Thursday, July 30, 2015

Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers - Crisis (Pi, 2015) ****½

By Stef

This incredibly beautiful album shows the crisis of the Arab world in all its internal and external conflicts, the strife between modernity and traditionalism, between the right for self-determination and foreign influence, between tolerance and extremism, between peace and war.

We have heard the Two Rivers band before, a title referring to the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq, rivers of myths and legends, the basis of our civilization, but also very much on our television screens these years, where the cultural remnants of this civilization are turned to ruins. The band are Amir ElSaffar, of Iraqi origin on vocals and quarter-tone trumpet, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion, Ole Mathisen on microtonal sax, Carlo DeRosa on bass, and Nasheet Waits on drums.

The band already delivered the beautiful "Two Rivers" in 2007 and "Inana" in 2011, two albums that are easy to recommend, but I have the impression that this one is even better. The themes are beautiful, the rhythms complex and ever changing, the interplay excellent, and the emotional depth even better than before. Just listen to ElSaffar's solo trumpet on "Taqsim Saba", a performance which can compete with Nassim Maalouf's "Improvisations Orientales", one of the absolute masterpieces of the quarter-tone trumpet, because of its desolation and beauty. Then listen to the complex harmonies and arrangements of tracks like "The Great Dictator" or "Tipping Point", where you are treated to some phenomenal interplay and dazzling soloing. The only downside on the album is that the strings are not always mixed with the right volume, so they tend to disappear in the background when soloing, but that is really the only downside of this great album. A special kudo too for ElSaffar's singing, which is as sad as it is powerful, not in the sense of Dhafer Youssef's volume pyrotechnics, but more contained, more intimate.

Over the years, ElSaffar has improved on all different aspects of the music, and it was already great to start with. World jazz fans should not miss this, and many others will surely enjoy this.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Jakob Bro - Gefion (ECM, 2015) ***½

It was a recent Friday, at the tail end of a long week, and I was making my daily slog to the train. I needed to listen to something  that could ease me into the day. So scrolling through my iPod, I hit upon Danish guitarist Jakob Bro's Gefion. It was an album that had been on my short list for a long time, and the time seemed right...

This early 2015 release begins like rowboat trip across a shimmering clear lake of sound. Subtle ripples breaking the surface as bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Jon Christensen help to power the vessel, but the overall atmosphere is unbroken and refreshingly uncomplicated.

That is not to say the music is in anyway stationary, rather Bro is a melodic player who works in textures and implications. While the opening title track begins with a moody quietness and proceeds along only with the gentle lap of waves against the bow, there is quickening of the pulse as the boat draws into deeper water. ‘Copenhagen', the next track, finds Morgan’s articulated bass work front and center, complimenting Bro's gentle swelling arpeggios. Next, 'And They all Came Marching Out' begins in a more forceful manner and how the guitarist builds off of the looping bass line reminds me a bit of the Bill Frisell's 'Gone, Just Like a Train’. Though the songs were growing more emphatic, the lineage of musical texture was still cohesive, the water has just become a little rougher and the rowing stronger.

The other tracks of the album are too of a piece, whether it is the fraught 'White', or the open ended 'Ending', Bro's work with Lee Konitz, Paul Motion, Kenny Wheeler, and Frisell (just to name a few), has certainly become an anchor for his own poetic work.

My journey with Gefion left me in much better mood. Give this one a listen.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lama & Joachim Badenhorst - The Elephant's Journey (Clean Feed, 2015) ****½

By Stef

I will start my review with a sentence written by our colleague Paul Acquaro for the two previous Lama albums reviewed on this blog :

"The pieces fit together so tightly that there's hardly room for a wasted note, beat or breath as the musicians move gracefully through the set of songs, nimbly riding the contours between structure and freedom"

This is still the case here. Tightly composed and arranged pieces with Susana Santos Silva on trumpet and flugelhorn, Gonçalo Almeida on double bass, effects and loops, Greg Smith on drums and electronics, and guest musician Joachim Badenhorst on clarinet and bass clarinet. 

The album starts with the short "Razor's Edge", a tantalising piece full of foreboding created by chimes and distant trumpet sounds that create a spell or magic of some kind, with increasing density as the clarinet and bass join, equally sad and ominous, ending in sparse electronics and crackling noises as a perfect intro for the second track, "The Process", that is characterised by a wonderful and surprising theme, that jumps all over the place like an acrobat, but without the fun, because the atmosphere is serious, with a moaning clarinet as the first to solo, followed by a sad trumpet and then both swirl and dance around each other in mad circles, fierce and forceful, like antagonists in a story, but then the whole thing collapses and the bass plays a slow few notes, with a fax machine on the background, and the other instruments timidly re-entering the proceedings, unsure of their role, and insecure about what is going to happen, but then the opening theme comes back again and unifies the whole. 

The next piece is called "A Hunger Artist" and is without a doubt the most beautiful composition of the year, with a beautiful theme that will stick in your memory forever (hopefully), and with fabulous collective interplay between the four musicians in the more open expansion and development of the theme, which keeps repeating itself despite the changing voices of the four instruments, which shift to anger, despair, joy and fun at the same time, utterly entertaining and beautiful, and like the previous track, somewhere in the middle the music quietens down for heart-rending solos by both clarinet and trumpet without actual resolution. 

"Crime And Punishment" is the next piece, and in the meantime the alert listener has understood that all tracks refer to novels or novelists whose names you will find below. The Dostoyevski tune is equally well composed and arranged even if not my favorite of the album. 

Gonçalo Almeida opens "Murakami" first arco then pizzi, introducing Badenhorst's clarinet moving somewhat into the sad territory of subdued klezmer sensitivities, and Santos Silva's trumpet amplifies the sadness with her beautiful sound, and both horns dialogue full of passion and compassion, supported by the subtle rhythm section. You will not hear anything sadder than this tune this year. 

I will not review all tracks, but let me just mention the title song, which is worth mentioning for its inventiveness, humor and joy. And maybe also the closing track, which is again sad and subdued and excessively beautiful. 

And basically that sums up the whole album. You get it all, with the right dose, in the right quantities : creativity, musical acumen, instrumental prowess, accessibility and freedom, coherence and variation, and emotional depth in each piece, whether fun or sad. Don't miss it. It's another gem that Clean Feed releases this year. 

  1. Razor's Edge - W. Somerset Maughan
  2. The Process - Franz Kafka
  3. A Hunger Artist - Franz Kafka 
  4. Crime And Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  5. Murakami (Japanese novelist)
  6. The Gorsky's Spy 
  7. The Elephant's Journey - José Saramago
  8. Don Quixote - Manuel de Cervantes

Monday, July 27, 2015

John Russell / Phil Durrant / John Butcher – Conceits (Emanem, 2015) ****

By Chris Haines

This is a reissue of the first album by the improvising trio of John Russell (acoustic plectrum guitar), Phil Durrant (violin and trombone) and John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones).  Originally released in 1988, launching the Acta label and sporting a Jamie Muir (the percussionist in Music Improvisation Company and later of King Crimson fame) painting on it’s LP cover it has become almost impossible to obtain in recent years; that is until now.  For the first time on CD Emanem have now released this lost classic so that it can be heard by those of us interested in hearing this excellent trio’s first recordings.

The first eleven tracks that were recorded in 1987 and appeared on the original LP release have been augmented on this reissue by a previously unreleased live recording of the trio made in Stockholm by Mats Gustafsson, which dates from a few years later in 1992.  The original album tracks are relatively short lasting between two to six minutes in length.  The additional track is longer in length coming in at around sixteen minutes.

The album starts with the now aptly titled “How It Was”, Butcher’s saxophone playing a quick motive which rests on a long sustained tone whilst Russell’s guitar and Durrant’s trombone provide a pointillistic accompaniment and the perfect contrast.  The style of the music is typical of the classic sound of British free improvisation from around this time and contains obvious parallels and influences from earlier groups such as Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Iskra 1903.  Containing a wealth of fragmentary motives that call back and forth to one another, sharp contrasting textures, extended instrumental techniques that produce other worldly sounds and defy instrumentation categorisation, the music is delivered in a very dry and clinical way with expert interplay.  The three musicians blend their individual sounds with an ease that belies the complexity of the textures that they produce and at other times the instruments are deliberately separate and isolated within a collage type form. 

There are some interesting titles to the tracks such as “Fine Sharp And Leighton Buzzard” and “From The Eggs To The Apples”.  The bonus track “Soft Hours And Solidities” sits naturally at the end and is of a similar style to the other material, so much so that it’s hard to imagine the album not originally containing it.

Whether it’s a favourable opinion of their own ability, a flight of imaginative fancy or a purely elaborate and decorative article, the Conceits on offer here are once again welcome to be readily available to us all.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Vox Arcana -Caro's Song (Relay, 2015) *****

By Tom Burris

Let's just get this out of the way.  Chicago drummer/composer Tim Daisy is getting his second 5-star review from me in 2015.  I don't want to give it to him – because it just plain looks bad, like I'm on the Relay payroll or something.  But Caro's Song is simply that goddamn good.  What follows is a review-length justification of my guilt.

Daisy's ensemble writing here draws heavily on the mid-70s Anthony Braxton model for quartet, which I believe is as fine and sturdy as the more popular late-50s/early-60s Ornette Coleman Quartet model (which was so successfully utilized by fellow Chicagoan Keefe Jackson on Seeing You See back in 2010).  It typically involves a fast statement of the theme, followed by a variation, then a (usually looser) re-statement of the theme, then a loose improvisation on top of a skeletal structure.  This is just the jumping-off point for Daisy, as he bends and folds the blueprint to serve the needs of this trio, which also features Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, electronics) and James Falzone (bass clarinet).  This is the group's fourth recording. 

“Assembly” opens the disc with Daisy on marimba; and the group immediately calls to mind Jimmy Giuffre's late 50s trio recordings, as Daisy himself acknowledges in the liner notes.  The collective improvisation near the end of the track sets a standard that would be difficult for any band to maintain; but Vox Arcana is simply laying the foundation for the rest of the disc.  The title track follows, utilizing the 70s Arista Braxton composition model for the first time.  Lonberg-Holm does quite well in the Dave Holland role, alternately scraping-&-sawing and plucking the groove (when one surfaces) with fine precision.  The song ends with a compositional surprise: a Braxton-esque loop starting and stopping, fading out to the end. 

This music is spacious, open, and warm – even when abruptly changing gears.  The musicians employ a confident approach that reflects the amount of experience they have with each other.  “Silver Light” is a perfect example, opening with long quiet notes on clarinet and cello, as beautiful as a Morton Feldman piece.  When Lonberg-Holm and Falzone play long notes over a Daisy's busy (but relaxed!) marimba in perfect counterpoint, the sublime becomes transcendent.  There is a hilarious perversion of the Braxton composition model at the beginning of “Objects,” that involves tweaks in the time/space continuum.  Daisy seems to be dangling Fred and James from strings, forcing them in different directions and then suddenly bringing them back together solely through the intuitive will of his drumming.  “Contained” demonstrates even more clearly that this group can play as one six-armed machine, with brilliant unhurried statements made by all, collectively and individually.

The disc concludes with “The Mad Dance,” which begins with Daisy playing a semi-Latin beat which is answered by Fred and James.  Then Daisy replies.  Then the response.  Then faster.  Then higher.  Daisy switches to marimba, pounding out one note repeatedly before finally extending into free runs that actually appear to alternately extend and cut time.  It's a trick that wouldn't work without the exercise that preceded it, but knowing this does not ruin the effect at all.  He settles on a tempo and Falzone enters, playing a solemn melody over Daisy's arpeggios.  Then enter Lonberg-Holm, plucking one bass note while Daisy flips on a radio.  Static and a lone unintelligible voice accompany briefly while Daisy moves to the drum set.  He slowly pounds out four-on-the-floor with bass drum, ride cymbal and snare in unison with Fred's bass note, building tension like the V.U. or Godspeed.  Yes, this eventually hits the sky – but then it abruptly stops on a dime leaving only Falzone's clarinet softly landing us all on the ground.  Incredible.  I'll be amazed if a more solid album appears before the year's end.  If it does happen, and if it's on Relay, I'm not writing that review!  No one would believe me.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Chicago Reed Quartet - Western Automatic (Aerophonic, 2015) ****

By Paul Acquaro

'Burn Unit' is a pulse quickening way to kick off any album. A simple staccato melody is played in unison until it breaks, splintering free, letting musical statements explode with purposeful energy. The piece is a not so gentle introduction to the powerful and musically adventurous Western Automatic by the Chicago Reed Quartet.

Headed by tenor saxophonist Dave Rempis (and released in his excellent Aerophonic label), the Quartet also features the fearless reed work of fellow Chicagoans Ken Vandermark, Mars William and Nick Mazzarella. Quite a line up, and it is a shame that this may be the group's only recording as it captures an intense and engaging group playing with focus and conviction.

And so 'Burn Unit' is a long song - by the time were at the end, the fiery start has become a moody ending, setting the stage for the more traditional jazz harmonies of 'Remnant'. Showcasing a different side to the group, the slow moving melody is damn near romantic in its lushness. The credits for the album's eight tracks are split evenly among the members, each one with its own personality and approach, like for example 'P.O.P', which begins with a dramatically pensive melody that eventually gives way to an effervescing array of musical ideas.

It could be said that good ideas come in pairs, or it's just something blowing in the wind, but Chicago Reed Quartet has a companion in another Chicago artist, James Falzone, whose recent Regna Ensemble was also a striking reed oriented recording. Even sharing a bit of the same cast, both groups provide evidence of the life and vitality of the woodwind ensemble in avant garde music. Highly recommended!

The group is/was:
  • Nick Mazzarella – alto saxophone
  • Dave Rempis – alto/tenor/baritone saxophone
  • Mars Williams – sopranino/soprano/alto/tenor saxophone
  • Ken Vandermark – clarinet/bass clarinet, tenor/baritone saxophone

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ted Daniel’s Energy Module –Innerconnection (NoBusiness, 2015) ****

By Martin Schray

When there someday is a final evaluation of the loft jazz scene, the role of Danas Mikailionis and Valerij Anosov of the Lithuanian NoBusiness label will surely be appreciated. On the one hand the label has released new and adventurous music by lesser known artists (e.g. Szilard Mezei Tubass Quintet, ROIL or Fabric Trio) or established musicians (Mats Gustafsson, Barry Guy or Nate Wooley – to name just a few). On the other hand they try to discover and release sunken treasures, for example from the aforementioned New York era of the 1970s – like  the Melodic Art-Tet, The Group or William Parker. Their latest effort is a session at Sunrise Studios from November 1975 by Ted Daniel’s short-lived Energy Module, a quintet consisting of Daniel himself (trumpet, flugelhorn, French hunting horn, and Moroccan bugle), Daniel Carter (tenor sax), Oliver Lake (alto and soprano sax, flute, piccolo, and cowbell), Richard Pierce (bass), and Tatsuya Nakamura (drums).

The album opens with the Sunny Murray miniature “Jiblet“, a powerful introduction to the following tracks, which are a mixture of cover versions and Daniel’s own compositions. And there are a lot of characteristics the pieces have in common. “Innerconnection“ by Dewey Redman and “Congeniality“, an Ornette Coleman tune, live from the excellent horn interaction: tightly intervowen ferocious runs, polyphonic mayhem, the opposition of the saxes crying and honking and the trumpet’s smooth and elegant tone.

The highlight of the album is the band’s version of Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts”. In contrast to the original, the band hides the theme behind collective improvisation, only here and there it shines through. In the beginning it’s the trumpet that tries to establish Ayler’s march-like melody against the saxophones, winning them slowly over. The band emphasizes the tune’s call-and-response and gospel roots and only after five minutes the frontline plays the theme in unison, which makes it stand out all the more powerful, it’s literally swelling in front of Nakamura’s driving rhythms. From then on the horns process the tune in an exciting and powerful way.

Actually, the music on this album is a must-have for fans of classic free jazz. The only weak point is the fact that Pierce’s bass can only be properly heard once the ensemble passages turn down the volume, for example in “The Probe“ (a Ted Daniel composition), where he proves what an imaginative and creative player he is.  His repetitive pulse opens the track, then the complete band presents the main theme, before Lake takes over for a long, reflective alto meditation full of intense dynamics (especially the restrained overtones, the shivering, compressed tones, and the imaginative modulations of the theme are really awesome).

I am really looking forward to the next gem the Lithuanian pearl divers are going to release.
Innerconnections is available on vinyl (as a limited edition of 400) and on CD.

You can buy it from the label and from Instantjazz.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Máximo Endrek - Extraño Hábitat (Self, 2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Bassist Máximo Endrek is an Córdoba, Argentina based musician whose work spans free and traditional jazz as well as orchestral music, and this trio outing with pianist Mariano Vélez and drummer Matías Romero is an excellent introduction to his improvised side. Whether the melody is explicit or implied, the piano prepared or straight forward, or the bassist is using his instrument as a textural instrument or to provide a grounding, there is always an accessible pulse to the songs of Extraño Hábitat.

The opener 'Solo Sigue al Tiempo' is a subtle but deceptively driving track. The prepared piano and melody from the bass's higher register balance precariously on the akimbo percussion. The groove is abstract and the distorted acoustic tones mix well with the regular piano sounds, helping to create a textured, energetic piece. The title track almost says it all - as the group gets into it and the tempo quickens, the bass becomes the laboratory of a mad scientist enrapt in an inspired frenzy. Vélez drops in snippets of melody and the drums push them forward. The closing track 'La Respuesta del Niño' delves into Medeski, Martin and Wood territory with a strong but unpredictable back-beat, a bass-driven melody, and repetitive motifs. While the approaches vary throughout the tracks, some pieces sparse and reflective and others brimming and forceful, the album is consistently engaging.

By carefully juxtaposing extended techniques and more straight ahead playing, Endrek has created a sound that blends an accessible approach with the essence of improvised music. Well worth checking out!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sylvaine Hélary: Spring Roll ▪ Printemps (Ayler Records, 2015) *****

By Joe

It may be difficult to make a better introduction to this album than Stephane Berland does in his press notes to this quite spectacular release:
"First created in 2011 at l'Atelier du Plateau in Paris, the concert/performance "Printemps" offered audiences a hybrid between theatre, music, sound poetry and political manifesto - for it was focused on the "Arab Spring" in Egypt, among other things - where the intertwined words and voices of Julien Boudart, Xavier Papies and Egyptian blogger Aalam Wassef created a reflection on the magic of the (new) beginnings."  
This double CD album is another strong offering from the Ayler label, and this time presents us with an amalgam of modern jazz mixed with quasi contemporary classical music. This highly sophisticated music blends improvised sections which flow quite effortlessly with written instrumental passages and recited texts. The main group is made up of a quartet (see below), giving the music a chamber-jazz quality. Having said that the ensemble is in no way a polite tea-dance group, they really attack the complex music with amazing precision and energy. 

Printemps (CD1) has the main bulk of the texts. These are concentrated (when read) into a couple of the pieces. The texts follow the first 15 letters of the Arabic alphabet - read out before each short passage. The music is precisely composed around these vocal interludes, the detailed interplay between the spoken text and the music is mind boggling. The instrumental sections are sort of bridges between these piece, however there are plenty of extended writing in these also. Although there are solos, much of the music on Printemps I would guess is composed. However the marvellous writing (composition/orchestration) carry you along in a way that made me think of Stravinsky's L'Histoire de Soldat. 

The second CD Spring Roll is a shorter affair. It has a wonderful opening duet (tenor sax/flute) sounding not unlike Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz*. The main bulk of Spring Roll is instrumental, although there are some vocal interludes, some of them sung (Île, tk5). Although the music is very complex there are in this piece moments where soloists get a chance to improvise, often whilst the ensemble supports them. In track 3 there's two wonderful sections, one featuring the piano, the other another improvised duet, but this time between piano and tenor sax. Overall Spring Roll certainly gives much space to the individual instruments. Bruissements du monde gives us a chance to hear Sylvaine Hilary alone - playing a wonderful extended solo flute introduction. L'esquive (tk6) has a nice blend of synths, percussion & piano accompanying a fiery sax solo. The track then passes via some complex contrapuntal writing before settling down before leading into a narrated passage in German (Jean Chaize).

This is a highly recommended album, and certainly 5 stars if ever there was one. The work and detail put into these two compositions is quite spectacular, and if you like contemporary jazz meets classical you'll find a lot of very interesting music here, and I would add there's most definitely "never a dull moment".       

The main ensemble is: Sylvaine Hélary, flutes, voice; Antonin Rayon, piano, synthesizer; Hugues Mayot, saxophones, clarinets & Sylvain Lemêtre, vibraphone, percussion. The guests are: Julien Boudard, ms20 synthesiser (printemps); Aalam Wassef, voice (printemps); Xavier Papaïs, voice (printemps); Yumiko Nakamura, voice (spring roll) & Jean Chaize, voice (spring roll).

Translations and transcriptions of the texts (original French texts and English translations) can be found on the Ayler website.

* = Lee Konitz being an alto player, not a flautist.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Frantz Loriot - Reflections On An Introspective Path (Neither Nor, 2015) ****

By Stef

I have written very positively before about French-Japanese viola-player Frantz Loriot, often because of the unexpected nature of his music, and his unwillingness to compromise, which in his case, because of his strong musical vision, is a good thing.

This album is a solo viola album, a very rare happening by itself, but Loriot's music will make it even rarer. The first track consists of multiple strings played at the same time, in an ever increasing move upwards on the  tonal scale, which by itself would not be unique, but then listen to the gut-wrenching intensity with which it is done, and this physicality of strings, bow, wood and sound is essential to fully appreciate Loriot's approach. The second track brings almost flute-like sounds, very quiet and introspective, to evolve to almost aggressive staccato sounds on the third, which gradually change into the sound of a hand saw going through wood without compassion, then slowing it down until you hear the instrument itself moan and the strings rebel against the treatment they get. This may sound harsh, but it's not judgmental, it's as if Loriot humanises his instrument, making it utter sounds for a variety of reasons, yet despite or because of the abstract level of the music itself, a deeper, emotional level is unveiled and even unleashed, primarily because of the intensity of the approach and the overall dynamics of the sound.

And that brings us to the album's title : you could expect an album called "Reflections On An Introspective Path" to be meditative, contemplative, sentimental or even mellow, but here it's the exact opposite. Whatever Loriot finds in his "introspective path" is not always something to be content with, it's a harsh reality that is not possible to catch with words, a laying bare of his soul, and one that screams to be let out.

A strong album.

You can listen and download on Bandcamp.