral than physical. The studio sound replaces the live experience. Nordic winters and fjords come to mind instead of the summer heat of Chicago. But it also eschews the power and the physicality of the musicianship of artists like Brötzmann and Kowald. Precision, sophistication, measure and control are key ingredients. One of my friends at that time, a music student says dismissively: "that is not jazz you're listening to". What did I know and what did I care. I loved it. This was my music. And now, listening again to some of ECM's music, its sound also has a sweetness that makes my teeth ache (Matthias Eick, Jan Garbarek, Trygve Seim).

In a paradox to this austerity and wide skies, the typical music of ECM evolves into a blend of expansive chamber jazz, adventurous yet romantic at the same time, away from the rhythms and themes of bop, integrating improvisational elements in a more classical direction in which compositional structure and instrumental mastery find each other. And if that definitely holds true for some of the label's core musicians, such as Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, John Surman, Dave Holland, Steve Kuhn, Ralph Towner or Enrico Rava, ECM always managed to add new and unknown names to its catalogue, or to give more established musicians with strong musical ideas also a chance. In the former group we find bands like "Dans Les Arbres" or the duo Vilde Sandve Alnaes and Inga Margrete Aas, and in the latter the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie and Old & New Dreams. The third ingredient is world music, again refined, polished, instrumentally brilliant and compatible with jazz, with wonderful albums by Anouar Brahem, Egberto Gismonti and Shankar to name just a few. Close to that extension, we get the more new age sound of Stefan Micus and Colin Walcott. And to Eicher's credit, he brought these musicians together, and encouraged them to create music together, offering us new and unheard genres and sub-genres. That is how Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden met. That is how Anouar Brahem, John Surman and Dave Holland met. And the list goes on. 

In fact, the breadth and scope of music on the ECM label is much wider than can be captured in the contested idea of an "ECM sound" as a genre per se. Despite the wide reach of all this music, there is still a core ECM sound that sets it apart. Some say that Eicher has had the luck to sign Jarrett and sell millions of albums, allowing him to expand his business. Yes, but at the same time, he was the one who approached Jarrett and asked him to release his music through ECM. Eicher reversed the roles. He never waited for musicians to approach him. He takes the first step. He selects them. In an interview with The Guardian, Eicher says "Our concept is still more or less the original idea of producing music that I love and that I would like to introduce to people. That's all it is, and it has not changed and will not change because it's the only thing I can do." (The Guardian, 17 July 2010)

The other critical name on most ECM albums is Jan Erik Kongshaug, the Norwegian sound engineer who worked with Eicher almost from the start and whose influence has been significant. He was active in over 700 albums released through ECM. He passed away in November. ‘The most beautiful sound next to silence’ was the original ECM slogan, in reference to John Cage. For sure, Kongshaug's name will forever be linked to his. An incredible legacy. 

So many years later, there are many albums that I listen to frequently. The Jarrett albums on the list below, Old & New Dreams (guaranteed to bring me in a good mood), Jack DeJohnette's New Directions, Bengt Berger's Bitter Funeral Beer, Egberto Gismonti. Many of the albums that I listened to fourty years ago, I would never listen to again today. Those include many Garbarek, Towner and Metheny albums. Times change, musical tastes evolve too. But the catalogue is impressive. The moments of sheer musical joy too. Despite my current criticism, ECM has been a significant part of the joy of listening throughout my life, and has produced wonderful music, both mainstream and adventurous. I hope my list below and the suggestions by the colleagues may guide interested readers. 

How many jazz labels get older than 50? Not many. Verve, Blue Note. Others come and go. 

We wish the label all the best with its anniversary. And our sympathy and thoughts to the family and colleagues of Jan Erik Kongshaug.

Here is my top-50 list of ECM for the last 50 years. 
  1. Keith Jarrett - The Survivor’s Suite
  2. Carla Bley - Escalator Over The Hill
  3. Old & New Dreams
  4. Bengt Berger - Bitter Funeral Beer
  5. Jack DeJohnette - New Directions
  6. Old & New Dreams - Playing
  7. Wadada Leo Smith - Kulture Jazz
  8. Keith Jarrett - Eyes Of The Heart
  9. Keith Jarrett - Nude Ants
  10. Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette
  11. Dans Les Arbres
  12. Egberto Gismonti - Sol Do Meio Dia
  13. Art Ensemble Of Chicago - Full Force
  14. John Surman & Jack DeJohnette - Invisible Nature
  15. Barre Phillips - End To End
  16. John Surman - Upon Reflection
  17. John Abercrombie - Gateway
  18. Terje Rypdal - Odyssey
  19. Codona 1
  20. Codona 2
  21. Codona 3
  22. Louis Sclavis - L’Affrontement des Prétendants
  23. Colin Walcott - Grazing Dreams
  24. Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti - Magico
  25. Pat Metheny - 80/81
  26. Lester Bowie - The Great Pretender
  27. Louis Sclavis - L’Imparfait des Langues
  28. Anouar Brahem - Astrakan Café
  29. Jack DeJohnette - New Directions In Europe
  30. Don Cherry & Ed Blackwell - El Corazon
  31. Chick Corea - ARC
  32. Charlie Haden - The Ballad of the Fallen
  33. Shankar - Vision
  34. Circle - Paris Concert 
  35. David Torn - Son Of Goldfinger
  36. Masqualero - Bande à Part
  37. Anouar Brahem - Barzakh
  38. Jan Garbarek & Ustad Fateh Ali Khan - Ragas And Sagas
  39. Don Cherry - Donna Nostra
  40. Tomasz Stanko - Litania
  41. Nils Petter Molvaer - Khmer
  42. Anouar Brahem, Surman, Holland - Thimar
  43. David Torn - Presenz
  44. Egberto Gismonti - Dança das Cabecas
  45. Jon Balke & Amina Alaoui - Siwan
  46. Charles Lloyd - Sangam
  47. Vilde Sandve Alnaes & Inga Margrete Aas - Makrofauna
  48. Miroslav Vitous Group - Remembering Weather Report
  49. Marilyn Mazur & Jan Garbarek - Elixir
  50. Jøkleba - Outland
... and yes, "Escalator Over The Hill" is by a sublabel of ECM, but it's worth mentioning too. You can question the order on the list, and I'm not always sure either, but I can recommend those albums for sure. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Focus on Photography: Ziga Koritnik

Ziga Koritnik by Mats Aleklint
By Eyal Hareuveni and Paul Acquaro

This profile is the first part of a short series of profiles on photographers focusing on the creative music scene.

What are some of your recent projects?

For last few years I have been working on my new book of music photography Cloud Arrangers. We published it in January 2019, through our foundation PEGA, financed by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. It consists of approximately 270 pictures over 376 pages, the size of the book is 20 x 30cm. The text was written by Joe McPhee, Joelle Leandre, Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark and John Kelman. For now, I am distributing it mostly on my own. Since the beginning of the year and through end October 2019, I presented it at 13 different locations around Europe – among others I was at Galerija Fotografija Ljubljana, Konfrontationen in Austrian Nickelsdorf, Jazz Festival Ljubljana (+ exhibition), Skopje Jazz Festival, Porgy&Bess in Vienna, Ai Confini Tra Sardegna E Jazz on Sardinia/Italy, Music Unlimited in Austrian Wels, and Forli Open Music festival in Italy where I had presentation/exhibition as well. At many of the presentations, musicians and promoters like Zlatko Kaučič, Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, Han Bennink helped me by enriching the event. In Munich / Germany and Villach / Austria I had presentation at a Joe McPhee / Paal Nilssen-Love concert.

From time to time, for whoever is interested, I present music photography workshops. I am starting to prepare myself for the Christmas Artmarket in Ljubljana, where I am selling my “wall” art, along with trying to find some commercial work as a hospitality, portrait, and event photographer, along with my studio work.

What is the decisive moment (referring to Henri Cartier-Bresson) in photographing free jazz/free-improvised music/creative music?

When you are enchanted by music everything is easier and natural. The main conditions for getting into the groove to get good pictures are good music, good atmosphere, and situations at concerts and festivals where you can feel good and welcomed. Decisive moments for getting the best results and the best transfer of the energy happening on stage to your medium is through the sincerity of interpretation and being prepared to catch it on camera. Somehow, you need to follow the wave, be at the right time at the right place, and press the button when needed to catch the decisive moment. I believe that from anywhere you are, you can get a good picture. Also, you must be technically prepared so that you are getting a proper and sharp exposure. You have to be constantly focused on what is happening on stage and around it. A picture must contain just as much as it needs - nothing more and nothing less - to tell clearly with the photographic language what you want to say. Even though in free jazz it is hard to predict what will happen in the next moment, at least you need to be familiar with the content currently played by the musicians you will be photographing. When interesting things start happening, you try to catch as much as possible moments of that time. There is something un-explainable in every talented artist – you are simply able to make a picture interesting and good.

Peter Brotzmann and Joe McPhee
Can photographs, in this digital and Instagram age, still tell a story?

A different kind of story, not demanding story – pictures could be as strong as those done on real cameras – but in my opinion they cannot replace the quality of “real” camera. Big cameras still have different better lenses and views that phones don't have. In general, for people the average phone is perfect. It is great and we can all use this tool, but it is bad that we have so many awful pictures. Everybody thinks they can be a photographer. For some uses, these pictures can be ok, but who is behind the camera or phone camera is still important – the device is just a tool and we are the “captains of that boat.” Instagram is just another way of helpful communication between you and the audience that is following you. It is a diary of your work, it is a document of your time.

Sophia Jernberg

Do you have a musician, configuration, setting, or instrument that you feel does not work well with photography?

Natural evolution brought me through different periods and genres of music in my life to improvised contemporary music, which I like the most. Here I feel at home. Of course there is a lot of other music, that I like and follow - like African, world or good mainstream. In general, I like all good music.

I don't have a musician that could be bad or good - there is only good and bad music. I avoid, and am not interested in, people that don't like to be photographed, and that don't respect my work as much as I respect theirs. Of course there is a lot of music that I like more, but I'd rather not say who, as this is changing all the time. If I have commissioned work to do, I do it professionally and not thinking personally with my taste – just do the job as good as possible. Of course, I sometimes decline a job offer if I feel the atmosphere cannot be developed in both ways. I like to work with musicians, promoters, or whomever is involved in the story, who know how to use my work in a proper way.

What is your preferred/recommended camera/lenses?

I have, all my life, worked with Nikon cameras like the D3s, D5, D850, at the moment I am looking at changing my camera, hoping that some new affordable model will come on the market that would fulfill my expectations – as my camera is old, too loud, and technically behind its time. I must think about that the audience and musicians are not to be disturbed. I’m waiting for a completely silent camera that will work fast and perfectly.

I like to use many different lenses, zooms and fixed ones. Like zoom 80-200mm/2,8; 300mm/2,8; perfect one’s are 50mmm/1,4; 35mm/1,4; 85mm/1,4; 14-24mm/2,8; 24mm/1,4. I still like working portraits on film and medium format Mamiya RB67. I have a movable studio with flash lights and whenever possible I do portraits.

My backpack, filled with all this stuff, is of course too heavy. All the equipment is very expensive. We need to have good computers with good software and a lot of free space to save and archive all pictures we take. So, I can say for all of us: we would be very happy to be paid for our work and that it would not be mostly expected that we are giving our work for free. Like musicians, we need to pay our bills and survive in this rough world too.

Anthony Braxton
Any advise for the novice photographer?

Please don't use lights on your cameras for autofocus and sounds / beeps to know when your camera is ready. There are other indicators telling you that you are ready to press the button. Don't use flash, these days cameras are so sensitive you most of the time don't need it. Do not take pictures in silent moments. Relax while taking pictures, being too excited and running around distracts the attention of the audience .We need to be focused on our subject, music. Take care about other photographers, don't jump into their view area. Have your camera and yourself ready. Think about everything around you, musicians, audience, organizers – and of course take care about yourself. Keep your inner creativity burning all the time. Be persistent and follow your dreams. If you think there is something is not possible to make, accept that as a challenge and try to make it at your best. Enjoy what you are doing. Don't just look around, see what is happening.

Tom Waits
Short Bio:
Born in 1964, Koritnik is a self-taught cameraman and photographer, regularly exhibiting at home and international exhibitions. He worked as a cameraman at Radio Television Slovenia for 18 years, and has been a freelancer since 2007. He has published several books: Jazzy-ga 1995; Jezero / The Lake 2009, Un Punto Di Luce 2009; Cloud arrangers 2019.

He has worked for, or is still working for:
  • Skopje Jazz festival, Northern Macedonia;
  • Jazz festival Ljubljana, Slovenia;
  • Festival Druga Godba, Slovenia;
  • Musica Sulle Bocche / Sardinia – Italy
  • Ai Confini Tra Sardegna E Jazz, Sardinia – Italy
  • Isola Delle Storie Sardinia, Italy
  • And has visited many different venues and festivals around the world including: Saalfelden Jazz Festival, Konfrontation in Nickelsdorf, Vienna Jazz Festival, Musique Metisses of Angouleme, France, Womad, Reading/ England, Talos Festival / Italy, New York's Vision Festival/ USA; Penang Jazz Festival, Malaysia; Zhuhai Jazz festival / China; 
Koritnik's photographs are regularly published in international newspapers and magazines such as Time Out, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Signal to Noise, Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik, Ballett Internationale, Village Voice, Downbeat, Jazznyt, Jazzthetik, etc.

In 1997 the Italian photographic magazine Zoom dedicated a report to him and in 2005 his work was presented in 16 pages in the Japanese magazine Jazznin.

In 2001 he documented the realization of the Map to Paradise exhibition by Peter Greenaway. His photographs have been included with CDs released by labels such as Tzadik, Intuition Music, Nika Records, Trost Records, The Thing Records and Leo Records.

He has held over 60 personal and 40 group exhibitions at home and abroad (Slovenia, Italy, United States, Austria, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Monte Negro, Ireland, Japan ...).

Received the Special Recognition Award at the Olympus photo contest in Japan.

More about Koritnik's work at:


Han Bennink

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Cristián Alvear / Klaus Filip - 6 Chords (Ftarri, 2019) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Chilean contemporary-experimental guitarist Cristián Alvear and Austrian electronics musician and developer of the ppooll software focus on quiet and calm music, with as little as possible instrumental noises and with no spectacular extended techniques. Alvear - who recorded in recent years compositions of avant-garde composers as Antoine Beuger, Michael Pissaro and Jürg Frey - and Filip - known from his work with cellist-sound artist Noid (aka Arnold Habrel), vocalist Agnes Hvizdalek and trombonist Radu Malfatti - performed one time together in April 2018 at the Viennese gallery Zentrale. The Bandcamp page of the Japanese label Ftarri, that focuses on duos recordings, does not provide any details about 6 Chords recording date or location, but do tells that Alvear played on this recording the acoustic guitar and Filip played sine-waves.

6 Chords is one, extended 41-minutes piece, divided into six parts. Alvear plays here clean, repetitive and short phrases while Filip adds his fragmented, transparent sine tones to the guitar lines. At first, the sine waves resonate gently the guitar phrases, adding a pulsating but quite enigmatic and elusive layer that enhances the sonic envelope of the simple guitar sounds. But as this listening experience develops and sharpens, the presence of the transparent and delicate, vibrating sine waves becomes more substantial and varied and not only in its time and space dimensions. The perception of the sonic alchemy of the hypnotic guitar lines and almost silent electronics sounds continue to echo and grow in the listener’s imagination.

With each listening this mysterious effects becomes stronger and more elaborate. With no artificial psychoactive substances you can feel these tangible-elastic sounds as multi-dimensional living entities. These meditative sounds invite the listener to dive deeper and deeper into its nuanced, liquid-like universes and explore-experience ourselves within - or embraced by - these sounds. 6 Chords is an imaginative and modest masterpiece.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Eve Risser - Après Uns Rêve (Clean Feed, 2019) ****½

By Stef

This is one short album, yet what it lacks in time, it compensates in intensity and musical vision.

French pianist Eve Risser surprises us again, combining gentle, almost romantic phrases in minor key with the insistent rhythmic prodding of the prepared upright piano strings, creating an orchestral feeling all by herself. It's often hard to understand how she does it, and even if you wonder at first listen about the technical and mechanical aspects of how she uses the full potential of the upright piano, with the consecutive listens you just have to stop rationalising and letting yourself be taken by the musical flow she creates. Percussive madness merges with minimal repetitiveness and romantic expansion, all ingredients that would clash in normal circumstances but that are brought to wonderful harmony in her dexterous hands.

The improvisation develops in different parts, like ebb and flow, but with a maintained rhythmic undercurrent that may shift in meter, but keeps propulsing the more melodic parts forward, whether phrases or chords, whether intimate or expansive. The music is inspired by a piece with the same name by French 19th Century composer Gabriel Fauré - and with the lyrics by Romain Businne presented below, describing a state between dreaming and waking, when it's hard to fathom what's happening, as it is in Risser's music. Despite its incredible focus and intensity, the dream state of the lyrics is also present, combining abstract purity with emotional complexity.

Like with her real start with "En Corps" in 2012, and "Des Pas Sur La Neige", her music is mesmerising, hypnotic. Harmonies shift, structures evolve, rhythms and sounds get new meaning, continuity is challenged and maintained. A variety of things happen, consecutively or together, yet the piece's sense of unity and direction is kept throughout, as is the tension between pulse and lyricism.

She does something new and creative and compelling and enchanting with a short solo piano piece, all with her own unique voice and stubborn vision.

It has the right length. You just need to listen to it a few hundred times. And then still enjoy it.

Après Un Rêve

Dans un sommeil que charmait ton image
je rêvais le bonheur, ardent mirage,
tes yeux étaient plus doux, ta voix pure et sonore,
tu rayonnais comme un ciel éclairé par l'aurore ;

Tu m'appelais et je quittais la terre
pour m'enfuir avec toi vers la lumière,
les cieux pour nous entr'ouvraient leurs nues,
Splendeurs inconnues, lueurs divines entrevues.

Hélas ! Hélas, triste réveil des songes,
Je t'appelle, ô nuit, rends-moi tes mensonges ;
Reviens, reviens, radieuse,
Reviens, ô nuit mystérieuse !

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Albert Ayler Quartets 1964 ‎- Spirits To Ghosts Revisited (ezz-thetics, 2019) ****(*)

By Colin Green

1964 has been described as Albert Ayler's annus mirabilis, the year in which his music reached maturity and he found his true voice. Arguably, he never attained the same heights or levels of cohesion so consistently thereafter. The album under review, part of the Revisited series on Hat Hut's ezz-thetics imprint, allows us to sample his music towards the beginning and end of that year comprising remastered versions of two releases: Spirits recorded in New York in February and Ghosts in Copenhagen from September (not New York as stated on the back cover). Both albums were rereleased on the Arista/Freedom label in the early 1970s under the titles Witches & Devils and Vibrations respectively. The track order differs from all previous versions and although no explanation is provided, presumably this is in line with the order of recording at each session and the documentary nature of the project. Art Lange supplies excellent notes.

"I like to play something - like the beginning of 'Ghosts' - that people can hum," said Ayler in a revealing interview with Nat Hentoff in 1966, "and I want to play songs like I used to sing when I was real small. Folk melodies that all the people would understand. I'd use these melodies as a start and have different simple melodies going in and out of a piece. From simple melody to complicated textures to simplicity again and then back to the more dense, the more complex sounds."

In part, this echoes a worldview that can be traced back to Rousseau and the Romantics and which has remained prevalent to this day across a range of cultures - that a more authentic and less corrupted image of ourselves is to be found in native traditions and folk-history, a place that also exists in the innocence of childhood, states in which a purer, more spontaneous version of the self is unrestrained by limiting conventions and where intuition confers greater understanding than the powers of the intellect. Also significant is a mythologising tendency reflected in the brief titles Ayler gave his pieces which evoke a shadowy, numinous realm and a desire for things that cannot be explained. Ghosts are emanations from the past appearing in the present; spirits, witches and devils occupy a spectral region that intersects mysteriously with our own. Likewise, for Ayler music was a medium in both senses: a means of communing with others and a form for articulating areas to which the rational mind provides limited access, the paradigm of creativity that marries archetypal with individual sensibilities. It is in the latter that we find the complexity he mentions. Improvisation provides a dramaturgy for personal voices allowing them to move from generic to unique expression. At the same time the music of our age is essentially fragmentary in which no single voice prevails, yet we yearn for a past now lost, grounded in some half-remembered union. During 1964 Ayler's achievement was to find a way of combining all these elements into music that holds an enduring fascination - immediate, melancholic, profound - and which remains a touchstone for free jazz.

Looking back, there's a tension in his work between impulses which it took him some time, if not to resolve then to use in a genuinely creative friction. Ayler wanted to connect with the foundations of jazz in hymns and song, felt to be imbued with transcendent values, and to explore the instrumental innovations of bebop and beyond, to be rooted in the vernacular but also to have a distinctive, contemporary vision. He'd developed an idiosyncratic way with the tenor saxophone, having power and personality, yet found no satisfactory format in which his warped pitches, off-key shrieks and R&B squawks could be properly integrated so they would sound like more than mere eccentric bursts and indulgent meanderings. He apparently introduced wayward deviations even when practicing as a child and was told by his father to get back to the melody: "I'd be standing in a corner playing and trying to communicate with a spirit that I knew nothing about at that particular age." As heard on My Name is Albert Ayler , originally recorded for Danish radio in January 1963, with most standards it was as if he was speaking a hybrid language, unsure of quite what he wanted to say and at odds with the repertoire and his fellow musicians.

Two tracks from that session suggested ways forward however, though this may seem clearer to us now than it did to him. On 'Summertime', a ballad of noble simplicity, Ayler slithers around the melody, chopping phrases into irregular sections, reducing his line to soft textural trails, giving the performance a heightened expressive weight threaded to the underlying melody which always remains a point of reference. On the day after that recording, when first hearing Ayler play, Don Cherry felt the same spiritual presence and spontaneous outpouring as in the congregation of a Baptist church as a child. The final track, 'C.T.', a reference to Cecil Taylor, is a freely improvised piece. Some months before in October 1962 while working in Sweden, Ayler had seen the Taylor quartet at the Golden Circle in Stockholm. He was familiar with the melodic and other innovations of Coltrane, Ornette and Sonny Rollins, but Taylor's music was probably the most advanced formal development of jazz at that point and he wanted to be part of it - "I finally found someone I could play with" Sunny Murray reports him as saying. Ayler sat in for one night and played with the trio of Taylor, Jimmy Lyons and Murray during the latter part of their residency at the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen the following month, though not on the night the legendary Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come was taped. There is however, a recording taken from a Danish TV broadcast of the trio with Ayler in an extended improvisation of over 20 minutes from a week earlier, considered by Mats Gustafsson to be "the missing link", that first appeared on the Holy Ghost box set under the title 'Four'. Ayler's 'C.T.', from six weeks later, contains occasional passing references to a dancing figure used in 'Four' but has none of the whirlwind pace injected by Taylor. In the absence of a strong motivic flow and with musicians unfamiliar with the idiom the improvisation tends to drift.

After the My Name in Albert Ayler session, he went to New York for further dates with Taylor, then to his hometown of Cleveland where he sat in with the visiting quartets of Sonny Rollins/Don Cherry and Coltrane. Returning to New York, he played in a private session with Ornette and resumed working with Taylor; the last appearance with his quartet was at the Five Spot in January 1964. In a number of respects Ayler's musical temperament was very different - for him prominent melodic content mattered far more than to Taylor - but in the pianist's ensemble he found something equally important: a form of simultaneity where music can be many things at the same time and ride different currents, superimposed and criss-crossed, not moored in a common rhythm but wandering within and carried by its own processes. It may be that when it came to his own music, in Ayler's mind retaining traces of a blues structure and incorporating tunes redolent of an earlier age with this kind of flexibility enabled him to sustain correspondences between ancestral voices and the diction of the present in a way faithful to both, seeing himself as both heir and transmitter. As he put it at the end of 1964, "The music that we're playing now is just the blues of all of America all over again, but it's a different kind of blues. This is the real blues, the new blues."

For the Spirits session in February (tracks 1 to 4 on this album) Ayler used Henry Grimes on double bass and Sunny Murray, drums, from Taylor's quartet. Joining them were two musicians from Cleveland, trumpeter Norman Howard, with whom Ayler had played since his youth, and double bassist Earle Henderson. The bass players appear on different tracks and both play on 'Witches and Devils' (Unfortunately, their listings on the back cover don't take account of the track reordering.) The piece originally named "Saints" has been renamed "Prophecy" for this release, the title given to the tune on later recordings, and more confusingly it's the same tune as 'Spirits' on Spiritual Unity, which is not the same as the track of that title here. This suggests that Ayler viewed his themes as sharing collective associations, and the melodies themselves are in certain instances variants or bear close family resemblances. Some would be repeated during sets and sessions in different manifestations and a few years later in live performance he would link them together in contrasting sequences.

Two tracks, 'Spirits' and 'Holy Holy', have Ayler and Howard focussing on texture and delineation, part of Ayler's gestural arsenal, though in a more rudimentary fashion than would be used later. In both pieces the head is dispatched quickly followed by long solos, a short duet then a reprise. The solos consist of lines that flow and swell with no real relationship to thematic material, an uninterrupted flux of energy that is all trajectory and contour. Pitches are secondary, arbitrary even. But for the agitating presence of bass and drums the music would be curiously static, however - it has potency but lacks dimension. This rendition of 'Spirits' doesn't contain the bristling invention of performances of the piece later that year, including a version at the Cellar Cafe in June that begins with primordial streams of sound and where the theme is frequently alluded to but only emerges fully at the very end, summoned out of the vortex. 'Holy Holy' introduces a little more variety, particularly in Ayler's solo which concludes with him playing part of 'Ghosts' in its first recorded appearance.

The other two tracks from the session are of a different order. They assimilate melody and improvisation, innovation and raw expression, in a way that would typify Ayler's rubato ballads and form part of his legacy. There's a truly tragic air about them heightened by an exaggerated vibrato that resembles the trembling melisma of passionate song. During Ayler's opening statement on 'Saints/Prophecy' the trumpet provides a parallel commentary in brief stabs outlining the melody, a tune which lies behind the music like a phantom presence through Ayler's twists into the upper registers and Howard's constrictions, until the final, painful unison. 'Witches and Devils' is a funeral dirge with the two basses providing a mumbling accompaniment to the ceremony, released into further laments during their plucked and bowed solo. At times the nuanced, achingly cracked trumpet almost breaks down. Beneath all this Murray's taps, rolls and splashes intensify and subside in weather-like motion. It's a performance of great emotional depth whose elegiac tone and sense of collective mourning are made all the more poignant by mingling constant change and seeming stillness.

Tracks 5 to 10 jump forward to a Copenhagen studio in September 1964 and the quartet with Don Cherry (cornet), Gary Peacock (double bass) and Murray, and it's a quite a leap. As heard on the albums Prophecy and Spiritual Unity, which Hat Hut plan to release at some point as a complete edition, in the intervening months the trio of Ayler, Peacock and Murray had taken shape, forming what is still considered a model of integrated improvisation and intuitive interplay. Peacock's deep-toned yet agile bass was able to handle the metrical shifts and oblique angles of pianist Paul Bley (see: the Bley quartet's Turning Point mostly recorded in March 1964) and his pliable, responsive manner fitted perfectly into the spaces created by tenor and drums. "We weren't playing, we were listening to each other" said Ayler. He'd agreed to a residency for the trio at the Montmartre club with the possibility of other dates and prospects of recording and Cherry, who was already in Europe, joined them. The other recordings of this quartet have appeared most recently on HATology's European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 and Copenhagen Live 1964. Together with the current album they document one the great free jazz ensembles.

As with the trio, in the quartet harmonic progression and melodic invention play a part but are frequently given equal weight alongside other aspects not usually so prominent or even featured at all. Changes in articulation, velocity and register, sometimes abrupt, are combined with continuity and contrast borne by the shape and density of phrases, layered tempos and pure texture. The old hierarchies are not done away with so much as reconfigured within a wider ambit so that imitation and resemblance, divergence and variation - the essentials of instrumental discourse - can function on many levels and in surprising ways, making the music concurrently familiar and strange. Cherry adds extra colour and refinement, acting as an offset to Ayler and Peacock plays arco extensively, a multi-hued sonority not heard with the trio. Murray's kit is recorded with proper definition allowing a genuine four-way perspective of the quartet, enhanced by the then common practice of placing drums and bass at either side of the soundstage.

'Ghosts' is a tune Ayler based on the folk ditty 'Torparvisan' (Little Farmer's Song) that had been part of his set while touring Sweden with local musicians, though in his hands it couldn't be more different. (Later, he was to incorporate 'La Marseillaise', originally a marching song, into 'Spirits Rejoice' and other pieces.) There are two versions of 'Ghosts' here, opening with the longest. After cycling through the theme all is rent asunder. Like starting from scratch, motivic segments are caught in a swirl of conflicting tonal centres. Ayler's off-kilter tenor is wide open then reduced to a surge of screams and honks, taken up by Cherry's sinuous cornet that eventually reintroduces the theme in a recognisable form for what sounds like a natural conclusion; save that the bass continues oblivious, skittering over the melody before being joined by the others for a rousing unison which this time brings the piece to an end. The second version of 'Ghosts' has no solos and highlights the differing character of the tune's constituent parts: haunting then ebullient then back again.

Ayler's characteristic handling of intonation and timbre owes a debt to vocal techniques, replicating those subtle tremors, inflections, and occasional brittle edges employed by singers, even the open throated exaltations of voices raised in supplication. On 'Mothers', he uses the chord changes of the gospel song 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child' for a melody delivered in a sobbing, coarse-grained tone. By way of contrast the slightly detached cornet plays the tune shorn of adornment. During the next iteration Ayler's weeping saxophone elicits sympathetic wails from Cherry and in the concluding statement both ascend and merge into their highest registers. Peacock's bass is scraped and bowed throughout in a threnody of veiled counterpoint.

'Vibrations' is an Ornetteish theme that includes a sharply rising figure transformed into an adrenaline rush of coruscating distortions and refulgent fanfare blasts shadowed by heavily plucked, resonant bass and the persistent chatter of Murray's snare drum, ending as a disintegration into silence. In 'Holy Spirit' a repeated chant calls forth fierce confabulations interrupted by an interlude for Peacock's chiselled thoughts and waves of percussion. Like much of this music, what holds the performance together is not a common metre but a shared respiratory rhythm, what Ben Young has called an internal gyroscope, to which individual parts seem related even in contradiction giving the improvisations their own endogenous balance. It's a quality now taken for granted in free jazz.

Cherry said that Ayler was a pure folk musician, meaning instinctual and without artifice. Some of those early critics were right; at times there's an amateurish feel to execution and phrasing, but it's a deliberate absence of cultivated sound that taps into what we think of as natural, uncontrived sentiments, which permeate the music. 'Children' is begun by Ayler as a sombre lullaby, rising and falling with swooning glissandi, then suddenly changes direction and is played at breakneck speed. The remainder of the piece alternates between tender ministrations and upbeat flurries, empathy and exhilaration, topped off by the cornet's final peep.

After 1964 Cherry continued working in Europe and pursued the wider implications of the folk and roots aesthetic, moving towards greater collective improvisation and a synthesis with the music of other cultures. His 'Suite for Albert Ayler' from Montmartre in 1966 is one of the first musical recognitions of Ayler's importance, a melding of 'Ghosts' - a tune he once suggested should be adopted as a new national anthem - and snatches of his own 'Infant Happiness', the only non-Ayler composition played by the Ayler/Cherry quartet and which Ayler had recorded again in 1965 under the title 'D.C.'.

Sonically, the remastering from analogue tapes has resulted in greater presence and richer textures. Previous releases are a little opaque and monochrome in comparison. Spirits has particularly benefitted: there's a more pronounced identity to the two basses on 'Witches and Devils' and Howard's trumpet positively sings out. For those with the albums in their collection already Spirits To Ghosts Revisited is a definite upgrade, and if you don't have them it carries a mandatory recommendation.