Monday, September 22, 2014

Battle Trance - Palace of Wind (NNA Tapes, 2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

The saxophone quartet Battle Trance is the vision of tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante. The catch here is that the quartet is one that features Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner, and Patrick Breiner all on tenor. A unique concept, with a unique sound, Palace of Wind is a fascinating recording with a cover image and title that references the fantastical architecture of the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur.

The album begins with the saxes abuzz like a bunch of bees in a swarm. Pulsating, vibrating, and throbbing, their tones overwhelm the senses. Eventually, slowly emerging from the intense drone and circular breathing, a melodic line rises up exuding a certain calm. Then, suddenly the group breathes a collective breath, slowly, and the tone changes.

Floating seamlessly into the second track, the texture gives way to counter melodies and references to hymnal or somewhat medieval sounding harmonies. However, not for long, as growing dissonance increases the intensity of this slowly shifting musical mass. By the final third of the track, more individual motion appears as melodies rise and float above the already hovering background. Towards the end, the dynamics shift and the tension grows as the group builds back into the menacing buzz.

Palace of the Wind requires dedicated listening. It's subtle, with minute technical movements and slight tonal shifts, and it's brutal too, with broad dynamics and moments of dissonance and tension, and they all work together to shape the album's otherworldly and hypnotic sound.

 Take a listen:

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Gate with Tim Dahl & Nate Wooley – Stench (Smeraldina-Rima, 2014) ***

As a recovering metalhead (it never fully goes away), The Gate peaks my interest. The trio travels in improvisational circles while toting the sorts of imagery and language found in the metal world. Previous albums had names like Vomit Dreams and Destruction of Darkness, and their website and merchandise is splattered with disemboweled corpses and inverted pentagrams.  While we’ve seen other improvisers dabbling in metal lately (e.g. Nilssen-Love/Marhaug/Pupillo’s You’re Next, Slobber Pup, Jon Irabagon’s album with Mick Barr, etc), The Gate seem committed to being all evil, all the time. 

The group’s earlier efforts certainly lived up to the “doom jazz” label. If you could write sludge riffs for a horn trio, the band—Dan Peck on tuba, Tom Blancharte on double bass, and Brian Osborne on drums—came as close as you can get, all while mixing in some free improvisation and creepy ambiance for good measure. But imagery and a steadfast devotion to heaviness are where most of Stench’s similarities to metal end. Stench finds the band bulked up to a fully electric quintet (with Tim Dahl’s additional bass and Nate Wooley’s amplified trumpet), and the sound invoked is more in the lineage of the darker noise groups of the late 90s and early 00s: Wolf Eyes, Skullflower, Yellow Swans, Aufgehoben—one might look even farther back and find the reckless spirit of Borbetomagus.

This means Stench is incredibly loud and incredibly noisy. “Bated Beast” takes no time at all exploding into a vortex of fuzzed-out everything and distorted caterwauling. I think if the title character in Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” had been in a improvised noise group, this is exactly what his hyperdimensional, demon-repelling music would have sounded like. If you have the stomach for it, it’s bracing stuff.

The intensity carries across side A, but for a moment of respite at the end of “Induced Mutation” with gentle bells and the faintest of acoustic bass. Side B opens with “Axe of Death,” a dark, unstoppable wall of depressed, dragging sound. Eventually it breaks down, bleeding into eerie feedback and distorted bass sawing that almost sounds like backwards Satanic voices (if you’re disposed to hear that sort of thing). 

In a way, Stench embodies a strain of aural nihilism that most metal bands should be jealous of. There’s no neat chord progressions or blast beats or perfectly rhythmic tremolo picking. Convention is simply suffocated in its relentless, unbounded force. Stench closes with “Swögen,” which, with its sounds of drifting buoys and foghorns, brings to mind the title of a Wolf Eyes track: “Dead in a Boat.” As the improvisation picks up speed, it morphs into something even harder to describe—like slow motion Jew’s harp or a malfunctioning carnival ride. It’s decidedly less evil than the preceding pieces, though it still rests comfortably within the bleak, uncanny realm that’s just on the other side of The Gate.

Say a prayer for deliverance and then listen on Bandcamp:

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Jonas Kullhammar - Basement Sessions Volume 3: The Ljubljana Tapes (Clean Feed, 2014) ****½

Recorded in 2013, Jonas Kullhammar's "Basement Sessions volume 3: The Ljubljana Tapes" is a live concert, featuring Kullhammar, Jorgen Mathisen on tenor, Torbjorn Zettberg on bass, and Espen Aalberg on drums.

"Basement," composed by Mathisen, is a high energy track that gets everyone hitting on all cylinders, Aalberg and Zettberg providing a solid, toe tapping hard bop rhythm, with Kullhammar and Mathisen synchronizing the lead. It is very spiritual, and evokes mid 60's Coltrane. "Allting kan ga itu" is a Kullhammar tune, very Dolphy esque, the saxophones going up and down the keys, before moving into a Zombies "Time of the Season" rhythm with saxes playfully on top of the beat. "Master of What" is a more contemplative, slightly somber tune by Zettberg, with the group establishing a theme, then Kullhammar or Mathisen alternating solos, each doing variations of the theme, then playing together. "Fresk Baglaens" is a funky hard bop tune, Zettberg providing a deep bottom with the bass, a sax keeping the rhythm while the other does a free improv solo. Toe tapping ear candy goodness, with a nice drum solo by Aalberg. "Rough 2" has that old Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers swagger, a medium tempo, low key swing that, once the theme is established, passes off to long stretching solos by each horn player, then back to the theme. Very old school, yet refreshing. The album ends with "Sekar Jepun," a low key mood piece that again evoke's Coltrane, spiritual yet somber.

Kullhammar's group has really taken the music from the past and made it contemporary, evoking, yet never imitating. Their own personal cultural heritage, as well as incorporating modern improvisation esthetics, have helped to create their own sound. One surprising thing about this album is how short it is -- less than 43 minutes. That may be a good thing. It does leave you wanting for more -- but that problem is solved by going back to the other two volumes in this series. Another fine effort by this group.

You can buy this album from Instantjazz

Kenny Wheeler (14 January, 1930 – 18 September, 2014)

By Martin Schray

We have just read the sad news that the great trumpeter and flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler has died. 

Mr. Wheeler was born in Toronto and after studying harmony and trumpet at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto in the early 1950s, he went to London. There he became a founding member of the new wave of British free jazz in the 1960s, when he joined the Spontaneous Music Ensemble where he met people like John Stevens, Derek Bailey, Tony Oxley and Evan Parker. He later worked with the experimental composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra, the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble and was also part of Azimuth, a trio with Norma Winstone and John Taylor. 

Wheeler was a very modest, even shy man who will always be remembered for his warm and lyrical sound as well as for his big band compositions.  He played on seminal albums like SME’s Karyobin (Island) and So What Do You Think (Tangent) and also released a lot of marvelous albums as a leader like Gnu High (ECM). My personal favorites have always been Angel Song (ECM), his drummerless quartet with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell and Dave Holland, his composition Ana for Alex von Schlippenbach’s Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra (also released on ECM) and his collaborations with David Sylvian (Nostalgia is one of my all-time-favorite pop songs).

Wheeler died after a short period of frail health at a nursing home in London on 18 September 2014.  His death is a terrible loss.

Listen to one of his compositions and hear Norma Winstone and Evan Parker talk about him here:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Abdullah Ibrahim - Mukashi ( 2014) ***

By Antonio Poscic

What can you say about Abdullah Ibrahim that hasn’t already been said one million times? A true jazz legend, one of those musicians with such a rich discography and many, uncountable collaborations with some of the world’s greatest jazz artists. Ibrahim’s music, often tied to the so called South African “Cape jazz” scene, has always evoked the sensibilities of his friend Thelonious Monk and mentor Duke Ellington while also carrying a note of African musicality and being fuelled by personal, at times harsh, life experiences. With all this in mind, a question arises nonetheless: After so many years making music, can an artist sound fresh and motivated?

What I am certain of is that Abdullah Ibrahim is still enjoying making and playing jazz. “Mukashi” (“Once Upon a Time” in Japanese) is a charming album and clearly a work born out of love. It is a relaxing, ethereal piece of music uninhibited by any preconceptions or expectations. It’s got nothing to do with free jazz, it’s devoid of any notable improvisations, and it would be a stretch to define it as even remotely adventurous. Perhaps, those are exactly the points that contribute to its appeal. The incredible simplicity and evocativeness of the sixteen tracks on the album feel natural and not at all forced. Strictly speaking, “Mukashi” falls into the category of what is usually called “chamber jazz”, but in reality it eschews categorization. As far as inspirations go, and beyond the aforementioned nods towards Monk and Ellington, there’s an easily identifiable thread of African rhythms and melodies as well as something that is most easily described as an eastern sense of calmness. The resulting fusion of all of these characteristics brings music that is quiet, full of air, but never dull.

There’s a beautiful sense of serenity expressed through spirituality and transcendence on “Mukashi” that bring visions of a wise, old man sitting on his porch during the evening of a stifling summer day, recollecting his memories about a long and fruitful life filled with stories. This atmosphere is highlighted by the soft and gentle piano, the articulate and colourful reeds (most often flute or clarinet), and the suggestive and romantic sounding strings. Even though solo piano tracks are to be expected (“The Stars Will Remember”), it’s a bit surprising to hear how often Ibrahim’s piano falls into the background, allowing the string instruments and woodwinds to lead the way (“Dream Time”). While songs like “Peace” are representative of the general mood of the album, it’s pieces like the “Krotoa” trilogy or the joyful and playful “Mississippi” and “The Balance” that provide a contrast and show an uplifting and dynamic side to the music. Another thing worth mentioning is that all the musicians, Cleave Guyton on saxophone, flute, and clarinet, and Eugen Bazijan and Scott Roller on cellos, along with Ibrahim himself create a close-knit sound that still lets each of them feel like an individual voice.

Age hasn’t hurt Abdullah Ibrahim. He has avoided the trap of delivering an album that would feel as a rehash of his older works or as a tired and shallow attempt of catering to his audience. Instead, “Mukashi” as a whole turns out to be a nostalgic and quite enjoyable album that, in the larger scope of things, will not move mountains, but is nevertheless a worthwile, sincere, and intimate record.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mark Turner Quartet – Lathe of Heaven (ECM, 2014) ****

When it comes to finding his niche within the music world, Mark Turner has admittedly faced challenges.  As a saxophonist, he’s not a fire-breather like Brotzmann or Gustafsson, or particularly stylistically adventurous, which means he’s not going to be getting a ton of attention on blogs like this one.  Yet he’s not a crowd-pleaser either, as his rather airy and abstract improvisational voice is a far cry from the accessibility of folks like Sonny Rollins or Charles Lloyd.  And I have admittedly not always been a huge fan of his work myself; I was less than impressed by his playing a couple years ago on Billy Hart’s All Our Reasons.

But on this recording, Turner’s first as a leader since 2001, we have a terrific example of a situation in which Turner’s bandmates really bring out the best in him.  In particular, havingtrumpeter Avishai Cohen on hand as a second horn player seems to lend some additional edge and spirit to Turner’s playing; and the first-rate rhythm section of Joe Martin on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums is also critical to giving Turner’s complex compositions the firm pulse they need to really come alive.

Turner’s solos are consistently thoughtful and intriguing, and although I still find myself wanting to see a bit more dynamic variation and punch from him at times, as he can be relentlessly patient and even-handed in the development of his ideas, here his melodic vision largely predominates, leading to some spry and stimulating solo moments on all six tracks.  Again, having the impressive Cohen on hand is the perfect asset for Turner, as some of the best moments on the record are those in which their intertwining lines create the kind of mutual intensity that brings out another dimension to Turner’s playing.  The record’s closer, “Brother Sister,” is an especially good example of what Turner can do in conversation with another horn player, as Cohen’s fine upper-register playing leads Turner to elevate himself as well.

Martin and Gilmore are just as essential to the success of the project.  Martin’s bass playing isn’t flashy; at times he reminded me of having a Charlie Haden-style “less is more” approach, withwell-chosen and spare undercurrent rather than fireworks, although with occasional rhythmic variations in his lines that always add interestAnd Gilmore is just superb, with a skittering, relentless searching of his drum kit: always in motion, providing a rhythmic foundation for the rest of the band, but not without the willingness to change direction and tempo when it’s required.  As a rhythm team, they pull off the always-difficult feat of being strongly in sync while still sounding loose and fluid.
All six tracks on the record have a memorable melodic structure, yet with plenty of space for opening up the tune for exploration.  Highlights include the title track, which features an especially impassioned solo from Turner, building gradually in intensity throughout; the above-mentioned “Brother Sister”; and “The Edenist,” with an addictive noir-ish feel due to a terrificbass groove that draws out some inspired playing from Cohen, and Turner as well.

It’s definitely one of the more interesting and rewarding of ECM’s recent releases.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Period – 2 (Public Eyesore, 2014) ***½

By Julian Eidenberger

Period really facilitate the music scribe’s task of finding a good starting point, since the impressive musical credentials of everyone involved provide a more or less self-evident jumping-off point. Formed a couple of years ago by ubiquitous drummer Mike Pride and guitarist Charlie Looker (formerly of Extra Life, a band that is more or less unclassifiable but very highly recommended), Period have become a more band-like proposition over time, as vocalist Chuck Bettis (formerly of noisy punks The Meta-Matics and Tzadik recording artists Brown Wing Overdrive) has joined them. On this new album – yes, it’s the second one –, the trio is expanded into a quintet with the sometimes addition of Sam Hillmer on tenor sax and Darius Jones on alto saxophone, both of which have an impressive pedigree of their own: Hillmer as the bandleader and sole constant member of Zs (also unclassifiable – although “chamber-rock” might give you a pretty good idea – and very highly recommended), Jones as both a sideman – for William Hooker, among others – and as a composer with the noise-jazz group Little Women (do I need to mention that they’re highly recommended?).

So, yes, this is a super-group of sorts, and if I had to judge this album on past achievements alone, I’d award five stars and be done with it. Indeed, in terms of musical style, 2 has the fingerprints of Period’s members all over it, with an overall approach that draws on various avant-jazz and avant-rock sub-genres also mined in the better-known projects of the five musicians. On top of that, there’s a distinct punk/metal feel present in many of the album’s tracks. Alas, the considerable talent behind this record isn’t always translated into the expected greatness. Opening track Two is a case in point in this respect; it sees Looker (on baritone guitar) and Pride improvising without assistance from the other members. For almost 17 minutes, they’re propelled by a stoic, pummeling beat – the sort of beat Swans have built almost their entire career on – with Looker injecting his trademark “ice-pick” riffs and Pride indulging in hyperactive fills. Since this is basically an improv project with different premises, it may seem a bit unfair to compare this to Looker’s old band, but at the same time, it’s hard not to – the similarities are there. While quite powerful, it ends up sounding more like a sketch of an as yet unreleased Extra Life song than genuine improvisation.

Period fares better when Jones and Hillmer provide back-up. On album highlight Nine – which is actually the fourth, not the ninth track – they help steer the band into a more unhinged avant-jazz direction by adding ear-splitting dissonance and employing some extended techniques. Alongside Bettis’ creepy howls and growls, this adds up to a monstrous track that recalls Painkiller in its bludgeoning intensity and metal experimentalists Kayo Dot in its scope.

In general, intensity is the album’s main redeeming quality; at times, it makes critique of the record’s flaws seem almost ridiculous. Still, the band is seemingly at a crossroads, caught between a tendency towards constructing (quasi-)songs and an inclination to reckless improvising. All told, it’s a good, if somewhat flawed record and hopefully a harbinger of great things to come.

Listen and buy at the label’s homepage.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Piotr Damasiewicz Project - Imprographic 1 (ForTune, 2013) ****

By Stef

Sometimes it takes a while before music comes on our radar screen too, even if the records have been lying here for months on end, sometimes going back to the previous year, as is the case with this album. And that's a shame really, because this quartet deserves attention, as does this double CD, called "Imprographic 1", a title that holds the promise for more.

The quartet is Piotr Damasiewixz on trumpet, Gerard Lebik on tenor, Gabriel Ferrandini (yes, from RED trio) on drums and Jakub Mielcarek on bass. They play free jazz in the best of traditions, freely, openly, and if there are any references to give, possibly Other Dimensions In Music, or the Tribute To Albert Ayler Band come to mind, two bands with almost identical line-ups, creating beauty, density and space on the spot, often without clear rhythmic patterns, yet with a steady implicit pulse, not really soloing, but creating coherent sonic textures of long and extended phrases, weaving a tapestry of sound, and quite contrary to the liner notes, in my opinion the music is much closer to American music than to European free improvisation, because of its soulfulness, the less cerebral approach, the band is more constructing than deconstructing, and somehow still respectful of traditional concepts like repetitions in phrases, with lots of sustained and flowing moments.

These are excellent performances, recorded live at three venues in Poland, the Alchemia, The Falanster and Cofeina. My kind of jazz, open, free, coherent, technically excellent, with solid interplay and creative interactions.

I hope we get Imprographic 2 soon.

Piotr Damasiewicz Quartet – Mnemotaksja (ForTune, 2014) ****

Damasiewicz released another album earlier this year, again with the same line-up, with himself on trumpet, Gerard Lebik on tenor and contralto clarinet, Maciey Garbowski on bass, and Wojciech Romanowski on drums.

This is not free jazz in the strictest sense - but what does that mean? - because of the strong structural and compositional basis of the nine pieces, and its solid rhythmic foundation. You could qualify the music as modern jazz, with a very open attitude to soloing and shifting structural elements.

I  know it's always risky to draw comparisons among musicians, and even if Damasiewicz' trumpet sound is not comparable to that of Dennis Gonzalez, his music is, because of the unison themes, the sense of drama, the deep melancholy and epic content while retaining this overall sense of freedom and expansiveness.

A really strong album, and one can only conclude that Damasiewicz is an artist with many stylistic possibilities, and he is possibly strong in all of them, including the even more epic work with "Power Of The Horns", one of my favorite albums of last year.

So, being more adept of absolute freedom, my personal choice would be with "Imprographic", but "Mnemotaksja" is obviously more accessible while being equally of high quality.

Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4 - New York Concerts (Elemental, 2014) *****

By Stefan Wood

There are reissues that can reintroduce a body of work to a new generation of listeners, and then there are reissues that completely alter established musical history, of an artist and a genre. Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4's New York Concerts fall into the latter category. It is a 2-disc set comprised of two concerts in 1965, during a stretch of 7 or 8 years where there has been no recorded documentation of Giuffre's work.

The 1961 sessions, "Fusion" and "Thesis," originally recorded on Verve and later reissued by ECM, were considered landmarks of early free improvised jazz, brilliant works of group interplay and of space, using silence as an essential part of the music. With Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, the drummer less trio was structured in such a way as to be forced to be more interactive with one another, emphasizing counterpoint. On the New York Concerts, the drummer is back, with Joe Chambers, who was already making a mark for himself with his excellent collaborations with Bobby Hutcherson on Blue Note. Richard Davis replaces Swallow, and this trio, recorded live at Judson Hall, explodes where the earlier trio shimmers.

"Syncopate" is jaw dropping, as Giuffre unloads, with terse and weighty interplay from Davis and Chambers, a fierce torrent of notes that is unexpected as it is aurally exciting. It's short of sounding like Brotzmann, more lyrical, but it carries tremendous weight. Chambers is equally brilliant here, accenting the notes with a brief machine gun flurry, and Davis darting in between both musicians with notes that emphasize the space where the others don't inhabit. It is one of the most riveting and intense compositions I have heard from Giuffre. "Crossroads," an Ornette Coleman tune, again shows Giuffre's dexterity and fluidity, driving through the complicated series of notes with ease, even better than Coleman himself. He squeals and squawks with an intense focus, never overblowing, but in decidedly chosen moments that emphasize a positive and negative space. Chambers responds with thundering drum rolls, and Davis again provides an essential point of focus, providing a link between the sound and silence with accented notes, not so much providing rhythm but atmosphere. "Drive" is more boppish, with Giuffre providing a strong lead, moving from sweet notes to harsh atonal bleats, with Davis having counterpoint with a soft but intense solo.

The second disc is from an earlier date of the same year, at Columbia University. Joe Chambers is still on drums, but Giuffre is accompanied this time with Barre Phillips and Don Friedman. Four of the six tracks are similar as on disc 1, but the interaction is different, mostly because of Friedman's inclusion. On "Syncopate," Friedman's piano echoes and plays off of Giuffre's lead, then going off on his own, at times percussive, others very freely played, similar to his musical explorations on the Prestige albums at that time (think "Metamosphosis" & Dreams and Explorations"). The leader baton gets passed between the two, with Chambers continuing to provide a heavy accent on drums when needed. Phillips is less compelling than Richard Davis, perhaps because the dynamics of the group are different, but is still effective. The moments when the group explodes into free improv are breathtaking, because they are so brief, but the power is there. "Quadrangle," twice its length here than on disc 1, is a highlight on the set, an excellent work that exemplifies Giuffre and his group's use of silence and space, where four musicians interact, pull apart and play separately, then return. Phillips' playing is at best here, plucking and bowing at times to really give the listener a sense of atmosphere, tension, and placement between the musicians. "Quadrangle" flows right into "Three Bars in One," another long tune which takes the statement made from the previous piece and shoot it into the stratosphere. On "Cry, Want," Giuffre plays clarinet, and, while no one will mistake his sound for Eric Dolphy's, is introspective and as freely played as anyone from that time. It anticipates a wave of playing done in the 70s and later decades. Again, the dynamics are mostly between Giuffre and Friedman, who trade off tonal and atonal notes as if having a conversation. "Angles" showcases a lot of percussion from Chambers, who drives the others to a fast pace, with the others taking quick pauses then firing off salvos of notes at each other.

New York Concerts is an incredibly valuable document, not only for the artist, as it fills and informs a big gap in his recorded discography, but also how Giuffre anticipated a style and dialogue of playing that informed and influenced generations of free improvising musicians that followed. This easily is the reissue of the year, and gets my highest recommendation.

You can buy this album from Instantjazz

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Han Bennink & Jaak Sooäär – Beach Party (Barefoot, 2013) ****

By Tom Burris

Beach Party is the result of a March 2012 concert of percussion legend Han Bennink in a duo format featuring Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooaar.  They have a fairly rigid format for a couple of free wildmen, which is “let’s have a bunch of fun and improvise until we feel like playing a standard we both like.”  You’d have to be a real party pooper to not have a good time here.

It is a thrill to hear Sooaar playing without a bass line in the way, sounding a bit like Sonny Sharrock doing Charlie Christian on “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.”  They follow this up with another improvisational outburst that rolls into “I Got Rhythm” with a Misha Mengelberg composition thrown in at the end.  Bennink swings like hell and is his usual entertaining, brilliant self; while Sooaar’s playing has a sharp rockist edge to it, matching Bennink’s carefully reckless choreography with enough well-placed distortion to make the Zappa nerds cry.

“Tartuu Marss” is an Estonian traditional piece of music that is preceeded by a bit of early 70s Miles wah-wah stomps.  Bennink is definitely in his element.  They manage to smash two composed pieces together, matching Monk’s “Pannonica,” on which Sooaar plays gorgeously, with the lone original composition here, the funky butt-kicking “Beach Party.”  They attack “Darn That Dream” in total free-jazz mode, which in breaking the improv/standard formula becomes a bit of a mash-up.

Not surreal enough for ya?  They play “O Sole Mio” with a straight-ahead groove that somehow comes off sounding like the White Stripes!  This is followed by a monster freakout that leads into another Estonian standard called “Pistoda Laul,” a beautiful piece of melancholia.  Short Attention Span Theater possessed by genius.