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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bester Quartet: Metamorphoses (Tzadik, 2012) ****

By Sam

The Bester Quartet is the new incarnation of Jarosław Bester's Cracow Klezmer Band, a quartet of violin, bayan (Russian accordion), percussion, and double bass, who perform a wholly unique kind of improvised Jewish folk music. Under the latter name they have released six albums on John Zorn's Tzadik label: three records of original material, two of interpretations of Zorn's material, and one live album. These albums are among my favorites of the new millennium.  The Bester Quartet is essentially the same group, but with a new double-bassist: Mikolaj Pospieszalski. This new album, again on Zorn's label as part of the "Radical Jewish Culture" series, offers more of the group’s exciting explorations of Jewish music via highly energetic, but also mournful, folk-like song forms.

Isn't all Jewish music, even in the form of the popular, rather buoyant klezmer, mournful? Well, yes. But what distinguishes the sound of this band is that it does not play in the traditional klezmer mode, which is to say, it shies away from the common upbeat dance forms that characterize klezmer, and also mostly avoids major-key compositions. It is as if this quartet’s repertoire consisted solely of variations on the doina—the slow lamentation that precedes the more upbeat dance itself. The doina is also that part of the klezmer performance that is most improvisatory. The Bester Quartet plays in a mode that fully mines the possibilities offered by the doina as well as other Eastern European and Jewish folk forms. In doing so they produce a profoundly melancholic, meditative music structured around gorgeous melodies and delivered with inspired playing.

But the quartet does not just play slow, sad music. This record, like those released under the name Cracow Klezmer Band, also includes songs that are full of rhythmic intensity. Ecstatic is the best word to describe what happens when the band takes a musical motif and winds it up with forceful energy until it reaches dizzying heights and speeds. Even when whirling away at full throttle, however, the music sounds forlorn. That sense is heightened by the dynamic shifts from slow to fast speeds, sometimes within only a few bars, which shifts produce a satisfying dynamic interplay and also evoke a certain restlessness.

The highlight of this new record is the 7-minute "The God—Forsaken," in which the band is joined by Tomasz Ziętek on trumpet (he also appears on one other track) in a performance of breath-taking beauty that features each player at the peak of his creativity. The song starts with a funereal solo bayan, which is then joined by trumpet, intoning notes of naked lament. They soon stop and the double bass takes over, meditating with incredible conviction on the same theme before the rest of the band joins him. Following solos by Ziętek and Tyrała, Bester ends the piece with a bayan solo that expresses both longing and resignation. It is a devastatingly beautiful performance. Bester’s bayan voices profound sadness. But is it because God has forsaken us, or, following the track title's ambiguous participle placement, because we have forsaken God? Is there a difference? That we can't say for sure seems to be at the core of what makes this music so powerful.

This record is really marvelous. It only suffers by comparison to the Cracow Klezmer Band catalogue. The band seems a little less adventurous than on their earlier albums, and one or two tracks lack the depth and intensity that is everywhere else in full display. I’d say it’s pretty close to a four-and-a-half star album—surely my fellow reviewers would translate my enthusiasm into such a score. In any event: highly recommended.

© stef

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jeff Davis - Leaf House (Fresh Sound Records, 2012) ****

By Philip Coombs

I was so excited to see another Jeff Davis recording especially after enjoying his last outing as leader 'We Sleep Outside' so much. A quick scan of the players cemented my hunch that this recording was going to be very different from his last. In this incarnation, he has done away with the saxophone, guitar, trumpet and Kris Davis steps away from the piano stool and is replaced with Russ Lossing.

'Leaf House' delivers a dense, complicated and literate vision from Davis. It reminds me of getting home in rush hour traffic or what I envision cutting through rough jungle with a machete would be like. It is specific and unrelenting. The musicians gathered here are up for the task of manifesting it and in most cases adding to this trio.

Russ Lossing's playing is like listening to Einstein improv sing in the shower. I may not understand everything he says but there is an assumption that it is brilliant. Eivind Opsvik (bass) not only guides Lossing and Davis (drums) into some form of continuity, but is also responsible for mixing the album. He lets the bass swim in a wading pool of reverb. In sacrificing some of the crispness, he allows the instrument to get absorbed into the overall sound as if to fuel the other two, taking whenever needed. Davis composed all of the 8 tracks on 'Leaf House' and plays with charisma and composure, leading and listening, a stately combination.

Track one, 'Leaf House', starts with a pounding percussive line by Lossing and when the rhythm section enters, it turns into a trudging march with lots of room for Lossing to break out and continue pounding the keys on his piano.

Track two, 'Faded', comes at you from all angles. Davis starts with deceptively mellow brushes but quickly changes without drawing any attention. If you can get around the seemingly random angles that Lossing constantly hits you with, and allow yourself to piece together his puzzle, you will find that deep under his fingernails lies a beautiful and meticulously constructed melody. It's rather hypnotic.

The remainder of the album keeps you in its grasp until it lets you go some 53 minutes later. It ends with 'Lion Mouth' which gives Opsvik his chance to contribute to the grand design with a focused and thoughtful solo of his own.

If it was Davis' intent to challenge the listener with a deep dark record, then his mission was successful. He has also produced an album that will shine bright from his discography for years to come.

A little sample of the opening track:

Can be purchased from the label.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mikołaj Trzaska, Olie Brice, Mark Sanders – Riverloam Trio (NoBusiness, 2012) ****

By Daniel Sorrells

“Riverloam” is such an evocative word. It makes me think of fungi on a riverbank, colorful mushrooms pushing up through black earth, tiny bright surrogates that hide the true extent of the knotted mycelium whose countless nerve-like connections stretch in all directions just below the surface. Maybe this is a decent metaphor for Riverloam Trio, too—and all improvised music—this idea that perhaps what we’re hearing is the dense, unseen mycelium, the untraceable web of connections that binds musicians on a stage or in a studio. Some vital thing that’s bigger and more deeply rooted than the bodies we see standing before us.

Plus, there’s Mikołaj Trzaska’s rough-hewn, earthy tones. Trzaskahas been an important voice in the modern Polish scene since the early 90s. In recent years, he’s branched out significantly, playing with a number of international musicians and releasing improvised music on his label, Kilogram Records. Here he teams up with two Londoners: bassist Olie Brice and the ubiquitous drummer Mark Sanders. Riverloam Trio features five long improvisations that stretch across two LPs. Trzaska trades off between his woozy alto wail and some quieter, brooding bass clarinet work, clearly inspired by his rhythm section. 

And inspiring it is. Sanders can make anyone sound good, and Brice plays in an almost vertical manner, seemingly building his ideas upward rather than simply laying them out. There’s a wonderful logic to his lines, even in heated exchanges. “Ostrich Season” gives him a central role, his bass thundering through the low simmer of Trzaska’s clarinet. There’s a clear rapport among the trio, and Trzaska and Brice in particular aren’t afraid to circle back on an idea if it seems there’s something more to be extracted.

Riverloam Trio is one of those great albums that feels like it was made for vinyl. The playing keeps pace with the best of the modern crowd, but there’s something aching in Trzaska’s vibrato—even from the first moments of “Riverloam”—that hearkens to the early days of this music, that almost necessitates the physicality of handling a record, the ritual of flipping wax and setting needles. A time when maybe we were a little more emotionally connected to music, because the act of listening was a bit more purposeful than overloaded iPods and hard drives allow.

As can be said of many NoBusiness releases, Riverloam Trio is worth the investment. It’s the fire music of our time—maybe now more like glowing embers, but still remembering something of the flames that gave rise to them.

You can buy it from

© stef

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A McPhee a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

By Paolo Casertano

The Chicagoan modern art gallery and unconventional label Corbett vs. Dempsey has recently reissued two milestones from the Joe McPhee majestic discography: “Variations on a Blue Line” and “Glasses,” both originally released on Hat Hut Records, in 1977 according to the artist website, or in 1979 according to the label and to many other web sources. Who knows? If a debate will come, I’ll support McPhee.

They both are live recordings and you can appreciate the gentle and vintage hum coming from the pre-digital era that apparently has not been removed in these editions, including a far and feeble echo - as a kind of natural delay - which you can clearly perceive after some standalone passages. The many, non-troubling, background noises coming from the audience strengthen this feeling. Though I consider myself as a fervent pioneer and as an open-minded listener - just to hide my conservative nature - when I listen to these kinds of albums I wonder if free jazz has suitably evolved in the last thirty years or so…

Joe McPhee - Variations on a Blue Line (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2012) ****

Joe McPhee is here on tenor and soprano saxophone.

The 17 minutes opening and leading composition Beanstalk embodies immediately all the paraphernalia of techniques and styles that McPhee can exhibit. You can hear drops of breath streaming through the tubes or hiding below the keys and the holes of the instruments, gentle hammerings, slap tonguing (was it already called this at that time?) and silent fingering on the buttons. The sound is built through rubbings, squeaks and hits until some sudden coherent and eruptive phrasings emerge and disappear. No emotion is left aside and the player can swiftly switch between a pianissimo and an ostinato. Around the eleventh minute mark are remarkable some Theremin-like pitches introducing his peculiar hoarse, almost painful, bass voice. And again we find percussive trills and droning long whispers. It really seems a duet between two sax players more than a solo.

Motian Studies moves down from vertiginous high pitches towards melody. In many passages you don’t feel the whole as a solo performance because it is easy to imagine a complete orchestra surrounding the saxophone’s voice.

Variation on a Blue Line (After a Theme For Knox) is the bluesy third track that evolves in a violent eruption of fast whistles leading us to ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk, that Joe McPhee interpreters with all the soul he still has in his lungs.

Joe McPhee - Glasses (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2012) ****1/2

Joe McPhee is here mainly on tenor saxophone, sometimes on percussion and in the third track on flugelhorn supported by Reto Weber also on percussion.

In the first track Glasses you may understand how seminal Joe McPhee’s style has been. Listen to the emerging Colin Stetson or to Håkon Kornstad but also to long and rightly appreciated artists as Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark (and despite the obvious differences I like them all, for everyone of these players - even paying tribute to tradition - has clearly developed a personal and unique style). Here you have extended techniques, the player sings in his instrument, groan and blow in it, hiss and plays with noises. In the end of the composition he mimics the typical noise of a car leaving and you can hear someone from the audience laughing.

Then he plays Naima by John Coltrane. What can I say? It’s just like Cartier-Bresson taking a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. It cannot be less than a masterpiece.

In the closing New Potatoes McPhee starts on flugelhorn, then - as soon as percussion grows - he’s back on saxophone and with his sonic scratches he faces bells, dings and toys all around him.  He roars and claps his hands to challenge a tambourine.

The answer to my previous question is - obviously - yes, free jazz has evolved. And this is because some artistic figures as Joe McPhee have been the joining links of such a development and progress. Certainly he was not the only groundbreaking sax player in those furious years. Just to name a few and not to go too back in time: Roscoe Mitchell, the already hyperactive Anthony Braxton and a guy named Peter Brötzmann were all already screaming and shouting in their instruments. His restless and constant cooperation with younger musicians as Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love and Eli Keszler proves that Joe McPhee is still seeding in the flourishing field of free jazz.

Listen to excerpts or to the whole works almost everywhere on the web.

You can buy it from

© stef

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ben Holmes - Anvil of The Lord (Skirl Records, 2012) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Trumpeter Ben Holmes' Anvil of The Lord kicks off with the song 'A Doodle for Rhapsody'. It builds slowly while the intertwining lines shared between the trombone and trumpet mix alluringly. The longing melody is of mysterious origin and inspiration.

Thus it makes sense that the elusive mixture of styles and sounds is first foremost in Holmes' own description:

...inspired by things like Czech folklore, poor Amtrak service, the swimming holes of New Jersey, the films of John Carpenter, portentous budget documents from right before the economic collapse, crime reports from the late 19th Century, déjà vu, love, death, taxes, and various other things that might not be apparent since the music is all instrumental...

Throughout, Holmes' trumpet sound is clean and classic, and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring's tone and melodic ideas are quite complimentary. Drummer Vinnie Sperrazza and bassist Matt Pavolka provide perfectly balanced support, whether its lightly swinging like on 'Magic Monday' or driving hard like they do elsewhere.

As for the tunes, and this is a very song oriented album, the aforementioned range of styles makes for an enjoyable listen. For example on the catchy 'Kingston', Holmes' and Hasselbring's solos, after the enjoyably meandering head, are subtly arresting. 'Otesánek' begins with a ginger dance between the horn and drums and soon slides into an ethically tinged melody that you may just feel you 'know' at a subconscious level. The real killer is the title track, 'Anvil of the Lord'. Over its short course, it builds to an exciting climax with seamless transitioning between improvization and composition.

The album has moments of reserved beauty as well as restrained fire. The vibe is relaxed and the playing feels effortless. While it may be less of a listening 'challenge' to some adventurous ears, that aspect is more than offset with enjoyable compositions and lyricality. Overall, Anvil of the Lord is a warm and accessible showcase of musicianship.

You can buy it from

Friday, October 26, 2012

Julia A. Miller - Solo Variations (Pan Y Rosas Discos, 2012) ***½

By Paolo Casertano

Lately I’ve developed an obsession for records entitled such as 'variation(s)' or 'solo on instrument (X)'. Better if both things simultaneously. Even better if the tracklist is just numeric or alphanumeric. I suppose this is due to the deep meaning of these words. 'Solo’ as 'alone', in this case playing a musical instrument, and 'variations' as 'change'*, two frightening and challenging concepts indeed, in music and generally in life.

I didn’t know much about Julia A. Miller. From her website I understand she’s an active guitarist, composer and educator on the Chicago jazz scene and in several music institutes.  Regardless, I truly appreciated this work. The first track is split in two sections and offers a good overview on her qualities and attitude. There is a great control over musical dynamics and distortion and a very personal tone. You could say that all the techniques are actually enough widespread - piercing feedbacks, growing drones, sliding bursts and this 'wood drops' effect that, I learn, is also known as spider fingers - but it’s their reasonable and valid choice and usage that makes the whole output pleasurable to listen and follow. Please consider this is a live recording with no overdubs. The long third track, named '2', has a slow and long introduction moving on powerful low notes layers and evolving in a discordant and avantgardish sound-like-a-piano piece.  But as a lover of far feedbacks, delays and diluted and hidden notes my preference goes to the fourth and final track, that can’t be named otherwise than '3'.

Some other notable links to get to know better this interesting artist here and here.

Available for preview and for free digital download from the label.

* I’m just trying to break the former record for the use of inverted commas in a sentence while giving pleonastic explanations.

© stef

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Atom String Quartet - Places (Kayax, 2012) ***

By Steve Mossberg

As players from classical backgrounds become more skilled improvisers, listeners have the great fortune of hearing jazz played using a wider range of instruments. Thanks to the innovations of John Zorn’s small string groups and swinging quartets from Turtle Island to Radio String Quartet Vienna, the days of an improvising string quartet as an oddity are past. On its latest release “Places” the young Polish Atom String Quartet gets a chance to add another chapter to the jazz string story.

The good news is that the Atom boys play their pants off. Indeed, all the elements of a top-tier classical string quartet are there. The ensemble sound is big and rich, the rhythmic connections and phrasing are in perfect sync, everybody plays with light speed lyricism, and they’ve got intonation and dynamic shading most young groups would kill for. Likewise, there are no technical flaws in the improvisation department, with David Lubowicz regularly showing impressive runs in the 70s Jean-Luc Ponty style and Krzysztof Lenczowki playing cello basslines and solos with rhythmic and motivic invention on tracks like “Fade Out” and “Irish Pub.”

The bad news is that transferring the jazz sound to string quartet is no longer an innovative act in itself, and while the album often sounds good, it rarely stretches into the unknown or shows much stylistic individuality. We’ve come along way from the eighties and Kronos Quartet’s pubescent noodling over stiff blues charts, but its entirely expected that a string group can write and play well at this point. The surprises on “Places” come in the clever arrangements on the aforementioned “Irish Pub,” and slick classical/world fusion on “Song For Mario” and the cleverly written “Fugato & Allegrina.” Aside from these catchy melodic moments, there’s not a lot of the compositional or improvisational risk taking that are so important in contemporary jazz.

The group generally manages to avoid clichés as they try their hands at many different jazz angles, but they fall into a pit on “LaTina.” The idea of throwing a salsa or Brazilian feel in on a tune with a Spanish pun in the name has been played out since the early sixties, and when the montuno feel as stiff as it is here, it’s better avoided. Likewise, the cover of Chick Corea’s “Spain” is a real miss, capturing neither the lyricism of Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” or the composer’s drive and rhythmic brinkmanship.

Nonetheless, “Places” is a solid jazz record, played by excellent musicians. If these guys were a typical straight-ahead quartet it would be pleasing and proficient, and it probably catches the ear a bit more due to its instrumentation. The question is, how can the Atom String Quartet step beyond the impressive string group level and into the realm of jazz greatness?

Good record.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

3 Friendly Numbers: Recent John Butcher Selections

Way Out Northwest – The White Spot (Relative Pitch, 2012) ****
John Butcher, Guillaume Viltard, Eddie Prévost – All But (Matchless, 2012) ***
John Butcher & Matthew Shipp – At OTO (Fataka, 2012) ***

By Daniel Sorrells

John Butcher is a busy man. In addition to Daylight, the duo with Mark Sanders we previously reviewed (and a new solo album that just came to my attention as I sit down to write this), Mr. Butcher has made three other 2012 appearances: two with sax trios and in a duo with pianist Matthew Shipp.

Butcher is at an interesting point in his career. He now exists in a musical landscape populated by younger players who have come up in an environment where “extended technique” and expanded ideas about timbre and atmosphere are firmly rooted and widely practiced. The sort of sax-deconstruction that Anthony Braxton started with For Alto has become Butcher’s hallmark, but it has also permeated the larger improvisational discourse. Still, Butcher has done more to erase the historical boundaries of the saxophone than any other musician. Over the past few decades, he has shown a devotion to feeling out hard-to-reach aural phenomena and finding creative solutions to his instrument’s limitations.

But Butcher is just not as jarring anymore—he’s no longer the only one to have shrugged off the standard saxophone vernacular. There’s no discrediting his creativity, but there’s a certain familiarity to his approach now, and it’s easier to recognize his strategies and methods. The two opening tracks of At OTO feature Butcher in a solo setting, and are almost unremarkable if you have any past experience with his music. He sounds…well, like himself, and I found myself getting impatient for the duo—the real point of interest. Obviously, what has always mattered most are the musical contexts in which he chooses to work and the way he integrates his sound into the larger whole, but their importance seems especially amplified now. In this day and age, the sheer novel weirdness of his sound itself is no longer enough.

That said, we can take a look at the two trios we’re considering here. They both feature sax, bass, and drums, but different dynamics are clearly at play. Way Out Northwest is an established group, with Butcher being joined by Vancouver-based improvisers Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff. The White Spot has a glancing angle of attack, suggesting big musical shapes without ever being particularly explicit about them. Müller’s formidable arco technique perfectly complements Butcher’s aesthetic, and van der Schyff deftly highlights their shifting textures. The tension in the music arises from a comfortable playfulness, rather than uncertainty or power struggle. These are musicians who are confident in their partnership.

Butcher has always come across as more of a reactive player, a listener who is always twisting and turning his puzzle pieces to see how they best fit in the emerging picture.  He’s less convincing as the fiery sax leader, which may be why All But, the latest in Eddie Prévost’s “Meetings with Remarkable Saxophonists” series, seems less assured than The White Spot. Here he seems to be throwing some of his well-tried ideas at a rhythm section that’s not quite sure how to handle him, and though the music is often exciting, it lacks the focus and ambiance of The White Spot. Granted, the blistering, swingin’ sax trio has never featured strongly in Butcher or Prévost’s past, and if All But is an exercise in straining comfort zones, it is certainly in keeping with their adventurous spirit. Butcher is no stranger to beefed-up rhythm sections, but there’s a suggestion of fidelity to some historical notion of the sax trio that maybe makes him uncomfortable, and early in the album when Prévost and bassist Viltard lock into a well-stated groove, Butcher doesn’t seem to bite. He invites some more introspective playing from the others at points in “Part 2,” towards the end unleashing a weird doubling in his sax tone that almost sounds electronic (he hits on a similar effect in “Schoepfiae” on The White Spot, a disorienting, looping feedback that’s like a microphone picking up on its own output over and over). By the time the long “Part 3” gets into the home stretch, the group has developed a workable dynamic, barreling along in free jazz mode.

For all its infectious energy, when listening to All But I actually find myself missing the open space and delicacy found on Butcher’s albums with AMM, particularly Trinity, with Prévost and  pianist John Tilbury. Which brings us to Butcher’s relationship with the piano, and back to At OTO.  Butcher’s very first record was a duo with pianist Chris Burn, though it’s of a much different stripe than Matthew Shipp’s dense, extremely rhythmic style. Much of Butcher’s output with piano focuses on space and resonance, with players who are influenced by Cage and Tilbury. “Fundamental Field” (Shipp’s solo track on At OTO) clearly reaffirms that that’s not Shipp’s bag.  He handles the piano in a direct and simple fashion. He doesn’t manipulate the strings inside, and doesn’t often let notes ring out and decay. It was smart to present solo tracks on At OTO before unveiling the duo. Anticipation becomes the key: how can these two be reconciled?

Because Butcher doesn’t have many extended tones or resonances to interact with, he’s forced to either adopt Shipp’s staccato stream, or to produce his own harmonic haze for Shipp to fire notes through. Both of these approaches actually work quite well, and the long duo “Generative Grammar” is a challenging performance where both players remain allegiant to their preferred modes of improvising while somehow finding the small bit of ground where they overlap. It’s a first meeting that’s untouched by presupposition, the poison pill that got All But off to its shakier start.

In all, these three albums make a good case for Butcher’s stature in today’s improvised scene. Though they play to different strengths and must overcome different sets of problems, in many ways they show the remarkable flexibility and resilience of improvised music, the amazing fact that unique people, instruments, and approaches can always be combined in intriguing, stimulating ways. And though Butcher has a reputation as an intimidating solo performer, these three albums get to the heart of improvisatory practice: human interaction. As Butcher stated in Phil Hopkins’ documentary Amplified Gesture:  “I think if I was only solo playing, I’d have stopped many years ago. There’s got to be the playing with other people that is the drive to continue.”

You can buy it from

© stef

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Outhouse - Straw, Sticks and Bricks (Babel, 2011) ***½

By Joe

If you've never come across the British band 'Outhouse' before, now is the time to get acquainted. This is Outhouse's third record, the first two Outhouse (2008) and Outhouse : Ruhabi (2010) were both classic albums in my humble opinion. I love the mixture of free moments and dark driving grooves that Outhouse seems to specialize in. The band has changed a little over the years with tenor saxophonist Mark Hanslip leaving the band to be replaced by Tom Challenger, however the basic formula both musically and instrumentally has stayed much the same. The group are Robin Fincker/Tom Challenger - Tenor saxes/Clarinets,  Johnny Brierley – bass and Dave Smith – drums. On this latest album they've invited Hilmar Jensson (guitar) to add to their sonic landscape and which to my mind really fits very naturally into the group's sound.    

The groups formula for compositions tends to work well again. Although more or less the same as the previous two albums it has developed and become more refined. The group has a style of 'stop:start' type of melodies. These tend to state a theme which then throw a soloist into a very open space to develop some ideas. Gradually the group moves into an exciting rhythm with the melody lines becoming bass lines, or vice versa. It might look at first view that it's just a formula, but with Outhouse they've developed this into a style that works well. It lets the group move freely between recognizable melodies and very interesting modern improvisations. The group although not 'free' in pure terms is (if you heard them) not unlike 'Human Feel' who also managed to finely manoeuvre between several styles to create a very individual, and eventually, influential sound. 

It would be difficult to pick out any particular track as all the tunes, nine in all, have great moments in them.  Luckily - see below - you can listen to the album via the Loop Collectives website. The structure of the compositions is always looking for ways to fuse the various possibilities of freedom and melody. An example such as Fool (tk3) launches out with a improvised entry from sax and drums. The guitar and the 2nd sax comes in with a sort of rubato melody which little by little dominates the piece. This leads the group into open water, but look out, the music then bursts open with a wonderful rocking (unison) melody before leading towards more angular solos. The piece re-descends into light and gentle improvised sound. Golfo (tk5) uses some of the same ideas but gives a wonderful looping melody that's very cleverly arranged to give a soloist maximum possible inspiration, a little like jumping off the top board at the swimming pool! Many of the pieces use this idea in one way or another and all the themes have great twists and turns both melodically and rhythmically. Kitchen in the Middle (tk1) plays an insistent plodding theme before letting the soloists out like dogs let off their leads.

And of course there's Hilmar Jensson who's guitar adds a new dimension to the music, really giving some serious 'umpf' to the themes when playing in unison. At other times he uses the space created by the group to add floating sounds a small solo ideas, not unlike a 21st century Bill Frisell. A good example of this can be found on Luna Verde (tk4).

All in all this is an excellent record, highly recommended to anyone who's interested to hear how the younger generation in the UK have fused jazz and rock, but also the influences of the UK improv' scene. I can also highly recommend the bands first two albums for further listening.  

Listen to the album, and band here via the Loop Collectives site.   

I should mention this album is from April 2011. I'm not sure how it got into our review pile so late, if you've seen this one around you'll now know it's sort of a deja vu moment.

© stef

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vinny Golia, Marco Eneidi, Lisa Mezzacappa, Vijay Anderson: Hell-Bent in the Pacific (NoBusiness, 2012) ****

By Martin Schray

In Europe you have a lot of national free jazz scenes exchanging experiences, playing together, supporting each other. It started in the late 1960s with Western Germany (Brötzmann, Kowald, Schlippenbach e.g.), Great Britain (Parker, Oxley, Bailey among others) and the Netherlands (Bennink, Mengelberg, Breuker etc.) and over the years scenes in France, Italy, Scandinavia, Poland, even in Portugal, Switzerland and Lithuania and other countries have developed sustainably. If you have a look at the US  almost everything seems to be concentrated in New York, it is still the (free) jazz capital. Peter Evans once told me that there were lots of possibilities to perform, although it was a real shark tank, where many musicians compete for a limited number of gigs. But not everything is centered on the east coast, the west coast, namely Los Angeles and the bay area, has had a vivid scene for many years, too.
Hell-Bent in the Pacific” is a classic, almost old-fashioned free jazz album recorded by some of the west coast’s finest improvisers: Vinny Golia (tenor, sopranino and soprano saxophones; Bb and bass clarinet), Marco Eneidi (alto sax), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), and Vijay Anderson (drums). The tracks are shaped around an axis of track one, six and nine, the only pieces where all the members of the quartet are involved. Especially “Meteorites”, the first track, and “Catholic Comstocking Smut-Hound”, the last one, are like a frame keeping the album together. Both pieces are breathless to some extent, especially the sound of the saxophones is agonizing (you have to get used to it), but the musicianship is absolutely masterful. The other tracks are mainly trios, very often they start as duos and then fray delicately into some sort of reflective chamber music. Also, some of them are deeply rooted in the tradition of Albert Ayler’s and Ornette Colemans groundbreaking recordings (“Spiritual Unity” and “Live at the Golden Circle”). The most interesting tracks are two of these trios: “Prisoner of Gaudy and Unlivable Present” and “Lop-sided Heels and Frayed Shoes”, both delicate and refined pieces, growing, imploding. Golia presents himself in a line that goes back to the great John Coltrane, making a bow to the master’s spirituality.
However, the real sensation are not the leading reed-players Golia and Eneidi, it is the rhythm section. Mezzacappa and Anderson are the engine room that keeps the ship rolling - whether the sea is calm or rough. They do an unexcited job, sometimes rolling, sometimes whispering, always communicating and reliable, “Hell-Bent in the Pacific”, so to say. It seems unbelievable that a Lithuanian label has to put these guys together for the first time.

You can buy it from

© stef

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Liudas Mockūnas & Barry Guy: Lava (NoBusiness, 2012) ****½

By Martin Schray

The man looks a bit like one of these 1980s soccer stars who have gotten long in the tooth somehow. However, he is totally engrossed, the eyes are closed, he silently sings with his instrument. Absolute commitment, total symbiosis. The double bass is between his feet, he rocks and shakes it wildly, he treats it like an electric guitar, no … like a lover, he is dancing with her, stroking her. Watching Barry Guy play for the first time is something you will never forget. He is a legend.

But even if you are Barry Guy releasing a sax-bass-duo record in 2012 you have to compete with lots of other outstanding records with the same instrumentation. Some of them released this year (Pedro Sousas and Hernâni Faustino's Falaise) and some of them your own landmark records (Incision with Evan Parker or Sinners, Rather Than Saints with Mats Gustafsson). Especially with Evan Parker Barry Guy has had a long history of marvelous duo recordings. What is new here is that he has teamed up with the Lithuanian multi-reeds-player Liudas Mockūnas (on soprano, tenor and bass saxophone) for the first time and the result is pure magic again.

Lava is an album about geological forces and phenomena in space, it compares volcanoes with black holes. The first piece, Nebula I, starts really calm but you can already feel that there is something about to erupt, it is seething under the surface, the music is jerky, sax and bass are really hectic, there is a constant up and down. On Nebula II the sax is almost beautiful, but the bass is stirring in the primordial ooze. Nebula III is inevitable: an outbreak, really short, a pure punk piece, out of the blue, tenor and bass puke right into your face, it startles you if you are not prepared. Fumarole (a vent in or near a volcano from which hot gases or steam are emitted) is a percussive piece, deeply growling, dangerous, it closes the first side of the LP.

And Liudas Mockūnas? Especially on bass saxophone he is a unique player and it is obvious that he and Guy make a stupendous team, we are able to look at an energy phenomenon. Event Horizon, the first track on the B-side, literally is this black hole inside which gravity is strong enough to prevent all matter and radiation from escaping. Not the slightest bit of energy is lost, it is in the hole itself (or in the group, and we can listen to it), there is an enormous density between the two players, and you can feel that in Singularity as well, the track is like a rain of meteorites turned into sound. Dark Matter, the last piece, also deals with this question. Is it possible that such a strong unit loses little or no detectable energy? Does it even exist? Listen and become a believer.

The album is released as vinyl only and limited to 300 copies.

You can buy it from

You can watch parts of the concert here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

© stef

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: Hasselt (Psi, 2012) *****

By Martin Schray

In his wonderful book “How they do it” about free jazz, improvisation and electronic music the German author Felix Klopotek claims that this music should not be measured in categories of constantly creating something new but whether it remains open to new musical and artistic developments, whether it is able to integrate new developments and whether it inspires, fuels and challenges new musical discourses. If you combine this idea with Evan Parker’s notion that his music is about constantly exploring known territory towards the margins before you look out at something new and that this is the point where you have to let go and step out to expand your musical territory, then this is what the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble is about.

Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble (EAE) was founded in 1992 and it is the embodiment of both genre and individual history.  It was conceived as an expanded version of his group with Paul Lytton and Barry Guy, but when he founded this trio twelve years earlier, the group itself was an expansion of the Parker/Lytton duo, formed in 1969.

On EAE’s first album “Towards the Margins” (1997) – a programmatic title - each member of the original trio was given a technical/musical partner (Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi, Phil Wachsmann) who would treat his sounds electronically. Challenges arising from the changed acoustic conditions had to be dealt with by improvised means. In the liner notes Prati said about EAE’s philosophy: “If playing electronics simply means “soloing” on ring modulators or synthesizers or samplers, the relationship to conventional instruments is uncontroversial. But if electronics means the transformation of sound, the problem is larger. In the work with Evan, the goal was to realize an electronic instrument capable of capturing the sound of the natural instrument and transforming it through Digital Signal Processors.” This means that EAE members responsible for sound processing can simultaneously decide whether to transform each conventional instrument or to play electronics with material already sampled. On “Drawn Inward” (1999) Lawrence Casserley joined the EAE and he was able to process and transform the inputs of all the other members using pre-recorded stuff as well. Over the next three albums “Memory/Vision” (2003), “The Eleventh Hour” (2005), and “The Moment’s Energy” (2009) the whole thing became more adventurous but also more complicated due to the fact that EAE has grown to 14 members on “Hasselt”.

The band on this album is Peter Evans (trumpets), Ishikawa Ko (sho), Ned Rothenberg (clarinets), Peter van Bergen (clarinets), Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Agusti Fernandez (piano), Barry Guy (double bass), Paul Lytton (percussion, live electronics), FURT (Richard Barrett, live electronics; Paul Obermayer, live electronics), Joel Ryan (sample and signal processing), Walter Prati (live processing, computer processing), Lawrence Casserley (signal processing instrument, percussion, voice), Marco Vecchi (sound processing, sound projection). While the former albums always saw the whole ensemble performing, the first track here, a gloomy introduction of piano, sho and electronic feedback, is played by Ko, Fernandez and Prati; the second one, a brutal and hectic piece, by Guy, van Bergen and FURT, and the third one by Ko, Fernandez, Evans, Lytton and Rothenberg, which is almost a classic free jazz piece. All three tracks are completely improvised and only on the fourth track the whole ensemble is playing using a “sequence of overlapping combinations fixed in advance, each of which played separately the night before”, as Parker puts it in the liner notes. It is awe-inspiring to see the group grow on one album from a trio to full ensemble - some kind of ensemble history in a nutshell. And no matter what line-up we are listening to - the music is fascinating – it is diverse and the musicianship is simply great. The musicians are piling up layer after layer of sounds, and although the musical atmosphere created is hard and sometimes even grinding, you can feel a beauty underneath based on communication and imagination.

Highly recommended.

You can buy it from

© stef

Friday, October 19, 2012

David S. Ware

The editorial team of Free Jazz Collective share in the sad news that saxophonist David S. Ware passed away last night from complications of his 2009 kidney transplant. Ware has been a guiding light in the free music universe and his loss will be felt.

More information can be found on the AUM Fidelity web site.

Below are some of the recent words that have been written here about Ware's inspiring body of music... 

Aug 12, 2012
With the first sound of David S. Ware's saxophone you can see it coming. It seems to be far out in the sea but it is there. You know it, you hear it, you feel it. You can watch the waves mount up, towering. 

Mar 01, 2010
No need to introduce David S. Ware, nor to re-emphasize my appreciation for his music and his skills. Recovered from a kidney transplant, this solo recording is part of his "thank you" to the people who made this possible ...

Jul 24, 2011
It is no doubt the best David S. Ware album in years, sounding like a kind of home-coming, a very warm and coherent album, with a spiritual and mystic touch, yet also very abstract in nature, fully improvised ...

Sep 09, 2011
David S Ware - A World Of Sound. The David Lynch Foundation Television released a short documentary on saxophonist David S. Ware. You can watch the video here. You can watch a short introduction below...

Ware's last recording, Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 (AUM Fidelity), documents his final live performance. "Precessional 3" is the closing track from that release.

© stef

Jason Robinson - Tiresian Symmetry (Cuneiform Records, 2012) ****

By Paul Acquaro

The mythology of the blind soothsayer Tiresias, expressed in numerical relationships, undergirds the compositions in Jason Robinson's Tiresian Symmetry. However, I must admit I've paid less attention to this aspect than the music, which is delightfully rife with clever melodic passages, rich harmonies, vibrant rhythms and fantastic playing.

'Stratum 3' kicks off the album with propulsive exchanges between the horns, drums and bass creating a jaunty foundation for the sax to build on, while the guitar adds a slight shimmer with well placed comping. Another fine moment is when the bass clarinet rises out of the mix on 'Tiresian Symmetry', soon joined by the sax and guitar spinning out angular patterns, it becomes an uptempo whirl of voices that soon breaks into a bass solo and free improv section. The rhythms and intertwining melodic lines emerge and grow like musical kudzoo, quickly taking over the sonic landscape.

Joining Robinson's tenor sax, alto flute, and soprano sax is JD Parran playing alto clarinet, contra bass clarinet, tenor sax, Marty Ehrlich on alto sax, bass clarinet, flute, Marcus Rojas on tuba, and Bill Lowe providing tuba, bass trombone. The rhythm section is fleshed out with Liberty Ellman on guitar, Drew Gress playing bass, and George Schuller and Ches Smith on drums.

From tiny interactions to big melodic statements and harmonic developments, the playing swings from being fierce and raucous, to mere moments later, hushed and spacious (I'm thinking about the opening of 'Radiate' which features the guitar prominently and the beautiful free intro to 'Saros' that suddenly erupts rhythmically).

The aforementioned mythology guiding this recording, which I summarily ignored, can be explored better on this site, and the video below also contains a detailed explanation. Regardless, the music is dense but light, heavy but open, and invitingly accessible. A solid listen through and through.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Peter Brötzmann & Jason Adasiewicz: Going All Fancy (BRÖ/eremite, 2012) ****½

By Martin Schray

Right now I am totally excited and enthusiastic. I just saw Peter Brötzmann performing solo in the vaulted cellars at the Center for Jewish Studies under Heidelberg’s old quarter. The room created a special reverberating sound, as if a giant was standing in the back of the location with his mouth open echoing Brötzmann’s notes. The concert was dedicated to John Tchicai, who passed away two days before, and you could feel that Brötzmann was touched by his death.

After the concert there was a merchandising table, which is where I bought this album that Brötzmann sells at live gigs and via eremite only. Now I am on my way home and I am listening to it, it is a perfect extension of the live experience I just had.

Brötzmann has recorded hundreds of albums but he has never released a duo with a vibraphonist before, so even for him this is something really new. Jason Adasiewicz (vib) provides him with a great variety of sound carpets to walk over. On the one hand his vibraphone can sound like musical glasses, which reminds you of an imaginary music of the planets. However, Adasiewicz can also play fragments of rock or techno trance riffs or he can make this instrument sound like steel strings (I know it sounds weird, but it is true). In general there is a strange beauty to his playing as if you were standing behind a waterfall of single notes. When he is soloing you can also hear the influence of Asian music, children’s lullabies and – of course – Milt Jackson.

And Brötzmann sounds as if he was swimming in a fountain of youth. “Going All Fancy” and Swinging to the Leaf” are free jazz services, Brötzmann cries out his desperation and anger to heaven about what is wrong in this world, waiting for the clouds to open up giving him whatever kind of sign – even if he knows that it is futile. “Left Luggage” is the typical mournful blues, there is an ultimate, deep sadness to it at the beginning. Later it gets so tense that you can hardly stand it, but then he lets out the Albert Ayler beast. 

The whole album is an acoustic antagonism: the world is beautiful, there is pantheism, even man has created wonderful things, but the social and economic circumstances under which we live make you furious.

It is late at night in the meantime. I am looking back at the concert, being glad that I could live to see something like this. The stars are out tonight, winter is coming … I am looking forward to it, listening to Brötzmann/Adasiewicz.

Get an impression of the music here: 

You can buy it from the label:

© stef

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Eli Keszler - Catching Net (PAN, 2012) ****½

By Paolo Casertano

“I didn’t know you were into tribal stuff now …” This is what my wife told me peeping into the room where I was listening to the record mentioned above. Actually, she’s not properly my wife, but we live together and we share a lovely kid. What I don’t want to share with her is my record collection.

There was in any case some truth in her remark. Reading from Eli Keszler’s website we learn about this release what follows. Catching Net is a two-disc collection of selected installations and compositions the artist created during the last two years. It includes both stand-alone recordings of the installations and the integrated ensemble scores performed in conjunction with those. We find, on disc one, two ensemble versions of Cold Pin, a superb percussion composition resulting from a technological installation that had been previously released on vinyl in 2011, plus a 26 minutes long excursus given by the mix of several live ensemble recordings of such a work. To be more accurate, the installation going under the name of Cold Pin features 14 strings and piano wires of various lengths strung and stretched along a wall and struck (I imagine maybe with different intensity) by micro-controlled motorized beaters. Come on! Help me please and watch this video!

The result is a self sufficient musical universe that can be enhanced by the live performance of a varying ensemble that numbers, in this case, Eli Keszler on drums, percussion, crotales and guitar, Ashley Paul on alto saxophone and bass harp,  Geoff Mullen on prepared guitar,  Greg Kelley on trumpet,  Reuben Son on bassoon and Benny Nelson on cello.

Especially the long live act gives us back all the sound gradations and the stylistic undertones that constitute Keszler’s musical vision and approach. Percussive clusters, jarring resonances, scraped cymbals emitting drilling whistles and harmonically complex tones interact and merge in an archaic maelstrom of paths to follows in the dark, bursts of light, death and life. My involvement during the listening is more epidermal than aural. That’s why in some way I understood the definition of “tribal”. This music is timeless and boundless to me. I can imagine it playing both as an hidden soundtrack during the rush hour on a NYC subway and as a far echo coming from a bonfire in the Gobi desert at night. It’s tribal because it sounds as our lives sound. It’s tribal because it has the urgency and unavoidability of the mechanism of life itself.

The second part of the work begins with Catching Net, a 17 minute score for string quartet and piano performed by pianist Sakiko Mori and the Providence String Quartet to be played in conjunction with the Cold Pin installation. Then we find two recordings of Keszler’s large-scale installations functioning on their own. One is a solo version of Cold Pin without live performers. The other is Collecting Basin which features piano strings/wires splayed from a water tower in Louisiana across two large empty basins acting as amplifiers for the installation. Imagine a drunk and immense double bass playing a stunning perpetual low chord. I’m the kind of person who can be motionless and enraptured for hours “seeing” live such a sound.

Packaging offers besides an extensive selection of images and sketches of the installations, program notes, electronic schematics from the projects and drawings by the artist himself.

This is what Keszler’s music also makes me think. As John Cage reported more than once in his writings, when you enter in an anechoic chamber - a specially designed room to stop and absorb reflections of either sounds or electromagnetic waves both from inner or exterior sources - you will not find in any case total silence. You are going instead to hear two different noises. First is a low uninterrupted tone. That’s the flux of your blood. Second is a sharp recurring pitch. That’s your nervous system at work. We could summarize saying that sound is inside you, something you cannot completely get rid of. Something that has always been there, that you can maybe cut out of your attention but that sooner or later will emerge to take a coherent shape. In my opinion this is what happen as well in the Eli Keszler’s music conception.

I was about to give a five stars rating, but this is in any case a collection of already released stuff. So, I promise that the missing half star will be added to the next, I’m sure even more challenging, Keszler’s release. Per aspera ad astra

I was there overflowing while thinking this thoughts when I felt the need to listen to Mats Gustafsson “Needs!” album.

“Is our washing machine broken?” She came and asked. I will not marry her.

Listen if you want.

Buy if you like.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bobby Bradford, Frode Gjerstad, Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten, Paal Nilssen-Love – Kampen (NoBusiness, 2012) ****

By Martin Schray

Sometimes there are weird coincidences. When we got new albums on our review list recently, many of them included reminiscences of the golden jazz eras in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Rob Mazurek’s Pulsar Quartet sometimes sounds like the seminal Miles Davis Quintet, Sam Rivers’ trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul brings back memories of his RivBea studio days, Michael Blake taps the great jazz-rock bands of the 70s, Joe McPhee’s plays “Naima” and “Round Midnight” on two new reissues, and even Wadada Leo Smith and Louis Moholo-Moholo salute the great Ancestors. Finally, west-coast-legend Bobby Bradford’s new album reminds one of the landmark Ornette Coleman Quartet with Don Cherry, Scott LaFaro and Ed Blackwell.

Somehow a circuit is complete here because Bradford has had a long history with Coleman. In 1953 he met him in Los Angeles and they played together and worked out some revolutionary notions for something completely new, but before any recordings were made, Bradford was drafted into the Air Force. Don Cherry took his place in Coleman's group, and it was Cherry who left his marks on The Shape of Jazz to Come and This Is Our Music. Then Bradford rejoined Coleman's group in 1961, a period during which the group did not record and performed publicly infrequently. Only in the early 1970s and 80s he appeared on Coleman’s Science Fiction and Broken Shadows.

On Kampen, which features 78-year-old Bradford on cornet, Frode Gjerstad on sax and clarinet, Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten on bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, he seems to revive the music of Coleman’s band with new combatants. There are marvelous moments when Bradford and Gjerstad soar backed up by one of Europe’s best rhythm groups (you will be surprised if you only know them from The Thing). Cornet and sax/clarinet pick up each other’s tunes and build upon them, mutually they are lighting up sparklers. Hardly ever have I heard musicians listening so closely to one another. Gjerstad once said that Bradford is “always trying to make him sound good” and that “he draws you into his music”. Fortunately, the band likes being in this territory. It is a wonderland bursting from elegant solos, you can find military march quotations and hardbop riffs played in unison, there is a deep knowledge about the history of jazz.

You feel like listening to a visionary band which is trying to blend Free Jazz with the original idea of  Dixieland, the music swings (yes!) and it is totally open, freely improvised, harsh, and tender at the same time. The more you listen to it, the more details you find and the more you’ll like it. Shake on it!

The album is released on vinyl only and limited to 300 copies only.

You can buy the album from 

© stef

Monday, October 15, 2012

Oren Ambarchi/Jim O’Rourke/Keiji Haino: Imikuzushi (Black Truffle, 2012) ***

By Sam

An album like Imikuzushi by the trio Keiji Haino (guitar and vocals), Jim O'Rourke (bass), and Oren Ambarchi (drums) makes me wonder what, exactly, I value in noise improvisation. Forget jazz. This hardly resembles that genre anymore. It may borrow from free improvisation, but it just as equally borrows from psychedelic rock and the more daring fringes of Krautrock. The O'Rourke/Ambarchi rhythm section, that is, keeps mostly steady, sounding much closer to these latter rock experimenters than to anything in the realms of free jazz or free improvisation. And, ultimately, they're practically incidental to the "front man." Yes, although this record is billed to all three, it sounds like a Keiji Haino album through and through. His vocals and guitar dominate the mix and the jam structures.

So why does this music make me reflect on the hybrid genre of noise rock / free improvisation? The answer in part lies in the relative mediocrity of this record. The playing here puts into perspective what makes the truly outstanding recordings in this "style" genuinely excellent. To clarify, I would point to two distinct aspect of the music, what I will call direction and texture. By direction I mean not so much rhythmic propulsion as some sense of gravitational heft to the playing that feels like it's "moving" somewhere. It needn't be a definable beat; but it has to have "pull." By texture I mean the exploration of the potential for sound that any given instrument offers. This texture is independent of notes, and the inspired improviser will constantly remind us of the materiality of his or her instrument (even the voice) by pushing it to extremes or subtly testing its boundaries. No single recording has to avail itself of both of these aspects. Fully mining the potential of one is sufficient to make engaging music. Most free improvisation lacks direction, and that’s fine. Most straight jazz or even free jazz in the classic Fire-music vein lacks texture—and that’s okay, too. Each approach makes up for that lack in transformations and surprises that open up their respective sphere of sonic exploration.

Imikuzushi does not satisfy as a record with direction—and that would be fine, except that it is so firmly rooted in the rhythm section. In the best moments (the second half of the final jam) it benefits greatly from an inventive interplay of rhythm section and lead (guitar/vocals), but for the most part Ambarchi and O'Rourke disappoint. They too easily fall into a monotonous, relentless pounding that lacks direction, variation, and dynamics.

This weakness is in part counterbalanced by Haino's textured exploration of the guitar (and to a lesser extent vocals). He does here what he has always done well, which is to extract his distinctive banshee-wail skronk in complex layerings. But he also varies his sound considerably over the hour-plus live recording, ranging from abrasive slices of sustained noise to softer tremolo strums to splotches of notes fed through various effects pedals. Most of the best moments of the record, that is, showcase Haino's uncompromising technique.

The problem is that these are only exciting moments, and Haino plays for 10-plus minutes straight (sometimes longer) on each of the album's four tracks. Here, at least, he is unable to sustain interest for that long. Add to that the rather lackluster rhythm section. Haino's skronkery in this context feels like it has been coopted by a psych-jam practice session. And that, in the final analysis, is why the record is only mildly stimulating.

To be fair: the album is hardly bad; indeed, I would say it is good, just not very good. At its best, it is excellent, such as its final ten minutes, when O'Rourke's bass comes to the fore and commands real presence. Ambarchi seems to sense the new urgency, and Haino calms down. His plaintive vocals and short outbursts become chilling. It's too bad it takes an hour for the trio to reach this level of musical cohesion.

© stef

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Michael Blake - In the Grand Scheme of Things (Songlines 2012) ***½

Posted by Joe

Michael Blake is often classed on websites as avant-garde, although to this day I've never really understood why? His early associations with the Lounge Lizards seem to have set up a precedent which follows him around. In my view Blake is better classed as 'left-field', looking at jazz from a very different angle compared to the average mainstream jazz performers coming from the states. However, Michael Blake's music isn't what you call avant-garde, it's very accessible and often melodic in content. His releases 'Right before your very ears' and 'Control this' on the avant-garde label Clean Feed are often very melodic even in there wildest moments.

On 'In the Grand Scheme of Things' Michael Blake again comes up with another multi-faceted 'Blake-ish' offering, something that doesn't really sit in any particular basket (*), and probably one reason he's not better known in the jazz world. As with his wonderful Blake's Tartar Michael Blake covers a lot of territory. The album is an attractive mix of rock, jazz, semi-free, gospel and electronica, bringing several directions together musically. A tune such as 'Willie (the lonely cowboy)' hovers over a lovely melody, gradually sliding into an out of tempo (rubato) improvisation. This develops organically with the soloists leading the ensemble. On the other hand there's 'Cybermonk' a swinging tune which could of come from his tribute album to Lucky Thompson. Another facet heard on the album is 'The Searchers', a long piece which stretches out to develop interesting atmospheres, melodies and solos. The last half of the album really moves into open space territory. The themes 'A View of Oblivion' and 'Freedom from Exile' are very strong pieces using the possibilities created by the electronica present of a Moog, keyboards and JP Carter's processed trumpet. The melody and development of 'Cordial Drive' particularly caught my ears as it conjures up an almost modern Bitches Brew musicality. The one track (last but one) that again falls outside the rest of the album is 'Treat her right', an old chestnut which became a hit for Otis Redding (among others) which is played with much respect. 

Michael Blake has assembled an interesting group around him known as the Variety Hour 4tet. Two of the musicians Dylan van der Schyff (drums) and JP Carter (trumpet and electronics) have often popped up on our blog, the third Chris Gestrin (keyboards) I know less well. All three are perfectly in tune with Michael Blake's music - Gestrin and Van der Schyff have already played with Michael Blake (check the above musicians links on this blog). Looking at the musicians (above) you'll probably notice the group doesn't have a bass player. So, much of the bass qualities are created by Chris Gestrin using a Moog synthesiser combined with his keyboards. This creates some fine 'spacy' sounds which float round in the pieces and at the same time manage to anchor down the chords/harmonic progressions. The other very important ingredient in the groups musical palette is JP Carter. 'JP' rarely plays any direct solos, but uses his trumpet/electronic set-up to create floating lines that either shadow Blake's own voice, or create (as we say in the jazz trade) 'guide tones' which give the colour of the harmony.

An excellent record and very clever (very creative) in it's use of electronica.          

* = Concerning Michael Blake's multi faceted musical style(s). Some more reviews on our blog here, and another Amor de Cosmos reviewed on this blog several years back. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Holus Bolus - Pine Barrens (Prom Night, 2012) ****

By Paul Acquaro

When I first heard about the album, Pine Barrens, I was intrigued. A press release came out indicating that Holus Bolus leader, woodwind player and composer Josh Sinton, would be releasing the album on his own via his website. I decided to follow the albums' release, but soon found the experience a little tricky. So, I'm quite happy that he also released through the internet only label Prom Night, because otherwise, attributable only to my own need of having the whole album, artwork and all, in my possession, I could have missed out on this excellent and idiosyncratic album.

Working with Sinton is cast of NYC based musicians that have often graced the pages of the Free Jazz Blog: Jon Irabagon on alto, tenor and sopranino saxes, Mike Pride on drums and vibraphone, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar and Peter Bitnec on bass. Sinton plays baritone sax, and bass clarinet. The group's interplay and the contrasts between the two woodwind instruments in the compositions are really attractive.

Pine Barrens begins softly with "Through the Trees I Saw Stone Caves on a Beach I". Built primarily from repetitive motifs, it is a minimalist tone poem invoking the feelings of faded and poignant memories. In fact, the imagery of the tunes are explained in essays about the music which appear on Sinton's website. In the writings, he relates how the music references periods of his life between growing up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, family vacations in California, and deeper familial relationships.

The second song, "Water for my Father" takes on a more ominous tone. Working with legato phrases and darker hues, the sonic imagery deepens. Sinton's bass clarinet and Irabagon's sax interplay is perfect and leads seamlessly to the primal scream that develops towards the end of the song. 'Deeper in the Woods Than You' begins as a sort of post-bop/avant-rock song, and it's where we begin to get a taste of Goldberger's guitar work. Creating textures behind the tension building head, he bursts forth with a quick solo that effectively reference bop, rock and skronk at the same time. It's not all turmoil however, 'My Clarinet Teacher' offers a great solo over counterpoint between the guitar and bass clarinet. 'Star Fuckers' is a deliciously spacious and diffuse tune that reminded of certain early fusion excursions. 

The recording is an unusual mix of styles and it works together in an unusual way. I'm happy to have this album land in whole in my MP3 player. It's quite worth a listen:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Elephant9 with Reine Fiske - Atlantis (Rune Grammofon, 2012) ****

A few weeks ago I caught up with some slightly older releases, finally getting to Elephant9's 2011 release Live at the BBC. Upon posting, I had no idea that this new studio album was dropping, and like a sudden blast of refreshing Nordic air, the latest Elephant9 made an unexpected and most welcome arrival.

However, before I go any further, I cannot help but ask the question: How can you make a good thing, like Live at the BBC, even better? 

It seems that if you're Elephant9 and have had a good run of albums mining the early canon of jazz-rock, notably Weather Report and Bitches Brew era Miles Davis, the answer, it seems, is by adding Swedish guitarist Reine Fiske to the mix and amping up the intensity. 

'Black Hole' kicks off the album with a short staccato burst of percussion and then a full bodily plunge into driving rhythm and heavy Hammond organ. It seems to a signal a new darker and more powerful musical attitude. A tense energy builds in the tunes, leveling the ground around them and building a new coruscating landscape. 

When it comes to the added guitarist, Fiske is as much a texturist as a soloist. He's shaping sounds, he's blending into and thickening the melodies and harmonies, and he's adding arching solo passages. Even on the more ephemeral atmosphere of the introduction to 'The Riddler' and the title track 'Atlantis', he blends seamlessly with Ståle Storløkken's keyboards, coloring and accentuating. His guitar has quickly become an integral voice in the group. 

Overall, the sound of this recording seems a bit heavier and at the same time bit more spacious than the earlier two albums, which was a direction hinted at on the live album. Nikolai Eilertsen's bass lines and Torstein Lofthus' drum work are as solid as ever and Storløkken's keyboards cover a huge sonic range. Well into prog-rock territory but still deeply rooted in jazz improvisation, the songs are not so much mind-blowing intricately assembled odd-metered vignettes, but bedrock for the textures and improvisations on top. Atlantis is a welcome addition to the Elephant9 discography. 

© stef

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Iceberg Quartet - The Iceberg Quartet (FMR Records, 2012) ****½

Paul Dunmall is a true master on this recording. I could stop the review there but it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the quartet who also bring everything they have to this fantastic album.

What starts out as a tentative intro, with each player softly feeling out the mood, quickly explodes with Dunmall leading the charge. On the first and longest track, 'An Uncommon Alacrity', Sam Wooster (trumpet), Chris Mapp (bass), and Mark Sanders (drums) provide the canvas for Dunmall's sax to weave its needle and string around in order to quilt together and amazingly colorful free jazz blanket.

The track seems to reach its boiling point halfway through. It leaves the listener wondering where it could possibly go from here. Instead of pushing the bandwidth even further, the group allows Wooster to play over the bass and drums as Dunmall drops out. Soon Mapp is solo and they have managed to get us right back to how the track started. The is more tentative blowing and plucking, and tapping before Dunmall comes back in to keep it all together. Sanders does a great job in letting the whole thing simmer without forcing the tempo, but is clearly up to the task of keeping up and adding his own color when the track breaks again under its own tension. Wooster forcefully leads the charge during the second half of the track. 

With as much talk of extended technique as there has been lately, this type of a jazz gathering is some what of a relief. Four men doing what they do exceptionally well, that's it.

Track 2, 'Antarctic Hot Day', has trumpet and sax playing each other's faces with Mapp providing a bowed bass carpet underfoot for Dunmall and Wooster to stomp on. They really are something to listen to on this track. The collective experience needed to make this work is truly inspiring.

But there are rumblings, loud rumblings that could only mean that the iceberg has separated from the glacier and is headed south. Dunmall gives us the signal as the the final track 'Cold Approach' begins. There is a wandering and a searching between Dunmall and Mapp but the iceberg soon picks up speed as the rest of the quartet help with the propulsion. The track then simply soars. 

I hit play again immediately after the last note rang out.

Can be purchased from the label. 

Get a good look at them work here:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Thomas Heberer's Clarino - Cookbook (Red Toucan, 2012) *****

By Stef

Last year I was really impressed by Thomas Heberer's Clarino's debut album "Klippe", with the leader on trumpet and quartertone trumpet, Joachim Badenhorst on clarinets and Pascal Niggenkemper on bass.

Badenhorst and Niggenkemper got acquainted with Heberer's own notation system for composed improvisation, and now that the effort was made, and the first hurdle taken, why not explore further. It was rather a story of enthusiasm : the collaboration and the end result worked so well that Heberer composed some more pieces for the trio. And the result is even more staggeringly beautiful.

The setting is intimate, calm chamber-jazz, with instruments that play mostly in their usual voicings, making the overall sound very accessible. Yet, in contrast to most chamber music, all three musicians are quite expansive emotionally, pushing their sounds in expressions of deep feelings. And then there are the compositions. Each track has its own concept and returning phrases, echoes and counterpoints, as ingredients with which the tune is played. To the credit of the both composer and musicians, the ingredients are light and sparse and used to give their full flavour rather than a complex broth of conflicting tastes.

The end result is extremely beautiful, with songs to be moved, to wonder at, to be surprised, to be impressed.

At the same time it eludes definition, it defies classification or even references, which is one of the reasons why it took me so long to review it. I've been listening to the album with pleasure and repeated anticipation for months, trying to find ways to capture its essence in words. It just doesn't work. It's not possible. So apologies for that. I can only recommend that you listen to it for yourself.

Elusive, fragile, clever, subtle, abstract, lyrical ...

You can listen to some excerpts on Heberer's website.

You can buy the album from