Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Albums of the Year 2010

The paradox of the end-of-year-lists :

The basic questions are 
  1. how can you compare apples and oranges?
  2. is it even fair to rank art in stupid lists, since it is all so very subjective?
  3. isn't this creating a competition where there is none (or is there?)
 On the other hand,
  1. we all love lists
  2. it highlights great albums and artists again for the great music they offered us in the course of the year
  3. it enables fans to compare lists and discuss the music and share ideas

Anyway, here is my list, in inverse order of review, but no ranking in terms of preference :

This is not a big surprise, since these are the albums that received a 5-star rating this year. Yet, looking at it now, it is quite balanced, with musicians from all over the world, with various approaches to music, some very strongly based in the jazz tradition, others more in free improv and beyond, some very innovative listening experiences (see the Happy New Ears Award), some more romantic, others quite abstract.

The real question is then, to which albums did I listen most?

Without a doubt that was Elliptical West, possibly on the same level as The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer, with Hera coming close to that. You may wonder when I did all this, but I listened to those albums at least thirty times.

In terms of labels, Clean Feed, No Business and Not Two are again among the best in the free and avant jazz genre.

The best re-issues of the year are without a doubt Amalgam - A Prayer For Peace and Irene Schweizer Trio & Dewan Motihar Trio - Jazz Meets India and of coures Mark Charig's Pipedream.

The year will also be remembered for the sad passing away of several jazz greats : Bill Dixon, Fred Anderson, Marion Brown, Harry Beckett and Noah Howard. We will remember them and their legacy.

Despite this sad news, it was again a fantastic year for free music. May creativity be even stronger next year, and hopefully we will hear many new voices or new and captivating "sound stories" from the old voices.

© stef

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Joëlle Léandre - A Voix Basse (Editions MF, 2008)

No doubt Joëlle Léandre is one of the leading artists on bass in modern improvisation, and I read this book by her now during the holidays. It was published in 2008 already, based on discussions she had with French music journalist Franck Médioni. In the book, Léandre speaks about her life, her music, her instrument, about music in general, about improvisation and composition.

Throughout the book, her never-ending quest for authenticity of feeling and expression acts as a "fil rouge" or common thread, without being too explicit either. She talks about her character, her rebellious nature, her anger with things, her passion for honesty of feeling, her passion to transmit this through this heavy instrument that is her bass, impractical and so difficult to travel with, but which offers this deep resonating sound, this broad pallette of sonic possibilities, this wooden warmth, this screeching anger, that is hard to find in other instruments.

In the book, you can read what I feel, what you possibly feel, what we all feel.  In that sense, it's not like the unveiling of deep secrets, but it's good to have it on paper, it's good to hear for once, rather than just experiencing it.

"Improvisation is a risky art, intuitive, spontaneous and ephemeral, the wisdom of listening. It's a sonic adventure of immense and owerwhelming properties. It's about listening to the other, but also about listening to oneself. And it's about having an instrumental assurance, not necessarily virtuoso skills. In improvisation, there's a complementarity between body, function, movement, breathing, silence, without forgetting being conscient of the stage, space, the sense of drama and time. This is something you learn by doing. Tension and de-tension, giving and abandon, measure and countermeasure, wisdom and madness. It's a music of instrumentalists, music of the body, by the body, of jubilation"

"In classical music, people are fascinated by this virtuosity, these terrible cadences. In jazz too, by the way. Speed, virtuosity,... are parameters of music, but there is more to it than that, there are three thousand things are more that are more important. There is so much : color, attack, modes, phrases, "timbre", sound. Especially the sound. To play two sounds, and to let them live in their totality. The whole history of music is there for you".

Interestingly enough, Léandre often compares her work to that of a farmer working his tractor, with her feet planted solidly in the earth, working hard, every day, to get all these sounds out of the heavy instrument, while at the same time conducting a spiritual job, not of the religious kind, but delving for the essence of existence, in the hope of coming up with something valuable, something real, something universal to share with others.

"When we play with other musicians, these moments can have an immense value, something transcendental. Sometimes we touch high spherese, very high spheres. ... Even the slightest touch of the end of the bow or the tapping of a crushed finger on the wood of the bass ... When will people understand the risk, the jubilation, life and death in each sound, every movement, everty ppulse and that all this is a celebration of life, a creation, a song, a hymn to freedom? Well there you see, I took my tractor agian, my pick-axe and my chisel!"

At a certain point I got a little frustrated that the listener was never mentioned, it was all about the creative work, the influences, the other musicians.But then finally, on page 110, the audience is mentioned : "We have had standing ovations, a very moving experience: the whole audience, more than two hundred people standing up, all happy !The audience is really part of the adventure. It plays a non negligeable role in the elaboration of the music. The audience is touched by the fragility, this energy, these bodies that give themselves, this power".

This easy to read book gives us great insights into the work ethic and artistic adventure of a great and honest artist. 

It should be translated into English, which I know hear, will be the case, in early 2011, and published by Kadima as part of a total package with music and DVD.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, December 27, 2010

Solo Sax

Here are some great and noteworthy solo sax albums, not an easy genre, difficult to play and maintain attention, hypnotic if played well. Technique is one thing : the basis. What you do with it is what counts. These sax-players have understood this very well, despite the huge differences between them in terms of style and musical vision.

Urs Leimgruber - Chicago Solo (Leo Records, 2010) ****

When listening to German Urs Leimgruber's playing on this album, I was wondering why it was possible that in physics or biology when one has gone beyond all existing theories and found new workable hypotheses, the latter replaces everything that came before for the entire profession, whereas in music, the new possibilities never replace the existing ones, but rather offer a quite new dimension to listening.

At the same time I thought Leimgruber's music ressembled quantum physics, in the way that he goes beyond tones, to dig into the deeper stuff that is either invisible or inaudible usually, yet because of the intensity of his playing the quarks fly in various direction at superspeed, bouncing against each other and creating new stuff. For all clarity : I know as much about physics as about the movies of Sylvester Stallone, i.e. nothing.

But that's how this music comes across, actually Leimgruber brings us beyond music.It has a kind of deep and essential fragility and sensitivity: each note is played with such caution, but equally with an incredible intrinsic power that makes it possible to move in any direction.

Sometimes I get the question : "Can this not only be appreciated by sax-players?". My answer is clear "This is a nightmare for sax-players to listen to, because it shows them what is possible with the instrument that they were not even aware of".

Non-sax-players can listen to this and enjoy these sounds -  hypnotic, fierce, spontaneous, volatile, scattering, bouncing, choral, multiphonic, trance-inducing - just for what they are : great sounds in space.

Interestingly enough, I now read the liner notes and see that Oliver Schwerdt compares Leimgruber's music to Galileo and Copernicus : "his portrayal of the soprano as a telescope suggests the consciousness of a musician who, freeing tones from the gravitational field of the earth, sends them soaring into the depths of space". Allright, astrophysics instead of quantum physics, I was in the same regions, just wrong by a factor of 10³³³³³³³³.

Ariel Shibolet - Live At The Total Music Meeting (Kadima, 2010) ****

Israeli saxophonist Ariel Shibolet does not match Leimgruber's universe of immense possibilities, but he offers us the human variant, equally uncompromising, yet equally rewarding. Shibolet uses incredible use of circular breathing and multiphonics, doing stuff that is hard to fathom at times, but every note is a great cry for release, one of perpetual pain and anguish trying to be freed, especially in the long first piece, but as the second piece evolves, his tone becomes warmer, reaching the middle range of his instruments, and becoming more a shamanistic incantation, including keeping the same tone for minutes. The third piece starts - surprisingly enough - with something ressembling a phrase, but soon enough we're back into trance-mode, with long bouts of circular breathing, pauzes with little more than whispers or sudden blasts.

It is all pretty intense, but a great listen for those of you with open ears, as was the appreciative audience, at that festival in Berlin in 2007.

JD Parran - Window Spirits (Mutable, 2010) ****

With JD Parran, we're moving out of Europe and into the US, and the difference can be heard: we move from free improv to free jazz. Parran has been playing for several decades with musicians such as Bill Dixon, Anthony Braxton, but also Stevie Wonder and The Band. "Window Spirits" starts with flute-playing, like an incantation for the "window spirits", whatever those are, with a rhythmic pulse and soaring sounds.

His first bass sax sounds on the second track start deep and low from the core of the body, like a growl out of which all the other notes will follow. And it is not only the difference between soprano and the deep tones of the bass sax that mark the difference with the previous albums, it's all about soul and heart, with recognizable little phrases arising once in a while, containing elements from gospel and blues.

The release celebrates Parran's 50th anniversary of playing music. As Parran describes it himself : "This recorded solo performance, Window Spirits, manifests memories, dreams and feelings expressed in my life through music. Here, on this plain called life, we can experience existence on level ground with the ancestors."

The album is also quite varied in tone and instrumentation, switching to clarinet and flutes once in a while, ending with a tribute to Glenn Spearman and especially his uncle Ohara who taught JD Parran.

Great and spiritual. 

Listen and download from eMusic.

Sam Newsome - Blue Soliloquy (self-published, 2010) ****

Sam Newsome traded his tenor in the mid-90s to develop his own sound and voice on the soprano, and he does so brilliantly. Despite the relative openness of his music, it is drenched in jazz history, starting with bluesman "Robert Johnson" on the first track, with references throughout, to Monk, to Lacy, to other peoples of the world, in Africa and Asia.

I already spoke quite positively about Newsome's previous album, a tribute to Monk, and I must say that this album manages to avoid some of the cerebral approach of the previous one, even if it remains quite programmatic. Newsome's playing is fabulous, and especially the soaring lyricism of "Blue Mongolia" and the repetitive phrasing with circular breathing on "Blue Bejing" are absolutely stunning. It is melodious, joyful, uplifting and with a clarity of sound that is quite exceptional.

Yet again, it is all too much focused on the instrument itself, which might be a strange comment to give on a solo performance, but yes, it is still more about the technique than about the music itself. He has that unique tone, and at moments he touches upon something which could become his own musical vision too, especially when his jazz becomes classical music or vice-versa, as on the interesting merger between Monk and Bach on the last piece. Let's hope he can carve that out and expand it.

But still highly recommended, also to sax-players.

Listen and buy from CDBaby.

© stef

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Matt Bauder

Several years ago, I was struck by the innovative beauty of "Memorize The Sky", a trio album with Matt Bauder on sax, and he has figured on some of the best albums of the last years, by Harris Eisenstadt, The Exploding Star Orchestra, Taylor Ho Bynum, Adam Lane. This year, he released two albums as a leader, and I must say, both albums bring us into yet again totally different musical univserses. 

Matt Bauder - Days In Pictures (Clean Feed, 2010) ***½

On "Day In Pictures", Bauder brings his own music, one that sounds at first hearing like mainstream jazz of the fifties, both in terms of the themes, the sounds of the instruments, the harmonics, the rhythms.

So, quite accessible music, pleasant to the ear, with excellent playing by musicians Bauder's been playing with over the years : Angelica Sanchez on piano, Jason Ajemian on bass, Nate Wooley on trumpet, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. The fun thing is that these guys play this music, with a kind of reverence of their masters, the giants on whose shoulders they stand, but it would be boring if it stayed like that. As easily, they deconstruct the music, let go of explicit structures, by adding complexities or even by totally abandoning the foundations they're standing on, taking the music out into more stratospheric regions, or using sounds that would have been unthinkable some decades ago.

The end result is not boundary-shifting, but the playing is so good and full of joy that it is really easy to recommend. Highly enjoyable.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Matt Bauder - Paper Gardens (Porter, 2010) ***½

"Paper Gardens" is totally different, Bauder is accompanied by Matana Roberts on reeds, Loren Dempster on cello and Reuben Radding on bass. The album's concept is inspired by paper art work made by children, which made Bauder compose and structure these eleven pieces. The end result is one of calm, meditative music almost, quite fragile and vulnerable, yet interesting for their sonoric quality and compositional skills. The latter has more to do with the arranging of the instruments, the organisation of the rhythms, the layering of the sounds than with the composition of themes per se. The notes are stretched and often act in unison, with cello and bass being played more arco than pizzi, but with the occasional eruption of excited dissonance.

The music has a soothing and intense quality. The tracks vary in length between seventeen seconds to fifteen minutes, yet all fit perfectly within the minimalist universe. It's a nice achievement, but I preferred the even more visionary work of "Memorise The Sky".

Listen and download from eMusic.

Bauder is a fantastic sax-player with a broad background and lots of ideas and idioms he feel comfortable in. You can welcome and appreciate his musical search. It's the foundation to further developed his own voice in some years, which might make him truly great.

Watch the Matt Bauder Quintet (different band) on Youtube, with Cleopatra (a great tune reminiscent of Ethopian Mulatu Astatqe, and which opens "Day In Pictures")

© stef

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Evan Parker & Sten Sandell - Psalms (PSI, 2010) ****

An unusual album with unusual instrumentation : Evan Parker plays sax, and Sten Sandell plays church organ, recorded at St. Peter's Church in Whitstable, the place where Parker also recorded a solo album earlier this year, and I am surprised to find that I did not review it.

Anyway, at hearing the first interaction on the album, I was a little bit sceptic about the potential it might offer, and in truth, you need some adjusting to the sound of the organ and especially the way it's being played by Sandell. Yes, it still has the solemn gravitas you can expect, but in his hands it turns into a whole symphony of sounds, at the same time acting nervously and flute-like with the sax, and offering other sounds, drones or violin quartet dissonance or whatever you may think is captured in the big instrument's inner structure, and many more that you wouldn't suspect and that were created here for the first time.

Parker is his usual self, making his sax moan in multiphonics, chatter like birds, shout furiously and indeed also much more. The playing is totally not psalm-like. there is madness here, ferocious anger, unresolved tension, yet when pieces evolve, the music becomes first more playful (as on the short "Psalm 3"),

The absolute masterpiece is "Psalm 4", a slow and absolutely stunning dialogue, with Sandell - don't ask me how - kind of bending the tones coming out of the organ, starting quite dark and gloomy yet gradually evolving into more fragile and vulnerable interaction with both instruments meeting in the high tones of their instruments, with sustained low tones coming out of the organ too. "Psalm 5" ends with endless menace and agony, with Parker's circular breathing and shifting intensity, yet ending hesitantly and almost timid, in stark contrast with aggressive violence of the last psalm, shouts included, and its more direct, in-you-face approach.

The psalms improvised on this album are far from the kind of hymns or chants you would expect towards a deity, but they are transformed into an agonizing dialogue of conflict, discordance and struggle. And this attitude, this level of character and tension is what makes this music great to listen to.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Listen to another performance by both musicians (at Konfrontationen, Nickelsdorf, Austria, 2010)

© stef

Thursday, December 23, 2010


Dear readers,

I've been listening to thousands of CDs over the past four years, starting during the christmas holidays in 2007, and reviewing more than one thousand albums since then, almost on a daily basis, and enjoying every minute of it.

As of January 2011, I will start with another project, totally outside of music, on which I will spend my late evening time (the hours between 10pm and 1am). This means that daily reviews will no longer be possible.

In order to ensure continuity, I am looking for partners :
- contributors/reviewers who can add material on a regular basis and take over some of the writing from me
- partners who are interested to participate in the initiative or to take over the initiative lock, stock and barrel
- or combinations of those ...

Participation can be : making it more professional, with broader scope : interviews, video material, audio archives, ...

I will still be part of that project, as editor, contributor, coordinator, or in any other role. My main concern is that this blog, started full of passion and enthusiasm, expands and that we do more to promote good music. 

Ideas and proposals are welcome. Send me an e-mail to



© stef

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Benoît Delbecq - Circles And Calligrams (Songlines, 2010) ****½

At various occasions in the past, I was impressed by the playing of French pianist Benoît Delbecq, whether with "Les Amants De Juliette", "Poolplayers", in duo with Marc Ducret, with the John Hébert Trio, or with Canadian piano player Andy Milne on "Where Is Pannonica?"

I pointed out his exceptional use of prepared piano, his pointillism, attention to detail, creativity and broad musical range.

Now, on his second solo album, he does it all again, and taking it even a step further. His pieces are composed, some even very tightly, with the prepared strings sounding like percussion, with the other hand playing regular piano, or he plays regular with both hands, avoiding the strings that need to give the expected "prepared" sound at the right moment: hence the need for some discipline.

His music is also built around the concept of circular movement and calligrams, giving structure to the piece but adding pulse and rhythmic cycles. The tone of his compositions also have a broad scope : subdued,  meditative, hypnotic or just plain fun : they keep their unique and recognisable approach leading to strong unity despite the variation.

Intelligent, unique in its vision and approach, compelling and of an incredible lightness. An absolute joy to the ear.

Delbecq also released a trio album with Jean-Jacques Avenel on bass and Emile Biyaenda on drums, also worth checking out. 

The Vimeo movie that goes with it, may lead to technical problems on a blog, but here is the link.


© stef

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Maciej Obara, Lindberg, Sorgen - Three (2010) ****

Polish altoist Maciej Obara releases his second excellent album of the year, now in a trio format with John Lindberg on double bass and Harvey Sorgen on drums.

The result is jazz at its purest : free, rhythmic, lyrical, full of soul and depth. Obara's playing is fabulous, with a nice warm tone, extremely versatile and with an emotional power that brings him close to Tony Malaby : he has the same quality of making his horn weep and sing at the same time, full of incredible passion.

Lindberg is one of the best bass-players and composers around, due underrecorded, recently working with Wadada Leo Smith, but most of his output as a leader is really worth checking out for. His playing has the same powerful lyricism as the Polish altoist and hence a perfect match. Listen to Obara softly moan over Lindberg's arco on "Wolverine Breath", as if both instruments were designed to play this piece.

Harvey Sorgen is the regular drummer of the Fonda Stevens Group, but also with Hot Tuna in one of its last line-ups in the nineties. His drumming is also underrated, as he demonstrates here again, both in the uptempo and slower pieces he demonstrates his rhythmic subtleties. Especially in the more open-ended pieces, like "Muss Influx", his implicit keeping of rhythm is brilliant. Or listen to his precise underpinning of Lindberg's boppish solo on "Noodles With Sammy Blues".

The three musicians give it all : raw power and abundance, but also sensitive moments, fixed themes and solid rhythms, but also more adventurous excursions. Obara is not a screamer, nor is he a sonic innovator, or a musical iconoclast, and he doesn't need to. The quality of what he brings us so much fun that he should stick to it, taking jazz tradition, with soul and form and interplay, in a completely modern environment.

No pretence, just great jazz.

Watch him play with his Polish trio a couple of years ago

© stef

Happy New Ears Award 2010

... and the winnner is :

1. Undivided - The Passion

"The Passion" obtained a staggering 36% of the 1533 votes that were cast in the past week. The album collected hundreds of additional votes in the past few days, pushing it from the third to the solid first spot.

2. Dawn Of Midi - First

Dawn Of Midi's "First" obtained 29% of the votes and was in a real neck-by-neck race in the past days for the first spot.

3. Harris Eisenstadt - Woodblock Prints

"Woodblock Prints" ended in third spot with 16% of votes, after it had been leading the poll for almost five days with over 20% of the votes.

So what do we learn from all this?

1. Mobilising fans, friends, family and facebook makes a big difffference. As regular reader Guy jokingly commented: "some albums get more votes than copies were sold", and he may have a point though I hope not. In the big increase of votes of the past few days, some albums, such as Stephen Haynes' "Parrhesia", which were close to the top contenders, were pushed back significantly. That's of course the nature of the game, and percentages do not in these cases reflect the actual innovative value of the albums, but rather the competition itself.

2. It is striking that the musically most accessible albums in the list end up in the first three spots. Some of my own personal favorites ended with 0% of the votes, but that's inevitable with polls.

3. The end result is nice for the winner(s).But I do hope that all albums in the selection of fifteen will get more exposure. I also sincerely hope that somewhere, some more mainstream media will open their ears and understand that there is forceful movement of new creative and innovative musicians that bring us sounds and music as yet unheard, offering listening experiences that are fresh and highly enjoyable, even if you - as the listener - have to also actively participate in opening your ears and mind.

The HAPPY NEW EARS AWARD 2010  goes to Undivided - The Passion.

Congratulations to Wacław Zimpel, Bobby Few, Mark Tokar and Klaus Kugel for the great album they released and for the incredible campaign they set up in the past few days to defend its interest.

© stef

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ingar Zach - M.O.S. (Sofa, 2010) ****½

Recommended recently as a possible contender for the most innovative album of the year award, I did not include it because I hadn't heard it. I have now, and I must say it would not have been misplaced on the list.

It moves the category of "solo percussion" into a totally new place, with lots of percussion instruments played simultaneously (and using some electronics, I assume), in one long piece of thirty-seven minutes, with a sense of dynamic unity and structure that go well beyond the traditional solo albums by percussionists.

I only know Norwegian percussionist from his performances with "Dans Les Arbres", the widely acclaimed debut album of this French-Norwegian quartet. I also saw them perform and it gives a clue about Zach's incredible ear, attention to detail, inventiveness in sound creation (watch the video below to get an idea), but also in using his instruments to tell a compelling story full of drama, tension and suspense.

One of his main skills is to sustain the notes he plays, whether by scraping the skin of his big horizontal drum, or rubbing his drumsticks against the skin or using a bow to make his cymbals resonate, or the use of his panoply of toy objects, resulting in a kind of continuum that functions as the backbone for the rest of the percussion. His big horizontal bass drum equally resonates with all the rest of the percussion.

The piece starts slowly with bells chiming, with a loud alarm bell-like sound waking you up, grabbing your attention for hypnotic repetitive plays on his various bells, then it gradually picks up addtional sounds, with sruti box joining, changing the atmosphere from spiritual zen-like simplicity to psychedelic soundscapes, full of expansive spaciousness, and dark gloom, with industrial noise entering, but then over and top of this the hypnotic bells come back, bringing the incredible swell back to calm, with the "industrial" noises now setting the atmosphere, evolving into the most hair-raising and terrifying sounds you can imagine coming from a percussion instrument, like a wounded animal in its death-troes, then perfect calm reigns again, only for the sounds to come back like shadows in a nightmare, and when that's over, the hypnotic bells resume their mad and frenzied chiming, technically identical to the zen-like sounds of the beginning, but dragging with them the aural images of the past half hour, as perfect memories of the just witnessed drama. The identical sound of purity and calm has now become one of madness and perpetual stress.

An incredible listening experience.

Listen and buy from iTunes.

Watch him perform another improvisation on Youtube

© stef

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Otomo Yohishide - Lonely Woman (Doubtmusic, 2010) ***½

Like your humble servant, Japanse post-guitarist Otomo Yohishide is a fan of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" composition, a song full of dark beauty, hope, sadness and resignation.

The Japanese artist is also known for taking his music to the extremes, as he does here, by giving us six versions of the tune -  bringing my personal collection to one hundred and thirty covers - but also by pushing the listener to the limits of what is auditory tolerable.

Officially a release by the Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Trio (ONJT), the trio only plays on the two middle tracks, with one solo pieces on either side and book-ended by two quintet versions. The band is Otomo Yoshihide on electric guitar and broken acoustic guitar, Hiroaki Muzutani on bass and kalimba, Yasuhiro Yoshigaki on drums and percussion (the trio), with Sachiko M on sinewaves and Jim O'Rourke on EMS synthesizer (the quintet).

The six versions differ quite strongly in approach. The long first quintet piece is quite slow and exploratory ending in minute-long eardrum-piercing feedback that is almost unbearable to listen to. The quiet first acoustic solo piece is hence very welcome but not really breath-taking.

The first trio performance is excellent, with solid support, a raw sound, lots of feedback sustain, yet here it is more integrated in the melody. The second trio is equally good, with a long sensitive arco piece with percussive touches and calm acoustic guitar. The second solo piece is the opposite of the first one, again at times painful to the ears with the first stretched feedback tone lasting not less than one minute and fifteen seconds, yet luckily the tune develops with less exaggeration. The last track, by the quintet, is minimalist and full of electronics, dark and ominous, and good.

So, you can love it or you can hate it, and there are pieces to cherish here as there are ones to keep far away from. I don't think Yoshihide cares a jot either way. He is not a crowd-pleaser. He likes the music and explores its various possibilities of expression, creation and destruction.

Other musicians have also demonstrated their admiration for Ornette Coleman's composition : Stéphane Oliva, Marcin Oles, Trio X, Michael Bisio and Sophia Domancich lead the way. The almost complete list can be found here.

Watch Otomo Yoshihide play Lonely Woman with John Edwards, Eddie Prevost, Steve Beresford at Cafe Oto on 25 November 2008

And this snippet from a solo version is also memorable

Watch a more
© stef

Friday, December 17, 2010

James Falzone galore

Vox Arcana - Aerial Age (Allos Documents, 2010) ***½

Vox Arcana is a band or project by drummer Tim Daisy, better known from his collaborations with Ken Vandermark, and here in the company of James Falzone on clarinet and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics.

Daisy's compositions are extremely tight and rhythmically complex, offering the second or third instrument the space to improvise, or in contrast tend to be more open structures floating well above solid ground with no safety net in sight. There is a lot of virtuose acrobatics, and to the credit of the musicians the improvisations are extremely focused on the pieces original concept, often abstract in nature.

Daisy plays a lot of marimba, and the combination with the cello and the clarinet offer a very warm and intimate sound, as on "Chi Harp Call in E", but once you're snug in your comfort zone, you're torn out of it by some screeching cello improv and wild chaotic percussion, or the sequence is the opposite as on "Winnemac", starting in very avant avant-garde, yet switching to sweet harmonic clarinet playing by Falzone, again disrupted by electronically altered sounds.This clash and unexpected turns and stylistic changes are the characteristic of each piece.

The "arcane voice" means that it is understood by few, and that is clearly the band's trademark: hermetic in its overall accessibility, yet mixing so many styles and subgenres like a cloth woven of wool and silk and plastic, utterly creative yet impossible to pigeonhole. Interesting listening yet hard to get into.

James Falzone & Allos Musica (Allos Documents, 2010) ***½

With "Lamentations", we find James Falzone in the role of leader of a trio with Ronnie Malley on oud and voice, and Tim Mulvenna on hand drums and percussion. They bring Middle-Eastern music, or rather, their own music in the Middle-Eastern tradition of rhythm and scale, on eighteen tracks, mostly very short with a few exceptions.

Their playing is absolutely excellent (although Malley's singing on one track somewhat less so), and more accessible than the original music. As a result, the music is somewhat cleaner than you might expect, less unrestraint and elaborate in the improvisations and less emotionally passionate than in the deep yearning that is so typical of Arabic, Turkish and Persian music. 

But because of its intimate quality, it is a great introduction for those not familiar with the music of the Middle-East.

James Falzone - The Sign And The Thing Signified (Allos Documents, 2007) ****½

I only got hold of this album recently, and it is incredibly good. Next to Falzone on clarinet, we find Katherine Young on bassoon, Amy Cimini on viola, Kevin Davis on cello, Brian Dibblee on double bass, and Tim Mulvenna on drums, hand drums and percussion. The music is a mixture of chamber jazz and world jazz, with some avant-garde and classical thinking in the overall approach, and the result is a calm, warm and welcoming piece of intelligent and creative music. 

The title refers to the works of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure, whose thoughts were the object of many classes I had at university, so it's a strange thing to find him back after some decades in the form of music. Falzone calls his own music symbolic, referring to other things than the music itself, other parts stand on their own. How all this relates to each other, I will leave to greater minds to analyse, yet the music itself does not sound intellectual or sought: it flows naturally, whether improvised or composed. Intelligent with subtle emotions.

Great album!

Buy from Instantjazz.

Watch Vox Arcana on Youtube

© stef

Ken Filiano - Dreams From A Clown Car (Clean Feed, 2010) ****

The Beatles' "Mr. Kite", King Crimson's "Cirkus" up to Britney Spears' "Circus" are just a few examples of musicians who use the imagery and romantic context of the acrobats and the clowns as inspiration or even metaphor for their music - or sometimes as a metaphor for the circus of everyday life.

The reason for that is that it's fun and sad, and compelling, that it requires special skills and entertainment and artistry and that it offers a sense of community among the audience, a joint enjoyment of the fun and the spectacle.

And that's what you get from this album, in spades, with leader and composer Ken Filiano on double bass and efx, Michael Attias on baritone and alto saxophones, Tony Malaby on tenor and soprano saxophones, Michael T.A. Thompson on drums. A band consisting of more than just technical acrobats, but all artists in their own right.

Filiano starts the album with a great arco intro, his signature for what's to come: intense, dense, virtuoso, joined by Thompson's drum to add power with Attias and Malaby, each with their own recognisable tone, playing the theme a couple of times then madness breaks loose out of which Malaby emerges singing and swinging over bass and drums locked in a fixed rhythm, then it's Attias' turn on baritone to add his part of mad soloing. 

"Dog Days" starts with a bass vamp, for a compelling piece with again a strong and changing unison theme, with great variation of intentsity and tempo, built around a central arco piece and alto, then picking up speed and boppish allure.

The typical characteristic of the music is the incredible density and volume coming out of a quartet, with lots of things happening at the same time, all musicians active in their creative way to jointly create an overall atmosphere that is more dramatic than fun, more sad than joyful, especially the slow "Shinobu".

"Powder & Paint" is without a doubt the best piece on the album, with a great, sweeping theme, majestic and moving. "Retronym" has an almost rockish feel while remaining fully in the jazz tradition too, and with a hypnotic theme on top. And that's possibly one of the greatest assets of this album: it integrates the past in a very forward thinking mode, with solid rhythms and themes paving the way for great soloing, quite coherent and focused within each composotion, and in the hands of these musicians full of intensity and expressivity from beginning to end.

A major achievement from a great bass-player whose actual output as a composer and band-leader is quite limited, and we want more of this, and with the same band! Recommended.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Trygve Seim & Andreas Utnem - Purcor, Songs for Saxophone and Piano (ECM, 2010) ***½

As a great antidote for the crazy avant stuff I've just been listening to, a world of harmonic and lyrical beauty is offered here to us by saxophonist Trygve Seim and Andreas Utnem, both from Norway, and forming the new generation in the lineage of Jan Garbarek. Seim's sound is warm and intimate as opposed to Garbarek's cool and expansive tone. Yet they are very similar in their use of folk influences and disregard for the rhythmic or soul that are part and parcel of jazz.

And this should be no surprise, since the music is based on church music, recorded in a church - Tøyen Kirke in Oslo, most tracks have religious titles ("Credo", "Gloria", "Agnus Dei", "Kyrie", etc.) with Utnem even playing organ on one piece. In the mid-90s the pianist invited the saxophonist to join him to play in church services, and this album is the tangible outcome of this fourteen year collaboration.

The tone is reverent, subdued, with some but not much room for improvisation, and with no space at all for wild fantasies.

Even if you play this very loud, for once the cat will go on sleeping undisturbed.

And despite its obvious mellowness and sentimentalism, its sweet calm really was the great antidote for the music I just listened to before.

© stef

Monday, December 13, 2010


Dear readers, the vote is on.

Many thanks for your suggestions. I changed my initial list a little, unfortunately sticking to the CDs that I have reviewed and or know. It's a little difficult to add music I've never heard myself (yet).

Here are the fifteen selected records. Everyone can cast one vote. If you want to know more about the selected albums, you can click on the names and you will be directed to the reviews.

The vote is on till next Monday close to midnight (Central European Time), by ticking the list on the right.

The list offers a good mix of styles, line-ups, nationalities .... diversity as a key to creativity and new thoughts. 

  1. Undivided - The Passion
  2. AMM - Sounding Music
  3. Harris Eisenstadt - Woodblock Prints
  4. Vijay Anderson - Hardboiled Wonderland
  5. Chicago Underground Duo - Boca Negra
  6. John Butcher & Claudia Ulla Binder - Under The Roof
  7. Schlippenbach Trio - Bauhaus Dessau
  8. Nobu Stowe - Confusion Bleue
  9. Lapin/Poore/Schubert/Turner/Bledsoe - Seek it Not with Your Eyes
  10. Lawnmower - West
  11. Dawn Of Midi - First
  12. Clare Cooper - Hammeriver
  13. OirTrio - Kanata
  14. Stephen Haynes - Parrhesia
  15. Nate Wooley & Paul Lytton - Creak Above 33

© stef

Ellery Eskelin & Gerry Hemingway - Inbetween Spaces (Auricle, 2010) ****½

Not many words needed here. Two brilliant musicians. Great ideas. Great variation. The joy of music. The whole sixty-seven minutes. Some quiet sensitive sonic explorations, full of subtle and creative shifts. Some pieces that wanna make you dance on the spot. And even the most exploratory pieces are full of pulse and swing, however implicit.

Eskelin is a master of tone coloring, Hemingway a master of precise touches. Together they can tell stories like very few musicians can. Each piece has its own plot and evolves within the strict confines of the initial outset, expanding, developing it, improvising, adding touches, moments of despair and tension but without straying from the core concept, yet adding drama, suspense as they tell it.

No more words are needed. Judge for yourself on these two videos.

Highly recommended. 

© stef

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rafael Toral - Space Elements Vol. II (Taiga, 2010) ****

Rafael Toral's "Space Elements Vol. II" has been lying here for a while. I've listened to it often, wondering whether it would fit the profile of this blog, which is - I must admit - sometimes straying from its free jazz path, but what the heck, good music requires breaking rules and if it was all the same where would we be?

My major shift in deciding to do it is the re-issue of Toral's "Violence Of Discovery", an electronic album that puts his new album in a totally different perspective. He calls his own style "post free-jazz electronic music". He moved away from the focus on the instrument and the sound experiment per se, back to the musician with his/her emotions and immediacy of performance.

This album is the fourth actually in his "space program" sequence that started with "Space", and was followed by "Space Solo" and  "Space Elements Vol. I".

The music is unlike anything you've heard before. Musicians add sounds left and right, around open space, yet with a cautious intimacy of non-interference and timid reconnoitering. No melodies, no phrases, no rhythms, just minimalist touches on silence like spatters of paint on a white canvas.

The quality and the number of musicians assisting on the project is beyond expectation if you listen to the album: Evan Parker on soprano sax, Manuel Mota on guitar, Afonso Simões on drums, Stefano Tedesco on vibraphone, João Paulo Feliciano on Rhodes piano, and Ruben Costa on digital synthesizer, Sei Miguel on trumpet, César Burago on percussion, Fala Mariam on trombone, and Rute Praça on cello. Toral himself is the tone sculpture in all of this, using such instruments as Coil Spring, Glove controllers, Modular synthesizer, Modified MT-10 amplifier (a.k.a. Bender), Electrode Oscillator, Echo-feed, Modified MS-2 amplifier. But the real "blips and beeps" are limited to only the last-but-one track, without really destabilising the exceptional musical coherence of the eight pieces.

The sound environments are exceptionally fragile and almost human or at moments animal-like, interactions of living creatures, slowly expressing themselves, gently, or like thoughts welling up during a zen-like meditation. It is uncanny, bizarre but quite successful in its result.

It is fresh, open, extreme yet very welcoming. 

Rafael Toral - Violence Of Discovery And Calm Of Acceptance (Touch, 2001/2010)

"Violence Of Discovery" is of a different breed, and that makes the evolution so interesting. This album with the magnificent title took seven years to complete, according to the musician, and contains layers and layers of electronics creating slowly developing soundscapes, sometimes barely audible.

The music's essential calm has at the same time a haunting quality, or to some it could be nerve-wracking. It is supposed to be a real must for drone fans, but it is beyond my reference points for further evaluating it.

All four albums in Toral's space program can be listened to and downloaded from eMusic

© stef

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Ray Anderson-Marty Ehrlich Quartet - Hear You Say - Live In Willisau (Intuition, 2010) ****

Take four stellar musicians, put them in front of a great and enthusiastic audience, and you have won half the game. The quartet is Ray Anderson on trombone, Marty Ehrlich on clarinet, alto and soprano saxes, Brad Jones on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums.

The album opens with a tribute to the late Leroy Jenkins, and a notch more "mainstream" than the great violinist, but bringing a great and varied mixture of traditional jazz references with quite free form improvisations and changes in intensity. The audience is huge, not like the dozen people we're used to at our free jazz concerts, applauding after each solo, encouraging the musicians to do more. And that's what they do : have fun, demonstrate their skills, their mad dialogues, their rapid-fire echoes, moving from playfulness to sensitivity.

"Hot Crab Pot" is boppish, but with sudden rhythm changes, fun again. "My Wish" a short ballad in the mood of the late 50s. But then "The Lion's Tanz" is more free, with the two horns playing around with sonic and rhythmic inventiveness, spurring each other on, until half-way a crazy speed chase theme emerges, that folds again into more patternless playing, only to return a few times more. The audience is wild, the band has fun.

"The Git Go" is nervous, uptempo and with out-there soloing, with "Alligatory Rhumba" going back to more Elingtonian themes, dance-hall melodies and swing band fun. The last track is my favorite, with a great funky rhythm driven by bass and drum, who get a little more out of their functional support of the horns on this track. Great fun.

The playing is so excellent and the overall atmosphere so joyful that it is great listening to. Nothing new, no real artistic ambitions, but entertainment of the highest order. Any jazz fan will like this.

Watch the band play "Alligatory Rhumba"

© stef

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Irene Schweizer Trio & Dewan Motihar Trio - Jazz Meets India (MPS, 1967/2010) ****½

The Beatles were the first pop band to introduce the sitar and Indian music to broad audiences, with the George Harrison song "Within You, Without You", released on Sgt Pepper's in 1967 possibly one of the better known ones.

This album was recorded in the same year, on October 23rd, in Villingen, Germany, by a band consisting of Irene Schweizer on piano, Uli Trepte on acoustic bass, Mani Neumeier on drums, Dewan Motihar on sitar and vocals, Keshav Sathe on tablas, Kusum Thakur on tambura, Manfred Schoof on trumpet, and Barney Wilen on soprano and tenor saxophones.

True, the sitar had been used before in jazz, though sparingly, and Coltrane and Miles Davis were influenced by Indian music, but to my knowledge (and tell me if I'm wrong) this is one of the first real joint performances, on equal footing between musicians from east and west.

The first track "Sun Love", starts with the Indian trio, with the sitar taking the lead voice, and once their music has been established, the drums join, then the piano and the bass after some five minutes, hesitantly, respectfully, trying to become one with the Indian rhythm and modal scales, yet Schweizer's response is unbelievably precise and Motihar's response even better. Once they get to this comfort level, the volume increases without trampling too much on the vulnerable sound of the Indian instruments. When the calm returns, Schoof's trumpet enters, slow, magnificent, warm-toned, rapidly breaking the set boundaries, dragging bass and drums along into more intensity, falling back after a great improvisation on the slowly flowing essence of the piece, as the opportunity for Wilen to join, brilliantly, emotionally strong and sensitive, yet the long track ends with total mayhem in the best free jazz tradition, with controlled chaos, followed by the absolute calm of the solo sitar.

"Yaad" is shorter, with sitar and Indian vocals leading the way. The piano adds sparse tones and Wilen's entrance is again sheer brilliance of finding the right tone and approach, emulating the sadness of the voice, and with both horns adding great slow echoes to Mohitar's singing.

The last track, "Brigach And Ganges", starts with the jazz musicians : arco bass, tenor and trumpet, for some abstract free form, with Neumeier adding percussive accents, then sitar and piano join and turn the piece seamlessly into Indian raga form, with changing levels of intensity and volume depending on which instrument is taking the lead.

And then it's over: and it's too short, about thirty-seven minutes.

A real find (thanks Tony!).

If you're interested in world jazz: don't miss this one. The sound quality is absolutely excellent thanks to the digital remastering of the original tapes.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Listen to the promo video

© stef

Monday, December 6, 2010

Joe Morris - Sensor (No Business, 2010) ****

I love solo bass albums, because of the sound. Nothing like vinyl on a good turntable with good amp and good speakers to listen to the depth and the warmth of a bass sound, even if, as on this record, the playing is adventurous.

Joe Morris is primarily known as a guitar player, but he's equally good on bass, with a somewhat different approach. He started playing double bass in the year 2000 only, and this album celebrates his 10th anniversary on the instrument. 

Other Joe Morris albums on which he plays bass as the leader are "Wildlife", "High Definition",  or as co-leader with "The Flow" or "The Story Of Mankind", and playing bass with other artists such as Jim Hobbs, Steve Lantner, Petr Cancura, Rob Brown and Whit Dickey. His solo guitar albums are "No Vertigo" and "Singularity".

His approach on bass is one of a nervous calm, carefully developing his lyricism, yet with an ongoing forward pulse. In contrast to his guitar-playing, his bass technique as demonstrated here is straight-forward, but excellent, with the expressive power increasing when he picks up his bow.

Despite his relatively young familiarity with the instrument, he can of course build on many decades as an improviser, and that's clear from every piece: even if they're all callled "Sensor", he sticks to one musical concept, that is then further expanded upon, shifting it, pushing it, changing it, approaching it from another angle, but never straying too far from the core idea that makes the piece. The pieces also alternate between bowed and plucked, but without switching in the middle of the track, which makes this also a very balanced and disciplined exercise: side A : pizzi, arco, pizzi - side B : arco, pizzi, pizzi, arco.

"Sensor I" still starts with increasing agitated intensity, but - deliberate or not - the music becomes slower as the pieces unfold, with "Sensor VI" reaching a kind of vulnerable hesitation, only to reach the great slow intimate and beautiful "Sensor VII".

Even though I am a fan of solo bass albums, I can still highly recommend it, also to non-bass players.

Listen to "Sensor I" and "Sensor III"

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wacław Zimpel, Paweł Posteremczak, Ksawery Wójciński, Paweł Szpura - Hera (MultiKulti, 2010 ) *****

Whether with "The Light", with "Afekty", or earlier this year with "The Passion", Polish clarinetist Wacław Zimpel has been refining his musical vision, one that is built around composed /mprovised and structured music, full of drama and story-telling, yet always looking at new ways to increase the expressivity of the sound and the interplay, as means to go deeper and deeper into the heart of music.

On "Hera", we find Zimpel back in the company of Paweł Posteremczak on soprano and tenor saxophones, Ksawery Wójciński on double bass, and Paweł Szpura on drums.

On "The Passion", the life of Jesus was the inspiration for the music, now the band goes somewhat earlier in mythology with the Greek goddess Hera, sister and wife of Zeus, goddess of marriage and birth, virgin and mother, jealous and cruelly vindictive, she was worshipped in the whole of the ancient mediterranean, including Sicily, where her cult flourished. The tracks on the album refer to the cities in Sicily where temples or famous mosaics depict her : "Monreale", "Palermo", "Cefalu", "Segesta".

The last track is the traditional "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" - the title is of course not a coincidence in relation to Hera the goddess, nor as a reference and tribute to Joe McPhee, yet the piece fits also musically as the great finale.

The music shifts between postboppish lyricism and expansiveness - even without a piano, Jarrett comes to mind once in a while - on the one hand, an  the freedom and expressive power of free jazz on the other. The clarinet and sax wail, howl, scream, sing, jubilate, weep, cry, lament, full of anguish and anger and horror and misery : this band delves into emotional delivery without restraint, while keeping an incredibly controlled notion on how the music as a whole evolves in the ears and heart of the listener. And I mention the horns, but obviously the bass - arco and plucked - and the drums - thundering or subtle as Paul Motian - participate actively in moving the music from dark gloomy moments to pure exaltation and back to utter despair. The sonic explorations led by the arco bass on "Segesta" are a good example.

Like the other albums, "Hera" unrolls like a suite, with the five tracks perfectly integrated for a long and majestic journey which will leave very few listeners indifferent or unmoved. And while touching you for its sensitivity, you will also be swept away by the mythical grandeur of the totality.

Absolutely magnificent!

© stef

Saturday, December 4, 2010

No review today

I went to a concert by The Thing : absolutely excellent. Raw, energetic ... subtle and sensitive.

© stef

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mark O'Leary - Snow (TIBProd, 2010) ****

Irish guitarist Mark O'Leary keeps being his nomad self, playing with musicians who generated his interest, and if he started his career by recording with some of the big names in modern jazz (Stanko, Sunny Murray, Wayne Horvitz, Uri Caine, Steve Swallow), he's also explored more ethereal and electronic environments with lesser known musicians.

On this album he joins forces with Turkish musicians Senol Küçükyıldırım on drums, Murat Çopur on bass and electronics, and Can Ömer Uygan on trumpet and electronics. The music is one long sonic exploration, one that develops slowly, without actual rhythm, with tones that are stretched and extended to create eery soundscapes full of tension.

The music is inspired by Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's novel "Snow", that tells the story of a journalist marooned in a snowed-in town in the middle of a local suicide epidemic among young women and local elections. The theme is one of freedom against the terror of dogma. I have a tremendous admiration for Pamuk's courage to tempt power resulting in his being put in jail for several years, for his belief in democracy and freedom of speech. His novels are good, certainly above average but still, I think the Nobel Prize for literature is a little bit exaggerated. Anyway, we're reviewing music here.

As with some of his other albums, the slowness of the beginnings starts to gain in volume as the music evolves on "Ka", like a tide rising, or a calm sea turning into a storm, full of drama, with heavy percussion, full reverb wailing guitar, and now fully voiced trumpet. As on some other albums, Terje Rypdal is not too far away in spirit, and that's a compliment, since O'Leary does not really copy him, but rather expands on his idiom.

The title track slows down the tempo again, but certainly not the tension, which becomes incredibly dark and ominous, full of suppressed and expressed angst in an absolutely icy atmosphere. "Ipek", keeps the tension but adds sorrow, sadness and desolation.

The last track, "Obsession", is the best, with changing tempos and ending in hypnotic forward propulsion by the drums and great trumpet playing by Can Ömer Uygan.

Like on some of his other albums, Mark O'Leary again demonstrates that he can get a lot of power and expressivity out of sonic intensity. On some albums he plays speedy guitar solos like most fusion guitarists, but he is really at his best when his focus is on the music as on this album, deeply evocative and expressive. A rare gift.

© stef

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Joe Hertenstein, Pascal Niggenkemper, Thomas Heberer - HNH (Clean Feed, 2010) ****½

I started the year by giving "Pieces For A Husky Puzzle" with Thomas Heberer on trumpet a five-star rating. Today, we find Heberer back with two fellow countrymen, also from Cologne, Germany : Joe Hertenstein on drums and Pascal Niggenkemper on bass. Heberer was known to me, a fantastic trumpeter with solid background and whose music is hard to predict, ranging from traditional jazz to acoustic and electronic avant-garde.

Hertenstein and Niggenkemper I didn't know musically. This is Hertenstein's debut as a leader, and what his trio brings here is a pure delight, finding an interesting niche of incredibly rhythmic free improvisation : the music swings from beginning to end, but then with the improvisational and sonic freedom of modern music, with lots of tempo and rhythm changes, yet never losing the implicit pulse and forward drive that underpins every note they play.

The trio leads us through abstract environments but the blues is never far away : tracks like "Screw The Pendulum" and "Lucretia's Legacy" have this deep emotional resonance going back to the origins of jazz, while remaining very open-structured. Other pieces like "Prelude And Tomorrow's Problem" move from the abstract to a more composed form, ending with a theme. Others like "Tolliver's Toll" do the opposite, kicking off in a more traditional way, then quickly shifting to more adventurous territories. Yet at no time do the musicians go beyond the traditional sound of their instruments. There are almost no extended techniques to be heard, which gives the overall sound a pretenseless and honest ring.

Technically superb, with wonderful interaction, incredible pulse and creativity, embracing the new without relinquishing tradition, balanced and warm, honest and authentic. Refreshing and great fun to listen to ... again and again.

© stef