Click here to [close]

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Ruokangas - Estola - Roland – Self-Titled (Alba, 2017) ****½

By Chris Haines

This recent release featuring guitarist Heikki Ruokangas in a trio format with Olli Estola (drums) and Jakob Roland (double bass), is an excellent showcase of straight ahead jazz and free musics, which is encapsulated within eight cuts. These are comprised of six originals from Ruokangas and two standards, ‘Alone Together’ and Irving Berlin’s ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’.

The opening track ‘Boat Voyage’ starts with a charming chord/melody from the guitar that is joined by the others after the first time through, which then abruptly stops with the sound of amp buzz and hum before opening out into a free passage of play not confined by regular pulse, where Ruokangas really gets his thing going. There is some great playing happening within this section, where shadows of his former mentor Raoul Bjorkenheim can at times be heard, before the return of the original motif. The second track ‘Grip De Sip’ features a synth sound on the guitar, which is used to good effect without it being gimmicky or too synthetic, and it makes for a nice contrast in the context of the overall album. After an understated but very pleasant and straight ahead version of ‘Alone Together’, the swinging and slightly angular motive of ‘Sailfish’ (one of a few tracks with a nautical theme) forges ahead, which gives ample room for both Estola and Roland to bring their solos to the fore. One of my favourites on the album is the cover of ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’, which manages to balance everything that is good about the album into this one track. It swings, it has impact, freer solo passages ornament the classic melodic line, whilst bringing a freshness without suffocating it or delivering a lifeless museum piece. The other track that I mustn’t fail to mention is the beautiful instrumental ballad ‘Autumn Is Almost Here’ played on acoustic guitar and supported very empathically by the bass and the subtle colouration of the brushes on the drums. Again a more straight ahead jazz piece, but one worth hearing and more so for the parity between the reflective and poignant melody and the melodic soloing which is very much an extension of the melody in it’s derivation.

Without doubt this is an excellent album, and the promise that this trio show on this release should surely hold good for the future. What Ruokangas has in his playing is a great awareness of the jazz tradition from the reproduction of classic tunes into instrumental sojourns whilst delivering a more contemporary language, which incorporates dissonance, varying timbres that work well in the service of the music, exceptionally written melodic material, and well worked improvised material that demonstrates the historical lineage of this ever growing stylistic genre. One criticism I would have of the album is that maybe it tries to do too much, and when sitting and analytically thinking about the music in that way it does seem to, however, when listening to the music and enjoying it for the collection of sounds that it comprises it would seem that the mixture that has been concocted is one of fine balance and harmony.

Slow is Possible - Moonwatchers (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

If there is such a thing as a “Clean Feed sound,” Slow is Possible are probably not the best spokesband for it. All of the ingredients are there, sure: cello (André Pontífice), alto sax (Bruno Figueira), piano (Nuno Santos Dias), double bass (Ricardo Sousa), electric guitar/electronics (João Clemente), and drums (Duarte Fonseca). The difference, as always, lies in the execution - whereas many groups on the Clean Feed roster use similar combinations of instruments to produce dizzying swirls of improvisation, compositional complexity, and icy abstraction, Slow is Possible take a slightly different route. There are elements of all of those aforementioned things, of course, but there are also healthy portions of post-rock and cinematic music thrown into the mix, as well as abrasive, overdriven outbursts that wouldn’t be out of place on one of Zorn’s early Naked City albums. Moonwatchers, their latest release, sidesteps and subverts the expectations and assumptions that even free jazz listeners tend to hold at times, and the end result is a cohesive, and often gorgeous, collection of music.

“The Lion Dance” opens with an uneasy drone from Pontífice’s cello, a smattering of piano notes, and guitarist Clemente’s sinister insinuations of melody. That melody, when it finally coalesces from amongst all the stray whirlwinds, is an interesting one, indeed; like some of the late-period work of instrumental doom-rock band Earth, it seems to carry shades of Americana and “Wild West” brutalism. At the track’s mid-point, it segues into a hard-driving blues that acts as something of a showcase for the band’s excellent use of dynamics. Figueira’s wounded sax lines weave in and out of the piece like stiching thread crisscrossing a wound, capable of both pained cries and guttural bellows. Drummer Fonseca can only be described as a force of nature - in the quieter moments, he keeps time with a gentle and measured consistency. In louder moments, however, he pummels the kit and matches, as best he can, the explosive guitar-work of Clemente. “Catching Bukowski” is perhaps the most immediately accessible track on Moonwatchers, with its noirish spy-jazz aesthetic and rollicking, exuberant “chorus.” As the piece develops, though, things start to come off the rails a bit: Pontífice, in particular, starts to exhibit a raw physicality that offers an interesting contrast to the precise interplay going on between the others. And at some points, those allusions to Zorn’s Naked City I mentioned become more apparent, with occasional explosive chords from Clemente helping to create a “hardcore” intensity that belies the track’s seemingly traditional approach.   

Interspersed amongst these heavier moments are stretches that, while maintaining the same sense of urgency, are more understated and delicate. “At Land” opens with a diaphanous duet from Clemente and pianist Dias - it’s decidedly somber, but eventually gives way to (what sound like) tribal drums, a lone bird-call, and menacing cello figures from Pontífice. From here, the tension only rises, and the piece reaches something of a climax with rasping wails from Figueira and a wild, percussive attack by Dias that, even after hearing the track several times, comes as a mild shock. “At Land” is another huge chunk of evidence that Slow is Possible are incredibly adept at making dynamics work to their advantage. The next piece, “Barely Visible,” is quite possibly the centerpiece of the album, with its odd and alluring chord changes that, even though they only appear in tantalizingly brief snatches, keep the listener invested in the way that everything unfolds. Sousa’s loping bass-line, static washes of sound from Clemente, and Figueira’s affecting lamentations provide the hypnotic backdrop - compositionally speaking, it’s not terribly complex, but the sextet have a tight control of the structure, speed, and power of the piece, and they know when to pull back and when to go barreling forward. The title track is cut from similar cloth; over fourteen minutes, the band uses repetition to their advantage, lulling you into a reverie only to yank the rug out from beneath your feet with unexpected melodic twists and slow-growing displays of force. As in the previous piece, those louder moments of catharsis always get reeled back into silence - and as before, this expansion-and-contraction prevents things from becoming overbearing or, worse, boring. The final track is a reprise; somber and subdued, it closes the album on an undoubtedly melancholic note, but its cinematic atsmosphere is the perfect way to cap off a collection of music that, due to the evocative melodies and constant exploration of different moods, often seems like the soundtrack to a lost film.

This same filmic quality could be a weak point for some listeners, for sure; while there are plenty of fierce, exhilarating segments to be found on Moonwatchers, there are an equal number of extended passages that, rather than rouse, could have you eyeing the track times in impatience. That being said, Slow is Possible have put together a rewarding album here, and the fact that they sometimes live up to their rather enigmatic band name should be taken as a net positive. Moonwatchers is a thrilling, ambitious release, and I can’t wait to see where this group takes things next! 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

DKV Trio - Latitude 41.88 (Not Two, 2017) ****½

In 1994 Ken Vandermark (reeds), Kent Kessler (double bass) and Hamid Drake (drums) formed DKV trio. By the end of the 1990s they were one of the most prominent groups in free jazz and improvised music; recording numerous albums documenting their magic, mostly as a trio but also in collaboration (e.g. Fred Anderson or Joe Morris). In more recent years, they released two excellent box sets documenting live performances Sound In Motion and Past Present, a sextet recording including Mats Gustafsson, Massimo Pupillo and Paal Nilssen-Love and a double trio with all members of the thing. Their most recent effort, Latitude 41.88, is a trio live date recorded at the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee in 2014 by David Zuchowski and released on the Polish Not Two label.

The albums starts “Faster Then It Would Be” featuring a free blowing Vandermark on tenor saxophone, quickly joined by a bowing Kessler and a more subtle, colouring Drake; working their way into a funky groove initiated by Vandermark, promptly supported by Drake and Kessler. From here, the trio really joins as a unit and weaves threads of free and groove into a polyrhythmic web propelling Drake into a contagious solo. Following Drake’s solo, toe-tapping continues when Vandermark adds a catchy melody that develops into the climax of the piece. To clear satisfaction of the audience and this listener, well-earned applause.
“20th Century Myth” finds Hamid Drake solo, searching for other worlds on his drum kit. He is a real adventurer, taking us all around the world musically. Free phrases intertwine with tribal rhythm and world music. After 5 minutes, he settles and is joined by a gentle Vandermark, and supported by a deep bowing Kessler. The track continues into a pulsating rhythm initiated by Vandermark and collectively develops and fades into a deeply wailing free blues. 

“Uncontrolled Writer” finds Vandermark on clarinet squealing through high registers, overtones and harmonics before settling with gentle cymbals and plucked strings. Vandermark quickly switches back to saxophone and is propelled into a groove by Drake’s brushwork that is – all too – briefly interrupted for a nice pizzicato solo on double bass by Kessler. The trio joins forces and finishes off the set with a catchy climax, answered with loud cheers and applause by the audience. 

This is a really tight record by masters of free music that have been all over the scene for the past 25 years. Highly recommended. You should own the record, if only for the second track.

P.S.: DKV trio recently toured Europe with Joe McPhee as guest. Currently the quartet is touring North America. If you are in the neighborhood, don’t miss out. Hopefully, this collaboration will be thoroughly documented and released in the near future. 

Natura Morta – Environ (Neither Nor, 2017) ****

By Dan Sorrells

Environ is the fourth release from Natura Morta, the trio of Frantz Loriot on viola, Sean Ali on bass, and Neither Nor label head Carlo Costa on percussion. “Environ” is an unusual word that makes me think of things on a small scale, like some indivisibly tiny unit of one’s surroundings, or as a verb, being enveloped by things outside of your awareness or ability to perceive. Indeed, the music exists in a world of invisible but pervasive forces, of dust and wind and mycelia. The trio’s music is often noted for its focus and intensity, and Environ further tightens the former in service of ratcheting up the latter.

At Costa's suggestion, I listened to the record loud. Many of the instrumental techniques are those one might associate with lowercase improvisation, only amplified and writ large due to Nathaniel Morgan’s meticulous recording and mastering. The effect is jarring, perhaps even menacing: a revenge of the microscopic, a dreaded feeling that the tiny, unnoticed things are expanding into the macro-sized world. Across three tracks, Natura Morta magnify the realm of quiet improvisation until it rages at the volume of fire music.

The bristling opening track “Pulvis” has a bimodal shape with dual crescendos: one is an accretion of small events, the other a complete wash of sound, Costa’s cymbals rising to subsume everything. “Ventus” is an encroaching, relentless march of keening viola and a stumbling rhythm of dampened hi-hats, toms, and wood block. As the silence is increasingly stamped out, it’s interesting to contrast the transparency of the opening minutes with the suffocating opaqueness at the midpoint. Eventually, it all collapses into a dreamy haze, with bowed cymbals, subterranean bass throbs, and Loriot whistling like wind through the eaves. The album closes with the more “traditional” free improvisation of “Mycelia,” a blustery arms race between the three musicians that finally winnows into a single, ringing tone.

As with all of Natura Morta’s music, the emphasis on summoning nearly unrecognizable timbres from acoustic instruments is fascinating. Identifying who is doing what is not necessarily difficult, but just how they are extracting such sounds is often a source of mystery. In all, another challenging offering from Costa and company, who are building Neither Nor into a vanguard label of improvised music.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Ken Vandermark, Klaus Kugel & Mark Tokar - Escalator (NotTwo, 2017) ****½

By Gustav Lindquist

This album, recorded at the Alchemia Club in Krakow, Poland, May 5th 2016. Reedist Ken Vandermark who needs not a too thorough introduction here on FJB, is here heard with Klaus Kugel on drums and percussion and Mark Tokar on double bass.
German drummer and percussionist Kugel is a veteran in modern jazz that can be heard on more than fifty albums since the early nineties. He’s played with everyone from Peter Evans to William Parker to Jemeel Moondoc. He’s been in Theo Jörgensmann Quartet, Switchback and Baltic Trio. It’s an exhausting discography, and I must admit I have a lot of homework and a lot of exciting listening to do when it comes to Kugel.
Bassist Mark Tokar from Ukraine is at least for me most known for his work with Vandermark on the majestic 10 CD box ‘Resonance’. I’m very keen on hearing him with Martin Küchen and Arkadijus Gotesmanas on their Live at Vilnius Jazz Festival album released on No Business Records. Writing this I’m realizing that they do have digital options to purchase on their website. I’ll go get it right now.
Anyway, back to Escalator.
The album starts off the ’13 songs’. I can listen to the first seconds of this song 1000 times and still get a smile on my face every time. Ken and Mark start the song with a bluesy, swinging intro. I close my eyes and sink into the good feeling of a nice groove. But then Kugel joins in at a blistering pace. He’s on a different planet. It’s such a great dissonance, and done with such a delicacy that it just makes me very happy. Tokar gets lured over to join, but Vandermark is not yet done. He’s determined to keep on swinging, albeit with bursts of energy here and there. Eventually Ken too is ready to let it all out there and together they charge onwards to end the song. What a start of an album!
‘Automatic Suite’, a 15 minute more free and improvised performance. It has drummer Kugel using a wider set of equipment to accompany his friends. Vandermark who’s working closely together with Tokar. Ken introduces a 3-note ticking beat, but it’s only heard twice – and in between free excursions away from the theme. Ken then changes the direction with a thumping beat of doom and gloom. I immediately draw a line to Mingus ‘Better get hit in your soul’ which theme fits well on top of the beat, at least in my head. I can’t help it, it just keeps repeating. I even expect it to come in from a mysterious fourth member on stage at the Alchemia Club, but of course it doesn’t. Instead Ken keeps changing the melody around while the steady beat keeps playing in the background. I’m waiting for the fireworks to happen and for the song to move into another dimension but that doesn’t happen. Not to worry, there’s more to come on this album!
Third song, ‘Flight’. This part of the review is actually also written on a flight, between Frankfurt and London, after a 4 a.m. wake-up in Turin, Italy. I must admit, although I’m not at all scared of flying – the sounds heard in this song is not what I would want to hear during a flight… Metallic pieces are flying through the air, and what used to be a coherent “something” is now a dispersed swarm of “something else”. There’s an urgency and intensity throughout the seven minutes this one lasts for. I like it.
Two more songs to go. ‘Rough Distance’ and ‘End Numbers’. On the first one there’s another change in character. It’s a longer improvised track, over 13 minutes. We’re back to hearing how Ken twists and turns melodies around. I’d say it’s a typical “Ken-track”. He’s moving effortless through structures and emotions, but there seems to always be a clear and propelling force onwards and forward. Halfway through, the rhythm section provides a change, a break, while Vandermark gets a bit of rest to bring on the remaining minutes of madness until it’s over.
The final performance of this album takes us to a dark place. Searching sounds, something is sort of boiling beneath the surface. This starts off as a lonely song, again with Vandermark getting great support from Kugel and Tokar. But the song develops into celebration and swing and we’re left feeling grateful to have heard yet another great release with Vandermark.
In summary, this is a Vandermark trio album, and what a competent trio it is. I can only assume the audience left the concert very pleased with that they just heard. Oh, Ken Vandermark, your output is generous and quality is always very high. Thank you.

Made to Break - Trébuchet (Trost, 2017) *****

Made to Break is currently Ken Vandermark’s key and most radical ensemble. Trébuchet is the eighth release of the Chicagoan-Austrian-Dutch quartet - Vandermark on reeds, fellow-Chicagoan drummer Tim Daisy, Viennese Christof Kurzmann on the ppooll software and electronics and Amsterdam-based electric bass player Jasper Stadhouders - in a span of four years. Made to Break already recorded a new, ninth album, during its recent European tour.

As on many of Vandermark’s project, each of Made to Break's albums suggests a far richer artistic vision than the pure musical one. Trébuchet - titled after an ancient siege engine which used a swinging arm to throw a projectile at the enemy, offers Vandermark’s response to current-day American politics, obviously, quite an angry one but less lethal than the original trebuchets, but, no doubt, an inspiring one. Vandermark’s three new compositions are dedicated to three distinct, opinionated American artists, who often stood in opposition, stressing that any artistic act is and often should mark a bold and moral political stand.

The first piece, “Hydroplane”, is dedicated to the seminal Chicagoan alt-rock band Shelleac, which features guitarist-vocalist-producer Steve Albini, bass player-vocalist-sound Engineer Bob Weston - who recorded many of Vandermark’s project, including this one (recording, mixing and mastering in Chicago on April 2016) - and drummer-vocalist Todd Trainer. This tough, rhythmic piece does not attempt to replicate the minimalist, brutal attack of Shellac but sketches its own sense of building and varying massive rhythmic dimensions, sometimes in a manner that brings to mind Shellac’s associates, the Dutch group The Ex, with whom Vandermark and Stadhouders have been collaborating in recent years. Vandermark, Daisy and Stadhouders alternate constantly between solidifying and deepening the powerful rhythmic envelope and contrasting and challenging each other’s role. Kurzmann, in his turn, alternates between opposing all three with his imaginative stream of alien, noisy and abstract sounds that charge the immediate, tight interplay with a strong sense of surprise and risk taking and soloing along Vandermark like an otherworldly reed instrument.
“Contact Sheet” is dedicated to the late writer, critic, and political activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004), whose influential book On Photography (1977) dealt with the role of photography in present-day capitalist societies. This piece begins with a lyrical and emotional tone, presented by Vandermark’s warm, big tenor sax. Here Kurzmann’s chilly electronics serve as provocative agent, embracing Vandermark's coherent solo and the loose but solid rhythmic section of Daisy and Stadhouders with an elusive, destabilizing atmosphere.
The last piece, “Slipping Words Against Silence”, is dedicated to Chicagoan Afro-American Kerry James Marshall, whose paintings are strongly influenced by his personal experiences in the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles where the Black Power and Civil Rights movements protested against police brutality. This is an intense but looser piece. Vandermark plays here the clarinet but as an equal to his partners. The piece often changes courses between the fiery and muscular to the abstract and balladic. It capture the uncompromising, restless energy of Made to Break as well as the compassionate, collaborative spirit of this great quartet.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Quartets of Satoko Fujii

By Eyal Hareuveni

Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, a couple on stage and in real life, need no introduction. Both are always in search for new sonic adventures and their new, ad-hoc quartets - with American trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Japanese, New York-based electronics player Ikue Mori, and with Japanese violinist Keisuke Ohta and drummer Takashi Kitani further emphasize the depth and breadth of Fujii and Tamura's musical vision. These quartets play Fujii and Tamura's compositions, however interpreted in the most open and personal manners possible, blurring the distinction between the written segments and the improvised ones.

Wadada Leo Smith / Natsuki Tamura / Satoko Fujii / Ikue Mori - Aspiration (Libra, 2017) ****½

Image result for Wadada Leo Smith / Natsuki Tamura / Satoko Fujii / Ikue Mori - Aspiration

This releases celebrates the 20th anniversary of Fujii and Tamura’s label, Libra Records, and it offers many reason to celebrates. It is a more than a meeting between four opinionated musicians, each with a highly personal language of its own, but a truly inspired one.
Fujii and Tamura played before with Ikue Mori, and Mori recorded before with Wadada Leo Smith on his experimental album with electronics players, Luminous Axis (Caravans Of Winter And Summer) (Tzadik Composer Series, 2002). But the all four never played together before the recording of Aspiration at Firehouse 12, New Haven in November 2016.

Fujii who initiated this project proved that her instincts were right. She composed four pieces, Tamura contributed one, and there is a collective free-improvisation. But all the compositional strategies simply serve as road maps to intimate, fearless improvisations. These experienced improvisers let the spontaneous act of music making lead them, wisely opting to nurture and share the music and avoid forcing themselves on the music. This open approach actually intensifies the quartet immediate and sharp interplay.
Each of the six pieces has its own character. On the opening piece, “Intent”, Smith and Tamura and later Fujii embrace the fragile-fractured drone of Mori, contrasting and resonating the tone of the electronics with their acoustic instruments. The quartet moves organically from one sonic event to another, while Mori’s drone is still the basis for all events. The free-improvised “Liberation” sound as a composition with a distinct lyrical, contemplative texture before it erupts with dense interplay of all.
“Floating” does float between enigmatic, silent atmospheres and brief rhythmical outbursts, before concluding with a melodic note from Tamura. Fujii leads the melodic title-piece, slowly building the dramatic momentum while intrigued by Mori otherworldly sounds but backed by Smith and Tamura urgent abstractions of the melodic theme. “Evolution” is a brilliant, conversational piece, that stresses the deep, vibrant immediacy of this quartet. The music is being sculpted from the first second to the last one, in solo, duos and quartet segments, with no clear course, but without losing its focus and coherence. Tamura’s “Stillness” weaves an quiet, peaceful texture comprised of Mori’s minimalist, alien sounds, the meditative trumpets of him and Fujii melodic sensibility that connects all elements.
Fujii wrote that she dreams of making more music with this quartet. So many others.

Satoko Fujii Quartet ‎– Live At Jazz Room Cortez (Cortez Sound, 2017) ****

Image result for Satoko Fujii Quartet ‎– Live At Jazz Room Cortez 

Fujii and Tamura are joined in this quartet by drummer Takashi Kitani, who plays in Fujii's New Trio and the Tobira Quartet, and violinist-vocalist Keisuke Ohta, who is considered, as Fujii says, to be “something of a patriarch on the Tokyo free jazz scene.” Ohta played with almost all notable Japanese jazz musicians, including trumpeter Itaru Oki, koto player Michiyo Yagi and the Shibusashirazu group.
Fujii has performed - but not recorded - with Ohta twenty years ago, when she returned to Japan after completing her studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston. When Fujii was invited in December 2016 to play at the Jazz Room Cortez in Mito, Japan, where she recorded her solo piano album Invisible Hand (Cortez sound, 2016) Ohta came to her mind “and I couldn't picture any other person to join us.”
You can count, again, on Fujii's intuition. The addition of Ohta brings fresh insights to Fujii's compositions. The quartet offers an extended interpretation of “Convection,” from Fujii’s New Trio album, Spring Storm (Libra, 2013), but uses the compositional ideas as tools for a surrealist, free improvisation. This piece morphs organically between episodic exploration of folk themes, Dadaist vocal exchange of Ohta and Tamura, dramatic-playful confrontation, eccentric sonic searches and occasional visits of the original themes. All without losing the playful interplay and the dramatic tension building.
The even longer rendition of “Looking Out the Window”, spanning 37 minutes, first played by Fujii debut album of her original trio (with double bass master Mark Dresser and drummer Jim Black, Ninety-One, 1997) is more eccentric and exotic. Ohta chants in a kind of invented Middle-Eastern lingo and his electric violin wraps the quartet sonic envelope with 1970s prog-rock flavors. Now the quartet - in a series of unaccompanied solos and as a tight unit - investigates weird and unusual timbres, textures and dynamics. It even flirts with Brazilian rhythms of Kitani, an impossible hybrid of Greek-Celtic folk themes suggested by Ohta, and a touching, lyrical trumpet solo from Tamura. Fujii, the last soloist, navigates wisely back to the composition theme and leads the quartet to a powerful reading of this theme.

Olivia Block - Untitled (Another Timbre, 2017) ****½

By David Menestres

In her recent email newsletter, composer Olivia Block discusses the word “imagine” in relation to how it was used by Pauline Oliveros. As Block says “Without imagination there can be no solutions to problems, and there can be no understanding of what might be.” Untitled is the new album from Olivia Block, released on the Another Timbre label, long known for its support of the many facets of the new music scene. 

Comprising three movements, Untitled is constructed almost entirely from live recordings using prepared piano at Chicago’s Electrical Audio studio. Unlike many of Block’s other works, this album features relatively little post-recording processing. As she states in an interview on the Another Timbre website, “the lack of title reflects the fact that the suite is more direct, and in a sense, bare, of layers or extra elements. It’s basically just me playing piano and objects.”

What one hears is Block’s imagination stripped to its essence, reflecting the watery depths of the infinite. Large passages are for solo piano unadorned, played beautifully by Block. There are contact mics inside the piano to pick up the internal sounds and the prepared alterations. A small speaker sits inside the piano, drawing out and extending the piano’s timbres into other realms of being, showing what might be or perhaps what could have been.

From the opening heavily accented high notes to the final sparse pianissimo notes, Untitled is the most intimate of Block’s albums, a journey well worth your time. Climb the mountain, sit on the peak, and listen to what Block whispers in your ears.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Irène Schweizer & Joey Baron - Live! (Intakt Records, 2017) ****

Most musicians hope for applause at the end of a performance; far fewer expect it before the concert begins. But when Irène Schweizer and Joey Baron took the stage for their set at the 2015 Unerhört-Festival in Zürich, the audience began to clap—an expression of well-deserved anticipation for the accomplished duo. Whether buoyed by the warm reception or already raring to go (I suspect the latter), Schweizer and Barron don’t fail to make the most of the audience’s excitement, offering up a 50-minute show so energetic, dynamic, and fun that Live!—exclamation point included—seems the only appropriate title. 

The set opens with “Free for All,” Schweizer clearing the air with a single percussive report before the duo begins corralling fragmentary ideas toward a cohesive if off-kilter swing. Immediately in evidence in these first few minutes is Schweizer’s special blend of almost impishly playful musicality and breathtaking free improvisation. In several places across the set, try to catch her wheeling from one idea to another, each compelling enough to be fleshed out vertically into a full tune but kept instead as highly reduced units to be arranged horizontally next to others. Not to say her ideas don’t develop satisfyingly or that they rely on pure juxtaposition: see how the toy-light swing that opens “Up the Ladder” builds into the grand swells in the middle of the piece—and from there into the funky groove near the end. Part of Schweizer’s ability to bridge these fragments and styles may have to do with her superior instrumental powers, particularly the ease with which she can pump out irresistible ostinatos with her left hand—as she does on “Jungle Beat II” and “Blues for Crelier”—while spinning unpredictable lines with her right.
It’s also Schweizer’s knack for holding down the whole keyboard that makes the presence of a bassist virtually unnecessary. And in fact she does have a history of duets with drummers, her discography reading like a who’s who of free jazz drumming: Louis Moholo-Moholo, Günter “Baby” Sommer, Andrew Cyrille, Pierre Favre. It’s tempting to doubt that Joey Baron will stand up to Schweizer’s 2015 percussive partner, Han Bennink—whose bold and tricksterish playing so well matches the pianist’s—but of course he does just fine, adding his own unique filter to Schweizer’s sensibility. Quite the veteran himself, Baron has a well-honed intuition for when to follow his partner and when to chart his own course. And Live! provides him ample opportunity to demonstrate his range, from the firm swing of “Free for All” and “Blues for Crelier” to the subtle mallet-work of extended technique–vehicle “String Fever.” He even gets a few solo spots to show off his chops. But it’s when they’re improvising together that Schweizer and Baron are at their best here—where the push-pull of their interplay strikes its vital balance.
The set picks up in pace toward the end, finishing with back-to-back-to-back four-minute tunes. “Saturdays” features some of the album’s most cerebral and moody playing, while as already hinted, “Blues for Crelier” is a foot-tapper. Closer “The Open Window” begins with erratic improvisation, dropping from there into a fleet waltz. In the piece’s penultimate seconds, Schweizer’s playing becomes thinner and thinner until it suddenly vanishes in thin air, leaving Baron to ride out the last bit of the concert alone. Even when she stops playing, Schweizer draws cheers—such is her magic talent.

Greg Saunier, Mary Halvorson & Ron Miles - New American Songbooks, Volume 1 (Pleasure Of The Text, 2017) ****

By Brian Kiwanuka

It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is literally impossible to find someone who genuinely loves jazz - be it a musician, fan or critic - that hasn't had some type of exposure to the songs in what has come to be known as the Great American Songbook. Famous numbers like Vernon Duke's "April In Paris", Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and many other show tunes that became jazz standards are still regularly played to this day. New American Songbooks, Volume 1, a Sound American release which features a collaboration between Greg Saunier (drums), Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Ron Miles (cornet), takes the past format - adapting music to the idiom of jazz that may not have been written with extended improvisation in mind - and applies it to more contemporary compositions.

Unlike the Great American Songbook, the majority of the repertoire here is not made up of songs that many jazz fans may know by ear, with John William's "Luke and Leia (From Return of The Jedi)" being the most ubiquitous track by far due to the immense popularity of the Star Wars series. Saunier, who normally operates as part of the indie-rock band Deerhoof, commented in an interview with Sound American that:
"[the band] didn't end up choosing "Happy Birthday" or "We Will Rock You" or whatever American song is the most requested at karaoke. Instead I think we went for a Fantasy New American Songbook, a surreal wishlist. We gave ourselves a perverse thrill by choosing under-appreciated gems."
These gems include overlooked Beach Boys (Brian Wilson) tracks ("Little Pad"), songs by singer/songwriters like Elliot Smith ("Everything Means Nothing to Me / Last Call") and Fiona Apple, whose "Jonathan" was released in 2012. The trio also wades into classical waters in Vincent Persichetti's "Symphony No. 6 Mvt. II", 70s pop with "I Woke Up In Love This Morning (from The Patridge Family)", and revisits an underrated Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn collaboration in "Day Dream."

The energetic "Jonathan" is an album highlight. The band takes Apple's tune into overdrive, with Halvorson's rapid guitar, which takes the place of Apple's piano, and Saunier's ferocious, cymbal filled runs driving the track. After Miles finishes the playful melody, he lets loose, the cornet becoming forceful and free around the 1:50 minute mark. Halvorson has a brief moment in the spotlight towards the end of the song, playing knotty abstractions of the previously relatively controlled accompanying theme.

In terms of the motifs of the pieces, Miles' cornet often takes center stage, but nowhere is that more apparent than on the fantastic rendition of "Luke and Leia (From Return of The Jedi)." The cornetist gives a passionate performance that does justice to William's compelling melody. Behind the cornet, Saunier's drumming skillfully moves between the restrained and the more frantic and dramatic. Halvorson contributes by providing hazy notes that echo beautifully throughout the track that are occasionally used to create a great tremolo-like effect as Miles' cornet rises through the melody.

Over the years, Halvorson has become known for her unique style, which includes a tendency to bring a wide range of effects to her instrument. On "Everything Means Nothing To Me/Last Call", the guitarist - a huge Elliot Smith fan - stands out. Halvorson's hectic and adventurous interpretation of the ascending main melody of "Everything Means Nothing to Me" beginning in the 1:20 minute mark is particularly impressive. The guitarist is also crucial to "Last Call", providing a rock-tinged edge to proceedings as the cornet interprets the vocal melody. The consistently vibrant drumming is key here as well, with Saunier playing with the intensity of a solo throughout large portions of the track.

With the level of understanding between these three, it's extremely hard to believe that this is Halvorson and Miles' first time working with Saunier. The band shines throughout the LP's 40 minutes, taking on a wide stylistic range of compositions and passing each test with flying colors. Although these talented musicians have been quite busy lately, Halvorson and Miles appearing on multiple jazz releases this year and Saunier drumming with Deerhoof and producing with Xiu Xiu, here's hoping that someday they reunite. New American Songbooks, Volume 1, is a superb record that comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Alexandra Grimal, Benjamin Duboc, Valentin Ceccaldi - Bambu (Ayler, 2017) ****½

By Stef

For those of you who've read my previous reviews, they will remember that I hate "spoken word" in music, because most of the time it just doesn't work. This album is a unique exception. Why? Because Alexandra Grimal recites pieces of texts and poems without pretence, simple and eloquent. 

The textual inspiration is "Respirer L'Ombre" by Italian sculpture Giuseppe Penone, a book he wrote on his vision on his art, which is focused on trying to experience nature from within. What is it like to feel nature like nature itself? The music on this wonderfully poetic album, performed by Alexandra Grimal on sax and voice, Benjamin Duboc on bass, and Valentin Ceccaldi on cello, has the same sensitivity. It is about touch, about hearing, about sensing closely. As a result the music has the kind of fragility and cautiousness that is required to reach out slowly, to caress, to sense, to hear, to to feel. At the same time, it can be hard and rough too. It is about organic growth, about forking out in different directions. About soil. About air. 

Sax, cello and bass move together full of open wonder and full of attention for what's happening. This is free improvisation, but with no specific concern for any expected forms. 

"Toucher" (touch) offers a quietly spoken text, with bowed strings in the background, about the sense of touch. 

"Densité" (density) starts with a lyrical soprano solo, jubilant and joyful, later underscored by a deep bass until the cello enters full of aggressivity, electrified it seems, but it isn't. Grimal switches to tenor and the sounds get darker and thicker, visceral and yes, dense, and intense. 

"Ombre" (shadow) consists of slowly plucked bass, unhurriedly, with Grimaldi murmuring whispering in the background, faintly, and only for a small part of the track, while Duboc's instrument keeps moving forward, resonating so closely that you can touch it. 

"Image" starts with a collective quiet shimmering around the same tone, repetitively, floating in empty space. Grimal recites the text, breaking the words into pieces, repeating herself, half-singing, whispering, and then the music takes over, with now increasing changing intervals, a wonderfully circling of high and low notes, a dance of tenor and cello, supported by plucked bass. 

"Empreinte" (footprint/fingerprint), without a doubt the centerpiece of the album, starts with careful  bowing by both string instruments, hypnotically circling around a tonal center. Grimal joins the extended notes of the strings by wordless voice, copying the strings. Then the mood changes, getting darker and more ominous, with the dark and deep voice of Duboc reciting inaudible urgent words, followed by Grimaldi singing a high-toned girl-like song, whose innocence is in incredible contrast to the menacing bass and screeching cello and when silence suddenly emerges, the mood changes: Grimal's soprano imitates her earlier song, in a way that is entirely uncanny. Is it her sax or is she still singing? Her timbre is so close to the human voice. Then the music shifts again into full intensity, with soaring sax over repetitive insistent strings. It is raw, brutal and lyrical at the same time. 

"Adhérence à la Terre" (adherence to earth) brings us back into quiet poetic territory, with barely audible words whispered in the intro, being replaced by sax over a silent background, gradually filled by intense strings. 

"Respirer" (breathe) is again quiet and subdued in the beginning, with cello flageolet tones and deep bass sounds. Grimal's voice mystifies us again with its purity and beauty, and she keeps her calm as both strings go into a total frenzy. 

This is a unique album. You will not have heard anything like it. Grimal's creativity knows no bounds (and no disrespect to the two other musicians). She is a musician with vision who dares to break any expectation that one might have of music. And truth be told, despite its name, even the words avant-garde or free improv already come with a whole bunch of sounds and approaches you can expect. Not here. She has surprised us before, and she keeps doing it. 

Support for Joëlle Léandre - To Women

By Stef

"To Women" is the title of a track of the recently reviewed duo album of Eve Risser and Kaja Draksler, two women who have coloured our musical universe in the past few years, with their personal and visionary approaches to their music and instrument. I wanted to add my comments on Joëlle Léandre's plea for more gender diversity and openness to more adventurous music with regard to the French "Victoires du Jazz" awards.

But before going into the gender debate, let's take a step back. Let's give a little perspective on bias.

This is my personal opinion. And it is true of any selection of art material. Earlier this year, the BBC produced a list with the 100 greatest comedies of all time. I am not a film critic, but anybody going through this list will immediately notice that its perspective is extremely narrow. With the exception of Jacques Tati and Pedro Almodovar, all these movies are coming from the US or the UK. Even if the US and the UK are great movie countries, this cannot be correct. There are at least another 100 movies from other countries that could figure on the list. What is the problem? The makers of the list are all Brits, and the likelihood that they have seen only English movies is much higher than the movies of let's say Emir Kusturica, Jûzô Itami, Alfonso Cuaron, Bruno Dumont, Roberto Begnini, Anders Thomas Jensen, Aki Kaurismäki, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and many others. 

So a lot of worthwhile information is not shared because the authors of the list are not even aware of what's happening out there, because they're culturally biased. They have a very narrow perspective from which to judge the world. It's the same with the Best Books of the year lists which are coming up in many newspapers. If you trust the The Guardian's list of the 100 best novels ever written, 83 of them were written in English. This cannot be! This is impossible. By any measure. 

This is the same narrowness of perspective that we're fighting against. The editors of these lists are themselves blind to what determines their choices. They think they can judge in all honesty about movies and novels, unaware that they've missed some wonderful movies and books in other languages. Anybody looking at this list from outside the US or the UK will notice that this is almost by definition impossible. It is the narrow perspective of people living in their own narrow world evaluating a topic that is much vaster, and probably more interesting, than they are living in. Most people are blind to the biases of the group they belong too. And if the BBC and The Guardian already suffer from it, you can guess what lesser media will produce. It is extremely difficult for the dominant perspective to even reflect on this, and accept that there is a bias.  

Music, luckily, is less language sensitive. Yet the same thing happens, in terms of gender, in terms of geography. The ideal for us would be to throw our net as wide as possible and capture any kind of music, from any part of the world that fits with our exploratory and adventurouss tastes, and that we have the time to listen to it all and then to evaluate in earnest. In reality, we have a bias to listen with more attention to musicians we know, because we have seen them perform, because we have met them, because we have heard of them more than about others. As a result, proximity and familiarity will cloud judgment. 

We want to overcome these biases, and we welcome anybody to challenge us. Open ears also means to be open to sounds beyond what is expected, and cherishing the wonderful diversity of music that is out there. But broadening your own perspective takes effort. It requires a willingness to listen, a willingness to listen to what is outside your usual habitat. 

The amazing thing with the French "Victoires du Jazz" awards in question is that France has good musicians, both male and female, and some of them are really trend-setters today. 

Here is a list of all the women musicians we wrote about this year (and I may have missed some) and the list of musicians from whom we received music or saw perform without reviewing. 

When you look at the list, it is almost impossible that not one single woman would figure on the list of best albums of the year. Suppose that we came up with a list of European white males between 40 and 50 years old, something would be terribly wrong. I'm sure it won't. 

Here's "To Women". 

Women musicians reviewed during the year

Jaimie Branch
Susana Santos Silva
Alexandra Grimal (France)
Lina Allemano
Lotte Anker
Fiona Lee
Ikue Mori
Sylvie Courvoisier
Okkyung Lee
Maria do Mar 
Maria Radich 
Satoko Fujii
Kaja Draksler
Eve Risser (France)
Marina Džukljev
Mette Rasmussen
Mary Halvorson
Kate Gentile
Laura Cannell
Sylvie Courvoisier
Elisabeth Coudoux
Magda Mayas
Marta Zapparoli
Ina Sagstuen
Natali Abrahamsen Garner
Rachel Musson
Lisa Mezzacappa
Silvia Bolognesi 
Mazz Swift
Emmanuelle Waeckerlé
Maya Homburger
Paula Shocron
Zena Parkins
Aine O'Dwyer
Eva Lindal
Catharina Backman
Carin Blom
Sofia Jernberg 
Tomeka Reid
Svetlana Spajic
Dragana Tomic
Isabelle Duthoit (FR)
Viv Corringham
Kris Davis
Joëlle Léandre (FR)
Angélica Castelló
Marcela Lucatelli
Angelica Sanchez
Jessica Kenney
Vilde Sandve Alnæs
Inga Margrete Aas
Gunda Gottschalk
Julia Robert 
Agnès Vesterman
Biliana Voutchkova
Irene Kepl
Sara Schoenbeck
Vanessa Rossetto
Nora Krahl 
Maria da Rocha
Carmen Rothwell
Julia Úlehla
Heather Leigh
Nicole Mitchell
Aki Takase
Ingrid Laubrock
Joana Gama
Yoko Ikeda
Aya Naito 
Jane Ira Bloom
Cristina Abati
Ig Henneman
Sylvaine Hélary (FR)
Sophie Bernado
Fanny Lasfargues
Pauline Oliveros
Anna Webber
Patricia Brennan
Dina Maccabee
Myra Melford
Geri Allen
Renée Baker
Elisabeth Harnik
Lauren Newton
Christine Abdelnour
Not (yet) reviewed

Ada Rave 
Airelle Besson (FR)
Alessandra Novaga 
Angharad Davies
Ann Noel 
Anneleen Boehme
Aude Romary (FR)
Audrey Lauro
Anat Cohen
Beatrice Dillon 
Camille Emaille (FR)
Camille Thurman 
Céline Bonacina (FR)
Christine Wodrascka (FR)
Dana Jessen
Diane Moser
Ellen Andrea Wang
Ellen Arkbro 
Els Vandeweyer
Eva-Maria Houben 
Franziska Baumann
Géraldine Laurent (FR)
Monika Brooks 
Laura Altman
Hanna Paulsberg
Hélène Breschand (FR)
Hélène Labarrière (FR)
Irene Aranda
Lucia Martinez
Ingrid Schmolliner
Irene Kurka 
Izabela Kałduńska
Josephine Davies
Julia Reidy
Karoline Leblanc
Kate Carr
Kate Mohanty
Kathleen Tagg
Sarah Bernstein
Christina Stanley
Tara Flandriau
Lea Bertucci
Linda Catlin Smith
Linda May Han Oh
Maria De Alvear
Maria Merlino
Marianne Tilquin (FR)
Marta Sanchez
Martina Verhoeven
Miya Masaoka 
Moniek Darge
Natalia Kamia
Natalia Mateo
Natasha Barrett
Mimi Solomon
Olivia Block
Paula Shocron
Prune Becheau
Rosalind Hall
Judith Hamann
Fay Victor
Sarah Davachi
Sarah Hennies
Sarah-Jane Summers 
Silke Eberhard
Sophia Domancich (FR)
Sophie Agnel (FR)
Sophie Alour (FR)
Susanne Abbuehl
Tania Chen
Vanessa Rossetto
Yannick Peeters
Yoko Miura

Alison Blunt
Hannah Marshal
Ute Wasserman
JD Zazie
Andrea Neumann
Marylyn Crispell
Annette Krebs
Anna Kaluza
Liz Allbee

Monday, December 25, 2017

New Ears Vote: Happening Now!

Don't forget to vote in the Happy New Ears award for top album of the year!

The choice are:

  • Anemone - A Wing Dissolved In Light (No Business)
  • Chamber 4 - City Of Light (Clean Feed)
  • Eve Risser & Kaja Draksler - To Pianos (Clean Feed)
  • Hear In Now - Not Living in Fear (International Anthem)
  • Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp – The Art of Perelman/Shipp Vol.6: Saturn (Leo Records)
  • Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die (International Anthem Recording Company)
  • Joe McPhee / Damon Smith / Alvin Fielder - Six Situations (Not Two Records)
  • Kate Gentile - Mannequins (Skirl, 2017)
  • Ken Vandermark - Momentum 1 (Audiographic Records)
  • Nate Wooley - The Complete Syllables Music (Pleasure Of The Text Records)
  • Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE)
  • Peter Evans / Agustí Fernandez / Mats Gustafsson - A Quietness of Water (Not Two Records)
  • Roscoe Mitchell - Bells for the South Side (ECM)
  • Vijay Iyer - Far From Over (ECM)
  • Wadada Leo Smith - Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk (TUM Records)
  • William Parker & Stefano Scodanibbio - Bass Duo (Centering Records)

Go to to vote now.

Free Jazz Blog's 2017 Top 10 Lists

It's starting to look a lot like ... this.

Today we present our reviewers top 10 albums of the year, and we also invite you to vote in the annual New Ears Awards.

The nominations for the award were made from compiling the lists below. This year, the blog writers are voting on the same choices, but in a separate poll. The award winner for both polls will be announced on January 1st.

Here, by the way, is a little known fact: it is not a simple act to come up with a top 10 list. There is teeth gnashing, tears of frustration, and sleepless nights over the difficult decisions that must be made, and then there is the haunting thought that these decisions will never be perfect. Choices are made with fairness in mind, with deference to a balance of labels, musicians, the new and the old, and all the other things that we can think will help as we craft our lists. This of course is stacked up against all of the albums we didn't get to write about, let alone listen to, throughout the year. Our list of albums for review topped 1600 this year - a new record, of course.

Regardless, thank you all for being a part of the Free Jazz Collective and supporting improvised music in general. The creative music community is a small and everyone plays a part whether it as a musician, promoter, writer/critic, listener, concert-goes, consumer, or a bit of each.

Now, don't forget to vote:

List are presented in alphabetical order by reviewer's last name:

Paul Acquaro

  • Ken Vandermark - Momentum 1  (Audiographic Records)
    A momentous occasion - Vandermark's week at the stone was a incredible week of music, the sets presented here of his less documented working groups are a must have.
  • jaimie branch - Fly or Die (International Anthem)
    With an accessible approach and a top notch band of current and ex-Chicagoan band-mates, branch has set the bar high with her debut album.
  • Joe McPhee, Damon Smith, Alvin Fielder - Six Situations (Not Two)
    Smith has said of his work with Fielder: "what emerged between Alvin and myself is a mix of total free improvisation with swinging quarter notes never far away." Add McPhee to the group and you have a killer trio!
  • David S. Ware Trio - Live in New York, 2010 (AUM Fidelity)
    Recorded at the Blue Note in NYC before Ware's passing, this set transcends his medical condition and shows a master at work. 
  • Ivo Perelman, Nate Wooley, Bradon Lopez, Gerald Cleaver ‎– Octagon (Leo Records)
    This list could be the top 10 Ivo Perelman albums of the year. The saxophonist is on a roll and the documentation from Leo Records will be an invaluable archive in perpetuity.
  • Peter Brötzmann, Steve Swell, Paal Nilssen-Love - Live in Tel Aviv (Not Two)
    I'm borrowing these words from Derek's review: "[this] recording boasts a dense, muscular, yet occasionally free-wheeling sound that, in many ways, perfectly encapsulates just what these three players are all about - namely, raw power and fierce creativity." 
  • Tim Berne - Incidentals (ECM)
    I simply love Berne's music. Everything out of his horn and his compositional pen is an ear-bending adventure.
  • John Butcher, John Edwards, Mark Sanders - Last Dream of the Morning (Relative Pitch)
    These three British musicians cast a special spell on this release. Butcher trills, chirps, and lets loose with some thrilling passages.
  • Gebhard Ullman, Oliver Potratz, Eric Schaefer - Das Kondensat (Why Play Jazz)
    Electronics supplement, and sometimes supplant, the traditional instruments: samplers, loopers, and modular synth all play an important role here in creating a refreshing take on electro-acoustic free jazz.
  • Paula Shocron / Germán Lamonega / Pablo Diaz - Tensegridad (Hatology)
    This piano trio is making moving, creative, and thoughtful music, and working to foster an improvisational music scene in Buenos Aires.

Daniel Boeker

  • Dre Hocevar - Surface of Inscription (Clean Feed)
    An album full of surprises without turning itself into a wall of sound. Dre Hocevar seams to be my artist of the year since he was also working with the next guy I chose an album from: Nate Wooley. Dre was on 'knknighgh' (also clean feed).
  • Nate Wooley - Battle Pieces II (Relative Pitch)
    Just one word: beautiful!
  • Big Bold Back Bone - In search of the Merging Species (Shhpuma Records)
    An exquisite mix of sound, noise and "music" over 40 minutes of intense listening.
  • Robert Mazurek - Rome (clean feed)
  • Thollem I Mazurek - Blind Curves and Box Canyons (relative pitch records)
    Mazurek's sound is recognizable and new and changing at the same time.
  • Trio Heinz Herbert - The Willisau Concert (Intakt)
  • Lean Left - I forgot to breath (Trost)
    Maybe because I hear memories of my old noise-rock bands...
  • Mat Maneri, Evan Parker & Lucian Ban: Sounding Tears (clean feed) 
    Maybe it is worth to mention that my list tells me that clean feed is my label of the year . 

Tom Burris 

I truly believe the top two records on my list will be around for a long time to come. They contain music for the ages (assuming we still have ages in front of us – which is a pretty large assumption at this point in history). We Yankees need something to be proud of right now and for me, it's pretty much just this one thing: U.S. women artists fucking rule, dude.

  1. Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2017)
    The world Mitchell has been slowly building comes to fruition – and it is astonishing. Absolutely essential for every reader of this blog.
  2. jaime branch – Fly or Die (International Anthem, 2017)
    Equally essential. It took a long time for branch to get here & maybe that's why her debut as a leader comes fully realized. A marvel of a record that doesn't take itself too seriously, even when it's smart as shit.
  3. Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp – The Art of Perelman/Shipp Vol.6: Saturn (Leo Records, 2017)
    Possibly the new gold standard for duo recordings. Heaven.
  4. Wadada Leo Smith – Solo: Reflections & Meditations on Monk (TUM Records, 2017)
    The minimalism of Monk goes extreme, one note at a time. Smith plays these tunes on the trumpet sounding a bit like we do when we hum along to Monk records. It's better than us.
  5. Mette Rasmussen/Tashi Dorji/Tyler Damon – To the Animal Kingdom (Trost, 2017)
    The total fire sound clash that is Dorji & Damon adds Rasumussen to the inferno. What could go wrong? Nothing does – and that's the point.
  6. Hear In Now - Not Living in Fear (International Anthem, 2017)
    The best album so far by this incredible string trio.
  7. Vijay Iyer Sextet – Far From Over (ECM Records, 2017)
    Vijay is popular. This is a great disc.
  8. Jason Stein – Lucille! (Delmark, 2017)
    I couldn't have loved a Stein record more than 2011's The Story This Time – or so I thought.
  9. Rempis/Piet/Daisy – Hit the Ground Running (Aerophonic, 2017)
    Inspired performance from this Chicago trio. All proceeds of this download-only recording benefit Refugee One, “a local Chicago-based organization that creates opportunity for refugees fleeing war, terror, and persecution to build new lives of safety, dignity, and self-reliance.”
  10. Chamber 4 – City of Light (Clean Feed, 2017)
    Beautiful textures that move slowly and fold in on themselves perform a ballet solely for listening. Godspeed You! Dream Chamber.
    *Eve Risser & Kaja Draksler – To Pianos (Clean Feed, 2017)
    Risser & Draksler are joined at the brain and create the greatest horror movie soundtrack ever recorded. European women artists are pretty badass too.

Stuart Broomer

Not really a “best of,” but recordings of special interest and quality. There’s no numerical order intended, but weddings and collisions of inner (embouchure, dialects, circuit boards) and outer worlds (a mausoleum, a cityscape, a nuclear plant) may be an underlying theme.

  • Gonçalo Almeida/Rodrigo Amado/Marco Franco - The Attic (No Business)
    This ad hoc grouping of Portuguese musicians at SMUP, Parede, is a rare and concentrated thing, free jazz burning with its original vision.
  • Yves Charuest/ Agustí Fernandez / Nicolas Caloia/ Peter Valsamis - Stir (Tour de Bras).
    The great Catalan pianist forms a fine quartet with three Montreal musicians deserving of wider recognition. It’s highlighted by the complementary contrasts of Charuest’s brilliant alto saxophone—laconically lyrical, subtly determined—and Fernandez’ titanic piano.
  • Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York - Fukushima (Libra).
    Working in a tradition that runs from Ellington through Mingus and Sun Ra, Fujii welds protest and vision as well as composition and improvisation in a work of galvanizing power for a 13-piece orchestra first assembled 20 years ago.
  • Joëlle Léandre / Phil Minton - Léandre / Minton (Fou).
    Wildly, playfully, darkly mad, funny and inventive, here two people compress a year’s worth of craziness into one forty-minute episode.
  • Wade Matthews/ Abdul Moimême – Lisbon: 10 Sound Portraits (Creative Sources) Improvisation and documentation of a city disappear into one another.  
  • Neuköllner Modelle (Bertrand Denzler/ Joel Grip/ Sven-Åke Johansson) - Sektion 1-2 (Umlaut); Neuköllner Modelle and Alexander von Schlippenbach) - Sektion 3-7 (Umlaut).
    This is an unusual two-part release that spreads over media from LP to CD as well as 2016 to 2017, all of it from the same club residency and an idea of neighborhood: contemporary free jazz with great energy, joy and camaraderie. Denzler is a major voice, something at times overlooked because of the range of his activity. 
  • Evan Parker (with Mark Nauseef and Tomas Gouband) - As the Wind (psi).
    This came out late in 2016 and seems to have been overlooked; however, it’s superb music any year, a soundworld at once abstract and intimate, with every sound spontaneously presenting itself with acute detail and a sense of inevitability. Gouband’s (literal) rock music is as resonant and ethereal in company as it is alone.
  • Sun Ra - The Magic City (Cosmic Myth Records).
    A fine restoration of Sun Ra’s central work from 1965—a brooding, revelatory, explosive orchestral meditation on the “magic city” of Birmingham, Alabama, futurity and mind.
  • Akio Suzuki/ John Butcher - Immediate Landscapes (Ftarri).
    Previously unreleased documents of a 2006 tour of Scotland and the Orkneys: the two interact with the reverberations and other sonic mutations of an ice house, a mausoleum, a reservoir and an oil tank.
  • Nate Wooley - The Complete Syllables Music (Pleasure of the Text Records).
    On four CDs, Wooley pursues the fundamental notion of “talking trumpets” through embouchure formation based on the International Phonetic Alphabet. Music pitched at a permanent edge.

Troy Dostert

  • Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over (ECM)
  • Stephan Crump, Ingrid Laubrock, Cory Smythe - Planktonic Finales (Intakt)
  • Craig Taborn - Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
  • Fabian Almazan - Alcanza (Biophilia)
  • Nick Mazzarella and Tomeka Reid - Signaling (Nessa)
  • Tyshawn Sorey - Verisimilitude (Pi)
  • Trespass Trio - Spirit of Pitesti (Clean Feed)
  • Chamber 4 - City of Light (Clean Feed)
  • Tomas Fujiwara - Triple Double (Firehouse 12)
  • Trio Heinz Herbert - Willisau Concert (Intakt)

Lee Rice Epstein

  1. Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – Fukushima (Libra, 2017)
    As southern and central California were struck by horrible wild fires (the Thomas fire continues to spread as I write this), Satoko Fujii's incredible Fukushima arrived as the most relevant, and powerful, work of the year.
  2. Mette Rasmussen, Tashi Dorji, and Tyler Damon - To the Animal Kingdom (Trost, 2017)
    Damon and Dorji released a really great duo album last year, and with the addition of Rasmussen they reach stellar new heights.
  3. Ikue Mori - Obelisk (Tzadik, 2017)
    This one oddly seemed to fly under the radar, but the debut recording of Mori's Obelisk group (with Okkyung Lee, Jim Black and Sylvie Courvoisier) is a major event.
  4. Eve Risser & Kaja Draksler - To Pianos (Clean Feed, 2017)
    This pairing of two marvels of piano and prepared piano far exceeded any expectations I had. The best piano recording of the year.
  5. Kate Gentile - Mannequines (Skirl, 2017)An incredible debut filled with a baker’s dozen of Gentile’s knotty compositions.
  6. Rob Mazurek - Chimeric Stoned Horn (Astral Spirits, 2017)
    The splendid marriage of Mazurek and Marfa.
  7. jaimie branch - Fly or Die (International Anthem, 2017)
    We all know why, but especially for the “leaves of grass / the storm / waltzer” triptych.
  8. Laura Cannell - Hunter Huntress Hawker (Brawl, 2017)Ever the experimental improviser, Cannell recorded this album "in the semi ruined church of Covehithe, which sits on a fast eroding cliff on the Suffolk Coast.”
  9. Made to Break - Trébuchet (Trost, 2017)
    Passionate and daring, Made to Break's latest is amplified by Bob Weston's sharp production.
  10. Marcelo dos Reis - Cascas (Cipsela, 2017)
    Like a lot of artists on my list (Fujii, Mori, Risser, Draksler, Vandermark, Halvorson, Mazurek) dos Reis released multiple albums that could have made my list, but his first solo album remained the high water mark.
    *Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson - Crop Circles (Relative Pitch, 2017)
    This duet appeared early in the year, but I just kept going back to it. Some of Halvorson’s finest playing on record.
    *Matt Mitchell plays Tim Berne - førage (Screwgun, 2017)
    Mitchell reimagines and completely reinvents Berne’s music.

Stef Gjissels

  1. The Dorf - Lux (Umland, 2017)
    overwhelming and massive
  2. Chamber 4 - City Of Light (Clean Feed, 2017)
    musical flock of starlings
  3. LAMA + Joachim Badenhorst - Metamorphosis (Clean Feed, 2017)
    dark lyricism
  4. Lina Allemano's Titanium Riot - Squish It! (Lumo Records, 2017)
    wonderful, destabilising and creative quartet
  5. Sirius - Acoustic Main Suite Plus the Inner One (Clean Feed, 2017)
    lyrical trumpet and percussion from Portugal 
  6. Lotte Anker - Plodi (Klopotec, 2017)
    only she can find this emotional depth in an alto
  7. Anemone - A Wing Dissolved In Light (No Business, 2017)
    super star band delivers new vision
  8. Alexandra Grimal, Benjamin Duboc, Valentin Ceccaldi - Bambu (Ayler, 2017)
    poetic, light of touch, sensitive
  9. Deniz Peeters & Simon Rose - Edith's Problem (Leo, 2017)
    intimate, scintillating and dark piano and baritone sax duo
  10. Microtub - Bite Of The Orange (Sofa, 2017)slight ripples of deep sounds from the north

Chris Haines

  1. Ruokangas-Estola-Roland – Self-Titled (Alba)
    ...This year’s surprise package…
  2. Oliwood – Euphoria (Enja)
    ...A great mix of improvisation and composed elements…
  3. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Incidentals (ECM)…The saxophonist explores an extended palette of colours…
  4. Carlos Bica & Azul– More Than This (Clean Feed)…A great album of understated beauty…
  5. Raoul Bjorkenheim Triad – Beyond (Eclipse Music)…A power trio with so much more…
  6. Michael Gregory Jackson – Spirit Signal Strata (Golden)…Amazing to hear this legend making explorative instrumentals again…
  7. Moster/Parker/Abrams/Herndon – Ran Do (Clean Feed)
    …Chicago meets Scandinavia and sounding decisively European...
  8. Philip Gibbs – Infinite Spirit Perfect Now (Environmental Studies)…A complex and interesting set of solo pieces…
  9. Mark Dresser – Modicana (NoBusiness)
    ...Some vibrant solo playing from this free music stalwart…
  10. Noel Akchote – Complete Recordings (plays Anthony Braxton) (Solo Series)…Just for the sheer audacity!…

Eyal Hareuveni


No attempt to summarize the best or the most important free-jazz, free-improv or free-whatever albums of 2017. Just another personal list of my favorite, free-spirited albums, in no specific order:
  • Eve Risser / Kaja Draksler - To Pianos (Clean Feed)
    These exceptional pianists offer some insights about how two pianos would wish to sound, with and without pianists. 
  • Made to Break - Trébuchet (Trost)
    Ken Vandermark's most challenging group now, suggesting bold sonic dimensions, surprising dynamics and profound compositional ideas.
  • Various Artists - Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal (Rune Grammofon)
    There is no better 70th birthday gift to the great, still influential  Norwegian guitarist, with a stellar cast of guitarists: Henry Kaiser, Bill Frisell, David Torn, Jim O'Rourke and Scandinavians Hedvig Mollestad Thomasse, Raoul Björkenheim and Reine Fiske.
  • Goran Kaifješ Subtropic Arkestra - The Reason Why Vol. 3 (Headspin Recordings)
    Only this Swedish trumpeter can spin your heads with such tasty brew of Ethio-Jazz, Afrobeat and electronics wrapped in an astral free jazz arrangements.
  • Mark Solborg / Christian Skjødt - Omdrejninger (Ilk Music)
    A most inspiring work of sound art and composed and improvised parts that offers new insights with every listening experience.
  • Anja Lechner / Agnès Vestermann - Valentin Silvestrov: Hieroglyphen der Nacht (ECM New Series)
    You many know the German cellist Anja Lechner from her collaborations with pianists François Couturier. Ketil Bjørnstad and Vassilis Tsabropoulos. You may want to check this beautiful tribute to a great, contemporary Ukrainian composer.
  • Isabelle Duthoit / Franz Hautzinger - Lily (Relative Pitch Records)
    If you want to experience a sonic love conversation between an imaginative vocalist and trumpeter, also lovers in real life, this intriguing album may be the best one this year.
  • Stéphan Oliva / Susanne Abbuehl / Øyvind Hegg-Lunde - Prince (Vision Fugitive)
    A heartfelt, poetic exploration of the work of the American  Jimmy Giuffre and his influence on Keith Jarrett and Don Cherry by a French pianist, Swiss vocalist and Norwegian percussionist.
  • Greg Saunier / Mary Halvorson / Ron Miles - New American Songbook, Volume 1 (Sounds American)Prolific guitarist Mary Halvorson has released 7 albums this year (according to her website), but somehow this chamber trio with master trumpeter Ron Miles and Deerhoof’s drummer Greg Saunier has won my heart. You can find here covers of themes from Star Wars and The Partridge Family, songs of Fiona Apple and The Beach Boys and pieces of Gary Peacock and Duke Ellington & Billy Strayhorn.
  • Yannis Kyriakides - Subvoice (Unsounds)
    You may know this Greek composer-sound artist from his collaboration with The Ex’ guitarist Andy Moor or his sonic adaption of William Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch’. You should explore his orchestral works that investigate into ideas of voice and language. 
Honorable Mention:
  • Ryuichi Sakamoto - async (Commons)
    The Japanese master presents his most emotional and personal solo work after recovering from a battle with cancer.

Mats Gustafsson - Discaholics! Record Collector Confessions, Volume 1 (Marhaug Forlag) and John Corbett - Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (Duke University Press)Both books suggest some useful, therapeutic ideas for the many ones who struggle with this common addiction.

Rick Joines

The musicians who made these albums know how to get out of the way when music desires to reveal its essence. Unshackled from preconceptions of composition and improvisation, they know the authenticity of the music—and of themselves as musicians—is more important than conforming to any definition of “free” or “jazz.” This is music without cliché or artifice. It does not exist to entertain—in the background or as a distraction. It often seems strange and unfamiliar, but when we slow down, it teaches us how to listen and how “to dwell within the truth that his happening in the work,” as Heidegger says. This music contemplates; it reflects, it thinks—and it sweeps us into its drift, transporting all of us out of the habitual mundane, beyond ourselves, up into the luminous.

Depending on the week, any of these albums could have been at the top of my 2017 list, so please hit “shuffle” and play.

  • Chamber 4 — City of Light (Clean Feed, 2017)
    Théo Ceccaldi (violin), Valentin Ceccaldi (cello), Marcelo Dos Reis (guitar), and Luís Vicente (trumpet): every intensely layered moment of this album amazes. I love how the classical chamber music quartet transforms into this wild journey, which features some truly fearsome screaming.
  • Kołakowski / Wykpisz / Korelus — Schönberg (For Tune, 2017)
    The barely six minutes of Arnold Schönberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, are the ground upon which Mateusz Kołakowski (piano), Alan Wykpisz (bass), and Bartłomiej Korelus (drums) work. Inspired by Schönberg’s little intellectual parables, this trio makes atonal abstraction swing.
  • Kyle Motl Trio w/Kjell Nordeson & Tobin Chodos — Panjandrums (Self, 2017)
    Endlessly inventive improvisatory imagination combines with brilliance of technique and execution. The music made by Motl, Nordeson, and Chodos—solo and in combos—is all terrific.
  • Zack Clark —  Random Acts of Order (Clean Feed, 2017)
    Zack Clarke’s trio, with Henry Fraser on bass and Dré Hočevar drums, weaves through an ever-evolving improvised maze of jazz, drone, electronica, and noise. “The mind roamed as a moth roams,” as Wallace Stevens might say.
  • Danny Kamins, Damon Smith, Alvin Fielder, and Joe Hertenstein — After Effects (FMR Records, 2017)
    I am a fan of innovative bass players, of baritone sax, and of extended technique: this quartet hits all my sweet spots.
  • Peter Evans, Agustí Fernandez, Mats Gustafsson — A Quietness of Water (Not Two Records, 2017)For these masters of extended technique, technique is never an end in itself. Evans, Fernandez, and Gustafsson push the limits of their instruments and of their bodies to produce disquieting and difficult music for brave souls: not for the faint of heart.
  • Achim Kaufmann and Olie Brice — Of Tides (Babel Label, 2017)
    We talk a lot about “interplay” and “conversation” when reviewing free jazz, and this record is a master class in those concepts and in the power of a duo.
  • Jo Berger Myhre and Ólafur Björn Ólafsson —The Third Script (Hubro, 2017)
    Sweeping Arctic gorgeousness: atmospheric, beastly, mystical, and deeply human.
  • Hang Em High: Bond, Lucien Dubuis, and Alfred Vogel — Tres Testostones (Gig Ant, 2017)
    Inspired by the greatness that was Morphine, this trio—James Radek Bond, Lucien Dubuis, and Alfred Vogel—creates intensely fun jams. Alfred Vogel is a powerhouse who works the subtleties of his genius in many contexts.

Connor Kurtz

So, 2017 in jazz and improvised music:
  1. Keith Rowe & Michael Pisaro - 13 Thirteen (Erstwhile Records)
    The 140 minute duo recording brings together one of the most prominent electroacoustic improvisers with one of the most prominent avant-garde contemporary composers to create a beast which takes liberally from both worlds, creating something fresh, exciting and massive. It's hard to say exactly what 13 Thirteen is trying to say, but it feels extremely important.
  2. William Parker & Stefano Scodanibbio - Bass Duo (Centering Records)
    This archived recording documents a performance by a jazz bassist with a minimalist composer bassist to create music that belongs to neither genre, but recalls clearly why the two are great.
  3. Johan Berthling, Martin Küchen & Steve Noble - Threnody, at the Gates (Trost Records)
    This album is simply some of the most exciting jazz I've heard in a while. It's abstract and multi-faceted, but constantly invigorating and powerful.
  4. Masahide Tokunaga - Bwoouunn: Fleeting Excitement (Ftarri)
    Japanese avant-garde saxophonist Masahide Tokunaga is one of the most original acoustic performers in the world right now, and this solo recording is his best yet.
  5. Yan Jun & Ben Owen - swimming salt 游泳的盐 (Organized Music From Thessaloniki)
    This minimal improvisation for electronics contains little more than tones and static, but is endlessly endearing in its movement and (very modern) interplay. Despite feeling so cold and lifeless, the nature of the improvisation maintains a sense of playfulness which keeps it from becoming an academic bore.
  6. Samo Salamon Sextet - The Colours Suite (Clean Feed)
    The Colours Suite is a live recording of a ton of avant-garde jazz fun. The sextet, which includes two drummers, perform masterfully, yet youthfully, and all get their own comfortably placed times to shine.
  7. suzueri & Fiona Lee - Ftarri de Solos (Ftarri)
    Ftarri de Solos is a split between Japanese improv newbies suzueri and Fiona Lee, and immediately proves them both to be some of the most worthwhile and innovative improvisers to follow in upcoming years.
  8. Toshimaru Nakamura & Martin Taxt - Listening to the footsteps of living ones who are still on the ground (Ftarri)
    Nakamura's famous no-input mixing board is used to process a live tuba performance from Martin Taxt, creating a complex mess of sound which often borders upon being harsh noise.
  9. Sam Sfirri & Taku Unami - zymology (Hibari Music)zymology is an hour of avant-garde ultra-reductionist improvisation by Sam Sfirri and Taku Unami, who spend more time crumpling paper and starting washing machines than they do playing their instruments. Although it is a fairly serious and conceptual work, it maintains a certain homeliness which grants some listenability.
  10. Ikue Mori - Obelisk (Tzadik)
    It's hard for me to imagine a modern jazz quartet more exciting than Ikue Mori, Jim Black, Sylvie Courvoisier and Okkyung Lee, and their music comes far from disappointing.
Non-jazz/improv album of the year:
  • Hiroyuki Ura, Kenichi Kanazawa & Satoko Inoue - Scores (Ftarri)
    Scores is a composition by Hiroyuki Ura which explores the metal sound sculptures of Kenichi Kanazawa. The music is combined with gorgeous and sparse piano melodies, and soft synthesized ambience. Scores is a breath of fresh air into Tokyo's Onkyo scene that's as relaxing as it is difficult.

 Gustav Lindqvist

  1. Gard Nilssen's Acoustic Unity - Live In Europe  – (Clean Feed Records, 2017)
    One of the true highlights for me this year. From a conceptual perspective it’s a very nice approach. 3 live concerts on 3 CD’s with the trio transforming into a quartet and quintet. Some songs are heard more than once which allows the listener to hear how these musicians treat material when additional instruments are added to the mix. But most importantly I absolutely adore how Nilssen and his energetic companions twist, turn and reinvent ideas. Fearless, bold and full of energy is the summary.
  2. Se Och Hör - Se Mig Hör Mig Känn Mig - (Signal And Sound Records, 2017) (Not reviewed on FJB, per December 13 – write-up in progress)
    Everything Anna Högberg is involved in seems to turn into gold. Se Och Hör (Watch And Listen) latest album Se Mig Hör Mig Känn Mig (See me, Hear me, Feel me) is no exception. Vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl makes this album something extra. An album full of life!
  3. James Blood Ulmer & The Thing – Baby Talk (Trost, 2017)
    This was not reviewed as a five star by yours truly, but maybe I was too conservative with my grade, being a new reviewer and all. Anyway, I keep returning to this album whenever I need an injection of untamed and raw free jazz. As I say; "Mats a day keeps the doctor away."
  4. Jaimie Branch - Fly Or Die (International Anthem, 2017)
    This is probably my favorite album this year in terms of how it’s been recorded. Dave Vettraino & David Allen has done a spectacular job, period. The music is to die for…or fly for. The title of this album is spot on. The music feels like it’s now or never. It needs to be captured and delivered or it’s going to be lost forever.
  5. Peter Evans / Agustí Fernandez / Mats Gustafsson — A Quietness of Water (Not Two Records, 2017)
    This is one scary album, yet I can’t stay away from listening a bit more. This is a completely new language for me and it’s mesmerizing!
  6. Martin Küchen - Lieber Heiland, Laß und Sterben (Sofa Music, 2017)
    Alone in a very old room in a cathedral, Küchen invites me to connect titles with sounds, to allow feelings to come and to go and to dare being alone.
  7. Ken Vandermark - Momentum 1: The Stone (Catalytic Sound, 2017)
    The giant Vandermark. What can one say that hasn’t been said already? This box is a delight from start to finish. It’s such a treat to have and to hear. A monumental release.
  8. Marker – Wired For Sound (Catalytic Sound, 2017)
    A new group with Vandermark! Freaky funky rock-n’-swing axed to pieces, chopped to bits, mowed down and then put back together.
  9. Albert Cirera / Hernâni Faustino / Gabriel Ferrandini / Agustí Fernández - Before The Silence (No Business Records, 2016)
    Vibrant, passionate and energetic, yet not without lyricism. This album is beautifully recorded and is full of interesting layers to dive into as a listener.
  10. Joe McPhee / Damon Smith / Alvin Fielder - Six Situations (Not Two Records, 2017)
    Free jazz and improvisation of the highest order. I love how this group moves in and out of structures and ideas without any restraints. The beat is always there, yet the group has no problem moving into individual excursions far out.

Eric McDowell

  • Joshua Abrams Natural Information Society - Simultonality (Eremite)
    Scaling back from 2015's double-LP Magnetoception, Abrams & co. offer another hypnotic set of organic loops and grooves. Don't miss the Ari Brown feature at the end.
  • Amok Amor - We Know Not What We Do (Intakt)
    Peter Evans, Wanja Slavin, Petter Eldh, and Christian Lillinger deliver a set of tightly plotted, expertly navigated tunes. Lillinger's stop-start drumming is the perfect complement to Evans's punchy trumpet work.
  • jaimie branch - Fly or Die (International Anthem)
    The debut of the year—bold and compact, but with holistic variety, from the writing to the playing to the production. What else is there to say? Branch flies.
  • Kate Gentile - Mannequins (Skirl)Another bold debut, one that would easily bear the weight of more attention. Percussionist Gentile is joined by Matt Mitchell, Jeremy Viner (tenor, clarinet), and Adam Hopkins (bass) for over an hour of challenging, exciting music.
  • Hear In Now - Not Living in Fear (International Anthem)"Breathtaking" is the word I keep coming back to. Whether tilting toward experimentalism or melodicism, Tomeka Reid, Mazz Swift, and Silvia Bolognesi play with fire and wit.
  • Irreversible Entanglements - Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)
    While Camae Ayewa's incisive recitations give this burning, necessary album the core of its power, it wouldn't quite come off without top performances from Keir Neuringer, Aquiles Navarro, Luke Stewart, and Tchester Holmes, too.
  • Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over (ECM)
    Lives up to expectations, and then some. These pieces expand Iyer's musical persona and give his sextet ample opportunity to wow.
  • Roscoe Mitchell - Bells for the South Side (ECM)
    Mills might have tried to bump him earlier this year, but this album shows—if there was any question—that the multi-reedist has plenty more to teach. As varied as his best work has always been, these compositions are fun and serious by turns, always awesome.
  • Bill Orcutt - Bill Orcutt (Palilalia)
    Is the mid-career self-titled album a way of wiping the slate clean? What about when it's full of standards, traditional songs, and Christmas carols? Either way, this album of solo guitar pieces comes across as fresh and urgent as anything.
  • Andrew Smiley - Dispersal (Astral Spirits)And one more debut. Smiley takes the stage alone for this brave half-hour bout of wordless singing and guitar. Earnest and raw.

David Menestres

Like all lists, this one should be taken with a healthy dose of salt. This isn’t a reflection of the best albums released this year, it’s a reflection of the very small subset of that group that I actually managed to listen to. For instance, I still haven’t heard that Jamie Branch album that I’m sure will be on almost everyone else’s list. And about the ordering: it goes from solo performance to larger groups. I have no idea how to place these albums one above the other, this seemed like a good solution.

  1. Nate Wooley – The Complete Syllables Music (Pleasure of the Text Records)
    A deep and fascinating plunge into solo trumpet work, pushing the trumpet into new realms of being.
  2. Proprioception – Alex Ward (Weekertoft)
    My second favorite solo release of the year featuring one of the my favorite instruments, the clarinet, with and without amplification.
  3. William Parker & Stefano Scodanibbio – Bass Duo (Aum Fidelity)A one off meeting between two of the greatest bass players of the last fifty years.
  4. Leila Bordreuil & Zach Rowden – Hollow (No Rent Records)
    Bass and cello and cello and bass, with the greatest PR line I’ve ever seen: “For fans of Morton Feldman and Richard Ramirez alike.”
  5. Hear In Now – Not Living In Fear (International Anthem)
    The best trio I heard this year, refreshing and new. Looking forward to hearing this trio grow for many years to come.
  6. Han-earl Park, Dominic Lash, Mark Sanders, Caroline Pugh - Sirene 1009 (Buster and Friends)
    As I said in my review “a fierce, adventurous band that goes where most bands don’t.”
  7. Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE Records)
    The ever illuminating Mitchell blazing a path into the future.
  8. Roscoe Mitchell – Bells for the South Side (ECM)
    I decided there would only be one album per label and this is my favorite ECM release this year.
  9. Matt Mitchell – A Pouting Grimace (PI)
    One of the most ambitious albums of the year.
  10. Alice Coltrane - World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane (Luka Bop)
    The one reissue I listened to more than anything else. 

Nicola Negri

  • Wadada Leo Smith – Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM, 2017) / Najwa (TUM, 2017)
    Two distinct records that can be seen as a double album, presenting two complementary aspects of Smith’s uncompromising musical vision. Simply stunning.
  • Roscoe Mitchell – Bells for the South Side (ECM, 2017)
    Another master of creative music who refuses to play it safe. The old slogan of the Art Ensemble – Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future – has never been so fitting.
  • Irreversible Entanglements – S/T (International Anthem, 2017)
    Free Jazz rediscovers its vocation as social music. A furious, poignant, and ultimately necessary album for these troubled times.
  • Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2017)
    Afrofuturism for the 21st century: with Mandorla Awakening Mitchell has created a strange, fascinating, and simply beautiful new musical world.
  • Lisa Mezzacappa – avantNOIR (Clean Feed, 2017)Virtuoso, inventive and utterly captivating – a clever homage to the noir canon from one of the most interesting new voices of the West Coast jazz scene.
  • Otomo Yoshihide / Hiroshi Yamazaki / Evan Parker – 14.11.16 (Otoroku, 2017)East meets West in this live recording from Otoroku’s download only series. Free improvisation of the highest caliber.
  • The Necks – Unfold (Ideologic Organ, 2017)
    Listening to The Necks is like being abducted by aliens – you come back transformed, but you don’t know exactly how. Thirty years later, the mystery remains.
  • Hear in Now – Not Living in Fear (International Anthem, 2017)
    Three inventive musicians/composers – and fearless improvisers – present a highly original vision of what jazz is, and what it will be.
  • Miles Okazaki – Trickster (Pi Recordings, 2017)
    Geometric grooves and oblique improvisations from four modern jazz masters – a game of mirrors where nothing is what it seems.
  • Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza – Azioni/Reazioni 1967–1969 (Die Schachtel, 2017)A monumental release to celebrate one of the most important ensembles in the history of free improvisation. Essential.

Fotis Nikolakopoulos

  1. ANEMONE - A Wing Dissolved In Light (NoBusiness, 2017)
    Ego-less, collective improvisation at it's best
  2. CARTER/GUERINNAU - Couleur De L'Exil (Improvising Beings, 2017)A dramatic and impressive dialogue
  3. Tony Conrad - Ten Years Alive On The Infinite Plain (Superior Viaduct, 2017)
    The best archival recording of 2017. T.Conrad is deeply missed
  4. Neuköllner Modelle : Denzler, Grip, Johansson, V. Schlippenbach ‎– Sektion 3-7 (Umlaut, 2017)Looking into the future through the past
  5. Akira Sakata & Manuel Mota & Giovanni Di Domenico & Mathieu Calleja ‎– Jomon (Holidays Records, 2017)
    Sakata's fire is always strong, even with new but fine artists
  6. Mama Luma - s/t (Krapp's Tapes/noise below, 2017)
    Lo-fi, noise, free jazz, piano music, whatever
  7. David S. Ware Trio ‎– Live In New York, 2010 (AUM Fidelity, 2017)David S. Ware is not from the past, but comes from the future
  8. Nicole Mitchell ‎– Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE Records, 2017)
    A holistic vision of contemporary black music
  9. Yves Charuest, Agusti Fernandez, Nicolas Caloia, Peter Valsamis ‎– Stir (tour de bras, 2017)
    Out of the blue, one of the best quartets of 2017
  10. Sun Ra And His Arkestra Featuring Pharoah Sanders and Black Harold - s/t (Superior Viaduct, 2017)
    The burning saxophone of Pharoah added to a collective that had no boundaries

Antonio Poscic

  1. Irreversible Entanglements - Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem, 2017)
  2. Nicole Mitchell - Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2017)
  3. Jaimie Branch - Fly or Die (International Anthem, 2017)
  4. Isabelle Duthoit & Franz Hautzinger - Lily (Relative Pitch, 2017)
  5. Kate Gentile - Mannequins (Skirl, 2017)
  6. Hear In Now - Not Living in Fear (International Anthem, 2017)
  7. Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo - Peace (Libra, 2017)
  8. Áine O’Dwyer - Gallarais (MIE, 2017)
  9. Eve Risser and Kaja Draksler - To Pianos (Clean Feed, 2017)
  10. Mary Halvorson Quartet - Paimon: The Book of Angels Volume 32 (Tzadik, 2017)
“I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.” That’s the thought that marked 2017, a year which saw the resurgence of reactionary forces and a rapid social regression on both global and local scales. As usual, women’s rights were the first to be swept up in the turmoil spawned by the threatened status quo of patriarchy. In the world of jazz, this ludicrous fragility of masculinity was betrayed as two prominent jazz musicians nonchalantly portrayed women as mere objects bedazzled by the music of virile men.

It’s only fitting then for my top 10 of such a year to be dominated by female-lead acts which crafted exhilarating music. Mary Halvorson’s quartet closed John Zorn’s Book of Angels songbook with one of its best entries. Eve Risser, Kaja Draksler, Satoko Fujii, and Áine O’Dwyer spoiled us with their continued musical triumphs. Hear in Now with Tomeka Reid, Silvia Bolognesi, and Mazz Swift flowed between free jazz/improv, modern composition, and folk. Isabelle Duthoit showcased her amazing vocal expressiveness, while Kate Gentile and Jaimie Branch stepped up into the limelight with two potent debuts. But it was Nicole Mitchell and Irreversible Entanglements with Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) that created this year’s masterpieces, their afrofuturism-imbued, philosophically and politically charged music connecting the past, present, and future, warning us and showing us the path forward.

Martin Schray

  • Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp - The Art of Perelman/Shipp (8 CDs) (Leo, 2017)
    I’ve ignored Perelman for a long time - what a mistake. His eight CDs with his favorite collaborator Matthew Shipp plus guests is another proof of his current rush of creativity. My favorite is "Nr. 4: Hyperion"
  • Roscoe Mitchell - Bells From the South Side (ECM, 2017)
    Mitchell works with the developments of thoughts and he loves depth, Craig Taborn once said. This goes for this performance with members of his different trios at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art as well.
  • Vijay Iyer - Far From Over (ECM, 2017)
    This is not a free jazz album - in fact it’s almost mainstream - but the music here is so well-constructed, so full of commitment, so excellently played, that it’s absolutely joyful to listen to.
  • jaimie branch - Fly Or Die (International Anthem, 2017)
    Simply the newcomer of the year - a trumpeter who is aware of her own sound, supported by a great band (Tomeka Reid, Jason Adjemian, Josh Berman, Chad Taylor and others)
  • Nate Wooley - The Complete Syllables Music (Pleasure Of The Text Records, 2017)
    For many years I felt uncomfortable with our Happy New Ears Award for “the most innovative listening experience“. This is one indeed. Four CDs pure Wooley: solo trumpet, tapes and effects.
  • Evan Parker, Mikołaj Trzaska, John Edwards, Mark Sanders — City Fall - Live at Cafe Oto (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2016)
    It’s a 2016 album, but it was released on 12/23/2016, so nobody could have it on last year’s lists. The best rhythm section at the moment supports two European first rate saxophonists in top form.
  • Anemone - A Wing Dissolved In Light (NoBusiness, 2017)
    A quintet which unites musicians from three continents, each from different countries. All the more, the musicians represent different generations of improvised music. It’s as if they had played together for years.
  • Wadada Leo Smith - Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM, 2017)
    The compositions of a true master played by a true master. There’s no Top Ten list without an album by Wadada Leo Smith.
  • Pat Thomas - The Elephant Clock of Al Jazari (Otoroku, 2017)
    Among the many excellent pianists on the scene at the moment, Pat Thomas’ solo albums stand out. Full of surprise, the music is hard to categorize. This is my favorite one so far.
  • Kate Gentile - Mannequins (Skirl, 2017)
    Another newcomer album (at least the first under her name), in this case by a drummer. Superbly composed material prepares the ground for wild improvisations. No wonder if you have Matt Mitchell (p), Jeremy Viner (sax) and Adam Hopkins (b) in the band.
Best album that doesn’t fit in our categories:
  • Mount Eerie: A Crow Looked On Me (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd, 2017)
    Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum lost his wife, musician and artist Geneviève Carée, who was also the mother of their two-year-old child, to cancer. This is a reflection on her memory, but also on what it means to keep living. One of the most touching albums I’ve ever heard.
Best show:
  • There were many this year: Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love in Weikersheim; Dave Rempis, Nate Wooley, Pascal Niggenkemper and Chris Corsano in Schorndorf; Ballister in Bonn; Agustì Fernandez and Lucia Martinez in Wiesbaden, but nothing can compete with Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain Orchestra at the A L’arme Festival in Berlin. The huge supergroup including American and Berlin-located musicians created an atmosphere of immense tightness and drama. After the show you could hear the musicians freaking out in the backstage room.

Martin Selkelsky 

  • Bill Orcutt - Bill Orcutt (Palilalia Records, 2017)
    Way too short.
  • Wadada Leo Smith - Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk (TUM Records, 2017)
    From one master of Afro-American music to another.
  • James Blood Ulmer with The Thing - Baby Talk (Trost Records, 2017)
    Eclectic, yet exciting combination. Harmolodics meet free jazz vikings.
  • Ballister - Slag (Aerophonic Records, 2017) and Low Level Stink (Dropadisc, 2017)
    Explosive free jazz unit.
  • DKV Trio - Latitude 41.88 (Not Two Records, 2017)
    > 20 years of improvising experience in the palm of your hand.
  • jaimie branch - Fly Or Die (International Anthem Recording Company, 2017)
    Outstanding leader debut.
  • Mats Gustafsson & Craig Taborn - Ljubljana (Clean Feed, 2017)
    Two masters at work.
  • Chicago/London Underground - A Night Walking Through Mirrors (Cuneiform Records, 2017)Superb transatlantic collaboration.
  • Mary Halvorson - Paimon: The Book Of Angels Volume 32 (Tzadik, 2017)
    Engrossing final chapter.
  • Konstrukt - Molto Bene (Holidays Records, 2016)
    Tardy for the 2016 the end-of-year-lists. Music for heart, body, mind and soul.

Dan Sorrells

This was another excellent year for music, and choosing just ten albums was difficult. I could easily have doubled or tripled this list, which certainly exceeds the scope of “free jazz,” but contains music I think can be appreciated by many readers. In no particular order:

  • Bill Orcutt – Bill Orcutt (Palilalia)
    Orcutt’s first solo electric guitar release, a further refinement of his song demolitions and utterly idiosyncratic style.
  • Alexandra Grimal, Benjamin Duboc, Valentin Ceccaldi – Bambú (Ayler)
    An absurdly accomplished trio of French musicians that makes fascinating use of spoken word in their almost ceremonial improvisations.
  • Mako Sica – Invocation (Instant Classic/Feeding Tube)
    This Chicago trio pulls from a lot of familiar genres, but nevertheless make infectious music that’s difficult to pin down.
  • La Tène– Tardive/Issime (Astral Spirits)
    Hypnotic, rhythmic bliss in the form of hurdy gurdy, harmonium and percussion.
  • The Pitch – Frozen Orchestra (Berlin) (Arbitrary)Shimmering psychedelic drones from this expanded version of The Pitch.
  • Chiyoko Szlavnics – During A Lifetime (Another Timbre)Absorbing works from this Canadian composer, exploring the interactions of sine waves and the timbres of various instruments.
  • Širom – I Can Be a Clay Snapper (tak:til)
    This Slovenian trio restlessly cycles through instruments and melodies to create kaleidoscopic folk-inflected pieces.
  • IKB – Ornithorhynchus Anatinus (Creative Sources)
    Ernesto Rodrigues’ long-running ensemble returns with their sixth album. “Quiet music that you want to experience loudly.”
  • Szilárd Mezei, Marina Džukljev, Vasco Trilla – Still Now (If You Still) (FMR)
    “Music of furious virtuosity. It is an album that makes you hold your breath as you listen.”
  • Abdul Moimême – Exosphere: Live at the Pantheon (Creative Sources)
    Moimême’s custom dual-guitar setup, here in the resonant National Pantheon in Lisbon, produces sounds unlike anything else in improvised music.
Not listed but could have been included: work by Mike Majkowski, Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Richard Chartier, Lea Bertucci, Angles 9, Michael Pisaro, Delphine Dora & Sophie Cooper, any of several albums by Marcelo dos Reis, Vasco Trilla, Agustí Fernández, Ernesto Rodrigues, the list goes on and on…

Derek Stone

  • Matt Mitchell - A Pouting Grimace (Pi Recordings)
    A Pouting Grimace takes all of the best qualities of Mitchell's previous work (especially the tremendous Vista Accumulation) and distills them into a stream-lined, endlessly inventive package. There's a lot going on here, and I'm still unraveling it all, but it's easily my favorite avant-garde jazz release of the year. 
  • jaimie branch - Fly or Die (International Anthem)
    It's got all of the raw energy and attitude of a punk rock record, and there are tons of little moments on here that add up to so much more. In a genre where some artists can take themselves and their work a little too seriously (not always a bad thing, mind you), Fly or Die is refreshingly playful.
  • Ivo Perelman, Matthew Ship & Nate Wooley - Philosopher's Stone (Leo Records)Being a fan of Perelman is both rewarding and challenging, and for the very same reason - namely, there's just so much quality material coming from Perelman each year that it's a bit daunting to try and tackle it all. I could have chosen a number of Perelman's other releases from this year, but Philosopher's Stone is particularly thrilling. Perelman and Wooley approach their respective instruments in different ways, sure, but they mesh together so damned well!
  • Krokofant - Krokofant III (Rune Grammofon)
    This became my go-to workout music for 2017. A wonderful hybrid of rock and improvisational jazz that delivers blow after blow after blow.
  • Miles Okazaki - Trickster (Pi Recordings)This gets about as close to a "cool breeze" as a free(-ish) jazz album can. Okazaki's guitar figures can be dizzying in their melodic complexity, of course, but they go down smooth. Add a crack rhythm section and the always-great Craig Taborn, and you've got a winner. 
  • Cortex - Avant-Garde Party Music (Clean Feed)
    With this one, you basically get what's on the tin: jazz that's playful, occasionally boisterous, and always adventurous. Cortex might have a well-worn formula they stick to, but there's a reason they haven't switched it up yet: it works. 
  • Gard Nilssen's Acoustic Unity - Live in Europe (Clean Feed)
    I came to this one rather recently, but I can already tell it's a keeper. Freewheeling solos, tight interplay, and the kind of energy that you can only get in a live performance - it's all here, and it's all gold.
  • Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far from Over (ECM)
    Iyer continues to expand the scope of his compositions on Far from Over, and he does so with the help of some of the best players in the game. 
  • Big Bold Back Bone - In Search of Emerging Species (Clean Feed)
    I was confused and disoriented by this record the first, second, and maybe even third time I heard it..but it continued to draw me back and offer up more of its treasures. Here we are at the end of 2017 and I still haven't excavated everything that's going on in this 40-minute slab of sound.
  • Irreversible Entanglements - Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)I thought that I didn't enjoy spoken word with my free jazz, but this album changed all that; the words that Camae Ayewa spits, snarls, and occasionally screams may not be pretty, but damn if they don't punch you right in the gut at times. Combine that with a relentlessly powerful quartet, and you've got a record that just won't release its grip on you.