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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

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Piano sax duo

 By Stef Gijssels

The sheer volume of music released last year forces us to write combined reviews, now on the topic of sax and piano duos. There are many, as you will see, and we leave it up to the reader to further explore them and appreciate them. Some of them require more indepth attention and reviews, for sure, and that may still come. In the meantime, the reader is alerted to their existence. 

Peter Brötzmann & Fred Van Hove - Front To Front (Dropa, 2020)


German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove go back a long way. In 1970 they already released "Balls" together with Dutch drummer Han Bennink. The three men have been instrumental in determining the continental European kind of free jazz, iconoclastic, loud and raw and deconstructivist, but without taking themselves too seriously, and very expressive, creating music in which even more options and directions became available, not only pushing boundaries but completely doing away with them. Brötzman was 78 when this duet was performed, and Van Hove 82. Despite their age, they still play their music with the enthusiasm and even the freshness of young boys. I am not sure whether they could have dreamed this up back in the late 60s or early 70s, as both came under severe attack from even the more progressive side of the music establishment. They have open our collective ears and continue to do so. 

This live performance dates from the Summer Bummer Festival in Antwerp in 2019. Fans for both musicians should definitely look to get a copy of the vinyl version. 

Matthew Shipp & Rob Brown - Then Now (RogueArt, 2020)


The duo of Matt Shipp and Rob Brown is also highly recommended (and more extensively reviewed by Gregg Miller here). The warm and lyrical tone of Brown's alto matches well with Shipp's unpredictable and sensitive music. Both artists released their first duo album "Sonic Explorations" in 1988, and they have continued to perform and release albums in various bands over the years. Possibly the most fascinating aspect of this album is the seamless interaction between both musicians, co-creating their music as they improvise, creating tight and focused music. Shipp is a star at creating micro-structures in his improvisations which vanish and are replaced by new ideas. Brown navigates these changes brilliantly. On two of the eight tracks, each musician has an unaccompanied solo moment. 

Agusti Fernandez & Liudas Mockunas - Improdimensions (No Business, 2020)


Every year, the „Improdimensija” (Improdimension) concert series is organised in Vilnius, Lithuanua, and is dedicated to improvised music. This duo performance of Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández and Lithuanian reedist Liudas Mockunas was recorded in two consecutive years, the A-side of the LP from December, 2019 and the B-side in November 2018. Both sets are equally intense, sometimes raw, closer to free improv, with no patterns to be discerned at all and lots of timbral explorations, and at other times both artists find a rhythm, however implicit, to drive things forward full of energy and power. The second session starts with lots of silence and weird sounds coming from inside the piano and a like-minded saxophone, shifting into high forward moving tension on the second piece. An amazing album that will keep its power with many listens. 

Catherine Sikora​​-Culpo Duo - The Paris Sessions, Volume 1 Mimesis (Self, 2020)  & Catherine Sikora & Christopher Culpo Duo - The Paris Sessions Vol. 2, Speaking In Tongues (Self, 2020)


I read in the liner notes that "In February 2020, Christopher Culpo and Catherine Sikora reconvened in Paris, where their collaboration started five years before, and spent four days recording at l’Atelier de la Main d’Or". Their music is more intimate than the albums reviewed above, chamber music, to be listened to in a smaller space. It is not expansive, but disciplined, measured, controlled even if improvised. Sikora's soprano has a warm and velvety sound, singing like a bird through the breeze of Christopher Culpo's piano. The music is smart, gentle and performed with great skill. 

The second album is the continuation of the first. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Christian Rønn & Aram Shelton - Multiring (Astral Spirits, 2020)


"Multiring" is a fascinating collaboration between Danish composer Christian Rønn and American saxophonist Aram Shelton. The music is available on limited edition cassette. The music is beyond genres. The first track is quiet and slow. Rønn's electric piano and Shelton's alto create a very unique sonic universe, with interesting harmonies and quiet intensity. The second piece is more dynamic with some vague connection to Ethopian jazz. On the third, the piano sounds more like a slow percussive instrument over which Shelton's weaves his lamenting sounds. Only one track, "Crawl", is a little more uptempo. The duo manage to create their own voice and a strong musical coherence with variation. 

The title is a reference to chemical bonding by multiple rings of atoms. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Daniel Carter & Matt Lavelle - The Piano Album (Self, 2020)


True, Daniel Carter also plays trumpet, flute, clarinet and saxophone, and piano, and Matt Lavelle also plays trumpet and bass clarinet. On their first duo album in 2004, both musicians used their horns. On the second - "Blackwood - Live At Tower Records" (2006) - the piano made its entry on two tracks, once played by Lavelle, once by Carter. Here, the roles are even more precise. Lavelle only plays piano, hence the title of the album, while Carter doesn't. Both musicians have performed many times over the years, including in streets and subways. But this far from being 'street music'. This is really subdued chamber music. In the liner notes, Lavelle is humble about his skills on the piano. And he shouldn't. It's the music that counts, and both artists have this natural sense of lyricism, of interplay and of soulful delivery, that their ensemble playing, in all its gentle interaction is a real pleasure to listen to, again and again. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Cooper-Moore & Stephen Gauci - Conversations Vol. 1 (577 Records, 2020)


Let's stay in New York. The title "Volume 1" already indicates that more is to come, and that is great. This intense duet of two of New York's free jazz mainstays is worth listening to. They developed their collaboration while performing weekly during a seven-month residency at the HappyLucky No. 1 Gallery in Brooklyn. The improvisations vary between high energy and more sensitive moments, with each track having its own character. 

The music is also released as a vinyl LP. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Marina Džukljev & Mia Dyberg - Circumscription (Self, 2020)


Another lockdown success. A duo performance created over the internet, with Danish saxophonist Mia Dyberg based in Berlin, Germany and Serbian pianist Marina Džukljev based in Novi Sad, Serbia. The entire album is fully improvised, which seems surprising at moments because of the quality of the interaction and the almost simultaneous co-creation. Both musicians describe their music as a diary of the lockdown. Even if some pieces are sad, other ones are more joyful and positive. A good remedy of positive thinking. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Frank Gratkowski & Elisabeth Harnik - Burrum-Bah (Sound Out, 2020)


The album consists of two long improvisations by German saxophonist Frank Gratkowski and Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik. The first one is called "Macropus Giganteus" and the second is called "Cacatua Galerita", two animals who live in Australia where the album was recorded live in February of this year. The album title means "Where the kangaroo, the wallaby, bounces over the rocks". Both tracks are around 12 minutes long and are intense, nervous, agitated, with some moments of calm. It's difficult to make the link between the music and the titles (is evocative of nature?), but that makes the music not less rewarding. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Alexandra Grimal & Giovanni Di Domenico - Down The Hill (Self, 2020)


French soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal and Italian pianist Giovanni Di Domenico have performed and released albums over the years, in different ensembles. This is their third duo album, after "Ghibli" (2011) and "Chergui" (2014). The two musicians continue their journey of rather accessible explorations of folk themes. The music is friendly and welcoming, yet it has character. Both musicians have a sensitive and even romantic approach to their music, but without being cheap. The music has a rare sense of innocence that is sincere, charming as well as convincing. Next to her excellent work on the soprano, Grimal also treats us to her worldless singing which even accentuates the overall atmosphere of clarity and sensitivity. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Jan Klare & Wolfgang Heisig  (Umland, 2019)


German artists Jan Klare on alto sax and Wolfgang Heisig on piano give us their rendition of the music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who "composed for player piano by progamming sound events via punched paper rolls. He was one of the first composers to use the technical possibilites of mechanical musical instruments making them play far beyond human performance ability", we read on Discogs. These compositions have strange structures and patterns, to the level of even sounding a little insane. Performing them is not a small feat, but the musicians go even a step further by composing their own pieces in the style of Nancorrow. They sound as mad, and they are equally mesmerising because of their insistent rhythmic patterns. Only "Study 4" gives us some breathing space and a jazzy tune. The last track, penned by Heisig, luckily drives us back into maddening rhythms and chords. A pleasure to listen to. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Renê Freire & Thelmo Cristovam - Lobo Temporal (Sirr, 2020) + Renê Freire & Thelmo Cristovam - C-Agardh (Sirr, 2020)


We receive two albums by Brazilian musicians Renê Freire on piano and Thelmo Cristovam on sax. Both live and work in Pernambuco, in the north eastern region of Brazil. Interestingly Cristovam has an academic background in physics and mathematics, and he is also a researcher in psychoacoustics. Unpredictability and uncertainty may define our physical universe at the deepest levels, and so is this music. The music is restrained and even intimate at moments. Freire's approach to the piano is anything but jazz, with classical references, and sometimes closer to the sound of harpsichord than a piano. Except for "Insania", there is almost no raising of volume or noise to detect.  The second album is an EP with two short pieces. 

Their music requires to be discovered. It's not often that we get avant-garde improvisation from Brazil, so we hope to hear more. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Matana Roberts & Pat Thomas - The Truth (Otoroku, 2020)


Pianist Pat Thomas is possibly best known from his collaborations in the London free improv scene, linked to the Cafe Oto, and reviewed on numerous occasions on this blog, but he has also a more jazzy side, as testified by his recent solo album of Duke Ellington compositions. On this album too, and possibly because of the presence of Matana Roberts on sax, the interaction is free in spirit, open-ended in their journey, but solidly anchored in jazz idioms, the rhythms, the phrases, the harmonies. Matana Roberts thrives by the interaction with Thomas, creating wonderful jubilant, playful, angry or moaning tunes, navigating with dexterity the sudden changes and new ideas in the pianist's approach, while managing to keep the continuity in her playing. The long last title track is a good example of this, and by itself already worth the purchase of the LP. 

Strong stuff. 

Tim Berne & Matt Mitchell Duo - Spiders (Out Of Your Head Records, 2020) & Tim Berne & Matt Mitchell - 1 (Screwgun, 2020)


The duo of Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell offers us abstract and often complex modern music, improvised around composed themes and structures, with many stylistic influences and variation in the tracks. The album was already reviewed by Gary Chapin. Interestingly enough, Tim Berne releases another album with a duo with Matt Mitchell, but then recorded in 2010, on his own Screwgun label. This is possibly their first recorded collaboration. Other duo albums include "Førage" (2017), "Angel Dusk" (2018). 

Both are worth checking out. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp and from Bandcamp


Ingrid Laubrock & Kris Davis - Blood Moon (Intakt, 2020) + Ingrid Laubrock & Aki Takase - Kasumi (Intakt, 2020)



Not to forget, Ingrid Laubrock released two duets with pianists this year, one with Kris Davis, the other one with Aki Takase, both on the Intakt label. Matthew Banash already reviewed both albums here. Just to remind you to listen to both albums, as they are a little special. Playful, light-hearted, with lots of ear candy. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp and Bandcamp


Hugo Read & Thomas Rückert - Sirius Variations (Kreuzberg Records, 2020)


Both Hugo Read on soprano and alto, and Thomas Rückert on piano present a very serious, austere and refined album. Their technical skills on the instrument are excellent, but it's all a little bit too polished to my taste. 


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Underflow - Instant Opaque Evening (Blue Chopsticks, 2021) ****½

By Eyal Haeruveni

The sophomore album of the über-trio The Underflow - Swedish sax titan Mats Gusataffson and American guitarist David Grubbs and trumpeter (and visual artist who created the cover artwork) Rob Mazurek, Instant Opaque Evening, was recorded live during January 2020 shows in France, Belgium, Italy, and Poland, seven months after the recording of the self-titled debut album (Corbett vs. Dempsey/Underflow Records, 2019). The almost ninety minutes of the new, epic album testify best about the great creative power of this trio, when it explores spontaneous improvisations or when it dives into and out of Grubbs’ poetic texts.

Gustafsson, Grubbs and Mazurek need no introduction. These masters of experimental, free-improvisation collaborated briefly already in the nineties when Gustafsson and Mazurek guested in Grubbs’ Gastr del Sol albums (Upgrade & Afterlife and Camoufleur, Drag City, 1996 and 1998). Shortly thereafter Gustafsson and Grubbs recorded two albums (Apertura and Off-Road, Blue Chopsticks, 1999 and 2003). The Underflow has already established a wide sonic palette on its debut album, ranging from free jazz and abstract electronics to noise and post-rock, and suggesting rare performances by Gustafsson on flute (his first instrument), in addition to the flutephone and the baritone sax. Mazurk adds to the trumpet, wooden flute, percussion. Grubbs sings some of his songs.

Instant Opaque Evening surprises with its lyrical, contemplating tone, in relation to the debut album of The Underflow and certainly in comparison to Gustafsson’s recent projects - Fire!, The End or Anguish. Gustafsson plays the baritone sax and electronics on the opening 17-minutes title-piece with great restraint and focuses on detail, echoing the effects-laden resonant guitar of Grubbs and the floating, elegiac trumpet of Mazurek. Even in its most abstract noisy parts, this piece keeps its reserved atmosphere does not seek to reach a cathartic climax. Gustafsson’s playing on the flute on “Planks” and “Purple Laquer Portal” is even more revelatory, introducing gentle, kind of chamber folk veins into these soundscapes, and taking the seminal influence of Don Cherry but drowning it on the latter piece in a stormy sea of electronics..

Mazurek’s wordless voice reverberates beautifully in Gustafsson’s flute playing on the sparse and intimate “A Thin Eternity”. The following “Not at My Funeral” relies on extended breathing techniques of Gustafsson, Mazurek’s natural gift to articulate instant melodies and Grubbs’ subtle, guitar lines, and deepens the restrained, dark and mysterious tone of the album so far. Mazurek’s effects-laden trumpet, and later his wooden flute, set the unsettling tone of “Sound of a Wet Leather Ball”, disturbed later on by raw noises. The 14-minutes “Self-Portrait as Interference Pattern” is the only piece where The Underflow goes into extreme, sonic terrains, with apocalyptic, raw and noisy layers of electronics that even the brief trumpet cries of Mazurek can not pierce, but eventually, even this piece settles on a lyrical, fragile mode.

Grubbs sings three songs. The previously recorded “An Optimist Declines” and “Gethsemani Night” (from An Optimist Notes The Dark, Drag City, 2008) and the moving, last piece on this album, “Cooler Side of the Pillow”. He recites-sings the poetic lyrics with a voice that is openly vulnerable, accompanied by his distorted guitar sounds, Gustafsson’s sax wails and Mazurek’s atmospheric trumpet, all serve brilliantly the suggestive, dramatic lyrics.

A beautiful gem. Each listening reveals more and more nuances of the unique free space that The Undeflow explored on stage.


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

John Russell (1954 - 2021)

John Russell (photo by Peter Gannushkin)

By Martin Schray

It was German saxophonist Stefan Keune who told me in March 2020 that John Russell was dying of cancer and that he - depending on how well chemotherapy worked - didn’t know how long he would live. Now, the great British guitarist has passed away.

John Russell began to play in and around London from 1971 onwards. He soon connected with the emerging free improvisation scene and became a student of Derek Bailey's. Although he was obviously influenced by the legendary guitarist, Russell found his unique musical personality, he was highly abstract and unpredictable. Or, as my colleague Stuart Broomer once put it: “Where Bailey disrupted the idiomatic gesture, Russell sometimes invokes it; where Bailey practiced discontinuity, Russell can create alternative order“. Sometimes his improvisations seemed to resonate blues or swing patterns, but Russell used them extraordinarily freely, as if they had been carried by a gust of wind and moved on immediately. Another distinctive feature has to do with his instrument, a 1936 Zenith archtop acoustic guitar. It’s an unamplified but loud instrument, which was often used by swing band guitarists, who needed to compete with the brass section. This instrument allowed him to make use of harmonics in a genuinely significant way.

John Russell has played with almost everyone who’s important in the worldwide improv scene and his work can be heard on many albums. There’s a lot of his music which is really to be recommended, starting with his trio album Artless Sky (Caw Records, 1980) featuring Toshinori Kondo on trumpet and his longtime collaborator Roger Turner on drums. The album I became aware of him for the first time was News From The Shed (Acta, 1987) with John Butcher (sax), Phil Durant (violin, electronics), Radu Malfatti (trombone) and Paul Lovens (drums), a real masterpiece of improvised music, maybe the best FMP album which was never released on the seminal German label. London Air Lift (FMP, 1991) with Evan Parker (sax), John Edwards (bass) and Mark Sanders (drums) must be mentioned here, as well as his duos with Stefan Keune. Recently Stuart Broomer has reviewed Nothing Particularly Horrible (FMR, 2019) enthusiastically, another collaboration with Keune, Lovens and bassist Hans Schneider.

However, Russell was more than just a musician. In 1981, he founded Quaqua, a large bank of improvisers put together in different combinations for specific projects and in 1991 he started Mopomoso, which has become the UK’s longest running concert series featuring mainly improvised music.

A true gentleman, a master of subtlety, an excellent musician has left the stage. He will truly be missed.


Watch John Russell play solo: 

Monday, January 18, 2021

Keith Tippett - The Monk Watches the Eagle (Discus Music, 2020) ****

 

By Gary Chapin

The choral cantata tradition is one of my favorite things, especially baroque cantatas. There was a time when I seriously asserted that I could live the rest of my life with only Bach’s cantatas to listen to and I could be happy. I was wrong, but still, it happened. The British church music tradition is another one of my favorite things. Admittedly, the Venn diagram of those two has a prominent overlap, but they are different enough to scratch two different itches. Finally, Keith Tippett music — yeah, it’s a thing — is yet another of my favorite things. Can you see where this is going?

The Monk Watches the Eagle is a cantata written and conducted by Keith Tippett (with text by Julie Tippetts) in 2004 and had a single performance at a festival in Britain that year, as well as being (thank God) broadcast and recorded by the BBC. Tippett gives us the BBC Singers (as well as Julie Tippetts’s soprano) and two saxophone quartets. There are improvising soloists of both the saxophone and vocal type, as well as choral support for the soloists. It didn’t occur to me until a few listens in that the saxophones very often take on the continuo role of an organ or virginal. The blending of timbres is so well done, with such a thoughtful use of dynamics, that I caught myself thinking, “That there is some subtle organ playing.” There is, of course, no organ on this.

The Monk Watches the Eagle is one continuous 41 minute piece of music, but is divided into seven sections for the convenience of the listener. The notes say that these divisions “correspond with divisions marked in the score.” I’m not sure why that doesn’t equal, “this piece is in seven sections.” But there you go. The seven sections do correspond to what feel like story beats to me. I definitely feel a story here. An arc that moves from questioning and unease to emergence to elegy to awesome/awful ecstasy to a rest that’s as restful as any IV-I amen you ever wanted to hear (though it is not, in fact, IV-I), and that only gets us to section 4. An early reviewer referred to the piece’s “difficult contemporary idiom” and there is that Ligeti vibe at some points, but there’s also that point right at the beginning of section 2 where Julie Tippetts’s blues inflected solo evokes nothing so much as the moment when Porgy shifts out of the recitative and starts singing, “Bess, you is my woman, now.” It’s heartbreakingly good. Section 4 ends with a baritone solo from Chris Briscoe that just forces you to stop and pay attention in its quiet elegance.

A lot of relationships are happening in this piece: the two saxophone quartets play off each other, they play off the choir, each separately plays off the choir, the vocal soloists conspire with each other and saxophone soloists, etc. But the relationships and their communications merge organically into coherence. There’s also the relationship of the music to the text, which is, unfortunately, closed to us because the text is nowhere to be found (I’ve looked … if you find it somewhere, please pass it on). The reviewer in the notes calls it “rhapsodic, if rather difficult.” I can attest to the rhapsody, but not the difficulty. It’s all in English, but, except for a few sections, indecipherable by my ear. I can honestly say, I’ve never been so curious about a cantata text. When Kevin Figes plays his extraordinary, extended alto alarum in section 6, I really want to know what he’s alarmed about. Like the whole of this piece, it sounds like a jeremiad of substance.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sergio Merce - en lugar de pensar (Edition Wandelweiser, 2020) ****

By Keith Prosk

In circles, cycles, and sines, microtonal saxophonist Sergio Merce examines the intuitive unconscious in musicmaking on en lugar de pensar. The waveforms of his uniquely-valved saxophone are bolstered by the waveforms of the synthesizer, as on Merce’s Pendulum Movement from this year or Be Nothing, and an EWI (electronic wind instrument), with which he records for the first time. This is a home recording, tracked just a couple months before Pendulum Movement, but this is not an uncommon practice for Merce, whose Three DImensions of the Spirit (recorded in 2017, well before quarantine) was also recorded mostly at home. The title can be translated as “instead of thinking,” referring to the musician’s belief that revelations through musicmaking are discovered through intuition and observation rather than thinking. Perhaps the same could be said for listening because, though this could be considered a technical music, Merce makes intuitive structures for attentive listeners, filled out with satisfying textures and living rhythms.

The half-hour “forma circular” is indeed a loop. It repeats twice. Its components demarcated with silences. It begins with a swell into a sustained pitch, undulating, with overtones from which other waves emerge and that are joined by synthesizer sines and purrs. Pulses quicken and slow as they phase. The sound is similar to that of Pendulum Movement. Silence. And then an organesque melody, warm but sputtering and hissing and glitched, disintegrating into a high-volume, low-pitch rumble that sounds like something big is moving too fast for its mass. The bass feels corporeal, recalling low-end suzerains like Sunn O))) and Andy Stott. Silence. The organ and rumble repeat but with variation, ending in buzzing. Silence. A low-end groan revs up, turning like a motor. Silence. The organ and rumble repeat again, with variation, buzzing for a longer duration, so much so that pulses emerge and morph from this environment of digital distortion until transforming back to the multiphonic sax and synth pulses from the beginning. This loop repeats once more. I’m sure more observant listeners will recognize small variations between the repeated phrases.

The quarter-hour “forma continua” is indeed more structurally linear, as if one cycle of a loop was laid flat in duration and concept. Or, rather than just a circle, a circle expressed through time. This piece is a polyrhythmic orchestration of waves, arising and blending from acoustic and electric sources seamlessly. Sometimes synthesizing so fast it’s dizzying, creating a sort of wobbling tremolo. Played continuously with no obviously recurring phrases.

Beyond clever structures, Merce’s textures are sculptural and a listener could spend hours contemplating the morphing rhythms of the many harmonic pulses. en lugar de pensar is a compact but robust statement from one of the most distinctive saxophonists making music now.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

String duets

 By Stef Gijssels

Sometimes I wonder how far we can go in reviewing avant-garde music. When does it transgress the "jazz" positioning of our website? Is there a boundary or a limit we should set? Or do we accept any pushing of auditory boundaries into new and interesting sonic territories? I do not have the answer, and it may go both ways. What I do know, is that a lot of intense listening to music creates new comfort zones, each in turn platforms that you can use to take even a step further, when you're ready for it. Musical tastes evolve. What I considered noise ten years ago, appears as meaningful music today. 

Here is a list of new string duets, all avant-garde, although the stylistic bucket is unclear. In fact, it does not matter. The music will not be different with a different label attached to it. So enjoy with the me the following albums. 

Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong - Harbors (Room40, 2020)


Ellen Fullman is the inventor and performer of the "Long String Instrument" of which you find a video below. Fullman is an absolute expert in creating uncanny, eery and at the same time welcoming soundscapes with her instrument. She is joined by Theresa Wong on cello. Both artists explore the boundaries of their art, including the use of space and architecture, video, visual arts and dance. The inspiration for this album are 'harbors', places where water meets land, promises of uncertain journeys and movement from solid ground to liquid environments. Their music has a wonderful natural flow full of undercurrents and gliding tones. Fullman's sounds are brilliantly unique and Wong is the perfect partner to add tonal richness and variation. 

A mesmerising listening experience. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Vilde & Inga - How Forests Think (Sofa, 2020)


Six years ago, Vilde & Inga released their debut album directly on the ECM label. We reviewed the album with lots of praise for their unique approach and voice. The duo are Vilde Sandve Alnæs on violin and Inga Margrete Aas on double bass. After "Silfr", released in 2017, the two Norwegians are presenting us their third album, a double CD. The title already suggests a connection with nature, and an identification with the sounds of nature in order to understand something more essential than their sensory observation. The pieces stem from recordings in Emanuel Vigeland Mausoleum, the Newtone studio, by a lake in the forest outside of Oslo and at the harbour in the city center of Oslo. On some tracks, such as IX, the actual use of their instruments is barely audible among the birds singing in the trees. Their approach to sound is minimal but specific. They select a carefully chosen sonic subject, then develop it. This may be noise, or pointillistic pizzis, or long bowed sounds, but their use of silence and space, and above all the cohesiveness of their interplay is spectacular. If anything, they have created their own sonic space. 

 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Angharad Davies + Phil Durrant 2002 (Self, 2020)


This is a 24 minute practice piece between violinists Angharad Davies and Phil Durrant. As the liner notes say: "This is a wav transfer of a private mini disc recording of a play/practice session with me and Phil Durrant playing violin held at my home in London in 2002", but released in 2020. One more example of archival archeology thanks to Covid? The two Brits demonstrate the skill of minimalism, with their strings barely producing any sound at all, in a kind of competition of silence. Both violinists played in various free improv ensembles over the years, but I think this is their first release as a duo (but I may be mistaken: they released so many albums, that it's hard to find out). 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Ute Kanngiesser & Daniel Kordík - 5AM (Takuroku, 2020)


This album is a little bit the odd one out in this list, because the duo are Ute Kanngiesser on cello, and Daniel Kordík presenting us field recordings. The album's title - 5 AM - has to be taken literally. This performance was made in the 'Marshes' outside London. The effort comes across as an act of purification, a moment of quiet away from the City and the madness of the covid Pandemic. To be there, in nature, listening to the early bird songs (blackbirds, pigeons, crows, ...). I am not sure whether Kordik's recording was reorganised afterwards, but it seems as if Kanngiesser is not really dialoguing with the animals as much as trying to blend in, to become one with nature. I know only one other recording for cello and birds: the brilliant "For Birds, Planes & Cello" by Miya Masaoka and Joan Jeanrenaud, which is much darker (no "plane" on this one, but a "train"). Kanngiesser and Kordik's music is equally strong but of a different nature. As the cellist writes: "the birds, the wind, and the rain offer such relief and I feel so shy in their presence that my music can only become the smallest of offerings to them in the rainless window between 4.48AM and 5.15AM". A musical offering to the birds, it sounds a little arrogant, but it is actually very humble. A tribute to their capacity to clear one's head from the pressure of these dark times. And so is this album for listeners too: purifying. It helps.

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Theresa Wong & Frantz Loriot - Live At Zoom In (Creative Sources, 2020)


Despite its title, this is not a Covid-related performance, it actually took place at the Zoom In Festival in Bern, Switzerland in October 2017. The duo are Frantz Loriot on viola and Theresa Wong on cello and vocals. They perform one lengthy piece of close to fourty minutes. In contrast to some of the other albums reviewed in this list, their approach is anything but temperate. It is intense, physical, pushing the boundaries of tolerability at times, but that adds to the drama, the darkness and their aesthetic, which is equally attentive and focused. Even during the more silent moments, they keep up the tension, and they develop the piece towards its beautiful resolution. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp


Sheriffs Of Nothingness ‎– An Autumn Night At The Crooked Forest – Four Fireplaces (In Reality Only One) (Sofa, 2020)


The Sheriffs Of Nothingness are Kari Rønnekleiv on violin and Ole-Henrik Moe on viola. The two Norwegians literally sit next to the fireplace and see it burn and crackle, waving its flames slightly while remaining relatively static. So is this music: intimate, unpredictable and not moving anywhere at the same time. This is not a negative thing by itself. It forces the listener to get into the same mood, to be quiet, reflective, meditative, even if the two central pieces are more agitated. The last piece is the most impressive: it is the sound of the embers after the flames have gone: twenty glowing minutes. You can feel the warmth. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp



Anouck Genthon & Pierre-Yves Martel - Le Poids d'Ombre (Insub, 2020)


Swiss composer Jürg Frey curated the "Insub" project "Distances", by inviting duets to perform work by avant-garde composers, between September and December of last year. For the last work, Frey composed his own 20-minute piece for two string instruments: Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba and Anouck Genthon on violin. 

Because of covid, the performers are in different spaces, yet the music is structured in such a way that both instruments blend into one composition and the physical distance disappears into musical unity. Frey - as with his other compositions - tries to create a sonic environment that is barely audible, intangible and impossible to classify. The lightness and the insubstantial nature of the sound paradoxically creates a sense of depth because it does require effort to listen to.

 

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Like The Mind - Live At Fylkingen (Self, 2020) ****

By Stef Gijssels

Music like a breeze, light, ephemeral, intangible, moving. The ensemble brings us one improvised piece, framed by three short chord sequences composed by Elisa Torn, and it lasts a little over thirty minutes long. 

The ensemble are Lisa Ullén on piano, Peggy Lee on cello, Lisen Rylander Löve on saxophone, Meredith Bates on violin, Emma Augustsson on cello, and Elisa Thorn on harp, a sextet of three Swedish and three Canadian musicians (or Stockholm and Vancouver to be more precise). It is their first album, and it was recorded at the historic Fylkingen in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 28, 2020, following a week-long residency in Stockholm. 

The ensemble finds its collective work in the sonic zone outside the boundaries of jazz and classical music, in the musical realm where anything is possible, as long as the sound has a sense of direction, focus and coherence. And in the hands of these superb musicians this works extremely well. The music flows, and is in constant movement, in different layers and substreams, changing all the time, in intensity, in volume, in agitation, flowing back to calmer periods and newly found sensitivities. 

At the beginning of the year, Meredith Bates announced the creation of Like The Mind in an interview: "I created a band, Like The Mind. This is the year of me just taking the bull by the horns and sort of [laughs] manifesting my own destiny. I decided to become a band leader, so I created an all female powerhouse ensemble of improvisers and composers (...). All of these women have reached super high levels, won awards, toured the world, you know, collectively collaborated with so many amazing people and are also soloists in their own careers. I'm so excited to see what we come up with together. So, I created a residency at a spot called Fylkingen. We are going to spend four days creating and collaborating together and we will see what we come up with."

A powerhouse indeed. I hope that the current pandemic did not curtail the ambition to continue with the band. Their take on music is strong, full of character, inventiveness and instrumental and listening skills. 

Strong initiative, strong result. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Meet The Experimental Vocal Artists #5

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Norwegian, all-female Trondheim Voices performed compositions by Mats Gustafsson, Marilyn Mazur, Jon Balke and Christian Wallumrød, among others. Maja K.S. Ratkje and Ståle Storløkken and Helge Sten composed two distinct compositions for this ensemble.

Danish vocal artist Randi Pontoppidan is known for her collaborations with Joëlle Léandre, Trondheim Voices’ Sissel Vera Pettersen and with Danish poet Morten Søndergaard, and as well as an in-demand vocalist in the contemporary classical world. Her meeting with American veteran vocal artist Thomas Buckner is reviewed here. The Viennese sound artist has woven sound samples of Liquid Loft dance company into an impressive work. Israeli Jean Claude Jones edited sound files of 4 Local vocal artists into 18 duets.


Trondheim Voices - Echo Chamber 3.0 / Ekkokammer 3.0 (MNJ, 2020) ****½

 

Echo Chamber is a work-in-progress, written for Trondheim Voices by composer and vocal-artist Maja S. K. Ratkje as a concert performance for the ear. The 2.0 version of this composition was premiered in 2015 and its 3.0 version was recorded in December 2019 and March 2020.

This composition investigates how we relate, conceptualize and remember the human voice, as an expressive mean of communication and a unique instrument - a physical and metaphoric one, a verbal and emotional one, deeply connected to our body and soul. The nine vocalists of Trondheim Voices - Mia Marlen Berg, Siri Gjære, Kari Eskild Havenstrøm, Anita Kaasbøll, Ingrid Lode, Sissel Vera Pettersen, Heidi Skjerve, Torunn Sævik and Tone Åse - tell their own personal experiences with their voices, and what did they wish to express with their voices, in two versions of the composition, English and Norwegian. Their spoken texts were arranged and edited by Ratkje into a coherent script, in a way that all the thoughts and answers crisscrossing, extending, and complimenting each other. Actress-playwright Marianne Meløy added an introduction to the vocalists’ texts.

Ratkje managed to illustrate - sonically and verbally - the crucial liberating and therapeutic experience of finding your own voice, realizing that “this is my voice… I want to linger and linger and linger in it”. The Trondheim Voices ensemble is employed as an imaginative, provocative instrument. The personal thoughts and stories of its vocalists accumulate more nuances and insights about how they began to use their voice as an artistic expression, beginning with lessons from seminal vocalists (Sidsel Endresen and Joni Mitchell are mentioned), through the tasking musical training, and later, the freedom and the physical sensation found through experimenting and improvising with the voice, alone and in a shared experience of Trondheim Voices. The ensemble injects into this composition engaging and irreverent quotes from Mike Oldfield’s pop hit ”Moonlight Shadow”, Marlen Berg’s song ”Searching”, traditional Norwegian wedding march ”Bruremarsj fra Gudbrandsdalen” and the traditional folk song ”Working on a building”.

The Norwegian version worked better for me. The natural melodic phrasing of this intelligible language - for me - intensified the magical abstraction of the human voice as a musical instrument.


Trondheim Voices – Folklore (traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people) (Hubro, 2020) ****

 

Folklore was composed for Trondheim Voices by ⅔ of the trio Supersilent - keyboards wizard Ståle Storløkken and guitarist-sound artist Helge Sten (aka Deathprod). Both are married to vocalists - Storløkken to Trondheim Voices’ Tone Åse and Sten to Susanna Wallumrød. Their composition is inspired by medieval rituals and the art of folklore and employs the Trondheim Voices as a living instrument. The wordless voices of the nine vocalists - Sissel Vera Pettersen, Anita Kaasbøll, Tone Åse, Ingrid Lode, Torunn Sævik, Kari Eskild Havenstrøm, Heidi Skjerve, Siri Gjære and Natali Abrahamsen Garner, with minimalist sounds of bells - become one massive microtonal instrument, where acoustic breaths, tones and polyphonic drones and their electronic manipulation are imagined as timeless, chant-like rituals.

Folklore was premiered at the 2018 edition Molde Jazz Festival, with a light design by Ingrid Skanke Høsøien and priestly costumes by Vera Pettersen. It takes the common and informal, generations-old folklorist art and knowledge and transforms it into a moving, cathartic and immersive experience. The untimely mysterious chants, songs, and tales, with their simple, almost raw delivery, sound now like a spiritual, secular liturgy, still seeking the purifying of the soul and healing power, but do not subscribe to any specific faith. Storløkken and Sten embrace the ethereal voices with clever and subtle sound processing that layer these voices into abstract but elaborate, celestial sonic entities, sometimes even using Trondheim Voices as a human church organ.


Randi Pontoppidan & Thomas Buckner - Voicescapes (Chant, 2021) ****


Danish drummer Kresten Osgood invited in 2017 veteran American vocal artist Thomas Buckner, known from his ongoing work with Roscoe Mitchell as well as his work with contemporary composers like Alvin Lucier, Robert Ashley and Christian Wolff, to perform at his Copenhagen’s Monday club. Osgood recommended Buckner to meet Pontoppidan. Buckner went to visit Pontoppidan’s home the day before his performance and both began to sing right away. They sang all morning, ate lunch, and continued to sing all afternoon. Buckner invited Pontoppidan to join his performance with Osgood and the music continued to pour naturally and spontaneously. Buckner returned a year later to perform in the same club and then Pontoppidan arranged a recording weekend at Karmacrew Studio on the beautiful island of Møn.

On the opening piece of Voicescapes, “Greeting”. Pontoppidan sounds as inviting Buckner to explore whimsical Dadaist inventions, in a way that brings to mind the fantastic duo of voice artists Ratkje with Dutch Jaap Blonk (MAJAAP, Kontrans, 2004). But immediately, Pontoppidan and Buckner find their own, balanced, very poetic common ground that rarely seeks acrobatic pathos (“Hide”) and allow each piece to lead organically to the other. Both sound like true kindred spirits, who really don’t need to tell each other what to do or say - literally - and both communicate deeply (listen to “One Mind”) and spiritually (the meditative “Evening” and “Blessing”), on their very own wavelength. And indeed the power of this intimate vocal meeting is in its natural, leisured and restrained flow.


Andreas Berger - Works for Liquid Loft (Ventil, 2020) ****

Liquid Loft is a Viennese dance group that was founded in 2005 by choreographer Chris Haring together with sound artist Andreas Berger, known from his electroacoustic ambient project Glim (music for field recordings, Karate Joe, 2003), dancer Stephanie Cumming and dramaturge Thomas Jelinek. Liquid Lof is inspired by science-fiction literature and cyborg theory. Berger and Haring developed the idiosyncratic sound language of Liquid Loft, which is situated between body, language, movement and sound.

Berger detaches now this musical language furthermore from the bodies of the performers and lets it work on its own. Works for Liquid Loft are based on voice recordings and speech samples of Liquid Loft dancers - only scraps of these samples can be understood or guessed and found footage sounds (from the experimental films Chelsea Girls and Flesh by Andy Warhol, 1966 and 1968), all collected for Liquid Loft four dance works. Now robbed of their syntax and semantics, they become musical building blocks from which Berger arranges nuanced and highly suggestive and somehow disturbing, minimalist- ambient pieces, combined with electronic sounds and field recordings. The 12 short pieces never cease to surprise and impress with their captivating, rich and detailed sounds.


Jean Claude Jones with Meira Asher, Josef Sprinzak, Anat Pick, and Esti Kenan Ofri - Nucleus (Kadima Collective, 2020) ***

 

Nucleus was conceived during the 1st Covid-19 pandemic lockdown in Israel. Improviser Jean Claude Jones asked four vocal artists colleagues - Meira Asher, Josef Sprinzak, Anat Pick and Esti Kenan Ofri, with whom he has worked in the past, to send him vocal improvisations. Out of the sound files, sent back and forth between Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Galilee, Jones edited 5 pieces with 18 duets, some with himself strumming the lap-Spanish guitar, some between the vocal artists themselves most would never happen without Jones, and some for a good reason. Jones’ insistence to link these distinct vocal artists only emphasizes his own eccentric and restless sonic vision, and the eccentricity of the original improvisations. It works on the second piece when Kenan’s voice is edited with the voices of Sprinzak, Asher and Pick and on the fourth pieces when Pick’s urgent, gibberish chants are edited with the voices of Sprinzak and Kenan Ofri and the guitar of Jones, but on the respect of the pieces the lack of live, real-time interaction is evident. 

 

Revisit the past editions of the "Meet the Experimental Vocalists" here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Roscoe Mitchell with Ostravská Banda , Plays Distant Radio Transmissions (Also Nonaah Trio, Cutouts for Wind Quintet, and 8.8.88) (Wide Hive, 2020) ****

By Gary Chapin

My gateway into modern chamber music was, believe it or don’t, the AACM and Art Ensemble of Chicago, which, I know, is not the way it’s supposed to go. But the AEC, amidst everything else, had these chamber-ish pieces that eschewed the usual appeals to emotion (via repetition, pattern, dynamic shift, density, or what Andrew Cyrille called “that feeling of levitation we call swing”) and were, instead, evenly pulse-less, pace-less thoughtful provocations. They refused to trigger me in the usual way, and got thoroughly under my skin and still get to me. Then, in 1990 or ‘91, I heard Thomas Buckner sing with Roscoe Mitchell at a Songs in the Wind performance and I was, as they say, ensorceled.

In Distant Radio Transmissions, Buckner returns to Mitchell’s side as an improvising soloist, and that’s just one of the interesting things about this recording. Performed with the Czech modern classical ensemble, Ostravská Banda , the title piece is based mainly on a transcription of an improvised trio done by Mitchell, Craig Taborn, and Kikanju Baku on Mitchell’s 2013 Conversations I album. I say “mainly” because there were a few other steps along the way before Mitchell orchestrated it in 2017 for the Ostrava Days Festival of that year. I mention these steps of provenance because another of the interesting things about this recording is the relationship between through composition and improvisation. Mitchell is best thought of (by me, anyway) as a prolifically creative improviser. The bulk of “Distant Radio Transmissions” is through composed (transcribed and orchestrated) based on a previously recorded improvisation, and on top of this further improvisations (from Mitchell’s soprano sax and Buckner’s voice, for example) ensue.

The Nonaah Trio (piano, flute, oboe) is based on Mitchell’s masterwork solo alto saxophone pieces from his 1971Nonaah album. Here he builds upon them and makes through composed trio works (upon which he does not play). It’s worth noting that for a later commission, Mitchell expanded the solo sax work and “infuse[d] it with the grandeur of a full orchestra” for another festival in Glasgow. The “Cutouts for Wind Quintet” is, again, completely notated (I keep mentioning this because Mitchell himself does in the notes), and, again, it’s based on a series of concepts that originally were constructed for an improvising ensemble. The final piece, “8.8.88,” was composed for pianist Joseph Kubera, but is here executed on a disklavier and — as with Frank Zappa’s works for synclavier — the precision allowed by the technology gives the work a relentless energy and lightness. There are three short movements that really take the top of your head off, a brilliant encore to the whole recital.

And that’s what this recording is, metaphorically, a recital featuring a variety of Roscoe Mitchell’s chamber compositions truly illuminating the organic, generative relationship between composition and improvisation. I don’t think that relationship is controversial anymore, though it’s still worthy of comment, and it still surprises at times how powerful the music of that relationship can be. I’m tempted to bring out one of my favorite free jazz listener bon mots — “If you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like this sort of thing.” — but that tautology could go at the head of any review I write. I might put it on a tee shirt.

The fact is that Roscoe Mitchell is very good at this sort of thing and it comes naturally from him, and naturally to us. It isn’t mechanistic (despite the disklavier). It isn’t a confrontation. It isn’t tectonic. It’s ecosystemic. It is grounding, interesting, intriguing. It absorbs all the curiosity we have. And builds causes and effects upon implications, intended or not. This month it has actually provided comfort. It’s been that kind of a month. And it’s that kind of music.

Purchase at Wide Hive Records.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

RED Trio & Celebration Band - Suite 10 Years Anniversary (NoBusiness, 2020) ****

 By Stef Gijssels

The Portugues RED Trio is without a doubt one of the best piano trios in Europe. The trio of Rodrigo Pinheiro on piano, Hernani Faustino on bass and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums has received a lot of positive reviews over the years on our blog. 

For their first album on Clean Feed in 2010, I wrote "It is incredible what kind of emotional depth and sonic visions this trio creates, out of nowhere, out of nothing". It was no surprise that they were also open to add other musicians to join them at concerts, or the other way round, other musicians were interested in performing with them: John Butcher ("Empire"), Nate Wooley ("Stem"), Matthias Ståhl ("North And The Red Team"). Other albums are "Rebento" (2013), "Mineral" (2015), "Summer Skyshift" (2016). 

Now, four years later, we get this memorable album with the "celebration band", an ad hoc group of musicians, primarily also from Portugal but with the addition of some partners on the previous albums such as John Butcher and Matthias Ståhl. The other members are Sei Miguel and Luís Vicente on trumpet, Fala Mariam on trombone, Pedro Sousa and Rodrigo Amado on tenor saxophone, Nuno Torres on alto saxophone, Ernesto Rodrigues on viola, Ricardo Jacinto and Miguel Mira on cello, Carlos Santos on electronics, Miguel Abreu on voice and electric bass, and David Maranha on percussion. 

The performance was recorded to celebrate their tenth anniversary at the Teatro Maria Matos in February 2018. The theater itself commissioned the concert "Suite", a work in three acts, each written by one of the three founding members, and deliberately composed for the ensemble mentioned above. 

The first track, called "Corrente" is written by Rodrigo Pinheiro, as an half hour long magnificent piece for the ensemble, and it by itself can be considered a suite, with its varying subthemes and thematic shifts, ranging from slow fragile textures to intense and dense interaction, with all restraints dropping away near the end of the improvisation. The second track, "Mais Vale", is written by Ferrandini, and is for me a disappointment. It is less complex in texture, more pychedelic in its delivery, and the vocals are a complete letdown. I understand that this is a very subjective appreciation, but it creates a totally different musical universe than what we are used from the band. 

Luckily, the third track, "Ditirambo", composed by Faustinho, makes up for this. The piece is more than 42 minutes long and spectacularly good. Again, with this length, it cannot do any different than to bring a lot of variation. It starts slowly with the trio gradually creating their music out of little sonic ingredients, barely audible, which get more voice and volume for the first eight minutes: the trio as we know and admire them, creative, intense, mesmerising. Then some of the other instruments join, adding different layers to the already dense sound, which comes to a silent stand-still, offering the stage to the horns, with Sei Miguel and Fala Mariam setting up a sad dialogue challenged by the electronics of Carlos Santos and then Butcher's sax. It evolves in unpredictable ways, navigating silence, then moving forcefully into full band power and volume, then to silence again, and leading us to a grand finale of bright and expansive music: a wonderful closure to celebrate the 10 years of the RED Trio. 

Get the double CD. You will love it. 

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