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Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach (p)

Wabe Theater (by Ausland). Berlin. October 2020

Helmut "Joe" Sachse (g)

Au Topsi Pohl. Berlin. October 2020

Guilherme Rodrigues (c), Matthias Müller (t), Eric Wong (g)

Wabe Theater (by Ausland). Berlin. October 2020

Urs Leimgruber (ss), Jacques Demierre (spinet)

9/4/2020. Manufaktur, Schorndorf

Punkt.Vrt.Plastik: Christian Lillinger (d), Petter Eldh (b), Kaja Draksler (p)

9/2/2020. Au Topsi Pohl, Berlin

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Evan Parker Quartet - All Knavery and Collusion (Cadillac Records, 2021) *****

By Sammy Stein

Evan Parker has been a fixture on the UK jazz scene for many years. His original delivery makes him distinctive, and his support for fellow musicians is well known. His monthly gig at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston has become a more or less permanent fixture and serves to demonstrate Parker's close ties with the fragile ecosystem of clubs that support the jazz world; the small venues that allow an intimate and powerful connection between the artist and audience that is at the heart of jazz creativity.

The gigs have included work with John Edwards on bass, the late, great John Russell on guitar and other musicians. John Edwards told me once that playing as a group with Evan is like being part of a team - each musician catches the others. On this album, Parker is with Paul Lytton (percussion), John Edwards (double bass) and Alexander Hawkins (piano), who came together for a gig at the Vortex on June 20th 2019. The album was recorded the next day in Rimshot, Kent. The subsequent mastering and producing of the album coincided with the first Covid lockdown.

The last time I saw Parker with Edwards and Russell, there was some amusement because I had got myself invited to two gigs - one at the Vortex and one at nearby Cafe Oto to see another musician. I left early to go to the Oto gig but returned shortly afterwards. As we walked back in, Evan grinned and said, 'I knew you would be back.'

The album starts with 'All Knavery and Collusion', which sees sax, piano and percussion gently feeling their way along musical pathways as yet undecided before there is a sudden alteration in direction and the sax leads in melodic phrases, to which the response is punctuated with rhetorical phrasing from the piano and drums whilst Edward's double bass adds filling. The melodious meanderings of the sax create cohesion and direction whilst, on occasion, the piano's sharp, transient reaction creates dramatic contrast, particularly in the final third where staccato notes puncture the phrases before the final phrases where the piano and sax reflect each others' motifs.

'The Alchemy of John Edwards' is aptly named as Edwards and his bass take the listener in many directions. From warping strings to percussive drumming on the frame to the deft plucking of strings and intricate and delicate combinations, the double bass proves a versatile fiend. The piano, sax and percussion interlace the bass with their voices and the track develops into a slightly chaotic free for all before the bass voice emerges and the ensemble duly follows its lead. The quieter interludes on this track are a joy because they create moments of stillness into which drops either sax, drums, or, more often, the deeply resonant bowed bass. Edwards is the alchemist, but the others provide the ingredients he brings together.

'A Well staring At the Sky' begins with Parker's sax dictating the rapid-fire tone in a series of well-worked phrases before the bass adds deep undertones, with piano and percussion joining to provide more layers. Short but very sweet.

'The Influence of The Dog Star' is atmospheric and a series of silences punctuated by bass and later percussion before the piano adds rivulets of sounds. The bass responds with contrasting growly phrases. The intensity builds as the track progresses, and additional colours and layers are woven in. The use of silence on this track is creative, and entries are instinctively timed.

'A Blazing Star or Comet' continues the atmospheric tone, this time with piano leading the way with a series of chords and runs, interspersed with reflective reactions from sax, bass and percussion, which increases the volume in the second part of the track, to which the piano and other instruments respond until the whole ensemble is united in travelling together for a while before the piano emerges trinkling across the top and we are led gently back to solid ground.

'The Weather Set in Hot' is the highlight of the album, with just over 24 minutes of exemplar improvisation and connection between the musicians. At times the piano leads with sax gently adding its voice over in-fill of bass and percussion, whilst at others, the bass offers a characterful interlude. At times the sense of 'let's wander this path for a while, see where it leads us' is strong, whilst at others, one of the instruments leads, and the rest follow. The diversions are many, but the return to the harmonic path is always a possibility. The middle section is a delight, with the ensemble interacting and bouncing off each other with precision and an almost ecstatic delight. Parker delivers a lengthy solo that is both rapid-fire and beautifully textured. The piano and percussion gently ease their way in, and bass joins to create another ensemble section before the piano solos, delivering rivulets of rolling, interweaving notes before the percussion picks up the off beat, and the bass adds its voice with Parker rejoining. The sense of abandonment at the ending is just beautiful.

'Art Is A Science' closes out the album. It is led initially by piano chords over a repeating top note before the phrases become more complex and the percussion and bass join to create an almost delicate finale to the album.

This album is a joyous listen, and hearing four such natural improvisers engaging with each other closely yet retaining the individual voice of their own instrument and their characters is a wonderful thing to hear.

Free Jazz on Air - Digital Edition (Link available)

freejazzblog on air, featuring free jazz blog writer Martin Schray and public radio host Julia Neupert, will broadcast on SWR2 in southern Germany at 11 p.m. Central European Time (5 p.m. in NYC) this Friday, April 9.

For those of you unable to listen when it airs, it will be available online for week following the broadcast.

The theme of the show is "Digital Edition" with music almost exclusively available on the internet (and/or as a download). It will also delve into the situations that musicians have found themselves in during the pandemic. The play list includes selections from Ignaz Schick and Oliver Steidle, Leap of Faith's PEK, Marina Kifferstein, Xenofox, and Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey, among others.

Link will be published here when it is available.


Friday, April 9, 2021

Sonny Simmons (1933 - 2021)


Sonny Simmons (photo by Peter Gannushkin)

By Martin Schray

If one had to name great saxophonists in free jazz, one would probably list (except for Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, of course) Pharoah Sanders, certainly Anthony Braxton, David Murray and Archie Shepp, and of course Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker from the European players. However, there are - not only in free jazz - these musicians who have been somewhat overlooked in the course of their career. Sonny Simons was one of them. Now he has passed away.

Simmons was born in Louisiana, but grew up in Oakland, California. He was the son of a preacher and a choir singer, there was always music around him. His first instrument was the English horn (he preferred to call it cor anglais), but at 17 he saw Charlie Parker at the Oakland Auditorium and immediately told his parents that he wanted to have an alto saxophone. Although he never wanted to sound like a mere Parker copy, the great saxophonist would remain his conceptual idol throughout his musical life. At the beginning Simmons played with Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon and in the early 1960s he joined Charles Mingus’s band. Soon however, he turned to freer forms, initially in an ensemble with Coltrane musicians Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner, and with Eric Dolphy (you can hear him on Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions). In 1962 he co-founded Firebirds, a quintet with Prince Lasha, Bobby Hutcherson, Gary Peacock and Charles Moffett. His career took off when he was able to release albums for both the hip labels ESP and Contemporary Records. But then, after the sudden death of Lester Koenig, the boss of Contemporary Records, Simmons disappeared from the musical scene for 20 years. Officially it was said that he had to take care of his children's education and therefore took better paid jobs, but in an interview with Fred Jung, Simmons himself told a different story: “After Koenig died my whole thing went down the drain. After they released Burning Spirits, they blacklisted me because I spoke out about politics (…) and they thought I was starting some kind of political thing. (…). I couldn't get no dates no more. (…) I couldn't even work in clubs anymore.“

It was not until 1992 that Simmons made a comeback; in the following years he played at festivals and recorded more records (with Horace Tapscott, among others). In the early 2000s he formed the formation The Cosmonautics with James Carter, William Parker, Jay Rosen, Karen Borca and Michael Marcus, with whom he released two albums. In 2003 he finally released his first solo album Out into the Andromeda.

If you want to dig Sonny Simmons’s music, essential releases are the two ESP albums Staying on the Watch (1965) and Music from the Spheres (1968), both with his wife Barbara Donald on trumpet, as well as Firebirds (Contemporary Records, 1968), together with Prince Lasha. From his later years, Reincarnation (Arhoolie, 2015; the music was recorded in 1991), is worth mentioning, and finally Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom and Brilliance / Chasing the Bird (Improvising Beings, 2014), an ambitious 8 CD project.

Sonny Simmons’s death is a sad loss. But his music is immortal and a comfort for us.

Watch Mr. Simmons live with Dave Burrell at the Vision Festival 2013: 

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Orkester Brez Meja / Orchestra Senza Confini ‎– Live In Nova Gorica (Klopotec, 2020 ) ****½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

For all of us who favor improvisation instead of composition, who prefer an egalitarian non-hierarchical music, it’s easy to forget that there is plenty good music outside the aforementioned parameters. Improvisation might be (to quote Derek Bailey a little bit) at the core of all musical traditions, especially the non-western ones, but it is not the only way to go forward and progress. Thankfully it is not.

The Live In Nova Gorica CD is mostly made of improvisations but the twenty musicians involved (check on the link below for details) are following the orders from their conductors, Giovanni Meier and Zlatko Kaučič. This CD, recorded late summer of 2018, was a celebration of Kaučič’s career spanning four decades. To maybe find a point of reference, one might say that Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble come first to mind. But this orchestra of twenty people is much more than just a sparse (this is their third cd in six years) gathering of musicians that follow paths opened up by others.

Twenty people playing music all together give the listener the opportunity of a variety of instruments and timbres. Probably it is the conductors will, so the cd, fifty four minutes as one long track, seems to follow a narrative. It is built in a way that music who accompanies films or children’s stories is made of. Quite fascinating is how the soloists come forth in different combinations, covering different parts of the same musical narration. Of course, one big change from the aforementioned purposeful musics is that parts of Live in Nova Gorica are improvisations.

There are some complex arrangements on this cd, sometimes improvised, many times (I’m guessing here) thought before as compositions –at least the basics of them. Everything is conducted, and, here, it raises my question if all this was rehearsed even a little bit. I would comment that most probably all the musicians got some fundamental instructions on how to proceed.

Nevertheless, the feeling of this live recording is easily captured on this cd and it consists of really-really good music. Music that comes not from a certain area (like improvisation for example) of the musical spectrum but, also, mirroring the musical progress of jazz based music in the 20th century. You will find solace in this music as much as joy, energy and fulfillment. Great stuff.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Jeremiah Cymerman & Charlie Looker - A Horizon Made Of Canvas (Astral Spirits, 2021)

 By Stef Gijssels

Two deep impressions about this album. First, musically, it's again an incredibly strong listening experience, full of agony and despair. Second, conceptually, I had to struggle ethically with the incoherent extreme right rantings of the author behind the title of this album. 

"A Horizon Made of Canvas" is the title of the first chapter of a very long text by the far right blogger Mencius Moldbug (Curtis Guy Yarvin), who questions concepts such as equality, progress and democracy. Evidence and scientific knowledge are not his forte, and neither are intellectual rigour and methodological discipline. He is inherently racist in his chaotic and often deranged rantings, in which hundreds of concepts and facts are thrown together without any clear line of thought or even a coherent system proposal. What he does create through his writings is a world of dread, in which everything is wrong, everything is manipulated and values do not exist, except biological inequality, and in the illogical chaos he creates he totally confuses principles of ethics such as universal human rights and legal ones such as equality with biological and genetic diversity. 

To clarify things, Cymerman and Looker do not support his worldview. Charles Looker explains his history of dealing with Moldbug in one of his blogs, explaining his very personal situation, his vulnerability of the moment, his emotional state and the notions of the author: "My disdain for the Alt-Right is well documented, but Yarvin wasn't Alt-Right, whatever his Wikipedia entry might say. I certainly can't get behind a lot of what he says about race, to say the least. But he's been really inspiring to me in how thoroughly he deflates some of the most fundamental assumptions of the entire modern secular humanist worldview (egalitarianism, democracy, progress). There's a really scary vertigo in encountering a coherent system of thinking that's totally alien, even anathema, to the system of thought you didn't even realize you were living within." I believe Looker needs some more reading and thinking, as well as to reconsider - again - that the core principles of democratic society such as as human rights, equality are not assumptions. They do not exist, yet. They are aspirations, a reality to strive for, for the benefit of everyone. 

I can understand the philosophical questioning, the existential despair, and the emotional destabilisation by reading all this, leading to a deep-rooted angst about our presence and place in the world and the universe. 

The other titles on the album are also inspired by authors and thinkers whose worldview is inherently pessimistic: 

French novelist Jean Genet (1910-1986) (The Ecstasy of Betrayal) - "Anyone who hasn't experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing of ecstasy at all."

Another French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) (Speaking of Dust) - “Speaking of dust, 'out of which we came and to which we shall return,’ do you know that after we are dead our corpses are devoured by different kinds of worms according as we are fat or thin? In fat corpses one species of maggot is found, the rhizophagus, while thin corpses are patronized only by the phora. The latter is evidently the aristocrat, the fastidious gourmet which turns up its nose at a heavy meal of copious breasts and juicy at bellies. Just think, there is no perfect equality, even in the manner in which we feed the worms.

And another French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), the author of very pessimistic novels of high literary value (eg. Voyage au Bout de la Nuit), which also offers a bleak view on the human condition. 

As Cymerman writes: "Each of these writers (and many more!) have opened up ways of thinking for me that require questioning the world around you and participating actively with subversion (in this case free improvised music)". 

I truly did have to get over the sick thoughts of Moldbug to get to the music, read it, try to capture what he wrote (and I have read a lot of philosophy in my life, but clearly this does not qualify as anything close to a coherent philosophical argumentation). And despite the explanations, it still bugs me and even made me hesitate to review the album. It meant reading ideas that are morally and ethically rejectable by any human standard. When you reject equality, by implication you assume some superiority (biological, ethnic, religious, ...). When you reject democratic principles, by definition you advocate for the power of the few over the many. 

Back to the music now. The duo are Jeremiah Cymerman on clarinets and Charlie Looker on guitars and piano. 

Like with the other albums by Cymerman, the sonic universe created is one of desolation and despair. The dark and moaning sounds of the clarinet are perfectly balanced with the somber and raw tones of the guitar or piano. The music is slow, carefully crafted and deeply emotional. 

"The Ecstasy of Betrayal" starts with sparse single piano tones, and absolutely haunting clarinet sounds, which slowly, gradually develop towards a crescendo, pushed forward by a deep foundation of dark electronic undertones. The inherent contradiction and conflict of the title is a sensation that pushes you to feel, and to feel deeply. 

In "Speaking Of Dust", Looker switches to guitar, in a very like-minded structure: limited guitar tones, a dark and solemn dialogue with high reverb of the clarinet. We are somewhere at the edge of infinite space, taking a step further than we are allowed. The piece is full of foreboding and dread. 

"I'll Show You What You Are", is the short centerpiece of the album, with arpeggiated chords on the guitar creating an eery atmosphere for Cymerman's clarinet. The long title track is the real 'pièce de résistance', again introduced by single piano chords and dark electronic rumblings inviting you straight to hell. It is slow, it does not really evolve, but just changes shades of darkness, like a grand panorama of severe devastation and ominous desperation. 

The last track continues in the same vein, with a repetitive chord progression on the electric guitar setting the scene for horrifying clarinet phrases. 

The music is all about the uncanny sensation that reality is not as it seems, that there is something darker and more ominous behind it, something that we are not allowed to qualify or even to name. The only thing left is this experience of existential angst expressed in the only way possible: music, this music. All the references, all the solid foundations have disappeared, as well as the frameworks that kept us together, and possibly kept us sane. It's the terrible personal experience that you, as the individual are alone in a very hostile and incomprehensible society and universe. 

You can only appreciate the quality of the music, and the deep commitment of both musicians to go very deep and very far into unpleasant territory. That's what you expect from art, to be uncompromising and radical and daring. 

As a true democrat, I will let them the opportunity to have their opinions and and worldviews, even if from what I understand it's more the questioning that attracts their attention than the actual answers provided. 

I will let the listeners judge. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Dorf Aliens - Industrial Memory (s/r, 2021) ***½


By Paul Acquaro

Emerging during the depths of the Covid winter, the Dorf Alien Trio's album, Industrial Memory, is the output from a trio of young players from Ahaus, Germany who seem to be, on the one hand, steeped in the jazz tradition and, on the other, poised to make it their own.
The group is led by woodwind player (sax and bass clarinet) Francisco "Pacho" Davila from Colombia, and his sound, which is often restrained, can also deliver a punch. His international career includes a stint in the USA, and currently, groups in Wuppertal and Berlin. His cohorts in The Dorf Aliens are German drummer Karl Degenhardt and bassist Luca Müller.

The recording begins with 'Secret Chant,' which features Davila playing a reserved melody, confidently supported by his partners. Degenhardt provides a swath of rhythmic accompaniment while Müller quietly fills in any obvious gaps. The track is careful and engrossing. The next track, whose title will not gain them any friends, is only 1:22 long but starts off strong and keeps up a steady energy. In fact, one can hear the session gaining steam track by track, and by the third one, 'semblante', the group's telepathy is on full display. The later track, 'Gayle Around,' the title possibly in reference to saxophonist Charles Gayle, features Davila on bass clarinet and the woody vibrations of that wonderful instrument is testimony to the group's aforementioned fit. Mueller's pizzicato bass lines bounce around perfectly in tandem and Degenhardt's pulse carries the music forward lithely.

Industrial Memory is an impressive recording with a steady energy. From the emerging and flowing melodic ideas to the supportive and imaginative support work, it is a really nice introduction to some up and coming players. 

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Binker Golding, John Edwards, Steve Noble - Moon Day (Byrd Out, 2021) ****½

By Sammy Stein

Binker Golding is releasing Moon Day on Byrd Out records, in a trio with John Edwards on double bass and Steve Noble on drums. Just 300 will be pressed in the first run with more to follow and on digital platforms.

'For S.K'( Stage H Edit) opens the album, and this is a free-flowing rolling number with the sax sounding like it is travelling its own road, the drums and double bass providing percussive lines which follow the sax's melodic phrases with countered, off-set rhythms, the bass at one point repeating and then rising glissando from the depths of its body like a Kraken awakening. At times the deep notes of the drums meld with the bass to create almost chordal lines. A beautiful and freely played opener.

'For S.K' is ethereal and packed with rhythmic diversions as the sax flits through keys with reedy efficiency whilst the double bass creates resonant, steady support. There are several sections where the bass settles around repeated lines with sax and drums answering with changing rhythmic diversions, creating an exquisite sense of orbiting around the steadiness which the bass provides. This is a track of many parts, and each musician leads then follows as they listen intently to what is going on around them. There is a quieter, atmospheric section followed by a loud, busy, bustling period before the bass rises, deep and sighing. A single strung note creating the backdrop on which drums and sax build. The quiet returns before being pounded out of existence as the sax get busy, followed by the bass and drums until the sax sings out loud, bass and drums follow, the drums almost swinging, and the finishing phrases are developed—over twenty minutes of joy.

'Lunar Wind' sets off at a pace with sax running amok along the keys, the bass joining first with single notes and then with increasing complexity. The trickering of the drums is impressive as they wicker away behind the sax and bass, now in higher mode before dipping down again. The sax gives hearty, reedy notice, accompanied by sliding, squeaky bass and gentle percussion before the bass dips down to deeper levels and the sax flows freely around the keys. The bass and drums then rise and swell around a held sax note, and the bass is left temporarily alone, with drums joining and sax, now more melodic, providing a simpler lead.

'One Giant Step, Part iii (Laika's Short Orbit edit)' begins with bass and drums each on their own pathways, which diverge and join, weaving in and around each other, before the sax enters high and loud with yet another rhythmic pattern. The track then develops as the instruments reflect and flow around each other's changes, and it works well. The sax lines are almost short, curt inserts into the background solidity created by bass and drums, only in the final third does it take on more of a lead, which is the best part where each instrument supports the others.

'One Giant Step Parts i-iv is 23 minutes of interesting, free form music with the sax creating bluesy, soulful melodic lines - improvising around the chosen keys for the first part, bass joining in with gentle, deep, rich belly notes, percussion entering subtly and then emerging with its own interpretation of the atmosphere. What follows is twenty minutes of sublime interaction, the atmosphere created mostly by the double bass, which seems to be in a world of its own with the sax and drums working around it. There is a lovely section where the sax is up high, percussion adding shakers and gentle percussive noise before the bass adds the textures and depths before a wonderful conversation episode happens between the three musicians, culminating in a bluesy, temporal floating coalescence. Beautiful

'Reflection' finishes the album, and this is another example of 3 musicians at the top of their game, intently listening, interacting and reflecting each other. The sax, at times, runs wild, with the others following in close musical pursuit. At other times, the bass and percussion lead the way with sax, setting the tempo and rhythm changes.

This is a great release, sublime, soulful, bluesy and free. Each musician is superb, and the understanding and interaction between them is something to behold. A release worthy of success and a release that is both free and yet contains enough melodic music to engage listeners.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Turntablism Schools of Joke Lanz and Ignaz Schick

By Eyal Hareuveni

Berlin-based turntables magicians Swiss Joke Lanz (aka Charles Testa) and German Ignaz Schick offer two perspectives to the evolving art of real-time turntablism improvisation.

Joke Lanz & Ute Wassermann - Half Dead Half Alive (Live in Nickelsdorf) (Klanggalerie, 2021) ****½


Lanz is not only a master turntablist bat also a modern-day,punk-dada prophet, noise musician and sound artist, known as the leader of the art-rock group Sudden Infant. He has worked before with Vocal artists like Shelley Hirsch and Audrey Chen. Ute Wassermann is a German, fellow-Berliner extraordinary vocal artist and sound artist who has developed highly personal vocal techniques. She extends the many sounds of the human voice and body with bird whistles (her website is:, resonating objects, prepared loudspeakers and different microphones. The duo has been playing together since 2016 and their debut album was recorded live in the 2019 edition of the Austrian free-improv Nickelsdorf festival.

Lanz and Wassermann are imaginative sound sculptors and on Half Dead Half Alive they offer a wild ride, often a manic and totally eccentric one, but a highly communicative and engaging one. The hyperactive, puzzling vocal gestures, free of any linguistic usage, and the fragmented, cartoonish sounds shift and reshape instantly, faster than the speed of sound itself, never attach themselves to any pattern, narrative or deep emotions for more than brief milliseconds. The unpredictable Lanz and Wassermann keep courting each other while busy deconstructing and twisting each other's ideas in their very own subversive dance, as both are equipped with generous doses of irony and humor. Their sonic references encompass everything from exquisite operatic singing to refined Japanese royal court music.

The listening experience may leave you shocked but guarantees tons of fun. If you can imagine rare, colorful birds, with a flair for dadaist mischief, dance along anarchistic techno grooves that threaten to melt your brain, you may get closer to what happened in this outstanding performance. 

More here

Almut Kühne / Joke Lanz / Alfred Vogel - How Noisy Are The Rooms? (Boomslang, 2020) ****


How Noisy are the Rooms? takes the provocative, hyper-fast anarchy of Half Dead Half Live and adds a strong rhythmic drive to the volatile recipe. Lanz meets here the Berlin-based vocal artist Almut Kühne, known for her collaborations with German reeds player Gebhard Ullmann and pianist Achim Kaufmann, and Austrian drummer Alfred Vogel, known for his collaborations with reeds titan Mats Gustafsson, his own trios Edi Nulz and Hang ‘Em High and his Bezau Beatz festival. Vogel initiated this project, recorded the debut album of this new trio just before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, and released it on his own label. 

Kühne, Lanz and Vogel, unlike Lanz and Wassermann, do seek to suggest sketchy, labyrinthine songs out of their concentrated energy and constant collisions of manic vocal gestures, alien, futurist sounds, and powerful, often ritualist groove. This trio also opts for a wild ride, still a restless and merciless one, but one that tosses the listener mind back and forth, always at all points at the same time, as if the listener - voluntarily, or by sheer innocence - is a pinball machine game. Naturally, there are subversive and quite hilarious games that flirt with and twist anything from noise, through trip-hop and hip-hop and free jazz. Kühne explores touching emotional layers in “Love Song”, but Lanz and Vogel do their best to squeeze out all traces of sentimentality from it. On “Amma Chenne Cha” the trio united for a clever wordless parody of macho-packed hip-hop. “Detox Zombie Porridge” drowns and resurfaces again and again from a noisy, manic swamp. “Heart Attack” resurrects the pixies from Daevid Allen’s Gong for a romantic but epileptic dance. The last-title piece sums the wonderful and addictive chaos of this anarchist trio.

Achim Kaufmann & Ignaz Schick - Altered Alchemy (Zarek, 2021) ****

Keith Prosk recently reviewed Schick's ILOG2 duo with Olie Steidle, the drummer known from the free jazz bands Klima Kalima, Der Rote Bereich and Oli Steidle & the Killing Popes, which follows in the  spirit of Lanz's albums reviewed above. Altered Alchemy, however, is a completely different project. Fellow Berliners, prolific pianist Achim Kaufmann and Schick performed together for the first time in 2015 when they toured Finland as part of the pan-European sextet Sestetto Internazionale. In their duo, Schick opts for a more experimental but refined and subtle sonic territory, compared to the restless cut-ups of Lanz, still, his interplay with Kaufmann is still intimate despite the abstract tones. Kaufmann enriches the sonic universe of Schick with his multi-layered sounds and advanced harmonic concepts. Altered Alchemy was recorded in February 2016 over the course of two afternoons, but Kaufmann and Schick continued to perform in 2020, right before the second Covid19 pandemic lockdown in late October. 

The double album Altered Alchemy is Kaufmann and Schick’s very first-ever session before they even started performing live concerts. The sequence of the pieces was not altered, and only a few sections were shortened. You can sense how this collaborative process develops, from the traditional piano playing and unconventional piano preparations, with some pedal-echo effects of Kaufmann, contrasted instantly by Schicks’s noisy loops, alien sounds and heavily-processed and mostly unrecognizable quotes produced by the turntables, sampler and live electronics. Kaufmann and Schick are busy investigating distinct and inventive ways of matching acoustic and electronic sound, in a compelling, mysterious mutual play. Later on, as all sounds are morphed, shaped and manipulated it becomes difficult to tell who is doing what. The eight extended, spontaneously-improvised “Alteration” soundscapes sound as adopting a John Cage-ian ethos (“everything we do is music”), referencing the methodical search for new sonic options by the European school of sound-oriented free improvisation and the compositional strategies of Musique Concrète. 

Kaufmann and Schick succeed to create a highly expressive, nuanced and surprisingly intimate sound universe of their own, even in its most tense and abstract moments. Their organized chaos of colliding sounds has its own cryptic logic, a very suggestive vocabulary and syntax and an inquisitive and twisted mode of playfulness. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/The London Symphony Orchestra - Promises (Luaka Bop, 2021) *****

By Martin Schray

After one minute and 23 seconds, it’s there for the first time. That squeezed, yearning, inimitable tone. No one can elicit such a sound from a saxophone but Pharoah Sanders, the grand old man of free jazz. And - to be honest - one would not necessarily have suspected of the 80-year old legend that he would soar to such musical heights once again. The main reason for this career highlight is the British electronic musician Sam Shepherd, who goes under the moniker Floating Points. For Promises he recruited not only Sanders but also the London Symphony Orchestra, which underpins his 47-minute composition, divided into nine “Movements“, with bright woodwind and string patches (to me the movements are more like meditations).

What we first hear is a short chord of seven notes that will accompany us throughout the piece, as if angel harps and wind chimes were at work. However, it’s actually a harpsichord, which grumbles very prominently, joined by a piano lid that rumbles open and closed, scraping like a percussion instrument. In between, Shepherd keeps packing cautious little loops, chirps and sphere music speckles that sound as if they were created by analog synthesizers, giving the floating Promises' corpus a fragile, gently swaying framework held together by the aforementioned chord.

“Movement 3“ and “Movement 4“ are undoubtedly the center of the composition. In the first one the orchestra appears, at first almost delicate and restrained, but then firm and shrill. Sanders counters in “Movement 4“ with his warm but powerful tone, and here he is indeed reminiscent of his great albums from the 1960s and - of course - John Coltrane. The atmosphere created is so deeply human that it almost makes you cry.

On the one hand, the attitude of Promises is a highly emotional one, slowly and meditatively unfolding like a spiritual jazz album reaching for transcendence, but translated into the present with modern production tools. On the other hand, it’s great drama - reminiscent of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Symphony Nr. 3, especially in “Movement 6“, when Sanders drops out and the orchestra completely takes over. If there was a remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows this could be the soundtrack. In contrast to these very obvious elements, though, there’s the way the album deals with silence. Sometimes the pieces are so quiet you might check your volume setting to see if it’s still on, for example at the very ends of “Movement 8“ and “9“.

Shepherd recorded the album over a five-year period, it seems to have matured like an excellent wine. Therefore, the music wants to be heard as a whole (there are no breaks between the single tracks), a good stereo system is helpful and you shouldn’t listen to it on the side. On the contrary, you should surrender completely to the music. Let yourself be carried away by the emotions presented. Enjoy every single tone of Sanders tenor, they are like drops of liquid gold. It’s nice to hear his voice so beautifully once again.

Promises is available on vinyl and as a CD.

Catch a glimpse of the album here:

And more here:

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Conversation With Alexander Hawkins

Alexander Hawkins. Cafe OTO, April 2018. (c) Cristina Marx/Photomusix

By Lee Rice Epstein

Almost immediately after listening to the album, I reached out to Alexander Hawkins to discuss some of what was behind the making of Togetherness Music, both pragmatically and philosophically. We communicated by email over several weeks, and what follows is slightly edited for clarity.

First, regarding the logistics of the recording. Given the state of things with COVID-19, what was the process for arranging the recording session [July 30, 2020, at Challow Park Studios, Oxfordshire, UK]?

Remarkably, there was a window over here in the UK when something of this scale was safe, and legal. Where I was fortunate was in the floorplan of the studio near Oxford I wanted to use: it actually has an extremely large live room, and this meant that we could lay everything out with the appropriate social distancing, but also without compromising either sight lines between players and conductor, or indeed an optimal layout from a sonic point of view. I would never have dreamt of inviting musicians into a situation where they might feel uneasy (especially given that with the dearth of work over the pandemic period, there were very real pressures to accept work); this would never be the right thing to do ethically, or simply from the perspective of teasing out the best playing possible. But thankfully, due to the amazing work of the studio, and the patience and good humour of everyone involved, the session itself was very relaxed; and actually, more than that—a very real thrill for all of us, given that it had been many months since most had played with other people.

There are threads of multiple motifs and concepts from previous compositions throughout. James Fei discusses this in the liner notes, but how long have you been working on Togetherness Music as a complete suite?

Three of the movements here originated in a commission from Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble, and we performed these in a couple of concerts in early 2019. These concerts were really wonderful, and especially during the second, the music was really beginning to 'breathe'. Almost immediately afterwards, I began to think about how I could develop things to reflect some of the potential directions I was hearing during the concerts. I had some kind of intuition that the Riot commission music could sit alongside a couple of other ideas I had lying around; and so around the time the first lockdown began, I began to look at the music in more detail to see if there was any more concrete basis to this intuition.

Essentially, what I noticed was that each of these units of material I was looking to work with was organised around some basic transformations of a simple motif. Once I had that, the rest more or less fell into place. In its final form, the piece can be thought of in two halves (the third and fourth movements segue from one another, so as to not to make anything too obvious): a solo feature (in movement I, for Evan; in movement IV, for me), followed by a contrast (movement II is the most open, movement V is the most through-composed); followed by a tutti (movement III and VI share a technique for harmonisation the melody line, and numerous cells of this line are shared between the two movements).

And then there is the addition of another "Baobabs" composition. At this point, there have been solo, trio, quartet, and ensemble recordings (on Song Singular , Alexander Hawkins Trio, the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble albums No Now Is So and Step Wide, Step Deep , the piece “Sun[g]” from the ensemble album Unit[e], and the Convergence Quartet album Song/Dance). I know of at least two others, “Unequal Baobabs (Goal by Garrincha)” and the site-specific LSO performance of “Unknown Baobabs.” And in this recording, I hear threads of the original, some of which sound like they're moving almost in reverse? Could you talk a bit more about“Ecstatic Baobabs” and its change in structure from the more formally additive versions?

As you say, the 'Baobabs' series are all variations on an additive structure: cell A, then cell A+B, A+B+C, and so on. My big inspiration for these pieces was Braxton's composition 23C, although of course, there are other wonderful incarnations of the idea, such as Rzewski's 'Coming Together'. Various pieces in the series simply change the melody, although there are certain melodic cells which are common to many of them (a certain group of three trills appears in most, for example). Others change the rules of repetition in some way—so for example, in the trio and sextet versions, one group of instruments plays the material additively, at the same time as another deals with it subtractively.

'Ecstatic Baobabs' has its own melody, and a slightly different take on the structure too. Usually the scores for these pieces are presented as a simple melody line, with strategically placed repeat bars marking out the geography for the performer. For this version, I started by producing a score like this; but then improvised a separate realisation of this score for each instrumentalist, and transcribed these realisations—which I then reworked so as to be more idiomatic for the strings (the harmonics, and so on). So the actual parts for this movement actually appear to be more or less through-composed, and without repeat bars (I say 'more or less', because there are also short windows for guided improvisation embedded in the line).

There is one other element here, and you are absolutely correct: two of the string players (Hannah Marshall and Benedict Taylor) are not playing a part for 'Ecstatic Baobabs', but instead for the original 'Baobabs' composition, so that we have this sense of a ghost of something familiar within the texture. At some stage, I would like to perform all of the Baobabs series simultaneously, and this is a small step towards how that might work.

Evan Parker seems so thoroughly stitched to the performance, even as his part is improvised. Did you, Parker, and Aaron Holloway-Nahum discuss a plan for his improvisation?

Throughout most of the score, and for all of the musicians, the directions as to when to start and stop improvising are indicated (for the most part, these windows are buried within notation; and in various passages, there is 'guided' improvisation—perhaps as to a language in which to begin, or how to relate to the ensemble). However, once we had established this rough organisation, the instruction was very much not to feel constrained by these indications if that felt like an interesting musical choice in the context: in other words, we were always looking to play music first, and the composition second. Evan's part was slightly different, in that apart from one very small set of gestures within the ensemble in movement IV, he never had any notation to play explicitly, or any guidance as to language (although he did have the same guidance as others as to when to come to the fore, etc.).

However, for example in movements III and VI, he did have the principal melodic voice in front of him, so that he always had the option to follow or deliberately avoid contours, pitch sets, and so on, in his improvising. The other way in which he is stitched-in is through instructions in the ensemble parts. So, for instance, the way the all-interval chord (with which the ensemble enters at the opening of the piece) collapses into the octave unison is flexible, and behaves differently depending on how Evan approaches his opening improvisation.

But perhaps how I should have tackled this question is initially not to have talked about the composition, but to have focused on Evan and stated the obvious: he is such a master that I'm not sure I could write anything which would be anywhere near as interesting as what he would do himself. At the same time as being such a powerful individual voice, he is also peerless as an ensemble musician: part of his magic is how he is able to tailor such a deeply personal language to the musical 'moment'—in other words, I feel that knitting himself of his own accord into a context in a fascinating way is simply part of his brilliancy.

Bimhuis, Amsterdam, December 2, 2018.  (c) Cristina Marx/Photomusix

[At some point in listening to Togetherness Music, I began to think about Bill Dixon's late albums, like 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur , Tapestries for Small Orchestra , and Envoi . To me, a strength of Hawkins's compositions are the bidirectionality of the ensemble's movement. And I find some overlaps with the depth and lushness of Dixon's approach; thinking about Dixon led me to some questions I had about the titling of the pieces here, specifically ones that could work as either political or autobiographical gestures. So, I asked about this.]

Titles are a really interesting one for me. I'm one of those people who don't experience music visually, or in a narrative sense. So the things I write (or indeed play) are never 'depictions of', or 'impressions of', or indeed really 'about' anything.(I should say that I of course love much music which is explicitly programmatic—whether that's the Berlioz 'Symphonie Fantastique,' “Circus '68 '69” from Liberation Music Orchestra, or whatever—it's just that those aren't the terms on which I can personally engage with it). I suppose in this sense, I'd align myself more with a 'music about music' aesthetic. But actually, I think this can potentially be quite liberating when it comes to the title of the piece, which can then do a number of things… perhaps express some commentary on matters internal or external to the piece; perhaps provide a playground for technical play (little word games or something. Evan is fond of this idea, I sense: he was delighted with his 'Leaps in Leicester' concept for our duo CD some years back); and so on. Actually, I once read some really interesting comments from Muhal Richard Abrams, in which he said something essentially very similar to this with respect to titles.

[To understand more about Abrams and his approach towards composition titles, as well as directing improvisation within ensemble settings, I recommend reading Frank Oteri's wonderful and lengthy interview with Abrams from 2016 .]

Titling can actually be fairly laborious for me—the ideas very rarely 'flow' (the one exception being the concept for Unit[e] , where CD one's titles consist of two words, with the addition of a bracketed letter before those which follow, where those on CD two are formed by the addition of a bracketed letter afterwards). So as a result, a few years ago, I started keeping lists of interesting phrases/ideas in a notebook, which seemed to have some kind of resonance. These phrases were often from things I was reading—hence 'Iron Into Wind' and the subtitle 'Pears From An Elm' (both from Eduardo Galeano, whom I love). To the extent I can, these appear without context in my notebook, so that I can 'forget' what they're about, and paraphrase/repurpose/manipulate them etc., much as I do various musical jottings I have.

So as to the titles on Togetherness Music:

1) Indistinguishable from Magic: I don't actually know where I got this from. Clearly the phrase comes from Arthur C. Clarke, but I have to admit, I've never read Clarke—and I didn't realise the attribution when I found the title! At any rate, it seems to be a nice reflection on music itself, and also what Evan has pioneered with his circular breathed soprano language.

2) Sea No Shore: there's a little more to this one. I have a background in playing the organ, and this is a hymn tune/harmonisation I've always loved [“How Shall I Sing That Majesty”]. I'm firmly agnostic, but nonetheless, these hymns often have wonderful poetry in them. The final verse of this one is as follows:

How great a being, Lord, is Thine,

Which doth all beings keep!

Thy knowledge is the only line

To sound so vast a deep.

Thou art a sea without a shore,

A sun without a sphere;

Thy time is now and evermore,

Thy place is everywhere.

Well, those first four lines I can do without… but what amazing imagery in the next two! Then one day I was listening to the radio with my partner, when this came on, and she remarked how she had always loved these lines too. At that point, I was beginning work on this commission for the Berlin Jazz Festival , and so a manipulation of that 'A sun without a sphere' (= 'Sun No Sphere' = 'Sunnosphere') felt like an intriguing title. I was also in the process of looking for titles for this album (that's something else I should have mentioned above, 99% of the time, the repertoire gets recorded long before it has a name!), and so the sister title also felt very interesting: 'a sea without a shore' = 'Sea No Shore'.

3) Ensemble Equals Together: this was actually very nearly the title for the Unit[e] album. Absolutely—this is, as you say, one with a definite political thought behind it: I believe the perfect state of being for a musical ensemble (and therefore by extension…) is one where a group of 'equals' (a starting point which so many macho narratives of the heroic jazz soloist ignore—echoes here too of 'the reality of the sweating brow' from Braxton's Tri-Axium Writings) do something 'together'(hence ideas of solidarity, collective action, common enterprise etc.). Then there is the more playful reading of this as a straight fact from e.g. a french language textbook: 'Ensemble = Together' as in 'this means that'.

4) Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher: I can't for the life of me find the reference, but bizarrely, I can visualise the series of books from which I'm pretty sure the phrase originated! (Penguin recently published a series of excerpts from larger works—usually 50-60 page 'pamphlets'—which they sold for £1; and I found these a really interesting way to sample some authors, to find a 'way in' for further reading). But I think your observation about something potentially autobiographical is spot on. It's not a 'concrete' gesture, but I guess maybe it potentially just invites interesting questions… who is doing the 'leaving'? who is the teacher? Or is the teacher a 'genre' (jazz? classical music?)? Etc. I guess what's significant for me here is not that a listener would think about how these questions apply to me as the person doing the 'leaving'—I think that would be far too self-important! More that these layers of questions are there if anyone wants to sit and reflect on the titles. I'm also perfectly happy if someone listens to the music and never notices the title, just in the same way that I'm perfectly happy if people aren't concerned about some of the technical musical details which are buried in the composition.

On technical musical details, there's another one to go into here, and which is relevant (more obliquely) to 'leaving the classroom of a beloved teacher'. It's a bit of a strange one to go into, but it's to do with being able to let go of certain obsessive-compulsive behaviours which from time to time I struggle with/have struggled with (it's much, much less prevalent than it used to be!). So those walking bass parts in the two cellos and two basses: this is a form of notation which I first used in the composition 'Sarah Teaches Kirsty to Read' . In these earlier forms, I used a (very simple!) cipher I devised to translate texts into notation, and I did this pretty obsessively and exactingly in various incarnations of the idea. Pitches and rhythms were specifically worked out etc. More recently, I've been able to be less concerned with these precise transcriptions of texts—so this is the 'leaving'. The 'beloved teacher' bit on this reading: obviously one of the very beneficial aspects of obsessive compulsive behaviour when working on the technical aspects of the instrument is the hangup with repetition. So when I was at University in particular (between the ages of 18–24), I had these obsessions with practising technical exercises in multiples of 3 (actually, in my case, only 3 and 9 were the 'significant' numbers). For all this could be debilitating/embarrassing in various respects, it is nonetheless true that repetition is incredibly beneficial when it comes to developing technical strength. So it was 'beloved' in helping me shore up my technical foundations!

Anyway, in this piece, and actually, this pattern was beginning in the last couple of versions of the notation, I was able to be much less precise about this encoding. Somehow, I'd got over the hangup about doing it all very precisely, realising that actually, there was a more elegant, simpler way to notate the sound I was after.

5) Ecstatic Baobabs: we talked about the Baobabs thing. The other word in these titles is usually much more impressionistic. E.g. 'Imperfect Baobabs'—this appeared in a commission from the BBC for their baroque season. One theory of the etymology of the word 'baroque' is that it comes from the word 'barocco', meaning 'strange' or, in the case of a pearl, 'irregular' or 'imperfect'—hence 'Imperfect Baobabs'. Here, the 'Ecstatic' was tied into that idea of a really quiet ecstasy, e.g. that astonishing final note Sonny Rollins plays in 'Loverman', from the album with Coleman Hawkins.

6) Optimism of the Will: The reference is to Gramsci (I'm no kind of expert whatsoever on his work, but when I was doing my PhD, I did also teach undergraduates a course about the criminal justice system, and Gramsci is hugely influential obviously in the sociology here). Gramsci's dictum was to do with 'Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will' (I think it was originally from his 'Prison Notebooks'). I think his pessimism in this context (1930s) was about the growth of authoritarianism; but the 'optimism' was about the possibilities for certain forms of socialism to counter this trend. I think that these ideas are almost alarmingly relevant these days!

Hence too, the sentiments from titles 3) and 6) in particular, the title, 'Togetherness Music'… and just the music itself hopefully bearing out the possibility of radical individualism, but within a framework of mutual respect and solidarity, ideas which I think have in fact always been borne out by the very greatest big bands, with my hero in this respect being Ellington. I always feel that no band was ever so stacked with immediately identifiable individuals, but also, no other ensemble ever felt so much like a band.

[From here, we went down a number of paths, from Luciano Berio's “Points On the Curve To Find” and Anthony Braxton's Ghost Trance Music, to the malleability and portability of Togetherness Music. One thing in particular that I was (and still am) curious about is whether Braxton's influence will be felt more as a mentor, or are his musics laying the groundwork for further evolutions of his conceptual framework. Hawkins dug into this fairly deeply and shared the scores to illustrate how the notation works on paper.]

I recently had a commission for a piece of solo music, and I did consider using one of the string parts from 'EcstaticBaobabs' as a starting point for transformations, but in the end, took another path. (Some of my pieces do have things deliberately built into them which are devices for recontextualising/moving between them—e.g., the trills in the 'Baobabs' pieces are there as 'portals' from jumping between comparable points in the compositions—but this isn't an idea I've had the chance to play with in performance/on recording yet.) In Braxton, the system has evolved to the point now where essentially, there are a lot of different ways to move between compositions. There are scenarios where a conductor can cue things, but more usual is either that the musicians cue amongst themselves, or indeed that an individual musician without the grouping makes their own choice. I sense that one of the crucial aspects for Braxton is creating something which is in many senses egalitarian and 'decentralised'. I've been lucky enough to participate in two of the Sonic Genomes now, and this in some ways is the fullest expression of this idea, a durational performance, which activates an entire space (in Italy, 8 hours in a huge museum; in Germany, 6 hours in a similar space) with subgroupings—which themselves are mutable—of musicians, creating a giant 3D collage, like a huge sound playground.

At this point, my own experiments in this direction are much less fully developed than Anthony's: in part because I'm trying to figure out whether what he is providing amounts to a generalisable methodology which any ensemble can use with any pool of material (which I think is how increasingly I lean), or whether it's something very specific to his language, meaning that other composers really ought to try to find their own way to address these issues of non-linear composition and delegation of compositional 'authority'.

So a very modest example of how it might work in something of mine is the basic score for 'Baobabs': in measure 6 a series of trills correspond to measure 7 of 'Imperfect Baobabs'. The idea being that each time in the structure that these trills occur, the performer could hop between the two compositions, or alternatively, jump off into an improvisation initially based on the trilling language. A lot of the activities of groupings of players are determined by them rather than necessarily determined by the structure of a conductor within some of these pieces.

Read the review of Togetherness Music here.