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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Music Unlimited 33: Celebration 40.60.80

By Eyal Hareuveni

Wels Austria, Nov. 8-10

The 33rd edition of the Austrian free Unlimited Music introduced a new curator model - tripling the one that serves the festival every two years, offering a program edited by German pianist Magda Mayas, Japanese guitarist and daxophone player Kazuhisa Uchihashi, and American sax legend Joe McPhee, respectively, 40, 60 and 80 years young. This year's program suggested unusual and ad-hoc meetings, outfits that rarely tour and a fascinating spectrum of vocal artists.

First Night, Nov. 8

The opening performance by Mayas' 8-piece international, acoustic Filamental ensemble was a brave choice and clear declaration about the experimental focus of the festival’s edition. Mayas assembled her dream outfit - two harpists playing huge concert harps, American Zeena Parking and British Rhodri Davies; herself on the prepared piano, in a way another harp-shaped string instrument; two cellists, Mexican Aimée Theriot and Australian, Berlin-based Anthea Caddy; violinist Angharad Davies, French alto sax player Christine Abdelnour and German clarinetist Michael Thieke. The score was based on minimalist photos and offered a great degree of freedom but demanded expressive detail, especially from the ever resourceful and inventive Parkins and Davies. The minimalist musical flowed organically with microtonal, transparent colors as if the whole ensemble was in a collective dream state, patiently gaining volume and power with minor eruptions that cemented its profound emotional power and delicate aesthetics.

As often happens with the Unlimited festival, each performance suggests a distinct, totally different atmosphere. Joe McPhee celebrated a week before the festival his 80th birthday and clearly he is gifted with a spirit that is not only young and rebellious but also the coolest one. Unfortunately, we were informed that he suffered from a toothache, and in his performances he focused on the tenor sax. His trio with British double bass master John Edwards and German drummer Klaus Kugel (which released earlier this year its sophomore album A Night In Alchemia, Not Two) demonstrated how the great legacy of American free jazz is still relevant, open and inclusive. McPhee’s wisdom and experience provided the trio the deep, poetic dimension, while Edwards’ sharp sense of rhythmic humor and Kugel’s powerful polyrhythmic patterns rounded this trio excellent performance. Sometimes, as McPhee says, you have to trust the music to provide its own rational that gravitated towards a deep emotional experience.

The next trio featured Siberian vocal artist Sainkho Namtchylak, American clarinet, shakuhachi and alto sax player Ned Rothenberg, who began his long-standing collaboration with Namtchylak in the mid-nineties (Amulet, Leo, 1996), and Austrian turntables wizard Dieb13 (aka Dieter Kovačič). Namtchylak covered her head with a red cup and sang-danced mysterious songs and chants, but the most fascinating aspect of this performance was how Rothenberg and Dieb13 orchestrated and framed her cryptic, eccentric vocalizations, Rothenberg in clever, sharp rhythmic ideas, and Dieb13 with ironic yet insightful orchestral layers. If Namtchylak insisted on walking on her very own space pathways, Rothernberg and Dieb13 acted as the pillars of her intergalactic arkestra.

Glacial
The first night concluded with a super energetic performance of the trio Glacial - ex-Sonic Youth, American guitarist Lee Renaldo, The Necks’ Australian drummer Tony Buck and New Zelander David Watson on bagpipes and electric guitar. This trio has been working on and off since 2012, but has released only one album so far, On Jones Beach (Three Lobed Recordings, 2012), but has enough kinetic energy to ignite many hurricanes. The odd instrumental combination of distorted, mutated and tortured guitar sounds, bagpipes wails and ritualistic, powerful drumming made perfect sense in that late time of the night and sounded as liberating the accumulated energy of the previous sets into a cleansing, secular ceremony. In a strange way, this set had a similar hypnotic power as the legendary live performances of The Necks.

Second Day, Nov. 9

In the six years that I visit this festival, I have never seen so many people flocking to the one of the afternoon free performances, but this afternoon all had very sound reasons. In the beautiful acoustic ambience of the medieval Minoriten the three curators - Mayas on the prepared piano, McPhee on tenor sax and white, plastic alto sax, and Uchihashi on daxophones and electric guitar, performed for the first time ever together, with no rehearsal or much of talking before. Mayas, McPhee and Uchihashi developed instantly subtle and highly poetic dynamics. The almost transparent sounds of the prepared piano were intensified by the almost-human vocalizations of the daxophones and the wise and emotional cries of McPhee. This trio sounded as ready to hit the road and just beginning to explore its great potential.

Saxophonist Rasmussen and turntables master Dieb13
The small hall of Wels’ Medien Kultur Haus was too small to populate all who wanted to see the duo of Danish sax player Mette Rasmussen and turntables master Dieb13. The two performed before as a duo in another Austrian festival, St. John’s Artacts, and both collaborated before in the ensembles of Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark. Their set was devised as a playful narrative that juggles with acoustic and electronic sounds, beginning with both marching-acting-playing into the room with speakers, continuing with Rasmussen dives deeper and deeper into her free jazz blows and wails while Dieb13 splices, edits and orchestrates the music in almost symphonic manner, with many playful, ironic interventions, The performance concluded with Dieb13 playing an old gramophone, and a vinyl with a toy pickup truck spinning on it while Rasmussen plays-speaks through the speaker in what looked and sounded like a heartfelt homage to sonic installations of Christian Marclay.
The night performances began with ad-hoc trio of Japanese vocal and performance artist Ami Yamasaki, Abdelnour on alto sax and Austrian drummer Katharina Ernst. Yamaskai set the tone of this set with her theatrical way of telling vivid, associative stories in her very own charming and always elegant private language. Abdelnour intensified the sonic envelope with her urgent blow and dense tones and Ernst framed this playful train of free associative, highly articulate vocalizations with clever, minimalist touches that kept this train visiting many exotic locations.

Rodrigo Amado’s This Is Our Language
Portuguese sax hero Rodrigo Amado’s This Is Our Language quartet - Amado and McPhee on tenor saxes, Kent Kessler on double bass and Chris Corsano on drums, concluded its European tour in Wels. The quartet’s sophomore album is titled A History of Nothing (Trost, 2019) but its performance was graced with plenty of ecstatic music, informed by the spiritual Afro-American jazz and the European schools of free-improv. The pains of McPhee and the recent passing of Amado’s father, painter Manuel Amado whose painting graced few covers of his son's albums, added a strong strain and vulnerability and often a sense of abandon, mainly due to the fierce, punkish drumming of Corsano, to the music. All these conflicting experiences contributed to one of the emotional peaks of the festival.

After a short break the Lebanese ‘A’ Trio - trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, double bass player Raed Yassin and acoustic guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, took the stage by storm, shortly after Kerbaj informed the audience that their hearts are in Beirut, in solidarity with their fellow-citizens demonstrating against the corrupt regime. None of the three musicians plays his instrument in any conventional manner. Kerbaj attaches different pipes to the trumpet’s mouthpiece and other objects to its bell, while holding the trumpet between his knees. Yassin’s bass is laid on a chair and he bows Tibeten bowls laid on its wooden body or bowing the bass strings with two bows, one held by its teeth, and likewise Sehnaoui plays his guitar with assorted metallic objects. The trio recent album, AAMM (Al Maslakh, 2018 and Unrock, 2019), was recorded with British pioneer free-improv AMM ensemble, and its performance demonstrated this trio unique brand of spontaneous improvisation. The trio played with great sense of urgency, power and invention, always searching for new sounds and challenging dynamics, and total demanding physical commitment. The uplifting emotional power of this trio gained long standing ovation.

This night closed with Mahanyawa - the Javanese duo Senyawa - Rully Shabara on vocals and Wukir Suryadi on the stringed bamboo pipe Bambuwukir and flutes, augmented by Uchihashi on electric guitar and daxophones. This trio already released a collaborative project on Uchihashi’s label, Innocent Records in 2015. The program promised a meeting of traditional, tribal sounds, doom and punk attitude and delivered the exact recipe. There was something liberating in the wild and reckless ethno-metal eruptions of this trio and the enigmatic rap of Shabarai, the mysterious, buzzing sounds of Suryadi and the possessed playing of Uchihashi sounded bigger and certainly louder than Senyawa or Uchihashi apart.

Third Day, Nov. 10

Hermione Johnson
The afternoon performances were located in the picturesque Christian institute Bildungshaus Schloss Puchberg. New Zelander, classically-trained, pianist-composer Hermione Johnson played a solo set on prepared piano. Johnson, dressed as a medieval fairy, planted wooden sticks between the piano strings and by caressing these stick gently extracted delicate, beautifully resonating humming sound, that had immediate, meditative effect. Later, her hammering on the piano keys yielded sounds that were informed by electronic music syntax. This magnificent set kept introducing surprising, magical timbres of the piano and left many attentive listeners wishing to see more and more of Johnson.

The second performance brought together the Berlin-based duo of German vocal artist-sound poet Ute Wassemann and American Andrea Parkins on interactive electronics and electric accordion. If the first set put a hypnotic spell on the audience, this one struggled with the dense, too warm and too humid room, and rarely took off. Wassermann demonstrated her impressive, operatic vocal range while Parkins heroically attempted to find the right frequencies to Wasserman’s flights. There are free-improv meeting that are interesting by their stubborn attempts to fail better, again and again, and I guess that this was one of these cases.

The evening performances began with Joe McPhee’s Special Wels Ensemble, featuring himself on tenor sax, Rasmussen on alto sax, Austrian Irene Kepl on violin, Arnold ‘noid’ Haberl on cello, and Belgian Dennis Tyfus on electronics (he designed the basic version of the poster of the festival). McPhee let Rasmussen and Kepl lead this set that surprised all by its profound sensual appeal. McPhee contributed few beautiful solos that distilled his seminal influence and his role model on these young musicians, as well on the appreciative audience.

The longest working band that participated in this edition of the Unlimited festival was the Japanese Altered States - Uchihashi on electric guitar, Yasuhiro Yoshigaki on drums and Mitsuru Nasuna on electric bass, who celebrates this year its 30th anniversary of playing-improvising with “no concept”. The trio was augmented by German Frank Gratkowski on alto sax and bass clarinet. Altered States, true to its name, moved and morphed fast between segments that referenced the seventies fusion aesthetics - with guitar licks and drumming that brought memories of Santana and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and free, abstract improvisations. But, eventually, this set stressed the strong, energetic personalities of Uchihashi and Yoshigaki with the solid basis of Nasuna, who felt to search, explore and have great fun in collective, organic improvisation. Gratkowski tried to fit into this fast-shifting flow of ideas but only occasionally integrated into Altered States interplay.

Next, another ad-hoc meeting of three experienced and distinct improvisers, meeting on stage for the first time - New York-based vocal artist Shelley Hirsch, British drummer Roger Turner, and master of modular synthesizers and electronics Richard Scott. Hirsch led this set with her amusing Shinkansen of free-associative chat - speaking-singing in English, French and German about music, global politics and feminism, while Turner and Scott orchestrated her stream of ideas and phrases with fierce, kinetic energy and explosive noises. The ever resourceful Uchihashi joined this trio for its last segment and intensified its joyful energy. A provocative and most inspiring soundtrack to our sonic surroundings, already burdened with too much sonic and visual information.

This edition of the festival began with a very quiet performance but ended with a roaring one by the MOPCUT trio- Chinese-American, Berlin-based Audrey Chen on vocals and electronics, French Julien Desprez on electric guitar and Austrian Lukas König on drums and electronics. This trio released early this year its debut album, Accelerated Frames of Reference (Trost, 2019), and this title reflected perfectly MOPCUT’s live dynamics. Hyperactive, fast and reckless mix of ambient and noise with “exorcist qualities”, with Chen chanting-screaming-wailing, Desprez step dancing and assaulting the his guitar strings with his fists and König possessed by his manic rhythmic patterns, until total exhaustion.

Next year, same time of the year, same place.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Alan Tomlinson Trio - Inside Out (FMR, 2019) ****

By Nick Metzger

The great English trombonist Alan Tomlinson has been sharing his cheeky brand of free improvisation since at least the early 70's, playing alongside the likes of Peter Brötzmann, Barry Guy, Tony Oxley, Jon Corbett, David Toop, and many others. He's performed across Europe in this trio with Phillip Marks and Dave Tucker since 1992, but living in the cultural void that I live in, I wasn't aware of them until the release of their first album, 2017's "Out and Out" also on FMR which compiles live recordings from 2009-2016. Guitarist Dave Tucker spent the 70's involved in the Manchester punk scene before landing a gig with The Fall in the 80's, recording with the group on their album "Slates". He eventually transitioned to playing free music, in addition to producing music for television and dance, and has played with the likes of Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, and Barre Phillips to name just a few. His excellent group 'Velocity of Sound' includes Parker, Steve Noble, and John Edwards. Drummer Philip Marks has impressed me greatly on both releases by the trio, providing some of the most tasteful and energetic free jazz percussion you're likely to hear. He's provided his talents to ensembles including members like Derek Bailey, John Butcher, Evan Parker, and John Edwards and has released several albums with his group Bark! (the exclamation point is part of their moniker, I promise I'm not shouting at you). Here the listener is treated to a handful of solid improvisations by the trio (with one in quartet with bassist John Edwards).

Throughout the set Tomlinson expresses in a rough cut honking tone that pairs well with Tucker's slicing no-wave guitar sound. Prickly swells of mutant goose chatter emanate from his horn along with the obligatory salival sounds of free jazz trombone. Tomlinson utilizes the instruments' full potential, his playing not subdued in the least; on the contrary it faces you head-on, teeth gnashed like a rabid street dog. Marks' style here is reserved yet highly active, providing an excellent foil for the guitar and trombone. Almost every bit of background space is covered in the patter of skins and the splash of cymbals. Tucker's guitar playing resides somewhere between quintessentially English free jazz playing of Derek Bailey and the American avant-garde styles of Rudolph Grey and Thurston Moore. Very minimal effects on the guitar maybe just a bit of overdrive. On the title track, bass fiddle extraordinaire John Edwards joins the trio for a quarter hour romp that's arguably the best piece on the album. His playing really fills out the sound and his presence markedly increases the group dynamics, making for a piece that has more shading and nuance than the previous four.

All in all it's a very enjoyable album from a cast of players that have a long history in free improvisation. If you haven't heard the first Alan Tomlinson Trio release and like what you hear on this set then obviously you should pick it up as well, you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Tim Daisy's Vox 4 – Roman Poems (Relay, 2019) *****

By Tom Burris

First, a reintroduction of sorts is in order. Vox Arcana is now known as Vox 4, updating the longstanding trio of James Falzone (clarinet), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, electronics), and Daisy (drums, marimba, percussion) to include Macie Stewart of OHMME and Marker on violin and piano.
Did the trio need an upgrade? Not as far as I was concerned – until I heard this release. The fact that this is the finest Vox release to date speaks for itself.

Quietly opening this suite is “Prelude.” With hard mallets on toms, wood & cymbals, Daisy duets with Falzone for a minute and a half - when they become embroiled in a duel against the string section, the music leaning into atonal disarray but not succumbing to it. Macie and Fred make good on their threat exactly 43 seconds into the next track, “The Collector,” when they smash into Daisy & Falzone head-on. Things get quickly sorted out though, with Daisy swinging like Blakey underneath a wild solo from Falzone. Daisy locks in with Lonberg-Holm, who is finger-picking the cello's hard-bop bass line. Another full stop-and-start with Stewart's violin leading the way as Lonberg-Holm kicks into electroskreech mode. And as soon as you have a grip on that, the theme's head appears again to close out the track – before ramming itself right into the next one, another crash-bang-fire whack of freedom noise featuring Stewart & Lonberg-Holm in an apparent victory duet.

This track, “First Travels” is an even more interesting ride than its predecessor, as its reach is broader in both scope and length. The first section is the duet of Stewart and Lonberg-Holm, of course, which ends on a sweet-n-sour slathering of beehive droning. The second section looks down the other end of the hive; and it's all sunny, damp and strange, made up of marimba and wire holding up some kind of sculpture in mid-construction. We spend awhile studying the blueprints during Daisy's subdued marimba solo, later becoming a fascinating duet with Lonberg-Holm. Falzone circular-breathes a note before the full band enters, with Daisy at the drum kit & Lonberg-Holm again in the bass role, the third section of the track. The fourth section is the collapse of the third and the vision of the phoenix that is Fred Lonberg-Holm.

“Intermezzo” continues with the chaos instigated by the cellist, now joined by the rest of the band – including Stewart on piano, who injects clusters into the firestorm of the rhythm section (Daisy on drum kit, Fred on “bass” cello) relentlessly. Piano & clarinet pitter-pat w/ Daisy's tapping, with Stewart eventually opting out – beginning the next track, “Classic Vox,” recalling Steve Reich without all of the instruments bleeding in and out of each other. Vox's approach, as we've seen up to this point, is the stop-and-start. Chords aren't going to weave into being; they're going to crash into birth. Of course, the crash comes at the 1:15 mark. [I don't want to give the impression that this is like Naked City. Vox 4 is much more organic than that - but they do cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.] The remainder of the track takes you on a trip from Clarinet Chase Music to Flying Cutlery before dropping you off at a stop sounding not unlike the intro to “Prelude.”

“Litografi” begins with Daisy on marimba, in duet with Falzone, on a piece that sounds carefully composed – although one can never be sure with this band. Once Stewart (on violin) and Lonberg-Holm enter, the piece takes on a melancholy longing mixed with tension. It's at this point where it becomes obvious what a perfect musical match Stewart and Lonberg-Holm are, with her perfectly poised playing in the upper-register next to his everything-all-in approach. Bringing Macie Stewart into this group was a stroke of genius. Daisy's lone marimba closes this stunningly beautiful piece of music.

Closing the suite is the title track, named after the City Lights collection of Pier Paolo Pasolini's poems in their Pocket Poets Series. Daisy swings as Falzone plays the theme, followed by group improvisations that find Stewart, Falzone, and Lonberg-Holm jockeying for position at various points. The best bit is when it collapses around the three-minute mark with everyone contributing to a full-on shouting match that stops hard and begins abruptly with a solid-as-a-mountain drum solo from Daisy. The cheers of the crowd at the end jar me every time. It's such a perfect creation it's easy to forget this is was recorded in front of an audience. Bravo!

Monday, November 18, 2019

Denman Maroney, Jack Wright, Reuben Radding - Fuse (self-released, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

Jack Wright (saxophones) and Reuben Radding (contrabass) join Denman Maroney (hyperpiano) for six freely-played tracks across 63 minutes on this studio recording from 2005. Around that time, each musician was in the midst of collaborations that now characterize their careers thus far: Wright with Bhob Rainey, Bob Marsh, and Tom Djll; Radding with Daniel Carter and Nate Wooley; and Maroney with Mark Dresser, Ned Rothenberg, Hans Tammen, and Leroy Jenkins. Radding and Wright had just begun a rich run of live recordings the year before. And Radding and Maroney would later play together on Gaga and Udentity with Rothenberg and Michael Sarin (plus Dave Ballou on the latter). But this is the first recording with Maroney and Wright together. So Fuse offers a glimpse into this previously unreleased power trio during an especially fertile creative period for each of these musicians.

Maroney flits from melodic tunes ostensibly belonging to the jazz tradition to manic, muted, rapid rhythms on the keys to his idiosyncratic inside-piano work that can and does sound like an airplane flying too low to the ground, a broken jack-in-the-box, fireworks launching, clocks. He creates a beat by knocking on the wood, and uses cymbals or bowls inside the piano for more metallic percussion. Wright often sounds like Steve Lacy’s ducks, and draws attention to the limits of breath like Lacy does too, with short, petulant attacks. He’ll switch this up with long-held whistles. Occasionally a soulful note. And more breathy moments that sound like fluttering, farting, a toddler spitting on the cake trying to blow out the candles, or throwing sand. The tracks are sequenced in such a way that Radding seems to adapt to the timbral oddities of these two fellows. He begins with relatively pedestrian walking lines, then arco, then bow tapping, perhaps playing below the bridge, and eventually getting to creaking wood, violent plucks that slap the strings against the neck, and deep, resonant bowing during some moments towards the end. Each player is instantly receptive to the others’ shifts in timbre, rhythm, and dynamics, mimicking changes, tangentially building off of it, then returning. It’s more of a conversation than an environment.

The result is good old-fashioned free playing that feels like part of the American jazz tradition in its rhythms and tunes yet remains true to the characters of the individuals in its freewheeling timbres and structures. A welcome addition to Maroney’s recent archival releases from the mid-’00s that include last year’s excellent Bleu Boeuf with Barre with Barre Phillips and Unknown Unknowns with Leroy Jenkins and Rich O’Donnell.

Fuse is a digital-only release.

Denman Maroney has also self-released Solo @70 this year.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble - Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem, 2019) ****



By Martin Schray

Where the Future Unfolds is a live recording of a concert at the Garfield Park Conservatory at the Red Bull Music Festival in Chicago on November 15, 2018. What originally was started as a solo sound collage in which Damon Locks, an African-American musician and visual artist, has sampled the speeches of prominent figures of the civil rights era to create an improvised palette for performance on his drum machine, finally expanded into the full Black Monument Ensemble consisting of 15 musicians (among them Ben LaMar Gay and Angel Bat Dawid), singers (alumni of the Chicago Children's Choir) and dancers (members of the Chicago Youth Dance Company Move Me Soul). The result is something one might call political jazz in challenging times. Locks also contributed the album cover art and wrote all the lyrics and compositions. The idea for this project came to him in a special place - in a prison: in 2017, he gave art lessons to eleven convicts at a time when police violence and racial profiling in the USA were actually returning to the media focus (the most prominent one was the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson/Missouri, in 2014). Locks then went deep into African American history, he became interested in civil rights speeches - e.g. by Martin Luther King and Angela Davis - and used them as the basis for his musical project.

These spoken snippets give the album a militant edge, recalling interludes from the classic hiphop records, where speeches from activists were combined with funky grooves reminiscent of early albums by the Last Poets. Not only is the music an excursion into political activism and Afro-futurism, it’s also one into blues, gospel and the spiritual fire music of the 1960s. But the music is not only a hip retro project, it is rather astonishing how appropriately these quotations and the music represent the social state of the USA today. Lines like “Every morning there’s one cause of murder / every morning at least one lesser life / I see all the same things happen for my people / they tell the same line“ are gritty sentiments on the one hand but on the other they also radiate hope because they conclude with a call to action: “So we choose our next move / The time is now, it has always been / Respond anew / Pass the guard and get through, because some things never change.” In the way these statements from the 1960s can be sampled and re-organized, Locks’s album reminds us to have a look back at history and make sure that were not doomed to repeat it.

That’s why Where the Future Unfolds can be regarded as classical protest music. It speaks for the black community, it’s both musically and politically a statement about what is happening at the moment. W here the Future Unfolds sets the most beautiful monument to the self-empowerment of an Afro-American community in search of its roots in jazz. One can imagine this music as the soundtrack of a movement that has experienced its spiritual socialization with Archie Shepp, Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Public Enemy, Curtis Mayfield, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Marvin Gaye.

Where the Future Unfolds is available on vinyl and as a CD.

You can buy and listen to the album here:

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Xavier Charles - Impédance Clarinet Déluge (Remote Resonator, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk 

Impédance Clarinet Déluge is one half-hour track of overdubbed, multi-layered clarinet solos collaged from recordings cut in 2015 through 2017, performed and produced by multi-instrumentalist and composer Xavier Charles. It is his third solo release and, like Invisible (2010) and 12 Clarinets in a Fridge (2014), it emphasizes the moving air - especially breath - in the environment, whether it’s a pasture, a street corner, or a kitchen. All the sounds created by Charles went through the clarinet, whether out from in or in from out, with microphone placement sometimes in, sometimes out of the clarinet, with what I believe is accompaniment from birds and maybe bees, among other things. It serves as a succinct manifesto of Charles’ unique approach to sound, recording, and the clarinet that’s explored in his solo work.

Some sounds stay for some time, like a howling, white noise breath with a low-end pulse, a bee’s nest that could be many overdubbed clarinets or a hive but probably both, or a woody “woo-woo” siren. Some sounds are more transient, like rhythmic valve releases, something like the undulating resonant rimming of a crystal glass, a thrilling string symphony effect, drains, tablas, and crumpling from fetch across spit, what is probably birds, more recognizable clicks, wails, and blows from the clarinet, and some sections of split tones and multiphonics. Many more. It’s a soundscape of several layers cataloging extended technique for the clarinet with accompaniment from the recording environments. But whereas some such recordings might fall into ambience or feel static, Impédance Clarinet Déluge is thoroughly dynamic: volume from near-silence to deafening; register from tinnitus high to low enough to make most techno and hip hop producers jealous; pulse from rapid to flatline; and well-paced overdubbing of a menagerie of technique that doesn’t let sounds dwell too long or leave too soon.

It’s a satisfying continuation of Charles’ characteristic solo clarinet work, which by now should be considered as essential and exciting as the well-beloved Dans les arbres and Contest of Pleasures ensembles. It’s a kind of studio foil to John McCowen’s recent work demonstrating the dimensions of the clarinet through live performance in quartet, duo, and solo. Necessary listening for admirers of the instrument, and the quieter, extended-technique-based free playing that might be found from Michel Doneda, Stéphane Rives, and some echtzeitmusik musicians, among others.

Impédance Clarinet Déluge is a digital-only release.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Mette Rasmussen and Julien Desprez – The Hatch (Dark Tree, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

If one were to consider just the last few releases by these musicians covered on FJB, one would think they are coming from opposing corners of the free jazz world. Rasmussen, as covered here, comes from the 70s-inspired skronk which fit seamlessly into the heavy, punk rock of MoE . Desprez, for his part, came onto my radar in his deliciously noisy collaboration with Luís Lopes . On closer inspection, however, this collaboration is not the collision of opposing sub-subgenres that I had assumed. Rasmussen has collaborated with everyone from Chris Corsano ( here , here , and here ) to Alan Silva to, maybe most appropriate for this release, the guitarist Tashi Dorji . Desprez has performed with a similarly wide range of collaborators including fellow French musicians Benjamin Duboc and Eve Risser to Chicagoans Mars Williams and Rob Mazurek to Californian Larry Ochs. (Hat tip to The Bridge project for facilitating many of these transatlantic collaborations.) Both Desprez and Rasmussen, moreover, have worked in Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra , which masterfully marries the Scandinavian post-Ayler tradition with more contemporary avant-rock and post-punk aesthetics.

Although one might be able to anticipate the elements on The Hatch – the clicks and clatters, the boxy abstractions and the deep, heavy undercurrents, the moments of exuberant outbursts – their mixture and interactions make this album more than a aggregation of elements. Indeed, this is not just a meeting of young luminaries doing their own things in the same room but a true collaboration wherein Rasmussen and Desprez push each other to explore different sides of their instruments and abilities. Tracks range from the schizophrenic and clattery (Roadkill Junkies, Twin Eye, Black Sand) to the angularly delicate and droning (Clay on Your Skin) to the spacious, sibilant, and subtle (Offenders, Orange Plateau) to the gloomily spiritual (Matters of the Soul). In other words, this album runs the contemporary improv, extended technique, electroacoustic gamut with great curiosity and confidence and to great effect.

I am not really sure how to categorize the hatches they have spelunked here, or the musical offspring they have incubated. That said, the corridors they have discovered are rich and variegated; their creation, a deeply textured sonic wonder. Hopefully, The Hatch is not the last of the brood.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Astral Ascending - Astral Spirits at Five Years

By Lee Rice Epstein

When I saw that independent label Astral Spirits was celebrating its fifth anniversary, I felt certain we should run a small feature. For one thing, it’s remarkable that a label publishing releases at their volume (minimum 16 per year, in quarterly batches of four cassette/digital releases, plus limited-run digital, vinyl, CD, and cassette releases) has sustained a breathless pace of remarkable quality. We have tried (and mostly succeeded!) to cover as much of the label’s output as possible over the years, and several have turned up on our various year-end lists. To celebrate and reflect on the 110+ albums released on Astral Spirits and Astral Editions , we wanted to take a few days to talk about the label, its impact on the Austin scene specifically, and some of the recent and upcoming releases to take note of.

To capture the history to date of Astral Spirits, founder Nate Cross assembled a massive three-hour compilation, Astral Ascending, available as a digital download only (so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these exclusives made their way to limited pressings of some kind—as far as I can tell, the only format Nate hasn’t used yet is the cassingle, which would be perfect for one or two of these). What makes Astral Ascending a notable release is how deftly it captures the intangible qualities of the Astral Sprits sonic aesthetic. In a sense, the evolution of the label’s visual design has paralleled its growth from a self-proclaimed home for the new wave of heavy free jazz to something a bit more amorphous and exciting while no less new, heavy, or free. Skirting a traditional chronological format, the compilation combines previously released, soon-to-be released, and unreleased material with an ebb and flow that juxtaposes tracks like Claire Rousay’s “Lovers” with an unreleased duo recording of John Butcher and Ståle Liavik Solberg (who released a trio album with Pat Thomas earlier this year on Astral Spirits).

As a sampler of the people and sounds that make up the greater Astral Spirits community, many are highlighted, like Butcher and Solberg, in new and previously unrecorded configurations. For example, the compilation starts with drummer Quin Kirchner expanding his sextet to a nonet, on a live recording of “Together We Can Explore the Furthest Beyond” (the original appeared on his debut album). Similarly, Lisa Cameron and Sandy Ewen are featured in an excerpt from a recent live performance that highlights their impressive range. Astral Spirits regular Charles Rumback appears with a new quartet featuring Macie Stewart, Nick Macri, and the great Ron Miles. Several tracks later, Jaap Blonk, Jeb Biship, Damon Smith, and Weasel Walter blow the walls off Willimantic Records with a four-minute excerpt of a live show. And Fred Lonberg-Holm, Anton Hatwich, and Avreeayl Ra appear in an as-yet unreleased trio performance.

Several groups with albums coming out in late 2019 get a preview appearance, including Kobra Quartet, members of Komeshi Trio, and the duo of Nathan Alexander Pape & Patrick Breiner, whose debut Ground Air is out on Astral Spirits sub-label Astral Editions. The label serves as a preview, of sorts, for some of the more experimental groups. Violinist Macie Stewart reappears with cellist Lia Kohl, who released Pocket Full of Bees earlier this year on Astral Editions. A track from that album, “Toothpick Bicycle,” appears here with the promise of a full-length Astral Spirits release in 2020. Among the other 2020 releases teased in the liner notes, is one that’s sure to capture readers’ attention, a double album from Karl Evangelista, Alexander Hawkins, Louis Moholo-Moholo & Trevor Watts. The sample here, “FDT,” hints at the greatness to come on this album, which continues to build on the powerful partnership of Hawkins and Moholo-Moholo.

With over 30 tracks, and running several hours, there’s plenty to explore on Astral Ascending, for both newbies, casual fans, and the hardcore supporters. And here’s to the future of radical sounds, psychedelic artwork, and ecstatic experimentalism.

Free Form Freakout's FFFoxy Podcast Astral Spirits Feature



Astral Ascending digital release



Astral Editions subscription

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ilia Belorukov & Vasco Trilla - Laniakea (Astral Spirits, 2019) ***½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Astral Spirits describes prolific Russian, Saint-Petersburg-based sax player Ilia Belorukov and Portuguese-Catalan, Barcelona-based drummer Vasco Trilla as “two under-sung heroes of free improv”. Both Belorukov and Trilla like to experiment with different objects and sounds in order to reinvent and enhance the sonic range and imagination of their respective instruments - the alto sax, fluteophone,  Belorukov's electronics and Trilla's assorted percussion instruments. Laniakea was recorded at Vasco's studio in Barcelona on July 2017 and later mixed and mastered by Belorukov.

Laniakea follows Trilla’s trio Phicus' meeting with Belorukov, K(nо́)t (Intonema, Belorukov’s label, 2018), and like K(nо́)t it harnesses both musicians inventive extended techniques in favor of sketching fascinating microtonal drones ad sudden rhythmic patterns. The first three pieces are distinct, experimental drones. “Zud” is quiet and one that employs extended breathing techniques and delicate rubbing of skins and frames, all suggest a kind of extraterrestrial, rich yet monotonous one, with industrial, rhythmic sounds. “Klaketta” dives much deeper into mysterious deep seas of overtones that correspond with subtle, crackling and rubbing sounds until all disappear in dark, dense ripples of white noises.

“Moutonner” is the most beautiful one. An enigmatic and suggestive soundscape that has strong cinematic qualities and immediate emotional impact, due to or despite its almost silent and subtle atmosphere, slowly gaining more volume and depth. The last “Kikimora” employs metronomes and bells to create elusive ritualistic-rhythmic framework, mutated by electronic-sounding. noisy comments on these chaotic patterns.

Highly inventive.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Nick Mazzarella Trio - Counterbalance (Astral Spirits, 2019) *****


By Tom Burris

There is a masterful quality to this music. It's in the nonchalance of the playing & in the musicians' relationship to create with each other, sure. But it's not just high caliber improvisational music. The trio's ability to hear each other so completely is so.. well.. mature. There is an unhurried quality here. There is nothing forced; but neither does any stone lie untouched. The music within Counterbalance is about being fully developed in one's practice – and then carrying that into a space where change and adaptation is a prerequisite for creative collaboration. The end result exudes a richness that only a maturing process can produce.

The recording happened in front of a live audience in Chicago early last year. There are six tracks, divided evenly onto the LP's two sides, that all begin and end with simple head arrangements which the band members use to explore the elasticity of those heads in between. Four of the heads remind me immediately of Ornette's early work, particularly the Golden Circle era, given the trio setup here – but two of them have the jumpy melody lines more associated with Thelonious Monk, particularly on the last cut, “Innermost.” It doesn't conjure up any particular Monk composition, of course – just an overall unmistakable feel. What the group make of the head is altogether unsuitable for Monk: it becomes a brooding collaborative composition made up of long whole notes from bassist Anton Hatwich, smoking spiraling runs by Mazzarella on alto, and distant ghosts rattling chains by percussionist Frank Rosaly.

Mazzarella has a natural ability to expertly map a course for the music out of thin air which serves the group incredibly well. Rosaly and Hatwich are always enthusiastically on board. They not only provide the type of active support most band leaders dream of; they also excel at staying within the psychic realm of the music while escalating the overall structure with precision and melody. Yes, even the drummer – especially the drummer. Rosaly's soloing couldn't be more melodic if he was playing vibes. The axis he creates with Hatwich is often a steady rumble, but they may be at their most impressive on “About Looking,” where they lurk in the shadows, idling patiently, waiting to strike. The strike never comes, by the way – carrying the sense of unease into the title track which follows.

The title track was what I was listening to as I wrote the first paragraph of this review. I want to be clear. This music is not ecstatic, unhinged blowing. There is not a full-on rager in sight. It does not scream (too much) and it absolutely does not showboat. It does serve as an elegant bullshit repellent with which to class up any room it envelopes. It will serve as a smudge to clear away bad mojo. These creations are solidly within the tradition of free improvisational music, which means they also constantly push against the definition of that term. The statement that I'm hearing is an addendum. We are adults and this is our music.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Sean Ali, Leila Bordreuil, Joanna Mattrey - I Used To Sing So Lyrical (Astral Spirits, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

Sean Ali (contrabass), Leila Bordreuil (cello), and Joanna Mattrey (viola) create dense arco textures for 37 minutes across three tracks on I Used To Sing So Lyrical. Ali appears on the blog with some frequency, especially in collaboration with Carlo Costa. Readers might remember Bordreuil from The Caustic Ballads with Michael Foster. And Mattrey just appeared on one of this year’s best recordings in Jessica Pavone’s Brick and Mortar. Ali and Bordreuil both appear on Lea Bertucci’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, though in separate performances; this is the first time these players have recorded together.

Most of the music is an impressive array of bowing techniques, shredding, scraping, and scratching the gut to its last thread, emitting timbres both deep and woody and high and tinny, evoking moods of tension, suspense, and sorrow. The space is full and the total volume is typically high in “Relic,” yet it displays excellent dynamics through relative volume, fluxing bowing speeds and pulses, and counterpoint. The maelstrom is briefly broken up with the introduction of some objects, perhaps chains and mallets to the body of the bass. “Something About This Room” begins more quietly, with plucked bass providing a clearer sense of movement for the wandering viola and cello, but builds to an all-out arco assault. And “The Air Thick Like So” is a kind of vortex of bows, occasionally separating and slowing harmonically only to converge and quicken, like a feeding frenzy of sharks at the drop of chum.

There’s a sense that other string trios could have made this as well, though that may be due to my relative unfamiliarity with the players and their individual characteristics, but the results are addictively listenable regardless. It’s quite an accomplishment for this new trio, that already move as a thoroughly cohesive unit with a fantastic take on harmony and dynamics.
I Used To Sing So Lyrical is available digitally and on cassette.

The Impact of Astral Spirits Locally

By Keith Prosk

In 2014, the same year that Astral Spirits began, my listening had just begun moving beyond the bop and free jazz classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s into more contemporary improvised music. I only really became aware of Astral Spirits in 2016, first hearing the batch containing Rankin-Parker/Pierce’s Odd Hits, which is still a favorite to this day. And in 2018, when I wrote on some solos from the label, I still thought of it as just another budding local label that was pretty cool. Only as my scope of awareness in this culture widened did I realize that Astral Spirits has meant so much to so many for longer than I knew. It’s a special label for many reasons, from its curation and quality to an emphasis on new and budding collaborations and musicians, but I want to highlight its impact on its hometown of Austin, Texas.

Since its inception, Astral Spirits has cultivated local (and once-local) talent by promoting and providing a platform for musicians in Texas. At this time, these musicians include the sometimes Austin-based Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the now Marfa-based RobMazurek (we’ll count it), Sarah Hennies, Shit &Shine, SSBT, R. Lee Dockery, More Eaze, Lisa Cameron, Claire Rousay, and Anáhuac (just Chris Cogburn). In releasing recordings from more localized musicians alongside long-time favorites like Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and others, Astral Spirits gives them a larger stage, which in turn provides greater interest, greater investment, and hopefully more people who want to participate in the improvised music community in Austin.

Additionally, Astral Spirits’ partnerships with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s Sonic Transmissions and P.G. Moreno’s Epistrophy Arts performance series has brought more national and international talent through Austin, especially from Chicago. Providing more access to a wider range of performance techniques, styles, and aesthetics is crucial in drawing more listeners as well as developing practicing improvisers through exposure and experience. Austin has a long road to becoming the next Chicago or NYC, if that’s even attainable or desirable, but Astral Spirits has surely helped to grow the improvised music community here.

A lot of business values can more-or-less boil down to openness to new experiences (practically a requisite in this music and in this field), giving a damn (evident in Astral Spirits’ customer care and response, e.g. the uptick in audio quality after early complaints), and building community. A lot of businesses fail at the latter. From my perspective, Astral Spirits succeeds. And has been and likely will be a major player, alongside your local organizers, some press, and a few other labels, in promoting this wondrous music from top to bottom. For that, it’s a label worth celebrating.

Happy 5 years!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Astral Spirits - Upcoming Releases

Amirtha Kidambi & Lea Bertucci - Phase Eclipse (Astral Spirits, 2019)

KVL - Volume 1 (Astral Spirits, 2019)

Akiyama / Field / Vidic - Interpersonal Subjectivities (Astral Spirits, 2019)




By Lee Rice Epstein

For all its five years, Astral Sprits has been a home for some wildly experimental and radical projects that would otherwise not make it to recording and distribution. Some part of that is due to Nate’s requests to artists, asking them to go out on the limb he’s willing to support; the rest is on the artists themselves and the far sonic reaches they explore and inhabit. And as a bow on 2019, the label’s gone above and beyond with releases in this category, showcasing some very exciting and promising new sounds.

Phase Eclipse is the debut of a duo featuring electronics musician Lea Bertucci and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi (both play other instruments, but not on this album). Even to say Bertucci’s on electronics is somewhat misleading, as her instrument on the album is, primarily, a reel-to-reel tape machine, which she uses to manipulate live recording of Kidambi’s vocals. The result is somewhat reminiscent of Peter Evans Quintet, where Sam Pluta plays a similar role as Bertucci does here. But the tactility of the tape reels warp sound in ways digital electronics can only mimic, and Kidambi vocals are, for those familiar with her quartet Elder Ones and Darius Jones’s Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, tremendously complex and equally tactile. Not unlike KVL, the layers of complexity can take a few listens to track, but plumbing the depths is highly rewarding.

KVL could be something of Astral Spirit’s Chicago house band, with Quin Kirchner on drums and sampler, Daniel Van Duerm on electric piano, organ, and mellotron, and Matthew Lux on bass, with all three contributing electronics. Similar to Jaimie Branch (who guests on one track) and her seminal Fly or Die group, KVL defies easy description. Like Branch, and fellow Chicagoan Joshua Abrams, Kirchner, Van Duerm, and Lux fold together multiple influences, creating layered soundscapes, fluctuating and modulating themes through improvisation. There are elements of dub and drone, overtones of trance and ambient, and some truly galactic vibes. Clocking in at just over half an hour, Volume 1 aptly fills the role of throat clearing, introduction, and a teaser of what’s sure to be much more.

The trio of guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama, saxophonist Gregor Vidic, and drummer Nicolas Field introduces Akiyama to Vidic and Field’sstanding du o. The result is a magnificent set of exploratory improvisation. Vidic and Field’s playing has a rich, textural quality, developed through their use of timbre and dynamics. In this way, Akiyama’s multiphonic approach to guitar, and his innovative use of effects, offset’s Vidic brilliantly. Over the course of 45 minutes, Akiyama, Vidic, and Field generate a nervy tension, walking razor thin lines, such as the ones threaded through the middle of “Inner Circle.” In keeping with the overall Astral Spirits aesthetic, and as a capstone to their anniversary year, the trio’s music is at times stateless, at other times murky and brooding, and yet it’s always highly engaging, rich and thrilling.



Available Nov. 8 on digital and cassette.


Available Nov. 15 on digital, black vinyl, and orange vinyl.


Nov. 15 on digital, cassette, and compact disc.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Keefe Jackson / Benjamin Vergara / Jim Baker / Phil Sudderberg – The Hallowed Plant (Relative Pitch, 2018) ****


By Tom Burris

Three Chicago veterans meet Chilean trumpeter on this first – and so far, only – project from The Hallowed Plant. Recorded at the tail end of 2016, but not released until last year, this disc contains recordings of full-on group improvisations that are abstract and busy, full of texture – but not high on energy. It's not that kind of music. There is almost a disarming serenity to the music, often placing the listener into the eye of the storm.

Trumpeter Benjamin Vergara often leaps out as a composer, and I believe his central role is often inspirational to the other band members. There doesn't seem to be a leader on this session, but Vergara comes the closest. Reed man Keefe Jackson and pianist Jim Baker share a musical kinship that is certainly at work here, as they form an alliance that is mutually beneficial to both themselves and Vergara especially. Drummer Phil Sudderberg is great at wrangling the group and propelling them forward whenever they require a push. The working parts are all here and firing.

There's a great section from “This Moves To That” where Baker's chords underneath Vergara's one-note chant becomes a focal point, prodding Vergara – and eventually Sudderberg & Jackson – into inventive reactions. Then Vergara breaks out of his trance and leads the group to the finish line. “North Cult” is a place where horns imitate tube amps buzzing and feeding back for 15 minutes before turning into the most conventionally “jazz” sounding music on the album. My favorite ride in the plant though is “La Repentina Ola,” which opens with Jackson and Vergara chirping at each other while Baker shoots at them with a ray gun. Enter aggravated assault from Sudderberg and it's insane shrieking from Vergara, trilling/fluttering from Jackson, and full-on skin cancer from Baker. The most dangerous synthesizer console in free jazz!

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Madness of Tom Ward

Tom Ward and Adam Fairhall - Susurrus (Madwort, 2018) ***1/2

Madwort’s Menagerie - Madwort’s Menagerie (Madwort, 2019) ****



By Lee Rice Epstein

Tom Ward has been a regular presence on the British free jazz scene for several years now, performing in and fronting a number of avant-garde and free improvising groups, including the remarkably named Quadraceratops and Saxoctopus (yes, eight sax players), Madwort Saxophone Quartet (another all-sax, all-the-time group), Cath Roberts’s Favourite Animals, and the fantastic improvising trio Ma/Ti/Om with percussionist Matilda Rolfsson and bassist Tim Fairhall (if you get a chance, do check out Ma/Ti/Om’s Ashes and Live In London, both on Raw Tonk). Recently, though, Ward launched an independent record label, Madwort, which has fast become fertile ground for his expansive imagination.

Susurrus, the label’s first release, features Ward, on saxophone, bass clarinet, and tambin, in a duo with Adam Fairhall, on piano, accordion, harmonium, and prepared dulcitone. As evidenced by the instrumentation, Ward and Fairhall approach their duet as a musical sandbox of sorts, pushing outwardly against any expectations. Opening with a pointillist piano-sax duet, “Personable Pedantry,” delineate a constellation of notes across both instruments. It’s a nice tune that barely hints that what new- and space-age moments are to come. When Ward picks up bass clarinet and Fairhall moves to prepared dulcitone for “Susurrus,” the dynamism of their ideas creates a subtle trance state. The cover image of a tree without leaves intimates the kinds of effect Ward and Fairhall seem to be aiming for. The title, meaning whispering or murmuring, describes as clearly as it evokes, as the duo overall performs with a kind of conversational give-and-take, the players responding to each other with echoes and teases alike. “Spumous” features Fairhall’s harmonium paired with Ward’s tambin, a pairing that recurs on album-closer “Liminality.” Both performances bring hints of Don Cherry, a somewhat unexpected reference point for a saxophonist, but Ward seems as keenly connected to the spirit as Cherry, and his partnership with Fairhall is bountiful.

For all the meditative sincerity above, Madwort’ s Menagerie is a romp. A brand-new sextet—with the deceptively chamber-esque lineup of Ward on bass clarinet, Cath Roberts on baritone sax, Alex Bonney on cornet, Julie Kjær on flute, Adam Spiers on cello, and Tim Fairhall on double bass—the album blossoms with humor and bite. Ward’s music for the group boasts a thrilling depth, with pairings sliding in and out of focus on “Fish Biscuit Standoff.” It’s a summation of the album as a whole, ridiculous titles (see: “Unfortunate Interaction With a Chair”) and all. I’ve probably heard Kjær on flute more than I’ve heard her on sax now, and her opening on “Islands In the Green,” is grand and melancholy, a songlike melody that’s carried forward by half the band, while the others play a pulsing counter melody. Kjær plays a fantastic solo that leads into a superb solo by Fairhall. It’s not often a group this big performs without percussion of some kind, but the players embrace the openness of the lineup’s sound, with the inherent airiness buoyed by syncopated rhythms, counter melodies, and daring improvisation.

I’ve written several times about what an exciting time it is to be a listener, with platforms like Bandcamp boosting the signal of some of the brightest, most exciting players on various scenes. The British scene, in particular, seems to be embracing the possibilities. Madwort stands next to Lume, Efpi, Raw Tonk, and the many musicians self-releasing their work without a label. The hope (and promise) here is not only will Ward have a regular home for his output, but he’ll also continue to bring together new and exciting projects .

Both available via Bandcamp.




Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Jazzfest Berlin 2019

By Alexander Dubovoy

“If I could, I would build a theme park. Walt Disney is one of my idols,” said Anthony Braxton during a panel discussion on the third day of Jazzfest Berlin. At first, this statement took me aback, but the more I thought about it, the more it revealed its mysteries. Artists and ideas do have their own theme parks; even creationists and Dolly Parton have their own, so why not a seminal figure like Braxton? I asked him what the entryway to his theme park would be, and he responded, “You can start anywhere. I don’t aim to tell people which way to go. What I want to do is to present a set of menu of options through which the friendly experienced can travel at will.” Braxton seems to be fascinated by the concept of cartography, of conceiving of his art more as a landscape to be wandered than a fixed set of instructions and, at times, even directly using airport maps as graphic scores.

Sonic Genome. Photo by Cristina Marx
Indeed, as the opener of the 56th Jazzfest Berlin, Braxton got one step closer to building what I hope would be called Braxtonland. With his Sonic Genome project, Braxton took over the Gropius Bau, one of Berlin’s eminent contemporary arts exhibition spaces. The Gropius Bau centers around an imposing atrium, with smaller spaces extending off. Braxton assembled a group of 60 impressive musicians (I spotted Ingrid Laubrock, Alexander Hawkins, and many more). They began in one corner of the space playing long tones. Soon, however, they dispersed into smaller groups, into the foyer and even the exhibition halls. Over the course of 6 hours, a changing array of larger and smaller ensembles played compositions from Braxton’s sizeable ouevre. James Fei, Chris Jonas, and Braxton himself conducted some of the larger group works. Kyoto Kitamura performed vocal works and led one of the ensembles in a particularly joyous moment of collective interaction. As a listener, the experience was unparalleled. All of Braxton’s compositions are designed to interlock and intersect. Consequently, walking through the Gropius Bau was a bit like a “Choose Your Own Adventure Book” in which the listener shaped a musical journey through heterogeneous pieces of the same story.

As I spent the weekend trying to attend as many of the Jazzfest Berlin’s events as humanly possible, I felt like I was continuing to navigate a musical cartography. This sense came in no small part due to the excellent work of Nadin Deventer, the festival’s artistic director. Anthony Braxton called Deventer a “visionary and an activist”, and I have to say I agree fully. Often flagship jazz festivals of major cities can feel like smorgasbords of (largely straight-ahead) musical content. Jazzfest Berlin is different. It is a deliberate, curated affair, this year centering around the work of Anthony Braxton and the mottos “Escape Nostalgic Prisons” and “A Mother’s Work Is Never Done”. The resulting festival, rather than taking an agnostic or all-encompassing approach, made a compelling and largely unified case for contemporary innovations in jazz.


Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society. Photo by Cristina Marx
In my opinion, one of the most innovative and future-thinking sets was that of Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society. Lillinger’s dense metric compositions had an amazing sense of grace. Though the music was often in crazy time signatures and intricately orchestrated between different parts of the ensemble, it also left space for interaction and communal groove. It takes a deft band to play music like this, and the unusual instrumentation (1 drummer, 3 pianists/keyboardists, 2 vibraphonists, 2 bassists, and 1 cellist) held together due to the high level of musicianship. The collective interactions of pianists Cory Smythe (on acoustic piano with computer-based microtuning effects), Kaya Draksler (on upright piano), and Elias Stemeseder (primarily on synths) astounded me. Though the music was extremely complex, it never felt forced and instead pushed forward with an urgent sense of naturalness.

Anthony Braxton. Photo by Cristina Marx 
The festival largely centered around the Braxton’s work as an innovator and a pioneer who paved the way for this new generation of musicians in creative music. At the performance of his ZIM Music on Sunday evening, his towering creative achievement was apparent. During an earlier discussion, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Chris Jonas demonstrated the parts of Braxton’s 12 Language Music types, a classification system of twelve sounds. The system begins with long tones (1), then trills (2), and extends further. Eleven refers to “gradient formings”, the transition of parameters over time (for example, dynamics). Braxton’s compositions can be said to live “in the house of” a particular number/type. Ghost Trance Music, for example, which featured heavily in the Gropius Bau performance, makes use of a steady stream of eighth notes and is therefore said to be more “static” and live in the “house of one”. ZIM Music is in the house of eleven, a sacred number that approaches the spiritual unity and transformation embodied in the number twelve (the culmination of Braxton’s system).

Ingrid Laubrock. Photo by Cristina Marx
During the performance, the musicians followed a series of graphic scores with lines that indicated the “gradient formings”, or transitions, of musical characteristics like timbre and pitch. Within this larger macro-composition, however, they were welcome to play others of Braxton’s compositions, as well as to improvise. The resulting music combined macro-level transition with micro-level playfulness, resulting in a confluence rather than dichotomy of improvised and composed elements. The ensemble, featuring Ingrid Laubrock on sax, Erica Dicker on violin, Adam Matlock on accordion/voice, Jacqueline Kerrod and Brandee Younger on harp, and Dan Peck on tuba played beautifully and interactively. Every time Braxton picked up his horn to solo, it was magical. Though I spent much of the weekend enmeshing myself in Braxton’s philosophy and in the Tricentric Thought Unit Construct, I hope and imagine that an “uninitiated” listener could also have appreciated the sheer inventiveness of the performance.

Kim Collective. Photo by Cristina Marx
Not only did the festival’s artists innovate sonically, they also drew techniques from other art forms, like theatre and dance. The Berlin-based Kim Collective staged a “fungus opera,” a wild multimedia work that incorporated composition, improvisation, choral music, video...you name it. Over the course of the performance, a rhizomatic set piece rose from center stage. The fungus opera was the newest culmination in a continued relationship between the Kim Collective and Jazzfest Berlin. The collective also designed an installation (“Gardens of Hyphae”) in the foyer of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, in which they conducted (intentionally awkward) interviews, played occasional music, handed out the odd spring roll, all from the comfort a billowy, white fungus canopy. The collective stayed in character during the festival, and Liz Kosack wore a mask even during a panel discussion.

Trumpeter Rob Mazurek & São Paolo Underground. Photo by Cristina Marx
A highlight of these multimedia works for me was the performance of T(r)opic, a work originally conceived by trumpeter Rob Mazurek and guitarist Julien Desprez for the Sons d’Hiver festival. In collaboration with the dance project COCO and São Paolo Underground (an alliance of Brazilian musician formed during Mazurek’s time living in São Paolo). The performance began with members of COCO producing rhythms through dancing the coco—“a dynamic folk tradition from the [Brazil’s] northeastern region, born out of slavery and marked by a rhythmic manner of stomping”(program notes). Soon, São Paolo Underground began playing rhythms reminiscent of Brazil’s batucada bands. The horn-heavy band featuring such luminaries as Mette Rasmussen and Lotte Anker played music that was somehow immensely experimental and free, while also grounded in Brazilian folk traditions. An LED installation surrounded the band and dancers. Ushers also gave the audience 3D glasses for an accompanying live-generated 3D visualization. Somehow this wild spectrum of Brazilian folk song and dance, free improvisation, electronic music, and visualization fit together to powerful effect—an unexpected highlight of the festival.

T(r)opic formed the second of two “Late Night Labs”, a new format for Jazzfest Berlin of concerts starting at 22:30. I viewed both labs while lying down on the futons provided in the front row of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Fortunately, the music was electrifying enough to firmly prevent me from giving in to the exhaustion that had caused me to choose repose. On Friday night, three trios (Kaos Puls, Moskus Trio, and Mopcut) met for a night of exciting improvised music. In particular, Audrey Chen’s expressive and often unpitched vocal explorations were the source of much intrigue. Sadly, attending these later programs meant I was unable to attend some gigs I wanted to see at the Jazzfest’s partner clubs, A-Trane and Quasimodo. I was particularly sad to have to miss were James Brandon Lewis’s Unruly Quintet, pianist Elliot Galvin, and guitarist Miles Okazaki, who played a Thelonious Monk retrospective (I reviewed the album previously). I also couldn’t make it to the Kiezkonzerte, a free set of concerts with “secret” lineups in neighborhood institutions. I was, fortunately, able to catch the performance at A-Trane of Melting Pot, a collaboration between Jazzfest Berlin, Handelbeurs (Ghent), Nasjonal jazzscene (Oslo), and Jazzfestival Saafelden. Each festival picked a young improviser from its respective scene, and the resulting music was beautiful.

Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood. Photo by Cristina Marx
The festival also staged some interesting shows in the Kassenhalle, the smaller hall adjacent to the main one at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood harkened back to their Chicago routes. Channeling the impact of Sun Ra and the AACM on her work, multi-instrumentalist Dawid combined free improvisation, blues, and pointed social critique, urging her audience to say that “the black family is the strongest institution in the world.” Drummer Paul Lovens also played an excellent set of concise improvisations with guitarist Florian Stoffner after being awarded the Albert-Mangelsdorff prize. I greatly enjoyed Melez, a new project featuring vocalist Cansu Tanrıkulu. The music was super punk, heavy on electronics, distortion, and rock drumming. When I joined, it seemed like there was some sort of a spider opera going on (it was a festival of zoological operas, wasn’t it?). Lots of black leather was worn. It’s always good to see a jazz crowd doing some head-banging.

Melez. Photo by Christina Marx
Not all the music, however, fit neatly into the amorphous label “free jazz”. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmuserie’s Origami Harvest featured a killer band of Sam Harris on piano and Justin Brown on drums, replete with the Mivos String Quartet, and Koyaki on vocals/rap. Koyaki (whose work readers of this blog may know from the album Way of the Cipher with Steve Coleman) was inventive rhythmically and addressed political issues, including Black Lives Matter, in his raps. Overall, I relished the moments in which Akinmuserie really let loose and in which the string orchestration heated up, and I wish there could have been more of them. The Australian Art Orchestra blended elements of pop music with free improvisation in compositions by Peter Knight and Julia Reidy. Guitarist Marc Ribot’s set also drew heavily from composed materials and, despite moments of freedom, was more firmly grounded in the jazz/“groove” idiom. I found it difficult to engage with the music, but I likely felt this way because it immediately followed the life-changing experience that was Anthony Braxton’s Zim Music.

Both the Friday and Saturday night programs began with a solo piano sets, first by Brian Marsella and second by Eve Risser. Though both sets contained elements of virtuosity (Marsella in his Art Tatum-reminiscent flourishes and Eve Risser in her timbral approach to prepared piano), neither impressed me compositionally as a whole. Similarly, pianist Joachim Kühn’s performance of Ornette Coleman’s music (“Melodic Ornette”) didn’t quite connect with me, despite my respect for his playing and historic collaboration with Coleman himself. Arranging Coleman’s music such that it can be played in tempo and conducted by a band director was certainly an unusual choice. The exclusively white and male big band seemed to me out of place in such a progressive event. Nonetheless, some excellent solos by Kühn, as well as reeds-player Michel Portal stood out.

One of the unexpected highlights of the festival was the (surprisingly well-attended) panel discussions, talks, and film screenings. Several of the events centered around questions of collective organization and of social change in jazz. These issues raised contentious and important social issues. During one such conversation, Angel Bat Dawid yelled and cried at the audience in a demonstration of the trauma she experiences as an African American woman in America and in jazz/creative music. Earlier in the discussion, which centered on collectives in the arts, author Emma Warren spoke about the history of the Total Refreshment Centre, a now-closed DIY venue in London. She passionately stressed the importance of communities in creating spaces and the importance of spaces to creating art. She, furthermore, emphasized the role of space in protecting marginalized voices. It was an apt accompaniment to a festival in which Braxton’s literal use of the Gropius Bau space and philosophical conception of space had been a focal point for me. Warren asked members of the audience to name a place from our lives where “it felt like things could be made” and then performed a “roll call” of these places. After this year’s Jazzfest Berlin, I can say that this definitely is a place where things can be made.