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Monday, August 19, 2019

Maja S.K. Ratkje – Sult (Rune Grammofon, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Maja S.K. Ratkje is a vocalist, composer, and, more generally, noise artist form Norway. As might be expected, her catalogue of releases and collaborations is deep and varied ranging from collaborations with Paal Nilssen-Love and Lasse Marhaug (the stellar Slugfield and my first introduction to Ratkje) to numerous solo recordings to her most stable and prolific group, Spunk (reviews here and here ). On some level, Spunk, with their fine, spacious textures and Ratkje’s subtle vocal warps and wefts are the best point of comparison for this album.

Nevertheless, Sult is not what I expected from Ratkje. It is, at times, more mellifluous than her other recordings, even if eerily so. At others, it is pulsing and disorienting. Rarely, however, does it approach the expansive and cacophonous soundscapes of her previous work (at least that with which I am familiar).

Sult begins with long, drawn pump organ overtones and continues meandering along that path. The mic is close and one can hear the clicks of the keys, but it seems that is not the point here. What Ratkje plays is emotive and (this took me off guard) even relaxing. The next track continues along similar lines, adding a guitar and soft, beatific vocals. And the following one follows suite, albeit with a more dizzying array of looped and pulsing melodies (yes, Reich seems an influence) and rich, crunchy percussive jangle.

This description, of course, does not do justice to what is actually going on here. Ratkje is an autodidact on the pump organ, and I believe a recent one at that. Although this music was composed for a ballet - “Sult” (Hunger) based on a Knut Hamsun novel - it is largely improvised during performances and on this recording. What makes this album so interesting is not only the window it opens into the ever-curious mind of Ratkje herself, but also the glimpses it gives into the contemporary possibilities of the pump organ beyond the 19th century novels, churches and bourgeois parlors for which it so appropriate. (To qualify that statement, some of the progressions and flourishes on this album, particularly that found in the final track “Kristiania” would have likely blended seamlessly into the Belle Époque.) It also presents a different Ratkje as vocalist, one who can still skitter, scat, and shriek with the best of them even as she exchanges her primal growls and screams for, at times, Björk-like vocal spirals and, at others, operatic descants. This is indeed experimental, but oddly pleasant as well. It is unconventional, but less because Ratkje grinds against the boundaries between music and raw sound than because she embraces melody and sonority. And, I am enamored.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Michael Janisch - Worlds Collide (Whirlwind Recordings, 2019) ****

By Sammy Stein

Michael Janisch is known to many as a musician and the force behind one of the UK's biggest jazz labels with a focus on European recordings, Whirlwind Recordings. He has been nominated for a MOBO Award and covered extensively by Jazzwise, NPR, the Guardian, Downbeat, The Telegraph, Jazz FM, BBC 2,3, 6 Music and more. The new album is an exciting listen and an adventurous one, following Paradigm shift, his 2015 project, yet very different in its essence.' Worlds Collide' sees Michael combining contemporary jazz influenced by London/New York scenes alongside free improvisations and soaring melodies over multi-metered grooves paying homage to artists such as Feli Kuti & Afro-Beat and the electronic music pioneer Aphex Twin. The influences are international and the styles varied and experimental, reflecting music he has championed through Whirlwind Recordings for so long. The album features Michael on double and electric basses and post production percussion, Jason Palmer on trumpet, John O'Gallagher on alto saxophone, Rez Abbasi on guitar and Clarence Penn on drums with guests John Escreet on Keys, George Crowley on tenor saxophone and Andrew Bain on drums and percussion . It was recorded at Abbey road Studio 3 in London. Michael says of this project he sees it as a new era and a big transition. The six tracks were written over a period of time, resulting in each having its own identity due to different inspirations.

The CD opens with the rock influenced 'Another London' announced by a strong bass line over which arcing themes are introduced and some rich horns and a mesmeric saxophone solo from John O'Gallagher. It reflects Janisch's positive view of walking through London and the diversity he observes and right through has a walking gait underneath. With the changes in layers, the listener senses the different people and areas observed, from cool shaded avenues to fast moving, noisy areas and at times, short peaceful interludes and a sense of time slowing, particularly in the key-led middle section. Then we are off, strolling, looking, seeing and hearing, the sax solo taking us to secret places hitherto only dreamt of. In 'An Ode To A Norwegian Strobe' the music centres at the start around the guitar patterns set by Rez Abbasi and the track is uplifting, the melodic lines explored and changed as the tack moves, ever quick, ever stirred, ever moving apart from a couple of quieter interludes, forward with each musicians having a say in how it is done.

'The JJ Knew' - has a sense of questioning and has been developed from an improvised personal, family lament from Michael's previous album - the depth of the melody, which is laid back and thoughtful is interjected with racey, faster pieces, indicating positive thoughts. The trumpet solo is glorious, soaring, searching and explorative with a lengthy drum and horns inter-discussion in the latter stages.

'Frocklebot' is named after an imaginary toy resembling a giraffe with mechanical wings created by the bassist's daughter. The opening is fan-fared question and answers from brass, horns and strings and percussion before a whole band dialogue is set up before a conversation between trumpet and guitar work the remains of the first half well. The dialogue is then handed over to bass and sax just before the half way mark. The guitar at times has a Sonny Sharrock tone whilst the patterns could be lifted from Coleman or Cherry. The sax and bass portion is explorative, emotive and driven forward by percussive lines, reflected by both players with the diversity of the bass being shown and it includes a lovely short swing-leaning interlude towards the subtle yet powerful finish with the trumpet and guitar re-joining. The percussion on this track changes fluidly and is outstanding.
The four part mini-suite 'Pop' is introduced by a gorgeous alto sax solo. Short but sweet. 'Pop' itself is dedicated to Michael's wife and, set in a minor key, is evocative and draws on the heart strings from the get-go. It has a peace about it and also a reflectiveness, as though watching something beautiful yet not quite able to capture it. Over the slight melancholy imbued by the minor key are sets of short, uplifting, tempo changes and solos breakout and vanish again, like ripples on a serene surface. It is a beautiful piece with the deep, redolence of the bass lines contrasting wonderfully with the horns, brass and guitar lines. At around the 5 minute mark is a lovely interlude between sax and bass with the sax soaring away, held in check only by the slow tempo and fixed key of the bass line before the piece settles into a melodic section, guitar led and prettier, before melding into gentleness again. The switch in beat emphasis in the final section adds further interest and layers.

'Freak Out' develops a groove from the start and an almost orchestral arrangement before the guitar develops sheets and waves of sound, turning rocky and jazzy tricks, supported in full by the rest of the musicians as they take their turns. This track shows the band as solo players and yet gloriously together too.

This is a CD which at once is different yet stuffed full with many good things about improvised jazz music. Combining technical wizardry and tweaks with good, solid playing, the music does not so much cross boundaries but rather unites them. It is a creation of a different kind and reflects the continual wonder which Janisch so evidently finds in music of all kinds.

Worlds Collide is available Sept. 6th

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Matt Mitchell - Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi Recordings, 2019) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

I have listened to Phalanx Ambassadors, the latest from pianist Matt Mitchell, an absurd number of times for an album that’s only been out a few months. Featuring a newly recorded quintet—with guitarist Miles Okazaki, Patricia Brennan on vibes and marimba, Kim Cass on bass, and Kate Gentile on drums—Phalanx Ambassadors promises a lot from the get-go, and more than lives up to that promise.

Mitchell's vibrancy and dexterity remind me often of Don Pullen, who also displayed a thrilling and restless creative spirit. Ahead of the album’s release, he made a few enticing remarks on social media that prompted me to reach out for, well, something not exactly an interview or conversation, but we did exchange emails, where he gamely provided some extra-textual commentary. Rather than share it here in a standard Q&A format—which is not how it flows, anyway—I wanted to interpose some of Mitchell’s responses alongside my thoughts about the album.

When we started emailing, I had just seen Mitchell on tour with Okazaki and his Trickster band. As readers likely know, these are two impossibly talented and warm players. Kim Cass and Patricia Brennan both played on Mitchell’s previous album, A Pouting Grimace, and many of us really enjoyed Gentile’s debut, Mannequins, which Mitchell played on. As a quintet or sextet, they’ve all played together for a few years, occasionally as the rhythm-section-only Phalanx Trio, and collectively their connections extend backward for years. That’s critical to hearing the album, I think, as it flows brilliantly from track to track. Additionally, the album was produced by David Torn, who gives the album its particular brightness.

As a follow-up to A Pouting Grimace, I was already hyped to hear what the album sounded like, when Mitchell tweeted: “If A Pouting Grimace was more of a ‘recording project’, this is a band dissecting material, w studio spices… More ‘grooves’, overall aggression and drive, also more tonally skirting diatonic-ish realms, relatively speaking. Some overt ‘melodicism’.” I had seen the cover art, and (incorrectly, it turned out) assumed the two albums might share some sensibility, aside from the name on the cover.
Phalanx and Pouting aren’t related, other than the fact that they share the same composer and bandleader. I actually finished all the music for Phalanx before I even thought of Pouting in its most embryonic stages. I composed the Phalanx music between 2011–summer 2014 off and on, first gig in 2016. The initial single-bar seed of Pouting was composed in the fall of 2013 on an Amtrak train, and the bulk of the Pouting album was composed during a couple days in November 2014 and mostly January 2017.

So the projects are temporally distinct from each other in terms of when my mind was dealing with them. I waited to record the Phalanx music until December 2018, mostly because the music is the most demanding to play of all the music of mine I’ve attempted to date, technically, rhythmically, in terms of the individual parts and as far as the band as a whole is concerned.

That tweet I did describes the material of the compositions—the piece “stretch goal” was the first piece composed, and all the other pieces are derived from it. Actually, all the tunes had the working title of “stretch goal” 1, 2, 3, etc, for a long time.

While the music totally has lots of the musical characteristics of my other work, both recorded and not-yet-recorded, I see these pieces as containing more overt relationships to “tonality” in the pitch sense, and rhythmically there is a good amount of material relying on rhythmic cycles that result in grooves of a more “grooving” sort than earlier things I’ve done. Obviously there are points where the rhythm and the harmony go further out at times, but I feel like a sort of balance is maintained.
On the album, you can definitely hear how demanding the music would be, especially over the course of several close listens, but that belies how much fun the music is. Opener, and seed piece, “stretch goal” bursts with something like a thrash-funk undercurrent to its jazzier upper waters. Here, Gentile uses cymbals much like Tyshawn Sorey or Marcus Gilmore, filling out the percussion layer with a tonally rich mix. And again, Torn’s production does a wonderful job directing listeners’ attention.

The richness of the band and studio come to the fore in “phasic haze ramps,” where melodies and various motifs and references circle and recur, interposed with some excellent improvisation, over the course of a 15-minute, somewhat loose composition. The result brought to mind førage, Mitchell’s amazing album-length cover/collage of Tim Berne’s music. The collage-type work happening on Phalanx is wildly different, however, with scraps of motifs and rhythmic concepts recurring from song to song in ways that really highlight the genealogy in Mitchell’s compositions. And throughout the album, Mitchell plays with voicing and echoes across multiple planes—not that the music is stratified, per se, but if the planes represent various tonal areas, ideas reach from one to another, bleeding between implied boundaries. As mentioned, there are already 3 chromatic instruments in the core group, but the liner notes mentioned both mellotron and Prophet 6, which literally amplify this effect:
There was a mellotron in the studio. I play it on “taut pry,” “zoom romp,” the very ends of “phasic haze ramps” and “ssgg,” and a little bit during my piano solo on “mind aortal cicatrix” as sort of a doppelgänger solo. And “be irreparable” is the track with the prophet. Roughly the second half of the tune has Prophet 6 improvising in the background, starting with one and expanding to 4 simultaneous solos.
Digging into the album more deeply, I had the feeling there were fewer, not more, guardrails in place, as far as the composition was concerned. That’s partly due to an inherent (though possibly not intentional) deception in the music, which is that improvisation and soloing is often one component of several composed areas, all simultaneously bouncing off each other. Following “stretch goal,” “taut pry” and “zoom romp” take this to the extreme, compressing the band into sub-2 minute compositions. As he does later on, “mind aortal cicatrix,” Mitchell adds mellotron on both tracks, which lightly shades in some fusion aspects of the music. But that more or less falls away once “phasic haze ramps” gets started. The lengthy centerpiece of the album, it’s one of several that got me thinking of Mitchell as a kind of Oulipian composer. (For those unfamiliar, Oulipo is a school of thought that imposing restrictions consequently frees a writer to produce more inventive and experimental work (see: Queneau, Perec, Matthews, Calvino).) But that’s not exactly what’s at play here, although my questions about this opened Mitchell up to talk about the genealogy of the Phalanx book:
Often, but not always, when I’m writing music I’m writing a group of pieces for a particular ensemble. The Phalanx music actually didn’t start off that way, but the 7 pieces are all definitely united by a few characteristics, and they have inter-relations: if “stretch goal” is the seed, “taut” and “zoom” are one branch, “ssgg” begins another one that spawns “phasic” in one direction, and “irreparable” is another branch off of “ssgg” which then further generated “cicatrix.”

[C]omposing music in almost any genre is sort of Oulipan by definition: there are constraints across all parameters, pitch, rhythm, form, etc., that sort of pre-define the world a nascent composition will inhabit. And in a sense, my approach to composing is pretty normal by the standards of some schools of composing thought of the past 50–100 years: wringing a lot out of a little, basically. Probably what makes my stuff a little different is that I choose unusual starting points, perhaps—like the single bar of music that spawned A Pouting Grimace. Essentially, though, when I compose I’m improvising very slowly using pencil and paper, with the freedom to deviate from the path or eschew things as I see fit.

That said, I’m definitely attracted to generative music, something pretty common in modern electronic music. But I always like taking such approaches and throwing wrenches in the works, and/or subjecting them to unconscious or inexplicable whims - sometimes in the composing process, but for sure with improvising, too, which is part of why I like to operate within the “jazz”/“post jazz” umbrella, or maybe more broadly, that of “American black music”—or at least see how all these things collide.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Bertrand Denzler/ Ensemble CoÔ - Arc (Potlatch, 2019) *****

By Stuart Broomer

Swiss-born, Paris-resident Bertrand Denzler is best known as an intrepid explorer of improvised music and the saxophone’s sonic and expressive range, from free jazz to improvised music, including the extraordinary group Hubbub whose music may offer immediately the rewards of meditation. In recent years he has emerged as a composer, his works including the quartet pieces called Horns 1.2 and 2.1 and the orchestra piece Morph written for the Parisian group ONCEIM, l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales.

That compositional focus takes a further step here, to a piece for strings in which Denzler appears only as composer. Ensemble CoÔ is a septet organized by bassist Félicie Bazelaire, consisting of the bowed strings of ONCEIM: violinist Patricia Bosshard; violists Cyprien Busolini and Elodie Gaudet; cellist Anaïs Moreau; and the bassists Bazelaire, Benjamin Duboc and Frédéric Marty. Significantly, Arc doesn’t follow the monolithic scale of those previous compositions; however, it retains the fascinating exploration of pseudo-drones, music that is continuous in texture but consisting of shifting materials, doing it, though, at radically truncated lengths. Instead it’s divided into two parts, which are then further subdivided.

Arc 1.1 is 18 minutes long and includes numerous short segments of varying lengths, averaging under a minute and separated from one another by silences of (roughly) 14 seconds each. Each of the short segments is characterized by continuous bowing, in which the three basses invariably dominate the texture, dense, sometimes multiphonic industrial growls (achieved perhaps by bowing simultaneously with both the wood and hair of the bow, with a slack bow or with two bows) or hollow harmonics echoing through the vast interiors of the instruments. Through these dense undercurrents pass the eerie, reedy tones of violin or viola, sometimes sounding like radio signals from deep space.

The lack of conventional development within the individual pieces turns them into objects of contemplation, the individual bow strokes and sustained tones of the instruments functioning like layers of gauze, with the gauze itself the subject of one’s concentration, the combinations of gauzes creating different textures and (to sustain the metaphor) colors. Each segment is distinct but similar in its fabrication; each silence becomes itself a component of the work.

The longer Arc 2.1 (23 minutes) is divided into two parts. The textures are denser and more varied as well as sustained, but the sense of shifting overlays remains. The first segment (about 11 minutes) is almost a harbour symphony (fog horns aren’t far away) and there are more dramatic gestures, like slowly ascending glissandi among some of the strings, as if a ship were somehow achieving the doppler effect of an approaching airplane.

These larger movements may be more complex, but they’re ultimately one with the short segments of 1.1. The entire work is possessed of an extraordinary, measured calm, a tranquility in movement, a dialectic between the still and the moving that constitutes a fresh aesthetic gesture, a cinematic effect in sound. The cumulative effect of the work is sufficiently plural that it may well include the individual musicians’ input and decisions. Reflecting Denzler’s background, the music achieves a sense of internal order that feels at once improvised and composed. Arc is one of the most interesting pieces of the year.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Udo Schindler/Jaap Blonk – Hillside Talks (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****

Relative Pitch’s catalogue has been widely expanding and blossoming lately. Since 2011, when the label began, it has been one of the most important labels in the free jazz and improvised music world. But checking out the batch of the label’s latest releases, I think a shift towards a more experimental and less “jazz” aesthetic is very clear. All in all with an ever expanding roster of amazing musicians and a catalogue full of great albums Relative Pitch is a label to watch out for every new release.

Jaap Blonk is not a newcomer when it comes to adventurous music, or more accurately, sounds. Using his voice and more often lately electronics, after he quit playing the sax, he has never been afraid of experimenting. Exposing himself through his music has been the only constant in a discography full of experimentation, curiosities and a lack of fear for failure. Hillside Talks is his first for this label.

I wasn’t aware of Udo Schindler’s big discography, basically in the field of improvisation. I must blame myself for this, even though the excuse is always there and present. We are all, and me, saturated with information, that there’s no time (sometimes there’s no will also) to figure out what to keep and what to throw away. Hillside Talks is a keeper for sure.

From the beginning of the first track from this live recording, I think two facts are pretty clear. Fact number one, this is an ongoing relationship that builds up as the recording unfolds. The two of them seem in a constant dialogue that consists mainly from the horns of Schindler and the vocal experiments of Blonk. Fact number two is that they seem to follow the same trajectory, while they build their sound. What amazes me is that they seem pretty certain and willing not to conform into thinking of what to do next. They do not allow their selves the luxury of preparing. Even in the basics. I might be wrong here, but isn’t this what a live recording should be like?

In all ten tracks of Hillside Talks we listen to a confirmation of a dialogue. Using various techniques they seem to be in a dialogue. Like in seminal improvisational recordings of the past (for example Face To Face with John Stevens and Trevor Watts), they take up the roles of friend and try to conceptualize it. Hillside Talks is like a long friendly discussion. It might incorporate laughs, anger, love, aggression, irony, improvisation, small talk. Whatever is handy.

An attitude like this comes as an antithesis to the well defined world of “serious” music or “professionalism”. Do not get me wrong, they are really serious and passionate. It’s just that this dialogue contains the element of a game, even a child’s game. Have you ever tried to grab any toy from a child’s hand? This music is that serious in the sense that they do not take themselves seriously. In this capitalist corporate careerist world we live in, we should be desperate for all this.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Bálazs Pándi, Roswell Rudd ‎– Ceremonial Healing (RareNoise Records, 2019) ****½

By Nick Ostrum

It has been a while since I reviewed a straight-up free jazz recording. So, I thought Ceremonial Healing, a UK Record Store Day release and one of the late Roswell Rudd’s final recording sessions, was as good a place to start as any. My first exposure to Rudd was a duo performance in 2005 of him and Henry Grimes at the Stone. I attended for Grimes but was absolutely blown away by interplay between the two musicians, by their ability to explore the depths of both bass and trombone and hold my excitement of the course of the 45 minute or so set. This put me on the path to the New York Art Quartet and various other projects involving Rudd.

That said, Ceremonial Healing is hardly a Roswell Rudd record. In fact, he appears on only a few tracks. (Consider the above a belated and regrettably short encomium.) This is a group effort, and one of a super-group spanning generations, scenes, and styles. Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson (saxes and, for Allen, EVI) are two of the longest serving members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Since 1995, Allen has been its indefatigable leader. Jamie Saft (here featured on Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, organs, Mellotron) and Trevor Dunn (bass) are both prolific musicians deeply entrenched in the contemporary downtown scene. Bálazs Pándi is the Hungarian drummer who has played with everyone from Ivo Perleman to Wadada Leo Smith to Merzbow to, more recently, Jim Jarmusch. Then, of course, there is the legendary Rowell Rudd. Pándi, Rudd, Dunn and Saft have collaborated before, most notably on their 2016 Strength and Power. In a way, this is two musical worlds colliding – the Chicago/Philadelphia Sun Ra school of the 1960s and the downtown New York school of the 2000s.

This collision works impeccably. The center, somehow, holds. Just listen to the energetic opener “Ioa” or the glitchy astro-blues and incantatory “Spells” and you will get a sense of what I mean. The music is spacey, thanks in large part to Saft’s Ra-inspired keyboard runs and interstellar effects and Marshall’s EVI. It is also tangible and terrestrial (or maybe just planetary) as Thompson’s cavernous baritone and Pándi and Dunn’s rhythmic pulsings ground us in an unknown space (the cover art places us on an eerily jaundiced mountain top) that at times seems bucolic and at others cold and barren. Pándi and Dunn’s noise-rock proclivities serve this ambiguous grounding role particularly well and add some new textures to the polyrhythmic panoply that customarily accompany Allen and Thompson. The front figures, when they do emerge, are the dual saxes (interspersed with some sharp and airy flute) and, when he appears, Rudd. I have seen Allen and Thompson several times over the last few years and am always amazed by this septuagenarian and nonagenarian(!) can still blow fire, even if the years have tempered their conflagratory outbursts. These musicians, however, can also stretch out, settle in, hit strides, and build deeply soulful melodies when given the space.

For his part, Rudd seems more reserved in his playing. (Given his ailing health at the time of recording, this should not come as a surprise.) Still, he maws, moans, and fusillades on “The Summoning” and “Honoring the Heavenly Spirits” (disc 2) and “Rapid Transformation” (disc 3). These three tracks are some of the more traditional pieces on the recording and, in that, three of the most inspired and moving. One gets the sense of tribute (to Ra or Rudd?) as yearning and transformation as drawn-out confusion, of loss and longing as well as progress. “Sacred Authority” evokes seventies Coltrane with a soft, billowing melody. “Goma” is a wonky track with b-movie keyboard effects, pitter-patter percussion, palpitating bass, and sparse but integral horn fanfares of Thompson. Pándi, Saft, and Allen (on his EVI) shine on this track as they convey an anxiety and playfulness that reminds me of the original Lost in Space series. “Amulet” has a similar rhythmic feel but is more active as a collective group improvisation as Allen and Thompson entangle their runs and the rest of the band seethe and roil. A fitting end to a remarkable set of sessions. After all, three hours of introspective, energetic, psychedelic, and simply masterful free improv inspired by Sun Ra at his most out? What more could one ask for?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Party Knüllers X Jaimie Branch – Live at the Casa (Self-released, 2019) ****

By Troy Dostert

In light of the accolades that were heaped upon her debut disc from 2017, Fly or Die, it’s perhaps understandable that a lot of listeners would first be drawn to Jaimie Branch’s name when encountering this rather oddly-titled release. But those who’ve been following the Party Knüllers for the past few years know that the duo, comprised of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, are not about to be overshadowed by anyone. Defining themselves as an “experimental garage jazz duo,” they make a hellacious racket, as documented on some fairly obscure releases like their self-titled debut (Pieces of Coal Music, 2014) and Gold (Hispid, 2015). They’ve also teamed up previously with keyboardist Jim Baker, on the memorably titled Four Images of Wank (Hispid, 2014). Irreverent to the core, they certainly share Branch’s defiant modus operandi, making this meet-up, a live recording from the Casa Del Popolo in Montreal in 2018, an eminently reasonable one.

Those expecting Branch to revisit the groove-centric spirit found in abundance on Fly or Die will be disappointed; the Party Knüllers are determined to pursue the limits of sound and texture rather than lock onto a fixed pulse or melodic thread, and Branch is more than willing to fall right in line. Her crystalline upper-register flurries are occasionally in evidence, reminding one of her fearsome chops; but she’s just as likely to attack her instrument with a ferocity that is more noise-driven than tuneful. Even in those moments where she’s digging into repeated riffs, as on the opening track, “Hello, We Are the Party Knüllers and This is Jaimie Branch,” Lonberg-Holm’s tectonic assault on his instrument—dredging up massive, lumbering sounds that defy description—soon nudges, or rather pushes, her into much more abstract territory. And Solberg too is much less interested in sticking with a fixed rhythmic scheme, as he is much more amenable to using all manner of percussive techniques to attack, prod and provoke his counterparts.

Moments of tranquility do emerge, episodically—witness the remarkably restrained exchange between Lonberg-Holm and Branch toward the end of “Hello,” where something approaching a reverie threatens to take hold—as Branch does have a lyrical touch that can’t be suppressed completely. There’s even a hint of jazz that appears fleetingly toward the end of “Nailed Ace,” the second track, where Branch explores a motif that Lonberg-Holm gracefully supports with one of his rare pizzicato moments on the album. But for the most part, this is music on a mission to unsettle and disturb, and so one should approach it in that frame of mind, with a willingness to let the trio find its comfort zone in the realm of the uncomfortable.

If there is one thing the album has in common with Fly or Die, it’s the exceedingly short run-time of just over 30 minutes. With two lengthy improvisations of almost 15 minutes each and a much shorter one added to the end, it’s tempting to call this an EP rather than a full-length release; some listeners might take that into account before buying it. But in any case, it’s another worthy entry in the Party Knüllers’ catalogue, and something that should tide over Branch’s fans until her next big project.

Live at the Casa is available digitally on Bandcamp.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Jazz em Agosto, Day 8

By Paul Acquaro

8/11/2019, Lisbon

The final day of Jazz em Agosto and I found myself on a plane at 6:40 a.m. heading towards Frankfurt. There was a family event to attend and so I bid my adieus the night before and lamented the fact that I'd be missing the closing shows. 

I was particularly interested in catching the trio of guitarists Han-earl Park, Nick Didkovsky and saxophonist Catherine Sikora, performing as ERIS 136199. Park comes from a post-Derek Bailey perspective, adding electronic mayhem to his guitar, Didikovsky has avant-rock in his musical veins, and Sikora straddles the melodic and experimental with a full bodied sound. The later show, Mary Halvorson's Code Girl hardly needs an introduction, and I'm sure was an intriguing performance capping the festival.

I did take the chance however, on the penultimate night, to sit down with festival director Rui Neves to talk a little about the festival and his work as artistic director. Sitting down at the outdoor patio that served as an after concert hang, Neves talked about how the Jazz em Agosto festival was started as an experiment by Dr. Maria Madalena da Silva Bagão Biscay, wife of the first Gulbenkian Foundation president José Azeredo Perdigão. Back in the early 1980s, Lisbon was not the tourist magnet it is today and in August the city would be nearly empty as people took to the beaches for holiday. The first event was four nights and featured Portugese musicians. was a prototype, a chance to see if they could create something interesting. The following year, they went much bigger, hosting the Sun Ra Arkestra, Dave Holland Quintet, and Terje Rypdal. The next year after that, Steve Lacy, Saheb Sarbib, Paul Motion, and Trevor Watt's Moire Music, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The festival is a part of the music department at Gulbenkian, which itself hosts a world class orchestra and choir, explained Neves, giving credit to his colleagues at the foundation, especially José Pinto (Deputy Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Music Department). He added that the music supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation is quite important in Europe and shares a large responsibility in maintaining the arts in Lisbon. As to directing the festival, the important piece, he said, is that he does not see the music as "avant garde" or "free jazz", rather, as "present music", which contains the past and future. In regards to the festival, they are very selective and "even chose the days on which the bands play, thinking about what may work better on a Thursday than on a Sunday." 

Neves is truly invested in the music and travels to shows and festivals, researching the musicians that are invited to Jazz em Agosto. "All of the musicians that played here surprised me at one time," he remarked. Reminiscing on what sparked his interest in festival programming, Neves told the story that as a young man in 1973 he attended his first festival and went on to list a mind-boggling set of musicians who appeared. My notes grew a bit hazy here, maybe due to the rain dripping down my back or the late night relaxed atmosphere, but I did note that one of the groups he mentioned was "The Trio" with John Surman, Stu Martin, and Barre Phillips. I can imagine that alone was enough to spark a lifetime of this work.

ERIS 136199 © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar 

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar

Index of posts for Jazz em Agosto 2019:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:
Day 4:
Day 5:
Day 6:
Day 7:
Day 8:

Jazz em Agosto, Day 7

By Paul Acquaro

8/10/2019, Lisbon

Sometimes a little context can go a long way. On Friday afternoon, I took the 15 Tram to the neighborhood of Belem. Located about where the Tagus river (on which Lisbon sits) meets the Atlantic Ocean, it is home to several sights, including the 16th century river fortress Torre de Belem, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument dedicated to the 15th-century Portuguese explorers, the ornate and imposing Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, and the mid-century modern Gulbenkian Planetarium. These are all great sights worth the 1.5 Euro fare to get to.

Museu Coleção Berardo
However, my destination was the Museu Coleção Berardo, which has a unique collection of 20th century art, as well as changing current exhibitions. I paid my 5 Euro admission and made a bee-line to the permanent collection, after all, I had some concerts to attend to soon. 

The exhibit was excellent, from new-to-me Max Ernst's to Warhol's Brillo Boxes, it is a focused and unusual collection. However what I really enjoyed was the arrangement of the exhibition ... it was simple, straightforward, each hall of the exhibit exhibiting the art in the time-period/group in which it was created. A paragraph or two of description began each section with the main artists associated with the period (which went beyond the typical ones), what came before, and what developments it lead to. Not reverting to over the top contextualization and technical language, each picture and sculpture become so much more interesting. 

Zeena Parkins and Brian Chase © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar
Back at the festival, it was another quiet start to the evening's concerts, as drummer Brian Chase, solo, sitting front of the impressive, stately concert harp, took one of the drums out of his set and with one stick quietly hit the head as he modulated the sound with his free hand. He looked quite beatific as he lightly rapped and rubbed the drum. Later, he stood up, draped a vocal mic around his neck and proceed to work with the interplay of the sounds drawn from cymbal. Harpist Zeena Parkins' set was a one person dialog between the classical harp and her laptop. She began by striking at the strings which reverberated with a shower of space tones. Plucking in what seemed a somewhat random fashion, but most likely not, the hardware and the software interacted in unusual ways. Chase joined in about 10 minutes into Parkins' piece and introduced a supportive pulse. Parkin's arms were mirror images immersed in the exposed strings and Chase a hunched figure melding with his kit. Chase's approach was seemingly a near-time re-mix of what Parkins was playing. 

After the set, I had chance to have dinner with the fine folks of ERIS 136199. Acquaintances from New York City, I was happy to have a moment to talk with them about their music and maybe more importantly, the show we had just seen. When someone asked me what I thought of the show, I realized I wasn't ready yet to answer. I had seen Chase play one drum for about 20 minutes in a couple different ways, then Parkins extract otherworldly sounds from a huge classical harp, and finally Parkins rubbing the harp to produce different tones, and Chase inverting the drums in his set as he played.

Then someone else offered an opinion, "I think Brian is just amazing. He focuses on an idea, taking just one drum, and trusting the space, the room, the instrument just make sounds you didn't even know were there." I'm paraphrasing because I didn't take notes as I was shoving my dinner down, but with the simple explanation, it all snapped into place. Indeed, it was a really good, explorative show from two sympathetic and unshrinking musicians.

Ambrose Akinmusire Origami Harvest © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar
I came to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire Origami Harvest's show in the amphitheater without expectations and left running up the wet stairs to the merch table to make sure I could buy a CD before they sold out. Before the affirming moment when Akinmusire, noticing people starting to crowd under the heavy canopy of the trees towards the back of the stage, beckoned them to come under the cover the ample stage instead, I had been converted. However, the intimate circle of the audience around the musicians as they finished their inspired set, was itself inspiring. A fellow next to me said "Woodstock, 1969, Jazz em Agosto, 2019". A bit heavy handed, sure, but simple and true.

On stage to Akinmusire's left was drummer Justin Brown, rapper Kokayi, and the Mivos string quartet, to his right pianist and electronics manipulator Sam Harris (see below for the full list of names). Akinmusire has a warm tone, and he opened the show with gentle melody with minimal piano accompaniment. Soon the oscillator kicked in, creating a deep vibration and Koyaki began with a mix of rap and singing. He has a high voice which both stood out and melded with the band. Adding some gentle string accompaniment, the trumpeter had a lush bed of tones to lay his melodies upon.

This strong blend of musical elements, with enough time for each to showcase their strengths, gave the show variety and momentum. The texts poured forth in often urgent, rhythmic ways, with Kayoki playing with syllables and disconnected words. This was the point where I decided to buy the recording, I wanted to understand the words better, as they often went by quickly. However, the message was delivered strongly towards the end when Kayoki implored "say their names ... Treyvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner ..." Of course there was much more said, but the struggle of racism and injustice was clear. 

Musically, a piano solo about 1/2 through the set was in a way a microcosm of the entire show: inside/outside playing, by which I mean, subtle subversive dissonances and unexpected melodic twists, contrasted tastefully with the often more straight ahead presentation. The Mivos Quartet provided gentle underscoring and poignant segues, and excellent moments when Kokayi rapped with their playing. What I did think was missing was a real blend the two groups - the jazz band, the rapper, and the string quartet, in addition to the permutations and combinations that the piece currently uses. However, how it's used currently is quite effective.

The night came to a close, as mentioned, intimately, as the rain continued lightly through the evening.

The crowd joins the musicians on stage, escaping the rain © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar

Origami Harvest:
Ambrose Akinmusire - Composition / Trumpet / Keyboards
Kokayi - Rap
Justin Brown - Drums
Sam Harris - Piano / Keyboards
Mivos Quartet:
Olivia de Prato - Violin
Maya Bennardo - Violin
Victor Lowrie Tafoya - Viola
Tyler J. Borden - Cello

Index of posts for Jazz em Agosto 2019:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:
Day 4:
Day 5:
Day 6:
Day 7:
Day 8:

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Elephant9 ‎– Psychedelic Backfire I & II (Rune Grammofon, 2019) ****

By Stef

Over the years, we've followed the evolution of the Norwegian band Elephant9 whose psychedelic jazz is a little different than what we usually present. 

They offer us a real treat this year by presenting two albums, both recorded live, which is great, because they appear to be a wonderful live band. On the first album, the band is a trio, with Ståle Storløkken on keyboards, Nikolai Hængsle on bass and Torstein Lofthus on drums. Storløkken is possibly best known for his work with Supersilent, but als of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. 

This is high energy instrumental music, with the rhythm section in constant motion, the keyboardist hammering away on magnificent chords on his Hammond organ and assorted keyboards (Rhodes, Mini Moog, Mellotron). Despite the quality and the precision of modern day music, the sound is tributary to the rock music of the seventies, mixing sounds of the better/early moments of Deep Purple, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd in their own vernacular that somehow incorporates many of the compositional and tonal complexities of jazz. Whatever the genre, the music is great, infectious, intoxicating, exhilarating. It's the kind of trance-inducing music that could have worked well on the neverending dance parties that I remember from the seventies: the music could go on forever, without breaks and interruptions (apologies from my old man memories). And even if you're not up for dancing, it still is great to just listen to, with sufficient changes, melodies and improvisation to keep the attention going.

Apart from "Skink/Fugl Fønix" (high-speed high-intensity) all the compositions were already performed on earlier albums, but that does not really matter. The trio's take of them in a life setting is sufficiently different to make it interesting. 

On the second album they are joined by guitarist Reine Fiske, who already participated on three other Elephant9 studio albums. They start in a really quiet way, with eery sonic glitters produced by guitar and keyboard, playing their rendition of Stevie Wonder's "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life", starting to be introduced by the special sound of the Mellotron, with gradual rhythmic pulse being added by bass and drums. It is all so obvious and predictable, but that does not really bother. Even if the recipe is known, you still have to cook it, and what they concoct is delicious. Fiske's guitar is a great addition to the overall sound, making it richer in texture, without soloing in the traditional sense, but adding precise notes, sounds, chords and rhythms.

This album also has renditions of "Skink/Fugl Fønix" and of "Habanera Rocket" as on the trio album,  with the former now even madder and more powerful, with rollercoaster speed and turns that the band takes effortly. That is maybe another delight: even if Storløkken has the lead voice on the album, they act as a quartet, and what Nikolai Hængsle and Torstein Lofthus do is nothing short of amazing. The album ends with another new composition, "Freedom's Children/John Tinnick", and 18-minute romp that has the the kind of weaknesses that become strengths in a live performance, with  a messy sound quality, some imprecisions, a slower meandering middle piece, but all contributing to increasing the authenticity and the tension, turning the audience esctatic.

Guaranteed to cheer you up! Keep dancing. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Jazz em Agosto, Day 6

August 9, 2019, Lisbon

At yesterday's concert with percussionists Joey Baron and Robyn Schulkowsky, Schulkowsky made probably the simplest and most direct statement on the theme of resistance so far. Dedicating a song to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who quietly stood for her dignity and human rights when she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Schulkowsky explained, "resistance is not always loud, but it's everyday, and it's inside of you." This is something citizens of many liberal democracies, currently under insidious erosion, should consider ... are you resisting what's being done to your countries, your ideals, your future? You don't need to make a big noise, as much as you need to live up to what you truly believe.

Joey Baron and Robyn Schulkowsky © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar

The quietness is where the duo of Baron and Schulkowsky shined. Their set, a series of composed ideas and improvisations, presented a gentle start to the evening. In spite of the vast of array of percussion at their disposal, set up facing each other, the duo played quietly and reflectively. Staring with using their hands, and quickly demonstrating the tonal palette that they'd be working from for the evening, like a splash of the high hat, a deep tone from the tuned timpani drum. This bare-handed exchange lasted for a stretch as they slowly worked out interlocking patterns. The next song "Quiet Resistance", dedicated to Parks, began with the timpani, a splash of the gong, and crash of the cymbals. Then, it became quiet, both musicians had hand percussion, small clacking items, that they proceeded to converse with. The dream like quality of the music continued throughout, even on the uptempo pieces, like the final one which began with a more 'jazz' like pattern from Baron, to which Schulkowsky in kind, but the two never stepping in the way of each other.

Baron, after the show explained, that while they come from different musical backgrounds, himself from jazz, and she from classical, when they play it doesn't matter, they make music.

Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar
I'm not sure if this was because of the setting, but somehow I became much more aware of the staging of drummer Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double group this evening. The group, consisting of two trios of drum, guitar, and trumpet (or cornet), is arranged in a double formation with Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and trumpeter Ralph Alessi to one side, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum to the other side. Previous times seeing them, it has been where the audience is at eye level, or even slightly below, the group, but in the amphitheater, one could see the whole stage from a slightly elevated position. They began with all eyes on Ho Bynum, who played a spirited opening solo, before the action  shifted outwards to the guitarists. Halvorson and Seabrook, in tandem, played distinctively out solos, and then refactoring the energy with composed lines, the two horns played in unison. Next, the focus shifted to Alessi who's crisp lines sailed over the stage, while the two drummers kept a constant pulsating churn going.

After a bit of fiddling between songs, the group began with a dirge-like piece, a slightly menacing minor progression that slowly grew wilder. Composed passages, like when Halvorson played in unison with the horns, as Seabrook kept the power chords ringing, added momentum until the front-line parted and Fujiwara and Cleaver engaged in a polyrythmic spectacle. This duo of drums engaged much differently than the spacious interplay of Baron and Schulkowsky, here they projected an aggressive, but non-competitive energy, filling all of the small spaces, keeping the sound tight and direct.

Another interesting contrast is with the two guitarists: Halvorson's approach often contains sharp angular lines suddenly drooping like a Salvador Dali clock, and tonight she added additional effects like distortion and, I believe, an octave shifter which let her play bass like lines that at times sounded nearly like a tuba. Seabrook, on the other hand, sometimes seemed like an anti-guitarist, coaxing sound out in spite of how he was approaching it, at one point sounding like R2D2 on a bender. The horns too played with contrasts, Ho Bynum passionate, utilizing extended techniques to express himself, while Alessi was cool and more straight ahead with his tone and approach. Finally, the duo of Ho Bynum and Fujiwara is a constellation of its own with several excellent recordings, and which was featured briefly in the set.

By playing off these contrasts, shifting the focus from duos, to trios, to full group passages, veering between free improvisation, which at times threaten to pull a bit off the moorings, to the succinct composed connecting themes, Double Triple's music is, to my ears, an exciting and vibrant group that I look forward to hearing evolve.

Index of posts for Jazz em Agosto 2019:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:
Day 4:
Day 5:
Day 6:
Day 7:
Day 8:

Matthew Shipp & Mat Maneri - Conference of the Mat/ts (RogueArt, 2018) ****½

By Olle Lawson

“Conference. noun.

A meeting for discussion; the act of conferring/consulting together; especially on an important or serious matter.”

Arriving here in a direct line from the unique Vessel in Orbit (led by the ever wonderful drummer Whit Dickey with Matthew Shipp on piano and Mat Maneri on viola); an album and live entity of free music so emotive and transportive, that I was hooked.

‘Conference’ is a reunion of the Mat/ts, sans drums.

The Vessel LP came with its own hermetic interstellar/space travel concept and was powered forward by Dickey’s singular free rhythms but here we have a more terrestrial, human, ‘dialectic of minds’ between old friends, who just happen to resonate at the highest levels of (free) musical creation.

Matthew Shipp needs no introduction in these pages.

Mat Maneri, son of the late alto-sax player Joe Maneri – a proponent of complex microtonal theories, subdividing the octave into 72 equal tones – plays viola and can converse in this ‘virtual pitch continuum’ language. But fear not – this is living, vital music and as Joe once commented: “We don’t use theories when we play. We can’t. We are those things.”

The album comes almost completely stripped of context: the uniform Gallimard-influenced RogueArt cover, no artwork; without individual titles (Conference #1 - #13) – all we get is some pitch perfect Dalachinsky liner notes/poetry and an hour of pure music; of how that makes us feel and the visions that are summoned, is up to us.

Conference #1. Opens things gently with subtle chords of emotion from Shipp’s plaintive melody, unformed memories float as Maneri enters the dialogue, there is a feel of moving around one another; sounding out, before the woozy technique of bowing multiple tones simultaneously evokes a seasickness. Then a sudden resolution coalesces in three repeated ascending piano lines.

C#2. Is a ‘jazzier’ affair and as austere as the music can become here, there is always a present undertone of the tradition.

C#3. Warmer sounding piano floats and wobbles until the drama kicks in at the two minute mark, escalating tension rises before abating into evolving passages of spontaneous narrative. Deep abstraction opens into raw subjectivity: fossilised wood, interlaced frozen cobwebs of sound; wooden granite; structural abandonment. Almost filmic, this piece evolves into a cycle of repeated tensions, only to return to a mellifluous flowing melody.

C#4. Beginning with more attack from the piano, a short bouncing freejazz, the viola dances, biting back, rallying and mocking until pushed under weight of keys. The coda rolls and pushes – klezmeric – a sprightly duel that without warning finds an opening and crumbles to a stop.

C#5. Tumbling, driving piano leads for the first half before flowering into a more dynamic interplay; a shifting spatial feeling like moving through a series of interjoined rooms.

Timelessly contemporary in sound, the album delves deeper as the pieces become longer and more involving, culminating in an austere warmth of dark veined beauty. The imagery – diverse, sometimes older and unsettling: like whispered thoughts in a forest, something strangely pastoral, 19th century port-town swagger dances, dry stone walls, vines grown through wooden frames; oil on dark water, a fever dream in dry grass. As Jim Clouse who recoded the album notes: “like an empty hospital or circus where all the inhabitants have vanished” – there is melancholy and loss here, confined in a shared depth of feeling.

Conference #8. Rains notes, a cat shadow dance.

C#9. Opens to a more sedate narrative before hitting three minutes and comes swooping in with nautical swirls and bass-end drops.

C#10. Viola beginnings, an Arcadian dance of sorts, tipped off balance with a see-saw piano beat. Matt solos into a stop/start interplay of single punched notes, a striding gallop ramps tension as Mat’s bow serrates strings.

C#12. At less than two minutes – a violent stagger and scrape amongst stripped timber beams of jazz rhythm.

C#13. Works as an elliptical companion to the opening piece but with a tone of decaying valediction, ending in a coil of acoustic static.

A unique album. At times fraught, challenging, intense yet playful; its spacious abstraction – both musical and visual – wide open to interpretation.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Jazz em Agosto, Day 5

Jazz em Agosto ad at a tram stop
By Paul Acquaro

August 8, 2019, Lisbon.

Explosive. Before the french power trio ABACAXI (Portugese for Pineapple) even began, there was a threateningly loud hum. Then with a strum of the guitar, thud of the bass, and powerful pound of the drums, Julien Desprez, Jean François Riffaud, and Max Andrzejewski began their assault. Their sound is a fitful start-and-stop precision, heavy dissonant passages, that sometimes opened up briefly with a consonant chord, followed by a freak-out, and back to the machine-like advance. Their use of noise and a unpredictable strobe light, along with the brutal mechanics of their approach, was something both modern, yet simultaneously suggestive of something from another time. 

ABACAXI © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar

Lisbon's antique Tram 28 is famous for/with the tourists. The 100-year-old electric trolley car is both a throwback to another era, yet still amazingly efficient and modern as it climbs the hills of the Alfama district, around the old castle and crumbling buildings. Riding it is an experience, people fight for the seats, it's typically standing room only, and the doors barely hold shut as it flings around the tight turns. The conductor has a set of simple controls, a throttle to control the speed and breaks, and the trolley cars advance in start-and-stop motion along the winding tracks. Some of the drivers are quite lead footed. The sounds of the squealing breaks, and the metal clunks of the wheels on the narrow gauge tracks is fascinating, especially as the cars careen around unnerving curves and steep cobblestone streets.

ABACAXI, like the tram, have their tracks laid out, and proceed with the same steampunk (well, electric in this case) beguiling mechanics. Simple, repetitive figures are used creatively, and without even a nod to audience comfort, to forge ahead. Stringing together moments of pummeling intensity over somewhat off-kilter time signatures, add up to the group's math-rock forms. The first song, "1984", was mostly chunky pounding riffs, but the following two songs introduced elements of white noise an even the amplified sound of the electric guitar manipulated through effects. In fact, it felt a bit incongruous to be seated in a theater for the show. This requires a sticky rock club floor and some weird mix of beer, smoke, and body odor smells to be truly complete. 

Just off the 28 tram line, and coming down the road from the well known Feira de Ladra, a flea market teeming with artisans, crafts, and piles of ... umm ... treasures for sale, there was an alluring sign pointing "this way" for home made empenadas and craft beer. Not one to skip on a good empenada, I peered up the driveway to find enthusiastic smiling young people waving, while Simon and Garfunkle's "Only Living Boy in New York" played. The parched courtyard, seemingly empty loft spaces, and a cloth pergola, exuded a nostalgic charm. However, after closer inspection, the empenada's were store bought and microwaved, and the drinks were a bit on the pricey side. It had seemed so promising.

Theo Caccaldi | FREAKS © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar
The french violinist Theo Caccaldi has figured in some of the more captivating recordings covered on the blog, notably Chamber 4, a quiet but powerful quartet with Luis Vicente on trumpet, Valentin Ceccaldi on cello, and Marcelo Dos Reis on guitar. He also has worked with french bassist Joelle Leandre in a duo, which says quite a lot about his musical reputation. With his own outfit, Freaks, he turns up the volume, and recasts fusion for the 21st century. 

With two saxophones, electric bass, drums, guitar, and violin, it is almost like Jerry Goodman led an alternative version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. While Caccaldi and his violin are at the center of the group, it is the team of bassist Stéphane Decolly and drummer Etienne Ziemniak that are at its core. The two are locked in, unwavering, tight, and insistent. Around them, Ceccaldi and his crew spin their rocking vision of groove, atmospherics, Morricone-like segues, and bombastic climaxes. The music, at times, reminded me of Jean Luc-Ponty's late 70's cosmic journeys (but with far more bite!) with its violin driven swelling crescendos. 

The magic of Freaks is the simple blend of arpeggiated circular motions and virtuoso solos, over heavy bass and drum riffs. The saxes, like everyone in the group, are extremely proficient, and execute break-neck speed lines in unison, and can deliver fiery solos at the drop of a hat. The quick changes between heavy rock and light pastiche of music emanating from an accordion in a late night cafe keeps the music engaging. One is tempted to relate this a bit to say John Zorn's mix of hard core, metal, jazz, spaghetti western soundtracks, and lounge; however, it is also quite possible to think of a pop-up empenada cafe.

Regardless, the people spoke, delivering two standing ovations to a grateful group.

It's really interesting to see how many different facets the programming of Jazz em Agosto has. So far, there have been wonderful free-jazz, scored pieces, poetry, and soundscapes and the audiences have been enthusiastic throughout and so much more to look forward to!

Index of posts for Jazz em Agosto 2019:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:
Day 4:
Day 5:
Day 6:
Day 7:
Day 8:

Bastarda - Ars Moriendi (Lado, 2019) ****

By Stef

A little out of the ordinary, this music by Bastarda, the trio of Paweł Szamburski on clarinet, Tomasz Pokrzywiński on cello and Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet. On the last track they are joined by Olga Myslowska on vocals. We know the two clarinet players from the Mikolaj Trzaska Ircha Clarinet Quartet, frequently reviewed on this blog before.

The title "Ars Moriendi" (literally: the art of dying) refers to a book published in the Middle Ages to help people transition to the realm of the death, which was omnipresent because of the plague that ravaged Europe. The text is at the same comforting and consoling, and at the same time demanding reflections on the individual's sins and on the purity of Christ's suffering. It is between this moment of suffering and hope for eternal life that this music finds its inspiration.

As can be expected, the music is deeply melancholy and deeply sad. It is not jazz, it is not classical, it is not folk, but rather a genre-blending exercise with a very coherent voice. Not only that, the most extraordinary balancing act they perform is to go head-first into the most emotional musical setting without falling into the abyss of cheap sentiments. It takes courage to show this kind and this level of emotions, and somehow it is also very Polish to manage this successfully (think of Waclaw Zimpel or Tomasz Stanko).

The compositions are strong, hard to pigeon-hole, inventive and perfect for the instruments of this small ensemble. The cello and the contrabass clarinet offer a solid background for the clarinet to improvise on. The music is inspired too by medieval songs for the dead. The known composers are Guillaume du Fay (Belgium, 15 Century), Josquin Desprez (French 15th century), Cristobal de Morales (Spain, 16th Century) and Constanzo Festa (Italy, 15th Century) and the songs are performed in a specific order to represent the various phases the dying person goes through. It is only when you compare Bastarda's interpretation with the original material, often polyphonic chants, that it becomes clear how they reworked the songs into their own very specific idiom, modernising them while keeping the overall tone of desolation.

The band's name is derived from the "viola bastarda" compositional technique, which consisted of reducing a polyphonic composition to a single line, "while maintaining the same range as the original, and adding divisions, improvisations, and new counterpoint" (according to Wikipedia).

Even if this a little outside the scope of our blog, the musicianship and the uniqueness of the sound make this really worth mentioning. The music itself is so sad, that it will not cheer you up, but on the other hand, the quality is so good, that you will want to listen to this again and again.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Attic - Summer Bummer (No Business, 2019) ****½

The Portugese trio The Attic was founded a few years ago - tenor sax player Rodrigo Amado, double bass player Gonçalo Almeida, and drummer Marco Franco. This trio recorded its self-titled, live debut at SMUP, Lisbon, in December 2015 (No Business, 2017). The sophomore album of The Attic was recorded again live at the Summer Bummer Festival, Antwerp, Belgium in August 2018, and it also was the first performance of Amado and Almeida with Dutch drummer Onno Govaert, who replaced Franco. Govaert is known from the group Cactus Truck and his work with pianist Kaja Draksler and guitarist Terrie Hessels.

The artwork of Summer Bummer's cover, a painting by Amado’s father, the famous painter Manuel Amado (whose paintings were used before on other recordings of Amado) suggests a relaxed, breezy atmosphere. Fortunately, there is nothing leisured in the music of The Attic. The live settings, naturally, sharpness the free-improv aesthetics of this trio and the art of the moment, obviously, demands intensity and urgency. But, The Attic is more focused on the collective, quite calm manners in which the hard-working and strong-minded Amado, Almeida and Govaert stimulate each other, negotiate, contemplate and even meditate about building tension, flow, control and form. The Attic never subscribe to common structures or stock rhythmic solutions but evolves its powerful momentum organically, always expanding its palette of expressive colors and subtle rhythmic nuances. Guy Peters, who experienced The Attic live and wrote the liner notes to Summer Bummer, describes The Attic true essence as its capacity to shape intriguing sounds and motions into “something extraordinary… transcends itself and turns into an act of storytelling”.

You may begin to decipher the meaning of the stories of The Attic already on the first piece “Walking Metamorphosis,” credited to the three musicians, as also the other two pieces. Amado, as always, has a warm, big and tough sound of his own and is gifted with natural, captivating charisma. Here, he sounds likes he is adopting the approach of his close collaborator Joe McPhee, who plays in his quartet, and opts for a more reserved, but deeply poetic approach. He patiently sketches and intensifies his statements until the inevitable climaxes, while staying attuned to every nuance of Almeida's and Govaert's playing. Almeida propels his ideas with creative, aggressive tones while Govaert offers contrasting dynamics to both Amado and Almeida. The intimate and lyrical opening of “Free For All” cements that emphatic vibe, but the last piece, “Aimless At The Beach”, is clearly the most compelling and beautiful one. Amado plays here with great restraint but with a deep, soulful voice while keeping a detailed, conversational interplay.

Great trio!

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Bill Dixon & Cecil Taylor - Duets 1992 (Triple Point Records, 2019) *****

By Stef

Without a doubt, this is one of the albums of the year, and this for several reasons, even apart from the quality of the performance itself, which is very high. First, it is a rare meeting of two masters who both shaped modern free music to what it is today. They have inspired creative artists and they have been mentors to many. Second, it is amazing that these duets dating from 1992 are now finally released, and available for music lovers around the world, if it was not for the fact that - third - discussions will rise about the high price of 94$ for a limited print edition of 665 copies. I can already anticipate the comments and the Facebook discussions.

For those of you who have followed the two artists' music over the years, this album is not comparable to the trio album with Tony Oxley released in 2002. The absence of the drums makes the music even more singular. And amazingly enough, the only other album on which both men collaborated was Taylor's "Conquistador" from 1966.

The music on this album is driven by a desire for abstraction, a desire to rise above the descriptive, figurative, foundational patterns. They want to break through conventions and because of that also create something higher, more valuable, more universal. Both artists hated the narrowness of definitions, including concepts such as 'blues' and 'jazz'. Once you define things, you put a frame around them, you box them in. Both men went in the other direction, and nothing can be more free and challenging and rewarding than a duo improvisation. That's why the pieces have no titles either. Naming them would mean to restrict them with words, to label them with existing linguistic categories or imagery.

The A-side starts with spacious and slow trumpet sounds, enhanced with reverb and resonating in empty space, supported by precise, almost impressionistic piano playing by Taylor. Both are very attentive to each other, on the edge of listening, deep in the music they create, which turns darker and more dramatic as the improvisation evolves, and the original calm becomes an agitated nervousness of speedy interactions, only to move into more experimental territory where bare sounds and silence dominate the dialogue, and the piece ends open-ended, hesitating between welcoming stretched phrases and unpredictable sonic bites.

On the B-side some of the most remarkable moments of virtuosity can be heard when both musicians challenge each other in rapid-fire interaction, enjoying the game, enjoying the music they produce which even pushes Taylor into some classical music, inserting a playful minuet in the middle of a dark storm. Their music is austere in a sense, not only because of the duet configuration, but because both musicians try to reach some kind of musical essence, unburdened by flourishes and embellishments and superfluous technical prowess or even cultural baggage. They keep this single voice throughout the album. This is their unique music, and there is actually nothing like, anywhere else. There are no digressions from this well-kept level of musical abstraction. At the same time, and paradoxically maybe because of this austerity, the music is incredibly rich, with both artists demonstrating the depth of their art, full of unexpected changes, with deep emotions and constantly evolving and shifting roles between clarity and darkness. This is full co-creation. There are no moments when one instrument is supportive of the other. There is no concept of soloing over chords here, there is not one real moment of soloing as such: just a continuous stream of interaction between both instruments and both artists.

There is also some anger in the music, especially on Side C, when Dixon's trumpet bursts turn aggressive and violent, accentuated by dark and percussive rumblings on the piano. There has always been anger in the attitudes of both Dixon and Taylor with regard to society and the establishment, its prejudices and injustice. But here they don't dwell on it. They deal with it and create something above the din of normal life, something that is in entirely different space, one of technical competence supporting inventive creativity and disciplined freedom. The music is in a realm of its own, open-ended, open-textured, free.

All this results in an album of a rare beauty. It's aesthetic is austere, and it will require a lot of listening to really appreciate its full power.

Bill Dixon passed away in 2009, and Cecil Taylor last year. It is wonderful to have both masters back with us, even if only musically, and together, for a phenomenal collaboration that demonstrates their value and what they have contributed to free music.

Note: A last comment on the price: 665 vinyl copies at a price of 94$ plus shipping costs may seem excessive. I do not think it is. Compared to many other value-less things we buy and use only once (food, drinks, ...), this is an album to have and to cherish. You will listen to it a lot. Think of the cost per time you listen to it, and then how you enjoy the music. How much is that worth? Music is not a commodity. If labels and musicians want music to be considered valuable, they should treat it themselves as if it was very precious. Don't let the price discussion cloud the value of this album.