Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Jessica Jones & Connie Crothers – Live at the Freight (New Artists Records, 2013) *****

By Brian Questa

This was one of the most delightful musical suprises I’ve ever come across. I expected exceptional playing, but I wasn’t expecting such a kick in the face. (A pleasant kick in the face.) That’s exactly what I got – some of the most sobering jazz improvisation on record. This is a noble addition to the great jazz duos in the history –Jim Hall and Bill Evans, Ellington and Blanton, Horace Parlan and Archie Shepp, to name my favorites. Jessica Jones and Connie Crothers’ effort, Live at the Freight, is every bit as memorable as the aformentioned duos, and every bit as worthy. I promise you, I cannot think of a better example of a performance so grounded in the jazz tradition, and yet so effortlessly unbounded. The tunes on this album are free improvisations, and the free improvisations are tunes.

Connie Crothers is a master pianist, unrivaled in the scene today. Her fearless playing, with its risks and endless directions, can leave one breathless. I get the distinct perception - only possible from a handful of players in history - that she is truly improvising at every single moment, responding to the input from Jessica Jones, the exigencies of the moment, and her own musical motives, unanimously. To Jones' smooth bluesy phrasing, Crothers sometimes plays the obliging accompanist - other times, the devil’s advocate. Pushing and pulling between the blues and the upper extensions of the now, Jones’ tendency is to blend, like the harmonization of instrumental tone itself, as she becomes the third hand at Connie Crothers’ piano.

Years into the future, this album will continue to present information to its listeners. Each track is filled with a wealth of knowledge and command. It can be a difficult experience to hear the entire album in one sitting: the thoughts brewed in me from a single track last for days. One must prepare for this one. Here is an album you may not discover on a "greatest hits" list for albums of 2014 from your typical jazz blog - for that very reason, you’re going to want to hear this.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paul Smoker ... and Phil Haynes

By Stef 

Trumpeter Paul Smoker is always a joy to hear. Somewhat underrecorded in my opinion, his playing and his sound holds the perfect middle between tradition and avant-garde, between power and sophistication, between accessibility and adventure. Drummer Phil Haynes also has more than 65 albums on his discography, having played with greats such as Dave Liebman, Ellery Eskelin, Dave Douglas, Mark Dresser, Vinny Golia or Herb Robertson, all musicians with superb technical skills, and it's no mystery they chose Haynes to perform with. And obviously Smoker and Haynes performed together too, as is testified here. 


Paul Smoker & Phil Haynes - It Might Be Spring (Alvas, 2013) ****


Trumpeter Paul Smoker and drummer Phil Haynes have performed and recorded a lot together. So much so, that Smoker is the trumpeter in Haynes' bands and Haynes is the drummer in Smoker's. Here we get them in a wonderful duo album, recorded live in 2011 in Buffalo, New York. 

They bring us some common repertoire, as in "Beverly" (from "Large Music 1"), "Kami Sue" and "See How They Run" (from "Cool Lives"), all welcome pieces because known and performed with gusto and joy. One track "Spring Drops" was penned by Haynes, they have a long improvised piece, called "Some Blues, Man", and then they treat the audience, and us, to their own personal and idiosyncratic versions of some standards, such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Summertime". And if you think these great compositions have been played to death already, think again, because despite - or thanks to - the limited line-up, they infuse the standards with a new sense of drama and dynamics, and true moments of fun. 

There is lots to be enjoyed here, and lots to be impressed by. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Paul Smoker Notet - Landings (Alvas, 2013) ***½


I loved this band's "Cool Lives" tremendously, especially it's modern take on jazz without relinquishing tradition, amplified by its often adventurous openness to structural development ot the themes. The band, now reinforced with Drew Gress on bass, goes on in the same vein. The other members of the Notet are Paul Smoker on trumpet, Steve Salerno on guitar, and Phil Haynes on drums.

The playing is as good as on the previous album, the overall tone remains intense and precise, rather than loud or wild, and even if two two of the compositions are identical ("Evan's Room" and "See How They Run"), the addition of the bass adds more warmth and structure, including some broader emotional power in the quiter moments, as when he's playing arco on "Ethereal", a composition also to be found on the band's "Live At The Bop Shop".

And that makes this album maybe "just good". The playing is good, the music is good, the interaction is good, as are the variation, the inventiveness, the sound, the sensitivity and the sense of adventure, but it is a little bit more of the same, good enough, and highly enjoyable, yet only three of the seven compositions are new, albeit with a slightly different line-up.

Listen and download from Bandcamp





Monday, April 28, 2014

Keir Neuringer - Ceremonies Out Of The Air (New Atlantis Records, 2014) ***

By Stefan Wood

Ceremonies Out of the Air is an album by Philadelphia artist Keir Neuringer.  It is an ambitious, 79 minute solo effort, showcasing Neuringer's command of the saxophone.  This work was recorded last year, five months after the artist's mother's passing, before an audience inside a local church.  The music is deeply spiritual and personal, a herculean effort of circular breathing and expression -- three of the album's five tracks are over 17 minutes long, and none are shorter than 9 minutes.

The opening track, "okay we can go now," is a sustained note that is hypnotic, reminding one of Tibetan throat singing.  The next track, and the best, "Japanese Maples," Neuringer varies his sound, almost an ululation, but it is a bit more controlled than outright grieving, moving from loud to almost silence, changing notes frequent to making subtle switches.  It is a powerful work.  "i dreamt there was nothing wrong with my chemistry," pulsates like blood moving through veins, working from a set group of notes, making slight changes to tone and rhythm, all while sustaining it for over ten minutes.  "Dogwood Circle" does what the title says, sounds looping round and round, slowly decreasing until you hear him just hitting the keys.  The closing track, "we had mostly good times," is perhaps the most poignant of the album, drawing from the rich tradition of spiritual jazz from Dolphy to Ayler and onwards, to express love and loss.

Emotionally, Ceremonies is very moving, yet taken at the surface level, without knowing the personal story, the listener may find it to be an endurance test.  Neuringer succeeds in tracks like "Japanese Maples" and "we mostly had good times"  because the playing allows one to follow a structure, and hear it evolve, reshape, deteriorate that tells a story, where others come across as being too obtuse.  What stands out, knowing or not knowing, is Neuringer's playing, which shows tremendous range, emotion, sensitivity, and intellect.  Recommended.



Sunday, April 27, 2014

Whirlpool - This World and One More (self released, 2014) ****


There is a certain duality to Chicago’s Whirlpool debut album “This World and One More”. The trio, featuring an accomplished and eclectic cast of saxophonist Caroline Davis, guitarist Jeff Swanson, and drummer Charles Rumback, creates music that is highly engaging and intellectually satisfying on the one hand and laid-back and melodic on the other.

By being complex enough to be savored while focusing completely on the music and by possessing the qualities that make it enjoyable to listen to as background music, this record breaks several stereotypes. Whirlpool shows that there is no truth to the idea that a modern creative jazz record cannot be both sophisticated and accessible at the same time. Whilst “This World and One More” can be listened in the background, the listener will need to provide their full attention to entirely grasp the level of understanding between the musicians and the wonderful nuances present in the music.

Whirlpool’s style angles more towards the slower side of modern creative jazz, but remains dynamic throughout nonetheless. The sound of the trio is vibrant, mostly consisting of calming and soothing passages with several very appropriately placed energetic and lively segments. There is a sense of flow to the music which evokes images of a slowly moving river... fluid, quiet and powerful. Not a single note is out of place and the way the musicians meticulously build each song from lone sounds, so sparse and yet so cohesive, is impressive. Especially worth mentioning is the nice interplay between the saxophone and the guitar, two harmonically rich and complementary instruments.

The very first song, “Freedom Waves Flotilla”, already sets the pace and general mood that will carry the whole album. An interesting composition that is introspective in its mood and very sonically pleasing. The album continues with “Dreamliner” and “Raysh and Jonah”, two dreamy, saxophone driven pieces which are both minimalist and lush in their approach. But there is also energy on this album as proven by “Dragons in Denver”, a longer, standout song which contains energetic parts, intricate patterns, and humming, atmospheric bass lines. The remaining five songs stay true to this formula with no lesser or filler material played.

Of course, this is not a revolutionary record that would challenge the confines and rules of the genre, and yet it is hard not to recommend it since the music presented here is so sublime and enjoyable. Give it a spin, analyze each detail and each played tone or just relax and get lost in the music. Either way you choose to hear it, “This World and One More” is a delightful album.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Nels Cline Singers - Macroscope (Mack Avenue, 2014) ****

Deep Listening Weekend
By Filip 'Booka' Bukrshliev

Nels Cline and especially The Nels Cline Singers are hard to pin-point to a certain genre. In fact they are like 13 different musical styles happening at the same time. Maybe that’s why people tend to put them in the jazz corner. The more I delve into the Nels Cline musical universe the more I realize that he is by no means a jazz guitarist … but I know I speak in everyone’s name here when I say that we’re more than honored to welcome Nels Cline and his Singers in the jazz corner.

Besides all that wide range and genre-hopping madness, The Nels Cline Singers albums are all about continuity. I always perceived them like the focal point for everything that is Nels Cline, all of his musical incarnations put together in one pot. So, to those who paid attention to Nels Cline in the past few years, Macroscope should come with no surprises, as in fact – Macroscope is the most logical continuation of the Nels Cline Singers discography, as a brilliant refinement of what was presented on 2010’s Initiate. And yet again – Macroscope is all about surprises! To be more perplexing – The Nels Cline Singers on Macroscope devise a pattern of continuous surprise, where they get you almost too easy.

The only way to explain that brilliance is to go along with a few tracks, no matter the fact that I despise the “track by track” reviews. Take for instance the first track “A Companion Piece”. It starts slowly, with swelling guitar textures, a calm but somewhat mysterious Bill Frisell-ish atmosphere. You gladly kick into the mellow groove, it’s all around you. And then, just when you’ve realized that you could do this all day, the Singers go behind your back and turn the tune into a massive blow-out, with Nels Cline riding a huge solo as only he knows how to, rolling the song downhill with no breaks. A pure adrenaline rush, and the surprise element is unparalleled.

Then we have “The Wedding Band”. It starts with some joyous percussion, which initiates different textures to gradually form a very ecstatic festive atmosphere. The trio then concludes that momentum in rich style, you get something like a chorus, with grand harmony and a beautiful slide-ish guitar sound, and just when you start to think this song will finish like an Oscar winning motion picture – the Singers launch the song into deep space. I mean literally, that’s the only way to explain that part – the sound of a spaceship launching into the unknown.

Another notable surprise at the end of the album is the song “Hairy Mother”. At the beginning they come at you with some proto-punk / industrial “huge drums pounding”, just to suddenly change the context as the guitar enters, which eventually will turn the song into fuzzy garage riff-fest. Definitely the most “rocking” number in the Singers’ catalogue.

That surprise pattern is presented on every track on Macroscope. The Singers mastered the play with context almost to perfection, although there was a last minute change in the trio’s line-up  (Trevor Dunn on bass instead of Devin Hoff) they have never sounded so natural and at ease. They had some forced elements at the previous albums but all that impurities are gone now. Even the track “Red Before Orange” which is essentially a youtube jazz guitar backing track with Nels Cline soloing over, in the context of the album, reaches out with something to say. As all the Singers albums there is a big palette of guests on every track, who augment the background with all the different textures, making this the most complete album in the Singers discography.

From all the guitarists in the world Nels Cline deserved bigger recognition the most. I’m glad that Wilco enabled him that. He’s a really unique voice on the guitar, and with his unusual guitar upbringing - at all time he offers the listener a different perspective to the way guitar should played. Macroscope will please his old and new listeners.

Highly recommended!


The Nels Cline Singers: Macroscope (Mack Avenue, 2014)


My pal Peter is a free jazz fan, a real aficionado, he can never get enough of this music, and he also admires Frank Zappa. So I thought the new Nels Cline Singers album might be interesting for him. When we met lately he said that he almost always likes my recommendations but that he can’t do anything with this album, that it was neither fish nor flesh, it was too inconsistent for him.

Interestingly enough this is just what I like about Nels Cline, and as Booka already said you can’t pin him down to a certain style, actually he feels at home in almost every genre. He is the one who makes Wilco so exceptional (which other rock band affords a free jazz guitarist?), he plays duos with Thurston Moore, Elliott Sharp or Vinny Golia, with Carla Bozulich he recorded a remake of Willie Nelson’s classic Red Headed Stranger, he plays in several larger formations, he has his trio and he is the head of The Nels Cline Singers (who ironically hardly sing).

In an interview Cline said that he “was a rock and roll kid, but after hearing Coltrane and Miles and Weather Report, then Indian music and Nigerian pop (…) purism just was not possible.”

Macroscope is Cline’s musical world in a nutshell, in which he displays his mastership in creating sound and genre bastards, it’s a buffet of delicious dishes and you are free to pick your favorite stuff. You can choose between “Red Before Orange”, a super-laid-back George Benson number that changes to mean Larry Coryell sounds – and back. Or “The Wedding Band”, which is based on Indian raga percussions combined with a thin guitar sound which is alienated through different effects and loops, a track moving to and fro without a concrete center, like an echo in the jungle – and the whole things ends in an Allman-Brothers-like melody. On “Respira” the Singers even “sing” and Cline displays his Brazilian influences (Baden Powell), which he combines with tricky west coast fragments. And “Climb Down” sounds as if it was produced by techno-dub sound wizard Adrian Sherwood.

If you ask yourself how weird it can get you have to wait until the end of the album. The last three songs, “Seven Zed Heaven”, “Hairy Mother” and “Sascha’s Book of Frogs” are the highlights of the album. “Seven Zed Heaven” starts like a King Crimson rocker and turns into weird Miles Davis psychedelia. Then the track immerses into crude guitar strumming which becomes a mysterious drone (my favorite moment of the whole record). “Hairy Mother” is nightmarish electric rattling, redeemed by monstrous prog rock guitar lines – imagine the Mothers of Inventions had joined The Mars Volta for a session. As if that all was not enough, the last song, “Sascha’s Book of Frogs” is a complete mystery. An acoustic bass battles with seemingly random electronics and jazzy guitar lines, which become more and more fragmented before Cline puts them through the grinder.

This album could have been a mere mind game devoid of any musical soul – but it is not. It’s a very good record because the intellectual musical textures do not end in themselves, it is always about the music.
Macroscope is the band’s sixth album. They are Cline on guitars, Trevor Dunn on bass (he replaced original member Devin Hoff) and Scott Amendola on drums, and on this album they are augmented by Cline’s wife Yuka C. Honda on keyboards, Zeena Parkins on harp, and Cyro Baptista and Josh Jones on percussion.

Macroscope“ is available as a CD and a download. Mack Avenue also releases a vinyl version of the album presenting a different sequence of the tracks minus “Canales’ Cabeza,” “Hairy Mother” and “Sascha’s Book of Frogs.”

Listen to “Companion Piece” here:



Macroscope can be bought from the label and will be on sale Tuesday, April 29th.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Things That A Mutant Needs To Know, More Short And Amazing Stories (Unsounds, 2013) ****½

By Stef 

There are times when you weep at how music is turned into a commodity, the result of fast and cheap production, to be shoved into the maelstrom of sonic consumerism, the flavor of the day, and on to the next one. Luckily there are also exceptions, when the end product is presented like a gem, like something highly valuable, the result of lots of investments by various people, the result of a clear artistic vision, the result of passion, the result of love. 

This is the case with "Things That A Mutant Needs To Know, More Short And Amazing Stories", a wonderful book of literary texts, a collection of fifty-five short tales and fifty-five brief musical works composed and performed by some of today's most forward-thinking artists. 

The idea is the result of Reinaldo Laddaga repeating the initiative that Argentinian authors Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares published in 1955, called "Cuentos breves y extraordinarios" ("Short And Amazing Stories"). Laddaga collected this new volume of amazing stories from the hand of authors like Lucian of Samosata, Herodotos, Cicero, Virginia Woolf, Emanuel Swedenborg, Blaise Cendrars, D.H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Martin Buber, Carl Jung, Sir John Mandeville, often not even stories but very short excerpts that set a mood, a bizarre context, a disruption of expectations, taking the reader by surprise and opening new ways of thinking. 

The music itself is brought by the avant-garde musicians of today, and in that respect a great introduction to new and free music, to new artists and new concepts, giving us more than two hours of music in mostly very short evocations or interpretations of the stories. The artists include John Butcher, Christine Abdelnour and Andy Moor, well known to the readers of this blog, and also Claudio Baroni, Justin Bennett, Sylvia Borzelli, Alan Courtis, DJ Sniff (Takuro Mizuta), Barbara Ellison, Ron Ford, Yannis Kyriakides, Anne La Berge, Reinaldo Laddaga, Francisco López, Machinefabriek (Rutger Zuydervelt), Gabriel Paiuk, Santiago Santero, and Felipe Waller.

The music is avant-garde, in a high variety of approaches, acoustic, electronic, improvised or composed, dubbed or instant creation, yet always interesting. Like a box of Belgian chocolates, you get a lot of choice, but all the very finest quality.



It is published in the form of a book with two CDs, but also as an iBook, in English and Spanish. And it is relatively unique. There is lots of music inspired by literature, but seldom do they come together in one package, and definitely not such a nicely produced one.

Some advice to buyers of this book CD: because you can't read and listen at the same time, it is best to read one story, savour it, then listen to the accompanying music ... savour it fully ... take your time ... and then to move on to the next surprise.

Let yourself be carried away in a world of slow wonder.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Thing - Mono (The Thing Records, 2013) 2LP *****

By Matthew Grigg

At this juncture The Thing and its members need little by way of introduction. Individually their output plots a course through much of the territories mapped by contemporary improvised music, shines a light on its more outré reaches, and stretches the wallets of even the most committed listener. Moreover, seeing any of their names affiliated with a project has become a seal of quality, much as the FMP logo did a generation prior.

Self confessed Discaholics, the announcement that newly formed The Thing Records would ensure the eventual availability of all The Thing's oeuvre on vinyl initially sounded like a way for the trio to self medicate. For the rest of us, given that last year alone the individual members appeared on over 40 releases, the news was greeted more as luxury than necessity. However, the label's current release schedule boasts 3 new recordings (last year's Boot, a Record Store Day exclusive Boot EP and forthcoming live record with Thurston Moore) and only one re-issue, 2011's Mono.

Whilst any new The Thing release feels like a virtually mandatory purchase at this point, what justifies the acquisition of Mono on LP to those who already own the original Smalltown Superjazzz release (other than Gustafsson's own 'discaholic parameters'; cover art, feel, smell…), is the fact that there is over 30 minutes of previously unreleased music included.

To describe the sounds herein is probably rather like preaching to the choir at this juncture. The Thing, now entering their 14th year, have carved out a very singular niche. John Peel's adage regarding favourites The Fall seems appropriate here, "They are always different; they are always the same… The Fall are always identifiably The Fall, but they do seem to evolve." This recording touches the key facets of The Thing's sound; taut muscularity, deft and fleet footed musicality, energy seemingly tapped direct from the Ur source, all tempered by an understanding that The Stooges swing every bit as hard as Ornette's Atlantic sides or Coltrane's classic quartet.

If, as Gustafsson would have it, 'one piece of vinyl a day keeps the doctor away', then surely 2 LPs worth of material this vital, and the promise of more to come, ought to keep listeners in good health indefinitely.

Available from Instantjazz.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Solo bass

By Stef 

My latest solo bass review only dates from end February, and here we are again with a new list of new albums.

Benoît Cancoin - Instants Minuscules - Solo Pour Un (Blumlein, 2013) ****



The first album in this overview is presented by French classically trained bassist Benoît Cancoin, who offers us four pieces of around fifteen minutes each, all played arco, not in a studio, not live, but in front of selected friends. The first, "Plume", is fully bowed starting slowly yet gaining full and almost monotonal increase in intensity, an offering to the newly born Plume, the daughter of his dancer friend Laure, yet the minimalism leaves room for more explorative parts, rough and sensitive built around silence. 

And it this exploratory journey that makes Cancoin's music interesting, hard to grasp, and hard to predict even, switching between long minimal and hypnotic repetititions and cautious sonic excursions with lots of empty space to more dense moments, yet despite the avant-garde approach, feelings remain at the heart of the music. 



Antonio Bertoni - Half Hour Drama (Leo, 2013) ****


France-based Italian bassist Antonio Bertoni, offers us something of a completely different nature. Inspired by the German avant-garde artist Joseph Beuys' movie "One Hour Drama", in which for one hour a bottle is filmed and nothing happens at all except for the breathing of the cameraman. 

Bertoni's music is luckily of the same boring nature, but it is equally a statement. For approx. thirty-six minutes he bows his strings with relentless energy, never once slowing down or changing his approach. And what may seem as monotonous, is anything but, quite to the contrary, it becomes a mesmerising experience of raw energy and physicality and endurance, which leaves the listener almost as exhausted as the artist when the final notes ring. 


Coti ‎– Solesulsuolo (Antifrost, 2013) ****½



And this is also something else. Performed by Milan-born Greek musician Constantino Luca Rolando Kiriakos, in the meantime known as Coti K. He does not play bass, but his self-created instrument, the "Oniscus harmonicus", a seven-string instrument tuned in semitones.

The result is nothing short of amazing. The artist uses lots of overdubs and collates his music with an incredible sense of drama and storytelling. Every sound is part of a longer narrative and atmosphere, in which anticipation is created with every note, a tension built for new events to unfold.

Coti K is not a jazz musician, but he has been a member of several pioneering electronic bands. There are no electronics here, with the exception of the attention given to a high quality sound and careful layering of the recorded material.

The end result is extremely beautiful, moving and sad.




Marco Serrato - Seis Canciones Para Cuervo (Alone Records, 2014) ****


Marco Serrato, the bassist of the Spanish doom metal band Orthodox brings us an amazing solo album, a kind of concept album on the lives of  a crow, as its title "Six Songs For A Crow" suggests, further illustrated by the beautiful cover art, a painting by Javi Pessoa. As you might expect from this context, the atmosphere is not really joyful or hopeful, but drenched in powerlessness and doom. The first track gives nothing more than scratching the strings of the bass, and even if it sounds irreverent on my side, it is just a fact, and one that evocates the crow's attempt to sing, yet nothing but hoarse croaks result from it. 

On the second track, Serrato offers us an overdub of beautiful arco, playing the theme of Hindemith's double bass sonata, over a backdrop of eery high level bowed sounds. The third track is again with overdubs of various dissonant takes, inspired by Ligeti and Xenakis, and its title "the crow devours the eyes of its father", has an oedipan ring to it, full of paradoxical feelings of hunger and disgust. On the longest track, "Las Dos Caidas De Cuervo", the music develops hesitantly and slowly, with plucked and bowed sounds alternating in a universe of silence and loneliness, gradually growing in volume and power, only to be calmed down by distant piano tones turning the bass into high-ringing flageolets until out of nowhere trumpet, drums and heavy piano chords crush the bass sounds under an avalanche of sound, an idea take from Simon H. Fell's "Compilation", with whispers taken from Black Sabbath's "Children Of The Grave".

A more than interesting album, and as you have understood, not for the faint of heart, but fully on the right side of good taste.

Inspired by Ted Hughes and the unborn, you can listen and buy from Bandcamp


Jon Mapp - The World Will End With A Bang (We Are K Records, 2014) ***




British electric bass guitar player Jon Mapp serves us a virtual experience of the end of the world, also using overdubs to bring his art. Again, this is not jazz, nor rock, as Mapp's musical universe is broader than genres. 

As for the end of the world, it is not here yet. Mapp's music sounds even joyful and light-hearted for such an event, with lots of calm, gentle and open-textured compositions, with guitar-like sounds in the higher register setting the melodic theme. Overall an interesting exercise by a technically gifted musician, but we could have done with more tension and power. 


Listen and download from Bandcamp


David Helbock’s Random/Control – Think of Two (Traumton Records, 2014) ***½


In a world, random at the basic level, a semblance of order has been established, taken up through the scales, and all that resulted, among others into creatures that create.  Music for instance.  Now you take two of the real musicians (Thelonious Monk and Hermeto Pascoal) or rather their music and start another creation. In this case that means : you amass a staggering amount of noisemakers, there is three of you and you call yourself Random/Control. Your names are : David Helbock, Johannes Bär and Andi Broger. What do you do, you have listened to the masters themselves, you have listened to many interpretations of the masters’ music, you have about 10 instruments each, which allows for 30 + 300 + 1000 + 1 possible small sound-producing clusters.  And you have the curiosity of children playing with the minds of controlled musicians. You uncovered the humour so often overlooked by others.

It must be incredible fun. Sometimes I cannot but think that musicians are the most privileged humans on the planet, being just there and doing just that. Disregard all needs. Now luckily we can participate in this joy. Live of course, nothing beats live (they must be awesome live) or once removed.

Think of Two” you call your record and the people who are affected by the names will flock to it. You take Hermeto’s Voa Ilza, introduce the jungle noises and the merry dance ensuing. Do Bresil naturalments. These days I like music that makes my foot tap. Helbock plays the piano with blocked strings, giving it a great Cagean percussion sound, and there is some ferocious taking it away. Even blown through a straw. And some great stride piano. And so on. You can’t dance about architecture. End with the theme. And stray in another world, pulled deeper in, pulsing in the distance, piano pulling out notes, and this all building into the wonderful Round Midnight. Their version is there with the greats. Hush now. Allow the velvet. Once again I can go on and I won’t. They end with Think of One, starting it off in a Tibetan temple ceremony then bringing it down the mountain, chopping it up and after lapsing into lazy swing, they pull out the stops and leave you with that most wonderful moment  :  the silence immediately after a great set.  No applause. And after a long silence they give you one last bit. Ending it like a broken radio. Magic.

I do not mince words today.

David Helbock says that he feels very good in the area “zwischen kontrolliertem Spiel und freiem Spiel” and they all do. Sometimes you get hit by music that takes you places. 



Monday, April 21, 2014

Chicago Underground Duo - Locus (Northern Spy, 2014) ****

By Stef 

The duo of Rob Mazurek on cornet and Chad Taylor on percussion becomes a real orchestra, by adding layers and layers of sound, performed on their instruments, or ambient or electronically altered. Mazurek at times sounds like a full horn section in a big band, joyfully soloing on top of it, with Taylor's beats repeated and edited for maximum effect.

Like on previous albums, the overall sound alternates dark passages with celebratory and upbeat injections, as a collage of sonic colours, danceable even, as a great mix of sounds from across the globe, but preferably its most tropical parts, its most tropical parties, in a dense atmosphere of warm fun with subterranean gloom and high energy madness, built around a rhythmic backbone supporting a great "moqueca" of musical influences and genres, of jazz, of techno, of electronics, of film music, of street music, without limit and restriction, welcoming everything in the same stew, as long as it's tasteful, compelling, dramatic or fun, including "a Ghanian folk tune and Ennio Morricone played on cornet, drums, mbira, ballophone, bamboo flute and Game Boy". Nineteen years after its inception, the latest incarnation of the Chicago Underground Collective is still alive and kicking!

Join the festivities. 





Sunday, April 20, 2014

Colin Vallon Trio: Le Vent (ECM, 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

Single notes like heavy drops of port wine on the tongue. A house at a Swiss lake, a porch on a warm summer’s night, it is 4 a.m. A soft breeze is coming from the water. The music on the stereo comes down on you like an Erik Satie melody with a huge wind chime in the background. However, there is an austere solemnity to the notes, an enormous sadness combined with the utmost beauty. This is “Le Vent”, the title track of the new album of the Colin Vallon Trio.

After their ECM debut album “Rruga” drummer Samuel Rohrer has left the trio and was replaced by Julian Sartorius which means that pianist Colin Vallon has had to take over more compositional responsibility. The result is that the compositions are even more fragmented, reduced and minimalist than the ones on their two previous albums (their first album was “Ailleurs” on HatHut). On the other hand the trio sounds more like a unit, a real collective stripped bare of unnecessary solo excursions. The compositions unfold slowly, yet consequently, Vallon’s subtlety is more in the focus than before, which puts more emphasis on the composition itself.

Tracks like “Le Quai” and “Cendre” are airy, easily accessible, light-headed examples of the new dimension Vallon and his collaborators have reached – and Manfred Eicher’s typical ECM sound is just perfect for this music. However, it is not always just pure atmosphere, the band can also add slow grooves to the songs, like in “Immobile” or “Pixels”, especially the last one being a melody which is brushed against the grain of the pulse of the track.

Yet, not everything is subjected to the new sound. The album is bookended by "Juuichi", a composition by bassist Patrice Moret, which reminds of the repetitive and slowly shifting and even driving motifs from “Rruga”, and the collective composition “Coriolis”, in which Vallon's prepared piano snippets entwine with Julian Sartorius' bells to create, over a simply bowed bass line, the feeling of a falling icy rain during the return of livestock from Swiss high alpine summer pastures - a track with almost Wagnerian qualities (listen to the mock alphorn in the background).

“Le vent” is an album for fans of classic piano trios, for listeners who like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. It is not as adventurous as RED Trio for example, but the compositional standard is absolutely high and the musicianship is great as well. Absolutely worth a try.

Listen to “Juuichi” here:




Saturday, April 19, 2014

J. Spaceman and Kid Millions - Live at the Poisson Rouge (Northern Spy, 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

I have seen many concerts over the years and there are moments I will never forget. One of these events is Spacemen 3’s gig in Stuttgart’s recently closed club “Die Röhre” in the late 1980s. When guitarist Jason Pierce entered the stage he stubbed out a fat joint, sat down on a bar stool and then the band started a huge chord that went wrooooom, it was a psychedelic symphony par excellence (they even taped keys on their organ to make the drone last before they left the stage). Spacemen 3’s credo was "Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" (J. Spacemam really lived it.) His follow-up project Spiritualized has made seven albums full of drug imagery (among them the seminal “Lazer Guided Melodies”, “Pure Phase” and "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space", which came packaged as a giant pill). Today Pierce has stopped taking drugs after being diagnosed with severe liver damage some years ago but his music still breathes the old Spacemen 3 attitude, even when he teams up with free jazz musicians (check out the last 20 minutes on Spring Heel Jack’s “Live” album and you know what I mean).

On September 11th, 2013, J. Spaceman and Kid Millions (John Colpitts of Oneida, Man Forever, People of the North) performed an improvised set at New York's Le Poisson Rouge club and the first track “Misha” (obviously an homage to Misha Mengelberg) is a hallucinatory 24- minute jam in exactly this old Spacemen 3 spirit. The beginning sounds as if the two were tuning their instruments before the track changes almost unnoticed to a minimal, monotonous and sheer endless one-chord-ride with Pierce using loops and wah-wah-effects which sounds as if two or three guitars were at work. “Han”, again a long track lasting more than 20 minutes, uses a staccato loop, and Pierce lets his guitar howl and scream and yell in a huge feedback orgy. Especially towards the end, when he puts the sounds through the effect grinder, it is a great whirlwind of noise but the staccato loop takes some getting used to which is why this track cannot give off the magic of “Misha”. The show ended with two encores, “New York” and “London”, both brute noise orgies which even remind of Neil Young’s “Arc/Weld” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”. 

This is not the usual music we have on this blog but sometimes I can’t get enough of it.

Live at Poisson Rougeis limited to 3000 copies, it’s a 12″ LP with a bonus 7″. A download card comes with each record.

It is available today, Record Store Day.

Make sure you get a copy.

Listen to „Misha“ here: 

Sax Ruins - Blimmguass (Skin Graft, 2014) ****½

By Julian Eidenberger

Yoshida Tatsuya is the lone gunman of the Avant-Prog prairie. In the course of a career that spans almost three decades by now, he has only occasionally performed in a conventional rock-band context, and when he did, his stints usually didn’t last very long. Tellingly, his main musical outlet, the Ruins, was (and, in a way, still is) not a full band, but a duo in which the drum maestro performed alongside a rotating cast of bassists. Four different bass players (one at a time, of course) have played in the Ruins over the years, and after the last one had left – not long after the release of the excellent Tzomborgha –Yoshida decided to continue without a bassist, under the moniker Ruins Alone. This little narrative is not, of course, meant to imply something about the drummer’s character. The point of this introduction is a rather obvious one: unflinching dedication to a cause can often result in your being the only one left.

In Yoshida’s case, though, this has not impeded his musical career in the least. Unable to find a bassist with the skill and spare time needed for the Ruins, he has – as mentioned above –turned the Ruins into a tape- and/or computer-assisted one-man enterprise. Moreover, he has recorded and performed with several high-profile avant-garde musicians, among them John Zorn, Keiji Haino, Uchihashi Kazuhisa and Satoko Fuji. That’s elevated company, and many of those collaborations don’t just look good on paper, they’ve also yielded (at times) spectacular results (Erans, the duo recording with Satoko Fuji, deserves particularly high praise).

Viewed against this background of excellence, the recorded output of Ruins Alone (so far) is a bit of a letdown. The sole full-length release suffered from a sterility that often comes with man-machine interplay, and didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. In a way then, Sax Ruins – a project with saxophonist Ryoko Ono (that’s just one letter away from good old Yoko) – can be viewed as an attempt to remedy those shortcomings. Blimmguass is the duo’s second full-length, and considering its quality, I have to kick myself for missing out on the Ipecac-released debut.

While the new record features mostly revisions of well-known Ruins classics, that’s not a problem at all – not even if you’re a long-time fan like me. The saxophone is, of course, endowed with an expressiveness that’s far beyond the scope of even the most heavily effects-treated electric bass, and Ono’s virtuosic playing brings out moods and colors the originals could only hint at. Vrresto starts off the record, and it’s a fine enough opener, but the first real jaw-dropper here is Refusal Fossil. In four short minutes, it assaults with jarring stop-start blasts and multi-tracked sax blowing that easily rivals the volume and intensity of a violently strummed electric guitar; this is punchy jazz-punk on par with Zorn or Zu. The title track, which I assume is a completely new song, is no less impressive, albeit a bit more varied. At first, it’s a wild ride, with the saxophone struggling not to be thrown out of the saddle by the drums’ permanent changes of direction. A little later, it segues into a much calmer middle section, dominated by sustained tones and reminiscent of the melancholy ballads of 70’s King Crimson. Towards the end, of course, the mayhem returns.

Since listening to this record is a lot more fun than reading a track-by-track retelling of it, I’ll leave it at that; that being said, Zwimbarrac Khafzavavrapp (how’s that for a song title?) probably deserves special mention. Originally written for the Asphalt Orchestra, an avant-garde marching band performing songs by artists as disparate as Björk, the Pixies or Meshuggah, it’s the longest and most nuanced track here, shifting from powerful marching rhythms to exuberant melodicism in the blink of an eye. To make a long story short, this is a great record, and I think the “post-bass” Ruins have never sounded this vital before. Here’s hoping that Ono, whose contributions throughout really are amazing, will stay for the long haul.

Check out a track here.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Frode Gjerstad-Hasselt (NotTwo, 2014) ****½

By Ed Pettersen

I’ve been following Norwegian reed man Frode Gjerstad for years, even collaborated with him a few times but Hasselt, his new disc recorded live at the Hasselt, Belgium Cultural Centre in 2006 is perhaps his meatiest and most lyrical work to date.  Simply put, this album is a powerful statement far exceeding the scope of a simple live quartet recording.  Sabir Mateen’s sax work proves the perfect counterpoint and foil for Frode’s muscular, multi-timbre explorations and the two sound like they practically read each other’s minds in their taut interplay on the album’s five tunes.  It is so well executed it leaves you wanting more hoping maybe more was played at the concert not included here (which is kind of the point isn’t it?).

Drummer/percussionist Paal Nilssen Love who has worked extensively and sympathetically with Mr. Gjerstad before is on skins again here and truly shines and holds it down keeping the bold improvisations grounded and, dare I say, rocking and solid.  To me he’s sort of, for the rockers among us, the Keith Moon of free jazz.  He swings, propels, titillates yet keeps perfect time (the last not necessarily something Mr. Moon was known for alas…).  The real surprise for me here is Danish bassist Peter Friis-Nielsen.  He squeezes every bit of funky goodness and growl out of his double bass while still retaining a strong pulse and never losing his intonation.  No small feat.  This is expansive work by all involved.

My wife has read some of my reviews and given me a hard time for using too many superlatives and fluffy journo-speak to describe the music so here’s what I would tell my best friend: When you first put this disc the opening song feels like your first gulp of strong coffee in the morning only to realize you want more and more which invigorates your system but somehow leaves no jittery buzz but simply fuzzy, bouncing warmth and pure energy.  I’ve listened to it five times already start to finish and could easily put it on again without feeling like I’ve heard it before at all.  To me there’s no stronger recommendation than that.  In fact, I’m so taken my this record that I almost forgot to write about it because each time I think about it I had to put it on again and I drifted off again with its thundering, exhilarating storm.  Not a bad island to be stranded on for a good while.

Highly, highly recommended stuff.  If this is your first introduction to Frode Gjerstad’s work there could almost be no better place to start but don’t stop here.  He rarely repeats himself and has a vast catalog well worth researching.  His work on this recording includes sax, flute and occasional clarinet and he’s highly proficient on each.  Kudos to the entire unit on this record.  They could well be considered a classic line up in years to come whether they record again or not.  That’s how good they sound together here.  I could prattle on and on and wax more poetically but it wouldn’t add anything more to this gem without ruining your own discovery of this set and possibly overstating it.  Simply, check it out.  I think you’ll dig it.  As we Scandinavians say, “Skol!”


Available from Instantjazz.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord – Liverevil (Hot Cup, 2014) ****½

By Chris Haines

This live double album not only shares a similar title to the famous live Miles Davis album, by all but one character, but also has that sort of exploratory fusion vibe to it at times. As the title suggests it certainly whips-up a potent brew that goes down well.  However, there’s no copying going on here and Lundbom’s clear musical vision continues to make him the original artist that he is.

The sound of the band is top notch and the tunes are played well throughout. The pieces are allowed to breathe in the live environment and the creative musicianship from all the band members gives the well-known tunes a new lease of life.  Lundbom’s playing is excellent and his smooth legato work nestles alongside more angular passages and mazey runs where free playing and more traditional jazz forms meet.  On occasion the music feels barely contained by the structures and the playing threatens to burst the forms wide open.

Great moments and interesting sounds keep appearing throughout the album such as the mash-up between electric piano and drums, multiphonic punctuations and nasal tones from the saxophones, ‘On Jacation’ sports its John Scofield-like guitar sound, which Lundbom wields extremely comfortably, and ‘Bring Forth The Battalions’ with it’s dirge-like feel, which Lundbom excels on.

There’s a buzz about this album and the excitement in the atmosphere comes across in the recording, and not just from the whoops and calls from the audience, but tangibly, so that it’s very presence can be felt within the music itself.

This is a great album and although some live albums can be for completists or die-hard fans this is not one of them.  This double-album contains a couple of great tunes from his studio albums, several new tunes and a suite of Wiccan prayer songs previously unrecorded.  This album could also serve as a good place to start for those wanting an introduction to his music, in fact, this is highly recommended for anyone wanting to hear great music!

Musicians : Jon Lundbom on guitar, Jon Irabagon on alto and soprano saxophone, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto! saxophone, Moppa Elliott on bass, Dan Monaghan on drums, and Matt Kanelos on keyboards.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Boots Brown - Dashes to Dashes (Häpna, 2014) ****

By Stef 

Boots Brown is a different kind of band, maybe also of brand. It consists of musicians we know from different contexts and different sounds. Mats Gustafsson on alto, David Stackenäs on guitar, Magnus Broo on trumpet, and Johan Berthling on bass. 

The four musicians interact with short phrases, with single note responses, in a murmur of dialogue, soft-spoken and intense, open-ended and surprised at each other's interjections, yet sufficiently interested to add some of their own. But it is more than call and response. The four create something together, something spontaneous, with instant lyricism, like birds of different breeds celebrating the first light of day. It is gentle, a celebration of sound, somewhat abstract and also intimate co-creation, agitated at times but never for long, fragile in the lightness of its overall texture yet solid in the conviction of each instrument to let its voice be heard. Despite its lightness and lack of density and low volume, this is not minimal music, there is a lot happening actually, many things that are inventive and fun and a pleasure to the ears, even if these ears get stretched a bit at times.

The most amazing thing is that this sound is created by these musicians in particular. Possibly it is closest to Stackenäs' usual idiom, but even then. This is not your usual Gustafsson or Broo or Berthling, and still despite the know voice of each of these musicians, they manage to create something this different, so quiet and human and abstract. A great demonstration of versatility, band coherence and open-mindedness .

Listen! 




Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A couple solo piano discs: Kris Davis and Myra Melford

In the spirit of the recent set of piano related reviews, Troy Dostert digs deeper into Kris Davis' and Myra Melford's recent solo efforts.

By Troy Dostert

Here we have two outstanding contemporary pianists, each with a distinctive vision.  Of the two, Myra Melford is the veteran, having been around since the mid-80s, and recording with her own groups since the early 1990s.  Her Alive in the House of Saints (HatHut, 1993) remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the finest live piano trio recordings of the last few decades, a masterful record that manages to be sublimely lyrical, technically dazzling, and irresistibly accessible, with a dynamic groove established by Lindsey Horner (bass) and Reggie Nicholson (drums) that works perfectly with Melford’s compositional approach.  

Kris Davis is the (relative) newcomer, although the list of noteworthy recordings she’s released over the last few years is impressive, many of which have been reviewed on this blog.  (Listen to her Paradoxical Frog release, Union, with Tyshawn Sorey and Ingrid Laubrock, for an especially strong glimpse of what she brings to the table).

Both players are highly adventurous in their own way, with Melford generally choosing a more melodic approach to her compositions, although not without freer moments of abstraction and dissonance.  Davis, on the other hand, is in some respects the more challenging composer, with pieces that are alternately dense, complex, and minimalist, sometimes all within the same piece.  She is certainly the less accessible of the two pianists, but the rewards of persisting with her music are substantial.  Okay, so much for the preliminaries: let’s get to the records at hand!

Kris Davis – Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****



Davis’s playing on this record is especially intriguing for the diversity of styles it showcases.  The first cut, “Ten Exorcists,” is a stunning and captivating track, which relies for much of its seven or so minutes on just one or two notes, struck rapidly in a minimalist technique that Davis then gradually develops into more complex passages, all while keeping the simple tonal center at the core of the improvisation, and with independent ideas explored with each hand.  From the very start, Davis is letting the listener know that this isn’t going to be an “easy” record; it’s going to challenge and confront, rather than drawing in, her audience.  But the brilliance of her technique on this track signals that there will definitely be some memorable moments in the process.

With the second track, “Desolation and Despair,” Davis shifts gears radically, going to a much more spartan musical vision, getting the most musical value possible from just a few notes, using space and silence to great effect, and as the title of the piece suggests, it’s a haunting and bleak musical statement.

The centerpiece of the record is really the fourth track, “Massive Threads”: it’s the longest of the eight tracks, at over 10 minutes, and it perfectly illustrates the way in which Davis embodies a technically sophisticated but austere, demanding approach to her instrument.  It’s also another example of Davis’ astonishing ability to develop separate ideas with both hands simultaneously, as she does at the opening of the track.  Then, as the piece develops, Davis gravitates toward the lower end of the piano, using progressively stronger and weightier chords, eventually building to a powerful two-handed workout in the bass register.  It’s almost overwhelming: relentless, and pummeling (“massive” threads indeed!), until finally retreating a bit, giving the listener some mercy, as she explores a lighter theme before going back to more tension and power with driving chords in the bass register and then, finally, diminishing, with a few spare interjections at the upper end of the keyboard to bring things to a close.

The rest of the tracks are similarly distinctive and imaginative; Davis has clearly planned this record carefully, offering unique statements with each track.  And each track is well-named also: yes, the fifth track, “Dancing Marlins,” really does remind one of spry, exuberant fish, full of life and surprise!  And there’s even a great Monk cover (“Evidence”).  True to form, Davis develops it in a careful but abstract manner.  Although it takes a while for the tune’s melody to come into focus, it does emerge, and Davis displays her distinctive voice wonderfully as it unfolds.

It’s a fine recording, and especially strong in revealing Davis as a terrific improviser and one whose compositional approach is both forceful and intriguing.  If I had to offer a quibble with it, I’d say that at times Davis’s concept strikes me as a bit cold and severe.  While I’m certainly not averse to being challenged in my musical explorations, I did at times struggle to find an emotional core in the music that would allow me to enjoy it on a less cerebral level.  Davis does what she does really well; but this might not be a record I’ll come back to listen to as often as others that have left a stronger emotional impact on me.

Myra Melford – Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12, 2013) ****



Just as Davis’s opening track on her record signaled what was to come, Melford’s “Park Mechanics” will sound familiar to those who know her music: it’s animated by a jaunty, rhythmically buoyant ostinato, with a strong melodic feel.  Melford’s ability to get the toes tapping is evident on a number of cuts; “Attic,” the sixth track, offers a rather funky flavor at points, even while the tune at its core is rhythmically complex.  There’s a subtle blues voice that colors a lot of Melford’s playing; this is the more “jazz”-oriented of the two records, without a doubt.

With eleven tracks to work with, Melford doesn’t offer any marathon-length performances, but there’s a lot of stylistic variety, especially on the first half or so of the record.  I hear some Keith Jarrett influence on “Red Land,” with another compelling left-hand use of ostinato, with ringing chords in the right hand; and Melford’s oft-cited debt to Cecil Taylor is apparent on “Piano Music,” where her technical skill with percussive flourishes and powerful note clusters is truly attention-grabbing.  In addition to the more up-tempo tracks, where Melford is often at her best, she also has a way with more reflective pieces, as on “Red Beach” the second track.  It’s a ruminative, melancholy statement, with a somber but also uplifting delicate melody she explores as the piece develops.

It’s an excellent recording overall, although the last half of the record does meander a bit; Melford’s compositions were somewhat less successful on the final few tracks, and they lacked the more convincing sense of purpose established earlier in the record.  The last track, “Still Life,” offers a charming little tune, but it wasn’t quite enough to rescue the more lackluster tracks that preceded it.

For fans of solo piano records, both of these recordings are definitely worth checking out.  While Davis’s is the more imposing record, it’s got a lot to offer; and although Melford is just as technically brilliant, she is a bit more willing to let loose and dance from time to time.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Christine Wodrascka - Linéaire (Mr Morezon, 2013) ****

By Stef 

Sure, I did not include all solo piano albums in yesterday's marathon review for the simple reason that I wanted to give one specific album more attention, and because I forgot to add this one, which now gets a preferential treatment.

Christine Wodrascka is one of France's most daring improvisers, approaching her instrument in its entirety and in a very physical manner, as some of you already read in the review of "Grey Matter" some months ago. She has played with many musicians well known to the readers of this blog, such as Joëlle Léandre, Paul Lovens, Jean-Luc Cappozzo, Ramon Lopez, Xavier Charles and Ivo Perelman.

On "Linéaire" - which means, yes, Linear - the music is anything but linear, in the sense that the ten tracks - which by the way all start with an "L" in the title - lead us to a variety of settings and moods and styles, ranging from playful inventive interaction between left and right hand, as on "Luci Polari" which is close to modern classical music over the slow and dramatic minimalism of "Lupercales" to the percussive muted noises of "Lady Sarah B", played directly on the strings, and the almost industrial "La Machine Du Vieux Kamaji".

Whatever the approach, her playing is inventive, clever and compelling. The music is spontaneous and fully improvised, yet she manages to keep her ideas focused on the core concept of each piece, playing it with careful attention and precision.

She clearly deserves wider recognition.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Solo piano ....

By Stef 

Here is some great stuff from piano-land, lying here in sober notes, tinkling away in quiet solitude, filling space with sounds of deep emotions and abstract notions, of fierce inventiveness and magic peacefulness, of traditional masteries and of breaking boundaries. One instrument, for a world of sound. We had some great examples already earlier this year, with Kaja Draksler's "The Lives Of Many Others" and Alexander Hawkins with "Song Singular" and Agustí Fernandez with "A Trace Of Light". And here are some more, to enjoy at times of agitated musical searches, or in moments of calm reflectiveness.

To make things easier in classifying the twenty-albums reviewed here, I tried to put them in boxes, which is of course always the wrong thing to do, but it will help guide readers in the broadest possible way :
- the jazz innovators
- jazz!
- the experimentalists
- classical
- the romantics.

Enjoy!


THE JAZZ INNOVATORS

Matthew Shipp - Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****½


First and foremost there is Matthew Shipp's "Piano Sutras", a wonderful album that real music lovers have already spotted for many months, but that deserves attention. Matthew Shipp's piano playing is something special, with a deeply ingrained lyricism mixed with abstract structures and unpredictability of an improvisation's development. Tradition is his playground, as in the odd "Cosmic Shuffle", which is a shuffle somewhat turned upside down, or just the pretext to explore some different journeys suggested by the initial idea, never to return, or on "Blue To A Point", with indeed bluesy references, or on "Uncreated Light", where nuances of Gershwin shimmer through. And then of course there are his very personal renditions of "Giant Steps" and "Nefertiti". If ever an article should be written about the link between physics and music, Shipp should be at the centre of it, because his music, and possibly his mind, is both mathematical, as in heavy equations needed to understand particle physics, while at the same time spiritual, as in some foundational sentiment that links us all to the universe. His music is small, intimate, grand and gloriously expansive too.

His music is one of wonder, of lightness with gravity, of deep things with question marks, possibly also surprising himself while playing at how the music evolves under his hands. You will obviously recognise the artist's "voice" from his ensemble playing with the late David S Ware for instance, yet here he can show his art in a more unique format, full of freedom to move around, to let his ideas and spontaneous constructs flow with changing colors and shifting rhythms. His music is abstract, in the sense that repetitive melodies are hard to find, yet equally warm in the depth of the emotions expressed.

A great artist. And great music too.



Pat Thomas - Al-Khwarizmi Variations (Fataka, 2013) ****


British pianist Pat Thomas, who released no less than seven albums last year, uses the 9th Century Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi as his inspiration for his fourth solo album. Al-Khwarizmi is the man who gave us the decimal system based on earlier Indian number systems. He is considered the father of algebra and the word "algorithm" is based on his name. As for Pat Thomas, his music is not at all the result of mathematical equations or algorithmic patterns, quite to the contrary. The musicians explores, he uses his instrument in his totality, from powerful playing on the keys, to quiet rumblings of the strings and even harder to detect places of sonic birth. 

Yet is is great. It is fun. Like his rhythmic development inside the piano on "Variation 3", on which harplike sounds on the strings and percussive use of the wood creates a recognisable pattern then gets deconstructed again. He has a similar approach on "Variation 8" on which muted strings conjure up a hypnotic and minimalistic sequence of shifting rhythms. When he is playing in the expected fashion, sitting on his stool and using the keyboard, the music sounds unpredictable yet coherent, open-ended and energetic, full of dramatic moments and grand story-telling without actually resorting to identifiable patterns. Sometimes, as in "Variation 4", some jazzy phrases shine through the avalanche of notes, yet mostly his playing is beyond genre. Classical influences are at times present, but then more of the modern kind, as in "Variation 9", which is a quiet piece, with spacious chords interrupting silence. 

Thomas never takes the easy route, even quite to the contrary, he shows us new possibilities, even the harsh ones, even if it means to go well beyond what a listener might expect, yet it is not alienating, it is not shocking, but a genuine search for sound, offering the listener a quite novel listening experience at time, and the fact that he introduces fun elements demonstrates his focus on the audience. An album with vision and character. 



Joana Sá - Elogia Da Desordem (Shhpuma, 2013) ****


I like those young pianists who really go in new directions. So is Portuguese Joana Sá, and not only has she studied the piano at various schools in Portugal, and not only is she enrolled in a doctoral programme on music, she is not a technician on her instrument, or a high-brow theoretician, no, she is a musician with a voice, one that goes beyond her instrument, with lights and visuals and words and sound collages adding dimensions to her rich piano-playing, that is beyond genre, but abundant, evocating the theme of this piece of art, Elogia Da Desordem, or In Praise of Disorder, reflecting the chaos in our brains, the non-stop eruption of images, feelings, thoughts, sounds maybe, fragments of memories and maybe even moments of quietness, and also the demons that haunt you in the background. Is this neuromusic? I'm not sure, but it is really worthwhile listening to. And yes, it is not a "real" solo piano album, as there are passages of poetry recited by Rosinda Costa, well done and kept to the minimum that this reviewer still finds acceptable. This is music with character and vision.



Otomo Yoshihide - Piano Solo (OTOroku, 2013) ***½


A solo piano vinyl 45 rpm album? By a guitarist? Yes, indeed. And you can imagine the Japanese composer approaching the piano in a different way. I even doubt that the keys have been used, thinking that Yoshide saw the potential of sonic magic in the entire instrument, from the legs up to the wooden boards and the strings, and the result sounds like ... electronics, with big washes of sound pouring over silence, with industrial violence tearing through slow drones, with organ-like sustained notes making you wonder if there is any future, with velvety feedback noise as the only sign of warmth.


Johanna Borchert - Orchestre Idéal (WhyPlayJazz, 2012) ****


A little older than the other albums in this review list, but worth pointing out. A solo album by German pianist Johanna Borchert, but then one on which she also plays harpsichord and autoharp, adding a few overdubs too. There is loots to hear, from impressionistic intimate improvisations, over modern classical to very dramatic pieces ("Der Königliche Schlafgang") to dissonant avant-garde on "Zitterpartie".

She describes her own music well on the liner notes: I am interested in the tension between clarity and abstraction. I am inspired by concerts that make you wake up. Where elements transform themselves or are put into a new light, thus changing the perspective, even while the position remains the same. I try to surrender myself completely to the unpredictable reality of the moment. This is the greatest happiness and deepest satisfaction that music can give to me. And I think that it also infects the listener.


JAZZ!

Kris Davis - Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****


Kris Davis starts Massive Threads with prepared piano with several muted strings creating a maddening and hypnotic rhythm over which the right hand adds some fresh accents, in a style that you will recognise from Benoît Delbecq. The piece is called "Ten Exorcists", and you almost wish it would never end. It is fun, it is creative and utterly compelling. "Desolation and Despair", the next track, is more quiet, minimal and introspective, with isolated notes floating in a sea of silence, gradually coagulating together as silence gives way to the gravity of "despair". The title track starts with highly percussive chords, louder than in the previous pieces, with heavy thumps leading into silence and more intimate impressionistic phrases, which grow denser and denser, into full chords, and the volume and tension increase again to madness and back to silence.

"Dancing Marlins" is more playful and lighter in tone, creative in its rhythmic complexity and development. She brings one cover, Thelonious Monk's "Evidence", which is played in a slow and impressionistic way. "Leaflike" is again intimitate and subtle, as is the closing track.

Her music has been reviewed often on this blog, and her "Rye Eclipse" is still one of my favorites.


Marc Hannaford - Liminal (Marchon, 2013) ***½


Australian pianist Marc Hannaford's first solo album leaves me a little bit non-plussed, and it took me some time to understand why. The music is good, the playing is excellent, and each composition and improvisation is worth listening repeatedly. The thing that bothers me a little bit is the lack of coherence in the overall approach. Yes, his endeavour was to "document (his) interest in musical connections between Carlo Gesualdo, Bach, Messiaen, Scriabin, Elliott Carter" and his own language of improvisation, but these composers by themselves already span a broad range of approaches. The result is that you have a dark opening piece "I Die" with electronic reinforcement, brilliant and ominous. It is followed by "For D.T." a minimal piece, quiet and eery, a mood which is continued on the long "Arnons", in my opinion the best piece of the album, with its slow and well-paced development. And then we get four classical compositions, by Messiaen, Händl, Gesualdo and Bach, played as if Hannaford wants to take them to his territory of music, to an updated, fresher sound, and even he achieves this, the contrast with the excellent start of the album is too great in my opinion. Sure, the playing is still excellent, and his skills are fantastic, yet I would have preferred the entire album to be his own, and in my opinion even better than the classical shoulders he's standing on.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.



Myra Melford - Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12, 2013) ****½


I hope Myra Melford needs no introduction, as her music has been covered on this blog before, and probably insufficiently - I still have a draft and unfinished review of Trio M's "Big Picture" lying here somewhere - and possibly also under-recorded too. So a solo piano album by her comes as a surprise. I think it's the first one in her career and it is a good one. In contrast to several of the albums in this list, the music is jazz, very much so even, deeply drenched in bluesy emotions, with pulse and harmonics and a left hand that hits a groove, and a right hand that gives you these shivers of emotions and goose-bumps for their accuracy and emotional depth. Yes, that's what you get here. Melford is the queen of jazz lyricism, and even if this album is dedicated to the painter Don Reich, the music is very much Melford's story. At some moments Jarrett comes to mind, in her slow impressionism, often beautiful and accessible, and because of the post-boppish sound.

This is not adventurous music, nor does it fit this blog's profile I must admit, but for those interested, I really wanted to highlight it because of its quality.



Paul Bley - Play Blue - Oslo Concert  (ECM, 2014) ***½


The pun in the title is well-chosen, because Bley offers us some really bluesy playing, freely improvised but digging deep in the roots of jazz, while keeping the form fresh and open. The Canadian legend keeps things relatively low-tempo, with a few exceptions, creating a coherent and strong overall sound. I once fell asleep during a real Bley concert, but he is more than captivating on this one. The performance was recorded live in Oslo in 2008, and the audience's enthusiasm is great, with a full two minute applause at the end. So is the quality of the playing, and of the sound quality too.


Umberto Petrin - Traces And Ghosts (Leo, 2014) ***½


Umberto Petrin is one of Italy's leading jazz pianists, who has played with other great musicians such as Gianluigi Trovesi, Guido Mazzon, Tiziano Tononi and with the Italian Instabile Orchestra, not to speak of collaborations with Amiri Baraka, Anthony Braxton, Assif Tsahar and Jean-Luc Cappozzo. He is as comfortable in modern classical music as in jazz, but I have the impression that his former solo projects, performing the works of Monk and Cecil Taylor, show is preference for improvisation with a jazz signature. 

He is accompanied by u-inductio with "noise" on two tracks and then only for a short while, making me really wonder what the value of it is for the music. 

Petrin makes this a really entertaining performance, with lots of variations in relatively short pieces, some Tayloresque piano hammering being alternated by ballads, or more structured improvisations and compositions, ending with Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately". The end result is a highly enjoyable, well-played intelligent piano jazz album. It will not be on the list of the most innovative music, yet it's fun without pretence. 


THE EXPERIMENTALISTS

Gianni Lenoci - Morton Feldman - For Bunita Marcus (1985) (Amirani, 2013) ****½


We've reviewed Italian pianist Gianni Lenoci several times before on this blog, but then always in a more jazz setting, with William Parker on "Serving An Evolving Humanity", with Gianni Mimmo on "Reciprocal Uncles", on "Empty Chair" with his own quartet.

This album is entirely different, as he plays Morton Feldman's second of his three last works for piano. This one called "For Bunita Marcus", who herself is a contemporary composer and student of Feldman.

The music itself is mesmerising, with little clusters of three or four notes played in a slow series, with silence in between. It is repetitive without being the same, resulting in a feeling of hesitation, of somebody cautiously moving forward on tiptoe, of wonder too, of beauty, of calm certainty. Paradoxically so. The music is so fragile that any change, however, minimal, generates attention. The beauty of small changes.

The entire composition lasts more than one hour, and its quiet minimalism is maintained throughout. As a listener, you have to give in. You have to surrender and become part of the music. That's the only way you can listen to it.

The music has been released before, seven times even, by amongst others, Markus Hinterhaüser, by Hildegard Kleeb, and also on John Tilbury's "All Piano". Not having listened to these albums, I am not sure how much Lenoci's album adds to this, or even differs from it, but it is worth looking for.


John Tilbury - Cornelius Cardew - Piano Music 1959-70 (Matchless, 2013) ****½


We find John Tilbury back on this remastered re-issue on Matchless of the earlier 1996 release. Tilbury performs the music of composer/pianist Cornelius Cardew, whom he knew quite well and who preceded him as the pianist of AMM. Cardew himself was an artist fully into the musical vision of Cage, Riley and Feldman, at least in the first part of his career, after which his political ideas drove him away from experimental music. Tilbury wrote Cardew's biography : "Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished".

Album reviews exist of the earlier version, and apart from the great quality of this production, the music is of course identical. The liner notes can be read here.

I just want to highlight one part of it, referring to "Volo Solo", a composition that Cardew wrote for Tilbury, with the following instructions :  "to play as many of the written notes as possible, and to play them as fast as physically possible. The instrument should seem to be breaking apart".  In a letter to Tilbury (March 1965) Cardew suggested another compelling image for the piece: "Aim at low dynamics and in the long passages the instrumental sound will build up to forte of its own accord. In fact that is the way I envisaged the long passages: the piano is playing and you are sitting there holding the terminals and getting electrocuted."

A great album with a virtuoso performance of highly idiosyncratic and unusual modern music.


Eva-Maria Houben - Decay (Diafani, 2013) ****


Eva-Maria Houben is a German composer and pianist. She is part of the Wandelweiser Group, an international collective of modern composers and musicians, all influenced by John Cage. Her music is minimal with ambient influences, and built around silence, forcing the listener to real deep listening. Decay offers an hour-long composition, with some barely audible organ in the background. Sparse piano notes offer a chilling effect.

Here is how the pianist explains it herself, in a poetic fashion :

"What is it about the sound of piano?
The sound of the piano decays.
It cannot be sustained. I let it loose time and again.
It appears by disappearing; starting to disappear just after the attack.
In disappearing it begins to live, to change.
The piano: an instrument, that allows me to hear how many ways sound can disappear.
There seems to be no end to disappearance.
The sound of piano!
I can hear, how listening becomes the awareness of fading sound".


Eva​-​Maria Houben - Piano Music  - By R. Andrew Lee (Irritable Hedgehog, 2013) ****


R. Andrew Lee brings us two compositions by Eva-Maria Houben. Again, you will hear single notes like dots of a canvas of silence, yet after twenty-three minutes in the first track, a series of three notes emerge, resonating until they have come to an end, until absolutely nothing can be heard anymore. She even notates this as such in her compositions, as William Robin explains in the liner notes : "In exploring the acoustic properties of the piano, Houben pays careful attention to the realities of sound. If she wishes a low note and a high note to sound for an equal length, she indicates that the pianist should repeatedly play the higher pitch until the sound of the lower one has fully died out. A more utopian composer might simply indicate that both notes should be held with the pedal, unaware that the higher pitch would fade away much faster than the lower one. Houben resists these unintentional silences. By considering the implications of her notation, she also forces the pianist to pay attention to exactly when a sound ends and a silence begins" . 

A strange musical world, in which every note has value, in which every note is treated like a gem, something to savour and to be looked at from all sides, with concentrated attention, full of a very precious beauty.

Listen and buy from the label.



CLASSICAL

Marcin Masecki - Scarlatti (ForTune, 2013)  ***½


Giving jazzy renditions of classical music is usually a boring affair for the uninspired, yet Polish pianist Marcin Masecki does not fall into the traps of kitsch. He uses Scarlatti, and some Bach, as the basis for improvisations, after having deconstructed the original first. It is interesting, and the playing is good, but I keep wondering why this approach is needed.



Pi-Hsien Chen - Changes (HatHut, 2013) 


But then there is Pi-Hsien, whose take on Scarlatti is close to the original, so no deconstruction here, yet she uses the Italian composer's short pieces as interludes within John Cage's "Music Of Changes", which offers a strange juxtaposition of styles and musical time zones, yet somehow it works well. She's released albums with music of Bach, Mozart, Pierre Boulez and Schoenberg before, yet this is the first time she mixes the old and new music. Obviously the music by Cage is more interesting for modern listeners, but the Scarlatti interludes are refreshing.


Michael Vincent Waller - Five Easy Pieces (Bandcamp, 2014)


Let's stay in the land of modern classical music for a while, with "Five Easy Pieces" by Italian American composer Michael Vincent Waller, offering us five short pieces performed by Jenny Q. Chai and by Gumi Shibata. As its title suggest, the music is easily accessible, very nice to the ear, yet with not much of an adventurous streak, despite two pieces dedicated to Terry and Morty, whom we expect to be Terry Riley and Morton Feldman. 

Listen and download on Bandcamp.



THE ROMANTICS

Aaron Parks - Arborescence (ECM, 2013)



Young American pianist Aaron Parks first solo album is released on ECM no less, a label which is guaranteed to give him a much wider exposure than most other labels. His music is completely improvised, and as its title suggests grows like life out of some initial concepts. The playing is good, melancholy and with a dreamy atmosphere, something to listen to on quiet evenings when the only thing you want is calm, away from the treadmill of life, and keeping some distance from the nervosity and agitation of your usual musical preferences.



Espen Berg - Acres of Blue (Atterklang, 2014)


Norwegian pianist Espen Berg offers us a nice impressionist and lyrical album, quite romantic while remaining open-ended and with room for improvisation. On the other hand, the music is unobtrusive, a nice word to say that it lacks the guts, or character, or adventure that we so much like on this blog. So even if a little out of place here, fans of piano music may find pleasure in Berg's excellent playing, like you could also admire some of Jarrett's solo piano work.


Esa Helasvuo - Stella Nova (TUM, 2013)


From Finland we get Esa Helasvuo, a pianist whose focus has been on composing for the stage, for movies and for children, while at the same time performing in jazz bands. On this solo album he brings us six fully improvised pieces and some composed ones. The mood is nice, calm, soothing, sometimes jazzy, often beyond identifiable genre. 

Fits well in the series of the more impressionistic and romantic albums.


Jacob Anderskov - Impression Of Radiohead (Ilk, 2014)


Pianist Jacob Anderskov received the Danish Jazz Composers Award last year, and co-founder and former chairman of ILK, the now famous Danish record label. Since his graduation from the Copenhagen Conservatory in 2002 he has released no less then twenty albums, some of which have been reviewed on this blog before.

On this album, no compositions of his are to be found, award or not, but he performs Radiohead compositions before an enthusiastic audience. Apologies, but I would not be able to recognise one single Radiohead tune, so I am a little bit at a loss here (my rock music interest ended somewhat in the eighties with The Smashing Pumpkins as the latest band I really followed - shame on me you might say), to tell you what his taking place, or how his "impressions" are just that or something more.

In any case, the music is quiet, all ballads, no real rock tunes, no anger, no shock, just nice and sweet improvisations on the band's hits.


IN SUM, what would I recommend you spend your money on? Shipp and Thomas are a safe bet for those of you with open ears, so are Joana Sá and Johanna Borchert for those interested in accessible genre-bending innovative music, and Melford would be the choice for the lovers of jazz in a highly touching new form. And Lenoci's Feldman rendition is recommended too, if only because of the spectacular composition. And of course you already had the Cornelius Cardew album.

Enoy!