Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mikolaj Trzaska galore

By Stef 

Polish saxophonist and bass clarinetist Mikołaj Trzaska has a more than impressive career, not only within his own country, but increasingly internationally, an evolution we can only applaud. His music has also made an interesting evolution, or better still, it is a tree with many different branches, going into full power free jazz mode (with for instance Peter Friis Nielsen and Peeter Uuskyla), and lyrical sensitive modern jazz with the Oles brothers, European free improv (with Brötzmann and Johannes Bauer), and more jewish inspired sounds with Ircha. Next to all that he was also the co-founder of Miłość, one of the best known bands of Polish "yass" as the country's specific variant of jazz is called, and let's not forget his work for the dramatic arts, probably also an influence on the story-telling aspect of music. In any case, what he does is worth listening to, it's actually really worth looking for, and this for each of the branches that grow out of the solid tree. And that tree is one of real humanity, authentic expression and lyricism, even in the wildest formats, and a deeply rooted sense of adventure. And does everything work? No, surely not, but that doesn't matter: he's taking the risks and without taking the risks you don't get anywhere, let alone shape listening experiences. 

In the end it is a matter of choice. He's been very prolific in his output recently, and here are some albums that require highlighting. 

Mikolaj Trzaska, Melbye, Hojgaard & Lohse - Live At Mayhem (7 Records, 2013) ***

It has taken me a year to write the review on this album. Primarily because I don't like to write negative reviews, of which I do not really see the point. But then again, Trzaska is such an important musician in my opinion, that not reviewing it would not be good either. Trzaska is performing with a Danish trio on this album, with Jeppe Højgaard also on saxophone and clarinet, Adam Melbye on double bass and Rune Lohse on drums. Even if the sound quality is not ideal, the album starts well, yet somehow the efforts taken never really gell. There is a lot of searching going on among the four musicians, yet they never find the sound they want to bring, to the extent even that I think that sometimes some of the band members take a step back to avoid too much confusion, and not surprisingly the best part is the first half of the second side, on which silence and quiet solos create a good atmosphere, but it ends in absolute mayhem, no sorries for the pun. 

And do you get value for money? "These records are the product of a year's work. Each record is made into one LP and is sold for the price of 2,000 $ a piece. If you choose to buy all 7 you will get a discount", writes drummer Rune Lohse on the website for his label. Luckily cheaper version exist via iTunes and other download sites. 

Mikolaj Trzaska, Devin Hoff & Michael Zerang - Sleepless In Chicago (No Business, 2013) ****½

Things get phenomenally better with his trio with Devin Hoff on bass and Michael Zerang on drums. Trzaska starts with a slow and lyrical intro on his alto, setting the sound for a twenty-minute improvisation, that despite its many changes of fierceness, speed and phrases retains its initial concept, demonstrating how great an improviser Trzaska is. He explores emotional content, sonic possibilities, soaring, singing, howling like you've rarely heard an alto howl, yet keeping focused at the same time on the improvisation's foundation. Strong stuff, and Hoff and Zerang are perfect to achieve the fantastic end result, and if they already shine as a trio, they also get some time for solo activity. 

The second side starts equally slowly and lyrically, at times almost sounding like a spiritual invented on the spot, with feelings going deep into everyone's mutual understanding of places for which no words exist. It is sad, it is yearning, it is exalted, full of joy too, and then listen how Hoff's bass reinforces the feeling with his deep rumblings on bass, and Zerang's creative emphasis of moments, supporting the alto or even on the quieter pieces sufficiently strong to keep the percussive power going, shaping wonderful contrasts. 

Of all the sax trios around, this is possibly one of the highlights of the year. It is not the most innovative, because this is free jazz in its most essential delivery by a sax-bass-drums trio, and they do not do anything else than do what so many improvising sax-bass-drums trios have done for fifty years now, and still what you get to hear is of such a solidity, such a purity, such power and such flawless delivery, that it dwarves even some of the giants. 

Inner Ear - Return From The Center Of The Earth (Bocian, 2013) **½

Inner Ear is a new band, with Trzaska on saxophone and bass clarinet, Steve Swell on trombone, Per-Ake Holmlander on tuba, and Tim Daisy on drums, a band that performed also twice, at the same moment as "Sleepless In Chicago", with the first part recorded at the Hideout in Chicago in March 2011, and the second part at the Elastic in August 2012.

The overall sound is more linked to European free improv than the jazzy blow-outs on "Sleepless In Chicago" and the quality is also less. Trzaska, Swell and Holmlander are not always on the same plane, often on a kind of sonic collision course, with Trzaska trying to get some lyricism into the proceedings, but when failing this, also resorting to long howls and fierce shouts.

It is a strange album, one that has its good moments, for sure, but this is not sustained throughout. Indeed, when taking risks, you sometimes fail, and I guess this is one of those moments, including the bizarre abrupt ending of the music on the last track, as if the label had also heard enough, and just switched off the sound.

Mikolaj Trzaska, Mazur & Pandi - Tar & Feathers (Gusstaff Records, 2014) ****½

The brilliant mastership goes on with this equally strong "Tar & Feathers", now with Polish acoustic bass guitar player Rafał Mazur and with Hungarian drummer Balazs Pandi. Mazur's skills on his custom-made instrument add a lot of weight to the overall sound, with a tone that is clearer than an acoustic bass, allows for more speed, more rock-ish, while still maintaining the natural acoustic sound. Pandi we have reviewed before, with his collaborations on Ivo Perelman's "One", and with Slobber Pup, two bands in which Joe Morris also features. Recently, Pandi also toured with Zu, the Italian power jazz band.

This rhythm section already gives you an idea of where the music could lead : to regions of high intensity and power play, and it is wild, violent at times even, but then Trzaska's lyricism, the beauty of his phrasing, the deeply felt blues and 'Weltschmerz' that resonates throughout his improvisations and spontaneously generated themes, add a sensitivity to the music that is strangely not in contrast with the rhythm section, because the interaction between all three musicians is so good, so fluent, so coherent, that the result is almost magical. Descriptions like violent sensitivity, or raw sophistication, come to mind, or a Jackson Pollock aquarel, if that exists, in any case a merging of opposites, a suspension of differences, an eruption of beauty.

The performance was recorded live at the Club A38, a ferry boat floating on the Danube in Budapest, Hungary, for an enthusiastic audience.

Riverloam Trio - Inem Gortn (FMR, 2014) ****

Two years ago, No Business released "Riverloam Trio", a collaboration between Trzaska and British musicians Olie Brice on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. Their first album was great, and when the three musicians met again in New York, they recorded this CD, possibly somewhat more accessible than the 500 copies LP of the first record. Again, the collaboration is a success, with Trzaska as the lead voice managing to remain inventive, and instead of having a sixty-minute blowfest, the trio gives us eight tracks with great variety, including lyrical beauty, relentless blowing, an intro ("Beware Of The Porter, Part 1") full of surprise, some bluesy stuff, and much more. Of all the albums reviewed here, the trio is really a balanced trio, with Brice's arco often going into full dialogue with the sax as the second lead voice, and Sanders' drumming is a listening experience on its own. The great thing about this trio is that all three artists take initiative, while being able to listen and adapt to the other player's initiatives.

The Yiddish title, "Inem Gortn", means as much as "In The Garden", and it is only on the track with this name, that Trzaska picks up his bass clarinet, and brings us one of his phenomenal soulful, spiritual, deeply emotional solos, then leaving Brice the full space for an equally strong bowed solo. Sanders gets his own solo moment near the end, sufficiently long to entertain, but the trio is really at its best when they play as a trio.

Great stuff, again, raw power and sensitive lyricism.

In short, three highly recommended albums, not surprisingly all trio albums, slightly different in approach, yet spectacularly good in the quality and depth of the musical delivery, even if a little less so in the formal innovation.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Primitive Arkestra - Dolphy's Hat (Slam Productions, 2014) *

By Stefan Wood

The Primitive Arkestra is a loose collective of musicians (sometimes a quartet, other times a large twelve piece group), with the common element being Dave Haney as the leader, who is also the pianist.  Dolphy's Hat is a collection of works performed live between 2008 and 2013.  The musicians performing with him are mostly well known:  Roy Campbell, Julian Priester, Steve Swell, Adam Lane, Marc Smason, Frank Clayton, Oleg Ruvinov, Nadya Kadrevis, Rosalyn DeRoos, Doug Haning, Michael Wimberly, Matt Cercily, Dan Blunck, Juan Pablo Carletti,  Blaise Siwula, David Bindman, Avram Ferver, David Arner, Liam Sillery, Bob Reina, Chris Jones, Mark Flynn, Jack DeSalvo, Matt Lavelle, Nora McCarthy, John Murchison, Stan Nishimura, Diana Wayburn, Frankie Wilson, and Constance Cooper.

The works are all improvised, unrehearsed, with minimal directions.  Haney says "The themes are simple and secondary to the forms."  The music reflects that intent.  "Leopard's Boulevard" is probably the strongest track on the album, a three minute burst of music that recalls Ayler or the more progressive free jazz from the 60's era.  The rest of the album is not as compelling.  The loose structures don't provide direction or impetus for the musicians, and for the pedigree of the musicians here to have such a result is strange.  Overall the album is somber, ponderous, and suffocating.  There's a gravitas that undermines the purpose of playing the music.  To wade through the fifteen minute opus "Freedom Thirty-Five" requires a strong listening stamina, trudging through the repetitive bleats of the horns, progressing to a Dolphy-like bass clarinet solo then to a guitar, bass, and horns that interact but never seems to really add up to anything.

The sound quality of the recordings are variable, which is understandable, given the multiple recording dates.  But, as in the aforementioned track, certain musicians seem off mike, so when they play they sound like they are in the far end of the room.  Moments of clarity are brought down by moments of murkiness.  It really becomes a difficult listening experience.  To give the album title "Dolphy's Hat"  implies a tribute to Eric Dolphy, by playing his compositions or in the spirit of his music, but except for some brief moments, this is not the case. The album is meant to be heard as a document of different live performances of this group, but it comes across as unfocused and obscure.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


By Paul Acquaro

Paul Flaherty and Randall Colbourne - Ironic Havoc (Relative Pitch, 2014) ****

Paul Flaherty and Randall Colbourne's Ironic Havoc represents quite well the forward thinking recordings being released by the Relative Pitch label. Like the Jack and Ben Wright album released earlier this year, this saxophone duo works the limits of their instruments to great effect, delivering an album that is both engaging and provocative.

Building from an energetic and splintered melody, the opening track 'Jumping Spiders' features Flaherty's uncompromising and thoroughly captivating approach. Colbourne's percussion serves as a wonderful foil to the sometimes explosive, and other times serene, work of the saxophonist. Colbourne's introduction to 'Bstry' is sets the stage for Flaherty's intense spiraling lines, it's a real highlight. This is not an album that you can put on in the background. It demands that you listen, hear, think and be absorbed.

Ben Bennett and Jack Wright - Tangle (Public Eyesore, 2014) ****

Public Eyesore is another adventurous and unpredictable label --two adjectives that also fit Tangle from Jack Wright and Ben Bennett. This saxophone and percussion duo has been working together for many years and their rapport shows. Wright, without reservation, explores the totality of the saxophone and pushes, and only sometime pulls it back, from the edge. Bennet is a sympathetic partner, providing atmosphere and support. The opening track finds Wright employing the more breathy and percussive side of the saxophone while Bennett gives the track texture and clarity. As the piece proceeds, Wright’s playing grows stronger and stronger building up excitement.

Like Ironic Havoc, this album too require multiple listening sessions. As a listener, you become more acquainted with the pair's ideas and how they they present them, and soon what at first may be uncomfortable, becomes more logical and sensible to the ear.

Peter Evans & Raleigh Dailey - Measures from Zero (Llama, 2014) ****

Changing up the instrumentation to trumpet and piano, we have the second offering from Llama records with the Peter Evans and Raleigh Daily duo. Measure from Zero is a another intimate and rewarding duo recording. Like the others reviewed so far, Evans is not shy about exploring the breadth and tonalities of his instrument.

The energetic trumpet lines are matched with equally measured responses from the piano. Track one, “spiffle”, grows into a fast-paced game of chase with the two musicians engaged in rapid fire dialogue. The pulsating tracks breathes with inventive melodies and the easier going quieter moments are interspersed perfectly with more outside and dramatic moments (like on the terrifying track ‘what the bird with the human head knew’). This blog has covered many of Evans' other projects, and it’s safe to say that we're hooked. On the other hand, Dailey is a new name (at least to me) and his approach to the piano is quite engaging. At over an hour of music, this is a long set that sustains musical interest throughout.

Brandon Ross & Stomu Takeishi - Revealing Essence (Sunnyside, 2014) ***½

Revealing Essence, on Sunnyside, is the work of guitarist Brandon Ross and bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, and it is a big switch in approach from the duos mentioned so far. Besides the lack of a wind instrument, a difference is felt right away in the big round deliberate sound of Stomu's acoustic bass guitar lines and the clean angular melodies of Ross' acoustic guitar playing. Space is a strong element here, as is the slightly 'eastern' sounding modality, both lending the album a generous amount of breathing room.

The recording particularly exemplifies the sounds and contrasts of the instruments. Besides the acoustic guitar, Ross also brings in the soprano guitar and banjo to the mix. The character of these instruments are paramount, for example, Ross does not play the banjo like a “banjo” (traditional claw hammer or three finger style), rather he pulls the sounds out the brittle metallic and percussive sounds that come naturally to the instrument.  This is a quiet album, it draws you in as you listen closely to hear the sounds, the sparse melodic lines, and the pulse of the bass.

Bogan Ghost - Zerfall (Relative Ptich, 2014) **** 

I want to wrap up the set of reviews with possibly the most challenging recording of this set. Zerfall is an album that will cause you to re-think any previous notions you ever had about the possibilities of the electrified cello and trumpet. Comprised of Anthea Caddy on cello and Liz Allbee on trumpet, this electro-acoustic duo explores the extremes of their instruments’ sonic possibilities in a set of succinct tracks.

Using a combination of amplification, regular and extended techniques, the musical space they occupy is big. At the same time, the duo is not afraid of silence, in fact the first track is but a whisper building up to a noise laden extreme. Like the soundtrack to a psychological thriller, the music plays off emotions and works in a certain darkness. This is a stimulating album to get through, it's edgy and tough, and it will really open up your ears. Thank you!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Massimo de Mattia 4et - Hypermodern (Rudi, 2014) ****½

By Stefan Wood

Massimo de Mattia is a flutist and composer from Italy, who through his music, explores and synthesizes the works of 20th century artists (visual, theatrical, and musical).  He leads his quartet (with Giovanni Maier on doublebass, Luigi Vitale on vibraphone, marimba, percussion, and Alessandro Mansutti on drums and percussion) on this latest album,  Hypermodern.  It is an excellent work, evoking third stream, chamber jazz, and improvisations.  In fact, two artists that come to mind are Chico Hamilton and Walt Dickerson, Hamilton's classic 50's works with Fred Katz that are models of chamber jazz, and Dickerson's 70's works that were introspective, forward thinking works of improvisation.

The opening track, "Lands Beyond," sets the tone as Vitale (whose vibes are featured throughout the album) and Mattia set up an atmospheric landscape that is lightly accented with Mansutti's drums and Maier's brief but angular bass.  The volume of playing is low, creating an intimate listening space that sets up the dynamic and intricate interactions.  The title track, "Hypermodern," seems like it was pulled right out from a 60's Blue Note session with Bobby Hutcherson, with Mattia playing a Sam Rivers like aggressive flute over Vitale's pulsating vibes and Mansutti's low key but driving persussion.  It is the strongest and most active track on the album.  "Zeit" has a far eastern feel, with Mattia's minimal phrasing and the group's percussions.  "Proxemics" is another lively tune, Maier being very active with his bass plucking, Mattia's aggressive flute dancing on top of Mansutti's drums, and Maier's choppy cello strokes, ending with a frenzied funky improvisation, then promptly quieting down to silence.  The album's closer, "Way Out," reminds this listener of an exotica tune done free impov, a "Quiet Village" meets Dickerson and Dolphy.  Very unusual, but it works.

Hypermodern  is a fine album full of stimulating and provocative pieces done very intimate.   Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Joe McPhee – Nation Time: The Complete Recordings (1969-70) CD box set (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2013) *****

A Deep Listening Weekend
By Martin Schray

In yesterday’s review of Joe McPhee’s four albums he recorded for CjR, I already remarked that I consider ”Nation Time“ a landmark recording. From the very first moment you have no chance to escape: “What time is it?” shouts Joe McPhee at the beginning of the title track. He is at the top of his voice (actually even beyond), and the audience responds enthusiastically: “Nation Time!” (a reminiscence of a Amiri Baraka poem). Plain and simple call and response! And it was time for the black US community to show a new self-consciousness.

The music reflects this new attitude: sweaty, greasy funk riffs, attacked by free post-Coltrane sax cries, Fender Rhodes chords, heavily overblown parts close to sheer ecstasy pay tribute to McPhee’s great idols of that time: Albert Ayler and James Brown. McPhee puts the phrase “Move your ass and your mind will follow” into practice, his band plays pure dance floor stuff - this is great fun, charged with a political message. And he had a great band with Mike Kull (p, Fender Rhodes), Tyrone Crabb (b), Bruce Thompson (tp), Ernest Bostic (dr) and Otis Greene (as),  Herbie Lehman (org) and Dave Jones (g) on the best track of the album, “Shakey Jake”. The raw energy of this piece, for example in the guitar solo, is like a soundtrack for the social reality in the urban ghettos of the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s black power at his best, although the other two tracks were live recordings while this one was recorded in a studio.

It was a shame that this album was hard to get for such a long time which makes this release all the more important. Around the original re-mastered album this release contains twelve tracks of the “Nation Time” sessions, which were previously unreleased, and “Black Magic Man”, another McPhee album which was hard to get (originally released on the Swiss Hat Hut label in 1975) and which is here available on CD for the very first time.

From a musical point of view the live recordings at The Paddock, a local bar, are the most insightful ones, even if the sound quality is not the best – but you can hear how the audience reacts to this hot brew. The band plays an early – actually half-baked - version of “Nation Time” here, but you can already feel the raw power of the track, since it rather concentrates on bass and drums giving the rhythm section a lot of solo activity. And the addictive sax riff is already there. The other Paddock track is untitled and also gives us an idea of the forthcoming direction of McPhee’s band – soul jazz with a thick organ groove, the music which became fashionable in the 1980s and 90s under the label “acid jazz”, only that Mc Phee played a rougher version of it. The tracks recorded at Vassar College, which are on the same CD, show a completely different Joe McPhee: the one on trumpet who is deeply influenced by Miles Davis and who plays standards like “Milestones”, “My Funny Valentine” and “Bag’s Groove”. “My Funny Valentine” has become a track that has accompanied McPhee throughout his career and it is particularly interesting to compare this version with his recordings with Trio X (there on sax), where he deconstructs the tune and where he literally lays open the skeleton of it, while he plays it rather traditionally here. If this album was released separately I would probably only recommend it for McPhee experts but on the other hand it gives great insight into the development of his musical concept during McPhee’s Poughkeepsie years.

A real treat are “The Vassar Sessions, 1970”, six unreleased live tracks which present the whole musical cosmos of McPhee’s in these days and a notion where the journey would go after “Nation Time”. As an echo of the free funk days you can find his version of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”, and if Brown’s original is already raw and tough, McPhee strips the track to the bone - again with the “Nation Time” line-up, who act like a free jazz band playing funk (and not the other way round).  Then there is a ballad like McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation”, shaken by bumpy rhythms and powerful piano chords, which display a spirituality McPhee has elaborated during his career, or a Miles Davis Quintet tribute like “Spring Street”. Both tracks hint that McPhee might want to go more in the jazz direction. Completely out of the blue a track like “Hymn of the Dragon Kings” pops up – wild, pure free jazz, brutally puzzling, almost inaccessible and hard to listen to on the surface, but actually a highlight of the whole set, adding one instrument after the other to an unheard cacophony before the whole improvisation goes down in a piano trio swing thing – but then again this is also an indispensable element of McPhee’s musical world. It is a track which was originally released on “Black Magic Man”. “Sunshowers” intensifies the impression that he is back in the free jazz field since it sounds like an FMP track of these days, but then the album closes with a very mellow untitled track dominated by a Latin atmosphere, which might be a bow for his Bahamian background.

Another result of these sessions was “Black Magic Man”, an album that – according to McPhee - “wasn’t even supposed to be on a label”. But Werner X. Uehlinger, a Swiss man working for Sondells Pharmaceuticals, which had offices in New Jersey, asked McPhee if he could put it out. Uehlinger was so impressed by McPhee’s music that he decided to found HatHut to publish his music (although McPhee denies that) – and his first release was “Black Magic Man”. Although this is completely different music than “Nation Time” because McPhee wanted to add some freer elements, the band is the same: Mike Kull (p), Tyrone Crabb (b), Bruce Thompson (perc) and Ernest Bostic (dr). The album starts with the title track, and before Kull and Crabb join in McPhee and Bostic fight a real battle, they keep attacking each other, and then the whole track goes totally mad – best classical free jazz at the height of its time. But the central piece is “Song for Lauren”, a hymn-like, highly spiritual composition somewhere between Coltrane, Sanders and Ayler – and one of McPhee’s most heartfelt ones. The album presents two shorter alternative takes, with Kull on Fender Rhodes instead of the piano and without the free jazz part of the version of the original album. The result is that the spiritual effect is much less in the foreground and the piece is less abstract and chaotic but also less gripping. The final track is the already mentioned “Hymn of the Dragon Kings”.

“Nation Time – The Complete Recordings” is luxuriously packaged, with a booklet containing an extensive conversation between John Corbett and Joe McPhee and many previously unpublished (and wonderful) photographs, which provide the historical context of the recording.

Listen to “Shakey Jake” here:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Joe McPhee - The CjR Years 1969-1974 (Bo’ Weavil, 2014)

A Deep Listening Weekend

By Martin Schray

There is no doubt that Joe McPhee is one of the greatest musicians in the field of free jazz and improvisation which is why it is particularly interesting to have a look at his first albums.

Before we have a look at these recording it is necessary to have a look at Joe McPhee’s biography. He was born in November, 1939 in Miami to a family of Bahamian background. As a child, he was taught by his father, who was an amateur musician, to play the trumpet and to read music, so McPhee’s biggest early influence became Miles Davis. When he came to New York City in the mid1960s he played with Clifford Thornton but then he heard Albert Ayler play and was fascinated by his sound.
The legend goes that he borrowed a saxophone and played it the same evening in a gig.

At that time Joe McPhee lived in Poughkeepsie/New York, where he met the painter Craig Johnson by chance in 1965. Johnson worked as a guest-house secretary at a monastery nearby. Four years later Johnson, who was a great jazz fan, convinced McPhee to record in the monastery’s refectory because he thought that the acoustics were so good there. That was the place where they recorded “Underground Railroad”, McPhee’s first album under his name; and in order to distribute the music also CjR (short for Craig Johnson Records) was born, a label for which McPhee released three more LPs, “Nation Time” (1970), “Trinity” (1971) and “Pieces of Light” (1974), before he recorded another four CDs for them: “Remembrance” (2005), “Port of Saints” (2006, “Angels, Devils and Haints” (2009) and “First Date” (2013). The first four LPs were released in very small numbers and were hard to get (especially on vinyl), now Bo’Weavil has managed to make them available again.

And what a real gift it is to listen to this music!

Even at the beginning of his career McPhee disintegrated traditional compositional schemes and freed the instruments of their traditional roles, it was a real emancipatory act, his whole musical approach was modified because he also wanted to make a political statement. Not only was he deeply influenced by Albert Ayler’s expressive and hymnal sound and his spiritual and blues background but he also used African and Caribbean fragments in his music.

All four albums are completely different, which shows one of Joe McPhee’s basic principles: He is rather interested in sounds, once he said in an interview that he collected sounds and that he had always been interested in the nature of sounds, you could even say that he has an architectural idea of sound. Also, you can see his absolute awareness of form which enables him to improvise freely and without bias, as if the music is looking for its ideal form while he is playing.

“Underground Railroad“ (*****) was named after a network that helped slaves to escape from the South to the North and Canada, which existed between 1780 and 1862. In the liner notes for this edition Joe McPhee said that he wanted to make a clear political statement about civil rights and freedom from an historic African American perspective which is why he decided to choose these titles for the album (which is also subtitled „Dedicated to the Black Experience on Planet Earth“) and the single compositions. The band is Joe McPhee (tp, pocket cornet, ts), Reggie Marks (ts, fl, ss), Tyrone Crabb (b), Ernest Bostic (dr, vib) and the title track starts with a drums solo by Bostic before the rest of them get started with pure, excellent free jazz. On the flipside McPhee’s approach changes – another common ground of these albums. One of Joe McPhee’s virtues is not to follow just one idea, instead he offers several possibilities as to music, structure and sound. “Harriet”, the first track on the B-side is named after one of the most prominent figures of the fight for human rights: Harriet Tubman, a former slave who managed to escape and returned several times to the South to help others. The piece is of the utmost beauty, it recalls the pain and the suffering of slaves, and it is full of respect for Tubman’s courage and her achievement. The last track, “A Message from Denmark” is dedicated to a slave revolutionary called Denmark Vesey and it is like a combination of the other two tracks. Moreover, McPhee includes a “A Love Supreme” reminiscence, bowing down in a musical way before the great late John Coltrane as well as Martin Luther King.

McPhee could have established his position with another similar album but according to his credo to depict various approaches he chose to put aside his Albert Ayler and Miles Davis influences to present music which is rooted knee deep in soul and funk, in other words: James Brown. For “Nation Time“(*****) he took Tyrone Crabb und Ernst Bostic from the “Underground Railroad“ sessions and added Mike Kull (piano, e-piano), Bruce Thompson (dr, perc), Dave Jones (g), and Herbie Lehmann (org) to create one of the hottest soul jazz albums ever made. A piece like “Shakey Jake“ presents a certain consolidation as to rhythm and harmony, from which the other two compositions - “Nation Time” and “Scorpio’s Dance” - depart up to a point where beat and tonality almost dissolve. It seems as if the album displays the perspectives jazz was going to offer in the next few years.

Also, for his third release McPhee remains true to his principles and does something unexpected -  on the one hand he returns to his roots but on the other hand he continues to expand the political concept of his music. Even in the titles of the tracks “Trinity” (*****) refers to the holy trinity of the blues (“Ionization”), the New Orleans approach of improvisation (“Delta”) and the Ayler brothers (“Astral Spirits”).

For this purpose McPhee replaced Ernest Bostic on drums by Harold E. Smith and kept Mike Kull on piano and e-piano (actually he also wanted to have Tyrone Crabb on bass again but he decided to quit in order to join politics). Smith added very powerful rhythms and beats to the music, making it sound even more energetic and forceful, which can be heard in the duo beginning of “Ionization”. However, the key track is “Delta” combining free jazz with the beginning of improvisation, blues-like fragments and riffs at the end of the track and a sound that reminds clearly of Albert and Donald Ayler.

Three years later McPhee came up with “Pieces of Light” (****) and once again he proves his ability to surprise. He plays saxes, trumpet, flute, and a Nagoya harp on this album but what is new is that he is joined by Chris Snyder on synthesizer, at a time when electronics and jazz rarely came together. Again McPhee plays with something which is actually irreconcilable, at least at that time, and guides the way for the music to come. Again the titles are symbolic (“Shadow Sculptures” and “Crystal of Light”) with which McPhee combines phenomena of oppositional fields of perception, he focuses on an synaesthetic effect of music in which sounds become visible. Once again the music is not about the concrete tones and sounds of “real” instruments compared with “unreal” disembodied electronic sounds – it is McPhee who is always interested in varying his own sound.

The LPs were also available in a wooden box set with silk screen back and front, including bonus silk screen prints, and full artwork covers. It was limited to 100 copies only (the box is sold out at the source).

The LPs are exact represses of the original artwork and were actually limited to 500 and still available at absolutely reasonable prices at the label.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Russ Johnson - Meeting Point (Relay, 2014) ****

New York trumpeter Russ Johnson composes music for improvisation with a tight rhythmic and structural backbone, or rather modern jazz with a free spirit. If you know his work with "Save Big", or his releases with "The Other Quartet", you will get an idea. This album is most certainly of the same quality of "Save Big", refined, balanced, with excellent sound quality and even more excellent playing. The band is Johnson on trumpet, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Anton Hatwich on bass and Tim Daisy on drums. 

So, a solid foundation of prepared ideas, as a platform for the musicians to improvise. And the result is comparable to what I wrote earlier on Jason Ajemian's "A Way A Land Of Life", nothing less than the joy of jazz, and I mean 100% jazz in its purest form: pulse, openness, harmonic inventiveness, compelling themes, rhythmic complexities and improvisations, improvisations, improvisations, which are free and expressive yet with sufficient self-discipline to think about the overall coherence of the band's sound. Johnson also deliberately composed with the band's members in mind, because even if he takes often a lead role, the input of the three other band members to the overall sound is equally critical. 

Johnson is great, Stein is great, Hatwich is great and Daisy is great. They swing, they bop and they improvise, they do what you want them play, just for the fun of the rhythms and the solos, then they make sure you get to hear what you did not expect to hear, new sounds, inventive sonic and musical explorations, all called "Conversations", interspersed between the composed pieces, offering variation and contrast. 

Then the album ends with the long and magisterial "Half Full", one of the most beautiful things to be heard at the moment. 


Listen and download from Bandcamp

Jason Ajemian - A Way A Land Of Life (No Business, 2014) ****

By Stef

The album is actually an LP, released in 400 copies, offering us nine compositions by bassist Jason Ajemian, in the great company of Tony Malaby on tenor, Rob Mazurek on cornet and Chad Taylor on drums, actually the same line-up as the five-star "Protest Heaven", except that Jeff Parker's guitar is no longer part of the band.

The music is again a wonderful mix of composed pieces and free improvisation, of pieces that swing and bop like hell, as "All Nights", or even bluesy pieces like ""Yes, We Know", or compositions such as "That When You Come, We Die", which starts as free improvisation, creating an eery atmosphere and evolving into a beautiful theme, or the crazy opening duet between Mazurek and Malaby, cut short by Ajemian (?), to bring them back to order, and introducing with his bass the almost 'stendhal syndrome' enducing theme of "Living The Sky", a slow and sweeping sound that is as sad as it is compelling.

But then next to that there is the sheer musicianship, the quality of four masters dialoguing intensely, creatively, each with their own signature sound, recognisable from afar, yet matching the overall sonic setting perfectly.

It is fun, it is moving, it is desorienting, it is authentic and deep, and such a joy to listen to. What more can I say?

Available from Instantjazz.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Arktis/Air – en-trance (Wire Globe/Zach Records, 2013) ****½

By Julian Eidenberger

It might seem a bit odd to complain about this, but the frequent comparisons of Vienna-based sextet Arktis/Air to John Zorn’s jazz-core are – while they may help to increase the band’s profile – perhaps also a bit of a disservice to the up-and-coming jazz/rock unit. While not exactly a red herring, the Zorn comparison sells short the variety of Arktis/Air’s approach and might give readers the impression that they’re little more than copycats.

Like most really good bands, though, the Viennese sextet – which sports an unusual line-up of one alto saxophonist, two electric guitarists, two keyboarders and a drummer – draws on a rather wide range of influences that, in this case, gives the lie to such potential accusations of mere Zorn-worship. Guitarist and chief composer Robert Pockfuss, who contributes four out of the seven tracks here, brings a strong prog- and jazz-rock inclination to the proceedings; with the exception of the martial thumping of opener Airuin – a truly ominous track, with the saxophone howling like an air-raid siren and elements of drone/noise music creeping in towards the end –, all of his tracks seem to pay homage to classic prog bands. Hotbed’s labyrinthine rhythms and keyboard-heavy grooves are strongly reminiscent of both the Soft Machine and underappreciated Italian jazz-rockers Area, until sax player Philipp Harnisch gets to showcase taste and technique in an angular solo that is – yes, I admit it – kind of Zorn-like. In Poskok, then, Pockfuss lets the band worship In the Court of King Fripp, with a pungent sax theme and punchy guitar riffs that sound like they’re straight out of an early Crimson album. Finally, the intricately intersecting lines of album highlight Filter clearly draw on Univers Zero’s chamber-rock.

Still, this isn’t retro-prog, as all of Pockfuss’ tracks are endowed with an angular aggressiveness that’s more akin to contemporary, non-fusion-y jazz-rock hybrids like Zu. And beyond that, the band has yet another side: The three remaining, collectively penned tracks hint at free jazz (Makeup) as well as at a modern (Scandinavian) strain of improvised music. Luv, in particular, deserves extra mention here: it is equal parts idyllic, Talk Talk-like post-rock and torrential, Supersilent-esque post-jazz improv, equal parts peaceful glide and stormy passion – a truly apt ode to the feeling its title alludes to. Considering the band’s youth, and the taste, talent and variety on display here, I’m tempted to say that only the sky’s the limit for Arktis/Air – actually, the main reason I’m withholding half a star here is that I’m sure they’ll produce even better records in the future.

Free Jazz on Air: Free Music - Free Women

Martin Schray's latest installment of Free Jazz on Air with host Julia Neupert  on SWR is available to listen to online. The topic of the show was: Free Music - Free Women.

 Check out the set list & listen here.

Jimmy Lyons:
Sorry/LP: Nuba
Andrew Cyrille/Jeanne Lee/Jimmy Lyons

Kate Olsen:
Flight Case/CD: Snail Songs
Syrinx Effect

Possession/CD: Grey Matter
2° Etage

Hasparren 3/CD:Hasparren
Daunik Lazro/Joelle Léandre

Matana Roberts/Sam Shalabi/Nicolas Caloia

Patio B/CD: And Other Desert Towns
Ingrd Laubrock & Tom Rainey

Philip Catherine:
Nairam/CD: Illusionary Sea
Mary Halvorson/Ingrid Laubrock/Jacob Garchik/

Rise/CD: Birthmark
Lotte Anker/Rodrigo Pinheiro Hernando Faustino