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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Friends & Neighbors - What’s Next (Clean Feed, 2018) ****½

By Nick Metzger

What’s Next is the fourth album from Norway’s Friends & Neighbors, the quintet of trumpet player Thomas Johansson, tenor sax/bass clarinet player André Roligheten, pianist Oscar Grönberg, bassist Jon Rune Strøm, and percussionist Tollef Østvang. Friends & Neighbors play what they regard as “. . . energetic and melodic free jazz inspired by musicians like Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp. Pharoah Sanders, and John Carter.” And I have to say, if you have a particular affinity for that 70’s free jazz sound then you will highly enjoy this band. Each song has a theme that is generally reprised and/or modified throughout to ground the improvisations (i.e. archetypal 70’s head/improvisation/tail song structure with some variations). This works out well here because the melodies are infectious and the soloists are amazing musicians. Friends & Neighbors is a band whose releases I actively look forward to. On the surface it would appear that confining yourself to a specific sub-style would yield diminishing returns, but this hasn’t been the case with Friends & Neighbors. They have consistently released excellent music and What’s Next (following 2016’s What’s Wrong) is, I believe, their best album yet.

Influx begins with the horns stating an airy and dramatic melody over harmoniously essential cymbal shimmer, piano chords, and pizzicato bass line. This main theme is interposed with a brief but lovely interlude from the piano and rhythm section as the horns drop out. After this interval, the main theme is played once again and the song fades out. For WLB the band comes out swinging a jagged theme from the horns over the thumping piano and the plodding rhythm section. Roligheten takes his solo on tenor which is underpinned by the clatter of the rhythm section and sharply stabbed out piano chord accents. Johansson solos next as the rhythm section switches to a more bop style beat with a walking bassline. This is followed up by a raucous return to the theme to close out the song. Kubrick’s Rude begins with a lengthy, sophisticated, and bittersweet theme statement followed by a very nice solo from Grönberg (with some slightly audible vocalizations ala Alexander von Schlippenbach). Johansson and Roligheten follow this up with interplay and counter melodies, with just a bit of free play included for good measure, then return to the theme to close the song. Euro finds Roligheten on bass clarinet, with the band playing a staggered melody from which Rune Strøm breaks and solos wildly over measured horn bleats and drum/piano stabs. This transitions into an enthusiastic and manic solo from Grönberg which leads back into the theme.

You could just about guess the name of Reflection after hearing the main horn melody. This track is easy on the ears and contemplative similar to the opener, but this time with a brief interlude from Roligheten on tenor before restating the theme and fading out. Mozart, similar to WLB and Kubrick’s Rude, has an odd timing, giving it a kind of playful feel. This changes up as the song progresses into a more swinging refrain and some really nice horn and piano playing followed by the reprise of the main melody. Thorleif’s Blues is a fantastic number finding Roligheten back on bass clarinet divvying the great intro theme with Johansson as Rune Strøm adds some excellent arco accents. Johansson solos over the minimal but pointillist percussion of Østvang before a restatement and variations of the melody with Roligheten. Headway Heat closes the album with high energy bounce and a wild piano solo. Midway through the track Roligheten takes his solo on tenor and plays his most fiery of the set.

The sequencing of What’s Next is auspicious as it layers airy, contemplative numbers such as Influx and Remembering with sharper, more angular song forms like WLB and Mozart. This sweet-and-sour style of sequencing was used to great effect on the 70’s free jazz classic A Conference of Birds by the Dave Holland Quartet. It works now as it did then, testing the listener with tense and strange melodies before providing a brief respite with one of the gentler numbers. All in all it’s one of my favorites this year, a most welcome set from a terrific band.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Sarah Marie Hughes - Coy Fish (Self, 2018) ***

By Stef Gijssels

How nice it is to hear new artists and their very personal take on things. Sarah Marie Hughes is one of them, and her debut album is immediately a winner. Her tone on the alto is all her own, warm, granular in tone and deep. Her music is fully improvised with a very strong coherence and an equally personal approach, if only because it features Samuel Burt on daxophone, the bizarre instrument that is quite strong in copying the human voice. Daniel Ostrow plays bass and Nate Scheible drums.

The long first track is a real statement, a violent, modern outburst of raw expression, primarily driven by Scheible's powerful and relentless drumming, over which Hughes plays frantic and intense solos, accompanied by the almost human wails of Burt's daxophone. The piece is both uplifting and disconcerting. By itself worth the album.

The rest of the album is more intimate, less exuberant than the first track, and that's in fact a little bit of a shame. "The Addict", the very short second track is a clever collective recitation of a text: creative and only possible with various voices, yet it marks a change of sound for the rest of the album. The playing is nice, but it somehow lacks the power and intensity of the opening track, moving into more soft-spoken and meditative improvisations.

"Again", the long third track is a very open-textured piece with a relatively quiet yet intense rumbling rhythm section, creating space for Hughes' gentle alto, and the mood becomes even more meditative and calm with the fourth track.

As on the previous track, Ostrow's bass anchors the improvisation with spacious plucks on the strings, with Scheible adding little touches, as the backdrop for Hughes' pure-toned sensitive solo. The long "Sensitive Sensuality" does what the title claims: a long, almost bluesy, quiet piece that starts getting some intensity at the very end.

The overall sentiment is gentle and friendly, a kind of improvised cool jazz, laid-back, sensitive and warm. It's a nice debut album, with a very personal voice, both musically and on her instrument, but I really would have liked that some of the intensity of the first track could have been maintained or repeated in other places on the album.

An artist to follow.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Unlimited 32 Festival, Wels, Austria, Nov. 9-11, 2018

By Eyal Hareuveni

This year’s program of the Austrian Unlimited festival offered a spectrum of the young, promising and challenging outfits in Austria, Europe and in the United States, with few heavyweights of free music kept for the last night. 22 challenging sets of creative music over three days, not one of these sets allow you to linger in any conventional comfort zone, but all attracted an appreciative audience of few hundred attentive listeners, most of them regulars and doing their pilgrimage to Wels annually. They say that you can’t choose your family but you certainly can choose your community and in Wels you can meet a strong community of like-minded of people who share with you - literally - more than musical tastes.

First Day

The evening sets of the festival began with distinctive piano outfits and the first night introduced one of the most promising piano trios, Punkt.Vrt.Plastik - Slovenian, Amsterdam-based pianist Kaja Draksler, Swedish, Berlin-based double bass player Petter Eldh and fellow-Berliner, German drummer Christian Lillinger, who has collaborated before with Eldh in the Amok Amor quartet. The title of this trio who has released just now its debut album (Intakt, 2018) refers to the Swedish word Punkt - point, but also associated with a statement, the Slovenian word Vrt - garden, or where a musical ideas are being cultivated, and Plastik that characterizes the plasticity of of this trio musical structures. And, indeed, the trio introduced a bold and challenging syntax to its complex pieces. Eldh and Lillinger would begin each piece with a muscular rhythmic pattern that often sounded as if it continues another pieces, closer to its last Punkt than to a conventional beginning, then let Draksler shape and color her own territory within these dense patterns, The trio pieces would terminate abruptly this kind of demanding interplay and begin again, further away, mid-piece of a complex structure and then strive for a simpler solution.

The Austrian quartet Kompost 3 - slide trumpeter Martin Eberle, keyboards player Benny Omerzell, electric bass player Manu Mayr and drummer Lukas König - has been working together since 2009, first in a shared apartment in Vienna’s 3rd district, and already released five albums (the most recent one, Abyss, JazzWerkstatt Records, 2018), one album of remixes and a single with local singer-songwriter Mira Lu Kovacs. Kompost 3 is known has an outfit that distances itself from any stylistic conventions and its performance offered its current incarnation as a jazz quartet that its rhythmic foundations are rooted in European techno and hip-hop and its harmonic horizons are aimed at abstract ambient skies, still, sounding as a far relative of jazz quartet as Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob when it comes to its refined tension building and its powerful groove.

The Chicagoan quartet of alto and tenor sax player Dave Rempis, double bass player Joshua Abrams, drummer Avreeayl Ra and pianist and ARP synthesizer player Jim Baker offered a completely different version strong, earthy pulses and imaginary flights. The first ever European performance of this quartet, that outgrew out of a trio of Rempis, Abrams and Ra (Aphelion, Aerophonic, 2014) and released its debut double album two years ago (Perihelion, Aerophonic, 2018), melted different yet sympathetic sonic universes. Ra, an alumni of the Sun Ra Arkestra, laid powerful polyrhythmic basis; The muscular playing of Abrams deepened these driving rhythms and on the other side Baker abstracted their infectious pulses into refined, minimalist textures on the piano and later to noisy soundscape on the vintage synthesizer. Rempis - in the middle, literally - navigated wisely this passionate, energetic flow, alternating between charging it with more power or steering it to more contemplative passages.

Peter Evans
This night ended with a wild and hyperactive performance of the New York trio Pulverize the Sound - trumpeter Peter Evans, electric bass player Tim Dahl and drummer Mike Pride. The trio just released now its sophomore album, simply titled Sequel (More and More, 2018), but its performance was far from simplicity. The trio justified its title and these three sonic terminators played as if possessed by manic power, equipped with ultrasonic speed, in a sacred mission to explore otherworldly timbres, but while keeping a delicate balance between three uncompromising generators of sounds that could have easily supply enough energy for all Upper Austria. Evans, in particular and with a remarkable circular breathing technique, created tsunamis of sounds with his mini, quarter-tone trumpet, as if legions of trumpeters backed him.

Jamie Branch
In between these sets, and in a smaller hall, New York-based trumpeter Jamie Branch and tenor sax player Anna Webber performed short solo sets. Branch offered a series of highly inventive noisy drones spiced with an eccentric sense of humor that made full use of the distinct amplification system and the hall acoustics. Weber experimented-improvised with extended breathing techniques, carefully shaping and morphing her attacks into coherent statements.

Second Day

The second day began with two afternoon sets. The first one presented a quartet of two like-minded duos, the Swiss one of electronics player Gaudenz Badrutt and accordion player Jonas Kocher, that has been working since 2009, together with the duo of German clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski, known from The International Nothing duo, and local hero Christof Kurzmann on ppooll software and vocals, both released a duo album in 2006 under the moniker Kommando Raumschiff Zitrone (First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, Quincunx Sound Recordings) and continue to collaborate in the Magic I.D. quartet. This set centered around the quiet, minimalist gestures of Fagaschinski while Bardutt, Kocher and Kurzmann embraced the almost silent commotion with more subtle and transparent sounds, sketching together delicate and suggestive soundscapes. Later, actor Natascha Gangl and vocalist-electronics player Maja Osojnik and synthesizer-laptop player Matija Schellander performed a play in German “Wendy Pferd Tod Mexiko”, that left the non-German speakers enjoying mostly the parts that were sung by the expressive Osojnik.

The evening sets began with another piano trio, but, as usual, completely different from the previous night. French pianist Sophie Angel, Swiss, Berlin-based turntables player Joke Lanz and American, Amsterdam-based drummer Michael Vatcher played together for the first time in the summer of 2016 at the French Météo Festival but not much more since then. But this time lapse did not affected the tight and almost telepathic interplay of this trio. These three highly inventive improvisers - Agnel with her unique playing inside the piano, Lanz with his punkish sense of humor and the rebellious drumming of Vatcher - opted for a kind of fast, dadaist conversation. There was no attempt to sketch coherent narratives or establish rhythmic patterns. but to lure each other into eccentric, often ironic, kaleidoscopic labyrinths of weird, always subversive and most of the time friendly sounds.

The next set expanded even further this of suggestive interplay. The Viennese duo Cilantro of paetzold flute-cassettes-electronics player Angélica Castelló and electronics and electric bass player Billy Roisz, was expanded into a sextet titled Piñata with Norwegian double bass player-vocalist Guro S. Moe, American, Berlin-based trumpeter Liz Allbee, French Revox wizard and electronics player Jérôme Noetinger and fellow-Viennese drummer Katharina Ernst. Piñata music collided a strong physical dimension - the wild shouts of Allbee through the trumpet mouthpiece, the trumpet without a mouthpiece or the trumpet with a sax mouthpiece, the brutal intensity of Moe and more reserved but totally charismatic drumming of Ernst - and the more introverted yet powerfully emotionally whirlwinds of alien sounds that Castelló, Roisz and Noetinger created. Once you thought that you could hang on a stable sonic ground within the nervous gestures of Allbee, Moe and Ernst, then Castelló, Roisz and Noetinger would seduce you to their enigmatic and cryptic universes. One of the highlights of this festival.

Hannah Marshall (c) and violinist Alison Blunt (v)
Next we experienced the British school of free-improvisation with one of its finest outfits - the duo of veteran alto and soprano sax player Trevor Watts, the founder of the legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and pianist Veryan Weston together with younger cellist Hannah Marshall and violinist Alison Blunt, titled as Dialogues with Strings, after their first album, Live at Café OTO in London (Fundacja Słuchaj. 2017), that documented the quartet first ever performance. Their performance offered a similar kind of collaborative openness, mutual trust and organic dynamics, where these distinct improvisers constantly shaped, abstracted and colored each other ideas, making the whole bigger and stronger than only four musicians.

Jamie Branch’s Fly or Die
The night ended with a set of trumpeter Jamie Branch’s Fly or Die quartet - drummer Chad Taylor, cellist Lester St. Louis and double bass player Jason Ajemian, all originally from Chicago but reside now in New York. Branch opened with the powerful “A Prayer to America” that stressed her kind of punkish-hip-hop approach, focused on hypnotic layers of rhythm, backed by the always masterful Taylor and intensified by St. Louis and Ajemian. Taylor, St. Louis and Ajemian left Branch enough space to articulate her emotionally-driven song-like themes, often based on single-note, repetitive patterns. The restless Branch did fly constantly all over the stage, near and far from the microphones, offering her tough, uncompromising sound, but she won me and many others when she spread her wings far away from the stage, playing a touching ballad as an encore, deep within the enthusiastic audience, sounding like no other.

In between these long sets Jim Baker presented a solo set on his ARP Synthesizer, that sounded as inspired by the title of his solo album More Questions Than Answers (Delmark, 2005). He literally conversed with this vintage, wayward instrument’s plugs, cables and keys while attempting to decipher its otherworldly transmissions into a reasonable narrative. Swedish, classically-trained violinist Anna Lindal, member of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra, played an enchanting recital that moved naturally between exploring delicate bowing techniques, that produced meditative sounds, and improvising on folk themes, with sparks of engaging humor and captivating elegance.

Third Day

The third and last day of the festival began with the documentary film “Leaning into the Wind” about the Scottish environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy by director Thomas Riedelsheimer and with a soundtrack of Fred Frith. Later on the afternoon, at the picturesque Catholic seminar Bildungshaus Schloss Puchberg at the outskirts of Wels, two ad-hoc duos performed one after the other. The New York-based Canadian tenor sax player Anna Weber and Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder performed written compositions that highlighted the unique sax attack of Weber, sounding as inspired by the solo work of Anthony Braxton, and the rich language of Stemeseder, who abstracted and enriched any gesture of Weber, with reserved elegance and arresting imagination. Later local vocal artist Agnes Hvizdalek, based in Oslo, and contrabass clarinetist Susanna Gartmayer presented a much more experimental set. Their free-improvisation began with a shout but immediately settled into a clever and highly expressive conversation, comprised of fractured phonetics and extended breathing techniques.

Hamid Drake
The evening began with another set with a pianist, this time the first ever performance of local Ingrid Schmoliner with master drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake. Schmoliner is known as an experimental improviser and composer who expands the tonal language of contemporary avant-garde music with her striking wooden preparations inside the piano and she has developed a highly personal percussive language. This free-improvised set reached quickly to meditative, transcendental regions, with Drake sketching ritualistic pulses and spells, attentive to any idea of Schmoliner and gently encouraging her to dare more and explore together the infinite depths and colors of her hesitant pulses and his earthy polyrhythms.

The New York-based CP Unit - led by tenor sax player Chris Pitsiokos and with guitarist Sam Lisabeth, bass player Henry Fraser and drummer Jason Nazary, performed a set that was based on the quartet’s recent album, Silver Bullet in the Autumn of Your Years (Clean Feed, 2018). The music of the CP Unit sounded as it was shot from a loud canon, arranged in almost prog-rock, complex mathematical formulas but often glided to a reckless, madcap chaos. Pitsiokos himself crisscrossed this joyful interplay with sharp, powerful shouts and led this passionate unit from one fast collective improvisation to another twisted one.

Bay Area’s trumpeter Darren Johnson’s Reasons for Moving was formed in 2005 as a free-improvised unit with guitarist Fred Frith and tenor and sopranino sax player Larry Ochs of Rova Saxophone quartet. Reasons for moving released so far only one only one self-titled album (Not Two, 2007), with bass player Devin Hoff and drummer Ches Smith, and reconvened for a short European tour again this autumn that began in the Unlimited festival with French double bass player Sébastien Jeser and Swiss drummer Samuel Dühsler. This quintet offered nuanced, poetic textures that instantly morphed from intense, free-improvisations into rich and colorful narratives, charged again and again by the fiery blows of Johnson, the always inventive sonic palette of Frith, the wise interventions of Ochs and the orchestral ideas of Jeser and the thoughtful coloring and sheer energy of Dühsler. All Five improvisers sounded as if they were tapped to the same profound a source of ideas that kept propelling this exciting set to higher and higher skies.

Before the closing set, cellist Lester St. Louis and Argentinian trumpeter Leonel Kaplan performed short solo sets at the smaller hall. St. Louis improvisations explored the timbral range of the cello strings and its wooden body with extended bowing techniques with unique microphones setting. Kaplan explored a whole together different language, almost totally silent, made of quiet breaths and minimalist whispers into the trumpet mouthpiece and gentle touches of the trumpet buttons. Often he sounded as producing electronic white noises, but eventually succeeded to suggest an arresting intensity and remarkable emotional depth.

Fire! Orchestra
The Unlimited 32 Festival ended with a magnificent set of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra. Every performance of this big band is considered as a once of a lifetime experience but this performance of the fourth version of the Fire Orchestra, only 14 musicians, was the most emotional and moving one that I have experienced. The new composition “Arrival”, to the words of vocalist Mariam Wallentin, emphasized a different sound - acoustic and lyrical - and surprising instrumentation, focused on a strings quartet and clarinet section, with core members - vocalists Wallentin and sofia Jernberg, double bass and electric bass player John Berthling, drummer Andreas Werliin and trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and Gustafsson himself on the baritone sax. Wallentin and Jernberg delivered this powerful piece with natural charisma and unique passion that only emphasized the powerful appeal of this one-of-a-kind Orchestra, even in its most reserved and modest mode. Wallentin led the Orchestra also in the encore, a surprising but sober cover of Chic’s “At Last I’m Free”, inspired by the cover of Robert Wyatt to this song.

The artistic director of the festival, Wolfgang Wasserbauer, notified the audience that next year, same place, Unlimuted 33 will be curated by German pianist Magda Mayas, Japanese guitarist and daxophone player Kazuhisa Uchihashi and legendary American reeds player Joe McPhee, titled “40.60.80”.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Der Verboten (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Stef Gijssels

Der Verboten is a new ensemble of Frantz Loriot on viola, Antoine Chessex on tenor, Cédric Piromalli on prepared piano and Christian Wolfarth on percussion. The only track on the album is called "Der Dritte Treffpunkt" (the third meeting point), because it's the third collaboration between Loriot and Piromalli.

The band performs at the center of the audience, or surrounded by it if you want, with the amplifiers behind the audience, making the audience more part of the performance than in a usual set-up. All instruments are amplified, and amplification is used when the musician thinks it's needed.

The music itself is characterised by an intense openness. The notes and sounds are reduced to mere granular ingredients to create a broader collective canvas with lots of white space. Somehow, because of timbral explorations, the small nuggets of sound contain minimal emotions, possibly insufficient on their own to impress, yet when listened to collectively, it resonates. You can call it organic, as the sounds grow from the bottom up. You can call it atomic, as the sounds bounce of each other like electrons, protons and neutrons. You can call it liquid, as various streams whirl and eddy in turbulence yet flow in the same direction. You can call it the sonic representation of quantum physics, where it becomes unclear whether matter consists of particles or waves, even as the intensity and the volume grow. Inevitably, the small drops become rivers, the seeds become plants become trees. So it is here, as energy and density increase.

But it is exactly in this fine energy of hard to define sonic particles, of the dynamic interaction of raw minute sensations that something larger comes to live, a sound edifice that is both alluring and alienating, inviting and confronting.

There can only be one track on this album, because there is no need for another approach. The music grows on the listener, and possibly the listener grows in the music. You can turn it off if you don't like it - which is fine - but when you keep listening till the very end, you will like it. And I'm sure you will listen again, and again.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Pair of FMR Releases from the Szilárd Mezei Septet

By Nick Metzger

After hearing the fantastic Hotel America from the Szilárd Mezei Vocal Ensemble earlier this year I was quick to pick up these two live albums by his septet released by FMR shortly after. Formed in 2005 the Szilárd Mezei Septet is an evolution of Mezei’s quintet of double bassist Ervin Malina, percussionist István Csík (Malina and Csík are also in Mezei's trio), reedsman Bogdan Rankovic, and pianist Milan Aleksic. Here the quintet is augmented with trombonist Branislav Aksin, flautist Andrea Berendika (on Hajnali APN), and vibraphonist Ivan Burka (on Véres Páncál), with pianist Mate Pozsar replacing Aleksic. All are incredibly capable and professional players that seem telepathically syncopated to the Vojvodinian composer and violist’s ambitions (no doubt a sign of rigorous rehearsal and touring). The pieces themselves are organized frameworks adorned with themes, solos, and sections of group free play. There are elements of free jazz and classical as well as archaic Hungarian folk music à la Béla Bartók, a named influence and fellow countryman of Mezei.

One of the many things I really value about the septet’s music is their attention to the flow of the piece and their respect for it. The soloists dedicate themselves to working within Mezei’s framework and it yields spectacular results, especially in the semi-composed group free play sections. Similar to another of his influences, Anthony Braxton, the solos follow a trajectory, diverging into free play and then converging back again at some pre-determined note or phrase. This results in the instrumentalists imparting their own crux to the piece, allowing for a mosaic-like expression from the group focused through Mezei’s compositional lens. To say that this works well is an understatement, and as soon as I had absorbed these two albums I got the rest of the septet’s albums in short order.

Szilárd Mezei Septet - Hajnali APN (FMR, 2018) ****½ 

Capturing a recording session for Kulturni Centar Novog Sada in 2015, Hajnali APN (roughly translated in English as APN at Dawn ) is a deeply satisfying listen. The title intrigued me enough that I wrote Szilárd to see what it alluded to; here is his thoughtful (and rather poetic) reply:
“Hajnali APN (APN in Dawn) is inspired by one of my iterative memory from my childhood. APN is one kind of middle-sized Yugoslavian (TOMOS) motorcycle, which was very popular in eighties in my country ( Tomos APN ). My memory is, that very often, in early morning I heard a sound of this motorcycle, when the workers depart from home to workplace (usually to some suburban factory), and I heard that sound (which is like a fly) for long minutes, almost from the departing to arriving, all around town. Sounds crazy, but this memory and this sound I remember still today. Of course, this sound and feeling have some more connotations, the feelings of a young boy in dark, early mornings.”
Hep 12 opens the set with honking brass and woodwinds beneath which a ponderous piano riff swells. The horns thrum up some drama for Pozsar’s fantastic piano solo over Malina’s quarter notes. The dramatic theme of the intro is superimposed intermittently, providing a complex counterpoint to the melody. Aksin slinks in alongside Pozsar for a trombone-piano dual, riffing off each other until everyone drops out but Aksin which starts a period of group free play. The transition from the composition to the free playing section is subtle, and the septet plays off, over, and around each other, reaching several crescendos with the percussion boosting the intensity. Berendika’s playing is much more prominent here, her icy runs of treble frosting the outlines of the group play. This is followed by a transition to a more spacious arrangement structured over Malina’s thrumming bass line and driving horns with accents of flute and Mezei’s viola. The soloists are given ample room to be creative and they in turn provide fiery playing and inventiveness. Bogdan Rankovic solos on alto, trading brisk runs and dark shapes with a wide accentuating vibrato. This is followed by a brief solo from Aksin, then a reprise of the previous theme and a brief solo from Csík. The septet then returns to the fantastic main theme to close the song.

The rollicking, rhythmic Hattyuk/Swans begins with an uneven piano figure with which the horns, strings, and flute provide counterpoint. The song then breaks down into a segment of brilliant free play, very suddenly this time, like a handful of marbles hitting the floor and scattering. Malina rips off grainy arco over which the ensemble takes turns flitting to the fore, providing a timbral bouquet that unhurriedly slows in pace and becomes more introspective. Csík honks and growls on his trombone, eliciting brusque responses from the viola, flute, bass clarinet, and drums that color the space like an expressionist painting. The septet then goes into a vivid section of moody interplay (both structured and improvised if my ears don’t deceive me) as a set-up for the arrival of the leitmotif.
The monolithic title track Hajnali APN starts with a brief set-up from the horns, viola, and drums before the brilliantly dramatic piano ostinato rolls in supplying a sense of motion and capturing the septet in its gravity. The horns and viola play complex and angular counterpoint to the piano, ratcheting up the drama. Csík solos first, alternating dulcet glissando with rattling honks and vocalizations. Mezei is next; his virtuosic arco provides so much of the ‘folk’ element to his groups. Rankovic then solos on bass clarinet, alternating plump Dolphy-like low end bluster with squealing altissimo. Berendika swells into the mix with her airy rolled notes and percussive tonguing providing a sunnier shade to the piece. The song then abruptly wanders in another direction, the piano playing a rollicking figure before dropping out and leaving Malina for an extended solo over the minimal percussive structure provided by Csík. Pozsar joins Malina and the two provide an interlude of piano flash and Gary Peacock-like pizzicato before the return of the piano figure and then a reprise of the main theme.

Szilárd Mezei Septet - Véres Páncál (FMR, 2018) ****½

Documenting a 2018 set by the Septet in Serbia, Véres Páncál starts off with 98%, originally from the album Polar which consists of a group free play wind-up into a 3 count piano figure over which the septet provides a brief third stream dialogue. It shifts (as it does on the album) right into the song Polar, here accorded a bit of a different sound due to the inclusion of Ivan Burka on vibraphone. It gives the pointed arrangement a more playful tone and nicely complements the piano and bass clarinet. Subnormal Slap is next with a loping figure before a looser segment led by Mezei’s pizzicato viola and the bell-like vibraphone of Burka. The piece is very dramatic and orchestral, punctuated with percussion and vibes. It’s so cohesive that it’s difficult sometimes to tell what is improvised and what is not. This is followed by the absolutely brilliant Innen/From Here, featuring the mournful viola of Mezei and the deep arco of Csík stating the refrain before the horns take over and sweep you away with melancholy. Mezei’s solo here is absolutely stunning, his absolute mastery on display in shifting descants and roiling crescendos. Rankovic follows with a whirlwind solo on alto ending in breathy notes over which the viola and contrabass reengage for a reprise of the opening sequence as the piano ripples and undulates with regenerating glissando.

Length of 100 Needles from the septet’s eponymously named album is next with another folk infused work of contemporary jazz. Rankovic solos first on alto with Pozsar providing understated counterpoint before Aksin and Burka join in and the song bursts into a climactic free play section, the musicians jousting in interplay before a return to the theme to end the piece. The following piece, just as on the original album is Metal Cat, which features another of Mezei’s wonderful melodies, trailing off on the last measure in abruptly held notes. Pozsar romps away with some lanky piano figures which he then breaks down into a dischordant statement before Csík provides and extended solo after which the rest of the group re-engages. As Burka solos on vibes the piano superimposes a reprise of the intro melodies in reverse, effectively completing the sonic Rorschach. Itt/Here In Memoriam Gyorgy Szabados, a tribute to the father of Hungarian free jazz and another stated Mezei influence pianist Gyorgy Szabados, starts with a lovely elegiac theme by the septet which segues into a vamp of sparse rhythm punctuated by piano and vibe chords. Aksin solos on trombone over the alternating bass line and cymbal shimmer of the rhythm section before the other players re-enter and engage in free play of the most telepathic variety, blurring the lines between the composed and the improvised, the bass line left alone at the end to turn off the lights. Of the title track Véres Páncél, Mezei said:
“Véres Páncél (Bloody Armor) is a song, which I wrote for a theater piece of Stanisław Wyspiański, called November Night . In original, there is also a short text, which was sung. The Septet-piece is, however, more complex, I wrote more music, the song was only a starting point.”
The piece begins with a staggered theme of horns and contrabass which then shifts to the piano shortly before the septet rejoins. The piece has a tense feel as it uneasily skims along. Mezei delivers an jagged solo on viola, alternating between aggressiveness and subtlety. Pozsar offers a response solo on piano every bit as jagged as Mezei’s bow, as if the two are sparring. There is a short intermezzo of contrabass, followed by the return of the main theme on the piano, with the horns providing counterpoint before the piano joins their melody. This is then turned inside out over the final minute, the septet providing a plethora of variation and embellishment before ending in an unexpected whisper. Next, Became Grey states its theme of lamenting piano, strings, and bass clarinet. The shortest piece of the set it comes and goes entirely too quickly, its loveliness a welcome interlude. The last two pieces are also selections from Polar, starting with Hep 22 which exudes a playful quality with its vibraphone heavy Dolphy-esque swing. The album closes with So No from Polar, a brisk number of deft orchestration and dexterous playing by the septet.

Szilárd Mezei Septet: In memory of György Szabados – Opus, BMC, Budapest (HU), 2018, 18 July:

Friday, November 16, 2018

Adam Hopkins - Crickets (Out of Your Head Records, 2018) ****

By David Menestres

Crickets is the new album from bassist and composer Adam Hopkins and features a sextet with Anna Webber, Ed Rosenberg, Josh Sinton handling various saxophone duties (and bass clarinet), Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, and Devin Gray on drums. Crickets is also the first release from Out of Your Head Records, a new label formed by Hopkins, TJ Huff, and Nick Prevas.

The music dips and dives, cruising down a long highway, taking tight turns at break neck speed. The music grooves on a deep level, congealing into a perfect late season pie, while still maintaining a noisy, thrashing, flaky upper crust. From the opening circular melody of “They Can Swim Backwards but Sometimes Choose Not To” built upon a deadly groove to the distorted madness of “Scissorhands,” the band plays with forceful conviction, shattering ear drums and taking no prisoners.

A solid album, highly recommended, well worth your time. Hopkins joked on Twitter that he named the album Crickets because that’s the response he was expecting to the album. It’s certainly difficult to sell this kind of music to a wider audience and we all know what kind of response this music usually gets in the press, but enough crickets collectively can make a deafening din, so chirp chirp.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Trio Generations - Unfolding (Particular Recordings, 2018) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Trio Generations brings together three singular, free-improvisers from different generations. The eldest is British vocal artist and tap dancer Maggie Nichols, known for her work with the legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble led by drummer John Stevens and from the Les Diaboliques trio with fellow innovative female improvisers - Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer and French bass player Joëlle Léandre. Swedish classically-trained pianist Lisa Ullén is a generation younger than Nichols, and is known for her collaborations with double bass player Nina de Heney and cellist Okkyung Lee as well as from Anna Högberg Attack. The youngest is this trio's initiator, Swedish, Trondheim-based, 20" bass drum player Matilda Rolfsson,  known from the trio Ma/Ti/Om with British double bass player Tim Fairhall and reeds player Tom Ward.

Neither age differences, geographical lengths, nor the nuances in their schools of free-improvisation place obstacles in the immediate and organic interplay of this trio. Rolfson organized the first performances of this trio in London’s I’klectik Art Lab and Café OTO, where the group hosted double bass player John Edwards, and in Cheltenham’s Xposed club, where the trio hosted reeds player Chris Cundy, in 2016. Unfolding, Trio Generations’ debut album was recorded a year later in Intelligent Sound’s atelier in the suburbs of Stockholm. Rolfsson took part in the mixing and mastering process of it.

The title captures faithfully the spirit of this unique trio - impressionistic, often poetic, and sometimes even abstract free-improvisations that incorporate elements from free jazz, contemporary music, theatre and vaudeville. Nichols’s wordless vocalizations or spontaneous talks are at the center, often marking the initial course of the improvisations, but then all is open to interpretation and the six pieces never commit themselves to any familiar territory. “Pretty Face”, with Nichols’ spiky comment “what a disgrace”, offers Trio Generations in its most playful, anarchist and eccentric mode, exploring sonic adventures, each one is stranger than the other. “The Devil in Me” brings a poetic transformation of Nichols intuitive utterances to an imaginary, fluid textures. Ullén and Rolfsson manage to frame Nichols’ totally spontaneous singing in a suggestive narrative, full of sudden turns, and subtle, mysterious tension. The title-piece and “Free Formations” push the fast-shifting, tensed dynamics of the trio to more dark, sometimes abstract and on other times even conflicting terrains, stressing the distinct, inventive languages of Ullén and Rolfsson. Unfolding ends with a radical, sarcastic abstraction of the standard “My Funny Valentine”, but highlights a strong feminist message: “don't change your hair for me / not if you care for me”.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Jeremiah Cymerman - Decay of the Angel (5049 Records, 2018) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

If you've listened to the other albums by clarinetist Jeremiah Cymerman, you know that he has an approach that is uniquely his own, a kind of passionate and relentless search for meaningful sound, or sound creation in the broadest sense. His instrument, often electronically supported, is only a tool to achieve this, and paradoxically, by doing so, he also changes the possibilities of his instrument. But the sound remains the first objective, and in line with his previous albums, one that is deeply dark and pessimistic in tone, as if made to accompany the ultimate annihilation of life.

It's his first solo album in many years, and one to cherish. Describing the music is almost impossible, but it is obstinate, headstrong, very linear in its flow, with minor shifts in color and multiphonics creating a strange palette of moving darkness out of which eery solo sounds full of despair and desolation emerge.

Like his previous albums - "Sheen", "Pale Horse", "Badlands", "Sky Burial", "World of Objects" - Cymerman integrates musical subgenres, from modern classical over ambient, improvisation, metal to noise, to create his own unique and coherent vision, purifying his approach over the years, polishing it, refining it, not in the sense of cleaning it up, but rather to make it more impactful, precise, more touching, more gripping.

The inspiration for the album's pieces come from literature with a major "L". The title of the album refers to the novel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima, and the last but one track "The Body Becomes Fetid" refers to one of the characteristics of a decaying angel, as described in the same book. The second track, "With ten thousand shields and spears" refers to a poem by William Blake, printed here below. "The Canto of Ulysses" refers to a chapter in the book "If This Is A Man", by Italian holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi, who also committed suicide in the late 80s. In the chapter, the main character tries to remember a passage from Dante's Inferno.

Amazinly enough, the last track "Out of Many Waters" (possibly referring to the novel by Jacqueline Greene about a 12-year old girl who escapes slavery in Brasil to be among the first jewish settlers in America), is for pure acoustic solo clarinet, resonating in empty space, with long circular breathing passages, sounding different, offering a glimmer of hope coming out of the darkness. A beautiful piece to end an album with an incredibly strong artistic vision.

The Angel

I dreamt a dream! What can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen
Guarded by an Angel mild:
Witless woe was ne’er beguiled!

And I wept both night and day,
And he wiped my tears away;
And I wept both day and night,
And hid from him my heart’s delight.

So he took his wings, and fled;
Then the morn blushed rosy red.
I dried my tears, and armed my fears
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again;
I was armed, he came in vain;
For the time of youth was fled,
And grey hairs were on my head.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Jazzfest Berlin. November 1 - 4, 2018

By Paul Acquaro

Thursday, November 1st

The Haus der Berliner Festspiele is a mid-century modern split-level architectural gem and it is more than a stones throw away from the typical environs for Berlin experimental jazz, like the scrappy Soweiso or Donau115, or even the slick Radial System V, host to the annual A'Larme Festival. But for a long weekend this month the Jazzfest Berlin successfully transformed the posh address into a destination for daring music.
TRANS LUCENT & Lunatic Cloud Ten. Photo © Camille Blake.
It  was fantastic mix and mash of media and personalities: at the opening night concert there was a cyclops playing a triangle, a kiosk where you could mash up your own music, a woman poised with a translucent globe out on the front lawn, and more music than one could possibly hear.  The festival spread itself out both physically into the neighborhood and thematically, including a focus on Chicago and Europe, an artist in residence from New York City, as well as panel discussions on various topics. But first and foremost, the festival positioned itself in opposition to the forces that are fast at work pulling apart the post-war order that we have relied on for 70 years. Opening the festival was a speech by Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, who is, according to his bio, an independent curator, art critic, author and biotechnologist, and whom attempted to answer how in fact can jazz can actually  be poised to 'do' something. 

"We are caught up in these dire moments, gripped in the claws of the extreme political and socio-economic exigencies of our times … Times in which the shift to the extreme right, the resurrection of proto-fascism, the fortification of authoritarianism is no longer just a fear of something to come, but a reality— as we witness racists, misogynists, xenophobes and neo-liberals democratically elected in the USA, Brazil, Italy, Poland, India, England or Cameroon, and the rise of far-right political movements in Germany or England." I'm now paraphrasing terribly, but in times of such stress, Ndikung explained, people create visions of Utopias. Jazz, he suggested, could help people imagine how it could be, and in doing so, provide a space to share vulnerabilities, a place to regroup and galvanize their forces (read it here). It was a provocative talk and provided a context for the festival - where it was possible to immerse oneself in a musical utopia and share in a day long " 360° Multi-channel Installation / Live Processing Installation & Happening/Party" with the aforementioned cyclops, visit panel talks like "Afrofuturismus & Empowerment", and take a walk through the neighborhood and hear intimate concerts at a hair dresser and someone's living room.  

 Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble .Photo © Camille Blake.

Fittingly, the speech was followed by flutist Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble playing the music from her "Madolra Awakenings II" album, which itself is a soundtrack to a story of a not so unimaginable future in which a technically sophisticated egalitarian society - the last place untainted by pollution, corruption, famine, and war - exits isolated on an island. Mitchell kicked off the concert by poking at the screen of her iPod. This was soon followed by a percussive groove colored by the bassoon and splashes of guitar. As the tempo picked up, Mitchell joined in on her flute, playing along with exotic trills from the wooden flute. The loose groove ended in a pregnant pause and then was slowly revived by the shamisen (a Chinese stringed instrument) and the crystalline plucks of the harp. The role of the iPod also became clear as electronic noises appeared, sometimes helping, sometimes clashing, with the musicians. After alternating sections of light hummable melodies, deep pocketed rhythms, and open exploration, vocalist Avery R. Young joined. His speaking/singing parts layered on other meanings and were tinged with gospel accents and invocations, climaxing by declaring "we're just doing the same thing over and over again."


By the time the final song ended, I had already absconded upstairs to the upper foyer where the trio Thumbscrew - guitarist Mary Halvorson (the festival's artist in residence), drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Michael Formanek - were set up and ready to hit, which they did when the applause from the main hall subsided. Dressed sleek in black and grey, and poised stylishly against the stone walls, the group dug onto their complex compositions, beginning with "Snarling Joys" off of their recent album 'Ours'. A glitch with Formanek's bass pick-up introduced a bit of extra drama while Halvorson's patented pitch bends, coupled with reverse loops, provided even more urgency to the tunes. In fact, her solo seemed to have an extra edge to it, perhaps in reaction to the bassist's growing frustration with the equipment. The chemistry between the musicians was obvious, and the devilish lines and sophisticated arrangements of the tunes shined through effortlessly. About halfway through the set, sound problems addressed, Formanek dedicated the set to city of Pittsburgh which had just suffered a horrific, racist mass shooting in a Synagogue. They followed with a melancholic and beautiful song featuring an impassioned solo by the bassist.

Trio Heinz Herbert
Tough choices followed, as competing concerts were scheduled on opposite sides of the venue. I chose the Swedish group, Trio Heinz Herbert, who have just released a live album on Intakt records. The shaggy trio's psychedelic pastiche of space sounds, rock oriented explosions, and acoustic/electronic sonic textures was captivating and equally energetic and exploratory. Egged on by the array of analog electronics and heavy keyboards, I imaged this like being at an early Soft Machine concert, where the intersection of jazz, rock, composition, and improvisation was being explored with inventive fervor. The mixture of slide guitar, somewhat random percussion, and unpredictable keyboard playing made sure that nothing felt pre-planned. The group, overall, was more about pulse and texture than melody and several times they rode their spacey explorations to throbbing climaxes. 

Exploding Star International: Chicago - Berlin. Photo © Camille Blake.
Satisfied, I wandered over to the main stage for the final event of the night, American cornetist Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star International: Chicago - Berlin, a mix of both his large group concept "The Exploding Star Orchestra" and more than a handful of Berlin musicians, including the keyboardists Magda Mayas and Elias Stemeseder, and vibraphonist Els Vandeweyer. The group began with Mazurek conducting the group with the percussive clatter of the shell shaker. As the music formed, Mazurek picked up his cornet and blew a few notes directly at the table full of electronics, then essentially ceded the brass work to trumpeter Jamie Branch whose laser like tone cut through the roil of percussionists Chad Taylor and Hamid Drake. Towards stage left, vocalist Damon Locks was  scribbling along with the music before picking up an old fashioned telephone receiver and delivering evocative and charged vocal screeds. The group spent at least 20 minutes building up - the tension was great - and it seemed like something was ready to burst. A tense moment passed where it sounded like rain falling on glass, then it comes: the band hits a chord and Drake takes a short but powerful drum solo. Then another chord, increasing in pitch, and Drake takes his mallets to the floor toms. Another hit, the pitch is climbing, then someone plays an off-kilter melody, and then *poof* it's gone, no explosion. At least not yet. Instead we are treated to wonderful musical moments where Mazurek's arrangements burst in colors, making  synesthetes of us all. Powerful passages, like Branch's solo riding on a powerful musical riff, or Stemeseder's distorted solo on the Fender Rhodes, or Vandeweyer's solo on vibraphone, were spine-tingling, however, there were also some long meandering points that made the piece about 20 minutes too long. Regardless, it was easy to leave the first night of the event, slightly tired from all of the input, but incredibly charged by the music. 

Friday, November 2nd

 Irreversible Entanglements. Photo © Camille Blake.
On the second night there was less to decide. With focused attention on the main stage, the evening began with the political and social justice bend of Irreversible Entanglements. It began with a klang, saxophonist Keir Neuringer with the percussive shells, and vocalist Camea Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) with basic electronics, a rattle of percussion from Tcheser Holmes on drums, a rumble of bass from Luke Stewart, and some atmospheric swishes from trumpeter Aquiles Navarro. The band is the right band for the times, as Ayewa's poetry and politically charged words are urgent and revolutionary. They invoke timeless oppression and emotional opposition and feel like an unending call-to-action as the group weaves fiery free jazz and energy under and around the kinetic words. Their debut album on International Anthem was a hit and it's a pleasure to see them on the international stage. 

Roscoe Mitchell and Camea Ayewa. Photo © Camille Blake.
Following, Camea  Ayewa and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell performed an intimate duo set. Two strong personalities on stage - Mitchell with his focused seriousness, and idiosyncratic musical language, and Ayewa with her evocative, serious lyrics, and powerful delivery - played off of each other successfully. Mitchell's high pitched soprano cry, supported by his circular breathing, is a dominant sound, and Ayewa matches it with her intensity. Her lyrics here seemed to touch on a more personal level, invoking images of family and traditions, while Mitchell provided a musical thread for her to hang the words on. The two engaged in a dynamic conversation, alternating dynamics, pitches, and timbres, sometimes reacting and sometimes ignoring each other. 

Jamie Branch Fly or Die. Photo © Camille Blake.
They were followed by Jamie Branch, who also burst onto the musical world recently with her International Anthem album Fly or Die. Branch and her group launched into their epic musical journey, which book-ends wandering through dark musical passages with catchy and up-tempo and memorable riffs. The cello and bass combination in the rhythm section is perfect for this type of exploration, and when they finally coalesce around a strong riff,  Branch climbs the musical peaks with precision. Throughout, she navigates the free exploratory stretches with an identifiable and focused tone. Towards the end she says "we play this music in hopes of peace" and asked the for the audience's help to invoke the names of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland - two African Americans who were the victims of police violence in the US. At first, it seemed like a disconnect, but then, thinking about the musical darkness and light just witnessed, the promise of justice seems to be something both far away but hopefully on the horizon ... something to dream about together.
Art Ensemble of Chicago. Photo © Camille Blake.
The night ended with a highly anticipated set by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Nicole Mitchell, who also performed with the ensemble, introduced them reminding the audience that their last performance in Berlin was twenty seven years ago. Last summer, the ensemble performed at the Jazzwerkstatt festival in Peitz, located a few hours outside Berlin. That concert turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, but their return to Berlin was a different story. At Peitz the group had been a sextet with two bassists, cello, sax, trumpet, and percussion, however here, the ensemble had expanded to eleven pieces. Retaining the core of Roscoe Mitchell, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, percussionist Fomaudou Don Moye, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and cellist Tomeka Reid, the newer faces included violist Eddy Kwon, violinist Jean Cook, bassist Silvia Bolognesi, percussionist Dudu Kouate, vocalist and electronics Christina Wheeler, and flutist Nicole Mitchell. The first half of the show saw Roscoe Mitchell conducting the group. After a soft trumpet introduction, and a response from the flute, Camea Ayewa joined the group on stage. She delivered syncopated and spiky vocals, which connected quite well with the groups music. The focus then shifted to Wheeler's electronic Mbira and vocals, after which the pulse picked up as the spotlight moved to the percussionists and then to the strings, and finally back to Ayewa. Mid-way, Mitchell shifted from conductor to player and delivered a fleet uptempo solo. Next, Nicole Mitchell wrapped the en rapt audience with a slinky metallic line and the band shifted into traditional jazz after a long brainy trip. As the music morphed and changed, each player bringing briefly a new focus and sound, and after contributions from Ragin, and Shahid on a bass ukelele, the band settled into their ending theme and closed the night triumphantly.

Sunday, November 4th

Saturday found the festival spilling out of the confines of the Haus into the neighborhood, including the nicely appointed A-Trane and Quasimodo jazz clubs. Sunday began with the Kiez Spaziergang - a collection of intimate concerts at secret neighborhood venues which I would have liked to have attended but was too slow to realize that one needed to have prearranged their access. I am sure that hearing Ingrid Laubrock and Susan Alcorn in the wild was a nice way to start a Sunday. 

 Kym Myhr. Photo © Camille Blake.
I rejoined the festivities for “Melancholy Sunday” back at the Haus in the large hall - crowded to capacity. The night began with a large ensemble led by Norwegian guitarist Kym Myhr. With four guitarists and three drummers, there seemed to be a lot of possibilities. The first of the two songs hinted at this promise with large sweeping soundscapes of strummed guitars and building tension hinted at coming storm, as drummer Tony Buck played an excellent extended solo. However, they seemed to pull back before going over the edge, and the second song couldn't seem to break free from a rather uneventful strumming pattern. 

Mary Halvorson Octet. Photo © Camille Blake.
Next up was the Mary Halvorson Octet. It has been interesting seeing and hearing this band develop over the years. An early concert, before they recorded "Away with You", it had been shaky but pointed to where they were going. A series of shows at the Village Vanguard seemed to have cemented their sound, and here they played an exciting and original set, which seemed ready to point Jazz in a new direction. The set began with the lonesome wail of Alcorn's pedal steel guitar. While called a 'guitar', it really is it's own musical beast, and Alcorn's unusual chord voicings and shimmering notes make for an excellent partner to Halvorson's piercing slippery bends. The real joy of this band however is how Halvorson writes for the horns - the excellent saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Jon Irabagon, trumpeter David Ballou, and trombonist Jacob Garchik. Each member had their chances to shine with ample solo opportunities and with the composed passages that ranged from Raymond Scott-like to the Ellingtonian. Halvorson herself laid back and took only a few spotlight moments, one being a playful and powerful duet with Alcorn. 

Bill FrisellPhoto © Camille Blake.
The Octet was followed by a solo set from Bill Frisell. Drawing from his recent "Music Is" recording, he began with a light folksy tune deliberately plucked out on the telecaster. It is solid ground for the guitarist who has always embraced 'Americana' in his music and this latest album, and performance, is a recasting of his music in a solo setting. Rethinking older songs and stripping back his tunes to their skeleton, he seems to be finding new momentum. The most successful tune of the night was 'Baboucar' from his 2003 album The Intercontinentals and mid-set a bunch of Thelonious Monk tunes appeared which fit Frisell's approach perfectly. The encore with Mary Halvorson was a nice summation of the night, but it was also a little bit of a let down. Perhaps the contrast between Halvorson's approach and Frisell's austere lines is still a little too broad, but nevertheless, they played the title track from their new duo recording on Tzadic Maid with the Flaxen Hair to enthusiastic applause. 

Overall, it was a satisfying closing night to an overall exciting festival, and one which answered affirmatively a question posed during the opening night by Dr. Ndikung when he asked "if jazz died in Berlin, could Berlin also be a point of revivification?". While my experience at the festival was just a sampling of the the whole thing, it was enough to take a look towards the future, rooted in the accomplishments of the past, and if the crowds here mean anything, they seemed pretty enthused to checking out where jazz is headed.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Devin Gray - Dirigo Rataplan II (Rataplan Records, 2018) ****

By Alexander Dubovoy

Dirigo Rataplan II, which features Ellery Eskelin on saxophone, Michael Formanek on bass, and Dave Ballou on trumpet, is drummer/composer Devin Gray’s follow-up to the 2012 release Dirigo Rataplan. Each of these musicians is a consummate improviser, and this band could have easily produced a compelling freely improvised album. Where Dirigo Rataplan II, however, shines is in the interplay between improvisation and Gray’s keen compositional sensibilities.

Though some of the pieces on the album more-or-less follow a jazz formula of melody-improvisation-melody, they navigate this structure in new and distinct ways. “The Feeling of Healing” (one of the many cheekily-named tracks on the album) begins with a section of meticulously-orchestrated counterpoint. Formanek bows a beautiful countermelody to the horns’. After the melody ends, however, Formanek begins to play overtones, and the band moves into a more textural register. Gray’s writing yields to a series of small-group interactions and to a sense of increased spaciousness. Somehow, after an extended improvisation, the band coalesces again on composed counterpoint to close the piece.

Indeed, “solos” are essentially nonexistent on this album. Instead, the improvisations rely on thoughtful navigation of the group’s instrumentation. On “Quantum Cryptology,” for example, Gray and Ballou embark upon a fascinating duo interaction before Formanek joins at just the right moment. “Texticate” further explores texture and open forms. It begins quietly with sensitive duo playing between Eskelin and Gray and grows over nearly six minutes until reaching a climactic through-composed melody.

Gray’s melodic writing reaches its zenith, in my opining, on “Congruently,” “Trends of Trending,” and “The Wire.” Quartets without chordal instruments have a long history in jazz, but their history remains somewhat marginal, perhaps in part because of how difficult it is to compose music that will retain cohesion in this format. In Eskelin, Formanek, and Ballou, Gray has found players who can make his compositions shine, despite or, perhaps, because of the format. The result is music that is simultaneously catchy and intricate, meticulously composed and still thoroughly open.

Dirigo Rataplan II is the first album to be released on Gray’s new label Rataplan Records. With this caliber of creative output, I look forward to hearing what Rataplan releases next.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Günter Baby Sommer and Till Brönner – Baby’s Party (Intakt, 2018) **

Today we present two views on Günter Baby Sommer and Till Brönner's 'Baby’s Party.'  Be sure to read Nick Ostrum's positive take on the the recording here.

By Martin Schray

Although Till Brönner is regarded as one of the best jazz trumpeters (at least if it comes to sheer musicianship), his reputation among improv fans is not the best (to put it mildly). Many people resent him his participation as a juror in “X-Factor“, a German casting show similar to “American Idol“. His cheesy The Movie Album, the snoring boringThe Christmas Album or the simply horrible muzak on At The End Of The Day (on which he ill-treats pop classics like David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“ and Lennon/McCartney’s “And I love her“ not only with his trumpet, but also with his vocals) did the rest.

As if to prove to all his haters that he can also do differently, Brönner has been cultivating his friendship with East German free jazz drummer legend Günter Baby Sommer for years, both being appointed professors at the Dresden conservatoire. Now the two have decided to release an album on the excellent Swiss Intakt label. Nevertheless, scepticism was the order of the day. But when you listen to the album for the first time, you might be positively surprised. “Apero Con Brio“, the opening track, sometimes sounds as if a mellowed-with-age Bill Dixon meets a swinging Hamid Drake on wooden slit drum.

However, you realise very soon that it’s completely predictable what the two of them are doing. Brönner is obviously able to imitate any style and Sommer offers him eleven simple templates to prove it. Yet, you notice quite soon that something is missing. There’s no authenticity or musical vision, the music doesn’t feel genuine, it seems that especially Brönner is just showing off. It’s as if he was saying: “Hey, look, if I only want I can play free jazz as well.“ That he actually can’t can be heard on the two cover versions on the album. Just listen to the first two minutes of Fred E. Weatherly’s “Danny Boy“, where Brönner is no better than the poor candidates in the casting shows, who try and express emotional peaks, of which there are many, with an over-extended, whining melisma, before the track wanders off to some pointless improvised territories. The other example is Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood“, actually a piece where you can hardly do wrong. But even here Brönner fails to find the soul of the piece, he’s abandoned the implicit brokenness and sadness in favour of polished vanity. Even Günter Sommer can't save anything here anymore.

There are lots of excellent trumpet/drums duos (Nate Wooley & Paul Lytton or Darren Johnston & Tim Daisy, to name just two). Sommer & Brönner does not belong to them.

Günter Baby Sommer and Till Brönner – Baby’s Party (Intakt, 2018) ****

Today we present two contrasting views of the Günter Baby Sommer and Till Brönner's 'Baby’s Party.'  Be sure to read Martin Schray's less flattering view here.

Günter Baby Sommer was the percussive force of the East German free jazz scene and is today an avant-garde institution in his own right.  Trumpeter Till Brönner is of a younger generation and one the luminaries Germany’s post-bop scene.  At first, I found this collaboration somewhat curious.  However, as Thomas Brückner’s illuminative liner notes point out, the collaboration is already 8 years deep and has been greeted with skepticism since its earliest days.  Indeed, Brückner is right that the jazz world has had enough bracketing for a little while.  It is time “to overcome what divides, to build bridges, to develop a conjoint language that respects the Otherness of one’s coun­terpart and moulds into a new whole what both sides have to offer.”  In this case, both sides indeed have much to offer. 

From the very beginning, Baby’s Party captivated me.  The first track, “Apero con Brio” begins with the clump of a bass drum and cymbal, followed by a crisp, brief trumpet phrase.  The two continue in disjointed dialog until Sommer settles into a slit drum groove over which Brönner waxes his brass poetry.  This act sets the tone for the rest of the album.  The result is playful, yet intimate.  Its sensibilities range from pop (or, at least, standards) to Sommer’s ever-inquisitive, ever-resourceful explorations of timbre, resonance, and rhythm.  “First Shot” follows with an arrhythmic rattle of glassware generated in part through the scrape and ding of actual utensils over which Brönner layers a lonesome, echoing trumpet.  Next comes a mournful, then briefly exuberant “Special Guest No. 1: Danny Boy” wherein the musicians seize the space and initiative to deconstruct and reinterpret sections of the Irish elegy.  “Flinke Besen” is a race paced by Sommer’s rapid brush roles that seem to delight more in the sound produced by distinct combinations of strokes than the percussive onslaught that drumkits often tempt.  “Second Shot” features Sommer on the mouth harp over which Brönner tenderly improvises.  (I think I hear the trumpet reverberating off a dormant snare in the background, which lends an ethereal feel to the track.)  “A Soft Drink in Between” begins with an ominous layering of gong, bells, and split drum.  Brönner enters with a muted, wistful horn augmented by an echo effect.  This poses a stark contrast to “Inside-Outside-Trip,” which opens with Sommer’s enigmatic vocal incantations and develops into a funky bop number.  The influence of Miles Davis on Brönner is unmistakable.  Sommer and Brönner share melodic duties on the infectious “Third Shot.”  “A Little Nap in Between” begins with a whispered brass and percussive drone that develops into a slow and dreamy duet and fades again into a fading murmur.  “Special Guest No. 2: Der Alte Spanier” incorporates Spanish-tinged brass, welling drum-lines, and a return to Sommer’s ludic vocalizations.  As a celebration of old age and life (presumably), it serves as a fitting complement to the solemnity of youthful loss inherent in Danny Boy.   The final track, “Party Over – In a Sentimental Mood,” begins with a crackling that evokes the pitter-patter of rain.  When Brönner enters with the first notes of the melody, it is already clear that what follows will be a sparse, tempered, and contemplative affair.  Or, rather, an end to the affair.

This album is excellent.  The two musicians play well with the space and individualization that that such a format allows.  They approach each piece (all except “Danny Boy” and “In a Sentimental Mood” written by Sommer) not just as a distinct composition, but also as a movement within a greater opus, or a scene in a story.  Each track has its merits and makes a unique contribution.  Nevertheless, the power of this release resides in the narrative coherence that underlies the stylistic diversity.  It also resides in the openness, responsiveness, and eagerness with which these two distinct and distinguished musical minds - thoroughly accomplished in their own corners of the jazz world – came to this exercise in bridge-building.  Such projects rarely work out this well.