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Monday, November 20, 2017

Charles Rumback - Threes (ears&eyes Records, 2017) ****

By Eric McDowell

There are no drum solos on Charles Rumback’s latest album as a leader. No, Rumback isn't that kind of drummer, and Threes isn't that kind of album. This probably shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following the Chicago scene fixture’s recent work under his own name. Of course it's not that Rumback isn't up to the task of showing off chops, but as both drummer and composer, his sensibility is marked by taste and restraint. He plays, as drummer and educator John Riley might say, with a fair amount of “headroom” or excess capacity—at any given moment he's playing what's best for that moment, even if it's only a fraction of his technical capability. Listeners with sharp ears—and drummers, certainly—will not only sense the depths that underlie the surface of his playing but will also understand that suggestion, in Rumback’s hands, has more power than demonstration could.

This approach affords the music on Threes a wonderful elasticity, and Rumback is lucky—or wise—to have built relationships with musicians like pianist Jim Baker and bassist John Tate who can adapt so well to this mode of playing. Together, the trio is a loose-limbed unit, relaxed and mellow, graceful and nimble. But elasticity isn’t synonymous with freedom. Indeed, while the set isn’t completely without “free jazz” moments—see the first half of the centerpiece suite “Three Storey Birdhouse/Right Reasons”—it won’t rank among the most adventurous shows that Constellation, the great Chicago venue where the album was recorded live, has seen. Rather, it’s against stated or implied reference points that the group thrives. Elastics only work, after all, if they snap back toward the center.

On opener “Salt Lines,” for example—a smokey, limber 3/4 swing—listen to how the trio toys with the pulse, Rumback stretching metrical subdivisions across the kit, Tate departing from quarter notes to add melodic touches, Baker unfolding the simple melody just behind the beat. The effect is thrown into relief when Baker sets off on his solo, busy but delicate against the roiling rhythm section, with just enough sour notes thrown in to maintain the right balance of flavors. This kind of roomy interplay is possible only because these three musicians have a deep knowledge of how to play together—and of what they’re playing (or playing with).

Consider that before its appearance here as part of a 20-minute suite, “Right Reasons” appeared in both a bass/drums duo version on Daylight Savings (with Tate) and a quintet version on In the New Year (Tate was there, too), and you start to grasp Rumback’s flexible relationship to his material. Like wearing in a new pair of shoes, putting compositions through these kinds of push-pull paces can make them comfortable enough that at a certain point you can all but forget they’re there, freeing you up to think more about where you’re going than how you’re getting there. If I suggest that playing someone else’s compositions might be the shortcut version of this idea, it’s only to illustrate my point; the group’s version of Andrew Hill’s “Erato” is anything but superficial. Like the album as a whole, it shows the trio inheriting tradition and making it their own. It’s a form of mastery, of course—but a mastery, perhaps paradoxically, entirely in service of the music.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Daniel Carter, Watson Jennison, William Parker, Federico Ughi – Live! (577 Records, 2017)

By Tom Burris

577 Records has released a set of recordings from a Carter/Jennison/Parker/Ughi 2015 North American tour in a three volume edition. The extremely limited discs are available separately or together directly from the label. Downloads are also available from Bandcamp.

Also of interest: This year's installment of 577's Forward Festival is on Dec. 7th & 8th. For details, see

Volume 1: Erie Live!   ***1/2

Daniel Carter (reeds) is a player whose whole demeanor shouts Openness. In his longtime duo with Federico Ughi (drums) – or in the monster trio with Ughi & William Parker (bass) – Carter is the shaman, acting as a conduit between the natural and spiritual realms. The Ughi duo can become a bit unhinged at times, veering wildly into space as a result of a perceived inability to control the unseen forces it summons. This is not in any way undesirable, of course – but with Parker involved, the music becomes more grounded. If Carter is the shaman, Parker is the wise Master whose experience with otherworldly spirits tames the unpredictable wildness – and allows for a more solid union with the material world. My confession is that this is my introduction to pianist (and multiple instrumentalist) Watson Jennison, and my first impression isn't great, as he rains down clusters on the top of the group & manages to almost drown out Carter on “Before Six.” No real worries, however, as balance is achieved by the end of the second track, “West,” with Ughi pounding prairie rhythms that accompany a moonlit ghost dance over wooden flutes.

Sunrise at “Square One.”
The ghost dance has gone on
all night.
Parker squeezes out
tuba farts as a New Orleans
rhythm from Ughi
inspires Carter to ride hard.
There is etouffee for breakfast as
Jennison lightly tickles the keys.
OK, Jennison is cool.

Parker & Ughi form a solid alliance on “Smoke” but the piece comes to an abrupt ending – an edit that is obvious.

Fifteen minutes of Opus performance closes the set. Ughi and Carter lock in and propel the beast upward. And outward. Jennison hides for awhile until the group coaxes him into soloing. Carter and Jennison fill out the space up top with a friendly battle – and the whole group slows the music to a magnificent ending.

Volume 2: Toronto Live!   ****

“Wondering” opens with an unusual lineup for the quartet: Carter on trumpet, Jennison on flute, Parker on tuba (and, of course, Ughi on drums). The music settles into a solid New Orleans shuffle after one mere minute. Carter's trumpet lines are solid melodic bleat fragments – and the whole groove becomes circular. The music fades out at the end. Parker and Ughi drive the funk groove of “Telephone Choice” on bass & drums, while Jennison's piano touches bring enough color to the proceedings that the music begins to glow from the inside. Another fade-out happens at the end of this track.

Parker and Ughi remain on their main instruments on “No Need,” but Carter switches to piano while Jennison continues to splatter paint on the overall sound via spatial marimba mallet drops. Parker opens the track with melancholic arco strokes. Beautiful autumnal melodic phrases from Carter dance across the top. A gorgeous mood piece.

This disc is the most eclectic of the bunch; but the successes found on this particular recording are the gems of the entire series. It clocks in at under 25 minutes but costs the same as the others. I say Quality Over Quantity. Dear consumer, if you can only spring for one of these discs, this is the one to get.

Volume 3: Rochester Live!   ***1/2

Carter's trumpet bleats ride on top of rolling waves of groove and sound as Jennison's piano / action / paints around them. Great as this is, the rapport between Ughi and Parker continues to be the main source of fascination to my ears. The forward propulsion is constant as they push the music onward, never in the slightest disagreement about where Forward is located. But when Parker switches to tuba on “You Think So?” he leaves Ughi to drive alone, preferring to punctuate the rhythm with bleats and blasts. Carter ceases on the opening and locks down with Ughi, the music intensifying right up to the end, which comes too soon (in the form of another fade-out).

A strange forced intensity prevails throughout the first half of “I Told” but things pick up more naturally once Parker puts down his horn and starts pumping the bass. “Casamef” fades IN as a chaos track that moves into a free, slow groove. “Noodles” features great interplay from Parker, Carter and Ughi while Jennison offers up counterpoint like it's his duty to do so. It's aggressive almost to the point of parody, but stay with it. It leads to the Cecil-like clusters of the intense “Always Nice,” featuring Parker on tuba (again). A strong ending to one weirdass ride.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Marco Scarassatti - Casa Acústica (Fragments From An Improvisation Diary) (Creative Sources, 2017) ****½

By Stuart Broomer

Marco Scarassatti is a Brazilian sound artist and improviser who is active in both European and South American circles. Casa Acústica (Acoustic House) literally refers to his home, most specifically a music room. He writes, “Between the years of 2014 and 2016 I maintained a regular routine of daily improvisations using objects, conventional musical instruments, as well as instruments invented by myself. This daily gesture coincided with the desire to register these improvisations in the form of a diary.

“During this time, approximately 100 hours of improvisation were recorded, which reveal aspects of this daily gesture, in the form of snapshots: listening to the environment, choosing the instruments, microphone positioning within the context of improvisational performance.

“The spontaneous visits and meetings of fellow musicians were also an integral part of the recordings; and an important characteristic of the diaries is that they reflect the daily occurences and events that happened to parallel them, such as the improvisation on the day of Ornette Coleman’s death.”

Eventually Scarassatti sent 18 tracks to fellow Brazilian musician Henrique Iwao, who made the final cut, resulting in the eight pieces that make up the hour-long Casa Acústica: fragments from an improvisation diary.

Listening repeatedly to Casa Acústica, one senses keenly that these excerpts were not chosen because they are particularly spectacular, but rather because they are somehow generally representative of what occurs in the original 100 hours. This is not a criticism of what’s here, but a commendation, for what the document presents has an extraordinary naturalness, both an immediacy and a lack of artifice. For various reasons, including the sense of actually sharing space, I seem to have spent far more time with it than I would usually spend with a recording, recalling repeatedly listening to John Cage’s Variations IV (Everest) virtually as background music fifty years ago.
This morning I put it on again, a moment later I was involved in a conversation, and as the first track began, I thought the distant barking dogs were the newly arrived dogs of a recently returned neighbor. As one goes through the cycle of these excerpted pieces there are episodes that reveal Scarassatti’s different activities and instruments. He is interested, for example, in simple home-made instruments (Walter Smetak, a Swiss composer who lived in Brazil, is an inspiration), including trumpets constructed of mouthpieces, hoses and bell-like objects that are used for both blowing and tapping, evident in the opening “Breath” as well as other pieces. Scarassatti also plays the viola de cocho, a three-fretted Brazilian folk instrument, with a cellist’s virtuosity, mixing plucked runs with percussive taps. An extended baritone saxophone solo recorded on the day of Ornette Coleman’s death reveals a range of delicate, airy and obscure sounds that one would rarely assign to the instrument.  

The range of Scarassatti’s explorations becomes evident with the sheer mystery of a track like “How to walk around a house blindfolded,” in which the musician’s percussion performance foreshadows our own disconnect from the visual world in our experience of the CD, drawn at once to two sonic worlds, the improvised and the environmental. Other pieces are duets in which he uses assorted sound sources with violinist Guilherme Antonio or shares various instruments with Mateus Dantas. A “subdued” violo de cocho—evidently struck—accompanies a “background mass,” along with what seems like a truck, suggesting Cage’s germane question: “What’s more musical: a truck driving past a music school or a truck driving by a factory?” The final track, “Decomposing panning – panning for gold, marble ball and interference noise” is a complex of liquid sounds and resonant, flexing metal, as well as struck and scraping sounds.

What is most beautiful about this documentation is that Scarassatti’s improvisations become inseparable from the sonic texture of life itself. His combination of spontaneity, chance, homemade instruments and the home environment ultimately open the process to the sounds and the experiential rhythms of the listener’s world, the tapping keys of my computer keyboard themselves seeming to join with that concluding metal pan.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bones - Haberdashery (Leo Records, 2017) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Haberdashery is the sophomore album of the Israeli Bones trio - Amsterdam-based bass clarinetist Ziv Taubenfeld, Berlin-based drummer Nir Sabag, and still-in-Israel double bass player Shay Hazan, all close friends since their childhood in the Northern Israeli town of Karmiel. Taubenfeld collaborated recently with renowned Dutch improvisers as Han Bennink, Ab Baars and Guus Janssen; Sabag collaborated with Polish reeds player Mikołaj Trzaska, and Hazan works closely with Israeli sax players Albert Beger and Stephen Horenstein and has more recently began performing with pianist Anat Fort.

Taubenfeld is the leader of the trio, credited as the main composer and also the producer of this recording from the Amsterdam club Bimhuis in October 2016. His compositions contain hints of chamber, haunted atmospheres, and contemplative moods, based more on loose, fragmented ideas than on coherent narratives. Maybe this is the reason why the album is dedicated to those who “surrender to the mystery and follow their hearts”.

Bones offer much more than intimate, abstract mysteries though. The strength of this trio has always been the immediate, intuitive connection between all three musicians, the democratic, balanced, and spacious interplay and the manner that all can weave and color patiently - in a “Snail’s Pace” as the first piece is titled - separately and collectively, a nuanced, profound textures out of a simple chord or even a sound. These qualities only grew stronger and deeper since the trio released its self-titled album last year, and followed the release with several European tours.

Haberdashery sounds like a series of free-associative, labyrinthine walks where you keep crossing and exchanging sonic reflections of your own and your associates. Only “No Name Letters” suggests some degree of rhythmic playfulness that may be associated with jazz. The last piece, “Cello” is the most impressive one here. A quiet meditation on delicate, fleeting sounds - whispers and breaths, distant, ringing bells and deep-tones arco touches.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Lisa Mezzacappa - Glorious Ravage (New World Records, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Glorious Ravage is an ambitious multi-faceted undertaking by Bay Area bassist and composer Lisa Mezzacappa. The work is organized around women, who late 19th and early 20th century,  transcended the stereotypical roles of the era and pursued their passions in science, travel, and more. On the recording, Mezzacappa works with a frighteningly talented large band (see personnel listing below) but cedes the spotlight to vocalist Faye Victor who transforms the words of the protagonists into song, and with four filmmakers, she developed accompanying visuals for live performance.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to see the work performed, complete with video, by a slightly different 15 piece ensemble at Roulette in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. Playing against the projections of the films, the full scope of the composer's vision was on display. In fact, the performance was sometimes near sensory overload - taking in the music and the movies in which surreal collages and sometimes metaphorical imagery followed the narratives of the women, who were botanists, mountain climbers, intrepid explorers, and more.

While the live performance and video added additional layers of experience, the music was robust enough to stand quite well on its own. In fact, it has taken me many listens, on the iPod through headphones, in the car, and on the stereo, to feel like I am getting my ears around the music. Easily digestible moments are interspersed with intense improvisation, and vocally, peculiar turns of phrases and near words can be thorny at times - all the makings of a challenging work that takes time to reveal itself fully.

The opening tune 'Veta' accompanies the story of Ida Pfeiffer, a world traveler from Austria in the mid-1800s. The music begins with patter from the percussion and plinks from the guitar. Victor is in from the start, singing the words that Pfeiffer penned about her experiences in the high altitudes of Peru. The vocals follow the contours of the words and their sounds, shaping them around the musical accompaniment. The title phrase jumps out from the track, and along the way, the vocals become more textural than meaningful. The second track, "Make No Plans" begins with a stilted marimba-laced looping rhythm. Victor comes in with a mix of scat and lyrics, while a chorus of deeper voices lays down a counter melody from time to time. Darren Johnston's trumpet solo, vibrant against the the guitar's textures and the swelling accompaniment, is a highlight of the track.

The mid-point in 'Heat & Hurry' is an orchestrated high -- the thick harmonies and alluring rhythm invite the listener into a lush and exotic soundscape. After a seductive interlude, sounds begin bouncing off of each other, and wordless vocals meld with a composed lines weaving through electric and acoustic gurgles and blips. This is all after the be-boppy intro shared by Victor and the band, which is followed by a moment of free interplay between the woodwinds.

I'd be remiss to not mention the scintillating introduction to the track "For the Dusky Mourner" featuring pianist Myra Melford and bass clarinetist Vinny Golia. The two, along with the percussion, create a forlorn but expectant atmosphere. As the track progresses, the bass clarinet continues to thrill - especially in a passage where it digs in over the guitar and pinched notes from the sax. The harmonium laced ending of the track is a mesmerizing feature (there is a fleeting moment that reminds me of the introduction on the Band's 'Chest Fever'). This only represents a few of the songs on the album, each one being quite interesting and different.

I possibly should have disclosed at the start of the review that I'm not that into vocal jazz. This is in no way meant to be disparaging, it's just an admission of my current philistine tendencies. That being said, I can honestly say that Glorious Ravage transcended my hangups. The work and joy that Mezzacappa took in researching the women's stories comes through, and is compelling in and of itself. However more so, that Mezzacappa, who says that she herself is not a trained composer, is able to make such an arresting and - at times - difficult music work so cohesively is a noteworthy accomplishment. Plus, the band is top notch, making the music even better. This is an album and story that is well worth digging into.

The band:
  • Fay Victor, voice
  • Nicole Mitchell, flute
  • Kyle Bruckmann, oboe
  • Vinny Golia, woodwinds
  • Cory Wright, woodwinds
  • Darren Johnston, trumpet
  • Michael Dessen, trombone
  • Dina Maccabee, viola
  • John Finkbeiner, electric guitar
  • Mark Dresser, acoustic bass
  • Lisa Mezzacappa, acoustic bass, conductor
  • Myra Melford, piano and harmonium
  • Kjell Nordeson, vibraphone/percussion
  • Tim Perkis, electronics
  • Jordan Glenn, drum set/percussion

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Pan-Scan Ensemble ‎– Air and Light and Time and Space (Hispid Recordings / PNL Records 2017) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

Pan-Scan Ensemble is a brand-new nonet, assembled by Paal Nilssen-Love and Ståle Liavik Solberg for a December 2016 Blow Out performance in Oslo. Thankfully, the group’s performance was captured and released, as it’s a superb example of free improvisation. Nilssen-Love’s creativity and talent has been well-documented and celebrated on this blog, and somehow he seems to raise the bar with each new release. For Pan-Scan Ensemble, he and Solberg, co-founders of Blow Out, brought together a improvising supergroup of sorts: Lotte Anker, Anna Högberg, Julie Kjær, Thomas Johansson, Goran Kajfes, Emil Strandberg, and Sten Sandell. One of the most interesting things about Pan-Scan Ensemble can’t be gleaned from this recording. The band sets up with Nilssen-Love and Solberg out front, Sandell on one side, and the horns lined up behind the drummers, alternating winds and brass. Judging by the videos linked below and the overall vibe of the album, the result is a kind of “wall of sound” that blends the individual voices into a multiphonic stream.

Air and Light and Time and Space captures 45 minutes of the ensemble, on “Air and Light” and “Time and Space.” In one sense, I was reminded of Susana Santos Silva’s Life and Other Transient Storms, which also featured Anker and Sandell. That album was also a 2-track supergroup improvisation, with big ideas in the titles and evocative playing in the music itself. In this case, “Air and Light” kicks off the album in a brief 12 minutes, and “Time and Space” takes up the remaining 33 minutes. (Although this is only available digitally and on CD, I imagine it’d make a really nice 10” double-vinyl release).

Nilssen-Love and Solberg open “Air and Light” with a spacious, percussive duet with echos of Han Bennink and Don Moye. After about four minutes, trumpet and piano punch through a space in the playing, and it’s not long until the six horns engage in a melodic call and response. Drawing on their experience in a half dozen assorted improvising groups, the players call out themes that recall blues, chamber music, and more traditional acoustic free jazz. Towards the end, a chorale section opens up, with the three trumpets in rotation around Anker. Drums and piano lay out for a long stretch, letting the section develop and flow in a few different directions. It’s a nice counterpoint to the drummers’ duet early on, and the entire group’s use of silence helps give the performance a nice sense of drama.
“Time and Space” wastes no, uhh, time getting started (forgive me). Clashing staccato blasts come flying from the entire group, an effect that works particularly well on headphones. Johansson, Kajfes, and Strandberg start to fill in space with some muted soloing, guiding the group over the course of several minutes, as Högberg, Anker, and Kjær re-enter with driving force. In its closing section, “Time and Space” transforms into a foot-stomping, synchronized powerhouse, with Nilssen-Love and Solberg keeping time, as the remaining seven players gradually peel away from the group and settle into their final solo improvisations.

Lastly, I just want to call out Lasse Marhaug, who mixed and mastered the album, and also created the album art. A talented designer, Marhaug’s album art for Nilssen-Love has become integral to the aesthetic of each one. The emphasis on “time,” the doubled band name, and the almost cellular backdrop give a rich impression of the music within, even before you’ve clicked play.

Live at Blow Out, Mir, Oslo December 20, 2016

Live at Kongsberg Jazz, July 7, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Lean Left – I Forgot To Breathe (Trost, 2017) ****

By Martin Sekelsky

Eyal Hareuveni’s recent e-interview with Paal Nilssen-Love revealed the release of Lean Left’s new record ‘I Forgot To Breathe’. The line-up features the same quartet of stellar musicians featured on their previous outings. The tandem of Paal Nilssen-Love and Ken Vandermark pair up once again with The Ex Guitars consisting of Terrie Ex and Andy Moor for some raucous free music. The album and track titles hint to a fascination with lung anatomy. Indeed, their music has raw, breathtaking beauty and physical intensity. They do not disappoint.

The album opener 'Costal Surface' immediately seizes the ears of the listener. The quartet’s audacious opening takes no quarter. Soon, the explosivity makes way for Vandermark’s deep baritone and tenor saxophone on a background of guitar-built abstractions before extending into silence.

'Margo Inferior' features a unit in search of common ground with Vandermark’s clarinet and Nilssen-Love’s drums inviting the guitars to play. Following a noisy discussion, they conclude in silence.

'Groove For Sub Clavian Vein' is the longest and most enjoyable track on the album. It features the quartet starting out slowly. They level soon, build towards an untenable climax, find the promised groove and pull up an impressive curtain of sound. The track also showcases Nilssen-Love’s love for otherworldly rhythms. Following the percussive intermezzo, the unit settles in a new, funk-like crescendo groove driven by Vandermark’s tenor sax. Following the climax, the track extends into electrical abstractions on a background of brushwork before Vandermark’s clarinet takes the track home.

'Oblique Fissure' starts of nervously with muffled saxophone joined by impatient guitars, causing reeds to squeal and bleat before drums join in. The discussion heats up and builds to a climax with the different voices making their points clear. They conclude in mutual agreement, then silence.

'Pleural Lobe' paints abstractly with guitar and clarinet leading the dance, followed closely by cymbals. Drums join the busy color communication in between the musicians before the track extends into abstract beginnings.

'Cardiac Impression', the final track and a direct reference to the artwork, starts off with Vandermark’s deep baritone sax and The Ex Guitars supported by frame drums. The quartet take the listener into a hold one last time with saxophone squeals and distorted chords before sounding farewell. Impressed indeed.

I forgot to breathe is a varied and intense effort by a stellar quartet that still has a lot to say. Recommended.

Addendum: This is a review of the CD version as appreciated through an audiophile system for best quality. The LP version contains one additional track entitled ‘Carnassials’. This reviewer never heard the LP version. Nevertheless, both versions come recommended.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Emmanuelle Waeckerlé - Ode (owed) to O (Edition Wandelweiser Records, 2017) ****

By Conor Kurtz

When I listen to Emmanuelle Waeckerlé's Ode (owed) to O, I'm pulled into a state of meditation. I feel relaxed; my body lays back, but my mind stays active. If I had to find a musical comparison for this sensation, I think I'd compare it to ambient music, but with a tighter grip. Of course, there isn't any wrong way to be affected by music, but I can't help but think that this is not at all what Waeckerlé intended – as this album is really quite serious. Although I've found this to be a delight to daze off to before bed, allow me to explain what makes this a much more special album than the many which may evoke a similar state.

Ode (owed) to O is the British artist's (simply calling her a composer wouldn't be doing her justice) first album to be released on Edition Wandelweiser Records, it clocks in at just over two hours, and it almost exclusively consists of readings of original conceptual poetry. That being said, the album is so much more than simply poetry reading: the album is broken into four pieces, two short and two long, and each comes with its own wonderful composition which I will elaborate on shortly. First, I'd like to discuss the nature of the text, which is very important.

When one first listens to album opener (story of), they'll likely have a tough time figuring out what exactly it is that Waeckerlé is talking about, assuming they haven't done any prior research. The sentences are in an odd order, much seems to have been left out, and lines and words tend to repeat themselves without any sense of pattern. The sentences are blatantly sexual, and seem to tell the story of a sexual experience by a woman named O. After hearing the album, it wasn't a great surprise to discover that the text was derived from Pauline Réage's 1954 novel Story of O, one of the first published feminist erotic novels (disclaimer: I have not read the novel), which tells the story of a sexually submissive woman named O and her voyage into sexual slavery. It feels so odd that Waeckerlé would choose to recite the text of a tale of BDSM in such a calm, abstract and relaxing manner, but the listener will come to realize that that is simply the nature of the feminist view Waeckerlé wishes to portray, which I believe to be quite different than Réage's. The largest, and most obvious, theme here is the release of O, referring to the letter O although it is certainly a representation of the character. More general metaphors can be found as well: such as sexual liberation, especially from a feminist perspective, the freedom of women as a much larger concept, or, more literally, the deliberate deconstruction of language which has been used in the art world for decades.

(story of) is the simplest track on the album, and is the only one to feature the composer as the sole performer. It is also, sadly, the only piece where the score / process is not publicly available on the composer's website. What it seems to be is a collage of sentences from the novel, with a special emphasis on the space between sentences, which she executes by pasting sentences into individual channels in sparse intervals. Rather than awkward digital silence, the piece uses a remix of a piece by collaborator André O. Möller (who also mixed and mastered the album) titled squire 62, which is a soft field recording primarily consisting of wind along with some occasional faint music deep in the background. (story of) is a provocative introduction to the album due to its explicit content, the time the listener is given to think about each sentence, and the insistent repetition of phrases. It sucks the listener into the world of O and heavily lays the feminist themes upon them, serving as an important piece of context, especially for those unfamiliar with the novel, for the more abstract experiments which will follow.

(looking for), the longest track at 52 minutes, is performed by a septet of speakers which includes the composer, André O. Möller and label owner Antoine Beuger. The background for this one is an edit of a field recording by Möller titled claude lorrain - ambient, although it plays a much smaller role in this piece than it did in (story of). (looking for) almost consistently has the sound of somebody talking, often multiple at once, so the specific words lose much of their importance. The performers are reading Waeckerlé's book Reading (Story of) O [], a deconstruction of Réage's novel, along with instructions [] which state to read a number of words containing O which coincides with the page number (1 on page 1, 3 on page 3, 2 or 5 on page 25, 7 or 9 on page 79, etc). What we get is a longform stereo portrait of words, several words are repeated several times by several performers, including the letter O; feeling more like an art installation than any other piece of music. It's simply a beautiful listen, and seems to demonstrate the joy of O, or why she needs freedom. Additionally, the very long fades in and out give the recording a natural feeling, and assist with the meditative atmosphere.

Next is O(nly), the album's other long track, at 45 minutes, and its greatest composition (in this reviewer's opinion). If the first track only used sentences which contain the letter O, the second only used words which contain the letter O, it only seems natural for the third to only contain the letter O. That is true here, but the twist is the use of instruments: Antoine Beuger plays the flute, and Samuel Vriezen plays the melodica. As per the score [], the performers read along to a new deconstruction of the text. When they find an O in a sentence, they begin to sing it, and its placement in the sentence dictates how they will sing it, and the instruments follow similar instructions. This makes for several possibilities for naturally occurring harmonies and patterns, which thoroughly excites me. Sadly, I found the performance here to be poor. The singers all sound awkward and amateur, which is likely is the case, and that's something that ends up being distracting (especially in vocal music). I can't help but feel that this piece would have become something special in the hands of more experienced vocalists. I don't mean to imply that I don't enjoy the performance, because I do, but it is easy to imagine a more affective performance. There is a long section at the end, the last ten minutes of the piece, where only the instrumentalists play, and I think that this turned out wonderfully. The two performers, Beuger especially, play intuitively and softly, creating beautiful harmonies only when necessary.

Album closer O(hh) is the shortest track at 10 minutes. O(hh) follows the path of the release of O, from full sentences, to sparse words, to repetitions of the letter, to empty breathes, to silence: a wonderful idea for an album closer, and this is demonstrated beautifully in the score []. Möller starts reading on his own, and Waeckerlé joins him a couple of minutes later on the page after his, making what I'll describe as an anti-round. It becomes even more wonderful when their text begins to sync up, due to their different breathing speeds. Similarly to O(nly), O(hh) allows for an instrument to accompany them – this time they decide on a surprisingly harsh synthetic tone. What this represents, I'm unsure, but it creates an interesting counterpoint to the speakers' soft voices.

It's clear that the four pieces work wonders in sequential order, charting the entire path of O's release and allowing O(hh) to operate as both a summarization and a final, complete release. I think that the significance of O will be different for many experiencers; it seems to represent a vague idea of femininity for myself, but I'd wager that it represents something more personal for Emmanuelle Waeckerlé, and for those with personal experience with the novel's subject matter. These notions are important and worth thinking about, but they aren't what fill my mind while I listen – my mind is actually near empty in those moments; it isn't until after that I realize the album's feminist connotations, or the significance of the text experiments. When I listen, I feel lull, and become likely to fade in and out. It's due to the soft voices, the repeated words and phrases and the comforting femininity; but perhaps what is most important is the way that the words and phrases are completely removed from context and diction. This allows me to take in the words superficially, without having to think of their meaning, which is not dissimilar to how a mantra works.

So, whether one is looking for a powerful feminist expression, a series of innovative text experiments, or a slab of avant-garde bliss, Ode (owed) to O delivers it in an exciting way. Although the performance of what would have been my favorite piece leaves more to be desired, Waeckerlé proves to me a powerful and multi-faceted artist, and I look forward to experiencing future projects of hers. And for those who I've managed to capture the curiosity of: I highly recommend reading the scores which I've linked, as they are all gorgeously presented.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - Karyōbin (Emanem, 2017) ****½

By Colin Green

Almost fifty years ago, on 18 February 1968, Kenny Wheeler (trumpet, flugelhorn), Evan Parker (soprano saxophone), Derek Bailey (amplified guitar), Dave Holland (double bass) and John Stevens (percussion) gathered at Olympic Studios in South West London for a session recorded and co-produced by Eddie Kramer, after normal working hours. The results were released later that year on the LP Karyōbin by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. There was a CD reissue by Chronoscope Records in 1993 from a remastering supervised by Parker. More recently, with a view to a further reissue, Parker passed the master tapes to Adam Skeaping, an engineer with whom he’s familiar, who in 2014 provided a remixed and remastered edition. That has now been released by Martin Davidson’s Emanem label. (There was also a CD release from Japan last year, taken from a vinyl rip.)

Such are the basic facts. Much has been written about the period, the innovative work of Stevens and SME, and this album, so we now move into areas where opinions differ, and this being free improvisation, there is often heated debate, and some grumpiness. Karyōbin is regarded by many as a pioneering album. When considering it later, Derek Bailey spoke with disdain about an obsession with dates – what came first – and sinking to the level of the antiques trade, but you don’t have to be an antiques dealer to take an interest in the past and what it produced. There is the danger of mythologizing, and giving things undue prominence (being the first doesn’t make it the best) and there must have been many other performances at the time which would warrant equal attention had they been recorded, but they were not. Unlike Bailey, for those who were not there, all we have is this album and a handful of others. Karyōbin is not merely a fortuitous curio however, and it retains the freshness and vitality that these and other musicians felt in exploring new territory outside their previous comfort zones. As Holland says: “This recording captures the spirit we shared of spontaneously discovering the music”.

SME was reduced to just two members, Parker and Stevens, when at the instigation of Kramer, Chris Blackwell of Island Records invited them to record, and they asked Wheeler, Bailey and Holland to join them. They had all performed with each other at the Little Theatre Club, but never in this combination, and due to the vicissitudes of musical life the grouping was never to play again. They got together at the Club a few days after the session, but only for the photograph which appeared on the back cover (see below).

We can hear glimpses of Stevens’ working methods on two previous Emanem, releases: Withdrawal and Summer 1967. On Karyōbin they coalesced into something quite new. Like many others, Stevens was looking for an alternative to traditional hierarchies dominated by certain instruments, taking place within a predictable format. He wanted a real assimilation, with everyone playing on an equal footing. Of course, music did not have to wait for free improvisation to discover the integration of equal, though distinct voices – the idea is as old as polyphony itself – but SME was bringing something new to the table, rethinking the dynamics of group play in improvised music, in this case, the jazz tradition and the standard instrumentation employed on the album, using material generated in the moment. In his original liner notes, Victor Schonfield summarised Stevens’ position as follows:
“[He] describes group music as "the idea of a musician being part of a larger whole rather than a separate attraction”…He must try to become fully aware at all times of what the others are doing, so that his own playing takes on the added dimension of a group personality.”
Later, Parker identified the two most significant features of Stevens’ “rules” as
“…if you can’t hear somebody else you are playing too loud, and if what you are doing does not, at regular intervals, make reference to what you are hearing other people do, you might as well not be playing in the group.”
Both Stevens and Bailey had also been fascinated by the music of the composer Anton Webern – Bailey had listened almost daily in his Fulham bedsit to a reel to reel tape he had made of Robert Craft’s recordings of the complete music of Webern, often at high volume and to the annoyance of his landlady. In his liner notes, Davidson cites Webern’s Quartet, Op. 22 (1930) for violin, clarinet, tenor saxophone and piano as particularly important. Both Webern and SME’s music has been described as “pointillist”, and although there’s some truth in that, it’s also a little misleading and misses something important. It’s not about atomisation: breaking material into fragments, but using tiny parts to create a greater whole. In the case of Webern’s Quartet, the texture is woven out of melodic particles – apparently trivial two and three note motifs, rising and falling -- which are dovetailed into a complex of ever shifting combinations. Parker has described a similar process in SME as “interconnected coexistence”, and it’s primarily this which gives the ensemble’s music its distinctive sonic colour, even though the language is very different from Webern.

What we hear is a kaleidoscope in constant motion – said by the jazz critic Duncan Heining, to be “quite one of the most lovely pieces of atonal music in any style” – having an almost quaint charm, a sense of playfulness (not frivolity) that belies some of the more grandiose pretensions heaped on it. There’s also an elusiveness to the music, captivating or frustrating depending on taste, as each musician is trying to respond to what others are doing, as distinct from what they themselves are playing, forming a sort of multiple feedback loop, criss-crossing the ensemble. Response is also dependent on resource, so that within this patchwork individual character remains intact, as heard in Bailey’s squeezed notes and metallic edges, the curlicue inversions and micro gradations of Parker’s saxophone, and Wheeler’s lithe, bright swoops.

Referencing what others are doing can take many forms. Some of the playing is imitative: small cells bounced around the instruments. Much of the time, it has more to do with affinities and contrasts in movement, shape and register than the actual notes played – brittle guitar against reverberant plucked bass, Wheeler’s modulations in tone circling the saxophone’s splintered line. Stevens uses his own custom-built kit, designed to sound at the same volume as other instruments. He’s light and frisky, with a supple touch, complimenting the fluid phrasing of his colleagues.

On first hearing, Karyōbin sounds like a continuous piece of music, and on the original LP it was simply split over two sides. In fact, the master tapes are divided into sections suggesting that the final version was compiled from separate takes. The parts are banded on this and the previous CD edition. They shift between intimate and chatty, and each starts slightly differently, from the collective spasms which give birth to Part 1 to the more confident flurries that open Part 6. There is the potential problem that a multiplicity of threads can result in a uniform texture. To thin the weave, and provide greater variety, from time to time players drop out for a period and re-enter. These can be relatively brief, leaving little duos and trios, or more lengthy, such as when saxophone and bowed bass play reciprocal overtones in Part 6.

The album’s full title is “Karyōbin are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise”, taken by Stevens from a track on an LP of Gagaku, Japanese court music. Not too much should be read into this; it’s a loose association evoking an alluring, alternative world, the kind of thing musicians use when they have to think of a name for something, and as Davidson remarks, it doesn’t sound like Gagaku, which is monophonic in nature. The soft gong in Parts 3 and 4 (a single take) could just as easily have come from a Gamelan orchestra: Stevens had a keen interest in the use of percussion in many genres. Karyōbin also shares the slightly exotic, crystalline timbre of blown, plucked and struck sounds heard in Pierre Boulez’ Le Marteau Sans Maître (1955) a work with which it’s been compared, though the compositional methods are diametrically opposed and is unlikely to have provided any direct inspiration.

Some were critical of the 1993 reissue, feeling that greater instrumental separation had been achieved at the expense of ensemble sound. This edition’s mix is more even and smoother, less forensic but still allowing details to emerge, particularly Stevens’ airy percussion. Like looking at Miró’s Constellations paintings or the mobiles of Alexander Calder, one of the pleasures of this music is attending to the assorted configurations and the relationships between local and global – subtle cognates and variants against the assemblage as a whole – something easier to grasp than articulate as within the bustle players move in and out of focus, sometimes rapidly, other times with an easy grace. To an extent, this is a matter of listening perspective and is aided by the mix, which gets the balance just right, illuminating both the dazzling surface and what lies beneath.

The musicians appear to have been satisfied with the album except for Bailey, possibly one of life’s contrarians, who told his biographer, Ben Watson, that he never really liked it. In terms of its impact, one shouldn’t underestimate the importance of major label distribution. It meant that Karyōbin was more likely to appear in ordinary record stores, and record libraries (before the Internet, an important resource for the inquisitive) and although its sales were small in comparison to other albums on the Island label, in the long run this, along with the seductive sound-world, must have contributed to its exposure and higher profile – not that there was much competition, with few improv albums available at the time and most hard to come by. The LP was released on the Hexagram sub-label of Island, established to feature the music of Stevens, Parker and Bailey, but it never got beyond this single release. Island concentrated on better-selling artists – Jethro Tull, Traffic, Fairport Convention – and Kramer, who had been the principal engineer on Axis: Bold as Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, went to New York to work on Hendrix’s next album, Electric Ladyland, and stayed. Not long after the session, Holland got the call from Miles and also left for New York. When he played the album to Miles he was told: “Just don’t expect my band to sound like that”, more an observation than an opinion.

In January 1971, the same musicians, with Trevor Watts on soprano saxophone rather than Parker, recorded So, What Do You Think? (Tangent, 1973) which is arguably, a more accomplished session in terms of the tight integration Stevens was after. Bailey found it the more satisfying musical experience. Davidson has turned down the opportunity to reissue the album as he finds the percussion to dominate both the music and the mix, not something I’d noticed. On listening again, the drums have a closer balance and are less crisp than on Karyōbin, but to my ears don’t sound obtrusive. Given Davidson’s efforts to chronicle SME’s music, his decision is surprising, but he’s clearly a man of principle and not prepared to release material about which he has serious reservations. Since the album was only available on vinyl, hopefully someone else will provide a CD reissue to at least give the listening public the chance to assess its merits. There’s also Quintessence (Emanem, 2007), which includes an 85-minute performance from London’s ICA Theatre from 1974 by the quintet of Stevens, Parker, Watts, Bailey and Kent Carter (cello, double bass), a more expansive affair. The CD has sold out and is awaiting reissue; a digital download is available from Subradar.

Karyōbin, So, What Do You Think? and Quintessence sound rather different from other SME music, which is probably down to their especially rich instrumentation and the personnel. All three albums are highly respected though inevitably, they have their detractors. Quintessence has been described as one of the greatest examples of free improvisation. Bailey’s biographer takes a very different view, and Peter Brötzmann regarded this kind of playing generally, as symptomatic of what he called “the English disease”.

Undoubtedly, Stevens’ way was not the only means of exploring the interface between freedom and coherence. He wanted to avoid what he considered to be the formalised and somewhat stale structures and practices of jazz, yet solutions can just as easily become standardised, and as Watts subsequently put it:
“Most of the music was played within a fairly strict idea of what freedom was…That kind of involvement gives you as many problems as it solves in other ways.”
Notwithstanding that Karyōbin is a snapshot from something much larger; it remains a valuable and bewitching example of improvisation where each part is integral to the overall effect. All told, an album that should be in every collection.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Paul Rutherford / Sabu Toyozumi - The Conscience (NoBusiness Records, 2017) ***½

NoBusiness Records, based in Lithuania, is one of the most significant labels operating today in the field of free jazz, focusing on both new projects and archival, usually live, recordings.

In early 2017, NoBusiness inaugurated a new series in collaboration with another label that shares the same operational strategies, the Japanese Chap Chap Records. Active since the early Nineties, Chap Chap has released both new works (like the fundamental Golden Hearts Remembrance by Wadada Leo Smith), and valuable archival recordings (Sabu Toyozumi with Han Bennink, Motoharu Yoshizawa with Evan Parker, Mototeru Takagi).

The first volume in this new series is in a way a mirror of the collaboration itself, as it features two musicians from opposite parts of the globe. The late Paul Rutherford, an early practitioner of free improvisation in England in the early Seventies, helped define the very essence of European free music; Sabu Toyozumi is one of the protagonists in the excellent, and still little known, Japanese free jazz scene from the same period, and he's still very much active to this day.

The live recording contained in The Conscience comes from a concert held in 1999 at Cafè Jumbo in Tokoname, Japan, and it was originally meant by Sadamu Hisada, the concert promoter, as a simple documentation of the event, with no intention to release it. The sound quality betrays its origin, with a slightly uneven mix that sometimes risks covering the subtler aspects of the music, Rutherford’s nuanced playing in particular. However, these are minor deficiencies, and the recording quality is in general more than adequate.

Rutherford and Toyozumi already recorded together the year before, a session that would be later self-released by the drummer on the record Fragrance. This previous experience was clearly beneficial to the performance at hand: building on a common language based on free jazz, while pointing to even more abstract territories, the musicians demonstrate an immediate understanding of each other's playing, building on an urgent, unrelenting exchange of ideas.
The record consists of a constantly changing free-form improvisation, divided in five tracks that share the same basic traits. Trombone and drums often proceed in parallel directions, suddenly locking in tight rhythmic exchanges or diverging in abstract textural explorations. The absence of a clear direction is disorienting at first, but the richness of timbres and dynamics explored by the musicians guarantees the strong involvement of the listener, called to decipher the intricacies of their improvisational dialogue, its contradictions and mysterious flow.

The Conscience is a prime example of free music at its most daring, an ever-changing musical landscape where the only constant is surprise.

Paul Rutherford – trombone
Sabu Toyozumi – drums


Friday, November 10, 2017

Max Johnson – In the West (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

By Troy Dostert

After a string of fine recordings in recent years, including a concept album in 2014 devoted to the classic 1960s television series The Prisoner, Max Johnson’s latest record, In the West, sees him approaching the legacy of one of the musical legends of cinema, Ennio Morricone.  Of course, it’s not the first time Morricone’s been paid homage by adventurous jazz musicians; most readers of this blog will think instantly of John Zorn’s iconic Big Gundown album as perhaps the most noteworthy example.  While not quite as idiosyncratic as Zorn’s inimitable renderings, Johnson’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” medley, the centerpiece of this record at over 21 minutes in length, provides a wonderfully rich and evocative treatment of some of Morricone’s most memorable music.

But before we get to the Morricone, we’re treated to three tracks that are almost as good, in which Johnson and his partners showcase their craft with well-constructed, highly engaging music.  Johnson has selected his colleagues judiciously, with pianist Kris Davis, drummer Mike Pride, and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn all able to inhabit Johnson’s distinctive compositions expertly.  Johnson has a knack for writing tunes that grab you on the first listen, but which have just enough oddness that there’s something vaguely unsettling about them: really the perfect sensibility for tackling Morricone’s music, when you think about it.  And though the first three cuts are all Johnson’s, they do have a bit of Morricone’s element of surprise, as for instance on the opener, “Ten Hands,” which starts with a funky, odd-metered riff, featuring Davis’s energetic runs and Johnson and Pride’s steady backing, before taking a detour soon after Alcorn’s entry, when she pushes the track in a much more abstract, ambiguous direction with her atmospheric, effects-driven musings.  As the band takes the music into this more ambiguous realm and leaves the beat behind, Johnson and Alcorn together explore more uncertain terrain, only to become re-energized as Davis’s piano comes back in to define the central motif once again, and Pride’s rock-inflected drumming guides the track into more familiar territory.

The same tension between the known and the unknown characterizes “Greenwood” and “Great Big Fat Person,” both of which offer ample opportunities for listeners to get lost in the moody, mysterious settings they create, while still providing enough of a tether to prevent us from being completely unmoored.  Alcorn’s contributions are central, as she can veer back and forth between serenely beautiful passages and much more caustic expressions.  And through the dynamic team of Johnson and Pride, both of whom can generate or release the pulse at will, the structure of the music seems always in a constant state of either emerging or dissolving.

Which leads us to “Once Upon a Time in the West.”  Its scope is suitably cinematic, heavy on ambience and a slowly-developing arc, with Davis’s sparse, lyrical statements essential for delineating its melodic contours.  But although there are moments where Morricone’s lush romanticism shines through, Johnson is typically more content to provide oblique, sidelong glances at the melodies of Morricone’s music.  The reference points are there, but they rarely fully coalesce; it’s less of an overt tribute than a perceptive re-imagining.  At the same time, Johnson makes abundant room for each of the musicians’ personalities to color and shape the music as it is played, giving the music its collective character and vibrancy.  And by its conclusion, we’re left with the lasting impression that we’ve been taken on a long, winding, and eventful journey.

Add this one to Johnson’s growing list of impressive releases, and yet another terrific entry in the Clean Feed catalog for 2017, in what is turning out to be an especially strong year for the label.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Alister Spence Trio - Not Everything But Enough (Alister Spence Music, 2017) ****½

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Australian, Sydney-based Alister Spence Trio - pianist Spence, double bass player Lloyd Swanton, known from The Necks, and drummer Toby Hall, has been working together for twenty years and still eager to evolve and explore new territories. Spence worked recently with pianist-composer Satoko Fujii and her Japanese Orchestras in Tokyo, Nagoya and Kobe and recorded before with American pianist Myra Melford and Scottish sax player Raymond MacDonald. Swanton’s impressive suite Ambon, drawing from his uncle’s secret diary kept whilst a prisoner of war in World War II, was released in 2015 (Bugle Records). Swanton also leads his own group, The Catholics, where Hall plays the drums. Hall has also collaborated with pianist Mike Nock.

The double-album Not Everything But Enough, the seventh release of the trio, offers two totally different incarnations of the Alister Spence Trio. It was recorded in two sessions in 2014 and 2016. The first disc summarizes the trio work so far and features six compositions of Spence and one trio improvisation, recorded in October 2016. The second disc suggests new territories to explore and expand in the future and features seven solo piano improvisations of Spence from the same recording session plus 14 guided trio improvisations recorded in December 2014. Both discs emphasize the trio imaginative improvisational skills and its constant need to experiment with new sounds and dynamics.

The first disc features the trio diverse dynamics, alternating organically between the written segments and the improvised abstractions. The usage of samples by Spence and subtle percussive sounds by Hall, mainly glockenspiel and bells, on the title-piece enhances the tension building of the cinematic, minimalist groove. “As True” deepens the mysterious, minimalist vein where Spence piano hovers over the light pulse. “In a Good World” and “Peculiar Orbit” highlight the strong, multi-layered rhythmic sensibility of a trio. “Camphan Frog Song” suggests an enigmatic textual statis, closer to The Necks dynamics, stressed by the bow work of Swanton and the glockenspiel of Hall. The reserved and lyrical “Time and Place” sound as coming from ECM catalogue of impressionist Nordic pianists. The last piece on this disc,“Hopeful”, resumes the cinematic, minimalist groove.

The second disc 21 short “Room”-numbered improvisations experiment with demanding dynamics, all attempt to suggest new means of interplay outside the trio comfort zone. These improvisations also incorporate new sonic possibilities to the trio language, affected by Spence playing on the prepared piano and Hall on the glockenspiel. These brief improvisations investigate dark and abstract atmospheres, ambient, gamelan-like pulses, fleeting, ethereal melodies, sparse, fractured rhythmic patterns, weird-sounding drones and intense, chaotic free-improvisations.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Matt Mitchell - A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings, 2017) ****½

By Derek Stone

It’s fitting that Matt Mitchell’s other release this year, the excellent FØRAGE, is a collection of Tim Berne tunes. Like Berne, Mitchell deals in the subterranean and the serpentine - any given piece is bound to have layers upon layers for the listener to work through, and there’s a dizzying intricacy to all the twists-and-turns that pop up. But here’s the thing: it never feels like a chore. Mitchell is a master of fusing the accessible and the arcane, and his music never lacks a sense of unbridled (if disoriented) joy. Matt Mitchell’s last album of original recordings, in 2015, was the brilliant and expansive Vista Accumulation. That release, with its lengthy run-times and winding, exploratory compositions, could potentially be a forbidding entry-point into Mitchell’s complex sound-world, but A Pouting Grimace, his latest for Pi Recordings, condenses and refines the elements that made that previous album such a delight. Despite a significant trimming-down of track lengths, there are no compromises made with regards to either the compositions or the personnel performing them. The pieces here are just as heady and labrynthine as ever, and Mitchell has pulled together some of the best names in contemporary jazz to help breathe life into the project - people like Ches Smith, Tyshawn Sorey, and Anna Webber, to name but a few.

“Bulb Terminus” is a brief preamble of sorts, led entirely by Mitchell. In the span of a minute, it gently dips the listener into an inert pool of electronics; when “Plate Shapes” comes in, however, that pool is better likened to a vortex. Performed by a septet, the piece is immediately striking for its rather unusual instrumentation, not to mention the idiosyncratic compositional elements. Along with Mitchell’s cascading piano-work, Ches Smith (on vibraphone) and Patricia Brennan (on marimba) help to create a playful sense of urgency; twinkling cataracts fall from every direction, and even Mitchell’s Prophet 6 synthesizer joins in at one point. Jon Irabagon and Sara Schoenbeck keep the piece suspended in a surreal, carnivalesque atmosphere - Schoenbeck’s nasally bassoon flits and flutters about in the left channel, while Irabagon takes on an exciting, incendiary sopranino sax solo that is a sight (or sound?) to behold. Kim Cass supplies the next piece, “Mini Alternate,” with a strutting bass-line that would be rather funky if not for Scott Robinson’s rubbery bass sax figures sprawling themselves out overtop, all while Kate Gentile (on drums) and Dan Weiss (on tabla) keep the track locked into a relentless groove that meshes perfectly (if not predictably) with Mitchell’s manic repetitions. Mitchell’s strengths as a player are on full display here: while his left hand conjures up dense tonal clusters, his right zigs-and-zags, looping away from and back into the central melody with aplomb. “Brim” is cut from similar compositional cloth, but features a wider array of instrumentation and a greater number of players - twelve, all in all. It’s not surprising that the famed Tyshawn Sorey has been handed conducting duties here. The piece is a veritable maelstrom, with each player engaged in their own hectic, contrapuntal dance; to be sure, though, it’s not complete chaos. If anything, it resembles the stop-and-go flow of city traffic. On the ground, in the midst of it, things can be overwhelming and incomprehensible. Hang out for a bit above the surface, however, and you can see the underlying order. Likewise, “Brim” operates within its own internal logic, and each listen offer up new layers of rhythm, flow, and flux. On the Pi Recordings webpage for the album, it’s noted that “Brim” is “the primordial genetic broth of the whole record,” with all of the other tracks being derived from it. In some ways, then, it’s a skeleton key, with compositional notches and protrusions that you’re likely to spot elsewhere on the record. “Deal Sweeteners,” another Mitchell-led electronic excursion, closes out the first half of the album with soft, cyborgian swathes.

Compared to the sonic density of some of the prior tracks, the opening of “Gluts” comes across as laconic. Mitchell and bassist Cass engage in a dizzying dance with one another, with Gentile echoing Mitchell’s complex shapes on the drums. Midway through, Anna Webber (alto flute) and bassoonist Schoenbeck step in, unleashing abstractions that are as gentle as they are circuitous. Not soon after, though, “Heft” parts with any semblance of tenderness, thunderous drums and rumbling bass sax working together to cast the piece in an uneasy, apocalyptic glow. In the second half, Irabagon screeches out yet another wild solo, notes raining down like fire-and-brimstone. After such an explosive track, it’s perhaps fortunate that “Sick Fields” is so sparse; despite being performed by a dectet, the piece moves about in splintered segments, individual instruments rising up from the ashen muck only to disintegrate again. If “Brim” represents ceaseless flux, then “Sick Fields” denotes the ruptures, the breaks and hesitations. Final piece “Ooze Interim” is once again led entirely by Mitchell; compared to the unremitting movements that make up much of the rest of the record, this last track might as well be a slab of granite: it pushes forward slowly, the distended tones only occasionally broken up by electronic drip-drops of sound - very much like beads of water falling from a stalactite. As a closing track, you couldn’t ask for much more. It counteracts the frenetic flow of the other pieces with its own dilated sense of time and, while it doesn’t offer up any definite sense of closure, it produces a quieting effect that helps the listener to contemplate all that they’ve just heard.

In A Pouting Grimace, several experiments are being carried on: experiments in composition, in tone, texture, and technique, and even experiments in just how one should construct an album. For the most part, Mitchell’s latest work is a roaring success - the record feels complete, and there’s a sense of narrative heft here that many similar-sounding projects lack. Not to mention, the pieces themselves are incredibly listenable; sure, there might be multiple melodies vying for your attention at any given moment, but it can’t be denied that each one of those melodic threads is worth following. With A Pouting Grimace, Mitchell has taken the best elements of his previous work and, as if by alchemy, melted them down into gold. Don’t let the title fool you - you won’t be grimacing when you finish this one.

Jeb Bishop and Dan Ruccia - Scratch Slice Jag (Out & Gone Music, 2017) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Behind the pop and dub structures of P.I.L’s music laid a great amount of truth and irony. Just before John Lydon managed to make a mockery of himself – both as an artist and a human being – for good, they released “This Is Not A Love Song”. This was a song about the willingness of the listener-consumer to demand more from the music industry and its workers-artists. Full of distrust towards them, it declared: it’s you who want less.

It seems to me that the same applies today, even in an era that the freedom brought by the internet has democratized the way we listen and, most importantly, the way we choose to listen. The possibilities are numerous (but not endless of course) when you can find everything on line just by googling.

Behind all of this there lies the will and belief of many artists, that they can self-manage the outcome of their work and that this outcome deserves a listen. Now Out &Gone records comes into the picture. With a small but very diversified catalogue of recordings this is another honest excursion into the unknown territories of improvisational music, Out & Gone releases are surely worth a try and repeated listening.

The same applies for Scratch Slice Jag from the duo of trombonist Jed Bishop and violist Dan Ruccia. This is an unusual pairing when it comes to instrumentation, so – at least in my eyes – by definition adventurous. By using a variety of artistic means such as extended techniques on their instruments and improvisational gestures, they achieve two goals: they manipulate the listener into a journey that starts from European improvisation and ends into classical musical tradition, and vice versa.

What most intrigued me listening to Scratch Slice Jag was that both happened at the same time. I see this as a blessing for a recording. Music – art in general – does not emerge out of the blue like a parthenogenesis. Especially for an instrument like the viola which carries the burden of a long tradition behind it. It’s quite exhilarating and refreshing that it gets a new treatment by producing new sounds. Do not get me wrong here, as someone with zero musical studies, my aim is to express the inexpressible in music: energy, pathos, sounds that stimulate reactions in the mind and the heart of the listener. Not notes.

The interaction of the two musicians is amazing. They have been playing together for a while, during Bishop’s stay in the same town as Ruccia. Ok, while it’s always good to travel the world (but not very eco-friendly indeed), meet people and play with new partners, nothing compares to the good old tradition of performing steadily with a number of people. It can produce results such as this recording. A unison that amazingly but not unexpectedly comes from two wholly different instruments.

The tracks themselves do not in any way follow a certain path. The noisy outbursts are quite a few and scattered throughout the CD. It seems that both of them play attached to their feelings, not operating in a pre-determined plan. They let the compositions lead them. At the same time no one is leading, they go hand in hand. I did not expect that two so diversified instruments would produce such a fresh and full of adventure album. Off course, it’s the artist that makes it happen. Prepare to be surprised as I did.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mary Halvorson - Paimon: The Book of Angels Volume 32 (Tzadic, 2017) ****

By Brian Kiwanuka
 Those who pay close attention to the more avant-garde leaning portion of the jazz scene, particularly the musicians based in New York City, will know that Mary Halvorson stays extremely busy. On top of constantly performing, be it with groups like the Tom Rainey Trio or her fantastic Octet, the guitarist has recently showed up on studio releases by Jason Moran (BANGS) and Tomas Fujiwara (Triple Double). This June, while in residency at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, Thumbscrew, a band she is in with Fujiwara (drums) and Michael Formanek (bass) announced that they were recording two new albums to be released next year. Despite all this, Halvorson still managed to make some time to form a quartet to record the final volume of John Zorn's Book of Angels series: Paimon: The Book of Angels Volume 32.

Zorn is a ridiculously prolific multi-instrumentalist and composer, whose presence and work, which includes the hectic and heralded Naked City, has been an important force in the world of experimental music for decades. The Book of Angels series, which started with Astaroth: Book of Angels Volume 1 by the Jamie Saft Trio in 2005, is the second of Zorn's Masada songbooks. Masada is a project which the composer undertook as a fusion of the musical legacy of his jewish heritage and his more modern, jazz-influenced experimental tendencies. As both musicians are frequently connected to hubs of avant-garde music like The Stone, where Zorn is the artistic director, it is extremely fitting that Halvorson, one of the most unique jazz guitarists today, was selected to provide the final pages to the Book of Angels. As the leader of the last volume of the Book of Angels, Halvorson is the closing act for over a decade of albums which have featured a wide range of musicians, including guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Joe Lovano. When put in historical context it may seem a bit daunting, however, the performance on Paimon: The Book of Angels Volume 32, shows that Fujiwara (drums), Miles Okazaki (guitar), Drew Gress (bass) and Halvorson were more than up to the task.

Although odds are that a portion of the fanbase intersects, those who have come to Paimon more familiar with Halvorson's catalogue than with the Book of Angels are in for a treat. The Eastern-European-Klezmer-based compositional style that Zorn brings to his Book of Angels is radically different from the angular, occasionally hectic and searching style Halvorson brings to her own work on records like Away With You or Illusionary Sea. Zorn's compositions are generally shorter and more overtly structured than Halvorson's, with many songs here having themes that are brief, repeated phrases of notes that are often restated to close out the piece. The completely different compositional context Halvorson has inserted herself in here, combined with her idiosyncratic and adventurous way of playing guitar, makes for an extremely compelling listen.

One of the most interesting aspects of Paimon is the interplay between Halvorson and Okazaki, who has a distinctly more slick, clean and relatively traditional guitar style in comparison to the band-leader's tendency to use her note-bending delay pedal and other effects. The sounds coming out of her guitar on this record range from ghastly, hazy tremolos ("Phul") to distorted walls of sound with electronic bleeps and bloops ("Beniel"). The clash of styles between the two guitarists creates a great juxtaposition, which is arguably at its peak when Halvorson takes a secondary role and comps behind Okazaki on tracks like "Ruhiel" and "Yeqon".

At times, Halvorson's seemingly sporadic and impressive comping approach seems to suggest that the guitarist has taken a page out of the book of Thelonious Monk. On "Ruhiel" Halvorson takes the first solo, brilliantly bending and weaving her way around the main theme of the song, before lightly accompanying Okazaki's solo with a gorgeous distant echo effect. Whereas on "Yeqon", she accompanies Okazaki's hypnotic central theme at first by sliding up and down her guitar, giving the song a languid atmosphere. Halvorson eventually decides to comp more erratically on "Yeqon", occasionally quoting and warping the motif before breaking out into a strong solo in the third minute.

Paimon is consistently engaging throughout its 42 minute run-time. The rhythm section of Fujiwara and Gress, although it is almost never in the spotlight, provides a solid backing for the two guitarists to express themselves. Fujiwara has a brief moment in the spotlight during a high-energy solo at the end of "Beniel", however, how the drummer gradually drives the tempo to extremely high-speed during "Dahariel" may be his finest moment on the record. Gress is featured during the calm "Verchiel", stepping into focus for a quality solo in the third minute of the tune. Although the brevity of the songs here means that Halvorson has less room to experiment with than usual, she is still no less interesting and the addition of Okazaki's highly accomplished playing makes certain that the space is used extremely well. Even though her eccentric style may still be an acquired taste for some, Halvorson's Paimon is an engrossing end to Zorn's Book of Angels.

Monday, November 6, 2017

DEK Trio – Construct 3: Divadlo (Audiographic Records, 2017) ****½

By Gustav Lindqvist

This third and final album in DEK Trio’s Construct-series was recorded in concert at Divadlo 29 in Pardubice, Czech Republic, March 16, 2017.

Reedist Ken Vandermark, pianist Elisabeth Harnik and drummer Didi Kern has released two very nice albums so far and this third is no exception. We’re looking, as with Construct 2, at 2 longer improvised performances that both exceeds the 21 minute mark, and a shorter closing act of around 4 minutes. The album starts with ‘Cold Water Shock’ which is about as introvert as you’ll hear this trio. Having heard the two first Construct albums however, I know that I need to pay close attention to what’s happening. Scenes change quickly with DEK Trio. Harnik seems to be determined to stay in a calm landscape without pushing Vandermark or Kern in any direction. After two thirds of the song Vandermark manages to lure her out with a repetitive string of notes and sure enough she’s traveling alongside him for a while. Kern has a distinctive style on this first song compared to how I’ve heard him in the first two Construct albums, and provides stability and steady percussive beats. Vandermark becomes more lyrical towards the end of the song, which must be seen as ‘his’ show almost entirely even though Harnik ends the song with furious runs over the piano.

The second song, ‘Accident Technique’ also carries a more calm and soothing character. The trio explores different sounds; clicks, pops, rings, dings, dongs, gongs and everything in between, to build up tension over the first minutes. Vandermark guides his notes through this landscape in an elegant way and I’m wondering whether there’s going to be a release of energy soon. Passing the six minute mark we’re taken even deeper into the minds of the DEK Trio. Kern creates an uncertain mood by presenting a nervous and vibrating beat. It doesn’t last very long and I find myself waiting for the next move. Vandermark leads the way trying different melody patterns taking them in different directions. Kern and Harnik joins in and we’re off the last journey of free explorations. The contrast between what in this song must be said is a lyrical Vandermark, and the strong and independant Harnik is exquisite to hear. And then, suddenly they meet. I quickly realize that I had began to relax, and I’m almost surprised by the burst of energy. This is how I like DEK Trio best; in the fast paced, manic runs in and out of the music. Here’s also where Kern and Harnik takes up space and shine. Kern comes back to steady beats from time to time, he’s doing this across all three Construct albums. He’s giving (himself too?) us an island to rest on, an interesting balance between the free and the structured. It’s very elegant as it also provides a strong dissonance with Harnik and Kern. The song ends with DEK Trio returning to pulsating sounds, bells and tingelings.

The very last song of the Construct series, ‘Falling Trees’ is only four minutes but surprisingly full of interesting details. Clicks, pops, screeches, scratching. Vandermark is calling out, asking, almost pleading. And then...the last word is said. it’s over.


DEK Trio has released 3 really nice albums, and I would like to recommend that you pick up all of them. They’re all different in character, but as a triple album it becomes a profound and deep experience and an insight into the great mind of Ken Vandermark and the DEK Trio. I’ve gotten to know Elisabeth Harnik and Didi Kern as well, and I must say this trio is going to be fantastic to follow moving forward. I like Construct 1 and 2 a little bit better than Construct 3 - but as whole, this is a fantastic set of albums.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

DEK Trio – Construct 2 - Artacts (Audiographic Records, 2017) ****½

By Gustav Lindqvist

This second album in DEK’s Construct series was recorded in concert at the Artacts Festival, St. Johann, Austria on March 10 this year. On Ken’s bandcamp site the album is called Artfacts, which is not correct although a bit witty. The concert was the festival’s opening act, and it must’ve been tough to go on stage after DEK Trio finished playing. They’re playing 3 performances for a total of about 45 minutes, even though the last piece; ‘For the Birds’, is a mere 2 minutes and 41 seconds which takes us to a peaceful place in which we’re invited to slowly listen to a brief and pleasant landscape, nature like perhaps. It’s a nice way to end this great album, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. The album kicks off with the 18-minute act ‘Xerox Collage’. We’re thrown straight into an improvised game of lead-and-follow. The trio follows each other magnificently and I find myself smiling when trying to figure out who’s calling the shots before resigning to just enjoy the chase. Sometimes I’m convinced Ken’s trying to leave Harnik and Kern hanging with his way of running away with an idea, but they see him through, and Harnik completely takes on the challenge with her own expressive bursts and runs over the piano. Minute after minute, this playful way of taking an idea, offering it to your fellow artist, letting him or her take over or to just improvise together continues. It’s highly satisfying to try and figure out what’s happening within this receptive trio. About halfway through Kern delivers bells, whistles and other drumming paraphernalia over a somewhat mystical landscape. It’s surprising at first having just heard the high paced run from the trio. Vandermark quickly gets the idea and starts to interlock sounds with Kern and almost as being called upon from a distance, Harnik returns to the scene and the trio takes off again. What a way to start an album!

The second song, ‘Paper Tongue’ starts with Harnik alone in a monk-esque mood. Exploring and searching for structures. But it doesn’t last and soon she’s running across the piano. It arrives to a murmuring sound at which point Vandermark and Kern joins in. Another long improvisation starts to take shape. It’s fast, expressive and passionate as Vandermark keeps throwing out bright fast notes to meet with Harnik’s. The trio keeps transforming the song into new directions, changing the landscape to something more soothing, only to tear it up the next minute. Scraping and screeching sounds meets dark piano notes, meets sad melodies, meets silence. The way this trio collaborates over improvised ideas is simply masterful. Even though the form is very free the collaborative efforts in improvisation over a broad variety of styles and sounds is clearly what this trio wants to offer us. Thank you for that DEK Trio. Thank you very much!

Oh, and the album ends with the sub 3-minute song ‘For the Birds’. A delicate praline of sounds. Birdsounds or sounds for birds or something in between.