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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Spectral – Empty Castles (Aerophonic, 2018) ****

By Colin Green

Spectral -- Dave Rempis (alto and baritone saxophones), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones) – is an intriguing ensemble. Formed in 2012, when Rempis visited San Francisco, it was his first opportunity to perform with Ochs, known principally for his work with the ROVA saxophone quartet. Rempis had already played with Johnston when the latter visited Chicago. The collaboration was an instant success, with the three having a preternatural sense of anticipation and response and an ability to construct short and long-range forms spontaneously, described by the trio as “invisible architecture”: discovered structures, rather than imposed designs. There have been two previous albums on Rempis’ Aerophonic label: Spectral (2014) – tight counterpoint, conversational and sparring, full of livid detail and lush resonances -- and Neural Nation (2016), architecturally, on a grander scale with two long improvisations recorded during their 2015 tour of North America, replete with the kind of interlaced musical connections and reconnections suggested by the title.

Empty Castles presents a new challenge and is another instance of how an acoustic can shape performance. It was recorded in Magazine A-168, a 12,000-square foot concrete shell at Mare Island in Vallejo, California, originally a naval munitions bunker dating back to WWII. The vast structure magnifies everything and produces a stark reverberation, an echo almost as palpable as the scaled-up instruments themselves, resulting in the anomaly of a large space sounding positively claustrophobic. As the liner notes succinctly put it: “There was nowhere to hide during this recording session, every note staring back at its creators with fearless eyes”. But if the prospect of three improvisors being scrutinised by their phantom reflections for just over fifty minutes sounds constricting, think again.

Musically speaking, for every loss there’s a gain. There isn’t room for some of the more intricate ensemble passages of previous albums as the resonance creates rich clouds of overtones and blurred edges – a sound world of a different amplitude, more akin to Rothko than Pollock. The trio exploit such diffuse outlines in the opening ‘Dirt Angels’ as long notes and abbreviated gestures seep into one another in a slow-moving procession, setting gritty baritone against vibrant tenor and pinched trumpet. In ‘Luminal’, figures converge and separate, emerging from and engulfed by the fog, calling and answering as from a distance.

Everything is writ large in the unforgiving acoustic, where even the smallest modulation takes on enormous significance. In ‘Protest Portal’ split notes don’t just fracture but bifurcate, with reeds and brass compressed in layers like geological strata. Trills are an important part of the group’s repertoire, moving beyond a merely ornamental function and providing a further textural resource. When sustained in quivering triplicate during ‘This Is Not Vermont’ they create pulsating oscillations, squeezing out condensed saxophone squawks and trumpet cries. Individual weight and density also play a more prominent role. In ‘Splash Zone’ we hear the baritone’s earthy intonations, silvery trumpet, sprays from a distorted tenor, groups of vaguely syncopated notes, ending with a sombre chord in unison, each sonority pushed to the fore. On the other hand, this is an auditory zone which conceals as much as it reveals – the silhouettes and shadows of ‘Little Hymn’ seem to hover on the indeterminate border between the material and immaterial.

Silence can take many forms, and with Spectral pauses and momentary lulls are frequent, acting like line endings or paragraph breaks. On ‘Gravity Corridor’ however, among the imitation echoes, staccato tonguing and breathy smears, some of those silences feel like gaping holes, tinged with the instruments’ fading ghostly contours, a reminder that all sound has a temporary status and inevitable demise. Undoubtedly, there’s a feeling of displacement about much of this music – ‘Bunker’ presents each instrument sealed in its own hermetic halo, touching only at the edges – and an uneasy sense that under the indifferent gaze of doppelgangers a gap has opened up, isolating the musicians, which cannot quite be bridged. Yet there’s also an imposing grandeur to these bold constructions, as the title implies: analogous to castle ruins devoid of human presence. Sometimes, absence means more than just not being there.

The album can be previewed and purchased here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lucas Niggli - Alchemia Garden (Intakt, 2018) ****

By Eric McDowell

Lucas Niggli is what you might call a drummers’ drummer—his mastery of his instrument takes him well beyond its conventional boundaries, opening up new sounds through tireless experimentation, invention, and refinement. Of course, the term “drummers’ drummer” implies that you need to be a drummer yourself to fully appreciate what he’s doing, and it’s no surprise that Niggli keeps company with other drummers, from his duo with Peter Conradin Zumthor to his Trio Klick to his Beat Bag Bohemia international drum quartet. But that’s not to say that nondrummers—whether or not they can explain exactly what he’s doing—don’t hear something special: It’s Niggli’s ability to plumb the depths of his technical and creative resources and return to the surface bearing undeniable treasure that has attracted collaborators associated with a whole range of traditions, sensibilities, and instrument families.

But on Alchemia Garden he’s all alone. His first solo album, released in the year of his 50th birthday by his longtime label, Intakt, it’s the perfect showcase for his unique skills—skills that in many ways do share something with both alchemy and gardening. There’s an undoubted magic, for example, in the way he transforms his tools into sounds. Coming to Alchemia Garden hoping to hear another Drums Unlimited is like coming to Eve Risser’s Des pas sur la neige hoping to hear another Koln Concert—you’re going to be disappointed. Better to take the album on its own terms, forgetting about the drum kit entirely.

Or almost entirely: Whether to misdirect us or offer something of a foothold, Niggli opens the album in relatively familiar territory with a six-minute trap-set exploration. True, he’s playing with his hands, but so did Jo Jones; gradually, though, he pulls back from those elemental sounds, complicating things with what sound like rattles and brushes until by the end he’s off the skins altogether. This departure carries through: From there, tracks two and three—the metal-scape “Flora Glow” and the clacking “Bakossa Dew”—are pure percussive abstractions best appreciated without the anxiety of pinpointing their sound sources. Don’t lose sight of the gold, that is, looking for the substance it came from. (That said, the experience of watching Niggli play some of this material live has a magic of its own.)

While most of us can hear the difference between a drum solo that plays on melodies or “tells a story” and one that’s loaded with superficial pyrotechnics, in the loose confines of jazz we don’t often get the opportunity Niggli gives us on Alchemia Garden: to hear a carefully structured solo drums album. In other words, the drummer’s achievement here goes well beyond creating a marvelous diversity of percussive life—he’s built a true sonic ecosystem whose parts rely on each other to fully function.

It’s a world of textural and technical contrasts. Compare the dry pops of “Go Goblin” to the glimmering cymbals of “Tuned Arrow,” or “Welwitschia” with its insectile chittering to “Ohia Lehua” with its unfathomably deep malleted rolls. Other pieces move from one mode to another. “Seeds N’ Roots” begins with the ominous sounds of rattling shells over a flogged gong only to develop into a showcase for Niggli’s brushwork. And where some tracks will catch drummers’ ears with their subtly masterful technical displays—the dancing ride on “Mimosa,” the relentless bass-drum ostinato on “Booloobali”—still others perplex and mesmerize. Niggli’s search for novel sounds even leads him, on “Pulsatilla,” to using the air itself as a playing surface. And on closer “Hydnora” we hear what sounds like water—a good reminder that Niggli’s virtuoso antics are more than that: They’re a strange but nourishing garden fastidiously cultivated over the course of a fascinating career.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Recent Releases of French clarinetist Xavier Charles

French clarinetist Xavier Charles is a true explorer. Musically speaking, his own music and his collaborative projects range from abstract, raw noise to electro-acoustic textures, sound poetry, free improvisation and even the anarchist-punk of the Dutch The Ex (he already joined The Ex gigs for more than 120 performances, including many with the late Ethiopian sax great, Gétatchèw Mèkurya). Geographically, he seems to be all over the globe, trotting from a recording session in Québec City, Canada to Canberra, Australia and sometimes in between even enjoys the Swedish woods with his Norwegian comrades of "Dans les Arbres" group.

Xavier Charles / Michel F Côté / Franz Hautzinger / Philippe Lauzier / Éric Normand - Torche ! (Tour de Bras, 2017) ****½

This free-improvised session was recorded on May 2016 at the Café-théâtre de Jonquière, Québec Cityduring the local Festival des Musiques de Création, at the end of a short Canadian tour that featured the five musicians playing in different formations. The quintet features three musicians from the local Tour de Bras experimental musicians collective: percussionist Michel F Côté, bass clarinet player Philippe Lauzier and electric bass player Éric Normand plus like-minded Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger and Charles himself.

This meeting of these five distinct improvisers - all are committed to an uncompromising search and research of pure sounds and the timbres of their respective instruments, all in their own personal manners and with their own sense of invention - proves that the language of free-improvisation is truly universal. You just need to have an attentive ears - elephantine ears - trust your comrades and your instincts, and then all sounds - raw, dissonant, distorted, acoustic or electric, melodic, breathy or noisy - find their place in the mysterious great scheme.

The eight improvisations tell different, strange, cryptic stories, with no apparent meanings, clear narratives or comforting conclusions. But all manage to draw the listener immediately into their rich, poetic universes, despite their contemplative, sometimes even austere tones. Nothing sounds radical in these improvisations, even though these musicians do produce some pretty weird sounds. Together, as a collective, they sound much larger, somehow more sensible than apart. You can hear that in the playful “Alaplasse”, where imaginative bird calls collide gently with noisy, electric sounds, in the almost psychedelic texture of multiphonics on “Boudboi” and in the extraterrestrial, minimalist-techno pulse of “Izatrape”. Brilliant.

Psithurism Trio with Xavier Charles - Lure (SoundOut Recordings, 2017) ****

The Australian Psithurism Trio is a collective of sax players - alto sax player Rhys Butler, soprano sax-bass clarinet-prepared drum player, label owner and SoundOut Festival organizer Richard Johnson, and tenor sax player John Porter - which began working in 2012, experimenting with minimalist and free-improvisation. This trio opts for an organic, inter-subjective developing of its music, evolving between the players as if it would have a life of its own. The Trio one-off collaboration with Charles was recorded live at 2017 edition of the SoundOut Festival in Canberra, Australia. This Trio has collaborated before with another innovative clarinetist, Canadian François Houle (Knots, SoundOut Recordings, 2017).

The three collaborative pieces on Lure are more structured, disciplined and patient than the ones of Torche!. The four musicians weave complex and multifaceted textures with an impressive restraint and control and a subtle sense of tension building. All focus on a collective, organic exploration of subtle, fleeting sonic articulations. Throughout these delicate improvisations the Trio plus Charles keep searching for new details and nuances in these polyphonic, microtonal multiphonics but always within a fragile sonic unity, where only Charles stands out with his distinct sound and urgent ideas. This collaboration is best realized on the 24-minutes of “Aebus Albopictus” that lures you -literally - into its enigmatic baths of sensual sonic spells.

Charles continues with two excellent, improvised solos “Multicellular” and “Ameboid”. On both pieces he uses his array of extended breathing techniques - resonant overtones, noisy and chirping multiphonics and raw breathes - to sketch engaging, chatty mini-suites.

Xavier Charles / Jacques Di Donato - ilex (Protagoniste, 2018) ****

Fellow French clarinetist Jacques Di Donato is considered as the most seminal educator of the clarinet in France, an improviser who plays jazz, contemporary music, folk songs and pop songs. He is a generation older than Charles but collaborated with him in the mid-nineties when the two recorded their debut duo album, Du Slavon Glagol (Khôkhôt, 1996). Both returned to perform as a duo in recent years. Ilex was recorded on May 2014 in the pastoral, countryside scenery of Mhère in eastern France, close to where the Roman god Mercury was worshiped.

The 14 improvised pieces stress the rich, playful and highly expressive spirit of this meeting. Di Donato is credited for playing a lawn mower, and Charles, adds a tiny helicopter to his clarinet. Both keep alternating roles and dynamics while employing an impressive range of extended techniques. They move freely between a serene, reserved articulation to an urgent, raw tone, between breathy sounds to gentle, percussive ones, between the playful and humorous to the spiritual and ritualistic, even mimicking the meditative tones of the Japanese flute Shakuhachi on “Bambou”, a busy birds talk on “Amère Coup de Vent”, or keep sketching a delicate, multi-layered texture as on the beautiful “Wisteria”.

It is impossible to know who is doing what since both sound as have developed such a precise and profound vocabulary of their own that extends and connects their ideas telepathically and organically. Di Donato and Charles simply keep fine-tuning their private language with new sounds, colors and dynamics, always with an eloquent elegance and great imagination. No doubt, Mercury would have loved this beautiful offering.

Listen to France Musique here and on Bandcamp.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Henry Threadgill - Double Up Plus and 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg

Double Up Plays Double Up Plus (Pi Recordings, 2018) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

Composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill's previous album, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, with the first incarnation of the Double Up ensemble, was dedicated to Lawrence "Butch" Morris' conduction method, and was given a thorough review by Lee Rice Epstein in 2016. Noting the reintroduction of the piano to Threadgill's compositions, as well as his non-performing role, Epstein wrote:
Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up debut is a thrilling shakeup of his compositional language, which has admittedly been in a state of near-constant evolution for decades. If it was strange to be missing Stomu Takeishi’s bass on last year’s Zooid double-album, it’s even stranger to have a new album without Threadgill’s flute or Liberty Ellman’s guitar ... Moran and Virelles, both with deep ties to Threadgill, bear a strangely heavy burden of reintroducing piano to Threadgill’s discography. And their solos throughout show a deep affinity for Threadgill’s tonal and rhythmic playgrounds.
A few weeks ago, the saxophonist and composer released two new recordings, one with the Double Up ensemble, where again he assumes the role of composer and conductor, and the other, where he is part of the group and re-engages with Ellman. However, on the Double Up ensemble here, Threadgill has doubled down on the pianos by adding a third. The group is David Bryant – piano, Luis Perdomo – piano, and David Virelles – piano and harmonium. Not on piano is Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone, Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute, Christopher Hoffman – cello, Jose Davila – tuba, and finally Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion.

The rich panoply of instruments gives Threadgill many choices to use in his compositions and he mixes the voices well, but this recording is really all about the piano - all three of them - and it is the first sound one hears on the album. On the opening "Game is Up," each piano introduce a distinct strand of  interlocking parts, as the other other musicians slowly filter in. The composition feels somewhat fragmentary and complex as seemingly incomplete melodic ideas appear and then move on, that is until Davila introduces a punchy bass line towards the final moments of the track. Then, a delicious interplay of strings and low brass ensues, and the kinetic crisscrossing strings are buoyed by the big brassy bass lines.

‘Clear and Distinct from the Other’ certainly starts differently than the previous tune. A snippet of sparse melody from a single piano is quickly overtaken by woodwind and cello. A slowly building but fractured melody emerges in their interweaving. The different snippets connect loosely until the brass again introduces a punchy theme, and the modern classical veers into lively modern jazz.

Double Up Plays Double Up Plus is a substantial album but in a very approachable way . It is both dedicated to Threadgill's own musical systems but also organic in its expression. As Virelles states, “it always feels like the blues, funky and soulful.”

14 or 15 Kestra: Agg - Dirt... And More Dirt (Pi Recordings, 2018) *****

On the twin release - fraternal, not identical in this case - Threadgill’s new 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg group's Dirt... And More Dirt, we find the composer also playing along with a large ensemble (14 or 15 musicians), which includes many of the his Zooid and Double Up compatriots like guitarist Liberty Ellman, keyboardist Virelles whose Harmonium playing is a defining sound, and saxophonist Roman Filiu (the whole list of musicians from each group is below). The sound, as you can imagine is full, varied, and truly exciting.

The recording was Inspired by the conceptual art installation “The New York Earth Room” by Walter de Maria at The Dia Art Foundation. Tucked into some prime NYC real estate, the 250 cubic yards of earth in a 3600 square foot space has been on view since 1980 in lower Manhattan. In addition, the osseous clay sculptures of Stephen De Staebler served as inspiration - and when listening to the music, it’s not hard to imagine digging through the ground and unearthing the things from the past, and re-casting them new. The music on Dirt and More Dirt carries that distinction of sounding both thoroughly forward thinking with its angular and twisting themes and complex harmonies, but at the same deeply rooted in musical tradition.

The first track, 'Dirt Part I' begins with Thomas Morgan’s bowed bass and some loosely related percussion. It’s a soft beginning, but as the bowing is replaced by deliberate plucking, the tempo picks up a bit and ground is laid for the entrance of the accordion like harmonium (pump organ), and when the tuba and guitar enter, the sound pallet begins opening up in a most welcoming - though unusual - manner. Ellman delivers a slightly jumpy intervallic solo over a swelling group sound. A series of tracks, parts II through VI follow, each with slightly different theme. 'Part II' is under a minute, and features the pianos of Bryan and Virelles, ‘Part III’ finds the saxophone front and center with the tuba/guitar/piano/drums playing a fine pulsating rhythm, rapidly turning up the heat and cooking up a fine modern jazz tune, only to change entirely by the time the avant-garde ‘Part IV’ rolls around.

“And More Dirt - Part I” kicks off the second suite of tracks. While not entirely different than the first suite, feels a bit more fluid - or rather in the dirt theme - like a fruit bearing potting soil, rich in nutrients and moist to the touch. Christopher Hoffman’s cello and at least one of the ace trombonists are featured in tandem, along with a solid piano driven back up. The suite ends on ‘Part IV’, which begins as a haunting duet between sax and piano, before the whole group enters with an orchestral flourish that simultaneous evokes a feeling of leaving and of something yet to come.

Both of these albums took me several listens to really hear. So, let the complex and unusual harmonies wash over you, be carried away on the eddying confluences of rhythm, and indulge in the piano interplay and the frolicking of the tuba and guitar. Threadgill, now in his mid-70s, has been delivering absolute masterworks, and it's nice to think of these these two as part of a continuing series.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus
  • Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
  • Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute
  • Christopher Hoffman – cello
  • Jose Davila – tuba
  • David Bryant – piano
  • Luis Perdomo – piano
  • David Virelles – piano, harmonium
  • Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion

Dirt... And More Dirt
  • Henry Threadgill – alto saxophone, flute, bass flute
  • Liberty Ellman – guitar
  • Christopher Hoffman – cello
  • Jose Davila – tuba
  • Jacob Garchik – trombone
  • Ben Gerstein – trombone
  • Jonathan Finlayson – Bb trumpet, F trumpet
  • Stephanie Richards – Bb trumpet
  • Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute
  • Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
  • David Bryant – piano
  • David Virelles – piano, harmonium
  • Thomas Morgan – bass
  • Elliott Humberto Kavee – drums, percussion
  • Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Jonas Cambien's Trios and Duos

Jonas Cambien Trio  - We Must Mustn’t We (Clean Feed, 2018) ****½

By Derek Stone

In 2016, the Jonas Cambien Trio released their debut recording, A Zoology of the Future. In my review of that album, I commented on the “junkyard of sound” that pianist/composer Cambien, drummer Andreas Wildhagen, and reedist André Roligheten had cobbled together; the pieces there always seemed to be hanging together by the thinnest piece of thread, and therein lied much of the album’s charm. The trio’s newest release, We Must Mustn’t We, moves away from the rickety deconstructionism of the debut and towards a more coherent and “tidy” mode of expression. That’s not to say that they’ve gotten boring or milquetoast; on the contrary, many of these tracks are forceful and dynamic in ways that the tracks on Zoology often weren’t.

In “Swear Like a Bear,” things kick off in a rather subdued and languorous fashion. The drums plod along, Roligheten teases out a repetitious string of notes from his bass clarinet, and Cambien is a man of few musical words. Eventually, however, the pace picks up; the plodding percussion becomes an unstoppable flood, Roligheten spirals off into a frenzy, and Cambien fuses a transfixing motorik rhythm and wild, feverish streams of notes. After that dizzying ride, “Long Long” almost comes as a shock. It’s a lush and romantic slice of easy listening, with Roligheten’s piercing bird-calls replaced by sensual and resonant tenor playing, and Cambien himself opting for lovely melodic phrasings that stray pretty far from the intensely percussive approach of the previous track. “Renaissance” is not nearly as conventional, but still gets your attention right away with its curious blend of musical elements: there’s a leaden, machine-like rhythm in the “verse” that gives way to Cambien and guest Torstein Lavik Larsen’s tuneful lines in the head. “I Must Musn’t I” recalls A Zoology of the Future with its fragmentary rhythms and jigsaw-like melodic constructions: things come together in odd ways at odd intervals, slow down, speed up, scatter apart, and then come scuttling back towards each other again.

Peppered throughout the album are pieces titled with the suffix “-ism” - these pieces are more sparse and elliptical in the ways that they unfold. As far as opening tracks go, “Creationism” is a rather unostentatious entry-point. Cambien’s prepared piano plinks and plunks through a whimsical progression, Wildhagen offers up clacks and taps that are sketch-like in their sparseness, and Roligheten’s soprano saxophone recalls the high-pitched squawk of some exotic bird. It’s intriguing, but is perhaps best thought of as a prelude to the track that follows (the rousing “Swear Like a Bear,” mentioned above). Like “Creationism,” the other “-isms” on We Must Mustn’t We are brief, skeletal and loose, with the various musical elements haphazardly knocking into each other like teeth in a sack. “Survivalism” is once again centered around Cambien’s prepared piano and Wildhagen’s laconic drumming. “Animalism” finds Cambien embracing a more stereotypically “pretty” style, with his sustain-laden notes twinkling dreamily over Roligheten’s delicate soprano cries.

One thing that immediately stood out for me on this recording was the improved clarity of sound. While Zoology sounded a bit diaphanous at times, as if the slightest breeze could send the structures flying away, We Must Mustn’t We is immediate and bracing; rather than simply witnessing the compositions unfold, you feel that you are right there in their midst. It’s a change that suits the Jonas Cambien Trio well, what with their constant emphasis on the manifold textures and timbres that can elevate a piece from “interesting” to downright fascinating.

Jonas Cambien & Adrian Myhr - Simiskina (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

While Cambien’s trio work often indulges in sounds that are raucous, percussive, and loose, it is on Simiskina, his duo recording with bassist Adrian Myhr, that he draws from a more subdued palette. In many of the pieces here, there is the impression that Cambien views the piano (and, particularly, the prepared piano) less as a way to construct textured melodies and more as a way to inject rhythms into certain textures. Myhr generally seems to take a more expressive approach, sometimes producing bulbous notes that act as a low-end bolster for Cambien’s clattering pulses, and sometimes employing arco as a means to “stretch out” and color the pieces in more traditionally melodic ways.

Opener “Hi” begins with hushed rustlings from Myhr and tentative melodic phrasings from Cambien. As the piece transitions more fully into wakefulness, Myhr bows out a series of tactile moans and Cambien grows increasingly restless. If “Hi” is the sonic equivalent of early-morning stretches, “Up” is the sound of the daily to-do list starting to unfurl in your brain - nervy, propulsive, and crowded. It’s a fascinating demonstration of the mastery the two have of textures; Cambien’s prepared piano rattles and bubbles, Myhr rumbles steadily underneath, and there is a distinct sense that the two are being carried along by the same roiling current. In a similar fashion, “On” is characterized by the relentlessness of the duo’s approach. Here, Cambien all but abandons considerations of key and tone, opting instead to hammer out sparse, low-range repetitions. When heard next to Cambien, Myhr’s subtle sound manipulations almost seem complex.

“Do” approximates the percussive quality that many of Cambien’s trio pieces have. Cambien’s lines are only vaguely melodic; more than anything, they seem to be vehicles for a clattering and mechanistic rhythm that is alluring in its simplicity. Meanwhile, Myhr fills out the empty spaces with sonorous notes that lend the piece a warmer glow. “Go” is similar, but Cambien also introduces some of the broken toy-box melodicism of his trio work. It’s a relatively light detour, but one that is very much welcome after the seething low-end excursions of the previous tracks. On the final piece, “Or,” the duo seem to be at their most “traditional” - Cambien’s notes are scant, but they carry a sense of wistful longing that, while not necessarily absent, is much less evident on the other pieces. When taken together with Myhr’s plaintive cries, “Or” is like an icy beam of sunlight that breaks through the tree canopy to reach the ground below. For a duo that often seem to place more emphasis on the way things sound rather than the way they make you feel, it’s a rare moment of vulnerability that, in some ways, allows you to see the pieces that came before in a different light.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton - Music for David Mossman (Intakt, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

In times of drastic reductions of state resources, especially pertaining to culture, creating performance possibilities like running a venue or a festival is often left to the personal commitment of enthusiastic individuals. Their work is of inestimable value for the artists. Some examples (among many others) are Alois Fischer, who has been organizing the Kaleidophon Ulrichsberg since 1978 (the festival itself has existed since 1973) and Hans Falb, who has started the seminal Konfrontationen in Nickelsdorf in 1980, as well as Norbert Bach, who has been running the W71 club in Weikersheim since the 1970s. And there is David Mossman, the man behind the Vortex, London’s number one platform for jazz, improvised and experimental music (together with Café Oto, which is actually just five minutes down the road). The club has existed without any core funding after its establishment over twenty-five years ago.

Saxophonist Evan Parker, who has had a monthly residency at the club for a number of years, says that the Vortex was "my haven from the demands of the road… (it) is for me a space to play 'free jazz'. I cannot imagine life without it". Parker is so grateful for the existence of the club that he’s organized a fundraiser (with Dave Holland) to give his support, since the club needs financial help to keep its operations going and to enable bands to start a career (prominent examples are Polar Bear and the Portico Quartet). What’s more, Parker and his long time collaborators Barry Guy (bass) and Paul Lytton (drums) have dedicated their new album to Mossman and the club.

Music for David Mossman starts with Guy presenting his famous gliding-into-the-notes technique, while Lytton surprises with a high-pitched drum set reminiscent of Tony Oxley, his playing being more muscular though. Guy strums thick chords and only after three and a half minutes Parker joins the duo with a surprisingly tonal, traditional melody which pays tribute to great jazz saxophonists like Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster, even a distant echo of John Coltrane is audible. However, he soon changes to his typical style using the well-known Evan-Parker-elements. The band picks up speed but it’s not the classic boisterous approach, it’s a rather subtle one. Soon they’re zigzagging some of their signature spontaneous routes, the tension rises and ebbs, opening a transition for circular breathing and circular bowing while Lytton supports Parker and Guy with finely chiseled clatter. The music sounds like someone’s rummaging around in a box of sounding metal.

This seems to be a typical album by the trio, providing free jazz on a top level, but nothing new either. Yet, the music offers some artful surprises. Especially the solos by Parker and Guy present an outstanding degree of concentration and resolve, their instruments serve as vessels for their elaborate use of extended techniques. In fact, there’s only one - rather short - Parker solo (when he uses his characteristic circular breathing). Still, there are two other passages when he takes off for a solo but Guy refuses to leave him soaring alone, he chooses to duplicate his sound with razor-sharp tremolos, overtones and harmonics. The same goes for Lytton, who propels an already cyberspeed Parker solo with cymbal barrage (in “Music for David Mossman III“). The result is music of an incredible density, music that varies harmonies and tempos constantly, music that changes its shape. Hardly ever have these excellent musicians shown such a disposition to integrate their individual sounds and typical patterns to an all-encompassing unity.

Or, as Evan Parker says in the liner notes: "Collective free improvisation is the utopian state arrived at in that other 'little life' as the late John Stevens called the mental space of music making that happens when musicians of a like mind play freely together." In the last track, "Music for David Mossman IV", this improvisation rumbles, squeals and seethes like on Tracks, the trio’s first recording from 1983. May this band and the Vortex live long!

Music for David Mossman is available as a CD and a download.

You can buy it from or from

You can listen to the album here:

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Three From Stephanie Richards (plus a live encounter)

By Lee Rice Epstein

I already had the album Fullmoon high on my list of anticipated releases, so when trumpeter Stephanie Richards announced the brief live tour for the album’s release would pass through LA, I was thrilled. I also had a chance to catch up with the album proper, as well as Richards’s two other new releases, Trio Music, with Vinny Golia and Bert Turetzky, and Thaw by Resonant Bodies, a duo with Andrew Drury.

Stephanie Richards - Fullmoon (Relative Pitch, 2018) *****

Fullmoon is remarkable, full stop. It’s a daring release for Richards to put out as her proper debut, and kudos to Relative Pitch for supporting her. Relative Pitch has done a remarkable job showcasing albums by women, most recently solo and duo albums from Catherine Sikora, Susan Alcorn, Ingrid Laubrock, Birgit Ulher, Jessica Pavone, and Magda Mayas. And their support of Richards once again shows how valuable a label they are, especially when it comes to free improvisation and experimentation. Over the course of half an hour, Richards, together with Dino J.A. Deane (maybe best known for his work with Lawrence “Butch Morris), charts a wide, deep sonicscape that invites you to plunge straight in. The album is divided into phases of the moon, “New,” “Half,” and “Full” parts 1 and 2. Separating each phase are tracks highlighting Richards’s interactions with a single percussion instrument: “Snare,” “Piano,” “Gong” parts 1 and 2, and “Timpani.” Throughout, Deane samples, processes, loops, and transforms Richards live, the two performing what sounds, initially, like an elaborate dance. But what really struck me was learning the album itself was 2 years in the making. Although recorded in a single day, Richards spent two years re-editing the album in the studio with her husband, Andrew Munsey, who co-produced and engineered the album. Knowing this, when you go back into Fullmoon, you can really hear how intricate and deliberate the entire album is, how purposefully the compositions move from one moment to the next. Look for it to reappear at year’s end.

Stephanie Richards, Bert Turetzky, and Vinny Golia - Trio Music (pfMENTUM, 2018) ****

This grouping, with the greats Vinny Golia and bassist Bert Turetzky, emphasizes the players’ fleetness and facility with a chamber-like setting. The album is a collection of improvisations, some nicely stretched out beyond the 5-minute mark. Golia and Turetzky have a rich history performing and recording together, and Richards folds into place easily. After the brief introductory statement “Solana,” Turetzky kicks off the lengthy “Proprioception,” a term that relates to the movement or position of a body in space. There’s a remarkable adaptive quality to each player’s approach that’s on display throughout the album. As the title of the finale, “The Duo That Became a Trio,” suggests, there’s hopefully more where this came from.


Resonant Bodies - Thaw (Different Track, 2018) ****

Richards has steadily established herself as one of the most engaging experimentalists, so a duo with Andrew Drury, equally adventurous and engaging, seems like a natural fit. Collaborating on a series of improvisations, constantly upend listeners’ expectations of how and when sounds will appear. For example, “Drangajökull” presents Richards playing long, somewhat percussive tones, as Drury complements her with equally brassy percussive notes. This sonorous tension is sustained throughout the album, broken up periodically by Drury’s dramatic cracks and rolls on either timpani or floor tom, as on “Snow Dome” and “Athabasca.” The seismic effects weren’t lost on the performers, who named the tracks after glaciers, having decided the “timbres suggested thawing glaciers to us—groaning, cracking, splitting, of large masses of ancient ice under extreme pressure, moving and melting.” The title, however, adds an additional elegiac layer, and the finale, “RETREAT,” sounds more like a plea than a coda.

Fullmoon album release tour, ArtShare LA, May 21, 2018

Before I pressed play on the album proper, I went to see Richards live on her brief album-release tour. The theater space at ArtShare LA sat about 10–15 of us, and Richards was joined onstage by Dino J.A. Deane, probably best known for his work with Lawrence “Butch” Morris. With Deane set up at a table stage right, the rest of the stage was open for Richards to move from center-stage microphone to playing directly into a snare drum, timpani, or piano, as she switched periodically between trumpet and flugelhorn, and rotated through a series of mutes. Her physical movements reflected both her wide-ranging experiments with sound and space, as well as giving us a visual representation of the track titles from Fullmoon—minus “Gong,” as there wasn’t one in the space. The performance, augmented by Cossa’s excellent visuals, lasted over an hour, and even more firmly established Richards in my mind as one of the leading trumpet players and improvisors. Deane’s in-the-moment sampling and processing of Richards made for some incredibly clever exchanges, and Richards left the stage area a couple of times to give him additional room to improvise. Richards has a way of universally expressing something that feels deeply personal and unique, even while the performance itself (say, a trumpet played against the strings of a piano) may appear radical and oblique.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

João Camões / Jean-Luc Cappozzo / Jean-Marc Foussat - Autres Paysages (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Portuguese violist João Camões marks with Autres Paysages his third collaborative project with French synthesist Jean-Marc Foussat, known also as in-demand sound engineer trusted by Joëlle Léandre, Steve Lacy and many others. On this set of three extended electro-acoustic improvisations Camões and Foussat are joined by French trumpeter and flugelhorn player Jean-Luc Cappozzo, known for his free-improv collaborations with Léandre, Herb Robertson and Gerry Hemingway, but also as one that was invited by Dizzy Gillespie to play with him in concert.

“L'espace Qui Nous Separe” that opens Autres Paysages set the atmosphere - a collective, chamber interplay, delicate and restrained one, that navigates freely between aspects of contemporary classical and experimental music with all the weight of the history of jazz. Cappozzo adds a warm, lyrical dimension that contracts the cerebral and restless tone of Camões and the alien, chilly noises of Foussat. Mid-piece, Cappozzo plays the harmonic flute and Camões adds the myr, an ancient Turkish double reed woodwind instrument, and the atmosphere becomes more dense and tense.

The second piece, “De Tes Yeux Aux Miens” is more suggestive. Camões, Cappozzo and Foussat search for new sounds and dynamics, employing extended bowing and breathing techniques. This suggestive piece shifts between abstract, moody phases, some are quite tense, others more cinematic, just as in a dream-like state. Again, it is Cappozzo who charges this piece with an emotional, melodic core and later even playful playing that balances the tough, uncompromising approach of Camões and Foussat. Foussat offers more weird yet familiar sounds on the last “Berceuse Pour Manuel” - distant dogs barking and bird calls, and together with the flute of Cappozzo and the myr of Camões this piece shifts to exotic, enigmatic terrains, deepening the dreamy mode of this unique trio and its sparse, poetic interplay.

Listen on Soundcloud

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ogún Meji Duo – For Those Who Have Gone, But Still Remain (CFG Multimedia, 2018) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Columbus, OH, is not known for free jazz. It is often overlooked on tours that follow the northern passage from the Northeast through Chicago or that leap between Ohio’s other major cities: Cleveland and Cincinnati. Some acts, of course, do stop here because of the Ohio State University and the city’s otherwise vibrant visual and performance arts scene. That said (and despite the efforts of a dedicated few), the indigenous Columbus free music scene is relatively quiet. (NB: This reviewer has lived in the free music meccas of New York, Chicago, and Berlin as well as Columbus. His view may be skewed.)

That is what makes this release especially welcome. The Ogún Meji Duo consists of drummer Mark Lomax, II and tenor saxophonist Eddie Bayard. Their musical collaboration in various contexts goes back a decade; it shows on this disc. They listen to each other. They share not just a common stage, but frameworks and goals. And they communicate.

This album is an homage to varied musical influences (the “ancestors,” as the website states) that range from the improvisational energy music of Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray to the bluesy, be-bop and hard-bop of local elder Charlie Cook. In the hands (and lungs and lips) of these two well-versed practitioners, this range of influences works in the way that the William Parker compositions on The Essence of Ellington and the The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield do, albeit with a different sort of swing. Lomax and Bayard aim for essences rather than mimesis. And, they effectively achieve them while maintaining their own distinct voices.

The first track, “Albert Ayler is Ringing Them Bells,” starts with a drum cadence, which is soon balanced by a spirited saxophone refrain that seamlessly elides into the mellifluous/cacophonous improvisations characteristic of Ayler and his descendants. Bayard plays hard, here, and to grand effect. Around the seven-minute mark, Lomax lets loose on his drum-set for an intense, but measured minute and a half solo that is book-ended by a lively stream of the original motif. It is fittingly Ayler-esque. The next track, “Each Passing Moment,” offers a contemplative balance to the exuberance of the first piece. The first several minutes consist of almost ambient cymbal work, followed by a slow, rhythmic progression on the toms. (Lomax’s extensive experience in classical composition shows through particularly on this track.) Bayard contributes a soft and sweet melody that contrasts the rawness of his earlier playing and evokes the winds and reeds of Yusef Lateef in its suppleness. This song grooves.

The third composition, dedicated to Sunny Murray (d. 2017), is where Lomax really shines. Bayard seems to play more freely on this piece, invoking a range of styles and coming into his own in the ebbs and flows, short melodious lines and more abstract squonks over a complex percussive tapestry. Unlike many drummers in the freer musics, Lomax’s playing always seems measured, even when he is at his most unrestrained. He develops his rhythms and, even, brief melodies over the course of the track while leaving space for acceleration and deceleration, starts and stops, and a genuine flow. This piece is a fitting tribute to a drummer who may not have had a reputation for percussive economy, but still played with a related spirit of intense concentration and inspired abstraction.

The final track is a tribute to a recently-deceased Columbus saxophonist, Charlie Cook (d. 2017). This track begins with a soft, airy tenor that crescendos through a cascade of cymbals and percussive bass lines (still absent a bassist, of course). In the end, it creates a compellingly ethereal atmosphere that provides fitting closure to the conjuring of ancestral voices that this album achieved so convincingly.

Unlike so many recordings today, this album is cohesive. It tells a story. It takes the listener on a journey through a musical history that is at once local (Cook and, via Cleveland, Ayler) and (inter)national (Ayler and Murray). In that sense, this is a release that is unique to its Midwestern musical and cultural surroundings, removed from but reverent towards the same traditions, however avant-garde, as the New York-Chicago-Europe nexus. It is absolutely worth a listen.

You can listen to the entire album and purchase it online through the artist’s website:

Monday, June 11, 2018

Prune Becheau, Day, Desailly, Maurel, Vysocky - Pancrace (Penultimate Press, 2017) ****

By Stef

For those of you who are interested in new listening experiences, I can recommend to check out this double LP by the French-British-Austrian ensemble Pancrace. The musicians are Prune Bécheau on baroque violin and organ, Arden Day on landscape piano, organ, boîte à bourdons, hurgy toys, Julien Desailly on uillean pipes, hulusi and flutes, Léo Maurel on organ, boîtes à bourdons, hurgy toys, and Jan Vysocky on pi synth, AM radio and microphones. You will also hear church bells, motorised bow and bird calls.

The music is recorded in a church in Dangolsheim, in the Alsace region in France, where instrument builder Léo Maurel lives. I add the video below (from another performance) just to show what the instruments look like.

The five musicians create a wonderful sonic event, with various layers of instrument creating one single sound, often with repetitive themes in the style of Philip Glass, alternating with the minimalism of "Dans Les Arbres", or the gentle complex rhythms of the Penguin Café Orchestra. But then again, comparisons like these ones fail to convey the unique sound of the band. One major difference is that that they dare to completely disrupt their own carefully built-up sound with harsh dissonances once in a while. The result is amazing: it is intense, frightening at times, sometimes soothing, friendly, strange or dark and foreboding, and interestingly enough, they switch quite easily from one to the other sentiment, without warning or progressive evolution, making the listening experience even more interesting and captivating.

In a way, it is pretty unique. And their concept and singular vision works well.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Watch a performance at the Sonic Protest Festival in March 2018:


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Rodrigo Amado/ Joe McPhee/ Kent Kessler/ Chris Corsano - A History of Nothing (Trost, 2018) *****

By Stuart Broomer

This band, organized by Rodrigo Amado, matches the Lisbon-based tenor saxophonist with the senior multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and a rhythm section composed of bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Chris Corsano. Whether McPhee is playing soprano saxophone or pocket trumpet, it’s a classic free jazz formation, with undeniable roots in the “change of the century” ushered in by Ornette Coleman. The first recording by this band, This Is Our Language (Not Two), was named Album of the Year for 2015 by the readers of this site.

If it’s strongly traditioned, there’s nothing antique about the conception. Amado has an existential view of the improvisatory act, clearly articulated in a series of titles that includes Desire & Freedom and the present History of Nothing. His line bears a certain resemblance to Sonny Rollins in his most exploratory period, a big, flexible sound in which each note is lightly but deftly sculpted, never fussy, the inflection almost off-hand but necessary, as if that, too, is a mark of the rhythmic precision. There’s a resistance to excess. Freedom is clearly a responsibility as well as a joy, and it’s emphasized here by the group’s shared commitment: each musician is constantly working in two directions, stretching further and creating cohesion.

The opening “Legacies” and the closing “Hidden Desert” are almost dirges, pieces that move incrementally but are still taut. “Legacies” is improvised with such an ear to complementary detail that it’s literally being collectively composed: bass echoes soprano and a cymbal finds unison with the bass. At this tempo, the roles of Kessler and Corsano are central, each animating time and line by touch and suggestion rather than dense drive. “Hidden Desert” begins with sonic exploration, bowed bass and what sounds like simultaneously drummed strings or perhaps some tuned scraping instrument, otherwise it’s a mystery to me.

The title track begins in close four-way listening with pecking soprano and tenor in the foreground, turning to full-on hard blowing, with Amado pressing against the rhythmic fury of Kessler and Corsano, with the saxophone dialogue picking up spontaneously in mid-stream and then again at the conclusion. It’s a model of free playing at the edge of blowing apart without ever losing control. “Theory of Mind II for Joe” is kinetic free bop by Amado, Kessler and Corsano referencing the piece on This Is Our Language and invoking the member not playing. On “Wild Flowers” McPhee launches things with a delightful pocket trumpet solo that suggests pinching a column of air, then switches to near-identical soprano saxophone as Corsano and Kessler join in; Amado enters with a kind of nursery-rhyme that leads to some more fine four-way dialogue and a spontaneous unison conclusion.

In summary, A History of Nothing is a worthy successor to This Is our Language, the on-going dialogue further developed.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Maria da Rocha - Beetroot & Other Stories (Shhhpuma, 2018) ****

By Gregg Miller

Really gorgeous; a combination of bitter and sweet, electric and acoustic, elegiac medieval and of the moment. A solo effort, Portuguese musician Maria da Rocha, based in Berlin, plays synthesizer and violin with various processors and pedal effects. She also plays viola on one track. There is not a whit of silence on the record, always the synth coats the sonic background like an underpainting, over which da Rocha improvises her sorrow and grit.

If we were looking for a genre, this recording would be more or less modern, minimal classical, but for the electronic effects, some rhythmic, but mostly not, which say: “electro-acoustic.” Not spacious like Cardew’s Treatises, it feels more like the backtrack of dance music if we were to remove all the pulse, time, and chords. Mostly the recording is experimental in the sense of testing out a narrow, refined range of tones and timbres. She paints sonic landscapes. It’s not pretty, nor particularly foreboding. We’re neither dancing, nor lying down. Standing still, the landscape changes incrementally, and if we notice the changes, it is usually too late. The sound leaves impressions of dry leaves or, at other times, of water being sucked down a hole or washing over one’s mind, or of autistic machines at war with themselves, or of totalizing moods and the struggle for release, tone drones and the power to make and unmake them. It is a balancing which is neither painful nor saccharin, never the same, but never self-distracting. It might just be urban film music: Portraits of stark longing and finitude, and a grace that is permitted to us, we fallible humans.

The record opens (Lumen) with crackling electronically generated energy and power, a couple slow blasts of space invaders, which cools to a pitch of processed violin echo, underchant and reverb. Slow synth crescendos with crunchy weather, objects beaten. Shifting higher synth over lower register acoustic long tones, a short motive cycle quieting to the peaceful low of train chugging and wind.

The second track (Wave) offers soft pulses, subtle alterations, variations of tone and off-kilter, full but subtle bass pedal with occasional major assertions of a very classical, lovely violin line. Enter something like a card stuck in bicycle spokes which turns into an algorithmic pulse— head-bobbing if not fully danceable. Sustained electric highs, lows, rhythmic pulls in the mids. It feels like the ocean, but a machine ocean, an encompassing somewhat claustrophobic world bordering on brittle. The highs and extreme lows pull away, the bicycle stops spinning, only to re-enter and we’re left with the throbbing middle propelling us forward like a ship’s engine.

The music continues like nature’s algorithms. The brief third track (Diving) in one long motion rents the mind like a cello on fire. Bristling, roiling heat and love and anguish. In the fourth track (Lost), the violin cries over a sputtering, air vibrating into a close hollow sending out a pitchless flutter. She scrapes the strings with her bow, a haunting, jagged line descends and fades to a couple of life-support beeps.

The promo material accompanying the CD supplies some background with respect to a story of a beet and a witch, and perhaps those icons enable the music-making. On the reception side, as the record moves along, what he have is a mood. Serene but energized; calm but with intent, sometimes advancing a warning. There is no panic, but there is longing, desire, and danger.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Joakim Milder, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Pär-Ola Landin & Christopher Cantillo - Trädet (El Dingo Records, 2018) ****½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Reeds players Joakim Milder and Fredrik Ljungkvist are amongst the most internationally well-known and creative Swedish musicians. Milder is known from his collaborations with American bass player Red Mitchell, fellow-countryman pianist Bobo Stenson, and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko and pianist Marcin Wasilewski. Ljungkvist is known from the Swedish-Norwegian quintet Atomic, his Yun-Kan groups and his collaborations with Chicagoan Ken Vandermark.

But these colorful personalities have not collaborated on a project of their own until young drummer Christopher Cantillo - known from the Mattias Ståhl Trio and the Parti & Minut trio, as well as behind alternative pop phenomenon Anna von Hausswolff - suggested to form a new collective quartet. Double bass player Pär-Ola Landin complements this quartet.

The quartet debut album, Trädet (The Trees in Swedish), offers music that is deeply rooted in the Swedish melodic and lyrical jazz tradition, but it branches out to many new, fresh terrains. Milder and Ljungkvist are expressive and attentive improvisers and their interplay is simply masterful - poetic, emotional and nuanced, always focused on serving the music and not their technical wisdom. Landin and Cantillo solidify this empathic communication with their sensitive and versatile rhythmic work.

Concise pieces like “Lupin” sound as a clever deconstruction of Carla Bley's compositional ideas, including the eccentric sense of humor, and reconstruction of these ideas as their own. Both Milder and Ljungkvist are well-versed with her music. Milder has played with Paul Bley and Ljungkvist focused on her work on And Now The Queen - A Tribute To Carla Bley (Lilao, 2016, with pianist Mattias Risberg, including a re-working of the classic “Ida Lupino”). “Schism” and the open, swinging “Ivan's on the Phone” deepen the open, conversational spirit of this album, as all four musicians let the music breath, grow, touch and inspire . The touching, chamber-jazz “Köpenhamn” and “Segall” - with Ljungkvist on the clarinet- stress even more the organic manner that Milder and Ljungkvist complements each other’s ideas, almost telepathically. The thoughtful exploration of the engaging theme of “Things Are”, concludes this beautiful gem and demands more, much more from this great quartet.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Barre Phillips & Motoharu Yoshizawa - Oh My, Those Boys! (NoBusiness, 2018) ****½

Oh My, Those Boys! is an epic monster of double double bass, well a double bass, played by the mighty Barre Phillips, and a homemade electric five string vertical bass (as its described), played by Motoharu Yoshizawa. Recorded live at Cafe Amores, Hofu, Yamaguchi, Japan, the seventy-five minutes of Oh My, Those Boys! represents only part of that evening’s nearly three hours of music. A previous forty minute chunk from this evening was released in 1998 on Live “Okidoki” through the Chap Chap label. Oh, My Those Boys! is part of an ongoing dive into the Chap Chap vault of unreleased recordings

From the opening pizzicato section through moments of beautiful arco playing to moments of noise and the occasional vocalization, Oh My! covers an unimaginable amount of ground in it’s fifty-five minute runtime. The second track, Those Boys!, runs just over twenty minutes, but is even more extreme and haunting. Yoshizawa’s use of electronics mixed with Phillips’ more lyric bow work is inspired. The constant variation between two masters, and between electric and acoustic timbres, is delightful. The end of Those Boys! alone is worth the journey.

Oh My, Those Boys! is as fine an example of duet playing as you’re likely to hear. The work is as constantly shifting as a hike in a desert slot canyon. You don’t know how narrow or wide the path may be, you don’t know what’s lurking around the corner, you don’t know if you’ll be swept away in a flash flood or cooked to death under a blazing hot sun, but if you make it through to the end, you’re sure to have enjoyed the journey.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Pedro Sousa, Miguel Mira & Afonso Simões - Rajada (Multikulti, 2018) ****½

By Stef

Interestingly enough, the Polish label Multikulti organises a series of albums to highlight music coming from other countries, in this case the Iberian peninsula, with the trio of Pedro Sousa on tenor, Miguel Mira on cello and Afonso Simões on drums. The album is called 'Rajada' which is Portuguese for a 'strong gust of wind, a machine gun burst, movement or impulse, something which is clearly fast'. 

The title is well chosen, the music sounds like warm wind on a summer evening, alternating between a velvety breeze and a gale, with intermediate squalls and once in a while touching on hurricane level but without developing into it. Sousa's tone is warm, round and sensitive, even in the most energetic moments - and there are many - and the trio's music is in a way as far removed from Brötzmann's 'machine gun' approach as you can imagine, or even from Evan Parker, in contrast to what the liner notes suggest. 

Sousa is known in the meantime to the readers of this blog. Miguel Mira we know from his collaboration with the Motion Trio, led by Rodrigo Amado, this other great Portuguese saxophonist. Afonso Simões is less known, but amazing on this album. Even if Sousa is the leading voice, this is a trio album ... with each musician contributing equally to the total sound, and generating a strong cohesion throughout the long improvisations on the album. 

This music is not about power, it is not about transcending boundaries, it is all about intensity and immediacy, whether in the slow or fast parts, a deep authenticity is always there.  

Despite the physicality of their playing, the three musicians are totally unassuming about themselves,  letting the music run its course, as if with its own logic, but together, without disruption or sudden changes, yet moving from gentle, melancholy moments of deep sorrow and longer tones, to stuttering little bursts, energetic and nervous, delivered with urgency and insistence. 

As the best test for good music, this is one album that you want to hear again and again without getting tired of it.

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Watch a performance by the trio dating from February of this year:

Pedro Sousa & Gabriel Ferrandini - Má Arte (Favela Discos, 2017) ****½

By Stef

Sorry guys, there were only 100 copies made of this cassette, and I expect they've all been sold by now, or at least I hope they are. Because the music is just excellent. Pedro Sousa on tenor and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums are part of the somewhat magical Portuguese free improvisation scene. Ferrandini is a member of RED Trio, which I have praised often enough on this blog, and Pedro Sousa falls in the same category of artists. Not surprisingly he also released a duo album, 'Falaise', with Hernáni Faustino, the basssist of RED Trio. One of his other albums with Ferrandini and Thurston Moore, 'Live At ZDB', also got a great star rating, as did Pão, another trio with great reviews, and last but not least, "Casa Futuro", made it to my top-10 list for 2015.

So what is the magic? Like with most magic, it's totally irrational what you like and what you don't. Yet both musicians are brilliant. Sousa's tone is one of the warmest and deepest around, sensitive and gentle, while being creative, free and captivating. Ferrandini is the kind of drummer who gets it. He knows what music is all about: authentic, direct and about interaction. He feels when to hit hard, and when to be subtle, and how to co-create the music instead of being a servant to the soloist. Together, they offer the listener a wonderful journey from soft-spoken intimate music to high energy power music, but always with an incredible spontaneous 'musicality', this vague notion that you can only understand once you hear it. And it's guaranteed in the duo's music.

It's a cassette, so it's short. Eighteen minutes on Side A, and seventeen minutes on Side B ... and it's highly recommended nevertheless.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Thing - Again (Trost Records, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

If you count The Thing’s collaborations with Joe McPhee, James Blood Ulmer, Ken Vandermark, Neneh Cherry, Barry Guy, Otomo Yoshihide, Jim O’Rourke, Thurston Moore and DKV Trio too, Again is their 20th album (including the compilation Now and Forever and the split album The Music of Norman Howard with School Days, another Gustafsson project). Literally speaking, The Thing have done it again. After 17 years in the same line-up (Mats Gustafsson on saxes, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on acoustic and electric bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums) you might think that the band’s music has become predictable, that their mélange of free jazz, blues, rock and noise is actually a cul-de-sac because the musical options are exhausted. However, it isn’t.

Though Again is the well-proved mixture of cover versions and original compositions, this time the focus is rather on jazz. The only cover, Decision in Paradise, is an old, rather conventional Frank Lowe piece. The Thing turn the tempo down considerably and a trumpet provided by Joe McPhee, the guest star on this track, transforms the falling lines of the original’s opening passage into painfully bruised sounds before Gustafsson strips the delicate melody to the bone (doing this, it reminds me of Gershwin’s “Summertime“). Bass, trumpet and saxophone dance around each other in slow motion and only after four minutes Nilssen-Love enters the game in order to give the piece more drive and tension. It’s the band’s typical way to take possession of a composition which is not their own.
The center of the album is the 21-minute “Sur Face“, presenting the band at full throttle featuring Gustafsson at his most effective and juxtaposed with more aggressive playing from the rhythm section. In a typical The Thing way they let this part implode and after a short solo from Håker Flaten, Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love paint a beautiful downtempo and introspective interlude. Gustafsson plays vibrato-drunk Ayler lines here, the way he’s sometimes done it on his solo recordings. For the rest of the track the group comes back together in their familiar rough style, bone-dry, taking no prisoners.

Vicky Di rounds out the album, it’s the only composition that recalls the old, more rock-ish days at the beginning of their career. After a rather chaotic beginning, which is brutally ended at the 3:40 mark, the song is propelled by a monstrous distorted bass solo from Håker Flaten, which prepares the ground for a solid groove over which Gustafsson’s soprano soars with intense lines reminiscent of Coltrane and Brötzmann.

The Thing is still archetypal free jazz/rock of the 21st century - it’s a group you might recommend to someone who wants to explore a more adventurous genre, although they work for experienced listeners as well. I’m surprised how this band wins me over again …. and again.

Again is available on vinyl, CD and as a download. You can buy and listen to the album here.

The Thing - Again (Trost Records, 2018) ****½

Again? Yes, The Scandinavian power trio revisits its roots on Again, the American fiery-spiritual free jazz of the sixties, as explored on its first albums - the self-titled debut album from 2001 (titled, as the trio name, after Don Cherry composition from Where is Brooklyn?(Blue Note, 1969)) and the second one with Joe McPhee, She Knows (Both released on sax player Mats Gustafsson’s short-lived Crazy Wisdom label). The Thing leave behind the brutal and immediate garage-active jazz pieces and covers of rock anthems, and relies on its extensive experience on free-improv meetings. Even the instrumentation of Again reflects on The Thing roots. Gustafsson sticks to tenor and soprano saxes (no bass sax, as featured on Fire!’s recent The Hands, not even a one blow on the baritone sax) and Håker-Flaten plays most of the time the double bass. Again fits perfectly the length of the vintage format of a vinyl, only 38-minutes long. Again, Fire!’s bass player, Johan Berthling, produced this album, after producing The Thing’s last studio album, Shake! (Trost/ The Thing, 2015).

But, naturally, The Thing, as a trio and and its three musicians, are wiser and more experienced. Gustafsson, Håker-Flaten and Nilssen-Love do have an encyclopedic knowledge about the history of free jazz and Nordic jazz, but none of them is going to rely on this glorious past. All of them are ambitious and bold composers, leading their own groups, some even orchestra-size outfits. Gustafsson’s 21-minutes “Sur Face” demonstrates this approach. This suite is still charged with the familiar, uncompromising, tons energy of The Thing, but is developed with no sense of urgency. Gustafsson’s sonic spectrum is more varied, moving freely from familiar, charismatic-rawl Ayler-ian blows to much more emotional, lyrical tones, sometimes even exploring delicate and surprising melodic, chamber jazz textures. Håker-Flaten and Nilssen-Love suggest an open yet massive, rhythmic support that embraces Gustafsson shifting themes and tones.

The cover of tenor sax player Frank Lowe “Decision in Paradise” (taken from Lowe’s album with the same title, Soul Note, 1974, featuring Don Cherry), offers an obvious connection to The Thing’s past, as well as to jazz spiritual legacy. Lowe has played with Sun Ra and with Alice Coltrane, and Gustafsson updates their spiritual calling to a call to action, telling his audiences that we all taking part in a fight against global stupidity. The Thing already covered Lowe’s composition, “For Real” on She Knows with McPhee. Again, McPhee joins The Thing with his pocket trumpet, and he and Gustafsson interpret beautifully the balladic lines of Lowe and Cherry, but patiently transform the original theme into an intense and fierce eruption.

Håker-Flaten’s “Vicky Di” suggests a link to The Thing’s recent past. Håker-Flaten takes the lead, playing a mean, nervous electric bass, Gustafsson alternates between the tenor and the rarely played soprano saxes, and Nilssen-Love, as usual, builds layers upon layers of of nuanced rhythmic storms, references even Brazilian music. Mid-piece, Håker-Flaten’s turns his bass into a generator of distorted, feedback-laden noises. This solo bass marks a return, again, to The Thing’s unmistakable, ecstatic rhythmic grind, leaving you breathless, but crying for more, much more from this right stuff.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Traditional free jazz? Ten albums with deep roots

By Stef

Can we speak of "traditional free jazz"? I know, some question our use of the word "free jazz" even, as if it did not exist. Yes, free jazz exists, even if its boundaries are fuzzy. There is some improvised music, that is rooted in jazz, and that goes beyond the thematic and rhythmic structures of bop and modern jazz. And the genre exists for more than fifty years now, enough time to create a solid foundation and even a tradition. A little later than expected, but here are some albums that really cherish the free jazz tradition. They have a direct genealogical line to Ornette Coleman, Ayler and Cecil Taylor.

Detail - At Club 7 (Not Two, 2017) ****

The music on this album is by the wonderful band "Detail" with Johnny 'Mbizo' Dyani on bass, Frode Gjerstad on sax and bass clarinet, Eivin One Pedersen on piano and ARP synth, and John Stevens on drums. The performance was recorded in Oslo in September 1982 at the iconic Club 7, a smoky place where many of the jazz greats of that time performed. This is the original line-up of the band, which released five albums in the early 80s, later with the addition of Bobby Bradford on cornet. When Dyani died in 1986, the band continued with Kent Carter on bass.

It is amazing to hear the original quartet now on this album. Their music flows openly, without clear structure or rhythm, but rather evolving like rolling waves through moments of calm and high intensity, full of lyricism and cohesive interplay. Kudos to the label for releasing this little gem from the past.

John Tchicai, Vinny Golia, Bill Smith Quintet with Clyde Reed & Gregg Simpson - Live at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, 1988 (Condition West Recordings, 2017) ****

Now this is a find. Recorded at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in 1988, the band are the late John Tchicai, Vinny Golia and Bill Smith on reeds, with Clyde Reed on double bass and Gregg Simpson on drums ... another multi-country band (Denmark, US, UK, Canada).

Both tracks are called '"Fêtes" (feast, celebration), and that's exactly what it is. On the first track the rhythm section goes wild from the start and keeps the energy up for the full fourteen minutes. The three soloists alternate, or scream in multiphonic chaos, trying to keep up with the mad speed. The second track is over twenty minutes long and has an equally energetic, albeit somewhat slower, boppish tempo. It's again freedom galore, but in a very cohesive way, built around a simple theme, more a vamp actually, yet the energy and the interplay are great. In the mid sequence, the tempo goes down for a much slower bass solo, and a short duet with - I guess - Tchicai's tenor, who invites the other reeds in for a slow theme, created on the spot, even when he increases his speed regardless. Simpson joins and he seems to know only one way of playing the drums: hard and fast, resulting in a continuation of the screaming fest it was before, which oddly comes together again in a theme, now reinforced by singing by two band members. It all sounds pretty chaotic, yet at the same time, it is so incredibly genuine and straight from the heart and soul, that you cannot but admire and enjoy what's happening.

The album can be downloaded from Bandcamp. The album is not a CD, it only exists digitally.

Test - Always Coming From The Love Side (Eremite, 2016) ****

We're a decade later now. Despite the fact that the quartet consisting of Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen on winds, the late Tom Bruno on drums and Matthew Heyner on bass existed only for a few years in the second half of the '90s, they released several albums, again in the best of free jazz traditions. Bruno and Heyner may not be familiar names, but their rhythm section is very energetic and intense, and both Carter and Mateen are having a ball on their saxes. Carter's occasional switching to trumpet adds variation. 

The band was known for its street performances in New York,  competing with all other diversions for the attentions of the passers-by, which explains their need for raw energy and power. This album collects several performances during a tour in '99, including one at the original Velvet Lounge in Chicago. The fact that it's performed "live" comes across very well. Great stuff. 

Again, great that Eremite has had the courage to release this double album. 

The Nu Band - The Final Concert (NoBusiness, 2016) & Live In Geneva (Not Two, 2017) ****

Another band that works within the 'free jazz tradition', even if more boppish than the previous three albums, is The Nu Band, reviewed and praised often before on this blog, and a band consisting of the late Roy Campbell on trumpet, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet and flute, Mark Whitecage on alto and clarinet, Joe Fonda on bass, and Lou Grassi on drums. "The Final Concert" is the last performance of the band with Roy Campbell, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 61. As on their other albums, the band starts with pre-written themes, one composed by Whitecage, one by Fonda, one by Campbell, and the fourth track is a collective improvisation. The themes act as springboards for lengthy improvisations, but with a clear and maintained focus on the theme's ingredients. The quartet swings and dances, and to hear Campbell's soulful and bluesy tones makes it all even more sad, despite the music's inherent joyfulness. The great thing about The Nu Band is that it's a band of equals making great fun and great music. They give each other space, they encourage, they interact in a playful and respectful way, attentive and creative at the same time. They have nothing to prove. No aesthetic or egos to defend. No statements to be made other than enjoy themselves and the audience. The whole album is a great tribute to Campbell. 

After Campbell's passing away, he was replaced by Thomas Heberer.  Heberer is a wonderful trumpet player, extremely versatile and comfortable in the most avant-garde and traditional contexts. To his credit, he keeps his own sound and approach, slightly changing the overall tone of the band from soulful to more adventurous, yet the end result is equally compelling and infectious. The first three tracks are quite subdued and maybe even sad, but then at the end all hell breaks loose, with the long "5 O'Cock Follies" turning the mood into an uptempo unison theme romp with alternating roles for the soloists against a breakneck speed rhythm section. The last track keeps that momentum going, a little more hesitant maybe, but great nevertheless. 

Trio X - Craig Kessler, Green Bay, Kerrytown & Sugar Maple (CIMPol, 2016) ****

One of free jazz's great trios was without a doubt Trio X, the trio of Joe McPhee on sax and pocket trumpet, the late Dominic Duval on bass, and Jay Rosen on drums. In 2016, CIMPol released four CDs at the same time, but seperately, in contrast to their earlier and equally highly recommendable boxes "Live On Tour 2008", and "Live On Tour 2010". The four new albums - and I expect them to be the last releases by the trio - are called "Live At Sugar Maple", "Live At Kerrytown", "Live In Green Bay and Buffalo", and "Live At Craig Kessler and Janet Lessner's". 

Most of the pieces are fully improvised, but time and again the trio gets back to some of their 'standards', such as "Going Home", "The Man I Love", "God Bless The Child", "Heavy Lifting Heavy Voices", or McPhee uses phrases of other standards during his solos. Even if the band can switch occasionally to highly energetic power play, the atmosphere is most of the time quite calm and gentle.  Trio X loves to use the American musical tradition of gospels, blues and old jazz, and turn them into something wildly new, fresh and authentic. There are moments when you think that this is the absolute essence of music: simple on the surface but deeply felt and technically brilliant. 

Some could say that when you've listened to several Trio X albums, that you've heard them all, but that is not the case. Even if their overall sound and approach is the same, each and every performance by this band is a kind of musical gem, unique and special. 

My only negative is the CIMP recording level - which I've complained about earlier - and which is so low that even on the maximum level of the sound system in my car I have to make a real effort to hear what's going on. 

Generations Quartet - Flow (Not Two, 2016) ****

The last in the series is "Flow" by the "Generations Quartet", with Oliver Lake on sax, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass, and Emil Gross on drums. I guess the Austrian drummer is the one who determines the "generations" in the band's name. Lake (°1942), Stevens (°1951) and Fonda (°1954), are clearly the older parts of the band. Stevens seems to be the anchor point in the quartet, not only because he's played with Lake and Fonda for decades but in parallel ensembles, but especially musically on this album. Stevens keeps it all together, but his more traditional sound and approach on the piano are interestingly enough the perfect match with Lake's unpredictable playing, Fonda's precise bass-lines and Gross rock-steady drumming. The four musicians are indeed completely different in musical character, yet they find each other. Despite being built around composed themes and structures, the overall sense of freedom is high, much more than on what is typically called 'modern jazz' or 'contemporary jazz'. Somehow it manages to find the ideal match between sophistication and rawness, between structure and freedom, between restraint and abandon.

Despite the band's name, it's not music that 'young' musicians would make these days. It is too anchored in the concept of free music of the seventies for that.

Like all the other albums reviewed here, the performance was recorded live, this one at the Bunker Ulmenwall in Bielefeld, Germany on October 30, 2015. It's only too bad that some of the tracks are cut, so that the applause of the audience is absent. That's strange for a live performance. In any case, it is more than worth checking out.