Monday, April 21, 2014

Chicago Underground Duo - Locus (Northern Spy, 2014) ****

By Stef 

The duo of Rob Mazurek on cornet and Chad Taylor on percussion becomes a real orchestra, by adding layers and layers of sound, performed on their instruments, or ambient or electronically altered. Mazurek at times sounds like a full horn section in a big band, frivolously soloing on top of it, with Taylor's beats repeated and edited for maximum effect.

Like on previous albums, the overall sound alternates dark passages with celebratory and upbeat injections, as a collage of sonic colours, danceable even, as a great mix of sounds from across the globe, but preferably its most tropical parts, its most tropical parties, in a dense atmosphere of warm fun with subterranean gloom and high energy madness, built around a rhythmic backbone supporting a great "moqueca" of musical influences and genres, of jazz, of techno, of electronics, of film music, of street music, without limit and restriction, welcoming everything in the same stew, as long as it's tasteful, compelling, dramatic or fun, including "a Ghanian folk tune and Ennio Morricone played on cornet, drums, mbira, ballophone, bamboo flute and Game Boy". Nineteen years after its inception, the latest incarnation of the Chicago Underground Collective is still alive and kicking!

Join the festivities. 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Colin Vallon Trio: Le Vent (ECM, 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

Single notes like heavy drops of port wine on the tongue. A house at a Swiss lake, a porch on a warm summer’s night, it is 4 a.m. A soft breeze is coming from the water. The music on the stereo comes down on you like an Erik Satie melody with a huge wind chime in the background. However, there is an austere solemnity to the notes, an enormous sadness combined with the utmost beauty. This is “Le Vent”, the title track of the new album of the Colin Vallon Trio.

After their ECM debut album “Rruga” drummer Samuel Rohrer has left the trio and was replaced by Julian Sartorius which means that pianist Colin Vallon has had to take over more compositional responsibility. The result is that the compositions are even more fragmented, reduced and minimalist than the ones on their two previous albums (their first album was “Ailleurs” on HatHut). On the other hand the trio sounds more like a unit, a real collective stripped bare of unnecessary solo excursions. The compositions unfold slowly, yet consequently, Vallon’s subtlety is more in the focus than before, which puts more emphasis on the composition itself.

Tracks like “Le Quai” and “Cendre” are airy, easily accessible, light-headed examples of the new dimension Vallon and his collaborators have reached – and Manfred Eicher’s typical ECM sound is just perfect for this music. However, it is not always just pure atmosphere, the band can also add slow grooves to the songs, like in “Immobile” or “Pixels”, especially the last one being a melody which is brushed against the grain of the pulse of the track.

Yet, not everything is subjected to the new sound. The album is bookended by "Juuichi", a composition by bassist Patrice Moret, which reminds of the repetitive and slowly shifting and even driving motifs from “Rruga”, and the collective composition “Coriolis”, in which Vallon's prepared piano snippets entwine with Julian Sartorius' bells to create, over a simply bowed bass line, the feeling of a falling icy rain during the return of livestock from Swiss high alpine summer pastures - a track with almost Wagnerian qualities (listen to the mock alphorn in the background).

“Le vent” is an album for fans of classic piano trios, for listeners who like Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. It is not as adventurous as RED Trio for example, but the compositional standard is absolutely high and the musicianship is great as well. Absolutely worth a try.

Listen to “Juuichi” here:




Saturday, April 19, 2014

J. Spaceman and Kid Millions - Live at the Poisson Rouge (Northern Spy, 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

I have seen many concerts over the years and there are moments I will never forget. One of these events is Spacemen 3’s gig in Stuttgart’s recently closed club “Die Röhre” in the late 1980s. When guitarist Jason Pierce entered the stage he stubbed out a fat joint, sat down on a bar stool and then the band started a huge chord that went wrooooom, it was a psychedelic symphony par excellence (they even taped keys on their organ to make the drone last before they left the stage). Spacemen 3’s credo was "Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to" (J. Spacemam really lived it.) His follow-up project Spiritualized has made seven albums full of drug imagery (among them the seminal “Lazer Guided Melodies”, “Pure Phase” and "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space", which came packaged as a giant pill). Today Pierce has stopped taking drugs after being diagnosed with severe liver damage some years ago but his music still breathes the old Spacemen 3 attitude, even when he teams up with free jazz musicians (check out the last 20 minutes on Spring Heel Jack’s “Live” album and you know what I mean).

On September 11th, 2013, J. Spaceman and Kid Millions (John Colpitts of Oneida, Man Forever, People of the North) performed an improvised set at New York's Le Poisson Rouge club and the first track “Misha” (obviously an homage to Misha Mengelberg) is a hallucinatory 24- minute jam in exactly this old Spacemen 3 spirit. The beginning sounds as if the two were tuning their instruments before the track changes almost unnoticed to a minimal, monotonous and sheer endless one-chord-ride with Pierce using loops and wah-wah-effects which sounds as if two or three guitars were at work. “Han”, again a long track lasting more than 20 minutes, uses a staccato loop, and Pierce lets his guitar howl and scream and yell in a huge feedback orgy. Especially towards the end, when he puts the sounds through the effect grinder, it is a great whirlwind of noise but the staccato loop takes some getting used to which is why this track cannot give off the magic of “Misha”. The show ended with two encores, “New York” and “London”, both brute noise orgies which even remind of Neil Young’s “Arc/Weld” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”. 

This is not the usual music we have on this blog but sometimes I can’t get enough of it.

Live at Poisson Rougeis limited to 3000 copies, it’s a 12″ LP with a bonus 7″. A download card comes with each record.

It is available today, Record Store Day.

Make sure you get a copy.

Listen to „Misha“ here: 

Sax Ruins - Blimmguass (Skin Graft, 2014) ****½

By Julian Eidenberger

Yoshida Tatsuya is the lone gunman of the Avant-Prog prairie. In the course of a career that spans almost three decades by now, he has only occasionally performed in a conventional rock-band context, and when he did, his stints usually didn’t last very long. Tellingly, his main musical outlet, the Ruins, was (and, in a way, still is) not a full band, but a duo in which the drum maestro performed alongside a rotating cast of bassists. Four different bass players (one at a time, of course) have played in the Ruins over the years, and after the last one had left – not long after the release of the excellent Tzomborgha –Yoshida decided to continue without a bassist, under the moniker Ruins Alone. This little narrative is not, of course, meant to imply something about the drummer’s character. The point of this introduction is a rather obvious one: unflinching dedication to a cause can often result in your being the only one left.

In Yoshida’s case, though, this has not impeded his musical career in the least. Unable to find a bassist with the skill and spare time needed for the Ruins, he has – as mentioned above –turned the Ruins into a tape- and/or computer-assisted one-man enterprise. Moreover, he has recorded and performed with several high-profile avant-garde musicians, among them John Zorn, Keiji Haino, Uchihashi Kazuhisa and Satoko Fuji. That’s elevated company, and many of those collaborations don’t just look good on paper, they’ve also yielded (at times) spectacular results (Erans, the duo recording with Satoko Fuji, deserves particularly high praise).

Viewed against this background of excellence, the recorded output of Ruins Alone (so far) is a bit of a letdown. The sole full-length release suffered from a sterility that often comes with man-machine interplay, and didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. In a way then, Sax Ruins – a project with saxophonist Ryoko Ono (that’s just one letter away from good old Yoko) – can be viewed as an attempt to remedy those shortcomings. Blimmguass is the duo’s second full-length, and considering its quality, I have to kick myself for missing out on the Ipecac-released debut.

While the new record features mostly revisions of well-known Ruins classics, that’s not a problem at all – not even if you’re a long-time fan like me. The saxophone is, of course, endowed with an expressiveness that’s far beyond the scope of even the most heavily effects-treated electric bass, and Ono’s virtuosic playing brings out moods and colors the originals could only hint at. Vrresto starts off the record, and it’s a fine enough opener, but the first real jaw-dropper here is Refusal Fossil. In four short minutes, it assaults with jarring stop-start blasts and multi-tracked sax blowing that easily rivals the volume and intensity of a violently strummed electric guitar; this is punchy jazz-punk on par with Zorn or Zu. The title track, which I assume is a completely new song, is no less impressive, albeit a bit more varied. At first, it’s a wild ride, with the saxophone struggling not to be thrown out of the saddle by the drums’ permanent changes of direction. A little later, it segues into a much calmer middle section, dominated by sustained tones and reminiscent of the melancholy ballads of 70’s King Crimson. Towards the end, of course, the mayhem returns.

Since listening to this record is a lot more fun than reading a track-by-track retelling of it, I’ll leave it at that; that being said, Zwimbarrac Khafzavavrapp (how’s that for a song title?) probably deserves special mention. Originally written for the Asphalt Orchestra, an avant-garde marching band performing songs by artists as disparate as Björk, the Pixies or Meshuggah, it’s the longest and most nuanced track here, shifting from powerful marching rhythms to exuberant melodicism in the blink of an eye. To make a long story short, this is a great record, and I think the “post-bass” Ruins have never sounded this vital before. Here’s hoping that Ono, whose contributions throughout really are amazing, will stay for the long haul.

Check out a track here.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Frode Gjerstad-Hasselt (NotTwo, 2014) ****½

By Ed Pettersen

I’ve been following Norwegian reed man Frode Gjerstad for years, even collaborated with him a few times but Hasselt, his new disc recorded live at the Hasselt, Belgium Cultural Centre in 2006 is perhaps his meatiest and most lyrical work to date.  Simply put, this album is a powerful statement far exceeding the scope of a simple live quartet recording.  Sabir Mateen’s sax work proves the perfect counterpoint and foil for Frode’s muscular, multi-timbre explorations and the two sound like they practically read each other’s minds in their taut interplay on the album’s five tunes.  It is so well executed it leaves you wanting more hoping maybe more was played at the concert not included here (which is kind of the point isn’t it?).

Drummer/percussionist Paal Nilssen Love who has worked extensively and sympathetically with Mr. Gjerstad before is on skins again here and truly shines and holds it down keeping the bold improvisations grounded and, dare I say, rocking and solid.  To me he’s sort of, for the rockers among us, the Keith Moon of free jazz.  He swings, propels, titillates yet keeps perfect time (the last not necessarily something Mr. Moon was known for alas…).  The real surprise for me here is Danish bassist Peter Friis-Nielsen.  He squeezes every bit of funky goodness and growl out of his double bass while still retaining a strong pulse and never losing his intonation.  No small feat.  This is expansive work by all involved.

My wife has read some of my reviews and given me a hard time for using too many superlatives and fluffy journo-speak to describe the music so here’s what I would tell my best friend: When you first put this disc the opening song feels like your first gulp of strong coffee in the morning only to realize you want more and more which invigorates your system but somehow leaves no jittery buzz but simply fuzzy, bouncing warmth and pure energy.  I’ve listened to it five times already start to finish and could easily put it on again without feeling like I’ve heard it before at all.  To me there’s no stronger recommendation than that.  In fact, I’m so taken my this record that I almost forgot to write about it because each time I think about it I had to put it on again and I drifted off again with its thundering, exhilarating storm.  Not a bad island to be stranded on for a good while.

Highly, highly recommended stuff.  If this is your first introduction to Frode Gjerstad’s work there could almost be no better place to start but don’t stop here.  He rarely repeats himself and has a vast catalog well worth researching.  His work on this recording includes sax, flute and occasional clarinet and he’s highly proficient on each.  Kudos to the entire unit on this record.  They could well be considered a classic line up in years to come whether they record again or not.  That’s how good they sound together here.  I could prattle on and on and wax more poetically but it wouldn’t add anything more to this gem without ruining your own discovery of this set and possibly overstating it.  Simply, check it out.  I think you’ll dig it.  As we Scandinavians say, “Skol!”


Available from Instantjazz.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord – Liverevil (Hot Cup, 2014) ****½

By Chris Haines

This live double album not only shares a similar title to the famous live Miles Davis album, by all but one character, but also has that sort of exploratory fusion vibe to it at times. As the title suggests it certainly whips-up a potent brew that goes down well.  However, there’s no copying going on here and Lundbom’s clear musical vision continues to make him the original artist that he is.

The sound of the band is top notch and the tunes are played well throughout. The pieces are allowed to breathe in the live environment and the creative musicianship from all the band members gives the well-known tunes a new lease of life.  Lundbom’s playing is excellent and his smooth legato work nestles alongside more angular passages and mazey runs where free playing and more traditional jazz forms meet.  On occasion the music feels barely contained by the structures and the playing threatens to burst the forms wide open.

Great moments and interesting sounds keep appearing throughout the album such as the mash-up between electric piano and drums, multiphonic punctuations and nasal tones from the saxophones, ‘On Jacation’ sports its John Scofield-like guitar sound, which Lundbom wields extremely comfortably, and ‘Bring Forth The Battalions’ with it’s dirge-like feel, which Lundbom excels on.

There’s a buzz about this album and the excitement in the atmosphere comes across in the recording, and not just from the whoops and calls from the audience, but tangibly, so that it’s very presence can be felt within the music itself.

This is a great album and although some live albums can be for completists or die-hard fans this is not one of them.  This double-album contains a couple of great tunes from his studio albums, several new tunes and a suite of Wiccan prayer songs previously unrecorded.  This album could also serve as a good place to start for those wanting an introduction to his music, in fact, this is highly recommended for anyone wanting to hear great music!

Musicians : Jon Lundbom on guitar, Jon Irabagon on alto and soprano saxophone, Bryan Murray on tenor and balto! saxophone, Moppa Elliott on bass, Dan Monaghan on drums, and Matt Kanelos on keyboards.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Boots Brown - Dashes to Dashes (Häpna, 2014) ****

By Stef 

Boots Brown is a different kind of band, maybe also of brand. It consists of musicians we know from different contexts and different sounds. Mats Gustafsson on alto, David Stackenäs on guitar, Magnus Broo on trumpet, and Johan Berthling on bass. 

The four musicians interact with short phrases, with single note responses, in a murmur of dialogue, soft-spoken and intense, open-ended and surprised at each other's interjections, yet sufficiently interested to add some of their own. But it is more than call and response. The four create something together, something spontaneous, with instant lyricism, like birds of different breeds celebrating the first light of day. It is gentle, a celebration of sound, somewhat abstract and also intimate co-creation, agitated at times but never for long, fragile in the lightness of its overall texture yet solid in the conviction of each instrument to let its voice be heard. Despite its lightness and lack of density and low volume, this is not minimal music, there is a lot happening actually, many things that are inventive and fun and a pleasure to the ears, even if these ears get stretched a bit at times.

The most amazing thing is that this sound is created by these musicians in particular. Possibly it is closest to Stackenäs' usual idiom, but even then. This is not your usual Gustafsson or Broo or Berthling, and still despite the know voice of each of these musicians, they manage to create something this different, so quiet and human and abstract. A great demonstration of versatility, band coherence and open-mindedness .

Listen! 




Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A couple solo piano discs: Kris Davis and Myra Melford

In the spirit of the recent set of piano related reviews, Troy Dostert digs deeper into Kris Davis' and Myra Melford's recent solo efforts.

By Troy Dostert

Here we have two outstanding contemporary pianists, each with a distinctive vision.  Of the two, Myra Melford is the veteran, having been around since the mid-80s, and recording with her own groups since the early 1990s.  Her Alive in the House of Saints (HatHut, 1993) remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the finest live piano trio recordings of the last few decades, a masterful record that manages to be sublimely lyrical, technically dazzling, and irresistibly accessible, with a dynamic groove established by Lindsey Horner (bass) and Reggie Nicholson (drums) that works perfectly with Melford’s compositional approach.  

Kris Davis is the (relative) newcomer, although the list of noteworthy recordings she’s released over the last few years is impressive, many of which have been reviewed on this blog.  (Listen to her Paradoxical Frog release, Union, with Tyshawn Sorey and Ingrid Laubrock, for an especially strong glimpse of what she brings to the table).

Both players are highly adventurous in their own way, with Melford generally choosing a more melodic approach to her compositions, although not without freer moments of abstraction and dissonance.  Davis, on the other hand, is in some respects the more challenging composer, with pieces that are alternately dense, complex, and minimalist, sometimes all within the same piece.  She is certainly the less accessible of the two pianists, but the rewards of persisting with her music are substantial.  Okay, so much for the preliminaries: let’s get to the records at hand!

Kris Davis – Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****



Davis’s playing on this record is especially intriguing for the diversity of styles it showcases.  The first cut, “Ten Exorcists,” is a stunning and captivating track, which relies for much of its seven or so minutes on just one or two notes, struck rapidly in a minimalist technique that Davis then gradually develops into more complex passages, all while keeping the simple tonal center at the core of the improvisation, and with independent ideas explored with each hand.  From the very start, Davis is letting the listener know that this isn’t going to be an “easy” record; it’s going to challenge and confront, rather than drawing in, her audience.  But the brilliance of her technique on this track signals that there will definitely be some memorable moments in the process.

With the second track, “Desolation and Despair,” Davis shifts gears radically, going to a much more spartan musical vision, getting the most musical value possible from just a few notes, using space and silence to great effect, and as the title of the piece suggests, it’s a haunting and bleak musical statement.

The centerpiece of the record is really the fourth track, “Massive Threads”: it’s the longest of the eight tracks, at over 10 minutes, and it perfectly illustrates the way in which Davis embodies a technically sophisticated but austere, demanding approach to her instrument.  It’s also another example of Davis’ astonishing ability to develop separate ideas with both hands simultaneously, as she does at the opening of the track.  Then, as the piece develops, Davis gravitates toward the lower end of the piano, using progressively stronger and weightier chords, eventually building to a powerful two-handed workout in the bass register.  It’s almost overwhelming: relentless, and pummeling (“massive” threads indeed!), until finally retreating a bit, giving the listener some mercy, as she explores a lighter theme before going back to more tension and power with driving chords in the bass register and then, finally, diminishing, with a few spare interjections at the upper end of the keyboard to bring things to a close.

The rest of the tracks are similarly distinctive and imaginative; Davis has clearly planned this record carefully, offering unique statements with each track.  And each track is well-named also: yes, the fifth track, “Dancing Marlins,” really does remind one of spry, exuberant fish, full of life and surprise!  And there’s even a great Monk cover (“Evidence”).  True to form, Davis develops it in a careful but abstract manner.  Although it takes a while for the tune’s melody to come into focus, it does emerge, and Davis displays her distinctive voice wonderfully as it unfolds.

It’s a fine recording, and especially strong in revealing Davis as a terrific improviser and one whose compositional approach is both forceful and intriguing.  If I had to offer a quibble with it, I’d say that at times Davis’s concept strikes me as a bit cold and severe.  While I’m certainly not averse to being challenged in my musical explorations, I did at times struggle to find an emotional core in the music that would allow me to enjoy it on a less cerebral level.  Davis does what she does really well; but this might not be a record I’ll come back to listen to as often as others that have left a stronger emotional impact on me.

Myra Melford – Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12, 2013) ****



Just as Davis’s opening track on her record signaled what was to come, Melford’s “Park Mechanics” will sound familiar to those who know her music: it’s animated by a jaunty, rhythmically buoyant ostinato, with a strong melodic feel.  Melford’s ability to get the toes tapping is evident on a number of cuts; “Attic,” the sixth track, offers a rather funky flavor at points, even while the tune at its core is rhythmically complex.  There’s a subtle blues voice that colors a lot of Melford’s playing; this is the more “jazz”-oriented of the two records, without a doubt.

With eleven tracks to work with, Melford doesn’t offer any marathon-length performances, but there’s a lot of stylistic variety, especially on the first half or so of the record.  I hear some Keith Jarrett influence on “Red Land,” with another compelling left-hand use of ostinato, with ringing chords in the right hand; and Melford’s oft-cited debt to Cecil Taylor is apparent on “Piano Music,” where her technical skill with percussive flourishes and powerful note clusters is truly attention-grabbing.  In addition to the more up-tempo tracks, where Melford is often at her best, she also has a way with more reflective pieces, as on “Red Beach” the second track.  It’s a ruminative, melancholy statement, with a somber but also uplifting delicate melody she explores as the piece develops.

It’s an excellent recording overall, although the last half of the record does meander a bit; Melford’s compositions were somewhat less successful on the final few tracks, and they lacked the more convincing sense of purpose established earlier in the record.  The last track, “Still Life,” offers a charming little tune, but it wasn’t quite enough to rescue the more lackluster tracks that preceded it.

For fans of solo piano records, both of these recordings are definitely worth checking out.  While Davis’s is the more imposing record, it’s got a lot to offer; and although Melford is just as technically brilliant, she is a bit more willing to let loose and dance from time to time.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Christine Wodrascka - Linéaire (Mr Morezon, 2013) ****

By Stef 

Sure, I did not include all solo piano albums in yesterday's marathon review for the simple reason that I wanted to give one specific album more attention, and because I forgot to add this one, which now gets a preferential treatment.

Christine Wodrascka is one of France's most daring improvisers, approaching her instrument in its entirety and in a very physical manner, as some of you already read in the review of "Grey Matter" some months ago. She has played with many musicians well known to the readers of this blog, such as Joëlle Léandre, Paul Lovens, Jean-Luc Cappozzo, Ramon Lopez, Xavier Charles and Ivo Perelman.

On "Linéaire" - which means, yes, Linear - the music is anything but linear, in the sense that the ten tracks - which by the way all start with an "L" in the title - lead us to a variety of settings and moods and styles, ranging from playful inventive interaction between left and right hand, as on "Luci Polari" which is close to modern classical music over the slow and dramatic minimalism of "Lupercales" to the percussive muted noises of "Lady Sarah B", played directly on the strings, and the almost industrial "La Machine Du Vieux Kamaji".

Whatever the approach, her playing is inventive, clever and compelling. The music is spontaneous and fully improvised, yet she manages to keep her ideas focused on the core concept of each piece, playing it with careful attention and precision.

She clearly deserves wider recognition.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Solo piano ....

By Stef 

Here is some great stuff from piano-land, lying here in sober notes, tinkling away in quiet solitude, filling space with sounds of deep emotions and abstract notions, of fierce inventiveness and magic peacefulness, of traditional masteries and of breaking boundaries. One instrument, for a world of sound. We had some great examples already earlier this year, with Kaja Draksler's "The Lives Of Many Others" and Alexander Hawkins with "Song Singular" and Agustí Fernandez with "A Trace Of Light". And here are some more, to enjoy at times of agitated musical searches, or in moments of calm reflectiveness.

To make things easier in classifying the twenty-albums reviewed here, I tried to put them in boxes, which is of course always the wrong thing to do, but it will help guide readers in the broadest possible way :
- the jazz innovators
- jazz!
- the experimentalists
- classical
- the romantics.

Enjoy!


THE JAZZ INNOVATORS

Matthew Shipp - Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****½


First and foremost there is Matthew Shipp's "Piano Sutras", a wonderful album that real music lovers have already spotted for many months, but that deserves attention. Matthew Shipp's piano playing is something special, with a deeply ingrained lyricism mixed with abstract structures and unpredictability of an improvisation's development. Tradition is his playground, as in the odd "Cosmic Shuffle", which is a shuffle somewhat turned upside down, or just the pretext to explore some different journeys suggested by the initial idea, never to return, or on "Blue To A Point", with indeed bluesy references, or on "Uncreated Light", where nuances of Gershwin shimmer through. And then of course there are his very personal renditions of "Giant Steps" and "Nefertiti". If ever an article should be written about the link between physics and music, Shipp should be at the centre of it, because his music, and possibly his mind, is both mathematical, as in heavy equations needed to understand particle physics, while at the same time spiritual, as in some foundational sentiment that links us all to the universe. His music is small, intimate, grand and gloriously expansive too.

His music is one of wonder, of lightness with gravity, of deep things with question marks, possibly also surprising himself while playing at how the music evolves under his hands. You will obviously recognise the artist's "voice" from his ensemble playing with the late David S Ware for instance, yet here he can show his art in a more unique format, full of freedom to move around, to let his ideas and spontaneous constructs flow with changing colors and shifting rhythms. His music is abstract, in the sense that repetitive melodies are hard to find, yet equally warm in the depth of the emotions expressed.

A great artist. And great music too.



Pat Thomas - Al-Khwarizmi Variations (Fataka, 2013) ****


British pianist Pat Thomas, who released no less than seven albums last year, uses the 9th Century Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi as his inspiration for his fourth solo album. Al-Khwarizmi is the man who gave us the decimal system based on earlier Indian number systems. He is considered the father of algebra and the word "algorithm" is based on his name. As for Pat Thomas, his music is not at all the result of mathematical equations or algorithmic patterns, quite to the contrary. The musicians explores, he uses his instrument in his totality, from powerful playing on the keys, to quiet rumblings of the strings and even harder to detect places of sonic birth. 

Yet is is great. It is fun. Like his rhythmic development inside the piano on "Variation 3", on which harplike sounds on the strings and percussive use of the wood creates a recognisable pattern then gets deconstructed again. He has a similar approach on "Variation 8" on which muted strings conjure up a hypnotic and minimalistic sequence of shifting rhythms. When he is playing in the expected fashion, sitting on his stool and using the keyboard, the music sounds unpredictable yet coherent, open-ended and energetic, full of dramatic moments and grand story-telling without actually resorting to identifiable patterns. Sometimes, as in "Variation 4", some jazzy phrases shine through the avalanche of notes, yet mostly his playing is beyond genre. Classical influences are at times present, but then more of the modern kind, as in "Variation 9", which is a quiet piece, with spacious chords interrupting silence. 

Thomas never takes the easy route, even quite to the contrary, he shows us new possibilities, even the harsh ones, even if it means to go well beyond what a listener might expect, yet it is not alienating, it is not shocking, but a genuine search for sound, offering the listener a quite novel listening experience at time, and the fact that he introduces fun elements demonstrates his focus on the audience. An album with vision and character. 



Joana Sá - Elogia Da Desordem (Shhpuma, 2013) ****


I like those young pianists who really go in new directions. So is Portuguese Joana Sá, and not only has she studied the piano at various schools in Portugal, and not only is she enrolled in a doctoral programme on music, she is not a technician on her instrument, or a high-brow theoretician, no, she is a musician with a voice, one that goes beyond her instrument, with lights and visuals and words and sound collages adding dimensions to her rich piano-playing, that is beyond genre, but abundant, evocating the theme of this piece of art, Elogia Da Desordem, or In Praise of Disorder, reflecting the chaos in our brains, the non-stop eruption of images, feelings, thoughts, sounds maybe, fragments of memories and maybe even moments of quietness, and also the demons that haunt you in the background. Is this neuromusic? I'm not sure, but it is really worthwhile listening to. And yes, it is not a "real" solo piano album, as there are passages of poetry recited by Rosinda Costa, well done and kept to the minimum that this reviewer still finds acceptable. This is music with character and vision.



Otomo Yoshihide - Piano Solo (OTOroku, 2013) ***½


A solo piano vinyl 45 rpm album? By a guitarist? Yes, indeed. And you can imagine the Japanese composer approaching the piano in a different way. I even doubt that the keys have been used, thinking that Yoshide saw the potential of sonic magic in the entire instrument, from the legs up to the wooden boards and the strings, and the result sounds like ... electronics, with big washes of sound pouring over silence, with industrial violence tearing through slow drones, with organ-like sustained notes making you wonder if there is any future, with velvety feedback noise as the only sign of warmth.


Johanna Borchert - Orchestre Idéal (WhyPlayJazz, 2012) ****


A little older than the other albums in this review list, but worth pointing out. A solo album by German pianist Johanna Borchert, but then one on which she also plays harpsichord and autoharp, adding a few overdubs too. There is loots to hear, from impressionistic intimate improvisations, over modern classical to very dramatic pieces ("Der Königliche Schlafgang") to dissonant avant-garde on "Zitterpartie".

She describes her own music well on the liner notes: I am interested in the tension between clarity and abstraction. I am inspired by concerts that make you wake up. Where elements transform themselves or are put into a new light, thus changing the perspective, even while the position remains the same. I try to surrender myself completely to the unpredictable reality of the moment. This is the greatest happiness and deepest satisfaction that music can give to me. And I think that it also infects the listener.


JAZZ!

Kris Davis - Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****


Kris Davis starts Massive Threads with prepared piano with several muted strings creating a maddening and hypnotic rhythm over which the right hand adds some fresh accents, in a style that you will recognise from Benoît Delbecq. The piece is called "Ten Exorcists", and you almost wish it would never end. It is fun, it is creative and utterly compelling. "Desolation and Despair", the next track, is more quiet, minimal and introspective, with isolated notes floating in a sea of silence, gradually coagulating together as silence gives way to the gravity of "despair". The title track starts with highly percussive chords, louder than in the previous pieces, with heavy thumps leading into silence and more intimate impressionistic phrases, which grow denser and denser, into full chords, and the volume and tension increase again to madness and back to silence.

"Dancing Marlins" is more playful and lighter in tone, creative in its rhythmic complexity and development. She brings one cover, Thelonious Monk's "Evidence", which is played in a slow and impressionistic way. "Leaflike" is again intimitate and subtle, as is the closing track.

Her music has been reviewed often on this blog, and her "Rye Eclipse" is still one of my favorites.


Marc Hannaford - Liminal (Marchon, 2013) ***½


Australian pianist Marc Hannaford's first solo album leaves me a little bit non-plussed, and it took me some time to understand why. The music is good, the playing is excellent, and each composition and improvisation is worth listening repeatedly. The thing that bothers me a little bit is the lack of coherence in the overall approach. Yes, his endeavour was to "document (his) interest in musical connections between Carlo Gesualdo, Bach, Messiaen, Scriabin, Elliott Carter" and his own language of improvisation, but these composers by themselves already span a broad range of approaches. The result is that you have a dark opening piece "I Die" with electronic reinforcement, brilliant and ominous. It is followed by "For D.T." a minimal piece, quiet and eery, a mood which is continued on the long "Arnons", in my opinion the best piece of the album, with its slow and well-paced development. And then we get four classical compositions, by Messiaen, Händl, Gesualdo and Bach, played as if Hannaford wants to take them to his territory of music, to an updated, fresher sound, and even he achieves this, the contrast with the excellent start of the album is too great in my opinion. Sure, the playing is still excellent, and his skills are fantastic, yet I would have preferred the entire album to be his own, and in my opinion even better than the classical shoulders he's standing on.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.



Myra Melford - Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12, 2013) ****½


I hope Myra Melford needs no introduction, as her music has been covered on this blog before, and probably insufficiently - I still have a draft and unfinished review of Trio M's "Big Picture" lying here somewhere - and possibly also under-recorded too. So a solo piano album by her comes as a surprise. I think it's the first one in her career and it is a good one. In contrast to several of the albums in this list, the music is jazz, very much so even, deeply drenched in bluesy emotions, with pulse and harmonics and a left hand that hits a groove, and a right hand that gives you these shivers of emotions and goose-bumps for their accuracy and emotional depth. Yes, that's what you get here. Melford is the queen of jazz lyricism, and even if this album is dedicated to the painter Don Reich, the music is very much Melford's story. At some moments Jarrett comes to mind, in her slow impressionism, often beautiful and accessible, and because of the post-boppish sound.

This is not adventurous music, nor does it fit this blog's profile I must admit, but for those interested, I really wanted to highlight it because of its quality.



Paul Bley - Play Blue - Oslo Concert  (ECM, 2014) ***½


The pun in the title is well-chosen, because Bley offers us some really bluesy playing, freely improvised but digging deep in the roots of jazz, while keeping the form fresh and open. The Canadian legend keeps things relatively low-tempo, with a few exceptions, creating a coherent and strong overall sound. I once fell asleep during a real Bley concert, but he is more than captivating on this one. The performance was recorded live in Oslo in 2008, and the audience's enthusiasm is great, with a full two minute applause at the end. So is the quality of the playing, and of the sound quality too.


Umberto Petrin - Traces And Ghosts (Leo, 2014) ***½


Umberto Petrin is one of Italy's leading jazz pianists, who has played with other great musicians such as Gianluigi Trovesi, Guido Mazzon, Tiziano Tononi and with the Italian Instabile Orchestra, not to speak of collaborations with Amiri Baraka, Anthony Braxton, Assif Tsahar and Jean-Luc Cappozzo. He is as comfortable in modern classical music as in jazz, but I have the impression that his former solo projects, performing the works of Monk and Cecil Taylor, show is preference for improvisation with a jazz signature. 

He is accompanied by u-inductio with "noise" on two tracks and then only for a short while, making me really wonder what the value of it is for the music. 

Petrin makes this a really entertaining performance, with lots of variations in relatively short pieces, some Tayloresque piano hammering being alternated by ballads, or more structured improvisations and compositions, ending with Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately". The end result is a highly enjoyable, well-played intelligent piano jazz album. It will not be on the list of the most innovative music, yet it's fun without pretence. 


THE EXPERIMENTALISTS

Gianni Lenoci - Morton Feldman - For Bunita Marcus (1985) (Amirani, 2013) ****½


We've reviewed Italian pianist Gianni Lenoci several times before on this blog, but then always in a more jazz setting, with William Parker on "Serving An Evolving Humanity", with Gianni Mimmo on "Reciprocal Uncles", on "Empty Chair" with his own quartet.

This album is entirely different, as he plays Morton Feldman's second of his three last works for piano. This one called "For Bunita Marcus", who herself is a contemporary composer and student of Feldman.

The music itself is mesmerising, with little clusters of three or four notes played in a slow series, with silence in between. It is repetitive without being the same, resulting in a feeling of hesitation, of somebody cautiously moving forward on tiptoe, of wonder too, of beauty, of calm certainty. Paradoxically so. The music is so fragile that any change, however, minimal, generates attention. The beauty of small changes.

The entire composition lasts more than one hour, and its quiet minimalism is maintained throughout. As a listener, you have to give in. You have to surrender and become part of the music. That's the only way you can listen to it.

The music has been released before, seven times even, by amongst others, Markus Hinterhaüser, by Hildegard Kleeb, and also on John Tilbury's "All Piano". Not having listened to these albums, I am not sure how much Lenoci's album adds to this, or even differs from it, but it is worth looking for.


John Tilbury - Cornelius Cardew - Piano Music 1959-70 (Matchless, 2013) ****½


We find John Tilbury back on this remastered re-issue on Matchless of the earlier 1996 release. Tilbury performs the music of composer/pianist Cornelius Cardew, whom he knew quite well and who preceded him as the pianist of AMM. Cardew himself was an artist fully into the musical vision of Cage, Riley and Feldman, at least in the first part of his career, after which his political ideas drove him away from experimental music. Tilbury wrote Cardew's biography : "Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished".

Album reviews exist of the earlier version, and apart from the great quality of this production, the music is of course identical. The liner notes can be read here.

I just want to highlight one part of it, referring to "Volo Solo", a composition that Cardew wrote for Tilbury, with the following instructions :  "to play as many of the written notes as possible, and to play them as fast as physically possible. The instrument should seem to be breaking apart".  In a letter to Tilbury (March 1965) Cardew suggested another compelling image for the piece: "Aim at low dynamics and in the long passages the instrumental sound will build up to forte of its own accord. In fact that is the way I envisaged the long passages: the piano is playing and you are sitting there holding the terminals and getting electrocuted."

A great album with a virtuoso performance of highly idiosyncratic and unusual modern music.


Eva-Maria Houben - Decay (Diafani, 2013) ****


Eva-Maria Houben is a German composer and pianist. She is part of the Wandelweiser Group, an international collective of modern composers and musicians, all influenced by John Cage. Her music is minimal with ambient influences, and built around silence, forcing the listener to real deep listening. Decay offers an hour-long composition, with some barely audible organ in the background. Sparse piano notes offer a chilling effect.

Here is how the pianist explains it herself, in a poetic fashion :

"What is it about the sound of piano?
The sound of the piano decays.
It cannot be sustained. I let it loose time and again.
It appears by disappearing; starting to disappear just after the attack.
In disappearing it begins to live, to change.
The piano: an instrument, that allows me to hear how many ways sound can disappear.
There seems to be no end to disappearance.
The sound of piano!
I can hear, how listening becomes the awareness of fading sound".


Eva​-​Maria Houben - Piano Music  - By R. Andrew Lee (Irritable Hedgehog, 2013) ****


R. Andrew Lee brings us two compositions by Eva-Maria Houben. Again, you will hear single notes like dots of a canvas of silence, yet after twenty-three minutes in the first track, a series of three notes emerge, resonating until they have come to an end, until absolutely nothing can be heard anymore. She even notates this as such in her compositions, as William Robin explains in the liner notes : "In exploring the acoustic properties of the piano, Houben pays careful attention to the realities of sound. If she wishes a low note and a high note to sound for an equal length, she indicates that the pianist should repeatedly play the higher pitch until the sound of the lower one has fully died out. A more utopian composer might simply indicate that both notes should be held with the pedal, unaware that the higher pitch would fade away much faster than the lower one. Houben resists these unintentional silences. By considering the implications of her notation, she also forces the pianist to pay attention to exactly when a sound ends and a silence begins" . 

A strange musical world, in which every note has value, in which every note is treated like a gem, something to savour and to be looked at from all sides, with concentrated attention, full of a very precious beauty.

Listen and buy from the label.



CLASSICAL

Marcin Masecki - Scarlatti (ForTune, 2013)  ***½


Giving jazzy renditions of classical music is usually a boring affair for the uninspired, yet Polish pianist Marcin Masecki does not fall into the traps of kitsch. He uses Scarlatti, and some Bach, as the basis for improvisations, after having deconstructed the original first. It is interesting, and the playing is good, but I keep wondering why this approach is needed.



Pi-Hsien Chen - Changes (HatHut, 2013) 


But then there is Pi-Hsien, whose take on Scarlatti is close to the original, so no deconstruction here, yet she uses the Italian composer's short pieces as interludes within John Cage's "Music Of Changes", which offers a strange juxtaposition of styles and musical time zones, yet somehow it works well. She's released albums with music of Bach, Mozart, Pierre Boulez and Schoenberg before, yet this is the first time she mixes the old and new music. Obviously the music by Cage is more interesting for modern listeners, but the Scarlatti interludes are refreshing.


Michael Vincent Waller - Five Easy Pieces (Bandcamp, 2014)


Let's stay in the land of modern classical music for a while, with "Five Easy Pieces" by Italian American composer Michael Vincent Waller, offering us five short pieces performed by Jenny Q. Chai and by Gumi Shibata. As its title suggest, the music is easily accessible, very nice to the ear, yet with not much of an adventurous streak, despite two pieces dedicated to Terry and Morty, whom we expect to be Terry Riley and Morton Feldman. 

Listen and download on Bandcamp.



THE ROMANTICS

Aaron Parks - Arborescence (ECM, 2013)



Young American pianist Aaron Parks first solo album is released on ECM no less, a label which is guaranteed to give him a much wider exposure than most other labels. His music is completely improvised, and as its title suggests grows like life out of some initial concepts. The playing is good, melancholy and with a dreamy atmosphere, something to listen to on quiet evenings when the only thing you want is calm, away from the treadmill of life, and keeping some distance from the nervosity and agitation of your usual musical preferences.



Espen Berg - Acres of Blue (Atterklang, 2014)


Norwegian pianist Espen Berg offers us a nice impressionist and lyrical album, quite romantic while remaining open-ended and with room for improvisation. On the other hand, the music is unobtrusive, a nice word to say that it lacks the guts, or character, or adventure that we so much like on this blog. So even if a little out of place here, fans of piano music may find pleasure in Berg's excellent playing, like you could also admire some of Jarrett's solo piano work.


Esa Helasvuo - Stella Nova (TUM, 2013)


From Finland we get Esa Helasvuo, a pianist whose focus has been on composing for the stage, for movies and for children, while at the same time performing in jazz bands. On this solo album he brings us six fully improvised pieces and some composed ones. The mood is nice, calm, soothing, sometimes jazzy, often beyond identifiable genre. 

Fits well in the series of the more impressionistic and romantic albums.


Jacob Anderskov - Impression Of Radiohead (Ilk, 2014)


Pianist Jacob Anderskov received the Danish Jazz Composers Award last year, and co-founder and former chairman of ILK, the now famous Danish record label. Since his graduation from the Copenhagen Conservatory in 2002 he has released no less then twenty albums, some of which have been reviewed on this blog before.

On this album, no compositions of his are to be found, award or not, but he performs Radiohead compositions before an enthusiastic audience. Apologies, but I would not be able to recognise one single Radiohead tune, so I am a little bit at a loss here (my rock music interest ended somewhat in the eighties with The Smashing Pumpkins as the latest band I really followed - shame on me you might say), to tell you what his taking place, or how his "impressions" are just that or something more.

In any case, the music is quiet, all ballads, no real rock tunes, no anger, no shock, just nice and sweet improvisations on the band's hits.


IN SUM, what would I recommend you spend your money on? Shipp and Thomas are a safe bet for those of you with open ears, so are Joana Sá and Johanna Borchert for those interested in accessible genre-bending innovative music, and Melford would be the choice for the lovers of jazz in a highly touching new form. And Lenoci's Feldman rendition is recommended too, if only because of the spectacular composition. And of course you already had the Cornelius Cardew album.

Enoy!