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Joe McPhee & Universal Indians: John Dikeman (ts), Joe McPhee (ts), Jon Rune Strøm (b) and Tollef Østvang (d)

Manufaktur, Schorndorf, April 2022

3Dom Factor: Jon Irabagon (s), Barry Altschul (d), Joe Fonda (b)

Jazzkeller69 @ Industriesalon Schoeneweide. Berlin. April 2022

James Brandon Lewis (s) & Chad Taylor (d)

Chapel Performance Space, Seattle, WA. February 26, 2022.

Beatdenker (Joachim Wespel) (g,e), Philipp Gropper (s), Moritz Baumgärtner (d), Evi Filippou (v)

Kühlspot, Berlin. April 2022

Bonnie Whiting (d) & James Falzone (c)

Chapel Performance Space, Seattle, WA. March 31, 2022.

OÙAT: Simon Sieger (p), Joel Grip (b), Michael Griener (d)

Kühlspot, Berlin March 2022

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Lao Dan - Self-destruct Machine (self-released, 2022)

By Keith Prosk

Lao Dan presents a live solo set from 2019 with alto saxophone and dizi (a transverse bamboo flute) on the four-track, 47’ Self-destruct Machine.

Previous solo recordings occurred in pairs, separately developing saxophone and dizi, with Functioning Anomie and Going After Clouds and Dreams in 2018 and Chinese Medicine and The song of the Uninhabited Island in 2020. While it’s saxophone-forward, Self-destruct Machine joins the two instruments, though they still seem to serve as a kind of foil to each other in the context both appear, the sidelong “Clown.” In 2022 so far, Lao Dan has also appeared on two compilations from Old Heaven Books, the vital Chinese venue and label, Encore 72 Hours and Region, Music, and Practice Vol. 1 .

Three of four tracks are all alto, alternately excavating high-register sounds with a singular ferocity to disentomb the squealing soul of a piercing overtone from any warmth in its entourage of harmonics and crooning soulful melodies in gravel-throated growls and swaggering vibrato with a propensity to spiral into slurred free freakouts. If saxophones could scream. It is impassioned. Doubly so during intervals of agonized vocals babbling in tongues that bleed into saxophone’s tortuous fits. “Clown” is perhaps a little lighter. In part because the first half featuring dizi is comparatively spacious, its breathy play given room to breathe, tender melodies quavering gently. And while its sound sometimes stabs at higher registers, its material makes it mellower than metal. The second half is a switch to saxophone, now more raspberries, duck, and kazoo than victim, though like the flute moved towards sharp tones so too the saxophone drifts towards screech and skronk. There’s a sense of dualism at play, the two instruments’ two parts alternate humor and gravity like lifting the laughing mask.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's Ghost Trance Septet Plays Anthony Braxton (El Negocito, 2022)

By Sammy Stein

Ghent-based el Negocito records will release Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's Ghost Trance Septet plays Anthony Braxton on June 2, combined with a performance at the Contemporary Arts Museum of S.M.A.K. In Ghent, showcasing the results of Kobe Van Cauwenberghe's research on Anthony Braxton and his spectacular Ghost Trance Music.

Anthony Braxton is one of the most innovative composers, musicians, and music theorists. His work has been featured on around 60 albums by other musicians, and his number of compositions is over 700. Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe (Zwerm, Ictus Ensemble, Nadar Ensemble) recognised the uniqueness of Braxton's Ghost Trance Music systems and made it a mission to come to a deeper understanding of it and its implications for the interpreter. After his acclaimed solo album (Ghost Trance Solos), Van Cauwenberghe invited a group of musicians to take a collective deep dive into Braxton's musical wonderland of the Ghost Trance Musics and explore its unique communal aspects. In the summer of 2021, this Ghost Trance Septet recorded four GTM-compositions, covering the entire spectrum of the four different' species' of the G.T.M. system. The result is this present double CD, which will be followed by a double vinyl issue later in the year.

Anthony Braxton reacted to the Ghost Trance Septet's performance at the Rainy Days Festival in Luxemburg in November 2021 with emotion, and this ensemble comes with the full approval of the grandmaster himself

On June 5, Braxton's Birthday, there will be a 2nd concert at the Singel in Antwerp, followed by a performance by Braxton himself. Other activities are planned, including an expo and lectures - more info here.

With Braxton playing fewer concerts these days, this is a rare opportunity to see the grandmaster perform. Braxton has over 500 compositions to his name and has been a visionary pioneer of music, regularly reinventing himself. During the 1970s, Braxton considered creating streamed (or beamed) live performances alongside 100 orchestras in 4 different cities and wanted to mark the year 2000 by completing the music for multiple orchestras. The programme in the performances will feature his compositions from the 'Creative Orchestra' albums, where, in an 'Ellington meets Stockhuasen' manner, Braxton blends big band with contemporary classical ensemble. There will also be some pieces from the more recent 'Ghost Trance Music,' which balances music that is both notated and allows for improvisation. Braxton will perform himself with his new Saxophone Quartet, featuring James Fei ( Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Lucier), Chris Jonas ( Cecil Taylor, William Parker, Del Sol String Quartet), Ingrid Laubrock( F-IRE Collective, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Polar Bear) and Andre Vida ( Brandon Evans, Sonny Simmons)

The opening track, 'Composition 255,' is a mesmerizing stream of music that begins with the ensemble delivering a punctuated stream of chords in union before, gradually, the percussion first; then the other instruments begin to shear off from the central theme, creating diverse and intricate side roads of improvised sounds. Follow any of these, and you end up eventually at a crossroads where the ensemble comes together, crosses, and then veers away on different pathways. Eerie vocalisation, underpinned by piano, then brass blats and percussive rhythms thundered out underneath. The subtle blueseyness of the central section of the number with the unsettling bass clarinet just audible beneath the intricate top lines reflects jazz roots, while the explosive, dissonant guitar reminds the listener that this is improvised jazz music in essence. The trance element comes from the palpitation of the rhythms and the endless stream of musical consciousness, which creates a link between the musicians, balancing the directed with the free. The piano rises to the fore playing chordal sequences, over which the rest add their responses - again, that link between the set and the unsettling—an incredibly diverse and creative opening sequence of music.

The following track,'Composition 358,' opens with the ensemble playing separate yet connected lines, each different yet creating a link to the rest, before snatches of melody rise like a nest of entwined cobras, entwining around the centrality of the number while maintaining their individuality. The glissandos, the responses, the interaction, the brief solos, the quiet moments, and the explosive end section before the fading all work to create another mesmeric number.

The next track, 'Composition 193,' continues the theme of collective creativity, the ensemble demonstrating how aggregation can be coupled with fractions of dissonance and subtle connectivity.

After the three-minute mark, the lines set by the piano are reflected and developed by the ensemble with the percussion adding rhythmic patterns that both fill space and create interesting modulations of the tempo. A violin rises in solo before playing spiccato, reflecting the percussive patterns. The bass weaves complex lines underneath. The ensemble then works together to create many hues, painting a colourful ribbon of sound that the listener can follow, leading to a tricky, intricate rhythmic middle section into which they are immersed. The sound curve becomes more complex before it simplifies, allowing individual instruments to be heard. The finish feels orchestral and fulsome.

The final track, 'Composition 264,' brings more of the same - a seemingly bottomless pool of sounds, from which individual instruments rise to the surface before diving back to the depths of sound created by the ensemble. This music exemplifies the ensemble style of blended notated and improvised sound and is a delight to both those with an ear for classical and those preferring a freer form of playing.

Braxton proves that comparisons to other composers are pointless, and Braxton is a rare thing nowadays - a composer whose work is unique. The recording feels like an immersion; the music washes over the listener in waves, cleansing and pure. It is a stream of consciousness that emanates from the musicians, serving as a guide between that which is known and the unknown. Clear guidance to form is tempered beautifully with an allowance for freedom that this kind of music gives. There is a sense of connection to the past, a sense of being very much in the present and with the future. Listening to this music is an experience, not an act, and Braxton creates a sense of endless potential.

Kobe Van Cauwenberghe - electric guitar, nylon string guitar, electric bass, synths, voice
Frederik Sakham - double bass, electric bass, voice
Elisa Medinilla - piano
Niels Van Heertum - euphonium, trumpet
Steven Delannoye - tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Anna Jalving - violin
Teun Verbruggen - drums, percussion

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Keefe Jackson’s Likely So—April 16, 2022 at Constellation, Chicago

(From left to right) Sarah Clausen, Molly Jones, Keefe Jackson, Jason Stein, Adam Zanolini, Aram Shelton.

By Gary Chapin

One of the reasons I love the way the pandemic has boosted streaming concerts across the land is because it solves the “reviewing live performances” conundrum. “Why review live performances?” I would say to my copy of The New Yorker or The New York Times,”It’s not like I can go see it?” But with streaming concerts—which are often posted on the venue’s YouTube channel—you can go see the performance. And if I see a streaming concert, like Keefe Jackson’s Likely So at Constellation Chicago, and it sticks under my craw and I keep revisiting it and it keeps bringing joy, I can write a review even a full month later to draw everyone’s attention.

Likely So is a woodwind sextet featuring Sarah Clausen, Molly Jones, Keefe Jackson, Jason Stein, Adam Zanolini and Aram Shelton on all kinds of flutes, saxes, and clarinets. There’s at least one instance of a number of the group playing clear plastic tubes with mouth pieces on, and a harmonium (a free reed instrument) also shows up.

At the start, the group is assembling their instruments and form into a semi-circle, everyone still, with their hands at their sides. There’s something about it that is purposeful. Almost as if the score indicates “some silence before the sounds begin.” This is conjecture on my part. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but it is the sort of theatrical or ritualistic element that shows up occasionally throughout.

For example, the opening sequence features each player playing an improvised sort of introduction to themselves. Another example, about ten minutes in, two of the flutists are circling the rest of the group slowly. Everyone is in their spot either crouching or sitting, the flutes draw a circle that marks the edge of darkness on the stage. In the second “act” trumpets play from the shadows (played by Josh Berman and Ben Lamar Gay).

The compositions are uncontrolling, as you would expect. They seem to create the conditions for improvisation, rather than carving out space. The most frequent compositional gambit is for a repeated figure (or two or three) to play while other improvisers wind around it, like the snakes around the staff of a caduceus. Rising long tones happen, unison playing, and then you hear the beats in the wave and know that they are drifting. The entrances to and exits from and settings of improvisation are very intriguing shared melodies. The improvisations live in an AACMish spaciousness, but the—what are they? heads? ostinatos?—have rhythmic weight and (dare I say it?) Hemphill-esque funk.

At one point four bass clarinets are playing with two alto flutes (I think, I couldn’t see one of the flutes clearly) and that amazing timbre had me thinking, “The world needs more of this kind of sound!” The infusion of minimalism and free jazz is one of my favorite things. This is music happening with a human dynamic, with a human density, between humans who listen to each other.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Oren Ambarchi / Johan Berthling / Andreas Werliin - Ghosted (Drag City , 2022)

By Martin Schray

Almost ten years ago, in one of my first reviews for this website, I reviewed Fire! feat. Oren Ambarchi: In the Mouth - a Hand . I had been completely blown away by this band’s music. Fire!’s brutal force, their way of combining prog rock with free jazz - incredible. Oren Ambarchi, the Australian drummer turned avant guitarist, acted as a kind of booster, amplifying everything in Fire!’s music. When I listen to this album today, it has lost none of its fascination, for me it’s one of the best recordings of this still young century.

Ambarchi has continued collaborating with Fire! in the following years, for example on the no less extraordinary She Sleeps, She Sleeps. But there were also cooperations with individual musicians of the trio, especially with bassist Johan Berthling, e.g. on My Days Are Parker Than Your Nights and Tongue Tied. What is more, all three were recently again part of his big project extraordinaire Live Hubris (Black Truffle, 2021). As one can see, they never lost track of each other.

So when Ghosted by Ambarchi and Fire!’s rhythm section was announced, my excitement was high, as one might imagine. Will the music of the trio sound as brute as it did ten years ago? Will it be more rhythm-orientated like Live Hubris? Or will it revive the drones of My Days Are Darker? To cut a long story short, it's a mixture of the last two. And that's absolutely great.

Ghosted's qualities lie in the way Ambarchi, Berthling and Werliin adopt Fire!’s basic concept: The bass, almost minimalistically, holds a simple groove and the drums prance around it relatively freely. With Amabarchi as the locomotive, however, they develop a newfound interest in stripping back and zooming in on their music. On the one hand, the tracks are reduced, they are not bulging or bloated, on the other hand they float away from their center into the spherical.

This is not so much free jazz as rather some kind of ecstatic cosmic drive, as if Bill Frisell had fallen under the influence of mind-expanding drugs during an ECM recording (sorry, Bill). The kaleidoscope-like repetition of small, luminous motifs - primarily by Ambarchi, but also by the others who leave the given paths here and there - open the tracks. Time and timelessness coexist in a relaxed way, everything happens slowly and quickly at the same time.

Sometimes, when I have difficulties to fall asleep, I need music that guides me through the night. Then I listen to this album and imagine Ambarchi, Berthling and Werliin playing in a dark Berlin techno club at 6 a.m., the people are exhausted, they hang around in their lounge suites, listening to the band’s organic sound of minimalist classical and relaxed Kraut Rock. This is music that builds and expands into meandering structures, eventually ending in the bright, nocturnal zones reminiscent of the brooding slow jazz landscapes of Bohren Und Der Club of Gore.

Ghosted is available on vinyl and as a download.

You can listen to two tracks and order it here: 

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Kuhl/Ballou/Dierker/Stewart - KRAFT (Out of Your Head Records, 2022)

By Nick Metzger

This unassuming album with a funny looking cartoon cat on its cover is a real monster. From what I gathered, Baltimore drummer Mike Kuhl had a regular pre-pandemic Tuesday gig with his trio (with bassist Jeff Reed and guitarist John Lee though I’ve also seen Ballou listed as a member as well) at a spot called Bertha’s Mussels. He took the opportunity one Tuesday in 2018 to play there with this quartet (Dave Ballou on trumpet, Luke Stewart on bass, John Dierker on reeds), all local players Kuhl had wanted to get together in a group, which he dubbed KRAFT. They must have made an impression, as the group was subsequently invited to live stream from An Die Musik in February of 2021. The set ended up being so good that Stewart offered to master it and OOYH has released the results in-full as a part of its digital-only Untamed series, and holy cow (cat?!) I’m glad they did. KRAFT is heavy on chemistry and light on filler, and on their debut they deliver animated and commiserate formations of sound that span a wide range of dynamics and intensities.

The first piece “Ageless One” is a behemoth that, like many free improvisational efforts, kicks off the album with probing appendages of cross-talk as the quartet looks to establish some traction. Once the pieces really start falling into place, Dierker’s reeds and Ballou’s brass alternately serve up chatty dialogues and streaks of mad squawking ramble against the surging rumble and/or steady thud of Stewart and Kuhl’s rhythm section. On “Scoop the Moon” the horns get into a tussle of murmurs and slurred passages, the tangles of percussion coming from bells, traps, and peripherals as Stewart lurks in the background masterfully teasing mumbled creaks and groans from his bass. “Stick and Move” bristles from the outset with its churning percussion, aggressive low end, and agitated negotiations. The piece develops a steady cadence about the meridian and Dierker lays down a long, burly progression of bluesy sentiments before Ballou returns and the tempo goes prickly again. The quartet plays slightly understated on “A Real Mensch”, an inquisitive short (relatively) that shows just how betrothed these men are with their communal vibrations. On the closer “Underneath” the band is venturesome but deliberate, taking care in the materialisation of their final notions.

In my opinion the reasons that this release works so well are the remarkable chops of the musicians, their steadfast enthusiasm for the task at hand, and the aforementioned chemistry. This is a wonderful quartet and there are ample scenes within to prove my point, not once do you hear an individual going off on their own or being inattentive, rather they are continuously engaged and display an extraordinary level of musicianship and camaraderie. KRAFT delivers an embarrassment of controlled and tempered performances mixed with free sections and everything in-between. An excellent album of free improvisation from a quartet we hope to hear more from. Excellent.

More music/information/interviews with KRAFT:


Wednesday, May 18, 2022

PUG LiFE –L ‘Annee Perrotique (akti records, 2021)

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

The reason why this review is written right now, almost a year after this edition of one hundred copies cd came out, is that only now was I able to purchase it. PUG LiFE is the duo of Taneli Viitahuhta on alto and baritone saxes, flutephone, mouth harp and effect pedals and Lauri Hyvarinen on electric guitar, fuzz box and laptop. Mastered by Ilia Belorukov, the careful listener (plus those who want to put labels on the music) will find resemblances with the anarchic sounds of another Scandinavian duo, SKRONK GBG.

This cd was recorded during quarantine time, which means that all of the tracks for it were recorded separately. L ‘Annee Perrotique blurs the boundaries between free jazz, improvisation (even though the distance between the two musicians forced them to include compositional elements for the very first time) and free rock. Above all the aforementioned, L ‘Annee Perrotique evolves around a “any sound is possible” approach.

The feeling that some of the thirteen tracks of the cd are unfinished snippets of something new to come, puzzled me and, actually, never got a clear answer for it. Approaching all the tracks through a different scope, maybe this was the approach from the beginning. The vast majority of the tracks are aggressive and edgy, making the listener feel quite uncomfortable in understanding the music as a by-product of any jazz based music.

I’m not even sure that the free jazz listener will be pleased from their mostly electric and less acoustic approach- plus their chosen instruments for it.

But that shouldn’t matter at all. L ‘Annee Perrotique is an adventurous listen, a recording that grabs you and demands attention. You can’t make a relaxed in the background approach from it. Its punkish feel is made for ears attached to the anything goes ethos of improvisation without any additional labeling. I will be listening more closely for their next try.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Jacob Garchik - Assembly (Yestereve, 2022)

By Paul Acquaro

It's probably safe to say that everyone went at least a little batty during the first two years of COVID. Between shut-downs, bountiful misinformation, and most importantly, no live music, we were all knocked off-kilter. There was either too much time or not enough of it in the right places, but some folks have used the time quite creatively, like for instance, Brooklyn based trombonist Jacob Garchik.

This year has found Garchik composing music for the Kronos Quartet Festival, and in previous ones, in addition to playing in the bands of peers and legends like Mary Halvorson and Henry Threadgill, forging his own unique way with gospel music (The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album, 2012), heavy metal (Ye Olde, 2015), and a rhythm section-less big band (Clear Line, 2020). So, out of mid-Pandemic frustrations, Garchik gathered associates at a studio with enough isolation booths to record a series of essentially straight ahead jazz jams. Afterwards, he took the music and spent several months cutting up and manipulating the tracks, adding, over dubbing, and forming Assembly - an aptly titled and surprisingly coherent album, considering all of that heretofore mentioned studio tomfoolery.

Along with Garchik is Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone, Jacob Sacks on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss playing drums. Like say Mostly Other People Do the Killing (who also have a recent new recording, Disasters Vol 1, out on HotCup records), the music on Assembly is both a homage to the beloved classic jazz vernacular and a reimaging of these very same overworked and well-digested forms.

It's even in many of the track names. The first one is 'Collage', followed by 'Pastiche', which is then followed by 'Bricolage,' which is followed by 'Homage'. 'Collage' is just that, two tracks in two different tempos overlaid simultaneously, but strangely enough, not vertigo inducing. The interlaced tracks accentuate each other at the right times, throwing the listener curve-balls, but not off their feet. 'Pastiche' begins with a Charlie Parker like head, a fierce and fast arpeggiated riff that seems to speed up, until releasing a melodic trombone solo over a straight ahead swing from Morgan and Weiss. 'Bricolage' is a duo of Morgan's bass and Sam Newsome - Garchik looped snippets of Morgan's playing to which the saxophonist contributed an evolving, blues-tinged, solo. 'Homage' begins with a serious slow groove, and according to the track notes, it is based somewhat on McCoy Tyner’s composition 'Contemplation'. What evolves here is a dense overlaying of instruments and melodies that, if to intently listened to, may indeed cause that vertigo after all. There are many other moments to mention in the remaining tracks, but at this point, let us let the exploration be self-guided.

The overall result is a studio-constructed album that will likely not be performed live (wouldn't that be the most MOPDTK outcome though?), and that is fine. This music needs repeated listening, ears and brains allowing the expectations of the straightforward playing and its confounding reconstructions to be fully appreciated. It doesn't take long either.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Ches Smith - Interpret it Well (Pyroclastic Records, 2022)

Drummers in jazz are like catchers in baseball. Have I said that before? If so, I just said it again. The catcher is the on-field manager because he is the only player who can see the entire field. In concert drummers tend to be positioned like catchers and because of the digital nature of the sound they are in a good position to watch the play of the other instruments. At any rate, I enjoy a lot of music directed by the percussionist. It’s even better when the guy with the mallets does vibes.

Ches Smith has a wider range of games to play than any baseball catcher. I reviewed his wonderful album Path of Seven Colors here. Interpret it well is something very different. Bill Frisell (guitar), Mat Manieri (viola) and Craig Taborn (piano) make for a powerful team.

The album is an interpretation of a drawing by Raymond Pettibon. It is the cover, naturally. Here is what the notes say:

“Interpret it well,” reads the script text in Raymond Pettibon’s mysteriously evocative drawing. A few thick black ink strokes describe an enigmatic landscape – the telephone poles, the railroad track and the building in the distance seem obvious enough as markers of desolation, but the swirl of lines on the horizon are more ambiguous. The steam from an approaching train? An oncoming tornado? Hope or dread, connection or destruction, all depend on interpretation”.

There’s some information for you. It helps. The first cut “Trapped,” begins with the piano sketching out and repeating a simple, five note theme. Just out of sight we get Smith’s vibraphone laying down more emotional depth. Strings put a right channel buzz to shape up the mood at the end. I need music like this.

The title cut is a masterpiece. I get the impression of slow-moving layers of vibrating, pulsing plates moving over one another. Little solos, especially the piano, carve out their space and then are surrounded by gentle splashes of color from the guitar and strings that grow into compelling grunts. Drums. And then a rock guitar crashes the party. All rides on pulsing theme that never relaxes. The music grows more intense and angry as the line split and recombine. The beat of the drum cuts the top of the music like a scalpel, but never the muscle.

Frisell’s guitar opens “Mixed metaphor” with a story-telling solo. Then we get a graphic lines of keyboard and viola plumbing the depths of the story. Listen to this, and try to figure out where the bottom is.

This album should be linked to any dictionary definition of the word “ring”. Or you could use it as the soundtrack for a travel video through some exotic landscape that reminds you of… something, you aren’t quite sure what.

This music is modestly minimalist, in the best possible way. I am going on a cruise soon. This is what I will listen to on a deck chair during one of our days at sea.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Gordoa / Malfon / Edwards / Narvesen - Substantial Myths (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2022)

By Keith Prosk

Emilio Gordoa, Don Malfon, John Edwards, and Dag Magnus Narvesen freely play a 48’ set for vibraphone, alto and baritone saxophones, contrabass, and drum kit from the 2019 Artacts Festival on Substantial Myths. 

Among other projects, Gordoa and Narvesen have previously recorded together as part of the M0VE quintet, with Achim Kaufmann, Adam Pultz Melbye, and Harri Sjöström, which most recently released in Moers, as well as part of the Tutti Orchestra and its modular performances on the recent SoundScapes # 3 FESTIVAL MUNICH - 2021 SchwereReiter, both released by Fundacja Słuchaj too. And Malfon and Narvesen have released another set together from the same festival as this recording, with John Dikeman and Matthias Bauer, in live at artacts ‘19. But this is the first recording shared by Gordoa and Malfon or by Edwards and any of the other players. 

They flow together through tempo, texture, and dynamics, stippling space together, trilling together, often one increasingly contrapuntal parameter ebbing the quartet towards the next movement, through the swells of louder faster frenzies and quiet textural intervals that these kinds of sets might tend towards. Though generally there is a driving momentum. Perhaps as anticipated from the instrumentation, when the quartet converges they can be a powerful rhythmic unit. Running basslines, sax duck honks, hundred-handed rolling thunder, and effervescent vibes; malleted celestial twinkle, spiderlike tightrope dances, and skittering shimmering cymbals and kick drum bombardments; wind chimes in tornado time and big bass bumps. But they implement the malleability of their instruments, and when the quartet converges they can conjure arresting harmonies. Stridulating saxophone squalls and overtone glints out of tremolos, plucked harmonics and sonorous big bass body bowed resonance, fluted metal and frictional skin, and oscillations ringing between long decay and bowed bars’ bells combine for revelatory euphony, sometimes sounding so pure as to have shed their timbral husks for a unified singing beating. Together they cultivate moments of shared clarity in what can seem otherwise an arcane chaos akin to an action painting. 

Saturday, May 14, 2022

John Butcher - 5 LPs from Berlin (and Leipzig) on NI VU NI CONNU

John Butcher at Ausland, November 2019. (c) Cristina Marx

By Paul Acquaro

British saxophonist John Butcher is no stranger to Berlin. Linked to the Echtzeit scene that emerged during the heady days of post re-unification Germany in the abundant derelict spaces that served as breeding grounds for creativity, Butcher, on the occasion of this 65th birthday, held a short residency in November 2019 at one of the original and still existent Echtzeit venues, the experimental music hub Ausland, located in the now tamed and expensive Prenzlauer Berg. Presented as a set of 5 LPs, the music captures both new and old music acquaintances, the music and information within showcases Butcher's continuing ability to push listeners and musicians alike in new directions. On the albums, he collaborates in combinations with Sophie Agnel, Gino Robair, Thomas Lehn, Marta Zapparoli, Liz Allbee, Ignaz Schick, Magda Mayas, Tony Buck, Werner Dafeldecker and Burkhard Beins. The LPs in the the collection contain liner notes from Stuart Broomer, photos by Cristina Marx, and gatefold sleeves design by Yaqin Si.

Sophie Agnel & John Butcher - la pierre tachée

Stuart Broomer's generous and excellent liner notes are essential in placing the music on these albums into meaningful historical context, and the quote that he chooses to begin with is key to framing the whole event. According to Butcher:
"Ausland was unique in my own experience. I was working with four different groups in two nights and had chosen the musicians to form specific units with unique identities and possibilities. I didn’t want it to be a Company-type event (which, by the way, I also love) where the grouping is more ad-hoc and the accumulative results more evolutionary. I was interested in the potential distinctiveness of each set, given that I was the constant factor, but without major aesthetic leaps and without me having to pretend to be a chameleon.”
So the set of changing constellations begins with Butcher and French pianist Sophie Agnel.  It begins with Agnel approaching the piano in a percussive manner, a scraping and striking of the piano's strings, while Butcher plays legato tones, before he interrupts with a splutter of sounds. The track, 'chemin creux' then evolves into series of woodwind multiphonics over austere, prepared tones from the piano. The music builds at a measured pace: a quickening of textured tones from Agnel, a thickening of tonal textures from Butcher. The sounds connect, they resist as much as they exist co-exist in the shared musical space, introducing tension and drama as the music continues. It sounds like a dance, a fight, resolution, and finally agreement. A highlight of the set is in the opening minutes of 'shrieks in cups of gold,' in which both Agnel and Butcher reach a fevered pitch and then wander for a tense span of time exploring small sounds, before launching into a second intense passage. The ending track 'sillonner' wraps up the recording on a high note with a rich summary of the intensity and space throughout the album.

John Butcher / Thomas Lehn / Gino Robair - shaped & chased

The next recording seems to following Butcher's stated plans "to form specific units with unique identities". The sounds from saxophone undoubtable belongs to Butcher - the tones waver, flutter with the air, chirp with confidence, and at times explode into strong melodic statements. However, the setting has greatly changed with the work of Butcher's long time associates analog synthesizer player Thomas Lehn and percussionist Gino Robair.

The opening track, 'dorrying,' finds the trio quickly diving deep into a collective soundscape. Butcher sets the energy bar high in the opening minutes, which the other two respond to in kind, leading to an avalanche of sounds that quickly collapse into a long, tension filled exchange. The next track, 'tempren,' takes a different approach, with episodic build-ups of electronic tones, buzzing saxophone, and cascading percussion.  On the last track, Lehn's analog synthesizer (or is it Robair's Blippo box? - a fascinating custom machine that Broomer tantalizingly describes as being constructed based on chaos theory) shadows Butcher. When the plops of liquid sound appear, the synthesizer is much more likely the culprit. As the three come together, the atmosphere becomes spacey and rich with possibility. The track 'halouen' is almost straight-ahead jazz, sort of. Butcher plays rather melodic-free and aggressively spars with Lehn's otherworldly sounds. Finally, 'swough' fills with a fluid momentum, carried by mallet heavy percussion and unrelenting drips and splatters of electronic tonic.

Liz Allbee / John Butcher / Ignaz Schick / Marta Zapparoli - lamenti dall’infinito

Here is a true Echtzeit collaboration: trumpeter Liz Allbee, electronics/turntablist Ignaz Schick, and tapes and electronics artist Marta Zapparoli, all long time contributors to the Berlin scene. They are also the largest of the groups in this set, a quartet, or a double duo of acoustic horns and assorted electronic. The opening track 'Sea of Distortions' begins slowly, a drone of sorts, as the group begins filling the room with a stream of sound. At first, one may be wondering where Butcher is, between the whoosh and chatter of electronics and Allbee's unusual tones, but then you hear him, rapid blips leading to overblown legato notes. The momentum of the track builds, carried by Bucher at times, and the static nervousness of the electronics at other times. The opening track is a full album side, but by the half-way mark, you will likely be drawn into the unseeming sound world, losing track of time and place. Side B is split into a short 'Dialogues in a Shell', a piece just shy of four minutes, starting with a bricolage of samples that eventual yield to narrow drone. 'Molecular Memories,' at 17 minutes, begins with what may suggest a dentist's drill sounding out over a thumb piano. Electronics? Acoustic horns? They're in there, mixing together into unexpected combinations. Possibly the most in-accessible of the albums, but like most challenging things, it may be the one whose affects grow the most, the more you listen.

Vellum: Magda Mayas / John Butcher / Tony Buck - glints

Maybe this is the entry point for anyone still uninitiated in the sonic complexities of John Butcher's music. Not to suggest that the music on glints is in anyway easier to digest than on the other ones in this set, but there is something graspable in interactions of the three acoustic instruments in this long standing trio. Pianist Madga Mayas and percussionist Tony Buck, long time Berlin residents and  Butcher collaborators, surround the saxophonist with prepared piano and striking percussive textures, providing both a comfortable and stimulating environment.

Side A opens with a bang on the gong and high-end-of-perception squeaks from Butcher. There is a following clatter of percussion (maybe one of the those nets with shells attached?) and individually plucked notes from inside the piano. The flutters, the clacking, the plucking collectively lead the listener into a dense forest of sound, beautiful and strange, with possible danger lurking behind every turn. Going further, more formal sounds manifest like the truncated tinkle of prepared piano, brief smears of notes from the saxophone, and a roll from the drums. In Vellum's soundworld, it is hard not to be enrapt with the intricate and unexpected beauty in all the overlapping musical foliage. The group reaches an apex of intensity about 12 minutes into the slowly layering piece, which then mutates through a quiet percussion-led chrysalis to a cascade of notes from Mayas and Butchers, playing contours rather than scales, while Buck delivers some incisive drumming. Side B begins with the prepared piano attack that closes out Side A. The group then takes a spiritual detour, Butcher engaging in Evan Parker like circular breathing over an intense pulse from Buck. All this in 3 quick minutes, then it is over, as the group goes deeply introspective, slowly building back to a frenetic passage dominated by single note runs from the piano. The groups continues through this world, long winding passages through the forest leading to dramatic features and finally a serene clearing.

Burkhard Beins / John Butcher / Werner Dafeldecker - induction

This final set takes us out of Ausland. Side A was recorded at the experimental music room KM28 across the famous divide and into the former western neighborhood of Kreuzberg, and Side B was recorded a bit farther away at the KulTurnhalle in the city of Leipzig. The trio, percussionist Burkhard Beins, bassist Werner Dafeldecker and Butcher have worked together before for a while, most notably in the group Polwechsel. On 'induction' the music toggles between minimal to maximal, with all sorts of interactions between. Towards the end of the first track, 'circulation,' there is a tremendous amount of percussion and rumbling bass, while Bucher fires on all cylinders, playing notes far beyond the typical range of the saxophone. Prior to these final moments of the track, there is a long accumulation of intrumental ideas and approaches. Side 2 begins with 'Connection', starting with sounds drawn from the drums, then the sax, and finally the bass in succession. They then build to a ringing drone interrupted by eruptive sounds from Butcher and Dafeldecker. The music is tense, even somewhat aggressive. The following up 'conversion' is a short interlude that opens up the space a bit, leading to 'confluence', which is a denser piece that in a sense straddles the darkness of the first one with the chain interactions of the second. The piece is an impressionistic sound collage, with many colorful tones mixing into unexpected combinations.

Taken as a whole, these five albums represent a new artistic high-point for the ever productive and creative Butcher. All of the recordings offer something different, though to reference the earlier quote, Butcher's playing is consistent, and consistently excellent. While it is true that he is no 'chameleon', it is also noteworthy that he also is not a one-trick pony. The variety of the musical collaborations and the variability in each performance - each piece - is rich. The live experience, in the small subterranean Ausland, must have contributed significantly to the experience, but on its own, the music itself is evocative and demands close listening. Luckily, we can do just that.

All albums are available on the NI VU NI CONNU Bandcamp site, in both digital and LP format.