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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 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. However, last summer, the ensemble performed at the Jazzwerkstatt festival in Peitz, located a few hours from Berlin. That concert turned out to be a bit of a disappointing, but their return to Berlin was a return to form. The group was bigger this evening. Previously and recently it had been a sextet with two bassists, cello, sax, trumpet, and percussion. At the festival, the ensemble expanded to a tentet, while still retaining the core of Roscoe Mitchell, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, percussionist Fomaudou Don Moye, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and cellist Tomeka Reid. 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 successful and exiting closing night, which drew to a close a loop opened on the first one when Dr. Ndikung asked "if jazz died in Berlin, could Berlin also be a point of revivification?". While my experience at the festival was just a sample 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. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Peter Jacquemyn - Fundament (El Negocito, 2018) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

Belgian bass-player Peter Jacquemyn is probably best known for his collaborations with Evan Parker, Peter Kowald, André Goudbeek and free jazz musicians, usually in small ensembles. Now, he's taken on a more ambitious project, called "Fundament" (Dutch for 'foundation'), a composition/improvisation for instruments that play in the lower register.

The band are Peter Jacquemyn, Yannick Peeters, Kristof Roseeuw, Lode Leire, Pieter Lenaerts on double bass, Erick Sleichim on tubax, Jan Pillaert and Carl-Ludwich Hübsch on tuba, Matthias Muche on trombone, Gregoire Tirtiaux and Mathieu Lilin on baritone saxophone, and Peter Verdonck on bass saxophone. Several of the musicians add their vocal capacities, especially the leader who is versed in Mongolian tuva chanting. The band is unusual, to say the least. 

Jacquemyn's endeavour is to bring something foundational, not only literally by creating a deep and overwhelming bass ensemble, but also at a deeper, spiritual level, namely to feel the vibration of life, feel the resonance in a real physical sense. I had to the pleasure to assist one of the performances in the Saint Jacob Church in Ghent, where the band occupied the larger part of the church floor and moved forward and backward, walking behind the massive pillars, come close the audience, and creating distance again, sometimes all together, sometimes with musicians moving in different directions according to a beautifully orchestrated choreography. This amazing physical aspect of the performance can of course not be experienced on this album, and that's a shame, really. 

Below, I share two excerpts of the concert to give an idea of the performance. Recorded with iPhone, so apologies for the lack of quality and stability. 

Back to the album: first, it has been quite a feat to capture the essence of the performance on record, even if you do not experience the full resonance of the space, you get dragged into this wonderful and special sonic universe, one that offers both the calming effect of single tone mantra-like bass voices with the more terrifying sounds of interjected screams or instruments. ... or the magnificent moment of complete distress on the short "Blow".

"Fundament B" is less linear than "Fundament A", and starts with a multitude of bowed basses conversing, in dark, ominous tones, as it evolves into a stop and go game between the basses and the trombone, or the collective versus the individual, until a much deeper groundswell by the horns takes over, in a strange contradiction of massive minimalism, something that is both solid and simple, but with enough variation to keep the tension going.

The album ends with "Earth", a monotonous chant with the whistling tuva sounds shimmering over deep bass voices, sounds that come from the core of the earth and connect us with the things on it, disrupted by savage growling sounds of Jacquemyn.

The album is not as strong as the actual concert - and how could it be? -  yet it captures the essence well. It is offers an amazing listening experience, a work of art full of creativity, audacity, intelligence and something deeply foundational.

Don't miss it!

Listen and download from Bandcamp. Equally available in vinyl.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Cory Smythe - Circulate Susanna (Pyroclastic, 2018) *****

By Stuart Broomer

Pianist Cory Smythe is emerging as a significant pianist in free improvisation and new music circles. He has appeared on recordings such as Planktonic Finales with Stephan Crump and Ingrid Laubrock, as a member of Tyshawn Sorey’s trio and with Peter Evans. He’s also appeared on recordings of works by Iannis Xenakis and Anthony Braxton. Circulate Susanna is his debut as a bandleader, playing autoharp and electronics as well as piano in a trio with Swedish singer Sofia Jernberg and Daniel Lippel who’s playing detuned acoustic guitar and electronics.

It’s one of the strangest and most ambitious debuts in recent memory, beginning with Smythe’s liner note, which begins in large print on the CD’s front cover: “In the summertime, in the rural part of Illinois where I grew up, my sisters and I used to spend afternoons square dancing in the pale front yard. Our father was an amateur square dance caller, and we’d dutifully follow the instructions he incanted over the twangy warble of Stephen Foster and George Washington Dixon…” The piece continues, becoming increasingly strange and poetic with his father’s tales: “The Foster and Dixon tunes that undergirded Father’s stories, arriving to us as they did via wilted vinyl, windspun and re-tuned by the filtering fibers of the cotton ceiling and the coarse earth, made it easy to imagine the kind of harmonies that might bend, burble, and howl in the distant world of his invention.” With this unusual narrative, a 40-year-old American post-modern fixes his roots with a surreal passage to the songs of minstrelsy, setting himself within the bizarre moral compass of American music and its roots.

As much poet as pianist and songwriter, Smythe’s works here are insistent probes into an imaginative ground. Lippel’s detuned guitar insists on a chance relation of quarter tones and dissonances with Smythe’s piano, and in American music, from Blind Willie Johnson to Harry Partch, quarter tones are invitation to national dreams as well as the moral and cognitive dissonances associated with American song, from minstrelsy to the white blues of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Jernberg’s voice is an exploratory instrument, consisting as much of shamanistic cries and yips as words and notes. From the first episode, “Susanna soil flutter,” we are set loose in a dream.

The fascination of the jazz avant-garde with American folk materials and their complex significance goes back at least to the work of John Benson Brooks and his recordings of folk songs, first with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and then as part of his marvellous Alabama Concerto, crafting a four-part work from his work as a researcher for folklorist Harold Courlander (recorded with Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton, it’s an obscure marvel of 1958 jazz). More germane are George Russell’s marvellously dissonant and expressionist recording of “You Are My Sunshine” with Sheila Jordan (in 1962) and Patty Waters’ wonderful “Black (Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair),” from 1965. Songs plus context, inferences and contradictions, these suggest a necessary exploration that continues here, a search for roots and resonance as well as freedom, a becoming that moves backwards as well as forwards, part shock, part treatment.

Circulate Susanna , advancing the project, is both summoning of memory and a critique of its very possibility and authenticity, an investigation that probes the nostalgia at the heart of American experience (whether mere sentimentality or a profound longing for home—a mark of many first-rank American writers from Twain and Stein to Frederick Exley as well as American music, including the mawkish absurdity of Jolson’s “Mammy”: “ My heartstrings are tangled around Alabammy.”) Smythe’s memories of his rural Illinois childhood and the ancient songs of Stephen Foster (once wonderfully summoned and placed by the poet Paul Haines in his “note” to Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity as “foster melodies of my foster mother,” displacement and substitution upon displacement and substitution) may trigger these visions; once one begins to listen to this music, however, any sense of fond memory disappears—it’s an invocation unseated and unsettling, as meanings emerge in the random intervals between guitar and piano, in the quavering electronics and vocal eruptions. It is the past without order, song singing out in an intense, shapeless present.

The more developed pieces are psychodrama. “Susanna Soil Flutter” is weighty dissonant chords, electronic orchestral percussion, and the first inklings of the fluid instrument that is Jernberg’s voice, one that will stretch through microtonal flights and pyrotechnic ululations. “Circulate Susanna” sounds like scat singing on helium, and “Heads gather the stars” sounds like a detuned piano in extended dialogue with guitar. The electronics are such that pitch will bend like silly putty, perhaps even like “electric fluid magnified.”

In his note, Smythe references “the 500 souls envisaged and executed in the haunting second verse of Foster’s ‘Oh! Susanna’” and there’s a track called “(Bullgine/lectric fluid magnified).” But Smythe obscures the full horror apparent there, the grimmest word in American English that shouts from that second verse, the “n” word that identifies those “souls” in this absurdist comedy:

“I jumped aboard de telegraph,
And trabbled down de riber,
De lectric fluid magnified,
And killed five hundred n-----.
De bullgine bust, de horse run off,
I really thought I'd die;
I shut my eyes to hold my breath,
Susanna, don't you cry.” (Wikisource)

To appreciate the full madness of that passage, from the song that made Foster America’s first full-time songwriter, a “bullgine” is generally defined as a steam engine, another mode of travel to add to the horse and the electric telegraph that transports and kills.

The final performance of Circulate Susanna may be the most disconcerting here: it’s a free deconstruction of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” the song that in Billie Holiday’s original version was the utter repudiation of all the clichés of minstrelsy that had endured so long in American song. Called here “To gather the wind” and its text a series of fragments—"And at the root…In the southern breeze…The gallant south”—it surrenders all the form, focus, and coherent effect of the Meeropol/ Holiday work for a scattered series of disconnected sonic bruises, breaks and contusions, a brutal conclusion to the very possibility of song.

It’s a bravely unattractive finale for what a fascinating verbal/musical probe, carrying the project to a conclusion at once as logical as it is dark, a music becoming inaccessible in the moment of its authentic recognition, a performance that will color, even contaminate, yet authenticate, any future hearing of the original. Circulate Susanna (what goes around comes around?) is a startling proposal. Smythe’s music is as arresting as it is challenging.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Jooklo Duo & Mette Rasmussen - Graz Live! (Insula Jazz, 2018) ****

By Nick Metzger

Graz Live! presents a 2016 live performance of the Jooklo Duo paired up with Mette Rasmussen. I’ve been eager to see a release from this combo for some time now, so when I saw this tape become available I contacted the Jooklos to obtain a copy they were nice enough to oblige. On that note I’ll come right out with it: this is a limited-edition-cassette-tape-only release with no download code. There is currently no way to get this bad boy onto your mobile device without some good old fashioned analogue-to-digital elbow grease. The last I looked there were copies for sale on Discogs, or you may want to contact Insula Jazz directly to obtain your own copy. The packaging is a simple j-card in a clear case (no compostable cassette tapes in hand-carved oak boxes with pressed lotus flowers here) and to be honest, the recording quality is pretty rough. But such is the life we’ve been dealt as enthusiasts of strange and rare music . . . Anyway, this release finds the Jooklo Duo providing a raucously psychedelic backdrop for Rasmussen’s pyrotechnics; think something in the lineage of The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing, but mutated and jacked up on steroids and HGH.

As the A side starts up Rasmussen alternates plaintive cries and whirlwind runs over Vazdan’s toms and cymbal wash beneath which Genta’s atonal synthesizer accompaniment invokes sci-fi atmospherics. Rasmussen pushes the intensity as the piece progresses, shrieking in staccato phrases over the groove that develops from the Jooklos which then dissolves into a sax/synth duo that juxtaposes percussive reed pops with wild synth probing. The group winds down the A side with an interlude of shaken bells, mbira, chimes, etc as Rasmussen drives her airy sax lines through the meditative veil stirred up by the Jooklos. The B side starts off with hand drums and Genta’s trance provoking circular breathing technique on sopranino saxophone. After building up a din for a several minutes Vazdan and Rasmussen join in and the piece explodes into a psychedelic kaleidoscope of rolling drums and saxophone skronk that carries a decidedly eastern feel. The second piece on the B side starts with more inquisitive sax and synth probing before taking off over Vazdan’s roiling percussion. Similar to the A side we get the synth/drums core of the Jooklos over which Rasmussen bursts, franticly screeching and honking in response to their wall of sound. Over last couple of minutes this winds down as Genta takes the foreground with her vivid synth wanderings to close the track.

This is a pretty satisfying (albeit short) listen and something that may not have seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for Insula Jazz taking the initiative to get it out there, and for that we thank them. Hopefully we’ll get a full length release from this combo in the near future, but until then this diamond-in-the-rough is a much appreciated (and decidedly tasty) appetizer.

Jooklo Duo with Mette Rasmussen, Magazzino sul Po, Torino, February 28, 2018:

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Cold Voodoo - AB+ (Wide Ear, 2018) ***½

By Stef Gijssels

Last year, we reviewed "Orion" by Im Wald, a dark and somber album by a quintet of young musicians. We find Tobias Meier, the band's altoist, back in this wonderfully intimate duet with Silvan Jeger on bass.

The Swiss duo creates a warm, intimate dialogue on the "A+" side, that becomes intense and agitated as it progresses, but without ever raising the voice of the instruments, which remain within a narrow tonal mid-range, like a conversation among friends that intensifies and slows down again yet never stops, without breaks or pauses: both instruments play constantly.

The "B+" side is much harsher, with Jeger using his bow, and Meier screeching in a higher register, but again with the same intensity, but now with more power and energy, relentlessly. The sound is more one of indignation than anger, more one of surprise than determination, leaving the interplay evolve in a clear and focused way, gradually toning down to a sense of calm resignation, recreating the warm atmosphere of the first track, with whispering sax and plucked bass.

The band's name is reflected in the musical approach on the two sides of the audio cassette. The musicians themselves describe it as a tension between "the physical presence of exhaustion on the one hand and of an external perspective and serenity on the other". And it works. Voodoo or not, the effect is enchanting.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Wolf Eyes Extravaganza (September 21-22, 2018, Café Oto, London)

Wolf Eyes (now and for many years consisting of Aaron Dilloway, Nate Young and John Olson) have sprung out of the dystopian American Midwest. Having absorbed all their metal, hardcore punk and free jazz influences, they channel them into something new, raw, and angry that we had to define it, only as a reduction, as noise. Letting the world know about their vision of a new music by millions of limiter run cassettes and cdr’s plus some vinyl, they managed to escape labels. By collaborating in the mid-00s with Anthony Braxton on the beautiful monster of an album called Black Vomit, they made it clear that genres were obsolete to them. By 2009’s Always Wrong their music could easily be described as modern blues, with cathartic lyrics about the gutter of our feelings taking a stand. Since then, they have been forging bonds with what we could call (my definition) the outer limits of free rock like in 2013’s No Answer-Lower Floors. As always playing live is a totally different beast, one that can easily devour a musician and sometimes the audience as well. This is pretty much the reason I was so eager to catch them live for the first time.

It’s been two years since I last visited the heavily gentrified area of Dalston and from now on I’m crossing my fingers that Oto will be able to hang in there. The prices around the area seem to be skyrocketing. Good old capitalism, I guess. The three day residency at Café Oto seemed like an extravaganza of like minded artists. I managed to catch the first two days. The second day, Saturday, was sold out but I guess that even on the day before the place was packed. And it was nice to see some weirdos (no, I do not mean myself) instead of the usually hip crowd of Oto.

The opening set of Vicky Langan and Aaron Dilloway did not deliver. Even though they both tried hard by switching knots and pushing contact microphones to their limits, like static, it lacked energy. The guys from the Wolf Eyes were up next for a small set, but they decided not to play safe (by just giving us a “casual” Eyes show), a decision that went for Saturday as well. So it was an expanded version of Wolf Eyes, the Universal Eyes (an offshoot of Wolf Eyes with members of the band Universal Indians), along with Gretchen Davidson. I strongly believe that this is the core of a live version: presenting a new image, an altered one, something different. Their sound was huge. Nate Young was a dominant figure with vocals coming out the belly of the beast while Olson's sax shrieked between notes and an amorphous maze of noise. Yes, yes, I know, free jazz. Aaron, always the quiet presence, along with Davidson, provided an elastic electro-acoustic mayhem. It was cathartic at times.

The Universal Eyes stayed on. They must have liked it as much as the audience. Now it was with the duo of Elvin Brandhi and Gwilly Edmondez, the Yeah You. Having never heard them before, I’m not sure I got the right idea (if there’s such a thing) of what they exactly do. But, certainly they blended and reacted with the quartet of Universal Eyes amazingly. This six piece performance was the highlight of the two days. Many times, it seems that collaborations tend to suck out each other’s energy. Quite the opposite that night. The visions of six people, two different groups of musicians came together to form a new kind of ecstasy, some kind of transcendence. A psychedelic jungle maybe. Their forty minute set seemed to last forever, constantly climaxing until the very last second. A wonderful chaos.

The second day started with a DJ-set by Vicky Langan, and I must admit that she performed much better through this than the day before. I really enjoyed the weirdness of her set and how it was constructed to prepare us for what was about to come. For some reason, though, her set lasted very long. When the guys from Triple Negative finally took the small stage on Oto, I realized that probably they were just late. There seemed to exist some tension between them and those situations, very often, produce fruitful results. Well, not this time. Their performance was a mix of rock poses on guitar, a wind instrument that was literally inaudible and some piano with lyrics that were taking off on their own. Believe me, I have nothing against cacophony (quite the contrary) but this was not working and, disappointingly, there was little unity and collectiveness between them and the audience. Pretty disappointing.

The Universal Eyes returned for the last performance of the day. Saturday was the day of more rhythm and less noise. Young started off with some poetry, as he pointed out. I had the image that it was part two, like side b of the same record. Having heard side a just yesterday. It was less fun, more serious, more like an angry choice of words and sound. I would say that the term modern blues is more suitable for that performance. The pulsating, rhythmic monster of their sound was gradually hovering, going up and down in terms of volume, becoming a solid entity at the end. There was no catharsis on the second day but more movement of the bodies.


Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Markus Stockhausen – Eternal Voyage/Live (Okey Records, 2018) ****

By Nick Ostrum

I came to this album not knowing what to expect. Given the name Markus Stockhausen (which, I admit with some embarrassment, I know only because of his earlier work with his father), I figured the recording would somehow fall under the rubric of progressive new music. Beyond that, however, I had few preconceptions. My first listen was a surprise.

As the title indicates, this is a live extension of an earlier project that released the first Eternal Voyage nearly a decade ago. The musicianship – particularly Stockhausen’s perfectly crisp flugelhorn - is impeccable. The contemporary classical elements are there, but they are interspersed among heavy threads of world music and jazz. At first listen, I had trouble listening beyond the eastern and new age fusion that initially came through quite strongly. On subsequent listens, however, I was better able to hear just how precise, warm, and moving this performance was. Personnel include Alireza Mortazavi on santur, Hindol Deb on sitar, Tara Bouman on clarinet, Rabih Lahoud on vocals, Bodek Janke on tabla and percussion, Jara Singla on keys, and, of course, Stockhausen himself.

“September Song” (not the Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson song) opens the album with a slow, churning swell that gives way to Stockhausen’s horn around the four-minute mark. This transforms the piece into an ethereal meditation riding atop a catchy, undulating theme. Many of the tracks - “Morning Breeze,” “Avanti,” “Alireza,” – involve similar build-ups, unison harmonics, and driving percussive rhythms that propel the pieces through a dreamlike tapestry of strings and piano augmented by fleeting clarinet and horn runs. There is rarely silence, but the dominant melodies frequently ebb into a dynamic softness that allows each instrument its own space to tenderly shine. “Undercover,” the second track, is one of the barest, most concise, and most effective pieces on the album. It consists of Bouman’s simple, utterly beautiful bass clarinet played over interlacing sitar and santur of Deb and Mortazavi.

The two most powerful tracks, however, come near the end. The aptly titled fifth track, Lösung (German for solution or resolution), begins with a pensive, almost listless dialogue between Bouman, Stockhausen, and Deb. As Sindla, Janke, and Mortazavi join, they provide the rhythm on which the dialogue transforms into a mellifluous leitmotif. Lahoud has an unmistakable presence throughout the album. Nevertheless, he shines particularly strongly on this track, especially in the stunning outburst of emotion that propels the track to its peak right before the eight-minute mark. The final piece, “Alameyn,” (presumably named after the town in northern Egypt) is equally emotive. The theme, again, is simple, but precise and billowing. Lahoud begins the track softly and mournfully. He is soon joined by a ghostly bass clarinet, sparse percussion, and tender piano. As the tabla enters, the track slowly gathers momentum as Lahoud and Stockhausen trade the spotlight, interweave, and drive the piece to a particularly impassioned climax.

In line with its title Eternal Journey, this album is a meandering and open but nevertheless coherent. Admittedly, it does not have the jaggedness I am used to. Even with all of the album’s experimentation (the album consists of primarily of improvisations on short composed themes), there are few instances of dissonance, few places wherein musicians wander too far from the trajectory. Still, with each play, I appreciate these features as feats rather than deficiencies a little more. This type of fusion does not always work. Here, however, it does. For me, it just took a couple of extra, deeper listens.

This album can be purchased directly from Markus Stockhausen’s website .

Monday, November 5, 2018

Kuzu - Hiljaisuus (Astral Spirits, 2018) *****

By Martin Schray

In yesterday’s interview, Tom Burris highlighted drummer Tyler Damon and rightfully praised him as one of the most promising musicians at the moment. His collaborations with guitarist Tashi Dorji are especially examples of outstanding resourcefulness. As a duo they’ve been playing together since 2015, both coming from a punk subculture background (hardcore for Dorji, skateboarding and punk rock for Damon). That’s why it’s no wonder that loudness, a certain DIY attitude, furiousness and intensity are key elements of their music. Their previous works, Leave No Trace: Live in St. Louis and Both Will Escape, which both received 5-star-reviews on this site, are perfect examples of this. With Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, the two have already expanded the duo format before and the results were an equally excellent self-titled album as well as the wonderful To the Animal Kingdom.

When Damon moved to Chicago, teaming up with local saxophone wizard Dave Rempis seemed to be a logical move, and it turned out to be the proverbial match made in heaven. On Kuzu’s debut LP, which was recorded in 2017 at Elastic Arts in Chicago, Rempis fits perfectly in Dorji’s and Damon’s vortex-like dynamic.

The music on Hiljaisuus is a game of recurring structures. Harmonic islands consisting of staccato and repetitive patterns are used as springboards and fixed points for further improvisation. “Fontanelles 1“, for example, starts with bowed cymbals and arpeggiated guitar chords before Rempis creeps into this structure with mournful lines reminding me of a wounded to death Peter Brötzmann playing John Coltrane’s “Alabama“. Dorji breaks up this structure and after seven minutes the trio reaches a first peak of intensity, with Damon playing dark, almost cymbal-free rolls. Soon Dorji and Rempis agree on one of these aforementioned repetitive unison patterns, they cling to it and open it up as soon as it seems useful. Dorji’s cold, metallic, and percussive tone is often foiled by Rempis’ and Damon’s extreme emotionality - contrast and imitation being further creative tools the trio makes use of. This way, Rempis, Dorji, and Damon invent an enormously tight pallet of sounds, energy being another compositional constituent. In “Gash“, the last of three tracks, the trio generates a constant ebb and flow, starting from coarse chopping that builds a massive, compact wave of sound creating an atmosphere that is tense to the breaking point. Finally, the piece returns to the beginning of “Fontanelle 1“, where everything started.

Hiljaisuus is the Finnish word for silence, but the music on this album is the most eloquent silence you’ve ever heard. In yesterday’s interview Tyler Damon said that Kuzu was planned as a one-off. Let’s hope that the album sells well so that there might be further tours and recordings. It’s one of my favourite albums this year and not only for fans of Last Exit and The Thing feat. Thurston Moore I’d say it’s a definite must have.

Hiljaisuus is available on vinyl and as a download. You can listen to the album and buy it here:

Watch Kuzu live here:

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Free Jazz Collective Interview: Tyler Damon

Tyler Damon
By Tom Burris

Tyler Damon is a lifelong percussion student and a master craftsman – and a collaborator in the truest sense of the word. In three years I've seen this man present ideas and techniques I never imagined anyone could extend or advance – and he's often done exactly that himself within the span of a few months. This isn't just empty hyperbole. I've seen him do it! The first time I saw Damon play he was “onto something really great,” as I remember saying to my friend Nick while the band was packing up. The second time I saw him – which couldn't have been more than a few months later - he was already there. And this rate of growth is still happening on the regular. There may be a legendary deal with the devil in there somewhere, but I don't have that story here – and I don't really wanna know anyway. Most subsequent experiences have left me shaking my head in disbelief, wondering if there will ever be a wall big enough to contain the guy. And there isn't any particular style you can pin on him either. Hell, you'll see him laying down the sort of righteous hippie clomping that every soft-spoken Hoosier hayseed gargles White River bong-water to – and then at the very next gig he comes off like a one-man spastic kitchen percussion orchestra. And while variety and technique are important, how many drummers do you know who can make the sky sleet silverware and still be 100% dedicated to a work of collaborative improvisation with other sentient beings? The creation of the collaborative work is The Most Important Thing, no matter how dazzling the musicianship. That his stick-work never overpowers his cohorts is paramount. Everything Damon plays is about collaboration and creation. And maybe I'm wrong, but if there isn't a musical statement to be made or sought out, I'd expect him to just not play. But as he's always in search of the next frontier, don't expect him to sit anything out in the near future. Or possibly ever, if our luck holds out.

The following conversation topics include (but are by no means limited to):
Circuit des Yeux, Astral Spirits, Dave Rempis, Tashi Dorji, Muyassar Kurdi, Daniel Carter, skateboarding, Darin Gray, Marvin Tate, Thee Open Sex, Chicago, Bloomington

FJB: What was it that finally made you go ahead and make the move to Chicago? 'Coz I've been bugging you about it for at least two years...

Tyler Damon: I'd been thinking about it for at least that long. I mean there were a lot of things. There was no great straw that broke the camel's back. I mean playing with Circuit des Yeux has put me in a position where I'm pretty plugged in with work immediately. We're still in an album cycle right now so that'll taper off at some point – not just for me, but for all of us – and it's been a bit amorphous. Like back in November and January when we did some dates, Cooper Crain was in the band but he also put out a Bitchin' Bajas album around the same time so they're sort of on an album cycle with that too. We have Andrew Scott Young from Tiger Hatchery and a host of other projects playing bass – I really love playing with Andrew & I'm sure we'll do some improv in the near future, I hope. Whitney Johnson (Matchess) has been playing viola & Whitney is no real stranger to the improv world – and Haley (Fohr), for that matter, has always had one foot in that (outer) world too. So that felt like a really good foray into Chicago. Y'know, I really don't have a permanent place to live here right now so maybe this interview will help me find one! People have been very kind and welcoming – but I'm still getting my footing. I don't know. I feel like I've been in this transitional period as a human being for two or three years. I feel like I'm getting away from your main question, but basically the main catalyst was not having a whole lot of reasons to stay in Bloomington (Indiana) & having more work in Chicago.

Tell me a bit about the new trio with Dave Rempis and Tashi Dorji...

...the Kuzu thing – I mean, at the time that was just a one-off. Tashi and I both love Dave; we love his playing and we love him as a person. I was playing duo with him. Dave did that solo CD Lattice and that tour where he basically traveled around... (I interrupt like an idiot. Turns out Tashi also played a duo set w/ Dave on that tour in Asheville, where Dorji lives.) So both of us were sort of familiar, beyond just being friends, so it seemed like the next logical step.

So when was it decided to pursue Kuzu as a project?

When that recording that Dave Zuchowski did turned out so good! I'm sure it was sort of bubbling in the back of our minds “yeah, this is something we should consider” but when Astral Spirits wanted to do an LP of that stuff... that one was really easy. There's a mobile recording studio that Dave does along with his partner Wendy and it's multitrack so it's mixable, which is a huge step up from the typical Zoom improv recording. People might not know but the Mette Rasmussen trio stuff that Tashi and I did is a Zoom recording. I mean, a lot of records are. I think that's sort of a “scene secret”. There are some mastering engineers that do some remarkable work, like Lasse Marhaug, who made the To The Animal Kingdom record with Mette and Tashi sound the way it does.

The first time I saw you play was with Keith Jost at the Spot. You were opening for...

Rosaly and Rempis! That show sticks out in our minds because of the crowd that night.

Yeah, everybody was bunched around Rempis and Rosaly.

Yeah, that whole vibe was much more like a rock concert than it was a typical improv chin scratcher. That's not a dig, but you know... the energy was quite different.
[ Watch a short clip from this show]

How long prior to that show had you been out playing improv? 'Coz I know you'd been out doing rock band stuff with Open Sex...

I consider Open Sex to be an improv group.

(Backpedaling) Well it is kinda improv but it's also structured too, like Velvet Underground rehearsal tapes or something.*

Haha, yeah – you're not wrong. It's working within a stricter set of parameters than most free improvisation. But for that reason I think it's hard for me to really pinpoint the moment... I think I started doing it when I was college. I used to be really heavily into skateboarding – street skateboarding, in particular. Well you can do that alone. Or you can do that with a group of people – and you can collaborate as much or as little as you want and you can sort of carve your own path out. I feel like skateboarding has shaped my outlook in a way that has led to this point. And so it's hard to define the moment, aside from thinking about when I quit skateboarding due to injuries. I decided if I wanted to keep drumming I couldn't keep breaking my appendages. Or bruising my tailbone or worse! When I was in my mid to late teens it became clear that these were my two things (skateboarding and drumming) that I'm into doing and that I might actually be able to take somewhere. But then it became pretty clear that you can skateboard for how long? I'd be waaay past my prime at this age – I'm 31 – but I can keep drumming. So the choice seemed simple. And drumming can cause those long-term injuries but you're probably not gonna break your arm doing it.

Yeah, you're not likely to do something that won't allow you to play drums anymore.

Hopefully! But yeah, I feel like these two paths coalesced in a way. And how I felt about skateboarding - and everything that came my way when I was out in the street doing that - bled into my drumming practice. And then when you realize that there's a whole world of people out there doing it ( improvisation) and expanding on what your idea already was about that is really empowering, I think.

What was it like when you realized that there were other people doing that? Did that blow your mind?

Yeah, but... I think the first proper recording of free jazz or improvised music I listened to was Ornette's Free Jazz album; and that's only because somebody in my middle-of-nowhere library in southeastern Indiana had curated the cd collection to have things like that album, Captain Beefheart, Mothers of Invention, things like that... 'coz I was already pretty dialed into punk and metal and all of the subgenres thereof. I felt like I was moving onto the next level of “being extreme” or something but in retrospect it seems I was just interested in finding something that allowed for a broader range of expression. Y'know, in metal there's not a lot of room for this other emotional content.

Right. That's a good way of putting it.

Y'know, for better or worse, I appreciate all sorts of forms and formalism but I think that when I realized that was a possibility and it started to bend my ear in this other way – because I was recognizing maybe... I don't know. New patterns start to emerge in everything. When it ceases to be purely mystical, maybe you can see the process. Or you become more aware of a theory of how people are even approaching this kind of playing because you read about it or you become aware of certain players. You start to recognize individual styles. Or even strange idiomatic kinds of things that start to pop up like “What is considered Free?” Which is inevitable. I was sort of like a stubborn child in some ways and always wanted to things this other way. No matter how tried and true this method was... even though I'm right-handed, maybe I'll try it left-handed from the outset because I'm stubborn and contrarian in this certain way. The short answer to all of that would be that sometime around college I got burnt out on technical playing and unnecessarily complicated music. So my boss and friend at the record store,** Heath Byers, gave me a Cold Bleak Heat*** cd called It's Magnificent But It Isn't War and that was the closest thing I'd heard at the time that less spazzy and formal in its way than, say, the early Hella records. That must've been 2005, 2006 maybe?

How old were you when you started playing drums?

I got my first drum at ten but I don't think there was any point in my life when I wasn't drumming on something. There's at least one photograph of me kind of like in this little circle way where I have all of these pieces of toys and furniture from around the house and maybe I've got a pencil and a chopstick.

Was there any particular music that inspired you initially?

I'm not sure. My parents got me started early on my own record collection because I think they understood that I needed my own music. They understood that generationally and individually. My dad comes to shows now. He saw Peter Brotzmann. It's cool. To get back to your question though, the first CD I ever chose and purchased myself was Pearl Jam's Vitalogy. I guess I was eight to ten years old. Before that I was just getting things from the library.

The library saved my life. That's small town Indiana stuff.

It was the Cincinnati Public Library though. It wasn't until middle school that I wound up in Indiana. That's just one example. I can remember my dad bringing me Sonic Youth's Experimental Jet Set Trash & No Star from the library. And Nirvana.

I want to talk about the duo of you and Tashi. When was the first time you played and how did that happen?

Some people I knew in Bloomington had brought him to my attention. Some other friends had met him on tour & said I should check (his music) out. It really struck me – a lot. So I wrote him and said “I'm really into your playing. Hope we can play together sometime” - something to that effect. I don't know if Tashi saw a video of me or heard the first solo tape I did, but it ended up working out where he was coming through Lexington around March 2015 & he invited me to play a few shows. Lexington was the first one and Lafayette was the second one.

And that was amazing. I thought you'd been playing together forever.

Yeah, you were at that one too! You'd probably know better than anyone what's going on with this duo. Probably better than Tashi and I.

I doubt it.

You definitely witnessed it in a way that I'll never be able to see it.

I definitely felt like I was at the right place at the right time, that's for sure.

That Lexington one was at the Green Lantern Bar and I played solo & Tashi played solo and then we played a short duo that I put out (a recording of) in a really small CD-R run called First Meeting. It's also on Bandcamp. I wanna say that Robert Beatty**** recorded that. I'm not sure because I don't think I credited him when I put it out. Anyway, that was the first time and I felt really ecstatic after that. Like “I can't wait to do this as much as possible!” To know that two nights later I'd get to do it again, my mind was completely racing about it and I just had that many more ideas and saw that much more potential. To even have the second night to think about it and actually not play...

On earlier free music performances...

I was playing improvised (music) since 2010 or something. But not in a way that felt like (I was) where I wanted to be, so I wasn't taking it out very much. I was playing with Darin Gray***** already and that was a big one for me as well. Darin and I haven't been able to get together the way that we've wanted to the last 2 or 3 years, but there will be more of that in the future too. I really, really like playing with Darin as well. It's a similarly exciting experience. And I think that was probably where I cut my teeth in a way that made me feel like I could bring that to the public sphere and not feel like I was way under where I wanted to be or something.

You were doing shows with Keith Jost when I first encountered you.

Yeah, that was another regular thing I was doing before (playing with) Tashi. For about maybe a year. But he relocated to New York / New Jersey & then was back in Bloomington for awhile but he then transitioned pretty heavily into writing. And I think he's actually back in New York again now doing a lot of writing. I miss doing that though; it was a lot of fun.

How did you go about doing that cassette last year with Daniel Carter?

That was arranged through my friend, Muyassar Kurdi. She's from Chicago, lives in New York now. The first improv show I ever played up here in Chicago she set up for me. I played solo on that occasion. It was at the Hungry Brain before it reopened.

Oh wow. Just throw you right in.

Yeah, Marvin Tate was on the bill too, which... super heavy cat. So that's actually what I remember most about that show, Marvin Tate. Great. So after Muya moved to New York, Tashi and I had played a tour out there & that's where we were ending and were heading back to Asheville. Muya set up this little session in her dance studio, Woods Cooperative, in Queens. And from what I understand, I don't know Daniel super well – I mean, my experience with him was absolutely wonderful – but I think he plays all day every day. His calendar is just full of music, wherever that may be and whoever that may be with. I mean, he was just really open. He was super cool. It was cool to be brought into the fold in that way & I felt really humbled by it – and it changed my playing, y'know? That's how I feel about it.

Touring. What do you have coming up?

I've got some more Circuit des Yeux stuff as the year goes on & that will be cool for sure. There will be a Texas-only tour for Kuzu in August.

I noticed all the dates were Texas. How did that happen?

Sonic Transmissions festival & Astral Spirits. (Both are based in Austin.) Sonic Transmissions I understand to be Ingebrigt Håker Flaten's festival and it sort of happens over a period of month serially. So it just worked out that we could be there for it in August and then we decided to rent a car and see if we could build some dates around that. The great drummer Dane Rousey from San Antonio helped out and is gonna play some of the shows as well. I don't think Tashi has ever been to Texas so it's interesting to think that we're gonna go there and play 4 or 5 shows. I think we're playing in Beaumont, which is the most interesting to me.

Are you an official member of Circuit des Yeux now?

Well it' s Haley's outfit so the structure of the band is at her discretion. I recorded on the last record and that went great. But Haley may be working on something right now, I don't know what, but I'm not currently recording with them or anything. I am given a lot of liberties in terms of what I play. I very much feel that I was invited to be a part of Circuit des Yeux for my playing, which feels really nice. That's evident to me about the other players in the band so I'm making an assumption about myself!

Rempis, Dorji & Damon have just wrapped up their U.S. Tour (and played in more places than Texas) & the debut Kuzu LP, Hiljaisuus, is out now on Astral Spirits.

Also released Summer/Fall 2018:
Soft Berm cassette on Magnetic South w/ Tashi Dorji
Full Yum cassette on Park 70 w/ Dave Rempis
White Horses LP on Sophomore Lounge w/ Thee Open Sex

and finally Tyler Damon on the Free Jazz Blog

*I saw Thee Open Sex play in August and on that occasion they sounded a bit like the Butthole Surfers covering Amon Duul. One chord for a solid hour that was mostly peaks with maybe a couple of minute-long valleys.
**Landlocked Music, Bloomington, IN
***Mid-2000s Out/Improv supergroup consisting of Matt Heyner, Chris Corsano, Paul Flaherty, Greg Kelley.
*****bassist with Jim O'Rourke, On Fillmore, Tweedy, Yona-Kit