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Bassdrumbone: Gerry Hemingway (d), Mark Helias (b), Ray Anderson (t)

Eric's House of Improv @ Zurcher Gallery, New York, NY 11/09/2019

Schnell: Christian Lillinger (dr), Pierre Borel (as), Antonio Borghini (b)

Manufaktur, Schorndorf, 11/15/2019

Anna Högberg Attack

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/22/2019

B.A.N.: Peter Brötzmann (sax), Farida Amadou (b), Steve Noble (dr)

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/22/2019

Fred Van Hove (p), Peter Brötzmann (sax)

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/23/2019

Hanne De Backer (sax) / Paal Nilssen-Love (dr)

Summer Bummer, De Studio, Antwerp, 8/22/2019

Biliana Voutchkova (v), Susan Alcorn (g), Isidora Edwards (c)

Berlin, August 2019. Photo by Christina Marx

Friday, December 13, 2019

Carl Testa - Sway Prototypes Volumes 1 & 2 (self-released, 2019) ****½

By Keith Prosk

Carl Testa (contrabass, electronics) assembles Erica Dicker (violin), Junko Fujiwara (cello), Louis Guarino Jr. (trumpet), Andria Nicodemou (vibraphone), and Anne Rhodes (voice) to play for two hours and twenty minutes across four tracks on two CD-length releases in the electroacoustic environments of Sway Prototypes. Testa, Dicker, and Rhodes have recorded together before on Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E and the Tri-Centric Orchestra’s Agora, Questions of Transfiguration, Vogelfrei, and Testa and Dicker also appear together on Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC) 2011; the other combinations of these musicians have not released recordings together yet.

Beyond half the ensemble being prominent personas in the sphere of Braxton - not only as players, but Testa is the Tri-Centric Foundation’s Director of Publishing, Dicker is Braxton’s Concertmaster, and Rhodes is, along with Kyoko Kitamura, an ambassador for Braxton’s syntactical musics - there appear to be some other broad allusions to Braxton as well. The cover art is designed by Yesim Tosuner, who also designed the cover art for GTM (Syntax) 2017, Sextet (Parker) 1993, Quintet (Tristano) 2014, and 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011. The Sway electroacoustic environment utilizes SuperCollider software, which Braxton uses in Diamond Curtain Wall Music. I’m already beginning to reach but it’s hard not to think of Braxton’s syntactical music with Rhodes present, . There’s a generative color/visual component to some live performances from the Sway ensemble (utilizing Hydra software), perhaps recalling the color-dependent graphics of Braxton’s Falling River Music and pulse tracks. And though you won’t hear those characteristic eighth notes of Ghost Trance Music, the longer pieces here certainly sound like a journey with tangents, perhaps queued by recurring dynamics that the ensemble falls back to. Lastly, listening to these recordings just feels like listening to Braxton’s (or some of his other students’) medium to large ensembles, with about an hour of mind-melting density that can be revisited repeatedly to realize something new each time. However, Testa is in no way mimicking Braxton. All this is to say that Testa appears to have synthesized pieces of Braxton’s various musical systems into a distinctive new vision with Sway.

The heart of that vision is the electroacoustic environment. Testa compares Sway to George Lewis’ Voyager or Pauline Oliveros’ Expanded Instrument System except in that it is an autonomous program interacting with musicians in real time. The Sway program: (1) receives inputs from each microphone; (2) determines each musician’s amplitude, density, and pitch clarity; (3) translates those parameters to plot each musician on a grid in which each quadrant is associated with effects processing (e.g. delay, distortion); and (4) applies that effect to the individual musician, or not. Sway can be programmed to not process in certain situations. It can be programmed to combine all inputs. It can be programmed to trigger mass effects across all musicians if certain thresholds are met. It can be programmed to jumble the effects in each quadrant if musicians are plotted in the same quadrant for too long. And so on. It’s a malleable system that appears to handle the work that one or two musicians would do while live-processing in an electroacoustic environment.

Despite the prevalence of effects processing, it rarely obfuscates the acoustic mastery from each of these musicians (at least not in an uninteresting way). Dicker and Fujiwara often weave with each other, displaying a dizzying array of bowing techniques both mellifluous and grating; Testa plucks grooves and beats but can yield a deep, tension-building arco; and Rhodes occasionally mixes in groans, ululations, and almost-words among simple syllables like “eee,” “ooo,” “aaa.” But I was most awe-stricken by the contributions of Nicodemou and Guarino Jr., whose agile, twinkling vibraphone transforms into a piano, wood blocks, alarm clocks, and something much more industrial in turns, and whose trumpet instantly communicates to both the group and the system with tinny mutes, slobbering embouchures, peppy fanfares, and moody musings. The contributions of Nicodemou, Guarino Jr, and Rhodes also seemed most ostensibly affected by processing, perhaps because they were playing the system, perhaps because their contributions are more discrete than bowed strings. The overall effect of everyone using a wide swath of technique, with this grouping of musicians, in this processing environment is one of tricksterish mimesis, where instruments can sound like other instruments acoustically but also, perhaps involuntarily, electronically. Processed voicings blend with trumpet, processed violin pizzicato blends with muted vibraphone, and processed trumpet blends with bass arco on top of high-register bass mixing with low-register cello, raspy groans sounding like violin sawing, and staccato trumpet melting with a vibraphone attack. It can seem like a dreamlike state, furthered by the sense that processing most often creeps in, as if you heard it before you were listening to it.

Structurally, much of the music appears to ebb and flow dynamically, between a kind of relaxed, inquisitive counterpoint at lower volume to quicker, denser communications. Rhodes is not present for “Three Sections,” but musicians seem to drop out for a few minutes at a time anyways, so a thirteen minute absence doesn’t seem too obtrusive to the flow. The final track, “Bloom,” is a solo bass piece in which Testa’s errant emotivity reminds me of Barre Phillip’s ability to always evoke a kind of hopeful poignancy among his wanderings, but with some eerie processing.

With Sway, Testa has created a musical system with rare depth. Add an array of absurdly talented musicians, and you have one of the most interesting recordings of 2019. And if these pieces are only the “prototypes,” I cannot imagine the sublimity of the next iteration.

Sway Prototypes Volumes 1 & 2 are available on CD and digitally.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Konstrukt & Ken Vandermark - Kozmik Bazaar (Karlrecords 2019) ****

By Hinrich Julius

The latest output of Konstrukt in its series with guests is a recording with Ken Vandermark. The team of Umut Çağlar (electric guitar, synthesizer, gralla, guimbri) and Korhan Futacı (alto saxophone, instant loops, vocal) is this time augmented with Apostolos Sideris (double bass) and Berkan Tilavel (drums, electronic percussion) and of course the special guest Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone, clarinet).

Konstrukt has a long history of cooperations with international guests. Currently documented are ones with:
This list is impressive and Konstrukt is able to adapt to all guests. Here, Vandermark seems to bring a very controlled attitude to the music. The wild excursions into free jazz are there, but mostly kept under the surface of an often gentle melodic surface creating a tension that especially after repeated listening adds to the fire of the music.

The record starts with a reference to Ornette Coleman. “Diggin’ that Harmolody” cites phrases associated with the playful melodies of Ornette Coleman while shouting out loudly. The guitar cries and broods heavily under it. The next piece “Semazen” reveals the studio recording. The saxophone states a simple melody or better tone progression, the guitar creates a psychedelic atmosphere while bass and drums delay the rhythm – live it would be difficult to sustain the cool temper. In “East of West, West of East” electronic percussion (as it is called on the record – to me it sounds like the old drum-machines in dance-music) and guimbri create a mid-eastern flavor which from its rhythmic side does relate to Ornette Colemans electric free funk period. Memories of “Dancing in your Head” with the Master Musicians of Joujouka come up.

Side two starts with a blow-out of the two saxophones to which bass, drums and guitar provide a rock-solid basis: classic rock with a distorted guitar (“Ex-cess”). The next piece quiets down the mood. Distant bass, synth sounds and a remote speaking voice begin, the clarinet of Ken Vandermark takes over, but stays as calm as the voice ending with a distant quiet proclamation of the title of the piece (“Bammm”). The quiet, energetic mood continues in the final number. A cosmic background created by guitar, loops and supportive drum-beats allow bass and saxophones to rub each other. No melody is there, it all is about creating a psychedelic sound (“Cocoon”).

This record should appeal to everyone who likes the more rock-side of free-jazz. The very controlled attitude of the players make the moments of individual players crying out even more effective. Konstrukt continues to adapt to guests and produces music that eclectic cosmic freejazz-rock with a strong stamp of this time Ken Vandermark. Highly recommended and available as LP and download from Karlrecords.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Hungry Ghost - Hungry Ghosts (Nakama Records, 2019) ****

By Taylor McDowell

Yong Yandsen - tenor saxophone
Christian Meaas Svendsen - bass
Paal Nilssen-Love - drums & percussion

Hungry Ghosts are ominous, oft terrifying beings that figure into Buddhist and traditional Chinese or Vietnamese mythology. As it is said, Hungry Ghosts are the deceased who conducted evil deeds during their lifetime. As a consequence of their misconduct, Hungry Ghosts are tormented by intense and unavoidable emotional cravings. They are banished to a miserable existence, compulsively trying to satiate their hunger - living in the shadows, searching and wanting, yet never able to fulfill their addiction.

Here in the free jazz community, Hungry Ghost is an ominous, oft terrifying trio that consists of Yong Yandsen (ts), Christian Meaas Svendsen (b) and Paal Nilssen-Love (d). While it can’t be said that any of these three would qualify as Hungry Ghosts by Buddhist standards, the music presented here is evocative of a marauding band of ghosts.

Fans of Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit will recognize the association between this prodigious bassist and the master percussionist himself. Malaysian saxophonist, Yong Yandsen, however, may be an unfamiliar name to many readers (as he was to the writer). According to Nilssen-Love’s website, the trio met and toured Southeast Asia in the fall of 2018, during which they recorded this live performance at Live Fact in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The recorded result is a single improvised piece - a raucous 39-minutes of mayhem, mischief, agony, and angst.

The first few minutes feel as if the musicians are getting acquainted with each other, which isn’t to say they are wasting any time getting started. Nilssen-Love begins with brushes, and his quick, jittery touch across his kit is matched by Svendsen’s restless pizzicato explorations. While these two engage a nervous rhythmic dance, Yandsen comes out of the gates with a flurry of runs, punctuated by Ayler-esque wails and howls. The piece begins to gain momentum just a few minutes in as Nilssen-Love and Svendsen lock into a tumultuous groove, Yandsen meanwhile summoning hell from his horn. They continue to dial up the intensity, pushing towards the point where the whole thing should collapse under its own gravity, yet they somehow maintain control over the chaos.

Then, after a brief, fidgety dialogue between the bass and drums, they suddenly disengage from their highspeed pursuit and exit down a slower, darker alley. Yandsen’s long fluttering notes give off a palpable sense of trembling fear. An exciting development takes place when Svendsen introduces a sinister walking bass line. Nilssen-Love dances around on brushes, juxtaposing a sense of restlessness to the stable pulse of the bass. This fleeting moment subsides back into quieter soundscapes, affording each musician the chance to explore more pensive territories. But it’s clear that they aren’t seeking serenity; the music, however subdued, still feels tense and brooding. Us listeners must stay on our toes, though. They once again bring on the fire, and just as we readjust to their new fervid onslaught, they unanimously change directions again.

If you watch videos of Svendsen perform live, you’ll notice his very physical approach to the bass (already a very physical instrument). In any given performance, he might be seen playing with two to three bows, using his cheek or even his foot to conjure unlikely sounds from his instrument. At about 24 minutes in, we hear his concept of playing come to the fore. Svendsen switches to arco here and creates a quick jittery pulse of the bow bouncing against the strings (multiple bows, perhaps?). Nilssen-Love provides quick and light accents from his kit and various percussion. Yandsen joins in, seemingly sans mouthpiece, emitting fuzzy squeals and pops from the instrument. Even in abstract moments such as this, the three play and sound as a single alien organism. There are times when you literally cannot discern Svendsen’s bowed bass from Yandsen’s tenor.

The trio, now having landed in extraterrestrial environments, continue to navigate abstract terrains while subtlely increasing tension. Nilssen-Love provides a subdued groove, accompanied by Svendsen’s bowed ruminations. Yandsen’s own sense of unrest rides atop in the form of estranged overtones, or gut-wrenching altissimo squeals. You get the feeling that they are trapped in a nightmare and can’t wake out of it. This final turmoil slowly fades into silence, like a candle flame burning out - finally yielding to the darkness as the performance ends.

Hungry Ghost is an outstanding trio and produced an outstanding debut record to boot. They fully explore the tonal and emotional possibilities, which yields some pretty exciting moments throughout. There is enough boisterous interplay to keep the adrenaline-junkies satisfied, yet some of the finest moments, in my opinion, occur when the trio veers into slower sections. It’s here that some of the more nuanced playing occurs, and where they deliver on the haunted, unnerving feeling that only Hungry Ghost can offer.

[Spoiler Alert] For those still hungry for a fierier conclusion, there is a hidden 10-minute track included in the digital download that offers just that (the writer is uncertain if this additional track is included on the vinyl or CD versions). If track one concludes as a flame burning out, the second track is the flame burning the house down. A highly-recommended record. We can only hope to hear more from this trio.

Hungry Ghosts is available on vinyl, CD or as a download.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Blue Shroud Band - Intensegrity: The Small Formations / Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor (Not Two, 2019) *****

Since 2010, large groups led by Barry Guy have had residencies at the Krakow Jazz Autumn Festival in November of every other year; 2010 & 12 with the 12 piece Barry Guy New Orchestra and 2014 & 16 with the 14 piece Blue Shroud Band. As part of their multiple days stay, they would spend the daylight hours in rehearsals for a culminating full group performance and the evenings performing in small formations where, in Guy's words from Colin Green's perceptive interview, "all the players respond to new settings with a corresponding brilliance in the results." Fortunately for us the Not Two label has recorded and released these small formations, chronologically, as Mad Dogs, Mad Dogs on the Loose, Tensegrity and Intensegrity; with a bonus in the current release of the full group performance of Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor. Before getting to the music itself, the only constant performers on all four releases are Guy, Maya Homburger on baroque violin and pianist Agustí Fernández. With the somewhat younger Blue Shroud Band, Peter Evans on trumpet and Per Texas Johansson on reeds from Tensegrity are replaced, respectively, by Percy Pursglove and Jürg Wickihalder on the new set.

Seeing that Evans wasn't on this release when opening up the box put me in a foul mood which was quickly dissipated by Pursglove's extended mastery of the instrument on the opening solo performance. This is followed by Homburger playing the closing passacaglia from H. I. F. Biber's Mystery Sonatas as a seamless example of the "musical stretching between old and new music" she mentioned in the interview. That is quickly followed by Julius Gabriel playing a solo based on the four descending notes of the previous theme, which is a descriptive frame for a circular breathing multiphonic tour de force on baritone saxophone which is as continually developing as it is technically brilliant. The first time I was distractedly listening I kept thinking "what's that underlying theme that sounds familiar?" As that fades down in ferocity, vocalist Savina Yannatou enters with some breathy wordless sound dots which Gabriel responds to with soft burbly baritone utterances. Eventually that ramps up just before Guy and violinist Fanny Paccoud join the fray for some four way interplay enhanced by harsh attacks on the strings before they all give way to Pursglove, Torben Snekkestad on soprano sax, Michel Godard on tuba and Ramón López on percussion for 13 minutes of inspired interaction particularly near the conclusion when Snekkestad seems to be playing two saxes.

All of the above was a continual 43 minute performance uninterrupted by applause until the end. Guy made it clear in his interview that he thinks of these small formations as "release valves" after intense rehearsals. Although he seems to be applying that to everyone, the pressure on him to deliver the penultimate work must have been huge compared to the other musicians. Unlike on the lp sized packaging of the two Mad Dogs collections, the tracks aren't identified by what day they were performed, although the liner notes of Tensegrity strongly hinted that they were all in chronological order. And there's a palpable feeling of building toward the final cut on disc 4 featuring all horns, woodwinds, percussionists and Agustí Fernández in an all out blare fest that was enthusiastically received by the festival crowd. Earlier highlights include Michael Niesemann's alto sax dancing around Fernández's deep piano string manipulations until they reach a common motif, and Yannatou and Niesemann squaring off with dueling staccato notes like two chattering woodpeckers as Ramón López percussively moderates.

ferocious women giving birth
to little bird feet
dancing until they become
a great piano concerto.

silent tongues
black and luminous
shuttle-shivering cries tap-dancing
down the streets of Brooklyn -
brilliant dissonances
breaths sucked into the incongruous clubs
are spit out like fire
as our tongues lap up the burning air.

and your ivory voice sings
breaking like fragile cartilage
in the clear air
of points wing/ed and pure
beating, colliding in subtle counterpoint -
crossings -
birds fly between here and there
singing furiously in delicate tongues.

Those are Three Poems for Cecil Taylor written by Marilyn Crispell, the first of which was incorporated in the third piece, Strange Loops, of a 1995 performance of one of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra's less well known (i.e. not in my collection) releases "Three Pieces for Orchestra". Guy rewrote the score to reflect the changed instrumentation of the Blue Shroud Band and to add three "meditations", each containing a poem sung by Savina Yannatou, to precede a main section and become "Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor". Thanks to Spotify I was able to compare the old and new versions of the three pieces and the differences in the groups (the LCJO is much more brass heavy, for example) make comparisons somewhat inappropriate. Yannatou does a good job of taking over for Maggie Nicols's exhilarating vocals on the wonderfully dissonantly charged Strange Loops (my wife asked me during the earlier version "is that Halloween music?"; I thought for a second and said "kind of"). The second extended piece, Sleeping Furiously, features Agustí Fernández and he delivers a typically inspired blend of piano technique and passion appropriate for the subject of the work. In the first piece, Owed to John Stevens, I could hear some of the unison horn lines from the final cut on side 4 as the rehearsals started building group dynamics with staying power.

It was satisfying to have the ultimate group performance included in this small formations box set, which had been lacking from the previous three. That it was done as a tribute to one of the giants of music while he was still living by someone he held in high regard makes it even more satisfying. This marked the last performance of this type by the Blue Shroud Band; in Guy's 2018 residency at the Krakow fest he added some old and new faces. I now have a solid block of 18 discs of small group improvisation that I can listen to at any time and hear something satisfyingly familiar and also something waiting to be newly appreciated. If I had to choose only one collection I'd probably go with the original Mad Dogs; but fortunately I don't have to do that.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Focus on Photography: Petra Cvelbar

Petra Cvelbar by Aleksandra Sasa Prelesnik

By Eyal Hareuveni and Paul Acquaro

What are some of your recent projects? 

I have two projects concerning music: one is titled Sweet Addiction, wich includes my best music photos. Three years ago I made a small book-diary as promotion of upcoming exhibitions under that title. Besides that, I also have a project titled In Women’s Hands which focuses on women musicians. With this project I’m trying to emphasize the feminine touch in a way of richness of diversity that this differences brings.

I shouldn’t forget my passion for yoga and coffee which also are ongoing projects next to my music passion. I hope to make a small book with yoga photos.

Kim Gordon/Body/Head feat. Ikue Mori, Festival Music Unlimited, 2013, Wels, Austria

What is the decisive moment (referring to Henri Cartier-Bresson) in photographing free jazz/free-improvised music/creative music?

For sure there are parallels between photography and improvisation. You have to be in the moment, you follow the music, but not only through your eyes, I use all of my senses to get to that decisive moment when I make the photo. And as musicians are in the communication between themselves they communicate to me as well. They lead you to this moment when you press the trigger. I function still the ‘old way’ (as it was when we were using films) and don’t take as many photos as some photographers do. I wait till music speaks to me and leads me somewhere. You wait, you make maybe a frame of what you want to shoot, but actually it goes in hand with the developments on the stage. When it happens in the music it happens also for you to make that click. Well if the circumstances let me photograph the whole concert of course, if I’m limited to only 10 minutes, then I just do the necessary photos as documentations.

Matana Roberts, New York Winter Jazz Fest, 2011, New York, USA

Can photographs, in this digital and Instagram age, still tell a story?

You tell me ;)

I think they can if you speak the language. The problem these days with photography is that lots of people think that they are the photographers, but actually they are merely the owners of expensive cameras and phones. You have to know the language first and than you can speak - tell the story.

Kaja Draksler & Susana Santos Silva, Ljubljana Jazz Festival, 2013, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Do you have a musician, configuration, setting, or instrument that you feel works well with photography?

Only good music actually ;) that is the most important for me. If the music is good, if a good atmosphere develops and if there is at least some light, then usually the photos are good too. Otherwise, I don’t complicate much. I adjust to whatever there is in front of me. Maybe what can spoil a good photo these days is, beside limitation to the first 8-10 minutes of photographing, are also bad light conditions or light technicians who don’t know how to use the equipment.

Sun Ra Centennial Dream Arkestra, 2014, Cerkno, Slovenia
What is your preferred/recommended camera/lenses?

I use Nikon 810 and the usual Nikon lenses 70-200, 24-70, 50 an 85mm My favourite is probably Sigma pro series 50 mm 1.4 for portraits and Nikon lens 70-200 for concerts. But if money wouldn’t be a limitation I would love to have Nikon D5 (or the new one that will come out soon I guess) and Leica camera for strolling and of course one of medium format cameras for portraits. I could never get tired of playing with different kinds of cameras & lenses … like musicians discover new and new instruments … its the same in photography.

The Thing / Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love & Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, 2011, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Any advice for the novice photographer?

Well, if you want to do music photography first read a book or two about concert photography and attend a workshop. Get photo equipment and learn how to use it. Follow & listen to the music you want to photograph. After you do all that then you start in small local clubs, but always get a photo pass and ask for permission to photograph and stick to the rules given by organiser. When you are at the concert photographing be as much invisible as possible & do not disturb. Be aware that concert is for the audience. Photograph only when the music is loud and do not use a flash. What is very important is wear hearing protection. I damaged my ears a bit at some noise festival, so keep that in mind.

Roscoe Mitchell /The Trio Abrams, Mitchell & Lewis, Skopje Jazz Festival, 2011, Skopje, Northern Macedonia
Anything else that we should have asked, but did not?

Well, I have a question for all of you: Can a music photography be art?

This question goes through my head often. We rarely hear much discussion on this topic. Music photography is taken for granted. Whole music industry is actually based on images as album covers, band portraits, promotion materials and documentations of concerts. But everyone usually forget that there are photographers (artists) who took those photos. The most common problem for all of us is that ‘they’ forget to credit photos for example.

Music photography is always perceived as part of documentary photography. And as improvised music is pushed away on the edge of the whole music scene well I think is the same with music photography.
Joe McPhee, Ljubljana Jazz festival, 2012, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Petra (born in Ljubljana, Slovenia) became interested in photography in the final year of grammar school. Her encounter with photography was more of coincidence, because her friend was looking for someone to apply with for a photography course. Later at the Faculty (Social Sciences, Cultural Studies), she pursued photography on the theoretical level, whenever possible integrating photography into seminar papers, and she even graduated in photography. After graduation she neglected it and dedicated herself to studying and exploring graphic design. Currently, she holds the post of Art Director of the Slovene edition of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Her passion towards photography was rediscovered in 2008 after her first solo exhibition at Festival Kanal in Bohinj, where she also met the great photographer Žiga Koritnik. Ever since his workshop (2009), she has been addicted to photography and music, both of which today form an integral part of her life. She finds music a remedy and invigorating boost of energy. The photos she takes during the concerts are her way of sharing the beauties of the world, which is so nice to rediscover and abandon yourself to.

More info:
IG: @petracvelbar
FB: Petra Cvelbar

Peter Brötzmann, Jazz Em Agosto, 2017, Lisbon, Portugal

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Mars Williams Presents: an Ayler Xmas Vol. 3 "Live in Krakow" (NotTwo, 2019) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Yeah, it's that time again! Last year, Mars William's Ayler Xmas rolled through Berlin and in a packed cellar club the quartet blazed through a set-list full of holiday madness, with Christmas and Chanukka favorites being lovingly deconstructed and glued back together with abandon. The show was even better than the album - Volume II - that had just been released. Well, as this seems to be becoming its own holiday tradition, a recording of this tour is now out as Volume III, and it's as every bit as wonderful as the time of the year.

Last time, the recording was a combination of William's American and European legs of the previous year's yuletide tour, featuring an American band on some tracks and a European one on the other. This time, the recording is from a stop at the Alchemia club in Krakow, Poland and features a multi-national mix of musicians. Aside from Williams on sax, there is also guitarist Knox Chandler and trumpeter Jaimie Branch and bassist Mark Tokar and dummer Klaus Klugel. If you think this sounds enticing enough, you're right, but there's plenty more! First, you get William's recitation of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" interpolated with the spirit of Ayler and a mariachi band. Then, you also get the absolute mad-cap mashup of  "The Hanukkah-Xmas March Of Truth For 12 Days Of Jingling Bells With Spirits" which you should not miss - Chandler's atmospherics along with the horns' intertwined mayhem is worth the listen alone. And, there is much much more.

I've said it many time and many ways, and hopefully I'll get to say it again next year: this is fun music made to make holiday listening so much better.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Interview with John McCowen

John McCowan. Photo by Peter Gannushkin.

By Keith Prosk

We’ve fondly reviewed clarinetist and composer John McCowen’s Solo Contra, 4 Chairs In Three Dimensions, and Mundanas I-V. With his nuanced approach to the multiphonics of the clarinet family, he’s surely one of the most exciting players to have developed in the past decade. Here, we touch on the thought behind his music, where he’s coming from, and where he’s going.

K: One aspect of your work is exploring the “dimensionality” of the clarinet. I interpret this as anything from multiphonics from a solo clarinet, to using clarinets in duo or quartet, to cataloging the techniques and timbres of the clarinet. Maybe the physicality of it too, from how air and sound physically acts at a certain point on or in the instrument to interactions with the environment and resonances. What do you actually mean by this? And why choose the clarinet?

J: You're pretty dead on. I use "dimensionality" to describe the layers of sound and the interactions between those layers. An aspect of this type of playing that I love is those interactions(which include beating patterns and pitch fluctuation), and how they vary depending on air pressure. I guess these are common aspects of what can be considered drone music.

I chose the clarinet because I was a saxophone player with an amazing clarinet teacher, Eric Mandat. I didn't feel I had a distinct voice on the saxophone, and my attitude was pretty set in thinking the ground had all been paved in regards to the sax. But as Eric opened me up to the possibilities and I kept experimenting, I found my own voice and saw a lot of possibilities. Everyone reading this should check out the music of Eric Mandat. My approach is directly related to his. His work is extremely deep and unique. He's influenced me greatly.

K: A decent chunk of Mandat's work focuses on clarinet duos, trios and so on up to sextets, a path that you appear to be following at this point. I'm guessing this is primarily to create layers that are physically difficult or impossible for one player to create simultaneously, opening up new possibilities for layer interactions. But is there something else Mandat is trying to achieve with these ensembles? Is there something else that you're trying to achieve with these ensembles? And do you think you'll compose for clarinet ensembles and solo clarinet for some time, or are you already thinking of incorporating other instruments in the near future?

J: I’ve been most influenced by Mandat’s solo music, pieces like The Jungle, Illinois Central, and Chiral Symmetries.

I’m always trying to expand the layers one clarinet can create. That’s my main focus. But my duo music for instance, was due to the limitations of one instrument as well as ideas of counterpoint in that style.

I’ve mainly composed for clarinet due to my immediate access to the instrument. But I don’t have any interest in being a “clarinet composer” exclusively. I’ve written works that don’t involve the instrument and I am working on music for chamber situations. I’m also trying to hear what a working group for my music would be like. I just try to follow what I’m hearing.

K: Beyond mentioning the dimensionality of the clarinet, you've also likened it to an acoustic synthesizer. Some of your work does sound like the undulating sine waves of early analog synths, but is there another meaning there?

J: The acoustic synthesizer is essentially a polyphonic tube based on the interactions of a fundamental and it’s partials. “Dimensionality” is a descriptor of these relationships. This is essentially additive synthesis within a tube controlled by air pressure. The relationships between partials can create combination tones, etc. I’m way into it.

K: Ah, OK. But just to drive the point home and clarify for both me and our readers, you can play a tone (a fundamental) with overtones (it's partials) and the waveforms of those overtones interact to produce new waveforms (combination tones, etc.), which is the definition of synthesis (an aspect of dimensionality). I was hung up on the image of a Roland TR or something, but now I'm thinking any polyphonic instrument can be a synthesizer.

It's my understanding that partials and their interactions become more difficult and eventually impossible to hear or consciously sense. But, of course, they're still occurring and interacting. Is this where your use of Boethius' musical classifications comes in, with some of your work referring to musica humana and mundana, which I understand to refer to the unsounded yet felt vibrational harmony between humans and the unheard vibrations of the natural world respectively? Or is there another reason that you refer to this classification system?

J: I should clarify that this begins with multiphonic playing. This phenomenon occurs when the air is allowed more than one exit point in the tube, then through air speed and pressure, air can be guided through multiple exit points. I’m referring to a multiphonic as having a fundamental and proceeding partials (aka harmonics, overtones). Due to the long tube of the contrabass clarinet, the ability to create dense and multifaceted multiphonics is increased. The partials I can access only go up into the 20s or 30s at most. Which isn’t really that high because the clarinet, due to it being a cylinder, only has access to odd harmonics. But the most partials I can access simultaneously is around 5-6, but this is only a few, more commonly 2-3.

My interest in the concepts of Boethius doesn’t go beyond audible sound, really. It has more to do with my interest in what may constitute “music of the spheres” or “human music”. I’m very interested in sounds that have nothing to do with human creation. For instance, those videos on YouTube of what are supposedly the sounds of tectonic plates moving that sound like brass from the gates of hell. But also the idea of “human music” as sounds from the industrialized world, like the spectral drones of U.S. muscle cars from the mid-20th century.

K: That's super interesting. I feel like I would characterize the car as an instrument. And that human music comes from the body, like what a body communicates to an audience with a rapid or a resting pulse, a heavy or a light footfall, a yawn, a sigh, a laugh, grinding teeth (for audible examples) - the dynamics of our movement. Imagining what music of the spheres could be leads you down interesting paths for sure; since we talked about waveforms, I'm currently imagining the "compositions" that the earth writes, like a tsunami wave from a marine earthquake, when a terrestrial earthquake writes its waves on the surface or in a fence, how a river becomes increasingly sinusoidal as it approaches the coast, or the ripples of a tidal flat preserved in rock, for instance.

Since you've mentioned tectonics and Eric Mandat, I'll mention that I actually attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which is your hometown, for some graduate work in geology (never finished though). Beyond the mentorship of Mandat, does your music reflect southern Illinois or your experience there in any way? The geography, culture, climate, history, people, etc?

J: Oh whoa! Such a small world. Go Salukis.

Being from Southern Illinois is a big influence for me. I had a lot of space and time to develop. Most people think of Illinois as corn fields, and for suuuure we have those. But, we also have the Shawnee National Forest.

Carbondale had a bustling DIY scene the whole time I lived there. It was a regular touring stop for a lot of bands from all over. So, the scene I came out of was DIY eccentrics improvising and playing in bands. I booked a regular improv series there for a year or so. Which was groups of all local musicians doing free improv. The local radio station had a DJ named Dave X, who also booked a regular noise/improv festival. He also had a weekly 4am-6am slot where he played noise, improv, field recordings, etc. A good number of musicians I grew up with there have continued to develop awesome work to this day.

K: Unfortunately, I never visited Shawnee or the other parks and forests in the area but I spent some time paddling the beautiful lakes there. And I wasn't even aware of this kind of music when I was there, but it sounds like a rich scene.

I understand you started as a vocalist in that scene. Do you carry your experience as a vocalist over to your clarinet technique in any way, or have any interest in doing so? Like through non-traditional embouchures (something like Nate Wooley's Syllables comes to mind) or speaking/sounding through the instrument (for example Josh Sinton's krasa). Or do you have any interest in composing for vocalists in the future?

J: Yeah I started out as a vocalist in a hardcore band. I did that for maybe four years? I feel like the main lessons I took away from that time are the dangers of being egocentric. After that period I became a quieter person and wanted to focus on wind playing. Which was a less painful way to express myself. I heard Albert Ayler and didn’t see much difference between what he was doing and what I was doing in a punk band. But even when I was a vocalist, I was listening to a lot of late John Coltrane and Sun Ra. I think I was just interested in extreme music no matter what the style.

I don’t really see that vocal style influencing the playing I do now. I don’t use that vocalizing-while-playing style of multiphonic, either.

I have composed for vocalists in the past, but I currently don’t have any plans to do. But I am interested in the voice for sure; whether it’s madrigals, modern auto-tuned pop, or what Charmaine Lee is developing.

K: I'll have to check out Lee, I haven't listened to her before.

Beyond Lee, Mandat, Ayler, Coltrane, and Sun Ra, are there any musicians or specific recordings or performances that have particularly inspired your work, especially recently? And beyond what you've mentioned about southern Illinois, anything outside of music and sound that has inspired your work, especially recently?

J: A lot of recordings by the late recorder player, Frans Brüggen. Especially his recordings of the Handel Recorder Sonatas and Jacob Van Eyck's Der Fluyten Lust-hof.

Besides that, seeing live music is incredibly inspiring for me. A good performance leaves me focused and inspired for days.

As far as influence goes, I have to give respect to Roscoe Mitchell. He was an equivalent mentor just like Eric Mandat. Roscoe really helped me clarify what I was trying to do. He’s a true master of structure and form.

Others that have really influenced me is the glacial patience and development of Elaine Radigue, and the work ethic of athletes like Steph Curry and Kobe Bryant.

K: I've been spending some time with Radigue's Occam Ocean 1 & 2 recordings lately (and saw Nate Wooley perform his occam earlier this year). It's an absolutely breathtaking project, and I particularly enjoy the focus on the individuality of the performers and their technique. And you studied with Mitchell while attending Mills College. Between her legacy with the school and collaborations with Radigue, I feel like there's a connection to Pauline Oliveros somewhere...
But I suppose my final official question is, who are you rooting for in the 2019-2020 NBA season?

J: Oh, for sure. Pauline has also been an influential person. I had the privilege of taking a few classes with her. I’m a huge fan of the early electronic music she did (like II of V, etc) while in Toronto.
Hah! As far as basketball goes, I mean, I was living in Oakland during the reign of the Warriors, and now I live in Brooklyn and the Nets have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Deandre Jordan. But I’m also rooting for teams like the Clippers and the Trailblazers. Just anyone but the Lakers, really. I just wish tickets to NBA games were cheaper.

K: The Nets certainly have the capacity to blow up. And all those western conference teams are looking great - they all have ex-Spurs talent on them ;)

Thank you so much for your time, John!

Friday, December 6, 2019

Variable Geometry Orchestra - Mare Tranquillitatis (Creative Sources, 2019) ****

By Stef

The "Mare Tranquilitatis" is the "Sea of Tranquility" on the moon. It is the place where the first moon landing took place, 50 years ago. It is unclear whether the album in any way wants to join the celebrations of this event, since the performance itself was recorded live recording on November 10th 2018 at O'Culto da Ajuda, Lisbon, during the CreativeFest XII. 

We've reviewed albums by the orchestra before, and I think this is one of their best. Ernesto Rodrigues, acting as the conductor of this large ensemble, leading his 28 musicians through sonic soundscapes that alternate between light-textured minimalist moments to dense and dramatic eruptions of sound, does it with verve. The music's unpredictability and especially the cohesion of the orchestra within this unpredictability is fascinating to listen to, and a testament to Rodrigues' skills to move the music forward along his wishes. This is no small feat. 

But what does "Variable Geometry" mean? In the European political context, it refers to different levels of cooperation between countries in the European Union (like their willingness to participate in the Schengen zone, or participate in the common euro currency). It means integration and participation at different speeds and levels. In the context of aerodynamics, it means that an airplane may change the configuration of its wings during a flight. Whatever the real and original name that triggered Rodrigues to use the term for his orchestra, the concepts of collaborative difference, of changing dynamics and openness to variation appear essential. 

The orchestra's sound is a collective sound, one that avoids solo voices, and even if they are discernable at times, often in short phrases and shouts, emanating from the voluminous mass of the orchestra's groundswell, they are more like birds straying from a flock to return before you've noticed their separate movement. The sound is not about the voices, it's about the total sonic experience of changes in depth and intensity, the dynamic swirling of sonorities and pitch, the flowing of harmonies and dissonance, of unity and chaos. 

In case you wondered, the "Mare Tranquilitatis" may be tranquil at some moments, and there's even a short span of absolute silence, yet there is more to it than tranquility. It's worth the trip. Join us to the moon. 

The Variable Geometry Orchestra on this album consists of:

Maria Do Mar - violin
Guilherme Rodrigues - cello
Yu Lin Humm - cello
Helena Espvall - cello
Miguel Mira - cello
Ricardo Jacinto - cello
Johan Moir - double bass
Miguel Almeida - classical guitar
Gianna de Toni - acoustic guitar
João Silva - trumpet
Paulo Curado - flute
Andre Holzer - clarinet
Juan Cato Calvi - bass clarinet
Noel Taylor - bass clarinet
Bruno Parrinha - clarinet
Mia Dyberg - alto saxophone
José Lencastre - alto saxophone
Etienne Brunet - alto saxophone
Catarina Loura - piano
Armando Pereira - toy piano
Mariana Carvalho - accordion
Rui Sousa - electric bass
Carlos Santos - electronics
Carla Santana - electronics
Biagio Verdolini - objects
Ramon Lopez - percussion
João Valinho - percussion
Pedro Castello Lopes - percussion
Ernesto Rodrigues - conduction

At another time, another performance by another iteration of the VGO, so that you get a flavour of what to expect:


Thursday, December 5, 2019

Gaël Segalen – Sofia Says (Coherent States, Erratum, Sofia, 2019) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

I’m not a fan of music that tends to observe the past. Either it’s nostalgia, history, or memories; I prefer any work of art that interacts with the present in any way. That is telling a story for its time and place. Sofia Says, after being released on cassette from Coherent States early in 2019 is finally released on vinyl, bears the traces of industrial music’s past but it is deeply rooted in the present. This dystopian present we are all experiencing by feeling the strong reverberations of a planet getting ready to throw us out.

By using edited improvisations Segalen (an artist with a diploma from the prestigious GRM in electroacoustics) moves from a linear narrative up to small chaotic ambient noise bursts. Those are mostly noise experiments but, thankfully, not those boring droney sounds that we are so often exposed lately. Even though they are also a representation of the present…

There are echoes of natural sounds here and there that work cohesively with the, sometimes, ecstatic electronics that dominate Sofia Says. There might be five individual tracks on this release, but I felt that they pretty much relate one to the other forming a unity of ideas and thoughts about our pessimist perception of our present.

On the final and longest track, 'I’ll See You Again', which seems like the centerpiece of Sofia Says, this narrative of pessimism seems to break. Apart from its title which brings the light of optimism at the forefront, it seemed to me like trying to escape from this dystopia, with love and pathos as her guides. Now that I think of it – and after the necessary repeated listenings - I would definitely comment that Sofia Says is a recording that moves gradually from darkness to light. At least an inner light that does not necessarily reflects the real world. Sofia Says is a very strong personal statement.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

ECM 50 years - Catalog Favorites (part III of III)

We continue our celebration of the 50th Anniversary of ECM with  three favorite ECM recordings from each of our writers. Please note, there is no order to sequence of writers...

Lee Rice Epstein

Lester Bowie

The Great Pretender (1981)
All the Magic! (1983)
I Only Have Eyes For You (1985)

Channeling, honoring, and spoofing Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Fats Domino in equal measure—with lineups ranging from solo to his boldly deranged Brass Fantasy—jazz's court jester and master magician reached, arguably, the peak of his career with his first three albums for ECM.

Martin Schray

Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble - Towards the Margin (ECM, 1997)

On the Ensemble’s first album each member of the original Evan Parker trio (Parker plus Barry Guy and Paul Lytton) was given a technical/musical partner (Walter Prati, Marco Vecchi, Phil Wachsmann) who would process their acoustic sounds electronically. “Towards the Margins” is a programmatic title and it’s as adventurous today as it was 22 years ago.

Paul Bley - Open, to Love (ECM, 1973)

Bley’s solo piano album brings two worlds together: angular dissonance and meditative, pointillistic melody - a sound which helped to define the label’s sonic philosophy. It’s like a matrix of what was to come later on. Just listen to “Closer“ and “Ida Lupino“. To die for.

Jack DeJohnette - Special Edition (ECM, 1980)

Usually known as a drummer DeJohnette also plays piano here and is joined by David Murray (sax, cl), Arthur Blythe (sax) and David Warren (b). It’s mainly DeJohnette’s passionate, high-voltage homage to Eric Dolphy (‘One For Eric’) that will knock you out.

Olle Lawson

Michael Formanek - Small Places (2012)

Beauty, mystery, depth: Small Places – the second album from Formanek’s quartet with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver, definitely has a slight edge over the first (the impressively atmospheric The Rub and Small Change , 2010) – there is something hypnotically immaculate about the composition and playing. Sophisticated urban tension.           

Billy Hart Quartet – All Our Reasons (2012)

Quite possibly Billy’s greatest recorded document. There’s something deeply moving about how the quartet – a generation younger – moves with what is being constructed – nurtured, even – from the drum kit. I went to NYC to find Billy on the strength of this recording. A modern classic.

David Virelles – Mbókò (2014)

I couldn’t decide between Craig Taborn Trio’s trance-inducing Chants; Formanek’s epic, leviathan Ensemble Kolosuss –The Distance; Bobo Stenson Trio’s luscious Cantando or Ches Smith’s utterly unique, oblique narrative strangeness on The Bell – so I chose Virelles’ Mbókò.

Mbókò may have the honour of being the only true spiritual ceremony on ECM.
Subtitled: Sacred Music for Piano, two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá, to really state its Afri-Cuban heritage – Mbókò takes the listener to an actual space other records may not even acknowledge exits. After years of deep listening, there are still new dimensions to be found here. Incantatory.

Paul Acquaro 

What my colleagues on the blog said is true, it is really hard to pick 3 albums from the ECM catalog to call out, so I focused on guitar based recordings ... but that only went so far as you can see I'm missing Bill Frisell (In Line blew my mind, subtly), Raoul Bjorkenheim, Jakob Bro, Steve Tibbets, Bill Connors, and so on ...

David Torn - Cloud About Mercury (1986)

One of my first ECM records. I picked up this progressive rock-y, soundscape-y recording replete with time-bound synth sounds and scintillating electric guitar on a whim, and like the best serendipitous finds, it grew on me. Mark Isham's trumpet and synthesizer work, Tony Levin's Chapman Stick and synth bass, and Bill Bruford's electric drums and percussion make for an appropriately other worldly setting for the experimental guitarist.

Gateway - Gateway (1976)

John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland came together on three Gateway albums, all on ECM. I always enjoyed the flow of the playing, and the fact that they would build up to some intense moments.

Ralph Towner - Solstice (1975)

Guitarist Ralph Towner's 1975 release featured the work of Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, and Jon Christensen. The expressive bass and sharp drumming mixes sublimely with the flat tone of the sax and the wonderful textures of the 6 and 12 string guitar.

Steve Griffith

Kenny Wheeler - Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990)

For every long road trip I take, this gets packed. When things start to drag, I put in disc 1 and Norma Winstone's soaring vocals over the controlled surges of the charts make the highway not quite as endless. Then I'm ready for the more intricate charms of disc

John Abercrombie- Timeless (1979)

Who'd have thought a best of list would include something with Jan Hammer, but his keyboard work perfectly fits what the guitarist and Jack DeJohnette contribute. Forty years later this still sounds fresh, like the title suggests.

Hal Russell NRG Ensemble - The Finnish/Swiss Tour (1991)

One of Steve Lake's most inspired decisions was to give one of music's most unique characters, and his band of future Chicago stalwarts in progress, an international platform for three wonderful releases of sheer raw honking joy. Either one of the releases would fit, but this was the first and most ear opening. Plus it was live so more infectious fun. Assuming none of you pranked the site, Wikipedia said People magazine included this as one of the top 5 albums of the year.

Phil Stringer

Charlie Haden/Carla Bley - The Ballad of the Fallen (1983)

Well worth playing this loud and it all comes to an amazing climax on the final track. A terrific band in co let unit of purpose. Politically and emotionally charged music that is as relevant now as it it was in the 80s.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Full Force (1980)

They always sound so much more than the sum of the parts and that is the case on this album. A playful, riotous joyous collection. The feeling that I get is that they had a lot of fun making this music and for me, it simply makes me glad to be alive. Another album that was relevant yesterday, is relevant today and will be relevant tomorrow.

Paul Motian - Conception Vessel (1973)

This is less riotous than my other two choices but doesn't lack in energy, it's of a different kind. An album that conceptually and emotionally hangs together. There is a brilliant solo track from Paul Motion and the final track, 'Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullaby', features an utterly transporting contribution by Leroy Jenkins.

Antonio Poscic

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (2016)

A collection of subversive and musically intricate piano/trumpet duets by two contemporary greats. Freely improvised, the music often finds itself in quiet spots, but even then it burns with an achingly bright fire, a fierce meditation.

Mette Henriette - Mette Henriette (2015)

A most impressive debut by the Norwegian saxophonist who leads us from chamber jazz to freer forms through 35 short and shorter pieces, all of them equally interspersed with silence and negative space. Especially neat are the shifts in approach as Henriette transitions from a trio to a larger ensemble.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil - Shadow Man (2013)

Tim Berne, Matt Mitchell, Oscar Noriega and Ches Smith endulge in a game of patience and explosions, controlled gradation and feverish intensity. Beautifully introspective and, at times, quite dark music