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Aki Takase & Alexander von Schlippenbach

Galiläakirche, Berlin. June 2024.

Camila Nebbia (s), James Banner (b), Max Andrzejewsk (d)

Jazz in E. Eberswalde, Germany. May 2024

Trio Oùat: Simon Sieger (p), Joel Grip (b), Michael Griener (dr)

Jazz in E. Eberswalde, Germany. May 2024

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Alexander Frangenheim/Patrick Crossland – Basic Tracks, Baltimore New York (Concepts of Doing, 2024)

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

The duo of Alexander Frangenheim on double bass and Patrick Crossland on trombone has been playing together since 2010, their interaction comes as a proof of their longstanding creative relationship. This CD, in Frangenheim’s own Concepts of Doing, is the next release of the label, right after the excellent trio Nail with Frangenheim, Michel Doneda and Roger Turner, which was reviewed here.

Consisting of five tracks the first two are live recordings from a concert at the Baltimore University, while the rest were recorded live at the Record Shop in Brooklyn, N.Y. All five tracks are improvisations, that show clearly how advanced are the two musicians in their take of how to improvise as solo artists and their willingness to absorb the solo mentality of jazz tradition into collective playing.

Both live recordings are full of intensity and energy, free improvisations that combine the syncopated nature of the trombone with the percussive sounds from the double bass in a non-linear way. I say non-linear as they, very willingly it seems, stop from time to time, gathering energy and incorporating pauses of silence in the recording. Their playing, though, is dynamic and intense, allowing the listener to call this music free jazz as well…

They seem that they possess the language of improvisation and are, at the same time, quite able to take the most from their respected instruments. As a listener sometimes I feel that a trombone could less equiped for free playing by nature. At least I feel like that after having listened to many recordings consisting of this instrument. But Crossland’s playing feels at ease with everything that comes in the way. Bursts of audio activity, silences, full on energy attacks.

Having listened more to Alexander Frangeheim’s music, I feel at ease with his compatibility in any situation given. His playing in Basic Tracks is flexible and relaxed but not in the “cool” way of many boring musics. He is eager to follow, to lead, and, mostly, to listen and to interact. Another great one from Concepts of Doing.

Watch the Baltimore show here:


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Jason Stein, Marilyn Crispell, Damon Smith, Adam Shead - spi​-​raling horn (Balance Point Acoustics/ Irritable Mystic Records, 2024)

By Don Phipps

Intense. Explosive. A full-on rumble. That’s just some of the adventure that awaits listeners of “spi-raling horn,” a collection of artist Cy Twombley-inspired spontaneous compositions and improvisations by a quartet comprised of Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Marilyn Crispell (piano), Damon Smith (double bass), and Adam Shead (drums). The music runs the gamut from challenging roller coaster sprints to playful syncopation. And the expertise and talent required to pull all of this off is present in substantial abundance.

Why does the late great Jimmy Lyons come to mind when listening to Stein’s rollicking up and down bass clarinet lines? Stein plays his instrument like a bee buzzing around a new fragrant flower, anxious to experience the nectar within. And like the bee, whose constant flight and buzz are in constant motion, Stein provides dexterous sax key rips and strong ongoing exhortations throughout the album – driving and eliciting amazing responses from his bandmates. His fluid playing and rapid-fire runs are on full display in the cuts “a universe of otherwise” and the instant masterpiece “a rusted bell’s clank.”

Marilyn Crispell, whose excellent work gained prominence in the long-lived Anthony Braxton quartet, fits right in with Stein, and at times dominates the action. Take her prancing opening on “back and back out,” and her powerful control as the piece winds down. Her abstract counterplay keeps “the ground laid open” hopping about – as though the musical sand is just too hot for bare feet!

And the rhythm section – bassist Smith and drummer Shead never let up. Smith’s hands rip up and down the bass neck with forceful plucks. And when he’s not popping the strings, he bows modern flowing lines that seem to race like a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred through fields at full gallop. Check out his bow work on “a song paid by singing,” and, his solo on “a rusted bell’s clank” is simply not to be missed.

Like Smith, Shead generates a lot of heat as he rummages over the traps. There’s not a drum or cymbal he doesn’t touch or a technique he doesn’t bring to bear as he crafts his ocean of sound. Listen to his amazing speed dashes on the cymbals on the number “a rusted bell’s clank.” Or his rolling thunder mallet technique on “so close it cut my ribs.” Or his airy combination of brush and bass drum pedal on “the ground laid open.”

While “a rusted bell’s clank” remains the centerpiece of this album, two other pieces demonstrate that the quartet is not focused solely on power dynamics. First, the fascinating “saturant moon water,” with its lunar sound effects, offers up a musical representation of a spatial expanse. And second, “so close it cut my ribs,” offers up a beautiful opening – like catching one’s breath at the top of a summit that looks out on both sky and ocean.

Albums that combine incredible talent and muscular playing are a delight. And that Stein, Crispell, Smith and Shead have produced this stunning swash-buckling homage to a painter - one whose whole oeuvre was about random musings and free expression - should not be a surprise. Let’s hope there’s more to come !

Monday, June 17, 2024

Taylor Ho Bynum & Jacqueline Kerrod - Simple Ways Such Self (Orenda, 2024)

By Stef Gijssels

Harpists are hard to find in jazz, yet in free improvisation they can find their place, and we have reviewed several of them over the years, with better known musicians such as Zeena Parkins, Rhodri Davies, Ernesto Rodrigues, Thanos Chrysakis or lesser known - at least to me - such as Brandee Younger, Carol Emanuel, Charles Overton, Rafaelle Rinaudo, Lucia Stavros, Delphine Latil, Angélica V. Salvi, Áine O’Dwyer, Alison Bjorkedal, Stina Hellberg Agback, Marilu Donovan, June Han, Noah Horne, Clare Cooper, Kara Bershad, Anne Lebanon, Elisa Thorn, Saara Rautio, Tineke Steenbrink, Giovanna Pessi, Jess Garland, Sissel Walstad. It's still an impressive list, more than I anticipated when I started browsing through the reviews. 

We know Jacqueline Kerrod from her collaboration with Anthony Braxton, a musician with whom cornettist Taylor Ho Bynum also substantially collaborated, and both musicians met in the context of their membership of Braxton's ZIM Music Ensemble and ZIM Sextet. 

They decided to give a live performance together in March of last year, each having penned one track, while leaving the other pieces open to free improvisation. It resulted in this unusual and definitely exceptional album. The harp by itself invites for more intimate, quiet music, which is mostly the case on this album, but Kerrod is inventive and creative enough to expand the expected limits of her instrument. Classically trained in her native South Africa, she is equally versatile in modern music as she is in improvised contexts. 

Even if both instruments have totally different musical roots and are rarely heard together, their sound here is wonderfully coherent and a perfect match in the hands of two musicians who fully master their instruments and their art. The music is mostly gentle, sometimes meditative, yet always full of character and with sharp fangs at times. It's hard to pigeon-hole the music stylistically, if that is even needed, and that's possibly also part of its charm. The open dialogue, the intensity of their listening, the precision of their interaction, the freedom of the sound, combined with the quality of the playing make this an easy to recommend album. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Akira Sakata - Sunday Interview

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

  1. What is your greatest joy in improvised music?

    The mental and physical satisfaction brought by the feeling of all the participating musicians synchronized with what I am aiming for.

  2. What quality do you most admire in the musicians you perform with?

    The performers’ character, and the vibes…

  3. Which historical musician/composer do you admire the most?

    Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Tōru Takemitsu, Stravinsky

  4. If you could resurrect a musician to perform with, who would it be?

    I never think about performing with someone who has passed away.

  5. What would you still like to achieve musically in your life?

    I just want to control my instruments as I feel.

  6. Are you interested in popular music and - if yes - what music/artist do you particularly like?

    Not much interest in it.

  7. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?


  8. Which of your albums are you most proud of?


  9. Once an album of yours is released, do you still listen to it? And how often?

    I almost never listen.

  10. Which album (from any musician) have you listened to the most in your life?

    “Miles Davis / Four & More”, “Basie in London”, and others.

  11. What are you listening to at the moment?


  12. What artists outside music inspires you?

    Every life form, the earth, the universe, Dali, Picasso, Bosch, The Tale of the Heike (historical epic), Chōjū-giga (12th and 13th century scrolls of animal caricatures), Kawanabe Kyōsai (painter), Hyakki yagyō-zu (early Japanese folklore scrolls), Japanese temple and shrine architecture, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Delvaux, Boris Vian, Yasutaka Tsutsui (science fiction author, and actor), Nobuyoshi Araki (photographer), Shinro Otake (installation artist, painter, writer), Fujio Akatsuka (manga artist), Yasuji Tanioka (humor manga artist), Hisaichi Ishii (manga artist), Toshitaka Hidaka (ethologist), Fumiko Hori (painter), René Magritte, Goya, Ay-O (avant-garde artist connected to the Fluxus movement), Tomy Ungerer, and others.

Akira Sakata on the Free Jazz Blog:

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Die Enttäuschung - The Komplette / Music Minus One / Monk's Casino

Die Enttäuschung - The Komplette (Two Nineteen Records, 2023)

Could there be a more perfect pairing of art and music then between the record sleeve design and the music of Die Enttäuschung, a long standing group whose members are central to the Berlin jazz scene? I'm leafing through the Die Komplette, a catalog of cover art and more from all of the groups recordings along with many other works. The catalog is subtitled "Handarbeitsbuch von Katja Mahall," and it also comes with a CD of new music from the group.

To call it a "handicraft book" is an undersell. Yes, the artwork is the work of precise hand crafting but the result is not a potpourri sachet or draft-stopper. The work of Katja Mahal, spouse of Die Enttäuschung's clarinetist Rudi Mahall, is much more. Each page contains a rich array of images, hand cut from magazines, newspapers, photos and maybe even the television (ok, maybe not cut from, but at least one is arranged in one). The collages have adorned a recording from the band starting with their first self-titled recording in 1996, continuing through their second self-titled CD in 2004, then through their series of releases on Intakt, and now over the very active past few years with not only Die Enttäuschung releases but also related groups like Monk's Casino, a duo album from pianist Aki Takase and Rudi Mahall, and several others.

The art is absorbing. One could link it to the Dadist college techniques (like Hanna Höch or John Heartfeld), but it's certainly more colorful, with many figures, items (like sausages), and incongruous juxtapositions of words. Above all, the art is playful and unforgiving. It's just like the music on the accompanying CD, which takes elements of jazz from throughout its history - early jazz, swing (lots of swing, really), free jazz, modern jazz, and standards - and mixes it into a wildly rhythmic and accessible bricolage of musical inventiveness.

Take track one from Die Komplette, 'Im Zwinger' - it's only 48 seconds, but we hear Rudi Mahall's acerbic clarinet playing a fastidious little melody with fastidious accompaniment from trumpeter Axel Dörner, bassist Jan Roder and drummer Michael Griener. Then, "Bulyah-Dath," a tune penned by Griener that begins with a phrase that sounds exactly like a bass-clarinet and a trumpet saying the title in tandem and unraveling from there into a prism of energetic melodic statements. It goes on, like for example the Dörner penned 'Gekannt' is an engagingly elastic rendering of time and tempo with a minimalist melodic head, unexpected form, and highly intervallic soloing.

It should be noted that the music on Die Komplette are re-recordings of their music from their now 30-year career as a band. It almost comes as an afterthought though, as these tunes are just as fresh now as they ever were. There have also been changes in the band over the years, the original drummer Uli Jenneseen was replaced was Greiner in 2017, and trombonist Christof Thewes was a part of the group for a bit. It also seems that Jan Roder has taken a liking to electric bass in addition to his exceptional double bass playing.

If you are able to get your hands on Die Komplette (which should be possible via Bandcamp) it's worth it, the catalog is a smorgasbord of sights and sounds and a great chance to see Katja Mahall's artwork collected together and appropriately sized - CD cases are great, but the larger format of the book give them some room to come to life.

Die Enttäuschung - Music Minus One (Two Nineteen Records, 2023)

Die Enttäuschung's more proper latest release is Music Minus One - a play on the well known Music Minus One series of educational materials that lets the learner play along to their favorite orchestra or jazz combo - but here likely referring to the fact that they were back to quartet, minus Christof Thewes (he was on the previous recording, 2017's Lavaman). The group doesn't miss a beat though, and the music is as ironic and iconoclastic as it is buoyant and hopeful.

The first track is entitled "Ich stand im Stau" - which translates to, I was stuck in traffic, and it is one of six titles that seem to be common excuses. There is also "Ich hatte zu viel zu tun" - I had to much to do - and "Ich hatte den Kopf nicht frei" - I didn't have a clear head - and "Ich bin nicht dazu gekommen" - I didn't get around to it - and finally "Da fang ich morgen mit an" - I will start tomorrow. (Note, I'm not counting "Verzögerung im Betriebsablauf" - a delay in operating processes - this is more or less an excuse reserved for the German train company). What these songs have in common (aside from Rudi Mahall's acerbic wit with the names) is that much like the rest of the album, there is no excuses at all: each and every one is defiantly alive and full of unrelenting energy.

The first one ('Stau') is from the get-go is alight with rhythmic flow and stranded cables of melody. Mahall takes the first solo on bass clarinet, replete with his signature acidic tone and be-bop influenced lines. Dörner follows on trumpet, his tone a bit warmer, and seemingly drawing on more of a hard-bop influence. Then, bassist Jan Roder's takes a short solo along with the comping from the others - he's a bit back in the mix, but one can hear his robust lines flowing fluidly across the fingerboard. Some epoxies require the mixing of two compounds to achieve holding strength and along with Roder's bass work, drummer Michel Griener is the other ingredient. He provides a relentless swing and accentuated motion to the tunes. The other songs on the recording are all formed from these components, from shrill dissonance to intoxicating counter-melodic passages, and more.

Simply put, Die Enttäuschung does not disappoint on this latest installment.

Monk's Casino - live at AuTopsi Pohl (Two Nineteen Records, 2023)

Monk's Casino is Die Enttäuschung plus Alexander von Schlippenbach. The venerated German pianist has long explored Monk's repertoire, recording albums of his music and generally synthesizing the compositions into his playing. Monk's music is also where Die Enttäuschung started, their first album Die Enttäuschung (Two Nineteen, 1996) is comprised entirely of Monk's compositions, but played in a quartet whose instrumentation was more like the Ornette Coleman's classic one.

Together with Schlippenbach, their first recording was The Complete Works of Thelonious Monk from 2005 on Intakt Records. The 3-CD collection is (or should be) a modern classic. Reverent of Monk's beguiling tunes, the music is arranged and delivered with a slight irreverence that lets the music live and breath. The release was recorded live at Berlin's A-Trane jazz club.

This update, 2022's Live at AuTopsi Pohl, is also a live recording from a Berlin club, unfortunately one that is now sadly closed. The group is not offering the complete discography this time, but rather a selective update to the tunes and spirit that permeated the original concept. The challenging but cozy confines of the former AuTopsi club is now things of legend, but one can imagine the celebrated Schlippenbach at the upright piano off to one side of the narrow stage while the others likely spilled out into the crowded audience space. Those same space constraints also likely made for the wonderful, lively sound. The exposed brick walls and high ceilings provided a resonant chamber for the powerful but slinky arrangements to fill.

Katja Mahall's cover art, of course, fits perfectly. In addition to images of the musicians in action, she plays with scale, history and cultural touchpoints in fun and provocative arrangements.

This one is hard to get. It's LP only, available at gigs and from Bandcamp in Europe. According to Bandcamp, the Texas based label Astral Spirits sold it in the US and Canada, but it is currently sold out. However, Jazzpreis, a duo recording from Rudi Mahall and Michel Griener, from 2022, is available and also highly recommended.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Tomeka Reid, Isidora Edwards, Elisabeth Coudoux - Reid​/​Edwards​/​Coudoux (Relative Pitch, 2024)

By Ferruccio Martinotti

It’s crystal clear that sailing on these free music waters means leaving behind us the Pillars of Hercules, finding ourselves on “unchartered territories,” to quote Dave Holland, but jumping on board along with a crew of three cellists means undoubtedly pushing ourselves “beyond dragons,” to reference Angelika Niescier and Tomeka Reid, one of the above crew members. 

Let’s see what kind of boat we are talking about. Tomeka, for the very few not aware of, is a “cellist, composer, educator,” as shown on her website, grew up in Washington DC and blossomed as musician in the fertile Chicago’s scene, working with the AACM and receiving the Foundation of arts and 3Arts awards. Beside leading her own quartet along with Tomas Fujiwara, Jason Roebke and Mary Halvorson, and the trio Hear and Now with Mazz Swift and Silvia Bolognesi, on her resume shining the collaborations with Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed, Joe McPhee, Paal Nilssen Love, Joe Morris, Fred Lonberg Holm, Savanna Harris, Anthony Braxton, Jamie Branch, Taylor Ho Bynum, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Makaya MacCraven, Roscoe Mitchell... easy to understand why she was elected “Chicago jazz hero” by the Jazz journalist association in 2017. The three cellos project sees Lady Cello teaming up with Isidora Edwards, member of Ensamble Taller de Musica Contemporanea, Ensemble Nuevo as well as dance and theater composer and Elisabeth Coudoux, classical music studies before moving to free and impro, collaborator of Michael Zerang, Mark Dresser, Mick Beck and Xavier Charles. 

Let's immediately say that the outcome delivered by such a unit is simply fascinating, original and intriguing in its multifaceted geometry, defined by the musicians themselves as "manoeuvers through woody sounds created by individual movements and decision, free from classical pattern, a multi-layered variations of personal expressive will and power". Then, some time you've got the sonic wave increasing until the water is getting white, crashing towards the listener with the three instruments strictly tied like a Macedonian phalanx, some time the power is fragmented and you see a deployment of several rivers of sound, before rejoining together in full force. The ability of the cellos to draw an ongoing elliptical crossing or to be refracted in a mirror game is amazing, a sort of labyrinth where in any moment you feel yourself overwhelmed by the brute force of the music but before getting totally lost, one of the cellos shines a small light to be followed in order to get a safer, even tough never comfortable, place. 

Don't get us wrong, the ride on this rollercoaster is never scary but rather thrilling and exciting: a challenging experience for open minds and souls, as you, readers, certainly are.

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Frank Paul Schubert, Olaf Rupp, Lothar Ohlmeier - Entropy Hug (Not Applicable, 2024)

By Martin Schray

Actually a simple thing. Three men come together - all prominent representatives of the Berlin Echtzeit scene - to record an album. Frank Paul Schubert is one of the best European saxophonists, who often plays with English musicians such as Paul Dunmall, Paul Rogers, Mark Sanders and John Edwards, but also with Matthias Müller or Alexander von Schlippenbach. Olaf Rupp is also an old acquaintance, his releases with Rudi Fischerlehner (Xenofox), his various duos (for example with Ulrike Brand or John Hughes) and his trios with Rudi Mahall and Jan Roder (or with Kasper Tom) have already been discussed on this website almost euphorically. Lothar Ohlmeier, who has also been around for over 35 years and is one of the unsung heroes of his instrument, is definitely one of the most exciting European clarinetists. Three real warhorses, nothing spectacular, you might think, but the combination of sonic possibilities is somewhat unorthodox: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and guitar. Real tonal contrasts come together here with the clarinet and the sax. And then a guitar?

The question seems to be what kind of music is displayed here. Is this chamber music, as the liner notes claim? Music that takes the idea of the classical piano trio (violin, piano, cello) further into contemporary improvisational music and opens up completely new possibilities with the diverse expressive possibilities of the three instruments, free from stylistic or dramaturgical restrictions, to transform the color of individual notes and combined sounds into a lively texture? Or is it this kind of free jazz respectively improvised music, which is decidedly “European“, but whose existence would be inconceivable without American jazz, and which is nevertheless a language of its own?

In any case, we listen to sonic serpentine lines, driven to a point where intensity and sound unite to create intellectual pleasure. Almost 50 minutes of exuberant sound abstraction by the two reeds, held together by the spider’s web of open guitar chords. In their dialogs, the two wind players make furious use of their instruments. They buzz, creak, chatter and smack, chirp, whisper and grunt. The musicians give musical form to the exhaustive tonal variations in long improvisations: expressive and emotional, sometimes hectic and rushed. It is often Schubert who shapes the pieces with his idiosyncratic melodic style, with slowly developing, minimalist figures that intensify and break off again and which are taken up, modified or counteracted by his partners. Then again, wide ellipses seem to be thrown in the mix (especially by Ohlmeier), whose lines approach, overlap, diverge again and circle around an imaginary pole. In the quieter moments, the three explore the sound possibilities of their instruments and their interplay; in the faster moments, Schubert alternates furiously between the homely warmth of the low register and the icy coldness of the high register. Olaf Rupp cushions these designs with his arpeggios and harmonics, but also with shrill interjections with a somnambulistic lightness - best heard in “Old Dog New Trick“.

This is music that opens the ears and at the same time is unconventionally exhausting (but easy at the same time) to listen to and relentlessly self-referential. Entropy Hug is an excellent album, no doubt.

You can buy and listen to the album here: 

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Frank Gratkowski: Recent Recordings

By Eyal Hareuveni

German reeds player-composer-bandleader Frank Gratkowski traverses broad context of contemporary improvised music. There is no clear distinction between composition and improvisation in his work, as his recent albums testify.

Frank Gratkowski & Ensemble Modern - Mature Hybrid Talking (Maria de Alvear world edition, 2024) 

The democratically organized Ensemble Modern was founded in 1980 and at home in Frankfurt am Main with aesthetic spectrum includes musical theatre works, dance and multimedia projects, chamber music, ensemble and orchestral concerts. In 2022 a ten-musician version of Ensemble Modern, with Gratkowski as conductor and playing flute, alto sax and bass clarinet, performed Gratkowski’s Mature Hybrid Talking, dedicated to composer Iannis Xenakis, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, and to an author James Joyce, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ulysses, as both had a major impact on him, and Gratkowski was one of the leaders of the Multiple Joy[ce] Orchestra.

Mature Hybrid Talking was inspired by the rhythm and sound of Joyce's language, with its almost constant accumulation of complex utterances, connected and within themselves in a way that seems to echo the precipitous wordplay of Finnegans Wake, and Xanakis’ unique architectures. British electronics player Richard Barrett (who played in Gratkowski’s Trokaan project and the Skein ensemble), who contributed insightful liner notes, observed the wise manner in which Gratkowski applied his personal, non-idiomatic improvisational strategies, with the kaleidoscope of colors, densities and unpredictable shifts of direction, to the notated score, in terms of rhythm and pitch (incorporating quartertones for all the instruments that can play them), and the structure of the composition. Gratkowski conducted the composition using hand signals to gather and channel the ensemble’s collective imagination and contributed the cover photo.

This complex and arresting chamber composition captures the immediate, unpredictable spirit of spontaneous, improvised dynamics when anything might happen at any time but its has a mysterious, cohesive structure, consistency and interconnectedness that testifies to Gratkowski’s ability to compose for the distinct, articulate voices of Ensemble Modern. And as Barrett concludes, “It’s authentically 21st-century music, combining a maximum of freedom with a maximum of discipline in a way that represents a significant and vital tendency in contemporary musical thinking”.


Frank Gratkowski’s Entrainment (Klanggalerie, 2024) 

Gratkowski’s Entrainment is a power quartet featuring long-time comrade, Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi (of Altered States and Otomo Yoshihide's seminal Ground Zero), who has worked with Gratkowski in his Trokaan Project and the second incarnation of the Skein ensemble and keeps performing with Gratkowski as a duo; Norwegian, Berlin-based electric bassist Dan Peter Sundland, and American, fellow Berliner drummer Steve Heather (who plays in Sundland's Home Stretch, Splitter Orchestra and before in Tristan Honsinger's Hopscotch). Gratkowski’s Entrainment played its first performance at the Free Jazz Festival Saarbrücken in April 2022, where this album was recorded, and later performed only a few times in Berlin.

The expressive music of Entrainment is freely improvised and corresponds with experimental and psychedelic rock and spiritual jazz, but sounds fresh and unpredictable with no stylistic restrictions. It is raw, urgent and high-octane and meant to push Gratkowski into ecstatic terrains and beyond. Uchihashi’s guitar solos take the quartet into cosmic and hazy atmospheres and the tough, propulsive rhythm section of Sundland and Heather keeps all on their toes. Entrainment enjoys the feeling of release that follows the crossing of a certain energetic threshold and knows how to channel the mighty waves of energy into cathartic climaxes.

Frank Gratkowski & Elisabeth Harnik - Bullungga (Klanggalerie, 2021) 

Bullungga is the second album from Gratkowski with Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik, following Burrum-bah (SoundOut Recordings, 2020), and like the first album, it was recorded live in 2020 at Klangspuren Schwaz during the Austrian Festival For New Music and at the German Moers Festival. The title of the album refers to the Aboriginal taxonomy of Australian animals, and bullungga is Eastern Quoll or Eastern Native Cat (Dasyurus viverrinus), as Gratkowski and Harnik first played together in Canberra, Australia, during the SoundOut festival in February 2020.

The music is freely improvised and captures these gifted improvisers at their best. Harnik employs preparations and extended techniques while pushing the piano into otherworldly terrains. Gratkowski alternates between alto sax to soprano sax, clarinet and bass flute. Their dynamics are immediate, deep and poetic, as Gratkowski and Harnik are highly imaginative and bold sonic explorers-painters, masters of their instruments. Gratkowski and Harnik are always searching for new and unpredictable sonic territories, with mischievous playfulness, captivating energy and touching lyricism, great sense of form and structure and deep listening. A perfect showcase of free improvisation.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Jazzdor 16, June 4-7, 2024


By Paul Acquaro

Tucked into Berlin's Kulturebrauerei, a former brewery turned cultural center with a museum, a university outpost, performance spaces and restaurants, the German branch of the Jazzdor festival displaced the Kesselhaus events space's more typical programming of 90s dance parties and tribute bands with four evenings of contemporary music.

It was the festival's 16th edition in Berlin, which itself is an offshoot from the main festival activities in Strasbourg, France that have been going on since 1986. The festival, under the long-term leadership of Phillipe Ochem, also has a presence in Dresden at the underground Jazzclub Tonne runing concurrently with the Berlin festival and featuring a selection of the groups (see also my 2023 review).

Jazzdor brings together musicians from France, Germany and the US presents music that is just as diverse, with rich improvisation and compositions straddling classical, modern, and even a bit of free jazz. Regardless of the genre or where the needle points on the experimental spectrum, the results are nevertheless ear opening, both introducing heretofore unknown projects and musicians to new audiences as well as supporting already known collaborations. This year, for example, the Steve Lacy / Ornette Coleman inspired Prospectus quartet from France made their German debut; the long-standing collaboration Axiom brought back together top notch musicians from Germany, France, Switzerland and the USA; and the colossal French big band, "Orchestre National De Jazz," presented their ambitious work with American saxophonist Steve Lehman, realizing a critical update to the jazz big band operating system.


Tuba Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The festival began with the somewhat unusual pairing of piano, drums and tuba with French tubist Michel Godard's Tuba Trio. Somewhat unusual because one could imagine the tuba as an ersatz bass, which would make this a rather usual trio, but Godard's tuba playing does not replace a bass, rather he brings a whole rich tapestry of sound and motion to the configuration. 

As the set began, pianist Florian Weber hit a sharp chord, abrupt, clean, precise, another soon followed. Godard responded in kind and soon enough the two, along with the drumming of Anna Paceo, began ramping up the intensity. From Weber, there was an increasingly complex interplay of rhythms that gave the tuba great spaces to fill. From classical inspired passage to evolving melodies to loping grooves, the harmony and melody segued fluently between Godard and Weber. On some tunes, like the one dedicated to the late fluegel hornist Herbert Joos, Godard switched to the Serpent, a mystical looking ancestor to the tuba, whose sound seems to melt between the stark proclamation of a trumpet and the warm blast of a trombone. It was a mournful tune, gently expressive and appropriately hopeful at times. In other places, Paceo's drumming was given more prominence, while other tunes were more playful and rhythmic.

 Sophie Bernado 4tet. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The second set of the night was by bassoonist and world music enthusiast Sophie Bernado and her 4tet. The set's start was beset with a technical problem of some sort, where the buzzing, electronically effected blast of her bassoon was not right. After a few attempts to rectify, the third being the charm, the corrected atonal, electric and buzzing introduction led to an atmospheric, acoustic-electric, trance-like swirl of sound. Underscored by vibraphonist Taiko Saito's ringing figures and drummer Franceso Pastacaldi's steady pulse, the music was flowing. The group's approach generally was to layer long tones and shifting chords, and from these gentle grooves, the musicians took solo turns. Joachim Florent's first bass solo kept close to the band's heartbeat, until it didn't anymore and escaped daringly. Saito's punchy jazz-oriented soloing captured the spotlight at times as did Bernardo's own playing. There were some pop-rocky moments as well, when Bernardo sung lyrics with simple, catchy melodies. After the last tune ended with a prog-rock flourish, a humming of the last melody was audible in the audience.

As it turns out, an original member, Marie-Pascale Dube, a vocalist with a specialization in Inuit throat singing was replaced last minute by drummer Francesco Pastacaldi. The group's sound, however, was quite cohesive, and it is tricky to imagine the musical directions the music could have taken.


Prospectus. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The evening began with Prospectus, a quartet out of France that was formed around the work of Ornette Coleman and Steve Lacy. In fact, they took their group name from Lacy's 1983 album Prospectus. It is actually quite possible to form an impression of the group's music just from this fun fact, but it would be unfair to stop there. The group also lists Eric Dolphy, Steve Coleman, Rob Brown and Rob Mazurek as influences, and the music they played on the Jazzdor stage on Wednesday night was an infectious blend of a classic free jazz and refined musicianship. Playing songs from their debut 2020 recording Prospectus I and II, as well as this years METEORIE, the winners of the French 'Jazz Migration' prize (which supports younger musicians), wore all of these influences on their sleeves as they proceeded to make the music their own. 

The first tune started with a jaunty rhythm with a in-tandem melodic blast from Lea Ciechelski's sax and Henri Peyrous' bass clarinet, this led to some delicate harmonization between the horns while bassist Julien Ducoin and drummer Florentin Hay kept the atmosphere swirling. Ciechelski's first neat disassembled solo was a true breath of fresh air, and Peyrous' brought out the aromatic bouquet of tones that inhabit the bass clarinet, invoking the gentle ghost of Dolphy in the process. The next tune saw Ciechelski on flute and Ducoin on soprano sax spinning a melody around the firmly planted bass figure. The tune introduced some middle eastern scales and other subtle flavors and it is fair to say that switching up the wind instruments, as well as the musical ideas, kept things moving engagingly. The band is cohesive, and despite its leaderless quality, it surly seem to know where it is going. 

Orchestre National De Jazz. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder 

After a generous break in which the myriad equipment of the Orchestre National De Jazz (ONJ) was set up, the 18-piece strong big band revealed the sound of our current future. My colleague Troy Dostert reviewed the album Ex Machina when it was released last fall and captures the details especially well but for just a quick backstory, celebrated saxophonist Steve Lehman and ONJ director Frederic Maurin composed the music heard on Ex Machina specifically to use the now popular concept of generative AI to be an integral component of the music. 

On the stage live, from the opening moments, one could feel the power of the group and peering over the band, back in the corner where one may expect to see say Timpani drums or such, were two laptops with Dionysios Papanikolaou at their helm. Listening to the music, however, one was not overwhelmed by electronics. The initially slow moving grooves created a level of tension in the space as the array of acoustic instruments added tones and textures, while fraught solos from Lehman led the music to thrilling peaks. The inclusion of two vibraphonists also had a rather profound impact on the sound - Stephan Caracci and Chris Dingman's percussive and melodic playing, sometimes delivered together, added a certain and urgent sheen. 

The first noticeable interaction with the AI seemed to be with a solo from Lehman, whose circular phrasings and atonal lines were picked up and reimagined (is it right to say that about a computer program?) by the electronics. The sounds were sometimes disarming, with a certain ill-boding imbued in the AI reactions, but nevertheless provided a fascinating glimpse into creative human/computer collaboration. Other solos followed, like trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson's multiple attention grabbing spots or flutist Fanny Menegoz's stint in the latter part of the program.

The penultimate tune was interesting as it left the accessible rhythms behind and opted more for exploration of tones - for a bit, as it ended in a rather strident groove. I would have been happy with that neatly ending the night, but a final piece that dug even deeper into the tonal possibilities followed. Obviously, much had gone into the construction of the music, the seamlessness of the sounds, and the mix of accessibility and challenge felt nothing short of a paradigm shift.


As Thursday evening rolled around, I was a bit concerned. The first two nights featured two groups per night and by the end of each, I had felt musically saturated. Now that we were approaching the weekend, there were to be three per night. Would I make it?

Marie Krüttli Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Sure I did. And it was excellent. The night began slowly, with the very ECM-spirited Marie Krüttli Trio. The piano, bass, drum trio started out on an austere note with Krüttli introducing some simple, sustained chords. Gautier Garrigue's drums were spacious and patient, and along with bassist Lukas Traxel, the three generated a gentle, suspended atmosphere. Dreamy excursions on the piano had a distinct tinge of classical music interspersed with jazz-like voicings and flair. Perhaps it stayed a little too long in the dream-state, but when it finally woke up, it did so vigorously, the gentle flow becoming an intense groove of repetitious rhythmic figures. The set-long piece ended satisfyingly with a series of ever greater climatic moments.

Axiom. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The next group, drummer Dejan Terzic's Axiom started out nimble and pointedly. Saxophonist Chris Speed exuded gentle but complex ampersand-like phrases, as bassist Bänz Oester and Terzic engaged in akimbo accompaniment that fit together like lethally sharpened jigsaw puzzle pieces. As the music continued, the pieces began lock together ever more tightly. Adding to the momentum and growing musical tension were tonal colors that keyboardist Bojan Zulfikarpašić brought in through the use of the Fender Rhodes in addition to his expressive piano playing. However, one could also sense that they were still holding back a bit. As they got into their second piece, Speed's lithe melodies hardened, and with the group's dense thicket of sound, they began approaching goosebump-raising territory. For a moment, Speed stepped into the backstage darkness which highlighted the high-speed and fiery interaction between Oester and Zulfikarpašić. During a following ballad, which found Terzic introducing intriguing polyrhythmic shifts, two chat prone people behind me decided at the quietest moment to clink glasses to celebrate just how sophisticated they were. Hmm. I would have supported saying "Prost!" to the quartet on stage for their infectious and tireless energy. 

Bonbon Flamme.  Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The final act of the evening was the highly anticipated - at least by me - French, Portuguese and Dutch collaboration of Bonbon Flamme. Guitarist Luis Lopes had told me earlier that they would be playing all new music this time. He was referring to the Bonbon Flamme album released last year under cellist Valentin Ceccaldi's name on Clean Feed records. The group had composed pieces separately over the past year and then spent a few days together somewhere in France to rehearse, and tonight was their first public performance of the repertoire called Calavaras Y Boom Boom Chupitos (which seemed to cause a ripple of giggling each time it was announced from stage). I had caught a wiff of the group at the Quasimodo club during Jazzfest Berlin. It was a wild event, with chanson and noise rock mixing liberally. This new repertoire seemed to build on the last, but perhaps going deeper into song craft. 

The set began with light harmonic overtones from Ceccaldi, which seemed to get amplified by keyboardist Fulco Ottervanger before slowly coming to life. The beginning however was just to build the atmosphere and the slow start did indeed grow brash and exuberant. Just as unexpectedly, the music took on a Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits vibe with guitarist Luis Lopes channeling Marc Ribot's iconic "Jockey Full of Bourbon" riffs. From beautiful skronk to Mexican dance to prog-metal, there was no end to versatility of the musical pastiche, as well as no lack of absurdist humor. For example, Ottervanger's old-time jazz tune that he started with an accordion-like sound slowly transformed into lurching rock with an early 90s downtown NYC scene vibe. The eclectic set however ended with a somewhat serious emotive and atmospheric coda.


The final day of the festival ended with three quite different groups, the affecting Lotus Flower Trio, La Main's angular post-rock jazz of, and the Emile Parisien 4tet's energetic modern jazz

Lotus Flower Trio. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Of the three, the Lotus Flower Trio was the most unexpected. The trio, comprised of pianist Bruno Angelini and saxophonists Sakina Abdou and Angelika Niescier, were making their German premiere. The group's name draws on an idea (and a song) from the composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter who embraced the the lotus flower on his album Emanon, which he explained as "the lotus exists only in the swamp, in our world of turmoil, and the blooming flower purifies the water around it." Indeed, Angelini's compositions for the group effectively connected sounds to the impressions of people who have shone a light of resistance through darkness, embracing figures such as civil rights activist Rosa Parks, environmentalist Berta Cacérès, and anti-apartheid activist and politician Nelson Mandela. 
The opening song, apparently a Wayne Shorter piece, featured flowing piano with a gentle, pendulous lilt. Then the saxophonists came in with a melody that rode the expressive melodic contours. The next song, started by Niescier, was a more energetic piece full of short, explosive phrases. The two woodwinds provided a wonderful contrast, as Abdou's tenor provided a subtler solo to Niescier's edgier approach. Later in the program, Abdou's exuberant solo and near vocalizations were captivating, as was Angelini's own solo spot, which veered into a classical styles while still making reference to jazz. The final piece was the most arresting, starting with an intense furnace-blast of free playing that resolved into a gentle, nurturing melody. The overall impression, aside of course from the impressive musicianship, was the emotional level that the group reached repeatedly through the set.

La Main. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

Following the trio was the quintet of La Main, also making their first German appearance. The group, led by guitarist Gilles Coronado, is apparently typically a trio with trumpeter Olivier Laisney and drummer Christophe Lavergne, however this evening they were joined by clarinetist Catherine Delaunay and the synthesizer work of Sarah Murcia, both members of the Orchestre National De Jazz. The music was varied, from tight rhythmic passages that emphasized a single note and built tension through repetition to long musically economic pieces that referenced the sonic landscapes of post-rock. The individual playing was quite good - Lavergne was delightfully wild at times, and Laisney's tone was sharp and incisive. The inclusion of Murcia's synthesizer added a welcome bass element and Delauney's playing provided a strong jazz flavor. Coronado's compositions felt somewhat brittle and uneven, delicately hanging in a balance between motion and disintegration. For example, one composition was rather static and did not seem to really go anywhere at all, while its follow up began with a gripping intensity between the guitarist and the drummer.

Emile Parisien 4ET. Photo (c) Ulla C. Binder

The final act of the festival was the now 20-year running Emile Parisien 4ET, who focused on their latest recording for the ACT Label, Let Them Cook. And, much like the title suggests, they did. This final set was a pleasant surprise. I had thought the album was fine but had not really engaged me, however, the concert was completely the opposite. In fact, it has me going back to reassess my original impression. 

The group began with a droning backdrop while Parisien introduced a smokey melody. A splash of percussion from Julien Loutelier and dabs of melody from pianist Julien Touery followed, each adding extra flavor. With the help of bassist Ivan Gelugne, the group began crafting an intensity, slowly drawing in the audience. Parisien often turned to a table of electronics set up to his side to layer effects on to his soprano's lachrymose tone. 

The result of the group's potent and seamless interplay was effective, and the feature spots for the  musicians were engaging in their own right. At one point, a fervid solo melody from Tourey raised the energy level on stage to a point at which Parisien seemingly could not resist moving to. The melodic maelstrom intensified on the next tune that saw the saxophonist playing to the edge of self-control. With the additional assortment of tools like prepared piano as well as electronic accents from Loutelier, the music never settled into formula or routine and the final moments reached nearly ecstatic peaks. Not a bad way to wrap it up at all.

Monday, June 10, 2024

Angelica Sanchez - Chad Taylor - A Monster Is Just An Animal You Haven't Met Yet (Intakt Records, 2024) *****

By Don Phipps

Judging from the music on the album A Monster Is Just An Animal You Haven’t Met Yet, less is more. Who needs a bass and horn if art can be achieved without them? Case in point: the exuberant duo of Angelica Sanchez on piano and Chad Taylor on drums, who here provide a fascinating musical journey – one that is powerful and intricate. The two weave together music that embraces modern abstract note clusters that stretch outward without breaking apart, held in place by web-like structures found in each composition. One feels the controlled energy. Everything is on the line. Nothing is held back.

For example, the number “Animistic” offers high drama – a rolling intensity over syncopated beats. Then there’s the outstretched bluesy abstractions of “Holding Presence in Time.” And Taylor’s explosive all over drumming greets the listener on the opening of “Holding Space.” The album is chock full of these kinds of exceptional mood shifting colors and textures.

Sanchez’s piano playing is electric. She plays outside and inside the piano, creating intriguing stop-go sonic effects (for inside playing, check out the title cut and “All Alone Together,” or her harp-like ethereal strokes across the strings on “Tracers of Cosmic Space”). But what marks her brilliance is the way she spreads her left and right hands to achieve notes at both ends of the keyboard collectively or in sequence. It’s clear she relishes dissonant chords, that while hinting at formalism, are augmented with modal and bluesy qualities. And she uses her command of the instrument to create dynamic runs up and down the length of the keyboard.

Taylor’s work on the album is equally impressive. His precise use of various percussion, cymbals, and drums provide astounding counterpoint and nuance to Sanchez’s lines, and, at times, he simply takes over. His beats can be dance-like (check out “Liminal,” “Myopic Seer,” and “Threadwork”), and his cymbal work is special, sometimes sounding like great waves hitting ocean rocks. His superb footwork on the bass drum pedal and his technique on the toms and cymbals provide fluid backdrops behind Sanchez’s efforts. He even plays what sounds like a thumb piano on the title cut, using the instrument to craft a strong rhythmic motif.

The music of A Monster Is Just An Animal You Haven’t Met is packed full of spicy heat – a heat that feels alive and riveting. Sanchez and Taylor’s buoyant sonics laid atop strong rhythmic frameworks is music that demands to be heard.