Click here to [close]

Monday, November 30, 2009

Vocals, vocals, vocals ...

I am not usually a fan of vocal jazz, let alone spoken word and jazz, for reasons explained earlier and elsewhere. From classical opera over musicals to avant-garde vocals, the artificial changes enforced on the vocal chords create an emotional distance to me, rather than the opposite, in a way that I can't really explain, because that effect is not generated in rock music (think Robert Plant or Tom Waits). Anyway, once in a while some worthwhile albums are released and Leo Records even a whole series of them. Since this is not my kind of music, I will refrain from giving these albums a star quotation.

Yet the list also again demonstrates Leo Feigin's unrelenting sense of new musical adventures. If all music sounded nice to all people, it would certainly lack character. These albums have character with truckloads.

Joachim Gies & Sound/body/cells - Shimmering (Leo Records, 2009)

German saxophonist Joachim Gies teams up with fellow countryman Denis Stilke on drums and Israeli vocalist Ronni Gilla. This avant-garde music is entrancing, with Gilla's singing holding the middle between weird sounds and ritualistic shamanic incantations. Highly unusual, with moments of intense beauty. Really worth hearing.

Sainkhò Namtchylak & Dickson Dee - Tea Opera (Leo Records, 2009)

Mongolian singer Sainkhò Namtchylak has performed before on Leo, and even has seven solo vocal albums on her discography. Here she teams up with Dickson Dee on electronics. The music is dedicated to the tea cultures of China. Dee's utterly strange yet compelling electronic backdrop forms a wonderful context for Namtchylak's unique and often hypnotic improvisations.

Katja Krusche & Martin Krusche - I Am One (Leo Records, 2009)

Improvisations for vocals and accordion by this Austrian couple. No doubt about their skills. No question about the quality of what they bring. You're probably a better judge than I am.

Stefano Luigi - Painting On Wood (Leo Records, 2009)

Stefano Luigi Mangia's vocals hold the middle between traditional jazz singing, musical and avant-garde, full of theatrical drama. Really not my cup of tea. With Gianni Lenoci on piano, Pasquale Gadaleta on bass and Marcello Magliocchi on drums.

Viviane Houle - Treize (Drip Audio, 2009) 

Canadian vocalist Viviane Houle plays thirteen duets (hence the title) with some of Canada's best modern musicians, such as Peggy Lee, Jesse Zubot, Chris Gestrin. Her vocal acrobatics may be surprising and astonish some, they leave me cold. This music is frankly beyond me.

© stef

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Li Tie Qiao - Wind Of Lunacy

I once had the chance to visit the huge 798 Art Zone in Beijing, where a thriving community of modern plastic art exhibits sculptures, paintings and installations in a former weapons factory, an evolution that seems to give some hope to humanity. It also seems like the visual arts precede music, because now experimental jazz and music also start to get attention.

One of the performers is Li Tieqiao, whose solo sax album is his latest brain child. Without formal music education, Li switched his wood flute to trombone to sax, which is now his main instrument. He was presented to me as the Chinese Evan Parker, which I can understand, but not quite. Li seems to have by-passed a few decades of jazz history, taking up the most recent of free jazz in Norway, some indie rock music, and electronics, and turned them into his own personal soundscapes.

And even if this album is a solo sax record, officially, it is more electronics that you hear than the instrument's original sounds. Despite that, he manages to create sufficient tension to keep the attention going, especially on the first two tracks, on which there are still some rhythmic and even harmonic explorations, added to that some interesting shades and coloring of tones, which range from animal-like cries to industrial sounds. The third piece is pretty flat. The fourth gives the kind of cosmic and meditative soundscape which has been beaten to death by many before. The last track has the sax more prominent on the foreground.

Even if this will not be my favorite album of the year, I sincerely hope that Li and the new crowd of Chinese musicians will discover and share their experiences. As Li says in an interview about free jazz : "It was the most natural, liberating sound ... When you perform like this, your mind abandons everything. No two notes are the same ? I feel like we are conversing with each other through our instruments, discussing crucial questions".

From weapons to art, from language barriers to "conversing through instruments", there is hope indeed.

For those of you living in Belgium, or close by, the concert hall Vooruit (Gent) organises a four-day concert program this week dedicated to modern Chinese music, at which Li Tie Qiao performs . 

© stef

Friday, November 27, 2009

Lotte Anker, Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver - Floating Islands (Ilk, 2009) *****

One great album in a decade is an achievement, two great albums in one year is exceptional, yet this trio with saxophonist Lotte Anker, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver does it. After "Live At The Loft", published earlier this year, also on Ilk, the trio is back with a new studio album. Anker also figures on the excellent "Mokuto" album. Cleaver participated in the equally great "Farmers By Nature" with Craig Taborn, and on Miroslav Vitous' "Remembering Weather Report".

This is the third album by the trio, and they get better with each release.

The album starts with repetitive prhases on the saxophone, built around a single tonal center, accompanied by muted minimal drumming by Cleaver, soon to be joined by the piano, setting the tone for pure musical hypnotism. Anker keeps building the tension by slightly altering the tone and the pitch, leaving the foreground to the piano, equally soft and minimal, but she keeps the sax present, barely audible, with Cleaver maintaining his muted rumbling sounds, Taborn keeping the attention going, but then after a while the sax resurfaces, slowly moaning, fragile and vulnerable, full of soaring lyricism, then the volume builds, Cleaver gets his sticks out, Taborn uses his left hand for some more powerful chords, and the composition shifts seamlessly into the sixteen minute long second track "Ritual", with intensity and tension building and growing, at a slow and wonderful pace, full of restraint and passion, mesmerizing and trance-inducing, with the rhythm becoming more angular, with the piano pounding chords, the drums kicking and the sax keeping up its wailing, screaming, full-toned howling, with the rhythm shifting underneath, falling in step, moving away again, and when you think this must end, well,... it just doesn't, the power increases, the volume increases, the tension increases, ... mad, mindless, repetitive, full throttle, the piano goes haywire, the drums go nuts, and then the sax reduces its pitch, and the rhythm changes again, odd-metered, with only piano and drums hammering on without the sax, increasing the tempo, dominating the scence, and then, out of nowhere,  the sax is back again, for another round of heart-rending, gut-wrenching high-pitched wailing, only to end with the piano turning the music out of the storm into quiet waters, full of impressionistic sophistication, moving into the third piece, "Transitory Blossom", on which Anker's sound is again as sensitive as it gets, soft and fragile, evoking the temporariness of things, with almost romantic piano, and again the piece flows as one into "Backwards River", more wayward, more avant-garde, with staccato playing by all three instruments, yet adapting quite rapidly to each other while shifting the piece together towards different musical territory, more nervous, full of wild agitation, with currents and counter-currents played by Taborn on his keys, with Cleaver going berserk at the drumkit, and when their double violence reaches the relentless power of high-speed rapids, the sax joins to add her slice of mayhem to the rhythm section pandemonium, with squeals, shouts, and howls, on and on and on, but things do come to an end, and the the piece suddenly slows down into a jumpy rhythm, unwillingly almost, but the sax goes, the piano goes, the drum stays, leading out and leading in the last track, "Even Today I'm Still Arriving", as if the river reaches the ocean, with the sax sounding like seagulls, then the sax plays solo, melodic, lyrical, yet weird in a way, and also beautiful, sensitive, with the piano adding sad minimalistic and impressionistic tones, calm and measured, with Anker adding some sparse notes, not many, but with a stunning emotional depth.

This album has it all : the mastership, the skills, the balance, the musical baggage to draw from, the musical vision, the coherent delivery, the variation, the adventure, the passion, the discipline, the raw emotional power, the sophistication, .... Absolutely stunning.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Jesse Stacken & Kirk Knuffke - Mockingbird (Steeplechase, 2009) ****

Usually I try to be cautious to keep close to this blog's profile in terms of the music that I review : adventurous, innovative, expressive, boundary-shifting music, with deep artistic vision. But once in a while it's difficult to ignore or not to share my enthusiasm for music that does not fit this category.

Pianist Jesse Stacken and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke tackle the music of Ellington and Monk, but then in a context and with a stylistic revision that belongs to early jazz, and on top of this with the technical refinement of a classical chamber ensemble. The end result is musical joy from the very first note to the last. This is an ode to the beauty of composition, melody and interplay, without any further pretense or ambition. Whether "Bright Mississippi" or "Misterioso", or especially "Skippy", the versions this fantastic duo brings of Monk's compact music is crystal clear, precise and joyful. Alternating these with Ellington's more melancholy and bluesy compositions "Isfahan" and "Sunset and The Mocking Bird" is a great idea because it adds variation. The album ends with "Four In One", with both musicians playing the tune in unison at breackneck speed, and in truth, a piece to laugh out loud just from sheer listening enjoyment at their skills and at the end result. Not free, not avant-garde, but a daring and refreshing take on two icons of jazz history by two young musicians whose normal biotope is modern jazz. Enjoy!

© stef

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ivo Perelman - Mind Games (Leo Records, 2009) ****

 In the liner notes to the album, Art Lande writes "Mind Games is the latest adventure in an odyssey of intuition and expression, freedom and control", and that's a quite apt description for Ivo Perelman's music, with Dominic Duval on bass and Brian Willson (with double "ll") on drums. The Brazilian saxophonist is a lyrical powerplayer or a powerful lyricist, depending on the viewpoint, with melodic phrasings coming spontaneously out of traditional jazz and Brazilian music, yet embedded in a restless search for freedom and emotional expressivity of a kind that surpasses the mediocre. I wrote earlier that it requires excellent creative inspiration to make a trio a captivating listen from beginning to end, and Perelman is a master in this. He has a story to tell, with lots of variations, plots and subplots, tension and suspense, integrating moments of intimacy with wilder excursions, but always with a great sense of pace and rhythm. Dominic Duval's style of non-conformist sensitivity is a perfect match for Perelman. I did not know drummer Brian Willson, who has performed quite a lot with Duval but hasn't released many albums so far, yet his rhythmic wizzardry is here fully at the service of the tenorist, and he gets the chance to demonstrate his great skills on "G.S. Farewell", a very long piece on which the drums kicks off, then dominates the pace and the sound, making the improvisation evolve like waves that come and go, swell and flatten, intensify and relax. Perelman has quieted down a bit compared to some of his earlier releases, yet he has gained in eloquence and subtlety without loosing his adventurousness and sense of freedom. One of his best albums.

© stef

Monday, November 23, 2009

Frode Gjerstad, Nick Stephens, Louis Moholo-Moholo (Loose Torque, 2009) ****

Frode Gjerstad is a very prolific musician, according to himself preferring to play with his larger ensemble "Circulasione Totale", because the sound is denser and more varied, yet the costs higher. The trio format is of course more nimble and affordable, and he has played in many, with Øyvind Storesund and Paal Nilssen-Love, with William Parker and Hamid Drake, Wilber Morris and Rashid Bakr, with Paul Rogers and Kevin Norton, with John Edwards and Mark Sanders, and now one with Nick Stephens on bass and Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums. The Norwegian had played and released with both musicians in the past, quite a lot even, but never in a trio format.

To hear them play here is quite a pleasure, very much in the European free improv tradition, in which the intensity of the interaction between the musicians is key, with the sounds created on the spot with an immediacy and directness that almost goes against the natural flow you would expect from any music.

The album's title "Quiddity" refers to the very nature of things, the commonality of characteristics that makes an object what it is, and what it shares with others of the same group.

The more abstract a description, the more elements it shares with others, the more you come to total unity. So it can be both a musical as spiritual thing. The music is abstract, starting on the first track, "The Nature",  with high-pitched short, almost whistling notes of the alto, with equally pointillistic support from bass and drums, evolving over very agitated and nervous playing on the second piece, "The Gist", and strangely enough the third track, "The Whatness", ends in longer notes, stretched tones, a concept which is continued on the last track, "The Essence", on which Gjerstad switches to clarinet; a piece which becomes almost intimate, fragile. Obviously each track is more varied than described here, with the necessary shifts in tempo and intensity. I focus too much on Gjerstad while describing the above: the quality of the playing and the unity displayed by the three musicians is absolutely excellent. Stephens is fast, deep, versatile and precise on arco and plucked, and Moholo-Moholo's rumbling and sharp polyrhythmics are as much defining the music. And that is abstract in nature and form. And free. And one.

© stef

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Trio Passeurs - Existences (Futura Marge, 2009) ****

 After Alexandra Grimal and Maguelone Vidal, Véronique Magdelenat is the third female French saxophonist that makes an album of value this year. Accompanied by Bernard Santacruz on bass and Christian Rollet on drums, she forms the Trio Passeurs. As Magdelenat writes in the liner notes, her music is about "energy, poetry and freedom, finding new forms, taking care of our souls, caressing our bodies, pulling our heart-strings, mixing the colors of life". Quite a program, yet delivered indeed with a right balance between energy and sensitivity. Only one track, "Petit Caillou", has a clear bluesy rhythmic and melodic pattern, while all the other pieces are more in the free improvised form, mostly downtempo, sometimes nervous, but mostly very subtle in the timbral explorations, even to the extent of negotiating emotional complexities in the hardly audible regions, or bringing full voice wails of agony or liberation of energetic tension. The trio works well together to create a single vision, and Magdelenat for sure a new voice to be reckoned with, especially if she can break away completely from form and structure, she's at her best.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Five Spot - Poltva (SoLyd Records, 2009) ****

The band's name reveals that this is a quintet, with Lithuanian Petras Vysniauskas on soprano, Ukranians Yury Yaremchuk soprano, alto and clarinets, and Mark Tokar on bass, German Klaus Kugel on drums and Roberta Piket from the US on piano. All five musicians have solid backgrounds, both in traditional contexts as in a more free environment, as is the case here, for this live performance at the Lviv Jazz Festival in Ukraine in 2007, and it is free jazz in the spirit of the seventies, with the whole band working together on a coherent musical flow, rhytmic and forward-moving, with the musicians very concerned to build a unique sound rather than using the improvisation for personal expression. In the hands of lesser musicians this becomes a perfect recipe for either chaos or boredom, but you get the opposite here: discipline and deep listening skills, creativity and variation make this quite a captivating program.

Listen and buy from CDBaby.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bill Dixon - Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2009) *****

Trumpeter Bill Dixon's music has always been hard to classify: rooted in jazz, with the adventurousness of the avant-garde, open for the use of electronics, and with the composed and structured approach of classical music, while still leaving sufficient space for improvisation. Last year he released a stellar album, "Seventeen Musicians In Search of A Sound: Darfur", and this one is at the same high level throughout, if not better even.

The musicians are almost the same, but then in a trimmed down version, with no less than five trumpet-, cornet- or flugelhorn-players : Bill Dixon, Taylor Ho Bynum, Graham Haynes, Stephen Haynes and Rob Mazurek. The band is completed by Glynis Lomon on cello, Michel Cote on contrabass and bass clarinet, Ken Filiano on bass, and Warren Smith on vibes, marimba, drums, typani, and gongs.

Even if this is a solid horn section, most of the music is quite open-textured, with initially a relatively limited number of instruments playing at any given time, duos, trios, quartets, with - no surprise here - almost always a trumpet in the lead role, but then at certain moments the horn section locks in for a huge swell of sound. That being said, the improvisations are not what you would expect: Dixon's overall carefully crafted sound dominates the improvisations, with few notes being played, and themes, in so far as you can call them like that, slowly evolving, with the horns in different groups acting in counterpoint. The music becomes more dense with each track, with the whole small orchestra playing together to create a unique soundscape.

Like on his previous album, the overall mood is slow, dark, austere and somber. No reasons for joy to be found. The flow of the music is interspersed with radical voices coming up, sometimes to take over the scene, sometimes only to let out a few cries, and then dissolve again into the background murmur. Yet the soloists can be very frantic, having urgent stories to tell, often brilliantly accompanied by Warren Smith, who takes a lead role on vibes in the beautiful "Silvers - Sand Dance For Sophia", or the solos are sad, melancholy or expansive. On some pieces, hardly any improvisor comes to the fore, with electronics and the dark background sounds conjuring up images of wild primeval times, when out of universal and unclassifiable existence, suddenly individual voices and life emerge. The whole album is actually one large composition, broken down in eight tracks, with each some distinct characteristics yet all part of the same sound.

Many modern music alienates and shocks, and it may take some time before you get used to certain aspects of it. Here it's the opposite: you get sucked into a universe that is different, weird, inhospitable, mystic, yet feel likes home. As a listener you feel a deep recognition of what is being played. It has such a universal value, that you can relate to it on some very deep and fundamental level.

And that is the absolute marvel of Dixon's music : it is unclassifiable, it is beyond what you expect even from music. An ambitious genre-bending masterpiece. And a spectacular listening experience.

It's a double CD with DVD. Since I downloaded from eMusic, I cannot comment on the DVD, but I would say it's worth having the full hard copy of it.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fred Anderson Quartet - Live At The Velvet Lounge, Vol. 3 (Asian Improv, 2009) ****

From the very first notes of the solo sax intro, you recognize Fred Anderson's tone, phrasing, rhythm but also his passion and soul, right there in front of you. Nothing new, but as always a delight. No bad word about the old master, and when his band joins in the festivities, the audience cheers loudly and enthusiastically, and rightly so. With Francis Wong on sax, Chad Taylor on drums and Tatsu Aoki on bass. The latter two have figured on many of Anderson's records, but of his 20-odd albums, it's only the third one with another saxophonist, Kidd Jordan and Ken Vandermark being the other two.

As you can expect, the music brings the usual lengthy yet focused improvisations over a polyrhytmic drums and repetitive bass vamp. If you don't move on his music, you must be made of stone. And if you're not moved by his music, same thing. Yet at the same time, because of the length and the repetition, and the interlocking saxes, weaving great textures, moving towards each other, away from each other, echoing, challenging, the end result is quite hypnotic and spiritual too. While at the same time open to fun and self-relativation. A rare combination. So even if you think like me, that you must have heard many of it  somewhere before on one of Anderson's albums - but which one? - it's a pointless thought, because the music is just great. It was great then, it is great now. Body, heart and soul. Pure joy!

© stef

Monday, November 16, 2009

Piano, piano, piano - from tradition to the future

 Truth be told, I like horns. The way they can twist, bend, split and torture sounds, or make them whisper in sad sensitivity, or sing in voluptuous joy, or scream in tormented agony, or wail in mad intoxication. Horns are so close to the human voice and so emotionally recognizable. Not so with the piano. It's a more intellectual, more academic instrument, often less direct, less raw, less physical than those horn players who blow their lungs out. And although I love the piano, piano albums tend to pile up for your humble servant, who usually jumps at any occasion to review a new record with lots of blowing. So, here you get the worthwhile stuff, all in a row, from the very traditional over the wild and free, ending with modern day avant-garde classicism : from solo piano to solo piano, with a duo and three trios in between.

Freakish - Anthony Coleman Plays Jerry Roll Morton (Tzadik, 2009) ***

Anthony Coleman plays tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, if not the inventor of jazz, then in any case close enough to have been present at its birth. Coleman is a wonderful pianist, and Tzadik his regular label. Don't expect any of Coleman's more avant-garde leanings here: what you get is straight ragtime piano, simple and fun. Although a sincere tribute, it also very much a stylistic exercise.

Ulrich Gumpert & Günter Baby Sommer - Das Donnernde Leben (Intakt, 2009) ***

The "Thundering Live" is the second album by Ulrich Gumper on piano and Günter "Baby" Sommer on drums, no less than thirty years after their first album "Versaumnisse". Despite both musicians' strong presence in European free jazz and free improv, this album is very much linked to the blues tradition of jazz, with even a couple of Wolf Bierman songs thrown into the mix (a German leftist singer/songwriter of some decades ago) and what is rare these days, it is all fun and joy, no high-brow pretense or artsy endeavors, you - YOU - the listener, are welcomed in from the very first notes, to participate in the joy, not to just sit there and listen. There are shouts, fun interactions, mutual jokes, but also great music: sensitive and compelling, and the blues, well, it is omnipresent, if not in form, then at least in spirit.

John Blum - In The Shade Of The Sun (Ecstatic Peace!, 2009)***

Now moving into the realm of free jazz: pianist John Blum is probably best known for his work with his Astrogeny Quartet, but he also recorded with Sunny Murray, Steve Swell and Butch Morris to name but a few. Here plays in the great presence of William Parker on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. Don't expect themes, nor fixed rhythmic patterns, you get six intense pieces of direct interaction and wild excursions. Cecil Taylor comes to mind in his relentless thundering forward movement, a little too much to my taste, but well, you're the judge.

Marilyn Lerner, Ken Filiano, Lou Grassi (NoBusiness, 2009)****

Marilyn Lerner is a Canadian pianist, here accompanied by Ken Filiano on bass and Lou Grassi on drums. Classically trained, maybe, but what you hear on this album is as wild as it gets, free from conventions, idioms and automatisms. It takes you by the throat from the very first notes. What you get here, and what is missing on the John Blum trio, is an incredibly powerful sense of direction, not going into the extreme of one journey, but exploring various options consecutively, or at the same time, flowing one into the other, which makes this album a great listening experience: soft musings, painful beauty, avant-garde string plucking, dark atmospheres, disturbing anxiety, ... it's here. Filiano and Grassi are also absolutely stellar, they are the music, not just the rhythm section to a lead instrument. A greater level of musical focus could have given the entire album a stronger feeling of unity. Although nice by itself, the long boppish "Hommage à Coco Schulmann" (unfortunately misspelled), does not really fit into the overall sound. Less could have been more.

David Arner Trio - Out In The Open (NotTwo, 2009) ****½

And if you want to hear a great musical voice on the piano, try the David Arner Trio, with Michael Bisio on bass and Jay Rosen on drums. Arner's music is something else, light-footed yet with gravity, subtle and sensitive without resorting to any phrases of the "romantic" catalogue, permanently challenging himself, and coming up with insteresing solutions. It's hard to define what makes his music different, yet it has a kind of natural lyricism and a permanent level of surprise, with phrases that end in questions marks, sparse at moments, dense at others. Bisio and Rosen are fabulous, moving along and often driving the upcoming waves of intensity that you feel coming up from deep in this musical ocean, approaching breaking and disappearing again. Tasteful power. Intense sensitivity.

Alberto Braida - Talus (Nuscope, 2009)****

Jazz is not dead (I thought I would never write that), it defines and determines new music. Music had to go through jazz to reinvent itself, and come out all the richer, more subtle, with lots of technical skills, but only as a functional means, not as a goal per se. Next step is to make it more popular while keeping its uncompromising but - in principle - potential for universal appeal.

Alberto Braida is a great example of this. Impossible to say which genre he plays, but this record will probably be filed in the jazz section in the record shops. I already praised the Italian's quality of restraint and discipline : he plays his keys with absolute deliberation, note by note almost - no long phrases or runs or fills or other embellishments that you hear with the less mature players. Braida reduces his music to the essence: no show, but music. No entertainment, but authentic art. It makes listening a little harder, but all the more rewarding. Great stuff.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Weightless - A Brush With Dignity (Clean Feed, 2009) ****½

British saxophonist John Butcher and bassist John Edwards are two of the most prominent voices in European free improvisation. They are joined by two Italian improvisers, Alberto Braida on piano and Fabrizio Spera on drums. As with many free improvisation, forget about roles in the band: all musicians contribute in equal parts, adding sounds, interacting and creating high levels of immediate intensity. The band's name is well chosen, as the music is somewhere suspended in the air, very sparse and devoid of a need to produce sound, free of earthly concerns, although it flows quite organically, naturally, without structure or foundation. The musicians play their limited notes and sounds with reserve, paying full attention to each of them, infusing every one of them with power. Braida can play a few keys, just enough to add to the overall atmosphere, without feeling the need to make chords, or phrases. It's the sound that counts, and in that he finds a real soulmate in John Butcher, whose careful powerful minimalism is impressive as usual, Edwards' versatility and creativity, both on arco and plucked is astonishing, and listen how Spera builds depth, contrast and color. Some moments are harsh, others are of an incredible subtlety and nuance. The end result is one of ethereal beauty, not easy to get into, but worth every note.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Friday, November 13, 2009

ECM ... melancholy trumpets

Some decades ago, the only jazz I listened to was ECM jazz, Jarrett, Garbarek, Gismonti, Towner, John Abercrombie, John Surman ... slowly moving towards Arts Ensemble Of Chicago, Old & New Dreams, also on ECM, and opening in my young mind suddenly totally new realms of music, and ECM was soon almost forgotten, even though for many years it was the only label (almost) that I bought LPs from. The German label has kept its carefully nurtured positioning of chamber jazz, often inobtrusive, yet always of superb quality, both of the selected musicians as for the quality of its productions (sound, art work, booklets, ...). You can debate about the style and the lack of adventure, but on some evenings, on a Friday night, when you're flat out, everything is dark outside, the autumn wind blows, rain hits the windows, and the fire place heats the room, ... melancholy hits. The music is not guaranteed to keep you awake, but it is certainly to be enjoyed.

Ralph Towner & Paolo Fresu - Chiaroscuro (ECM, 2009) ****

Ralph Towner is a brilliant guitarist, in a genre all of his own, playing nylon-string and twelve-string guitar, with an incredible precision and sense of pace and rhythm, even if not always explicit. Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu used to be a Miles Davis epigone, yet to his credit he managed to create his own voice in jazz. On this painfully beautiful and melancholy album they treat you to eight new compositions and Miles Davis' "Blue In Green". No surprises, yet a beautiful album.

Tomasz Stanko - Dark Eyes (ECM, 2009) ****

Many trumpeters have tried to emulate his style, but few have come close. Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko is without a doubt the most melancholy musician I know, yet he is musically so strong that most of his compositions and performances are captivating and gripping. Those who tried to copy him, often landed into meaningless slobbering and moaning. On this album he is accompanied by young Scandinavian musicians : pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori from Finland, and guitarist Jakob Bro, and bassist Anders Christensen from Denmark. Nothing new here either, just again a fine album, and without a doubt among his best.

The title of the album is inspired by a painting by Polish artist Oskar Kokoschka, called Martha Hirsch.

© stef

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Borah Bergman & Stefano Pastor - Live At Tortona (Mutablemusic, 2009) ****

Piano and violin duets are quite rare in jazz, but this album shows that the format has something to offer. This duo is even more unusual because of the two musicians' idiosyncratic styles. Although considered a free jazz pianist, Bergman actually makes an amalgam of musical styles, being as versatile in classical modes (as on the last track), ragtime, blues, accompaniment for silent movies, romantic moments and pounding and swirling avant-garde. Not only does he do it all in one piece often, but even with both hands playing in different styles and epochs. And the great thing, he infuses his music with the occasional hint and moment of humor. Stefano Pastor is also in a different category: he plays the violin but the "voice" that he gives his instrument is unique: it sounds deep and full, something holding the middle between a clarinet and a soprano. I wondered before how he achieved this, and the liner notes solve part of the mystery : he uses "extremely rigid electric guitar strings" on his violin, which, with lots of practice, made him achieve this warm sound. His tone is more melancholy than Bergman's, yet it forms the perfect complement for the piano, and the way both musicians interact, dance around each other, mirror phrases and co-create, is a joy to hear. While their journey on this album indeed covers lots of ground, it still has a great balance between relatively accessible and "out there" moments, and maintaining a nice sense of intimacy all through the performance. The sudden sounds of the local church bell gives it an extra dimension of closeness and proximity.

Stefano Pastor - Chants (SLAM, 2009) ***

Earlier this year, Stefano Pastor also released a solo violin album, or almost, because he overdubs some tracks with guitar and mandolin. His music is improvised, on known themes, full of warm intimacy as said above, drenched in Italian folk and jazz tradition, full of melancholy, yet at the same time free as the wind. Not everything works though: five of the ten pieces have vocals, and sometimes move into totally different forms and styles, especially the last track. That being said, the album is a very daring and personal musical statement.

© stef

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tribute To Albert Ayler - Live At The Dynamo (Futura Marge, 2009) *****

Albert Ayler was one of the truly great musicians of the early free jazz period, mixing ferocious heart-wrenching wailing with sensitivity and spirituality, all built over a backbone of traditional music, gospel and military marches. His life and his music did not differ much : all intensity, restless searching, looking for true musical authenticity, travelling, practicing, playing, dying before he reached the age of 35, probably by suicide. 

Many modern jazz musicians feel indebted to him, and played tributes to him, but no band is more fit to play a tribute to him than the band called this way. Tenor saxophonist and pocket trumpetist Joe McPhee is possibly the true heir of Ayler, and he finds soulmates in Roy Campbell on trumpet, pocket trumpet, bamboo flutes, recorder, voice, William Parker on bass, Warren Smith on drums and percussion. The album was recorded live at the "Dynamo" in Paris, France in November 2008, a month after I saw them perform in Antwerp, also a memorable performance.

The four musicians really play tribute to Ayler's essence, yet in their own way, without trying to copy him or even emulate them. The performance starts with the recitation of "Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe", which slowly evolves into Miriam Makeba's "Muntu", a slow, hypnotic and intense improvisation, that demonstrates the skills of these four musicians: it is powerful, spiritual, emotional, gradually gaining tension and force without losing control.

"Obama Victory Shoutout" says what it is : a celebration of Obama's victory, without violence, without bloodshed, as a turning point in American history, here a joyous political declamation and shout-out by all four musicians moving into Ayler's "The Truth Is Marching In".

The fourth track starts with "DC", a Don Cherry tune, that also appeared on Ayler's "Spirits Rejoice" and that evolves into "Vibrations". McPhee plays an incredibly piercing part on this, shouting through his horn while playing at the same time, with Parker's arco offering dark contrast to his sound.

The fifth track is Don Ayler's "Prophet John", and starts with Campbell's wonderful trumpet playing, first joyfully, then expanding the theme into a fifteen minute long wild improvisation, with Smith's great polyrhythmics supporting a long powerful arco bass solo by Parker, then taking the piece to the outro himself, soft and inventive.

The record ends with "Universal Indians", the shortest piece on the album, and possibly an encore.

If you like free jazz, which I assume, don't miss this album. It brings a wonderful overview of fourty years of musical history by four masters, who as a tight unit manage to demonstrate the value of Ayler's music, but even stronger, how beautiful, how uplifting, how spiritual and how emotionally moving great music can be. They are not going back in time, quite to the contrary, they bring Ayler's music back to life, but then in today's context, with all the skills and performing experience Ayler never got the chance to achieve. And it must be said : all four musicians are stellar. They understand the power of music. Deeply.Warmly. Truly.

Credits to the record company too : the quality of the sound is excellent, so are the liner notes, with interesting interviews with the musicians, and - even rarer these days - they keep the applause at the end of the tracks, showing the warm appreciation of the audience, even for a full two minutes after the last track, as if you were there.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, November 9, 2009

Guitars, guitars, guitars, ... from Bach to Beta Pictoris

There is no limit of what you can do with instruments. Here are some examples of guitar trios that bend the conceptions of the genre, from classical stuff to intergallactic destruction, deconstruction and reconstruction.

All four albums come from a clear rejection of society and music as we know them, demonstrating anger, disappointment, frustration, ... leading to violence and destruction, while at the same time using the musical tools as we know them today though differently, with the only endeavour that out of the chaos something new may arise, something that's not yet defined, but something for which this music already gives some options and hints, no plan, just hope ....

Raphael Rogiński - Bach Bleach (Multikulti, 2009) 

 Whether a menuet or a sarabande, you can still recognize Bach's original compositions, although I'm not even sure the old man will turn in his grave if he could hear Polish guitarist Raphael Rogiński's renditions. Even if he uses prepared guitars, with the occasional hard and dissonant sound, the playing is quite reverend and respectfull, both on the classical and electric guitar. There are some overdubs and a little piano playing too, but this is in essence a solo guitar album. One can only conclude that Bach's music is indestructable.

Eyal Maoz's Edom - Hope And Destruction (Tzadik, 2009) 

 Destruction you get from the very first notes of this new "Radical Jewish Culture" release, which starts with the heaviest guitar pumping I've heard in a while. This is the second album of the band that consists of Eyal Maoz on guitar, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass, Yuval Lion on drums and Brian Marsella on keyboards. The latter's keyboards make the music even more shattering, driving through it like cars through the windows of the local mall in your regular movie car chase scene. But it's not all violence, power and speed. You also get melodicism, and incredible discipline, and sometimes even cinematic themes, based on - no surprises here - klezmer scales. There is hope, somehow, somewhere, even in the kitschy "Rocks", or in the silly "King", yet the best parts are the hardest ones.

Ahleuchatistas - Of The Body Prone (Tzadik, 2009)

Weird and complex phrases, tight unison lines, hard and noisy stuff alternated by unexpected lyricism and sensitivity, more rock than jazz, but well, what's in a name, this is a nightmarish delight of a guitar trio, doing things you've never heard. The band is Ryan Oslance on drums, Shane Perlowin on guitar and Derek Poteat on bass. Madness, drive, superspeed, skills, passion, vision and inventiveness meet here.

N.E.W. - Newtoons (Bo’ Weavil, 2009)

These three artists do not really fit in this list, as it's possibly the only real jazz album. Steve Noble on drums, John Edwards on bass, and Alex Ward on electric guitar move us into intergalactic environments, destroying powerfully and willfully all musical idioms, yet the debris that's left actually is cosmic rubble from outer space, as you gradually come to notice, and especially the last track is magnificent in its changing moods and styles.

© stef

Rolf Kühn & Tri-O - Close-Up (Jazzwerktsatt, 2009) ****

Rolph Kühn is without a doubt one of the best jazz clarinetists, and he has actively participated in the history of jazz in the last sixty years (he is now 80), playing amongst others in radio big bands, playing in the Benny Goodman orchestra, with Tommy Dorsey, becoming the director of the German TV orchestra.

The amazing thing about the music on this CD, is that it sounds so fresh and full of musical wonder, as if a child discovers a new world and watches it full of perplexity and admiration. That's not only the feeling you get as a listener, but you also have the impression that the musicians themselves share the same feeling.

That being said, even if there is quite some free form, this music swings from beginning to end, albeit often very implicitly. The themes and melodies are often quite complex, with rhythm and tempo changes, long unison lines, sudden twists and turns, yet leaving quite some space for improvisation, emotional development too, and even into real avant-garde moments (just listen to the long middle excursion on "D-Train").

Kühn's mastery of the jazz idiom is admirable, yet instead of being stuck into it, he keeps changing it, surrounding himself with young(er) musicians who add the right touches of new sounds into the mix. They are Ronny Graupe on guitar, Johannes Fink on bass and Christian Lillinger on drums, with Matthias Schriefl on trumpet on two tracks, and they are fabulous in co-developing and performing Kühn's musical vision. And their technical skills are truly excellent. I wrote positively about Lillinger's drumming before, and about Lillinger's and Graupe's skills on Hyperactive Kid. And so are Fink and Schriefl, a pleasure to hear the subtletly, confidence and flexibility they have. The real star, no doubt, is Kühn himself.

To have this level of musical creativity, integrity, and open-mindedness at Kühn's age is remarkable, but even without that knowledge, the music on this album is really strong, measured and passionate.

© stef

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Joëlle Léandre galore

The French bassist Joëlle Léandre does not really belong to any musical genre: she plays bass and does so with everyone who wants to interact musically, with open minds, creating open-ended music, adventurous and without preconceived notions or plans. A great demonstration of her skill is that she manages to mirror the other players while at the same time bringing them to different levels, so that the end result is always more than the sum of its parts. In doing so, she creates coherence and musical closeness, intimacy even, full of warmth and joy, while moving away from known territory, on this tonal quest for beauty and expressivity.

 Joëlle Léandre & Jean-Luc Cappozzo - Live Aux Instants Chavires (Kadima, 2009) *****

Last year I missed the performance of Joëlle Léandre and French trumpet-player Jean-Luc Cappozzo, because I already had tickets for another (excellent) concert. Now that I hear the album, I may have changed my mind. What these two musicians brings on these eight improvised pieces is exceptionally intense and creative. But it is also an exercise in sound: Léandre's bowing easisly shifts to a piercing sustained equivalent of Cappozzo's crystal-clear trumpet, or moving to warm and soft tones, when the trumpet player does the same.  Their improvisations move through totally unpredictable paths, with sudden and abrupt changes in mood and level of abstraction. And even if this music really stands on its own, it is drenched in warm blues, with classical instrumental mastery, jazzy improv and avant-garde brutality, even to the extent of producing sounds that go beyond you can expect from their instruments, and that also includes Léandre's voice. Again, this music is full of paradoxes, which define the tension: a calm sense of urgency, sounds that are in the moment yet fit in the overall lyricism, an immediacy and a directness of the performance for sounds that have such an organic and universal quality. From "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" to the weird wildness. I've listened to it about ten times in the past few days, and it becomes better with each listen. Don't miss it.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Anthony Braxton & Joëlle Léandre - Duo (Heidelberg Loppem) 2007 (Leo Records, 2009) ****½

 I've written before that I prefer the Braxton who improvises over the Braxton as a composer. I also said why I think that : the improvisor is creative, warmer and the music has more immediacy in the moment itself, whereas the composer is more intellectual, distant and abstract.

What is even more striking on this album, is that the interaction with Léandre lifts both musicians to a rare height. The first piece is still a little getting to know each other, finding the pace, but the second piece is one of the most beautiful and varied improvisations that I've heard this year, with staccato blasts, underpinned by nervous bass-playing evolving into quiet, calm introspective moments and back again. Braxton's sax sings and dances, shouts and wails, and Léandre is especially strong when playing arco in this context. As said, she manages to give texture to music, and to get the best out of the musicians she plays with. To Braxton's credit, he is a great listener, moving along with the French bassist, moving from harsh moments to soft sensitivity to incredibly complex almost endless linear soaring sax phrases. When Braxton switches to contrabass clarinet, Léandre developes some deep single-toned bowing with deep wordless singing in accompaniment, the improvisation moves yet again into other territories. The second piece of this album brings a complete world of music, incredibly rich, varied, complex and intense : 36 minutes of pure improvisational joy.

On these two long and one short piece, recorded in an obscure café in the most godforsaken village of Loppem, near Bruges, Belgium, these two wonderful musicians found an audience, and the audience is understably quite enthusiastic.

Buy from Leo Records.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Joëlle Léandre, Maguelone Vidal & Raymond Boni - Trace (Red Toucan, 2009) ***

Joëlle Léandre on double bass and voice, Maguelone Vidal on soprano and baritone sax, voice, tom bass, and Raymond Boni on guitar. Of the three French musicians, Vidal is possibly the lesser known, although she has already made her name as the "l'agitée du saxophone" (the agitated one on the saxophone), although her playing is quite controlled and measured, even if it is quite exploratory. Boni is possibly the musician with the most recognizable style, playing constantly in otherworldly regions, using his pedals and effects and extended techniques, resulting in harsh, raw and uncanny sounds (and I often wondered what this album would have sounded like without Boni). Vidal manages well to keep up with him, showing maturity, vision and creativity. The best parts are when Vidal and Léandre play together, as "Cumuls", on which the agitated one blows some moments under water, a fun digression from music that takes itself sometimes a little too seriously. True, Boni's style is an acquired taste, and his electric voice is a little too determining in the overall sound, except when he actually contributes to it, as on "Gros Dilemme", the highlight of the album. Despite that, Vidal is a new voice to be reckoned with, and a promising one for that matter. Léandre, as might expected, feels herself in these abstract, rebellious and often nightmarish pieces like a fish in water.

If you ask me why I prefer the duo with Cappozzo over that with Braxton, I can only say that it has much more intensity and focus, even if the Heidelberg Loppem release has absolutely stunning moments.

© stef

Friday, November 6, 2009

Splinters - Split The Difference (Reel Recordings, 2009) ****

This is without a doubt one of the best surprises of the year, almost fourty years after it was performed, this wonderful first performance of "Splinters" sees the light of day, and it is a great recording, with a sound quality that is sufficiently good to enjoy every second of the two long tracks. The septet consists of Tubby Hayes on tenor sax and flute, Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Trevor Watts on alto saxophone, Stan Trace on piano, Jeff Clyne on bass, and John Stevens and Phil Seamen on drums, in sum some of Brittain's best known modern jazz musicians in their early years.

The two improvised pieces are based on a boppish drive that with the double drums gets a powerful forward propulsion over which the horns play together and alternately, over and above and through each other, without wildness, or without screaming exuberance, somewhat hesitatingly breaking out of the boundaries, resulting in an interesting combination of theme-less free bop and free jazz. The audience is quite enthusiastic at moments, and talkative at others.

A great journey back in time, for music that has aged wonderfully well, and how nice to be able to hear this performance.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rodrigo Amado, Miguel Mira & Gabriel Ferrandini - Motion Trio (European Echoes, 2009) ****½

After the excellent "The Abstract Truth", Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado presents his new trio, with Miguel Miro on cello and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums. The album is a wonderful example of free improvisation, often subdued, soft-toned, with the rhythm section not acting as a rhythm section to the lead instrument, but as a fully integrated part of the overall sound and interaction, to the extent that the individual voices are totally subordinate to it. As I wrote earlier, Amado is a master in intimate expansiveness, but the real quality of this music is the unrelenting tension, which captivates you and makes you want to know what will follow next, hoping that release will come. And sometimes it does, when the nervous pointillism breaks open in a triple powerplay, as on "Testify", or in suddenly blooming melodies, like in "As We Move ...".

Earlier today I listened to another CD, played by a band whose name I won't mention but with some of today's best modern jazz musicians, and I thought it was painfully technical, needlessly complex, too arranged, to much showing off, and utterly boring, unless you're likely to be impressed by skills. I listened to the whole album, hoping in vain for some surprise, some emotional depth, some creativity.

This trio belongs to a different category, one of artistry rather than entertainment, of emotional delivery rather than technical skill, of authentic expression rather than playing tunes. In sum, these guys know what music is all about and manage to play it well, coherently, disciplined, vulnerable and real. And free ...

© stef

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

John Hollenbeck - Rainbow Jimmies (GPE, 2009) ****

The album's cover gives a good idea about the music: it is sparse, organic/human and repetitive. Drummer/percussionist John Hollenbeck is obsessed with rhythm, rhythmic patterns, musical forms, and the integration of musical styles. His Claudia Quintet is possibly his best known band, and one that brings music that defies categorization.

This album is a collection of compositions, brought in three groups.

The first, the "Gray Cottage Studies" are seven vibraphone and violin duets between Matt Moran and Todd Reynolds, with Hollenbeck adding percussion on some pieces. These compositions are the highlight of the album, because of their refinement: succulent and austere at the same time.The combination of the restraint and sophistication of chamber music with the nervous energy of jazz works very well.

The second, "Ziggurat", are two percussion compositions: one performed by the Youngstown Percussion Collective and Saxophone Quartet, and the other by the Ethos Percussion Group. Especially the first, "Ziggurat (Exterior)" is quite powerful, with its shouts and yells, adding some great drama to the overall sound of organised chaos, fake tribalism, and even some tango excursion. The combination between the warm and controlled saxes and the wild percussion is excellent.

The third, "Sinanari" and "Rainbow Jimmies" are performed by the Claudia Quintet. Over repetitive themes, rhythms and accents shift, like a jazz version of Philip Glass, with mind-boggling rhythms that drag you along on a fast roller-coaster full of unexpected twists and turns, negotiated with dexterity by these stellar musicians. The compositions find a perfect balance between calm and forward drive, lightness and gravitas, rigid forms and musical openness. 

The three quite distinct parts and approaches diminish the album's unity, and make it more a kind of a repository for unreleased material, yet the quality of the various parts compensates for that weakness.

© stef

Monday, November 2, 2009

John Zorn - Femina (Tzadik, 2009) ****

I'm always reluctant to put people into boxes, and especially the big boxes like gender, race or religion. But apparently not John Zorn, who creates this all female band, to release an album called "Femina", and inspired by great women in history. Is there music by women for women? Is there anything specific to women's music? Do they have different skills, insights, sensitivities? Can you stop being a "minority" if you behave like or act as a "minority"? All pertinent questions too complex for my two brain cells to fathom.

The band consists of Jennifer Choi on violin, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Carol Emanuel on harp, Okkyung Lee on cello, Ikue Mori on electronics, Shayna Dunkelman on percussion, with Laurie Anderson opening the album with a few seconds of narration.

The strange thing about the music is that it really is John Zorn composing and conducting : you recognize some of his stylistic fingerprints, as well as the combination of sweet melodies and rhythms with dissonant and harsh parts, but these are now all part of the same album, integrated in the suite-like pieces, almost sounding like a collage of sounds, shifting into extremes, but the end result is absolutely fresh and intriguing.

The album is short, a little over 35 minutes, too short in my opinion, because the music and the band could have resulted in much more.

The famous women that were used as inspiration for the music are as diverse as Hildegard von Bingen, Meredith Monk, Simone de Beauvoir, Frida Kahlo, Madame Blavatsky, Isadora Duncan, Hélène Cixous, Gertrude Stein, Abe Sada, Sylvia Plath, Louise Bourgeois, Margaret Mead, Loie Fuller, Dorothy Parker, Yoko Ono and the moon goddess En Hedu’Anna, except for the latter almost all intellectuals and artists.

Too short, but indeed fresh, full of paradoxes and musical idioms, full of character and style, full of refinement while being headstrong. Sweet with sharp claws. Very sweet and very sharp.

Listen and download from iTunes.

© stef