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Friday, June 30, 2017

Taku Sugimoto & Minami Saeki - Songs (Slub Music, 2017) ****

By Connor Kurtz

When composer and guitarist Taku Sugimoto first met vocalist Minami Saeki [1], he managed to sell her one of his CDs. Whenever they met next, she told him that the CD was "too difficult to fully understand"[2]. Despite this, they decided to write a few songs to go, which Sugimoto made easier to digest although, in his words, they ended up quite weird. After having the chance to perform Sugimoto's "difficult" music Saeki must have changed her mind on his music, because it wasn't long until they were planning their debut collaborative CD [3].

The initial plans for the album were a series of vocal compositions: some for solo performance, and some for small chamber ensembles. These pieces could very easily be seen as a successor to Sugimoto's gorgeous Saritote series [4]. They were simple, reductionist and gorgeous. They maintained strong pop sensibilities, although favoring a very modern sense of atmospheric presence to anything resembling a hook or chorus. The album's first track, Kondo-Sun, is the first track written, and the first track recorded. An album of this would have been pretty, of course, but an album of nostalgic pop songs that fall this close to previously released material is hardly what avant-garde music fans are looking for.

 As it often happens, when an artist settles on an idea, there's something newer and better sitting around the corner. When Sugimoto and Saeki recorded the first version of Kondo-Sun, they decided to record it in a public park. It was at this point when Sugimoto stumbled upon the idea that would make Songs so wonderful: public, outdoor recording, with portable recorders. Now, this may not sound like the most original or innovative concept [5], but it's Sugimoto's application which makes it so fascinating. The rest of the pieces, which comprise the majority of the 33-minute album, were composed specifically with this concept in mind.

The chamber pieces were removed, and the album returned to little more than solo female voice. Some of the tracks featured Sugimoto on guitar and Wakana Ikeda [6] on flute, although they always place supporting roles to Saeki's soft vocal. These compositions are slow, soft and subtle, leaving plenty of room for the listener to focus on the atmosphere: the beautiful non-silence which fills the park. During some of the longer stretches of silence, it becomes easy to imagine the real-world sounds as an improvising soloist being cheered on by the rest of the band, which will surely return once they have given the soloing environment the time they deserve. Another comparison would be to the concerto: where Saeki is the soloist and the world is her orchestra. This makes me wonder, what might Sugimoto do to conduct his living orchestra?

One thing that he does is explore the world surrounding the performance with his portable microphone [7]. On tracks like a, Sugimoto walks around Saeki as she sings, his footsteps can clearly be heard shuffling through the tall grass. Her voice shifts between channels, generating a wonderful surround-sound experience which I never would have expected from the album. This seems to pay certain debts to Dancing in Tomelilla [8], an album which had French field recordist Éric La Casa exploring the interior and exterior of a club while a jazz group [9] performed inside. In the background, we hear many things: there's children playing, the sounds of the bugs and birds which fill the world, faded conversations, applause [10], cars driving by and even a man singing to himself. Something I adore is the large amount of time that Sugimoto has left between tracks; it seems to be just enough time to clear the previous song from your mind and prepare for the next.

Saeki's voice is quite interesting. It would be very easy to refer to it as breezy, or any other air-based adjective, which, of course, fits the music quite well. That much may have been expected, but what is surprising is just how amateurish her voice sounds; I can say with confidence that she has not been classically trained [11]. This reminds me of how amateur actors are occasionally used in art films, or how they may feel more believable in commercials; it brings a very human and very relatable aspect to the music. It's beautiful, but not pristine. It accepts the flaws of the human voice, which one might find as a metaphor for the flaws in the human soul, and finds even more beauty within them. This works exceptionally well in the opening setting, which I previously called alive.

On most of the songs which features Sugimoto's guitar, he primarily bows, which is a welcome change of pace to his iconic picked style [12]. Ikeda is featured on all of the same songs as Sugimoto, except for V, where Sugimoto is absent, and ? [sic], which is a Sugimoto solo piece. The two of them typically follow Saeki's voice quite closely, like a soft echo. On I, Sugimoto performs on a ratchet [13] rather than his guitar. The mechanical cranking sounds surprisingly naturally here, working as a constant source of pseudo-environmental noise to tint the canvas. Saeki is credited as performing with a wooden chair on this piece as well, in addition to her voice. This seems to be little more than some tapping and creaking. ?, the album's second penultimate track, is both prefaced and postfaced [14] with long pieces of faux-silence, and consists of a very brief bowed guitar improvisation [15]: I count 6 sustained chords over a period of 40 seconds. The reason for this track's existence may have to do with the fact that it's bookended between re-recordings of the album's first two tracks, representing a break within the return to memory which may or may not represent a return to the womb where the memories of the album's simple melodies may be forgotten.

When Saeki referred to Sugimoto's music as too difficult to understand, he wasn't just, slightly, offended, but he was surprised [16]. Sugimoto hadn't thought of his music as especially sophisticated, although there's no denying their avant-garde applications. What he means to say by this is that, despite the far reaches of their experimentation, his compositions are often aesthetically beautiful, and easily digestible, and this is something especially true here. The album, very simply, sounds great. Sugimoto seems, more than ever, interested in the melodies which become immediately adored by the human ears, and in addition to that, interested in finding out just how much can be stripped from them while they continue to maintain their beauty.

Songs is an album full of what are seemingly opposites: avant-garde, yet beautiful, conceptual, yet simple, minimal, yet full, composed, yet free. It's an album that can easily be enjoyed in the foreground or the background; it could fill a meditative yoga studio or be the subject of musical research. It can be easily loved by fans of avant-garde music or those just looking to bliss out. And for those wondering if a vocal album in Japanese may be hard to enjoy, as I'm sure I have very few (with that number approaching 0) Japanese readers, I can confidently say that, having heard the English lyrics of Saritote and having noticed the simple repeated phrases here, don't worry about it [17].

[1] The event was a screening of a film titled Village on the Village made by a friend of Sugimoto which starred Saeki, but Sugimoto failed to identify Saeki as the woman from the film.
[2] At this point I can't help but wonder what that CD might have been.
[3] This is also Minami Saeki's overall debut CD.
[4] The Saritote series comprised of 2 discs on Slub Music, which added up to little over 20 minutes of music, and one live album released by Ftarri. They were in collaboration with vocalist Moe Kamura.
[5] Manfred Werder, a collaborator of Sugimoto, has composed pieces for little more than the sounds of public parks, after all.
[6] Wakana Ikeda is the head of the Suidobashi Chamber Ensemble: a group of Japanese improvisers, including Sugimoto, who perform the music of Western avant-garde composers like Michael Pisaro and Antoine Beuger.
[7] I am unsure if this is actually Sugimoto recording, the sleeve does not state anything regarding who recorded the songs (nor does it state any personnel aside from the performers). I suspect it might be Sugimoto, however, since this seems to only happen in the tracks where he is not performing.
[8] Dancing in Tomelilla was released on frequent Sugimoto collaborator Taku Unami's Hibari Music label.
[9] Unimportantly, the recorded jazz group was called the Cool Quartet, and included Axel Dörner on trumpet and Sven-Åke Johansson on drums.
[10] I wonder if this is applause from Sugimoto and whoever might be with them, applause from on-looking strangers, or applause at something completely irrelevant.
[11] If this review is ever translated into Japanese so that Masami Saeki can read this: If you have indeed been classically trained as a vocalist, I apologize.
[12] It's worth noting that his earliest recorded document, 1994's Slub, was performed on violoncello rather than guitar.
[13] Sugimoto is no stranger to atypical instruments in his compositions; his Music for Lightsabers has a quintet of Japanese improv titans playing with toy lightsabers.
[14] I'm aware that postfaced isn't a word, but when reviewing avant-garde music, it seems fair to use avant-garde language.
[15] It is not stated anywhere that the piece is improvised, this is merely a suspicion.
[16] This is a slight exaggeration; he does make a point to say that he does understand why one might think that.
[17] Although, I would be curious to hear the lyrics of Sodome et Gomorrhe

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Geri Allen 1957-2017

Sadly, the creative jazz community lost another landmark musician this week with the passing of pianist Geri Allen. Like Arthur Blythe, who we lost in March, Allen will probably be most remembered for her pan-stylistic contributions, as she was able to incorporate a deep respect for the history of the music into her compositions and playing while remaining resolutely forward-focused. This gave her music an adventurous yet accessible quality that endeared her to jazz fans of all stripes, whether traditional-minded or avant-gardists.

A native of Pontiac, Michigan, Allen attended Cass Tech High School in Detroit, where she first studied jazz under the guidance of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Cass Tech was over the years a breeding ground for jazz talent, including among its alumnae Kenny Burrell, Regina Carter, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Alice Coltrane, Billy Mitchell, Lucky Thompson, and Gerald Wilson, among others. Allen’s connection to Detroit jazz never waned, as she was a frequent presence at the Detroit Jazz Festival, often in the company of some of the living legends of the city’s jazz scene.

Allen’s willingness to explore musical pathways well beyond mainstream jazz shaped her myriad projects, whether working with Ornette Coleman (on both of his Sound Museum records, from 1996) or re-imagining Motown pop songs (on Grand River Crossings, from 2013). It is a testament to Allen’s spirit of generosity and self-effacement that she was often viewed as strongest on the records in which she was not a leader: classic examples would be Etudes (with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, from 1987), Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (from 1985), and Steve Coleman’s Motherland Pulse (also from 1985). Her under-appreciated trio release with Terri Lyne Carrington and David Murray, Perfection (from 2016) was a striking reminder that Allen remained an utterly dynamic, creative force even to the very end. She will be missed.

- Troy Dostert

Michaël Attias Quartet - Nerve Dance (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

By Derek Stone

For more than ten years now, Michaël Attias has been a steady contributor to Clean Feed’s veritable treasure trove of contemporary jazz - beginning with 2005’s Credo, he has, time and time again, proven himself to be one of the finest bandleaders around. On his most recent effort, the evocatively-titled Nerve Dance, Attias is joined by Aruán Ortiz on piano, John Hébert on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums. Needless to say, it’s a noteworthy list of names, one that is likely to make the ears of many of this blog’s readers perk up with interest. And lucky for them, Nerve Dance delivers in all the ways that matter - compositionally, melodically, texturally. While I’d stop short of calling it a “Grade-A, 100% masterpiece,” it certainly floats to the top of the pile of jazz recordings released this year - and I use the word “float” quite intentionally, as the eleven originals here (nine from Attias, two from Hébert) often have a sort of airy, dream-like otherworldliness about them, ensuring that the “dance” referenced in the album’s title is perpetually carried out just a few centimeters above the ground. That’s not to say it’s all lightness and cherubic charm, however; there’s a darkness here too, like the disquieting rustle of wings in a pitch-black forest. In other words: this thing has got atmosphere, and lots of it.

Look no further than the opener. “Dark Net” storms right out of the gate with its elliptical swing; Nasheet Waits is the structural backbone of the piece, offering jarring rhythmical changes and busy, rolling frills that keep the composition in a perpetual state of motion. Ortiz makes reference to Monk and Hill with stretches that are often laconic, but sometimes trip over themselves in complex rounds. Hébert, as always, is a pleasure - he’s not the flashiest player around, but his workmanlike dedication to producing “the bass-line of best fit” is admirable. Finally, composer Attias brings a full-bodied warmth to the alto sax that belies the topsy-turvy, serpentine nature of the compositions - while he could easily get away with ear-piercing squeals and guttural honks (à la perennial avant-garde altoist Braxton), he instead settles on an approach that is deep, rich, and melodic, with occasional forays into the blistering altissimo register. That’s not to say that he’s straight-laced or boring, however. On “Le Pèse-Nerfs,” witness his wild, breathless runs and frantic shrieks. It speaks to Attias’s versatility that the opening of the very next track, “Rodger Lodge,” sounds like something you could hear being played in an upscale jazz lounge.

While the first few pieces are jaunty, uptempo numbers, the album eventually takes a turn towards compositions that are more subdued. “Moonmouth,” for instance, rides on a simple and alluring melody from Ortiz, one that ascends the scale in a tentative, measured way. “La Part Maudite” is similarly understated, with Hébert bowing out gruff notes, Ortiz working in fits and starts, and Waits encircling them both with his limber patterns that always seem to be in a searching mode. The opening of “Dream in a Mirror” is something of a low-key showcase for Hébert - here, his solo does indeed sound like something plucked out of a dream. Once the others join in, the dream solidifies and we’re left with a piece that alludes to late-period Coltrane in the way it blends Waits’ billowing percussion, Ortiz’s intoxicating clusters, and Attias’ near-mystical presentation of the main motif. If “Dream in a Mirror” is the initial burst of ecstasy, then the following piece “Ombilique” is what happens when your spirit re-enters your battered, exhausted body: a slow return of consciousness, with all the lumbering movements and half-formed thoughts that that entails. By the time “Nasheet” rolls in, you can’t help but imagine that you’re nearing the end of a journey, even if it was just a journey to some other mental state. Considering it carries his name, you’d expect “Nasheet” to be where Waits finally lets loose and blows us all away with his manifold techniques. He does, somewhat, but it’s in the form of a slow burn - he’s too good to be showy, so he instead regales us with his loose-limbed rhythms, clattering patterns that, thanks to the exceptional way in which this album was recorded, move fluidly back-and-forth in the mix.

As a unified statement, Nerve Dance works wonderfully. Not only are the compositions top-notch, but the players themselves have a telepathic understanding of when to “show their cards,” so to speak, and when to lay low. Not to mention, the sheer range on this thing is appreciable: there are tracks that swing, tracks that float, tracks that partake in rapturous dances, and even tracks that howl in pain. I recently came across a quote from Robert Penn Warren; when talking about poetry, he noted that it “demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside.” I couldn’t help but relate the quote to this album, and jazz in general. When the music is good, and when you are truly engaging with it, it feels like every nerve in your body is indeed activated, spiralling and spinning and whirling. This “nerve dance” is one of the reasons we love free jazz, and anyone who gives Nerve Dance a shot will get to experience it in full.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Oliver Lake & Flux Quartet - Right Up On (Passin’ Thru Records, 2017) ****½

By Jonathan Brokenbrow

The new release on Passin’ Thru Records shows the perfect subtleties and energy that can be achieved between a leading free jazz saxophonist and one of the most exciting contemporary classical quartets at present.

Oliver Lake has an impressive solo output, as well as being a founding member of Trio 3 and The World Saxophone Quartet. His back catalogue has shown him to be a consistent and invigorating force within jazz and the new release doesn’t show any sign of him slowing down. Right Up On is a beautifully crafted collection of Lake’s compositions for string quartet, with Lake only present himself on 3 of the albums tracks (5 sisters, Hey Now Hey and Disambiguate). The presence of Lake on only 3 of the albums tracks allows the Quartet to interpret free jazz and improvisation within the realms and context of a contemporary string quartet.

The exploratory nature of the Flux Quartet (Tom Chiu, Conrad Harris, Max Mandell and Felix Fan) is something that has aided them throughout their career. Their back catalogue is a rich and varied curation, including highly praised performances of Morton Feldman’s string quartet compositions, and a list of collaborative artists that show their diverse musical interest. Right Up On shows the skill that the quartet possess and reveals the opportunity for further exercise between the contemporary classical and free jazz spheres.

The Flux Quartet sound throughout the recording that they are immersed and excited by the music they are playing. On a personal note, one of the aspects I love about jazz music in its broadest terms is the passion of the players. No group of musicians look or sound as if they are having as much fun performing as a collection of jazz players who are completely lost in the music. Through the quartets performance of Lake’s composition the players have indeed found this thrill. 

Oliver Lake – Auto Sax
Tom Chiu – Violin            
Conrad Harris – Violin
Max Mandell – Viola
Felix Fan – Cello

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Necks - Unfold (Ideologic Organ, 2017) ****½

By Philip Coombs

As we northern Canadians have finally stopped shoveling and started mowing our lawns after another long and dark winter, one can hear summer music blasting our of cars still riding on snow tires out of fear of a relapse. I can very clearly remember back when my band mates and I were starting to get our first taste of summer driving. We had an old beater of a car that worked fine except for the cassette deck. It had enveloped and held hostage the album Shaved Fish by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band so whether we wanted it to or not, that was the soundtrack of that summer.

I stumbled on that memory as I was driving to work and realized that I had been playing Unfold by Australian heavyweights The Necks for quite some time now and was becoming the soundtrack of this summer, albeit by choice this time.

I have fallen into the well-orchestrated trance of this group before, usually, a 45-50 minute single track ebbing and flowing and eventually releasing you only to realize that you had arrived at work largely by muscle memory.

The one major difference with Unfold is the number of tracks. This time around, instead of expanding on one central idea, they have given us four. The reason for this is the decision to release Unfold on vinyl, thus based on the restraints of the medium, four unnumbered sides were written to be listened to in whatever order strikes you. I was not one of the lucky ones to get in on the vinyl before the first pressing sold out but my digital download proved to have the same effect. Unfold became the album without a sequence.

How would The Necks navigate these parameters? Why, quite well, thank you. Chris Abrahams (piano and Hammond Organ) takes the liberty of driving 'Overhear' with his Hammond and on 'Rise' he shows his searching side with the piano. Lloyd Swanton (electric and double bass) and Tony Buck (drums and guitar) surround Abrahams like the outside of a puzzle and the more they squeeze inward, the more the piano responds to the claustrophobia.

The other two tracks, 'Blue Mountain' and 'Timepiece' are stomping grounds for the rhythm section. Buck and Swanton blast their way with what seems to be a full attack but only to realize soon enough that there are still layers that can be found. A refreshing approach for a group that has 19 records under their belt.

Here I am again sitting in my car, parked outside a grey building wondering if I can finish this track before I have to off the ignition and walk out into the morning sun and the only thing I can think of is I hope all my Australian friends are enjoying winter.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sexmob - Cultural Capital (Rax Records, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

For some reason, I lost track of Sexmob after 2003's Dime Grind Palace, and so after catching a show by another long-standing Steven Bernstein group "Spanish Fly" a couple of months back, I wondered why this was. Diving back in with Cultural Capital had me instantly a bit nostalgic for the late 90's/early 00's in New York when there were groups like Sex Mob, MMW, and Groove Collective mixing up off kilter grooves and stylistic mashups. This brings it all back, with Steven Bernstein's humor and musicality very much intact. 

Kicking off with 'Street', each member of the band is quickly re-introduced starting with the slick and subtle beat from drummer Kenny Wollesen, and the tandem melodies of trumpeter Bernstein and saxophonist (and guitarist) Briggan Krauss. Tony Scherr's bass is not far behind (musically speaking, its right on!) and at times Krauss' guitar adds a bit of bite. The song is a quick introduction to the recording and they are soon into 'Step Apache' in which Bernstein and Krauss play an infectious melody and counter melody over a sly mambo like rhythm. 

The short tunes come in rapid succession, each one distinct and tightly composed. For example, the mood become spiritual on 'Helmland' as Bernstein plays a heartfelt tune over forlorn accompaniment. '4 Cents' which begins with a wash of cymbals slowly picks up, turning into a pulsating groove. The next song seamlessly segues into some buzzing saxophone work, its sweet flow befits the name 'Syrup'. The rapid succession of songs keep the album moving along and pack in an incredible assortment of ideas and expression. 

Not exactly free jazz, but surely freeing, Bernstein and his crew in Sex Mob have dropped a fun and invigorating album with Cultural Capital. I'm happy I checked back in after so many intervening years!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leap of Faith Orchestra – Helix (Evil Clown, 2017) ****

By Troy Dostert

One thing you can say for sure about David Peck (PEK), the founder and inspirational force behind the Leap of Faith Orchestra: he’s on a mission.  A relentless mission, if the ever-expanding discography of the group is any indication.  A quick glimpse at Leap of Faith’s bandcamp page reveals dozens of recordings made within the last few years alone—and eight already in 2017.  A good number of the group’s releases are live recordings, such as Helix, recorded at Third Life Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts in March of 2017, and released the day after the performance, with PEK using a portable recording set-up he describes in a post to a previous review on this blog.  There is a classic DIY ethic to the group’s approach, equally evident in the making, producing, and selling of the music.  While the cumulative effect of this strategy can be a bit overwhelming for the listener/consumer—how exactly does one choose from this bewildering array of releases?  Where even to begin?—you have to hand it to PEK for utilizing all the resources at his disposal in pursuing his musical calling with fierce independence and tenacity.  This is no-holds-barred improvisation in its most challenging, uncompromising form, and it takes a special kind of resilience, determination and, perhaps, quixotic idealism to forge ahead with such an endeavor as long as PEK and his comrades have been doing it.

So what’s particularly interesting about this recording that might help distinguish it from the myriad other releases in the Leap of Faith catalogue?  It’s really a “double” release, in the sense that the first half of the recording is comprised of four roughly 15-minute improvisations played by “sub-units” of four members each from the larger orchestra, while the second portion consists of a longer, 50-minute improvisation involving all thirteen members of the orchestra.  While there have been plenty of performances with larger groupings of the orchestra, PEK points out in his notes on the recording that this is the largest assemblage of Leap of Faith to date in which the goal is (almost) totally unstructured improvisation.  In the past he’s used various scripts and rules to prevent the larger group from falling into chaos during unfettered improvisation, but here there was only one constraint: that every member of the orchestra had to lay out for twenty minutes of the performance.  (Leap of Faith typically uses a large digital timer in its performances to allow for rules like these to be followed.)  So with Helix, then, we get to hear the musicians in both formats: the smaller-scale, more intricate improvisations made by just four members at a time, as well as all the power and (semi-) controlled cacophony the larger group can offer.

The sub-unit performances are quite strong overall, with each offering distinctive possibilities through intriguing instrumental groupings.  PEK, who plays a sizable assortment of horns, as well as tube-o-phone, slide whistles, and many other items, is featured on the first, “Arc,” along with long-standing Leap of Faith member Glynis Lomon (cello), Matt Scutchfield (violin), and Matt Samolis (flute).  Lomon and Scutchfield define a lot of the terrain, as Lomon’s huge, extravagant sound is a constant dominant presence, with Samolis and PEK offering their own multifarious explorations, PEK in particular drawing from the astonishing array of sounds his range of instruments can create—and yes, manic vocalizations are also present.  Sub-unit #2’s performance, “Torsion,” showcases the guitar of Grant Beale and guitar synthesizer of Chris Florio, along with Zach Bartolomei’s own menagerie of horns (including not only alto and soprano sax but melodica and slide whistle as well) and Kevin Dacey’s drums.  Dacey’s percussion provides a somewhat more cohesive feel to this track, generating periodic bursts of collective fire, although with plenty of room for the others to maneuver as they see fit.  Sub-units #3 and #4 are similarly varied in both instrumentation and dynamics, with creative touches throughout, especially in percussive effects, something that Leap of Faith uses extensively; many members of the group have a range of options (glockenspiel, crotales, various metal objects, etc.) that they can use to complement their primary instrument(s).  This is critical to the anything-can-happen aspect of the group’s identity.  The listener has to be prepared at all times for bizarre juxtapositions and anarchic flourishes when listening to this music.

As for the 50-minute improvised extravaganza with the entire orchestra, “Helix,” it begins with what PEK calls a “wood cloud texture,” with most or all of the group members employing a barrage of percussive implements, before the piece starts to assume a shape formed around musical fragments introduced by several of the players.  The overall mood of the first section is a reticent one—perhaps conditioned by the 20-minute rule mentioned above, which would seem likely to subordinate individual self-assertion in the interest of maintaining group cohesion.  Witness the dusky, chamber-like segment between pianist Eric Zinman, cellist Lomon and guitarist Beale about ten minutes in, with plaintive phrases from PEK riding overhead, for example.  But it doesn’t take too long for the intensity to build, and as Dacey’s drums begin filling the room one senses the surging power waiting to explode.  It never quite does completely, and things do generally stay under control—perhaps a bit too much, in fact, as at times the performance does seem to lose energy—although there are some hair-raising moments along the way capable of startling and challenging even the most experienced listeners of freely-improvised music.

“Helix” is a striking example of what can be done by larger ensembles within the realm of free improvisation.  Perhaps PEK will soon give this a try with even larger permutations of the Leap of Faith Orchestra.  Given the group’s trademark spirit of intrepid risk-taking, it’s hard to imagine he won’t.

Note: the following YouTube links include the entire recording, and they really are valuable in shedding light on the group’s music.  Especially with the frequent switching of instruments, having a visual referent adds another level of interest to this fascinating ensemble:

(Sub-unit #1 – “Arc”)

(Sub-unit #2 – “Torsion”)

(Sub-unit #3 – “Curvature”)

(Sub-unit #4 – “Tendril Perversions”)

(Leap of Faith Orchestra – “Helix”)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Thollem | Mazurek - Blind Curves and Box Canyons (Relative Pitch, 2017) ****

By Philip Coombs

There were so many images swirling around my head as i first listened to this I really had a hard time beginning this review. I knew once I got started I would be fine but the first words were tough.
What was getting me was a feeling of the familiar, and strangely enough, it was not a musical one. (Turns out it was evoking images of Bolaño’s 2666.)

I went hunting for a digital image of the cover to place in this review while trying not to read anything that was written about it before but in this case I stumbled across a little of the back story of why this record came to fruition. It all started in a small Texas town called Marfa, an artist hideaway about an hour away from the Mexican border. (I read most of 2666 in Mexico.) It was here that Rob Mazurek had a residency which ultimately led to a showing of his art, an exhibition that was called foreshadowingly enough, Rob Mazurek: Marfa Loops Shouts and Hollers, as the three tracks on the record are Shouts, Hollers, and Howls.

So instead of writing this review, I became absorbed in the newly revealed visual art dimension of this musician that I have followed and admired for years. Some of his work can be seen in the background of the album art. Also worth looking up his work to give you a better idea of what the title, Blind Curves and Box Canyons, means.

This recording was created to commemorate and celebrate the culmination of his residency. Along with Thollem McDonas, (modified electric piano and analog effects) they create the perfect backdrop to walk around a gallery and study all things painterly but also a stand alone piece of music that will resonate with fans of Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra’s work but on a more personal level.

The record starts with Shouts, and with comes bells, a twisted manipulated musical statement until Mazurek (cornet, voice, bells, modular synth, and sampler) gives a guttural shout, (a reoccurring element of the album) and there is a slight pause as Mazurek’s horn blast through letting you know that it’s not all about the artwork. Let’s also not think it’s all about Mazurek either. Thollem has not only a great ear to keep up with some of the chants and yells, he also has an understanding of the goal at hand here, often times it jumping into the rabbit hole and the rest of the time it’s climbing out of it.
Hollers is a very melodic interlude of sorts as electric piano and cornet tangle themselves around each other until sample after sample join the soup. One of the greatest wins in this 21 minute track is the sonic shifting between ideas, instruments and samples. With Thollem hammering the keys and Mazurek’s voice rattling around the bandwidth, it produces a new joy every 15 seconds or so.

The album closes out with a great sounding electric piano with plenty of stops and pauses almost taunting other instruments to join the epilogue. Mission accomplished as a cacophony of drums and rattles and synthesized noises completely drowns it out. Howls, in turn become a fitting 6 and a half minute closer when Thollem plays a repetitive descending line until the track fades off into the West Texas night.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Angelica Sanchez Trio - Float the Edge (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

When I first heard Angelica Sanchez was releasing a new trio album, I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of grouping we would get. An inveterate experimenter, Sanchez has led a long-time quintet with an unusual sax/guitar/piano lineup, co-led a trio with husband Tony Malaby and Tom Rainey, recorded a solo album featuring toy piano, and also appeared in duets with Wadada Leo Smith and Kris Davis, on the latter’s excellent Duopoly.

On her new trio outing, Sanchez brings in two players she has a long history with, though this is (I believe) the first time they appear on record together: bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. All three are exceptionally non-idiomatic, their styles revealed through approach and expression than specific motifs, tones, or timbres. As such, Formanek’s playing is in something of a Henry Grimes style, melodic and emotionally rich, accentuated by sudden leaps and lively arco. Sorey emphasizes his cymbal work, creating a metallic thread that’s woven through Formanek and Sanchez’s duelling improvisations. That’s not to imply there’s a clash, but rather to express how their ideas are constantly in response to each other, the collective alive with the thrill of collaboration.

“Shapishico” opens with Formanek on bass, before Sanchez’s walking melody comes in with a slanting counter-rhythm that takes the group straight into a long improvisation. At the center of the album is a trio of songs that provide extensive solo room for each member. On “SOWF (Substance of We Feeling),” Formanek sets the tone with a two-minute solo, in which he previews some of the motifs Sanchez and Sorey will develop throughout the rest of the track. “Hypnagogia” opens with Sorey, on mallets, creating an open rhythm that gives the piece some John Luther Adams-like undertones. Sanchez takes a languid solo to begin “What the Birds Tell Me,” laying out a curious theme that gets picked up by Formanek and Sorey. It’s a relaxed, abstract piece in which the trio plays with silence, crafting a kind of meditation.

The quality of the mix is worth hearing on a great set of speakers. Like a film using deep focus, there are endless details to explore, and the depth captures a richness emanating from, especially, Sanchez’s piano. I was so taken with the sound that I looked up who worked on this, and it was Joe Marciano and Max Ross, who, it turns out, are responsible for some of the best sounding albums of the past decade (and then some). Sanchez’s voice is crisp and her vision feels particularly focused in this trio setting.

Angelica Sanchez, Brandon Ross, and Chad Taylor at Arts for Art 2016 Evolving Fest “Not a Police State/Justice Is Compassion,” January 22, 2016:

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Stephan Crump – Rhombal (Papillon Sounds, 2016) ****

By Troy Dostert

Here’s a little gem that almost fell through the cracks from late last year.  Stephan Crump, one of the most in-demand bassists of the moment (and a fiercely-skilled improviser: check out his recent session with Ingrid Laubrock and Cory Smythe as an example), put a band together in 2015 comprised of veterans Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums, in order to perform compositions Crump wrote to come to terms with the death of his brother, Patrick.  Although the somber occasion of the music’s writing is reflected in some poignant emotional moments, the overall mood of the record is positive and life-affirming, as the irrepressible spirit of these four outstanding musicians rises to the surface again and again during the album’s nine expansive, well-constructed tracks.

The two-horn harmonies for O’Farrill and Eskelin are delightful on tracks like the opener, “NoD for Nelson” and “Grovi,” the former drawing inspiration from the Blue Note sound of the early/mid-60s and the latter having more of a laid-back, 70s funk-jazz feel.  The warmth of Crump’s buoyant bass and Sorey’s active but never excessive drum parts give each cut an inviting, approachable aspect; there’s a lot of generosity in the sound of this group.  Eskelin’s sinuous tone and just-so-slightly relaxed delivery contrasts perfectly with the clarion precision of O’Farrill’s lines, and there’s plenty of room in the music for each horn to complement the other during their respective solos.

Most of the tracks have a straightforward rhythmic sensibility, keeping the groove consistently at the forefront.  But there are some opportunities for some interesting departures, fueled by the creativity of Sorey and Crump.  Listen to the way the third cut, “Skippaningam,” which starts as a pretty conventional up-tempo piece in straight swing time, undergoes a gradual transformation as Sorey brings down the tempo and Crump follows him, allowing for the horns to meander independently for a while in loose time before Sorey and Crump re-establish the pulse and lay down another groove.  An even better example may be “Birdwhistle,” perhaps the strongest cut on the record.  Anchored at first by a loping, four-note ostinato line from Crump, a subtle shuffle from Sorey on brushes, and some avian-like darting interjections from the horns, the piece gradually opens up as Sorey and Crump loosen and stretch the rhythm while raising the intensity level; by the time Sorey switches to sticks and Crump locks in behind him with a driving fervor that Eskelin amplifies with a scorching solo, we’re given an exhilarating example of the fire these musicians can generate, even on a record that generally refrains from fanning the flames.

The record’s closer, “Pulling Pillars/Outro for Patty,” is the perfect finish to what is an engaging and uplifting set of music.  Although the track begins with an unmistakably mournful aspect, with the hymn-like opening from Crump’s arco setting the mood, it ends with an almost dance-like coda, as the horns sing over a jubilant, bouncy accompaniment from Sorey and Crump that reminds us of the hopeful spirit that permeates this music.

A welcome release from a fine group, and one especially suited for displaying Crump’s emerging chops as a writer.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Marginal Consort - Diplarios School, Athens, 4-23-2017

Marginal Consort at Work (Photo by Kiki Papadopoulou)

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

While the crisis is spreading like a virus in every social and everyday aspect of life in Greece, there seems to be no room and, accordingly, no funding for experimental arts. However, the Borderline Festival, now in its seventh consecutive year and probably the leading organisation for experimental music in Athens, is a welcome exception. Hosted by the Onassis Cultural Center, this year it actually expanded its list of venues, reaching out even to the port of Piraeus and re-familiarizing us with places of Athens’ recent history like the old school of Diplarios, where the Marginal Consort performance took place.

By making general assumptions you only get parts of the picture and never the whole truth, but when it comes to Japanese music - be it psychedelic rock, noise and of course free jazz - are but a few constants that provoke my senses. Anarchic, often wild, ritualistic music is, among others, what you may find from this country with such a long tradition in music of many varieties, and tradition is not always a bad word if you know how to make it beneficial for the present.

Photo by Kiki Papadopoulou
A few years back Marginal Consort (the quartet of Kazuo Imai, Kei Shii, Masami Tada and Tomonao Koshikawa) released an amazing four LP set on PAN records. I consider this release on the best of the 00’s, but still, something was missing in action. Well, after watching for three whole hours those four non-musicians (as they call themselves), performers and improvisers, the missing element was exactly this: the live experience.

The four musicians stood in the four corners of the big room, seemingly disinterested in each other or anything outside of their small warzones. They made noises of all kind with found objects, really everything you could imagine (hell, it must be a drag to set up all these things). To listen, it seemed more appropriate and fitting not to choose one place but rather walk around the space. For me it was by following the energy flow - and, please, do not call me a hippie of some sort. Others preferred to stay at one place with eyes closed or wide open glancing at all the amazing things that were taking place in all corners of the room. The sheer force of their performance was capable of making you stop, unable to move. It happened to me a few times, while at other times I was so thrilled that I thought I would burst open and cry, or yell, or whatever the fuck else I could do at the moment.

Photo by Kiki Papadopoulou
After three hours I did not feel tired at all, even if their battle, of giving life to seemingly dead objects of capitalist consumerism, was gradually becoming our battle as well. Moments of calmness were followed by minutes (it could be hours) of intensity by drumming metallic surfaces and mesmerizing effects. They used the powers of their bodies (in a ritualistic mode) to bend objects and use amplification to reveal the hidden audio nature of them and alternate the character of them by articulating a fresh new language between sound and image.

Alternating might be the key word for this performance: as they slipped between the roles of the performer, musician and, many times while staring the actions of the other three, the audience, they succeeded in making our anticipation grow bigger and bigger (three hours and not a boring second…).

Marginal Consort presented a live performance that is the core and real meaning of d.i.y. aesthetics, practices and artistic choices and, at the same time, they stayed humble and not alienated from us. On the contrary, they well integrated within all of us, around us, together.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tiziano Tononi and Southbound - Trouble No More... All Men Are Brothers (Long Song Records, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

A founding member of Italian Instabile Orchestra, drummer Tiziano Tononi has a knack both for re-arranging songs to adapt to his diverse ensembles, and his Southbound octet is no exception. In addition to Tononi on drums and percussion, there’s Emanuele Passerini on soprano and tenor; Piero Bittolo Bon on alto, bass clarinet, and flutes; Emanuele Parrini on violin and viola; Carmelo Massimo Torre on accordion; Joe Fonda on both acoustic and electric bass; Pacho on congas, bongos, and percussion; and Marta Raviglia on vocals. Any tribute to the Allman Brothers needs to bring a mighty rhythm section, and Tononi, Pacho, and Fonda sound tremendous here, driving the band through a woolly, funky take on Allman’s blues-rock. Torre fills in the chordal middle on accordion, and Passerini, Bon, and Parrini play lead on most of the album.

Trouble No More… All Men Are Brothers opens with a stellar, genderbent take on two Allman Brothers classics, “Whippin’ Post” and “Midnight Rider.” Raviglia sings lead. In addition to being a woman singing lines written by and for a man, she flips the phrasing on a lot of signature lines, giving a fresh reading to lyrics I’ve heard dozens upon dozens of times. “Whippin’ Post” is atmospheric and rich, and “Midnight Rider” is barely recognizable. The band takes most of the trademark elements, the guitar riff and shuffle beat, and replaces them with an arrangement that highlights the weariness of rebellion.

Tononi composed three songs for the album, including “Requiem for Skydog,” a folkish tribute to guitarist Duane Allman, whose professed admiration for John Coltrane and Miles Davis (particularly, Kind of Blue) creates an interesting feedback loop, with his music now re-arranged for a jazz ensemble. Fonda takes a solo near the end that starts as a duet with Tononi, before the drummer gently drifts away in the final minute. It’s a lovely moment, providing the slightest of breaths before the final burner of a trio: “You Don’t Love Me,” “Soul Serenade,” “You Don’t Love Me (Glorious Ending).” Raviglia returns, again bending the lyrics to her style and Tononi’s hard-driving swing. Fabio Treves guests on harmonica, giving “You Don’t Love Me” one of the more traditional-sounding interpretations on the album, until the bottom drops out midway through and Passerini and Bon take an improvised sax-only duet that leads into a Dixieland coda.

I started this review a couple of weeks before Gregg Allman died, unexpectedly, in May. As with his tributes to Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Tonini’s celebration of the Allman Brothers Band’s music is joyful, sincere, and revelatory, and with the recent loss of Allman, suddenly timely.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tiago Morais Morgado - Viola Solos (Nachtstück Records, 2017)

By Stef

To round off the string of strings reviews, here is an interesting album of solo viola by Portuguese sound artist Tiago Morais Morgado. He has already released a number of albums with primarily electronic soundscapes that explore a broad variety of sonic textures. He is a kind of iconoclast, somebody with wild ideas and a strong willingness to break the boundaries of listening experiences. Musical genres are a platform to start with, or a wall to break through, using styles like synth-pop, retro-futurism and chill wave, as well as free improv and classical music. He started his formal musical studies in 2000, studying alto viola, music technology and musicology.

On this short album he brings us improvisations for viola solo, with an explicit reference to Bach's cello suites on the third piece "Minuets first Cello Suite", but then further expanding on the soaring lyrical patterns for his other improvisations. It is a reference which is harsh and at times even violent, but also brought with a delight in the music and an equally powerful lyricism and sensitivity. Purists will cringe at his abrasive and raw sound, which is my opinion also part of the fun. He respects the music for the right reason: for its jubilating pleasure and lyrical dance of joy.  

Listen and purchase from Bandcamp.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Eyvind Kang & Jessika Kenney - Reverse Tree (Black Truffle, 2016)

By Stef

On the fringes of the music we usually review, here is a wonderful album that merges improvisation with Asian influences and folk music, together with contemporary techniques.

The first side of the album is a long composition by Eyvind Kang, called "Thoughts On Being Exiled To The Frontier, For Lord Wei", with Hildur Guðnadóttir on electric cello, Eyvind Kang on viola, Ilan Volkov on violin, Jessika Kenney on voice and Oren Ambarchi and Stephen O'Malley on electric guitar. The music develops slowly, at a zen-like pace, creating space for sounds to resonate, to be listened at. It is minimal, with stretched tones interspersed with raindrop-like pizzi sounds, without any hurry or intensity. The end result is one of calm beauty, as if nothing needs to be happening, but just does.

On the B-Side, the composition "Elm, is penned by Jessika Kenney and has a larger band, with  Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir on cello, Eyvind Kang and Melia Watras on viola, Brittany Boulding Breeden and Michael Jinsoo Lim on violin, and Jessika Kenney and Nova Ruth on voice, with the support of Gamelan Pacifica, a gamelan ensemble. The piece starts in the same quiet way, with long horizontal development of bowed single tones and shimmering voices, which come to a quiet almost stand-still before other instruments join to weave a denser soundscape over which the voices soar in increasingly higher notes, singing a "19th century Surakarta poem (attributed to Mangkunegara IV). The poem deals with the idea of a form of knowledge achieved through deeds, as a practice and state of the heart". 

If their previous collaborations had stronger folk influences between the viola and the voice, here the endeavour has more depth, more gravitas, and despite the apparent monotony, a lot is happening with shifting tone colours and deep resonance. Lie down on the couch. Close your eyes and listen.  

Robert Landfermann & Elisabeth Coudoux - Kehdata (Klaeng, 2017)

By Stef

Could we possibly review three albums in the same week by German cellist Elisabeth Coudoux? Yes, we can. On this album she is improvising with her fellow countryman Robert Landfermann on bass, recorded at the famous Loft in Cologne in 2015.

Even if the label presents itself as a jazz label, the genre's specific characteristics seem to be absent here, except for the fact that the music is all improvised.

Their playing is very expressive, ranging from full-fledged drama over cautious sensitivity to total distress as on the long opening piece.

At times the music and the timbral explorations are baffling, when you hear multiphonics on the arco bass with very pure cello sounds in contrast, at other times both play on two strings creating unsuspected volume and density. "Hagel", the second piece is absolutely amazing, evokating a hail storm in all its intensity and violent beauty that gradually subsides. I'm not sure how they do it, but they sound like more than two instruments. Then "Shelving" is simple and calm intimate pizzi, no drama, no intensity, in stark contrast with the very short "Kalt" that sounds like stretching your nerves and tendons, while "Kleben", with its deep and long bowed sounds is dark and foreboding.

Sounds merge and instruments disappear. Who does what and how? It doesn't matter. Just listen to what you hear. Forget rationalising it. Listen to the sheer beauty of it. Sometimes abstract, sometimes deeply emotional, always inventive, physically intense, and focused on creating new sounds together and unpredictable, new listening experiences.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Double double basses

By Stef

In March we already reviewed the wonderful double bass duet between William Parker and Stefano Scodanibbio, simply called "Bass Duo". But we love the bass, its sound and its possibilities, so here are some more recent double bass duo albums, interestingly enough by the same musicians, that we wanted to make sure you are aware of.

The artists are Raoul van der Weyde from The Netherlands, and Gonçalo Almeida from Portugal. Van der Weide is thirty years older than Almeida, and they have a very different musical background. The former played amongst others in the Burton Greene Quartet and various bands led by Dutch jazz pianist Guus Janssen. Almeida is based in The Netherlands, and his musical output is becoming quite prolific in the last years, playing in bands such as Tetterapadequ, Lama, Spinifex, Albatre, and recently in a trio called The Selva. 

Both musicians seem to have found an interesting collaboration, one that started years ago in The Netherlands, and resulted in their first album "Earcinema" in 2015. They find each other in instanteneous creation, in-the-moment music. They don't seem to like rules and borders and patterns. We don't either. They seem to like creative insights, uncharted areas and intense interaction. So do we.

Duas Margens - Live at Pletterij (Cylinder, 2017)

The album could not start any better than it does: with deeply resonating sounds of two double basses, hesitating, probing, reaching out, sensing the other one and creating a common flow. It is a short album, only 26 minutes long, with one single improvisation between Gonçalo Almeida and Raoul van der Weide, and recorded over a year ago at The Pletterij in Haarlem, The Netherlands. The title means "two banks" (of a river) as the cover illustrates. Even if they come from different angles, each with their own sound, they move in the same direction, creating the river together, with twists and turns and rapids and quieter passages, with rocks and boulders occasionally. A challenging and rewarding ride.

Raoul van der Weide & Gonçalo Almeida - 8 Pictures (Nachtstück Records , 2017)

We find both musicians back on this album which is a little longer, with 8 improvisations, possibly inspired by the 8 pictures of the title and the cover art. Not much information is offered by the label, but that should not concern us. The difference with "Live At The Plettery" is that each track starts with a different approach, resultig in more variation and different dynamics. At times the changes within a single track lack some unity, but it has a lot of strong moments.

For anyone interested in double bass in improvised settings, both albums can be recommended.

Violin & Bass

By Stef

Vilde&Inga - Silfr (Sofa, 2017) ****½

Three years ago I praised ECM for having had the courage to release Makrofauna, a daring musical exploration by two young Norwegian musicians, Vilde Sandve Alnæs and Inga Margrete Aas, who met during studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music and started to play together in 2010. In autumn last year they received The Lindeman Prize for Young Musicians, a significant music prize in Norway. Despite the quality of their music and the general acclaim for their debut album, it took several years for the second album which is now released on Sofa. 

Each composition has its specific angle of attack or musical concept, which can be based on relentless and repetitive violin phrases as on "Silfr", the title track (see video below), with the bass offering some slower moaning ground tones or joining in with the frenzy. Things change on the second piece, which is more subdued, quiet and slow-paced, now with the bass laying the foundation for eery flageolet sounds by the violin. The third piece, "Urtjern", is completely built around the contrast of low and high tones, almost flute-like, sparse, precise, slightly wailing over the rhythmic throbbing of the bowed bass. "Røjkkvart" starts with unvoiced rumble and scrapings, and the occasional pluck on a bass string, capturing the attention and building the tension and it stays that way, full of expectation but it never gets resolved. "Sprø Glimmer" is a little mad and playful, with little pizzi notes jumping around like crazy, only to be calmed down by some low bass strokes. "Karbontiden" starts with slow beautiful arco, both instruments together almost sounding like an organ, with double stops on the strings, and gradually distortion sets in, with notes shifting off-kilter, timbre transforming from pure tones to scraping, but every so slightly, controlled and well-paced, until the original fluency has changed into a walk through deep mud. 

Most track titles refer to minerals and metals, including silver, smoky quartz, mercury, gold, mica, or to other ancient natural forms, such as "Urtjern" or ancient lake (which actually exists in Norway) or "Karbontiden" which is the Carboniferious period some 350 million years ago. At the same time they use words like "flimmer" (flicker), "skinnende" (shining) or "glimmer" and the choice of titles all stay within the same realm of hard and basic matter, as core ingredients whose existance creates a reflection, an intangible perception of light and lightness. The tension between the hard and the ethereal, between the everlasting and the ephemeral is what this music is all about. 

I can only recommend this very highly. 

Gunda Gottschalk & Peter Jacquemyn - E Pericoloso Sporgersi, Ma Non Prohibito (El Negocito, 2017) ****

In 1999, Gunda Gottschalk and Peter Jacquemyn released "E Pericoloso Sporgersi" (re-issued in 2009), a first duet between violin and bass, offering seventeen short improvisations, and which was awarded a prize in the young artist forum of the International Society for New Music. The title means"Leaning Out (the window) Is Dangerous", the first sentence in Italian most European kids learned when travelling the continent by train several decades ago, as did your servant. Today, they take it a step further, "leaning out is dangerous, but it's not forbidden", a title that gives a good idea of where the duo is taking us, far beyond the limits of safety. 

And that's how the album starts, with "Viaggio 1" as a staccato dialogue of bowed strings, with short bursts and physical scrapings of strings and wood, and even when Jacquemyn brings something that ressembles a pattern, Gottschalk keeps delivering short and violent attacks with her bow, relentlessly and full of raw energy. 

Gunda Gottschalk is classically trained, yet she switched quite rapidly to improvised and contemporary music, having played and released albums with Peter Kowald, who was also one of the mentors of Belgian bassist Peter Jacquemyn, a self-taught musician and visual artist. 

"Viaggio 2", the second piece is of a totally different nature. The dark tension of the first part gradually shifts to minimalist repetitive phrases, uncanny and bizarre, over which Jacquemyn sings his wordless overtone singing, learned from a Mongolian tuva singer. 

The long third piece shifts the whole time between moods, with even passages on the violin that could be labeled as melancholy or sad, or quiet and subdued, brought by a more paced and less intense dialogue, with both musicians often moving the music forward in the same direction. It offers a gentler side to Jacquemyn's playing, but one of strong interplay and joint musical vision. 

I will not go into the detail of each track - four more to go - of completely improvised music, all called Viaggio (journey" in Italian). There is no plan, no concept, just interaction in the moment, and the duo varies a lot. They tease, they battle, they walk hand in hand, they quarrel and they find beauty, only to tear it to pieces with as much pleasure it took to create it, but most of all they explore, the unearth sounds to show the other, who gets inspired to do the same or to challenge, but they travel on the same journey, they make the journey. It's not easy to be invited with them, but once you are, it's a rewarding trip, participating in the creation of music. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Garth Knox & The Saltarello Trio - Leonard, The Book Of Angels, Vol. 30 (Tzadik, 2017)

By Stef

In late 2005, John Zorn started with his Book of Angels project, as part of his Tzadik label's Archival Series. In the series, he offers other musicians the opportunity to present their take on his Masada songbook. The second release was the excellent Azazel by the Masada String Trio with Greg Cohen, Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander, who actually already performed as an ensemble on the album "The Circle Maker" in 1998, and later on Zorn's 50th birthday celebration series in 2004. The music offers this wonderful mixture of klezmer, classical chamber music and jazz sensitivities.

Now, so many years later, there is another string ensemble taking up the challenge: Garth Knox and the Sartarello Trio, with the leader on viola and viola d'amore, Sylvain Lemêtre on percussion, Julia Robert on viola and viola d'amore, and Agnès Vesterman on cello. Knox is better known from his classical work with the Arditti Quartet and the Ensemble InterContemporain.

Knox takes the Masada material and infuses it with classical sound purity, together with medieval, baroque, classical and contempary music as a wonderful counterbalance to the melancholy klezmer scales and melodies. The result is music full of variation and sudden changes in tonality and mood, full of drama, playfulness, some sadness and darkness but brought with an overall smooth and welcoming warmth.

The Book of Angels series remain a little too programmatic, so this is far from the raw authenticity of the music we tend to review, but it sounds fresh, well performed and arranged, not very demanding for the listener and a real pleasure for the ear.

On a side-note, the album is called Leonard, which does not sound like a very biblical name for a (fallen) angel, since it comes from the old German "Lewenhart" (Leeuwenhart in Dutch, Lionheart in English), yet there is a demon with that name, the three-horned goat from the Dictionnaire Infernal, published in 1818, a book that may be a further source for more Book of Angels to come ...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Biliana Voutchkova - Modus of Raw (Evil Rabbit, 2016) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Biliana Voutchkova is a classically-trained violinist-vocalist-composer-free-improviser, who describes beautifully her art in a short poem:

…my house is this huge wide
land of music,
with many rooms and many
open spaces,
with comforting cozy beds of
notes to rest on,
with cushy pillows of
silence all over,
with slow showers of sounds to
soak my body in,
with boiling tea pots at dark
corners seducing me
with their lovely melodies to sip from
their complex, but simple pleasure,
with loooo-oo-ong corridors of everlasting drowns
where entering eternity
comes natural...
there, in that house, i live my
exuberant life...

Voutchkova comes from a family of Bulgarian musicians, spent 14 years studying in the United States, where she expanded her interests in contemporary music and improvisation, and now resides in Berlin. She performs new works by contemporary composers for violin, often written specially for her, and works with performances work, reaching into the realm of dance and movements. She has collaborated with many innovative ensembles as Ensemble Modern, Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, Zeitkratzer and the composers-improvisers Splitter Orchestra, co-founded her dance-music groups GRAPESHADE and OSM (Open Sound & Movement collective) and performs regularly with clarinet player Michael Thieke (the duo released Already There, Flexion records, 2013).

For many years Voutchkova refused to release any of her improvisations, “believing that the live experience is so strong and vivid that it can never be recreated by a recording”. But on the summer of 2015 she was invited to a residency in the Swiss alps, where she enjoyed enough free time to think about her work and how she would like to continue. Being in nature all day also contributed to her decision to channel this creative energy and inspiration into a recording of playing solo constantly for about three hours, later edited down to the Modus of Raw.

Each of eight pieces suggests distinct ideas and sonic territory, all focused on her constant investigation on expanding the sonic possibilities of the violin while using an array of commanding, extended techniques, with her expressive voice. Voutchkova's art is totally personal, uncompromising, embraces chaos and weird, raw sounds and immediately gravitates for the most wildest terrains, but on the same time it is totally captivating with its great sense of invention and poetic playfulness. She moves freely from a disturbing drone, explored on the title-piece, to the twisted, layered melodies of the tensed and dramatic “Songs of Anxiety”, to a hyperactive blending of colliding bowing techniques on “Memory imprints” and sketching abstract sounds on exotic-sounding “Chaos & Beauty”.

The last two extended pieces offer more varied improvised strategies. “Gratitudes and sorrows” borrows techniques and ideas from the rich legacy of Norwegian hardanger fiddle, but juggles with the overtones and overlapping sounds in a complete different manner. Voutchkova fuses these sounds into a series of intense, strange-sounding yet equally-tempting shamanic dances. “Poschiavo medley”, after the Swiss Alpine town where she resided, weaves gently the local sounds of the city and nearby nature into a playful soundscpae where Voutchkova’s violin and voice attempt to assimilate with the winds, bird calls, church bells, patiently coloring and morphing the peaceful scenery with imaginative, new sounds and songs.

Free Jazz on Air - June 16: Unsung Heros

Free Jazz on Air, co-hosted by Martin Schray, returns tomorrow at 11 p.m CET on German public radio station SWR 2 (Südwestrundfunk 2).

Martin will be joining host Julia Neupert on air for another hour of Free Jazz talk and music, about "Unsung Heroes," with music by Howard Riley, Ivo Perelman, Paul Dunmall, Ernesto Rodrigues, Nicole Mitchell and Lotte Anker.

A link to the show is available for on-demand listening for a week after the broadcast.

More info here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Solo cello

Elisabeth Coudoux - Some Poems (Leo, 2016) ****

German cellist Elisabeth Coudoux (née Fügemann) may not be known by many yet, but that will not take long anymore. She combines the solid technique of her classical training at the Carl von Weber Music School in Dresden with a strong-willed vision on improvised music. She is member of the Scott Fields Feartet, and of Zeitkratzer ("a perverse subversion of musical genres"), and several other ensembles, as the recently reviewed "The Octopus".

"Some Poems", her first solo project, is a winner. Like poems, the music is intimate, personal and deep, full of wonder and persistent discovery of one or the other musical aspect, as in the alternation between plucking and bowing on "Found Not", or repetitive phrases, as "In Sounding Bodies", leading to little surprises without loosing track of the direction she's taken. Her music is about her interaction with the instrument. It is physical, exploratory and interactive. She does not hesitate to go well beyond the boundaries of comfort, as in "In A Swaying Ship" or on "Besets" with its sliding overtones and out-of-tune instrument. Her music can be playful as "In A Faint Voice", of full of deep gravitas and shifting harmonies as on "Knut". At 2:24 on "Within The Sounding Body", you can hear faint pop music in the background (is it a car driving by, a mobile phone annoucing a caller? we don't know) but funnily it does not disturb the deliberate and electronically looped bowing of the piece, the only non-acoustic moment of the album.

I can only recommend this. She is strong. She has the skills, the character and the musical vision. This is her first appearance on this blog, but surely not the last one. Oh, and by the way, all the tracks together form a poem:

"A faint voice
found not
in sounding bodies

shaken boundary conditions
within the sounding body
in a swaying ship


Only time, no changes"

Fred Lonberg-Holm - Cabin, Cemetery, Forest (Flying Aspidistra, 2017)

Fred Lonberg-Holm no longer needs an introduction, but what is worth mentioning that his own label, called Flying Aspidistra, named after the George Orwell novel "Keep The Aspidistra Flying", has now put the entire catalogue on Bandcamp.  On the label, you will find other solo cello albums or string duets with Charlotte Hug, Carlos Zingaro, David Stackenäs. For those interested, he also has another Bandcamp website with even more music.

"Cabin, Cemetery, Forest" was recorded in 2009, and may have been released on CD before, although I couldn't find references to it. Now it's available digitally and that is good news. Lonberg-Holm is not a crowd-pleaser, and he even describes himself as an 'anti-cellist', applying a totally unconventional way of playing. His instrument groans, sighs, screams and sobs, sometimes in calm resignation, sometimes in full agony, but it never sings, it never dances, forget about harmony, peace and tranquility. The sounds are agitated, nervous, physical, full of turmoil and surprise, and move without an actual plan but pushed forward by the last-but-one sound in a kind of musical stream of consciousness. It is demanding listening, and I think you need the right context to give it the time it needs. If anything, no matter how often you listen to it, it will never sound familiar. And that's an achievement by itself, because that's where you need to be: out of your comfort zone.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Solo violin

By Stef

Solo violin, like solo cello, brings me back to Bach. As a kid, I was fascinated by Bach's Sonatas and Partita for Solo Violin, something my father, who was a classical music addict, found bizarre because he couldn't believe that the music's austerity and almost mathematical rigour would please someone my age. He had this Yehudi Menuhin album that I listened to with extreme pleasure. To me, it was the most jubilant music I had ever heard, pure and singing like no other music I knew. It was much better than all the other orchestral Bach stuff that my father adored. I liked the purity, the intimacy, the clarity, the simplicity maybe, and certainly its level of abstraction, doing away with all the superfluous, reducing music to its bare joyous essence. It had no intention to overpower me like the symphonies or concertos, quite to the contrary, it was uplifting, much closer somehow to me, and easier to identify with. To this day, solo violin albums attract me, for that reason, and let's start with a Bach album, totally out of my league, but still highly recommendable because it takes some more steps than you would expect.

Yuki Numata Resnick - For Ko (Innova, 2016) 

On this album, classical violinist Yuki Numata Resnick uses the Bach violin partitas as a springboard to extend the her approach to modern composers Caleb Burhans, Andrew Greenwald, Clara Ian- notta, and Matt Marks. Fans of Bach will probably be disappointed by these more modern additions, and not spontaneously be attracted to a piece with the title "Dead Wasps In The Jam Jar" or "Trunket's Sarabande", which is the tale of a monkey recited by her, and which lasts a horrifying eleven minutes. 

But her playing is absolutely wonderful and I think her choice of the more modern composers creates a great bridge between past and contemporary music without creating a conflict of style (apart from the monkey story!).

Biliana Voutchkova - Modus Of Raw (Evil Rabit, 2016)

Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova is probably more known in classical avant-garde circles than among the readers of this blog, but she shouldn't. In fact, again we can credit a free improv label such as Evil Rabbit to present us music coming from a different background. Voutchkova started playing the violin at the age of four, and accumulated all the classical awards that go with the training towards virtuoso level, releasing her first album at the age of sixteen.

On "Modus Of Raw", she shows her skills on the instrument, but after having unlearned all the key automatisms of the training. Her playing is unlyrical, not here to please, not here to bring what you expect, but offering a deeper, more vulnerable quality. The voice on her instrument is soft and wooden, resonating in multiple strings multiphonics, sometimes moving, sometimes hypnotic. She is so far away from classical violin that it's hard to describe the music, which is uniquely her own, offering an immediacy of experience that is further enhanced by her spontaneous singing that once in a while accompanies her instrument. The music is raw and pure at the same time, trying to catch the paradoxes that underly authentic emotions, suggested by titles such as "Chaos & Beauty", "Gratitude & Sorrows", "Songs of Anxiety".

A strong album.

Irene Kepl - Solo (Fou Records, 2016)

This album was reviewed earlier by Eyal Haruveni, so I won't go too much in depth, apart from re-iterating that it's worth looking for if you have open ears for new sounds on the instrument. Kepl is also classically trained, with ideas and music that are equally exploring as Voutchkova's, even her playing is in the higher regions, a little less abrasive, a little more fluid, maybe a litte less daring, a little more welcoming, although at times full of maddening intensity and lyrical beauty ... but don't take this in the classical sense, the motto still is : "Dancing on the edge is the only place to be" ... and that's where she recides, as should you ...

Fans of solo violin pieces should definitely try to get a copy.

Ilan Volkov - 16.2.17 (Otoroku, 2017)

Ilan Volkov is not known for his personal performances, as he is better known as the Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Interestingly, the Israeli conductor, also plays the violin, and in a style which might surprise his regular listeners. His CD output consists of Janacek, Schubert, Smetana, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Bloch, Strauss ... but then last year he released "Usurper with Alex Drool, Maya Dunietz, Eran Sachs and Ilan Volkov", categorised as non-music on Discogs, and showing a completely different face of the esteemed conductor. To be clear: his music is like a smash in the face, unnerving,  agitated, and as the label says, his "bow rasps and tears his un-tuned, un-tamed violin into fizzing electronic realms", but the references to AMM or Ute Kanngiesser or even Zorn are wrong. 

Volkov goes beyond this: his music is as irritating as it is interesting, it is destined to shock, its very 'raison d'être' is to destabilise and unsettle the listener while bringing something meaningful at the same time, a music that oscillate and shimmers, that sends electroacoustics waves through your ears and brain, sharing emotions that range from the nadir of despair to the zeniths of anxiety. 

Listeners with open minds, open ears and strong nerves will appreciate his music, and probably wonder where Janacek, Schubert, Smetana, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Bloch and Strauss have gone ...

Vanessa Rossetto - Rocinante (Bandcamp, 2017)

We all know Rocinante, the horse of Don Quixote, described in Wikipedia as "awkward, past his prime, and engaged in a task beyond his capacities". Obviously, the name also refers to Vanessa Rossetto, so there may be some self-mockery involved, although we don't know. She is an American composer, improviser and painter. She uses primarily chamber instrumentation, field recordings, electronics and a wide array of different objects exploring them through extended and traditional techniques and other methods of her own devising. She has had no formal training and only started with music in her thirties. She does not consider herself an improviser because she works hard to get the music the way it sounds, working on ideas, collecting sounds and then putting everything together in a longer whole. 

The music is a one-hour long discovery of sound, generated from a viola, cello and objects, drone-like, eery, industrial at times, quiet rustling at others, with the absolute impossibility of identifying the instruments she's using, although gradually, after about fourty minutes the sound of a bow on resonating strings becomes discernable, followed by silence, or barely audible silence because a faint sonic mist remains, gradually swelling again to an audible volume. 

She has released several solo albums and cassettes before, but mostly with musique concrète, sound snippets captured in real live circumstances and glued together into a larger collage, with rhythm and shifting colors and shadings. 

Stanislaw Slowinski - Solo (Self, 2017)

Another surprise comes from someone who has gone through substantial training on the instrument, and laureate of various violin prizes and competitions in his homeland Poland, such as the Grand Prix of the 39th International Junior Jazz Competition Jazz Juniors, Laureate of the Audience Award at the 1st International Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition, Laureate of the Cracow 2014 Creative Scholarship, nominated in the categories "Violin" and "New Hope" in Top Jazz Forum readers. Next to being a member of the Sinfonietta Cracovia and the Krakow Chamber Orchestra, he also has his own bands, the Stanisław Słowiński Quintet and the J.A.S.S. Trio. 

On this short EP, he brings three pieces, with a strong foundation in classical music, but then moving it into today's sonority and dynamics, subtle, sensitive and controlled. I'm not sure how to classify the genre - not jazz, not free improv, not classical - but I'm sure you'll like it.