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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Ken Ikeda & Eddie Prévost - The Whole Moon Rests in a Dewdrop on the Grass (Matchless, 2018) ****

The Whole Moon Rests in a Dewdrop on the Grass presents another fantastic duo release from Eddie Prévost on his Matchless label, this time with composer, video artist, and electronics wizard Ken Ikeda performing live at London's Cafe Oto in January of last year. Prévost we all know and love from his numerous collaborations through the years and as the bedrock of the legendary group AMM. For those not already familiar with Ken Akida, he has recorded for Touch Records, composed for director David Lynch, and recorded in collaborated with David Toop, Tetuzi Akiyama, and Edward Lucas to name a few. Ikeda last recorded with Prévost in a trio with guitarist John Russell on 2016’s excellent but all-too-brief digital release In Search of Wasabi on Weekertoft Records. Here Prévost and Ikeda spin a woozy phantasmagoria of electronics and bowed metal on a single long track of cerebral and well paced free improvisation.

The piece is a decidedly subtle affair, which Prévost sets into motion with cymbal shimmer and harmonic overtones coaxed from the aether via rosined hair. Ikeda's offerings twinkle to the fore like dim stars at twilight, barely there but spectacular and essential. Ikeda often utilizes a ribbon controller, allowing him to be much more expressive than your general abstract electronics practitioner. An accomplished improviser, he also provides plenty of room for Prévost’s contributions, rather than dominating the proceedings as electronics can sometimes do. Prévost alternates irregularly between soft, slowly building resonance and sharply pulled scrapes and unsettling grima. Ikeda's electronics at times sound like the pings of some alien satellite, at moments sharp with a quick decay and just as often with the addition of delay, where Ikeda modulates the feedback in a way that recalls some of King Tubby or Scratch Perry's production sensibilities. The superposition of the duo's sound worlds is certainly compelling and works equally well when listened to actively or passively.

This is a very enjoyable release and a nice change-up to the sort of fare we free jazz heads usually revel in. I've been favoring restraint to full-on assault when it comes to music here lately, so this release was a welcome addition to my listening queue and I've found myself returning to it frequently. I'm a fan of anything Prévost is involved in, but have a particular affinity for his ability to provide contrast and dynamics on subtle pieces such as this. Likewise, Ken Ikeda’s style is very expressive throughout and he does a tremendous job of finding spaces within the sound field from which to provide subtle responses and/or warbling ambience.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Zach Rowden, Jarrett Gilgore & Ian McColm - First Lapse (Raw Tonk Records, 2019) ****

Raw Tonk’s releases offer a hard to beat two-way deal: the recycled cardboard card-pak cases are aesthetically flawless while the music (from a catalogue of around forty releases) offers some of the most passionate, energized free jazz and improvisational recordings of this decade closing to its end. While the latter is the core of everything of course, the former offer to all of us fetishists more reasons to buy the CDs (and LP’s lately) and support this totally independent label.

First Lapse presents us a trio of young musicians who have already been grinding their teeth among some of the greats like, among others, Paul Flaherty, Tony Malaby, Tyshawn Shorey and Tashi Dorji. Here they present themselves in the classic jazz trio line-up with Zach Rowden on double bass, Jarrett Gilgore on alto saxophone and Ian McColm on drums and percussion. Raw Tonk has created an international circle of likeminded improvisers but, correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first release by musicians exclusively from the US. This circle, seems to me, is constantly growing only to include more and more artists eager to explore.

This ethos directly goes back to the early days of European improvisation (the label still holds London as its center point) with legendary labels like ICP, Incus and FMP. It’s not like they are creating something that has never been achieved before. Raw Tonk’s multinational rotation of musicians encapsulates the simple basic need of people getting together, forming bonds and expressing themselves freely without mediators.

Certainly the way the three musicians battle with their instruments is atypical of the standard drums-sax-bass trio. Thankfully I would comment. First Lapse is not a free jazz album, but more of non idiomatic improvisational recording, if you want to pin down the music. I really really enjoyed their lack of egos and the way they play more as a trio and less as individuals. First Lapse gives me the chance to believe that the three of them have left, already, the free jazz blow outs (now a tradition for jazz coming from the States) behind them for a more organic, focused egalitarian sound.

I think the key word here is focus. At any point they seem to have ears only for their fellow musicians so to act and react accordingly but without preconceived ideas. The three instruments seem so intensely close to each other that you could say all were performed from the same person. Their level of interaction kept me to my toes (as they were if I should make a guess) throughout the thirty minute something duration of the CD. Less is more seems to be the way they deal with their need to express themselves.

Raw Tonk’s catalogue is growing not so fast, but that’s not the issue. There’s not even one release below a certain standard (always considering our personal tastes), which makes it one of the leading labels in the free jazz and improvised world at the moment.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Anthony Braxton - GTM (Syntax) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2019) ***** (Part III)

Part III of III - Third Species: Accelerator Class 

By Keith Prosk

To quickly reiterate, the accelerator class of the third species sees the primary melody disintegrating and reforming. To use Kitamura’s words from the liner notes, “Eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth notes are combined and subdivided into ratios such as 9:2, 11:2, and 13:2.” The effect is a complex polyrhythm. The last three compositions of GTM (Syntax) 2017 are accelerator class.

Composition No. 339 (+171) (dedicated to The Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation (before the merger)) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Syntax) 2003 and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*.
The increased notational complexity of this species is immediately apparent to the ear. Pitches are sung just out of phase to create a multiphonic effect and slightly shifted by each group to create polyrhythms. It sounds like a rapid ebb and flow, like a wormhole. Space is significantly more filled out. The tertiary material chosen for this performance is one of Braxton’s early mapping pieces (171), which sees investigative reporters questioning forest ranger Crumpton on ethical inconsistencies in his parks department. As if to mimic the pretzel-twisted time and space of the composition, certain sections of the narrative see multiple questions from reporters and multiple answers from Crumpton overlapping. Splotches of color include angry Daffy Duck sounds, blood-curdling screams, hissing as if in morse code, and exaggerated tongue rolling (“rrr”).

Composition No. 340 (+6c, 142, 364a, 364g, 365f, 365g, 366b, 366d, 367b, 367d, 367g, 367h, 368d) (dedicated to the contrabassist/improvisor Joelle Leandre)

Previously recorded on Quartet (GTM) 2006, Duets (Pittsburgh) 2008, GTM (Syntax) 2003, Sextet (Philadelphia) 2005, and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*.
On the last day of recording, the twelve members of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble no longer divided into four groups of three, and there were no sections or section leaders. Each member was free to conduct, follow, or be on one’s own. The tertiary material chosen for this performance is all instrumental and includes the graphic scores of Falling River Music along with the two older pieces. Like 339, there’s a great blurring or phasing effect. Space is so filled and time so fast here that the ensemble cannot use complex syllables or words, and instead sing letters, numbers, oohs, and ahhs. There’s not enough time to physically perform more complex extended techniques, and most odd effects are created by the group rather than individuals. A primary melody is completely indistinguishable. If you don’t feel the wormhole-like ebb and flow in 339 or 340, I suggest you listen to 119 and then come back. The physiological and/or psychological effect of rapidly ramping up the action makes ten minutes in 340 feel like three times that. I suggested this was the most musical starting point for listeners, but I suppose I meant it’s the best starting point for those with a bias against voice, because it’s non-narrative and the performance is so fast and complex that you might forget you’re hearing singing.

Composition No. 341 (+76, 40F, 237, 380) (dedicated to the journalist/scholar Francesco Martinelli)

Previously recorded on Quartet (GTM) 2006, Sextet (Piacenza) 2007, and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*.

Again, no designated sections or section leaders. Choruses that phase into polyrhythms - different voices might begin a syllable at the same time but modulate at different times. The tertiary material includes the instrumental 76 and 40 (a favorite of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet) and the narrative 237 (Trillium E) and 380 (Trillium J, which we’ve visited before in 219). The extreme effect of 340 is applied to the narrative, creating the personification of Babel. The phrases “hear our words and hear it now” (or, “here are words and hear it now”) and “it could be you” are sung with some performers starting on the same syllable or words and modulating differently while other performers begin on a different word or syllable, with not more than two or three performers landing on the same syllable at the same time while pitches from different syllables might match up for a brief moment. It’s like the cacophony of the “bike tour” in 221 except taken to the extreme because the performers have a full sentence to work with rather than two words. This Babel is eventually met with the heartbeat of an “mm mm, mm mm” before all performers simultaneously sing a short melody before ending the performance.

* as tertiary material

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Anthony Braxton - GTM (Syntax) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2019) ***** (Part II)

Part II of III - 2nd Species

By Lee Rice Epstein
Composition No. 239 (+108b, 169) (dedicated to the multi-instrumentalist/composer Taylor Ho Bynum)

Previously recorded on 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material).
As Keith described yesterday, Braxton’s musics encompass decades of evolution, with perhaps a dozen different musical languages spinning out from the big bang of 1968’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz. The early number 6 compositions are described as “circus piece,” “fast pulse relationships,” and “series of repetitive structures,” all phrases that could be used in 2019 to describe latter-day elements of Syntactical Ghost Trance Music, even as the musics themselves are remarkably different in intent. In the intervening 50 years, Braxton’s developed a philosophy of music as a trigger for dynamic, interpersonal experiences, and a means of creating various mind states to inhabit fantasy environments and process real-world conflicts.

Composition No. 254 (+126, 307) (dedicated to the vocalist/composer Kyoko Kitamura) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Iridium) 2007.
The seeming familiarity of Braxton’s eighth-note melodic sequences for GTM is completely upended in the voices of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble, featuring Roland Burks, Tomas Cruz, Lucy Dhegrae, Chris DiMeglio, Kristin Fung, Nick Hallett, Michael Douglas Jones, Kyoko Kitamura, Adam Matlock, Anne Rhodes, Kamala Sankaram, and Elizabeth Saunders. Longtime listeners may know several of these performers from previous trio and duo projects. On GTM (Syntax) 2017, however, the layering of voices immediately calls to mind Trillium operas. Unlike the operas, SGTM isn’t necessarily organized by particular storylines or environments. Instead, Braxton uses SGTM to explore the human voice, above all things.

Composition No. 255 (+46, 134) (dedicated to pianist/composer Neely Bruce) 

Previously Recorded on GTM (Outpost) 2003, GTM (Iridium) 2007, 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material), and Noël Akchoté’s Composition 255 (Plays Anthony Braxton).
Within SGTM, the signature eighth-note melody is typically represented by single-letter or number repetition, a ceremonial incantation opening the pathway further into the music. From there, vocalists begin using signal phrases to conduct changes and improvisations in the music. Typically, GTM ensembles split into small groups, trios, and duos that form clusters within the larger ensemble, and such is the case in SGTM, as well. At times, vocalists spin off into small groups singing familiar melodies and lyrics from popular culture or strings of words composed by Braxton, syllables echoing the impact of punchy trumpet and saxophone lines. And then there are the non-syllabic vocalized sounds, growls and snarls extend the range of the ensemble.

Composition No. 256 (+173) (dedicated to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir)

Previously recorded on Six Compositions (Ghost Trance Music) 2001 (as tertiary material), Ensemble (Pittsburgh) 2008, and Syntactical GTM Choir (NYC) 2011.
At a certain point, anyone confronting Braxton is forced to contend with his dense philosophic writings, which can appear arcane and esoteric on its surface. As with his music, however, when taken on word or phrase at a time, moving forward step by step, a listener can easily trace a pathway. The opening melody may require a bit of patience, but as I mentioned, in the context of SGTM it’s an entirely different experience. A listener can choose to let the melody itself take center stage in one’s mind or telescope into the words, numbers, and sounds performed by the vocalists. There’s obvious fun in identifying the scraps of known lyrics and sometimes hilarious interpolations of noises and utterances. The humor and joy invoked by the group brings out a humane side of Braxton that’s too often set aside when writing or speaking out him and his music. As he noted in a recent New York Times article , “It involves people suddenly coming together in communities. The art of the relationship. How to deal with each other.” And the empathy baked into the performance of SGTM, where vocalists need to be attuned to what each other vocalist is doing so they can react to signals and cues accordingly, or trigger others by performing their own signal or cue. In these ways, Braxton creates connections that transcend the music, reminding us that we are alive, living this life, hearing these breaths on an album recorded by other living people, struggling at times in their own lives, celebrating during others, and each one of us tenuously connects to every other one. It’s utopia thinking, sure, and Braxton asserts in the liner notes, “Tri-Centric is not a religion.” But it is a mode of generating empathy, much like Roger Ebert once said of film: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” This is true also of SGTM, especially upon a close listen, focusing in on the words and phrases turning over themselves. One may not understand why a particular phrase is being used, but one can think of the voice, the breath, the intonation, everything about the actual person performing. One can hum along while listening or repeat bits of lyrics, as I’ve started to do, letting the music become a part of one’s daily life.

Composition No. 265 (+10, 16) (dedicated to the Reverend C.L. Franklin) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Outpost) 2003 and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material).
One could easily spend hours, days, even weeks teasing out the notated and improvised references within Braxton musics, especially a language as highly interdependent as SGTM. In this category, I think about the work of academics annotating and uncovering references in books like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and J R, James Joyce’sUlysses and Finnegans Wake, or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves. There does seem to be a similar strain of modernism woven through Braxton’s aesthetic, with his encyclopedic wit and interest in cultures high, low, and in-between. Of course, the undeniably baroque taxonomies and interrelationships invite a certain kind of experience, one that not every listener is interested in. This is where the “friendly experiencer” moniker enters, one I’ve mentioned elsewhere and that I happily and openly embrace. One has to be ready for a music that’s larger than you, that does in fact ask you to actively engage, and most importantly that asks you to take it seriously, but not too seriously. That would mean missing the liveliness of the music and the spirit in which it’s performed. Take works like Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II” or Tyshawn Sorey’s recent Pillars , music that invites listeners in and submerges them into a deeply thoughtful listening experience. SGTM, like GTM, is superb music for reflection, allowing Braxton to work his magic on you.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Anthony Braxton - GTM (Syntax) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2019) ***** (Part I)

Part I of III  -  First Species
By Keith Prosk

Approaching Braxton is difficult for some listeners. Not only is the volume of his discography daunting but the volume of some releases (such as this one) are too and a feeling of misunderstanding is only exacerbated by his idiosyncratic interconnected compositional system and his complex, sometimes enigmatic descriptions of the system. I hope to convey the accessibility of this enriching music that is as broad and deep as reality itself by providing some context - as I understand it - and listening patterns that I enjoyed, followed by brief notes on each composition. Lee Rice Epstein and I decided to split the release by species; he’ll cover the second species along with his relationship with the release.

GTM (Syntax) 2017 is twelve hour-long Braxton compositions performed by the twelve members of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble: Roland Burks, Tomas Cruz, Lucy Dhegrae, Chris DiMeglio, Kristin Fung, Nick Hallett, Michael Douglas Jones, Kyoko Kitamura, Adam Matlock, Anne Rhodes, Kamala Sankaram, and Elizabeth Saunders. Michael Douglas Jones passed away between the recording and release, and the entire release is dedicated to him. It’s available digitally as well as a 12-CD boxset and both versions come with liner notes from Braxton and Kitamura and composition diagrams. It is the first recording of Braxton’s syntactical ghost trance music, i.e. these twelve non-narrative compositions catered to the human voice, in its entirety and in studio. Like 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, which at the time Braxton claimed as the point of definition in his career thus far, it is a linchpin in appreciating his complex compositional system but, because it spans all three species of ghost trance music (GTM), it provides a more intuitive and tangible experience in the three dimensional (or multi-dimensional) world his oeuvre creates.

Braxton has almost always been concerned with space, evidenced by his composition schematics appearing even in his early works (For Trio feels like an especially apt example, creating an analog of three dimensions through stereo channels as well as utilizing the voice). And a similar interconnectivity was present at least as early as the collage music of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet, with Dresser and Hemingway playing with pulse tracks that Braxton and Crispell could fall back to and utilize as jump points to play any composition in Braxton’s oeuvre. Explicitly inspired by at least the seemingly infinite interconnectivity of the world wide web and the virtual reality of new media like 3D videogames, Braxton strove to transition his dream-like collages to a more concrete experience and create his own virtual reality through music.

This virtual reality is at least composed of the twelve states of Trillium land explored in his twelve narrative Trillium operas, which I imagine are more representative of a human aspect (e.g. the character Shala), and all instrumental Braxton compositions, which I imagine are more representative of non-human aspects (e.g. a mountain or a room). A GTM piece is a primary melody, often several pages long notation in those (in)famous repetitive eighth notes, that serves as a transportation route between the portions of this virtual reality that Braxton has fleshed out. Like a train track, the melody might have a stop to: (○) get out and stretch, revel in the present, and improvise; (□) explore a pre-constructed area, the past, and tertiary material (those (often) previously-recorded compositions that appear in parentheses); or (△) synthesize the two, mold the future (?), and play secondary material (small compositions that accompany many compositions). I imagine the increasing complexity of GTM species as the increasing complexity of transportation modes. The first species is usually a steady pulse primary melody in eighth notes with no specific dynamics, little articulation, and few invitations to depart from the primary melody, like a long cross-country train ride. The second species cuts up the primary melody with rhythmic breaks, subdividing beats into ratios, and there are more dynamics and more invitations to depart the page, like a highway system with interchanges. The third species is almost continuous polyrhythmic breaks with even greater subdivisions of beats into ratios, dynamics, articulation, and now color-coded graphic notation, like the planes, trains, and automobiles in a complex intercity transportation system. Finally, a subset of the third species - the accelerator class - sees each beat wildly subdivided or completely obscured by polyrhythms with extreme dynamics, more graphic notation, and now less invitations to depart, like a wormhole. I am no doubt omitting theoretical and compositional nuances, but I hope I conveyed the gist. Practically, rather than providing a kind of performance safety net like the pulse tracks of his collage music, GTM compositions provide explicit pathways in the world of Braxton.

I suspect these pathways running through his work contribute to the reason Braxton calls this GTM set the Rosetta Stone of his music systems but the primary reason is likely the human voice (syntax). The ability of the voice to explore any combination of sound > syllable > word > narrative readily allows Braxton to construct all aspects of his complex world with one instrument and quickly. The many moving parts of the respiratory system and the diversity of human bodies make the voice perhaps the most complex instrument but its emotivity is instantly recognizable because it’s an instrument listeners hear every day of their lives, again allowing Braxton the simultaneous complexity and immediacy required to construct a real-time three dimensional experience.

However, though Braxton might think of GTM somewhere along these lines, he does not require the listener to do so. A listener can connect the number twelve through his music, as in the twelve personalities represented in the twelve Trillium operas across twelve Trillium states based upon his twelve language types performed by his 12(+1)tet or the twelve-strong Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble. Or the number three, as in the past, present, and future/the composition, improvisation, and synthesis/the tertiary, primary, and secondary materials in the Tri-Centric model, or the three species of GTM, or the 3x12 Trillium units in his operas, or the four groups of three found in many of these recordings. A listener can dwell on the details, knowing each secondary and tertiary compositions history and meaning, every notational nuance, and the syntactical activation codes for dances in Pine Top Aerial Music. A listener can feel like they’re walking through a Tri-Centric Theme Park real-time experience. Or a listener can just listen, like it’s any other music. Braxton only requires open ears and an open mind. Though he strives to create a music as complex as reality. You can stop to smell the roses without knowing the clades, range, and genetic intricacies of the rose, or even seeing or feeling the rose (smile).

I hope by providing some context that I’ve eliminated some of the mysteries frustrating the pure enjoyment of this music. But there’s still the matter of listening to twelve hours of music in a digestible manner. For listeners new to GTM, I suggest beginning with 192 and then 340 to provide two well-contrasted reference points to work from. For listeners dreading the eighth notes of the mid ‘90s, I suggest going straight to the more musical 340. It’s useful to contrast the guts of the three species by picking examples with non-narrative tertiary material such as 192, 239, and 340. And it’s fun to contrast examples with narrative tertiary material across species like 219, 254, and 341. Once you get your bearings, the real payoff comes from listening to the compositions sequentially, because the ensemble recorded them sequentially and you can hear the growing comfort of the performers with both the compositions and each other through the release.

Nate Wooley’s Sound American 16: The Braxton Issue [hotlink:], particularly contributions from Erica Dicker, Kyoko Kitamura, Anne Rhodes, and Graham Lock, was especially helpful in beginning to understand the thought behind this music.

First Species
To briefly recap, first species GTM is characterized by the prevalence of the primary melody, a steady pulse built from a long string of eighth notes. The first four compositions of GTM (Syntax) 2017 are first species.

Composition No. 192 (dedicated to the composer Maryanne Amacher)

Previously recorded on Composition 192 (For Two Musicians and Constructed Environment).
The primary melody starts out as oohs and ahhs, quickly moves to letters and eventually incorporates single numbers. When recording the first two species, the ensemble was divided into four groups of three with group conductors to promote cohesion as the performers became more familiar with the material, performance, and other performers. This recording is “simple” enough to hear those four distinct groups. Groups will depart the primary melody to perform secondary material from Composition 192, but they usually return quickly and there seems to always be at least one group on the primary melody. Some words are introduced, mostly colors, as well as some syllables like “som” and “ead.” There’s brief operatic singing and whispering and some extended technique like skittering, scatting, or beatboxing. “Slow it down, man!” is heard towards the middle of the performance - a startling, humorous break in the string of numbers and letters - and the track closes out with the allusory phrases
“slow down, turn left, for new connections”
“in the early model of the system”
“never hesitate” 

Composition No. 219 (+380) (dedicated to the vocalist/composer Sister Rosetta Thorpe)

Previously recorded on Three Orchestras (GTM) 1998, 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*, Trio (Knoxville) 2016*, and James Ilgenfritz’ Compositions (Braxton) 2011. 
219 immediately ups the ante. The primary melody is mostly composed of syllables like “bok” and “zim” and the syllables seem to mutate into each other like zim > zoom > zoop > soup. Contributing to this blurring effect, the primary melody is sung so slightly out of phase at some points that it creates a kind of multiphonic effect rather than a polyrhythm. There are more diversions from the primary melody. And this performance is very colorful, with whistles, wails, hums, sucking in, breathing out, panting, skitting, scatting, beatboxing, bird-like chirps and warbles, wookie trills, and the kind of lip flapping that Hannibal Lector does after mentioning fava beans. And amongst all this color is diversions to the utterly amusing narrative of Trillium J (380), in which Mrs. Walton is on trial for the destruction of her husband and counters such cross-examinations as “Am I to believe the 700 hatchet marks found on his body were an accident,” “What about the stash of bazookas,” and “What about the 400 lbs of napalm found on the body” with “It’s one thing to be dead, it’s another to have bad taste!”

Composition No. 220 (+67, 83, 85) (dedicated to the composer Florence Price)

Previously recorded on Duets (Pittsburgh) 2008, Alumni Orchestra (Wesleyan) 2005*, Quartet/Quintet (NYC) 2011, and Noël Akchoté’s Composition 220 (Plays Anthony Braxton).

Like 219, 220 is another colorful performance but it trades in narrative tertiary material for non-narrative, orchestral and improvisation pieces. Despite the increasing complexity from diversions to secondary and tertiary material, more complex syllables, and more extended techniques, it’s still easy to hear the primary melody throughout the performance and to hear the four clusters of performers. Syllables are now as complex as “fifth” and words like “baku” and “zakay” are prevalent. Extended techniques include ululating like a howler monkey, groaning, harried gurgling, screeching, muted yells, and sighs sounding like pigeon wings. A key development in this performance is the ensemble’s growing comfort with silence; certain portions are more sparse than even 192 and there are two moments of silence lasting several seconds, often to come back in impactfully.

Composition No. 221 (+71, 90, 91) (dedicated to the composer Pauline Oliveros)

Previously recorded on Three Orchestras (GTM) 1998 and Syntactical GTM Choir (NYC) 2011*.
221 can be viewed as the culmination of first species techniques explored in the previous compositions. It opts for non-narrative tertiary material. The ensemble continues to use long rests. And some more extended techniques include voice-cracking wails, rapid bubbling (like drowning), tongue clicking, and lip smacking. But the emphasis here appears to be on the blurring effect from 219. When words and syllables aren’t travel-related (west, train, north, tour, bike, traffic, ride, bus) they blur, like ran > run > red > rev, rest > west, hill > heal, fuss > fuzz, riev > reiv > rev > riv. And the performers begin really playing with time and space, like a chorus singing “lake” slower and lower until it sounds like a tape at half speed, or everyone saying “bike tour” out of phase and at different tempos and volumes to create polyrhythm. After the bike tour polyrhythm, there’s a kind of Beach Boys unified chorus, a quick diversion to something like the stabbing music from Psycho, and then every group is doing something different at different tempos before all coming back to an impactful, unified “ooooh” at the last second. It provides an exciting glimpse into the possibilities of the next two species.

* as tertiary material

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Meet the Experimental Vocalists #3

By Eyal Hareuveni

Three vocal artists, three distinct extended vocal techniques and improvisation strategies, and three different atmospheres. The voices of these vocal artists - Audrey Chen, Danishta Rivero and Esti Kenan Ofri - are often used as an intelligible instrument, even an alien one, but still one of the most potent instrument in their challenging releases.

MOPCUT - Accelerated Frames of Reference (Trost, 2019) ****

The trio MOPCUT claims to be a medium-length noise-style that covers the head and ears with a vertical bang and a horizontal wave. MOPCUT also argues that its sonic output is a popular style for all ages, genders and generations, but adds that ts soundscapes should be trimmed evenly all around the circumference so that the noise at the front reaches the inner eye while the waves on the sides cover (or almost fully cover) the ears. 

You can trust this insightful advice. This trio - American vocal artist and analog electronics player Audrey Chen, known also as a cellist, a close collaborator of British vocal artist Phil Minton and half of the duo Beam Splitter with Norwegian trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø; French electric guitar player Julien Desprez, leader of his own ensembles and member of Mats Gustafsson’s Fire Orchestra and Eve Risser’s White Dessert Orchestra, and Austrian drummer-synthesizer player-vocalist Lukas König, member of Viennese groups Kompost 3 and 5K HD- are going to spin your heads and ears so thoroughly until your inner eyes will not only absorb their wild soundscapes, but most likely may beg for more from this rare stuff. Obviously, by then you may lose all connection with real human languages and earth’s gravity.

Accelerated Frames of Reference, the debut album of this trio, lasts only 32 minutes but you have to be in top shape - mental and physical one - in order to fully comprehend the series of ultra-accelerated sonic events that MOPCUT keeps creating. Chen rushes with her ultrasonic stream of consciousness, fragmented vocalizations as a shaman possessed by mysterious spells, and is always busy mutating and distorting her mad songs with vintage electronics. Desprez intensifies this troublesome and urgent atmosphere with imaginative, explosive noises and effects and König deepens these blistering attacks with disruptive, alien beats and noises of his own. MOPCUT chose to conclude with wild journey with the quiet and meditative “Soundspa”. A peaceful farewell or a promise for more insightful messages from the MOPCUT spaceship?

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Voicehandler - Light from another light (Humbler Records, 2018) ***½

Voicehandler is the American, Oakland-based duo of vocal artist and modular electronics player Danishta Rivero and percussionist Jacob Felix Heule. Voicehandler describes itself as playing “incantatory music grounded in the most primitive and somatic instruments -- the voice and percussion -- juxtaposed with contemporary, disembodied electronics”.  Light from another light is the second release of the duo, following Song Cycle (Humbler, 2015), and recorded during three live performances in May and June 2017 in n Berkeley, California. 

Each of three improvisations offers a distinct atmosphere and left-off-center song forms. “June 8” explores an immediate, psychedelic atmosphere where Rivero employs a stream of wild, hallucinogenic vocalizations, some are extended and processed by electronics. Heule envelops her associative vocalizations with intense percussive chaos of his own, but as a precise and highly nuanced acoustic mirror for her electronic-enhanced noises. “June 1” suggests an almost transparent and fragile drone where Rivero mysterious, processed vocals and fractured noises fly on a thin skies of sparse percussive sounds. “May 25” is the longest and most varied improvisation despite its relative, minimalist atmosphere. Rivero and Heule succeed to form a playful and very informative and sometimes even a seductive conversation between two proud ambassadors from totally different yet friendly sonic planets, eager to share their rare wisdom and hidden desires. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Esti Kenan Ofri / Oren Fried/ JC Jones - La Sprezzatura Ensemble (Kadima Collective, 2018) ***

Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from count and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione's 16th century “The Book of the Courtier”, defined by the author as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".  La Sprezzatura Ensemble is also the Israeli trio of vocalist Esti-Kenan Ofri, percussionist Oren Fried and lap-style Spanish guitar player Jean Claude Jones. The Italian-born Kenan Ofri plays regularly with Fried in the Kol Oud Tof trio (in Hebrew: voice, oud, drum) with oud player Armand Sabah, exploring songs from the Jewish Sephardic-Moroccan tradition. She is also a close collaborator of Jones, since the days he was in-demand double bass player.

The five untitled pieces of the trio debut album were recorded in Jerusalem during 2017 and 2018 and are described as “abstract, formative discourse”. Only the first and fifth improvisations succeed as both Kenan Ofri and Fried flirt with twisted abstractions of a sensual Sephardic song form while Jones explores the sonorities of the lap-style Spanish guitar but pushes the interplay to more risk-taking extremes. But other pieces fail to keep that interplay and the whole of this trio sounds far less meaningful than its separate parts, and Kenan Ofri, Fried and Jones do their own things with no memorable sonic events.

Read more:

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Evan Parker & Paul G. Smyth

Calenture and Light Leaks (Weekertoft, 2019) *****

The Dogs of Nile (Weekertoft, 2019) *****

First, of course, there’s Evan Parker. For some 50-odd years, Parker’s helped define the sound and shape of avant-garde/free jazz and improvised music. The great success of Parker’s music is how poetic his playing is; if free jazz began its life around 1960, then Parker was one of the early Homeric musicians to define and speak its language. His playing has evolved into bright, occasionally gnomic motifs, often strung together by flowing recursions blown in his effortless circular technique. Yet, if Homer’s long-puzzled-over “wine-dark sea” has given us no better understanding of the color of the Aegean, then Parker’s literal notes and techniques face the same challenge: does a line-by-line or note-by-note reading get us closer to the music?

And now here’s Paul G. Smyth, one of the great contemporary pianists—regular readers know me to be a champion of his music. There’s a category of pianists who play extremely well, and there’s a category I think of as pianists who speak in piano. For peers, think Alexander Hawkins, Angelica Sanchez, Aruán Ortiz, Kaja Draksler, Kris Davis, Matt Mitchell, et al., the Joycean modernists of free jazz. Smyth is both among these players, and slightly to the side of them, like David Virelles or Eve Risser. His recordings thus far on his Weekertoft label have been either solo or duos, and, like both Virelles and Risser, highly exploratory and experimental.

It’s a bit cheeky to put Smyth among a group of Joycean pianists, but I mean it like this: the group of players above and their many peers have taken a form—free jazz or free improvisation—that evolved over decades and are now playfully, delightfully, intellectually refining and subverting it, sometimes through radical interpretation. Where Joyce playfully relocated Homer’s wine-dark sea to Dublin Bay, transforming it into the snotgreen sea (or, more fittingly, the scrotumtightening sea), Smyth plays lovingly with Parker, as he alternately echoes, conducts, and even at times appears to ruminate on Parker’s music.

These two albums newly available from Weekertoft catch Parker and Smyth at two different venues, with two very different sound worlds. Calenture and Light Leaks was recorded in March 2015, at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, Ireland. It’s a beautiful album, with really fantastic production. Parker’s tenor sax sounds warm and full, and the details of Smyth’s playing are fully rendered. After opening with some dramatic duo recitations, the duo settles into a lengthy, patient improvisation. During the latter half of “Calenture and Light Leaks,” Parker and Smyth both perform solos, furious, spiraling solos that call back to earlier moments of dialogue with references and ellipses that constantly pull you back in. The full set takes its time, building and burning and crashing, when all is said and done, into a tremendous round of applause. I can only imagine what it felt like in person, though the thrill of the room feels duly captured here.

The Dogs of Nile was recorded 2 years later, in March 2017 back in in Dublin. Parker is on soprano this time, and the performance is packed more densely. In between both albums stood Brexit, which Parker surprisingly supported, explaining his vote was rooted in his suspicions of the EU more broadly. Thus, here he was in 2017, in Ireland, playing a ferocious set. The sound on The Dogs of Nile is slightly less rounded, but it’s not lacking in passion or technique. In this way, it’s almost the Odyssey to Calenture’s Iliad. Or, it’s Finnegans Wake to Calenture’s Ulysses. Or, I’m pushing these comparisons too far, and the two aren’t necessarily related, Janus-faced, but are nonetheless fantastic albums of top-notch free improvisation. Should I then heed my own words, let the music speak for itself, and end here? Yes I will yes, and exit under cover of night.

Available on Bandcamp and worth every pound, dollar, drachma, or whatever’s rattling around in your pockets.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Two from Chris Corsano - Featuring Mette Rasmussen, Okkyung Lee, and Ches Smith

Percussionist extraordinaire Chris Corsano had another busy year as usual, playing traps on multiple releases in 2018, one of which made it into our album of the year poll. His is one name on a short list of musicians that I actively search out new releases from. I have yet to hear him play on a record that I didn’t like, and I’ve raved about him extensively enough in prior reviews that I’ll keep my admiration in check here. These two releases find him in good company, the first in his long running duo with saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and the second in a trio with cellist Okkyung Lee and drummer Ches Smith.

Rasmussen/Corsano Duo – A View of the Moon (from the Sun) (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

The latest from the Rasmussen/Corsano duo, dubbed A View of the Moon (From the Sun) is their first recorded as a twosome since 2015’s excellent All the Ghosts at Once. Now as then the playing is first-rate and the communication is exceptional. As you would expect the duo has really polished their language, and there are certainly some intriguing moments on this disc. You won’t find anything shockingly new here, but it’s a snapshot-in-time and a continuation of their long running collaboration. That’s a long-winded way of saying that if you enjoyed their first release you’ll most certainly enjoy this one. The album begins with “Many People Were Scandalized – Some Still Are”, where the first half or so is defined by some very inventive, lyrical saxophone from Rasmussen supported with exceedingly busy, colorful percussion from Corsano. The second half is more probing but still lively, presenting some spectacularly subtle clatter from the drums, over which the saxophone spins ideas and multiplicity, ending on a breathy note. The next piece “Folding in on itself” starts with bluesy saxophone licks over fairly subdued percussion that builds in intensity over several minutes and then goes quiet, leaving Rasmussen room for tangled solo runs and pungent honking before reappearing and capping off the piece in a churning interchange.

The following track, “Let's Have a Rain Check on the Franchise”, is a more sparse and probing improvisation. Rasmussen utilizes flutter tonguing through the first have before going in a more percussive, staccato direction which she breaks up with lamented phrases and gentle growl. Corsano is a distant storm of percussion, all snare roll and cymbal chatter with highlights of bell-like ride. “Today's White Blood Cell” is another understated piece of restrained saxophone over a drone of bowed cymbal. It’s not so much about building dynamics as maintaining stasis. “Well Now, There, Then” is full of soulful saxophone passages interspersed with resonant long tones, quick runs, and reed squeals. Corsano provides a varied percussive foil for Rasmussen’s creativity, again coaxing the best from his collaborator with his impressionable playing. “You're Breaking Up, the House is Going through a Tunnel” involves more muted flutter tonguing and multiphonics from the saxophone, accented with lightly bowed cymbal and snare rolls. Passages of rhythmic reed popping are offered over light percussive accents before a build-up in intensity towards the end of the piece. “A Detail” is an interesting texture based invention, Rasmussen this time utilizing preparations to induce some interesting vibrations in her instrument. Corsano adds a bit of slide clarinet (an interesting homemade-looking instrument that he plays from time to time) to the mix which adds some color to the limited sax/drums palette. The album closes with “Another Detail” which is probably the most sonically varied track on the album. From softly played exchanges to full on skronk, it covers the highs and lows of the duo's dynamics along with a bit of everything in between.

Available from Clean Feed.

Corsano/Lee/Smith – Libra Rising (Self, 2018) ****

Libra Rising captures a performance at New York’s The Stone (presumably at the New School location) in October of 2018, finding the trio of Corsano, drummer Ches Smith, and cellist/composer Okkyung Lee engaged in a busy and colorful free improvisation pitting intensity vs. moderation. The piece starts off busily and builds from there, the stirring percussion being counterbalanced by Lee’s growling, screeching cello, each building off the other until around the six minute mark where things slow down and become more textural and introspective. This precedes a build-up in intensity that increases linearly from seven to around nine minutes, at which point the trio is almost back up to their full gait. Lee’s elegant glissandos are supported by the shaky junkyard/found-object percussion, which deflates into near silence with Lee lightly bowing along with an almost transparent snare roll. The cello/percussion combination takes on the timbre of a burning balloon factory shortly thereafter, building into a rumble of friction squeaks and crackling rhythm before the spectral pendulum once more signals a return to quiescence. Amid the persistent but sparse percussion, Lee plays her cello as a metamorph, wringing a variety of sounds and musical shapes from the instrument and leading the two percussionists into a final crescendo, reaching a roiling apogee before falling back to rest again.
I’ll admit that when I saw two drummers I was expecting a bit more explosiveness from their end, but neither Corsano nor Smith is keen to dominate the proceedings and instead they provide a platform for Lee’s cello to dance. The improvisation is very well recorded and exhibits the excellent communication and character that master improvisers exude. The playing is confident and sharp, and there are several moments where they teeter on the edge of a full-on blowout, yet every trip to the threshold results in a return to orbit which I quite like. Not every improvisation needs to shred the skin from your face. And although we know this cat has claws, in this instance it’s happy to sit on your lap and purr.
Listen and download from Bandcamp

Monday, March 11, 2019

Andrew Barker & John Dikeman – All Things Are Possible (Phantom Ear Music, 2018) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

I was reading an interview with the great late Bill Dixon just recently, the one that was included in the liner notes of the Bill Dixon In Italy LP. Dixon, apart from being a very important artist, was also a great out-of-the-box thinker. In this interview he pointed out how jazz had developed from black music into a music appreciated by everyone, and that for many years now, it was not only the African-American community that was contributing to the radical evolution of what once was called “jazz”. His affiliation with European music made this easier for him to comprehend.

Listening to this CD, I find myself again looking at the past, while I listen two white guys (ok, this is the last time I will refer to any colours at all) contributing to the progress of an important free jazz tradition (now that’s what I call an antithesis…). John Stevens, when referring to the Face To Face duo he recorded with his friend, Trevor Watts, noted that they played like friends. Facing each other (thus the title), challenging in every way each other, playing at the same level, both in audio standards as well as aesthetically.

This is, or must be, the case in All Things Are Possible, a CD unfortunately of very limited edition. Andrew Barker continues to develop himself just under the radar even though he resides in the States. To my ears he is one of the most important artists in free jazz and improvisation, and for almost two decades has recorded some exceptionally good reeds-drums duos. John Dikeman has been in good form for many years now. Coming from the ritualistic tradition of my beloved Albert Ayler’s free blowing, he is a powerhouse. Saxophonists like Dikeman - here on tenor - take the risk of saturating a recording by overblowing. I take it not as an expression of ego, but more as a need to express oneself in the way this fine instrument can allow.

Barker is well equipped and experienced to overcome all this, while Dikeman, throughout this CD is very communicative. The six tracks that comprise the 38 minutes of this CD seem like a long continuous improvisation, putting together the dots of duos of the past with the present. Even though their points of reference are definitely in the past, it is very tempting to listen to their music with new ears. You can, then, discover the subtleness and ego-free approach of Barker to drumming. Or, the will of a powerful saxophonist not to blow so hard on the upper scales, but rather play the game of collective improvising. They leave no room for solos; it’s the two of them playing together all the way.

I’m always a fan of duos. They incorporate, as John Stevens remarked, a basic human stance. That of friendship, a camaraderie of some sorts, a joining of two different personalities into one combined total expression that we call music. Definitely, even today, all things are possible, so a sax-drums duo can be exhilarating, refreshing and out of the blue joyous.

The beautiful artwork of Wendy Given is an added pleasure for me.

CHECK UP! with Tom Burris - on the air! Thursday! Listen!

Tom Burris will be on the Indianapolis' WQRT this week with his show "CHECK UP!", on Thursday the 14th from 6-8pm Eastern Standard Time (US).

You can live stream the show at - and if you live within the Indianapolis city limits, tune into 99.1 WQRT FM.

 Be sure to check it out, the line up of music is stellar with cuts from Marker, Anthony Braxton, Miles Okazaki, Tyshawn Sorey, Satoko Fujii and many more!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

TORU - Volumes 1-6 (Self-released, 2018-2019), Anthology 1 (Chant, 2019) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Something we’re coming to discover about Bandcamp as a platform for distributing music is that expectations about what an album is and when it drops are slowly being dismantled by artists who have learned different ways of using the service. In some cases, they’re creating subscriptions to deliver music directly to audiences’ inboxes. For example, Dave Douglas’s label Greenleaf opens up their deep archive for digital download and/or streaming, in addition to producing unique, subscriber-only releases. And then there are groups like TORU, a trumpet trio churning out a fantastic amount of fiery free improvisation.

The core of TORU is Sam Eastmond, Celeste Cantor-Stephens, and Andy Watts, all on trumpet, but there is no actual TORU prime, or TORU 0 recording. Eastmond, Cantor-Stephens, and Watts share an audible connection, and the continued growth of the group depends very much on the strength of their rapport. For each album released so far (and several others that I’ve heard), a guest is brought in to add a fourth voice. It feels like an extended collective is being formed, and it’s probably not far down the line before different clusters of core trio members and various guests form and re-form, whether in live sessions or on other records.

The guests themselves tease the lineup of a dream sextet: Sam Day Harmet on clarinet and mandolin (Volume 1), Mike Wilkins on sax and bass clarinet (Volume 2), Sarah Gail Brand on trombone ( Volume 3), Otto Willberg on bass (Volume 4), Moss Freed on guitar (Volume 5), and Marco Quarantotto on drums ( Volume 6). Meanwhile, the song titles give a sense of the state of this collective union: “Suicide By Society,” “ICE ICE Babycages,” “Boris the Blundercunt,” “The Laundromat of Despair On the Street of Broken Dreams,” “This Cruddy Age,” “Anxiety Now.” The cheekiness of the titles is more than a head fake, there’s plenty of joy and humor woven through the “we are screwed” anger. It’s not all doom and gloom, ye who enter can rest assured.

Albums tend to open with the group plunging straight in, as with Volume 3’s “You Are So Beautiful To Me; I Mean To Anyone Else Not So Much, But To Me” and Volume 5’s canon-esque “Piccadilly Line Schvitz.” Brand and Freed are brilliant additions to TORU, the former rounding out the brass voicing, and the latter tilting it on end with some delightfully angular phrasing. On Volume 4’s “Dostoyevsky On Ice,” the trio plays an improvised round, with Willberg’s bass occasionally dropping in with a counter-melodic run. What’s exciting on these albums is how each one’s featured guest shapes and inspires the improvisation, in its literal voicing as well as the shape of the group’s spontaneous performance. Wilkins’s Volume 2 entry has maybe the most classic free improvisation feel, with the quartet deploying a variety of mutes and extended techniques to add layers of playfulness on tracks like “Unicorn In My Balls” and “ICE, ICE, Babycages” (a standout, even as a shameful reminder of current US immigration policy). Quarantotto’s heavy drums inject Volume 6 with a lively garage-punk aesthetic.

All TORU albums are available on Bandcamp, and there are already at least another three ready to be released. Anthology 1, newly released by and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and Jon Madof’s Chant Records, features outtakes from each recording session. In a way, that would be a decent preview of the whole, but I’d recommend going at these in order of release, as it’s probably the best view of how quickly and radically TORU has grown and flourished.

Listen and download from Bandcamp: Volume 1 featuring Sam Day HarmetVolume 2 featuring Mike WilkinsVolume 3 featuring Sarah Gail BrandVolume 4 featuring Otto WillbergVolume 5 featuring Moss FreedVolume 6 featuring Marco QuarantottoAnthology 1

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Flavio Zanuttini - Notte (Umland/Creative Sources, 2018) ****

By Stef

The Italian trumpeter Flavio Zanuttini started his career in big bands or smaller ensembles with quite an eclectic repertoire, ranging from blues, rock to bop and beyond, in bands with names such as the North East Ska Jazz Orchestra, the Abbey Town Jazz Orchestra or Arbe Garbe with Eugene Chadbourne. Bands that bring fun and entertainment, and their reach is possibly relatively local in Italy.

But next to these albums, Flavio Zanuttini is now carving out his own space in avant-garde jazz and improvisation, with amongst other tributes to Don Cherry and to Monk, and more recently in a few albums released on Clean Feed, which are still more accessible than this album, his first solo release. The sonic universe we get here is closer to the excellent album with Axel Dörner, Torben Snekkestad and Florian Walter, called "Bruit 4", also released on Umland.

In approximately thirty minutes Zanuttini brings us nine improvised pieces, all developed on specific techniques, yet luckily going beyond the mere exhibition of skills. The polyphonics, the eery tones, the whispers, the gliding tones, the screams and intense pressurising, the circular breathing (on "Scelsi"!) are more than just that.

The album is called "La Notte", the night, as the art work illustrates, and the music brings us to that space where clarity and vision disappear and only sound is still available to guide us, yet these sounds are perplexing: moaning, frightening, disconcerting, exciting ... suggesting a world that is beyond our grasp yet is also obviously present, and - as in "Cantabile" - the enigmatic opacity of the night is suddenly lightened by the classical tones that shine through this darkness like a window, adding something human, and familiar.

You can listen to experimental techniques like a guest in a circus: you watch and you are amazed at the skills you see, but nothing more than that. It becomes art when the same techniques are presented in such a way that they change the way you listen and captivate you emotionally and esthetically, revealing something deeper and more valuable. It's hard to turn technical skills into something meaningful. And Zanuttini does just that. I really can't wait to hear more from him.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Michael Foster, Katherine Young & Michael Zerang - Bind the Hand(s) That Feed (Relative Pitch, 2018) *****

By Nick Metzger

Some of my all-time favorite music has been the result artists who, dissatisfied with the limitations of their instruments, adapt the functionality by means of preparations or through extended techniques in order to create new sounds not linked with the instrument. There is a long lineage of artists who have done this and the fantastic Relative Pitch release “Bind the Hand(s) That Feed,” presents us with an exciting trio of such musicians, each of whom is known for pushing their respective vehicles beyond standard techniques and sounds and into more exciting and experimental directions. The ferociously productive saxophonist Michael Foster has created an entire vocabulary from extended technique, preparations, and amplification to delivered some of the freshest ideas in free improvisation, noise, or otherwise over the past several years. Similarly, composer and bassoonist Katherine Young pushes her instrument well past its typical orchestral role into studies of timbre and dynamics. Her use of subtle electronic effects on this record and elsewhere transforms the bassoon into something else entirely, almost like a living, breathing entity. Drummer Michael Zerang likely requires no introduction for our readers. The hyper-innovative percussionist and composer has been at this since the mid-1970’s and is himself a living legend in free music circles, having played and collaborated with the veritable who's-who of the global improvisation community. It goes without saying that you can expect this trio has served up something very special here, forgoing any expectations of what a woodwinds/percussion trio should sound like and delivering instead an exciting and unique set of improvisations that absolutely demands repeated listening to fully absorb. With a bit of contemplation, the album title makes perfect sense.

The six tracks are simply titled “A” through “F”, which I like because titles for verbally inexpressible music like this would be facetious. “A” is the longest track at almost 12 minutes, and it is apparent right from the start that the listener is in for an interesting ride. It begins unobtrusively enough, but this lasts a very short time before the action ramps up significantly. The palette of sounds utilized here (and throughout the album) is fantastically unusual and grotesque. Foster’s frenetic gurgling, popping, fluttering, vocalizing maelstrom is complemented nicely by his cohorts, with Zerang wringing all sorts of rubbed/scraped grima from his traps, along with more subtle chime and bell-like sounds. Young’s bassoon sound is so far from what you’d expect from the instrument that it’s difficult to place her at times. I hear distorted guitar, groaning, percussive bass drum thumping, termite colonies eating away at a rotting stump in the middle of a jungle, and the deep resonant growl of the Leviathan sounding from the abyss. For “B” Foster and Young play burbling, grunting, flatulent, slurping sounds over Zerang’s impenetrable howl of scrape and hiss. Young adds a bit of unprocessed fluttering bassoon drone towards the end that comes on like an icy breeze over molten rock. “C” sounds of squeaking cork and woodpecker drumming, of cicada calls and dog whimpers. The vocalizations used throughout by the woodwind players recalls trombonist Paul Rutherford’s pioneering solo works. A brief aside as I’m listening: they couldn’t have found a drummer more perfect for this type of record than Zerang; his playing here is spot-on perfect and elevates the playing of his partners. “D” is the shortest track at a bit less than 3 minutes, but it may also be the most intense and wet (you’ll see what I mean) sounding track on the album. On “E” the force of the sound has abated and the improvisation is more subtle and stretched out. A much needed grounding that, intentional or not, yields something slightly warm and expansive for the listener in the midst of what feels at times like utter madness. The closing piece “F” begins pretty quietly, and in contrast to the rest of the record it features a handful of recognizable timbres. You know it’s going to get weird at some point and indeed it does, as over the last several minutes we are treated to some roiling sax squelch and high octane percussion hovering over Young’s bassoon drone, which refuses to play nice and wants to sound like a synthesizer, which as it turns out is the perfect thing for it to sound like.

I think it’s worth stressing that extended techniques/preparations aren’t used here as highlights, as punctuation, or to add color. They are the name of the game. It’s almost like listening to an alien species, and the deeper you listen, the more you are rewarded. There is an uncommon depth to the music, mainly due to the proficiency of the artists at improvising with these sorts of sounds. It doesn’t seem as if there’s any real-time experimentation going on, at least none that I can discern (the phrase ‘I meant to do that’ keeps coming to mind). The musicians have such fluency in this style of improvisation that the resulting album borders on some sort of magic. What at first seems like chaotic, punitive noise transforms itself into something sublime with a bit of concentration, comparable to a sonic autostereogram. No doubt about it, this will be a difficult record for some, but it’s also a very special one. On first listen you may think I’ve lost it, but keep listening, I’m confident that you’ll see what I mean.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

If you're interested, the album's launch concert will take place at the Elastic Arts in Chicago on March 14th. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Iro Haarla’s Around Again - The Music of Carla Bley (TUM, 2019) ****½

By Eyal Haruveni

Iro Haarla’s Around Again is the second Nordic tribute to influential and prolific American pianist-composer Carla Bley, released in recent years and follows the reeds-piano duo of Fredrik Ljungkvist and Mattias Risberg (And Now The Queen, Lilao, 2016). Haarla, a composer and bandleader in her own right, known for her role as arranger and co-composer of seminal Finnish drummer Edward Vesala work (her late husband), suggests fresh interpretations of Bley’s early compositions, some were covered by the duo of Ljungkvist and Risberg.

Most of Bley’s compositions covered by Haarla’s Around Again were featured on Paul Bley Trio iconic album, Closer (ESP Disk, 1965), described by Haarla as “one of the most important recordings of all time” and Bley as her “favorite pianist”. But Haarla has no intentions to adopt the interpretive perspective of Paul Bley, one of the first musicians to play Carla Bley’s compositions (and her first husband). She comments that Closer and Paul Bley solo piano album Open, To Love (ECM, 1973) made a lasting impression on her as a young student. Haarla enlisted to the recording of The Music of Carla Bley veteran drummer Barry Altschul, who has played in Bley’s Closer and on many other albums of the Paul Bley, in addition to her close partner, double bass player Ulf Krokfors, who initiated this project.

Haarla sheds a new light on some of the most enduring compositions of Carla Bley, somehow more introspective, delicate and thoughtful than the powerful, ubeat and often whimsy, early perspective of Paul Bley. Haarla’s new interpretations sketch Carla Bley, as Haarla herself, as an independent and strong-minded composer that refuses to employ conventional compositional strategies or to subscribe to common genre conventions, a rare phenomena “in the macho world of American jazz”, as Haarla adds. These compositions, recorded in Helsinki in November 2015, were written on just one page of notes or even less, and represents different aspects of Bley’s one-of-her-kind personality - humorous and ironic, restless but playful, dreamy yet determined, open to improvisation and inviting totally different musical personalities. Haarla succeeds to distil the elusive, poetic, haiku-like essence of each of the 12 compositions of Bley, even though she has often chosen a traditional narratives of head-solos-head. She plays with great sensitivity and manages to sound emotional and cerebral at the same time, as she makes these compositions her own but still meditates on their mysteries simultaneously.

Haarla’s Around Again offers a sparse version of “Closer”; contemplative but engaging cover of “Vashkar”; charges the iconic “Ida Lupino” with a strong and transparent, lyrical vein, turns “Olhos De Gato” into a schizophrenic waltz filled with nervous steroids, enjoys an open, playful interplay on “King Korn” and plays “Utviklingssang” as a folk song. “Jesus Maria” that closes this album, one of the earliest compositions of Bley, is performed with reverent, spiritual mode. All these compositions are performed with profound melodic flow and with open senses of time and space. Altschul blends organically into the intimate, conversational and patient interplay of Haarla and Krokfors. His subtle playing always highlight surprising melodic games deep inside Bley’s compositions, as his imaginative solos introduction on ““Olhos De Gato” and “And Now, The Queen”.

The Music of Carla Bley is released with a beautiful art work of Finnish painter Ole Kandelin, insightful liner notes of Haarla, Krokfors and Altschul, an essay on the music of Carla Bley by Amy C. Beal, author of Carla Bley (University of Illinois Press, 2011) and the recorded history of each of Bley’s compositions.

You need such a beautiful gem at your home.

Listen here.