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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Crazy Guitars - Marc Ribot and Elliott Sharp

The problem with solo instrumental recordings is that they often only tend to be of interest to musicians playing that instrument, probably with the exception of piano. Because of the lack of interplay, the musician will tend to move into extreme instrumental prowess (speed, extended techniques, ...) in order to maintain variety and keep the listener's interest. I'm a great fan of Marc Ribot, because of his versatility and creativity, and I'm less a fan of Elliott Sharp, whose music I often find too self-absorbed.

Marc Ribot - Exercises In Futility (Tzadik, 2008) ****

I have seldom come across a self-depreciating album title which so well fit the music on it. Ribot shows his technique and creativity on the guitar by playing his acoustic nylon string guitar only. Some of the pieces really sound like nothing more than exercises in new technical possibilities, not only with regard to guitar-playing itself, but also musically, trying out bizarre chordal changes, rhythmic twists. The music sounds like guitar practice too : Ribot could be sitting next to you in the same room, giving this recording a very intimate and authentic feel. These exercises are futile, because, interesting though they may be, many of them will never be incorporated in other work than this one. So that's it : you try it out a technique on the spot, you play it and repeat it a few times, and for most findings, it stops there and then. Yet they're also futile in the other sense of the word, as "frivolous, without much importance". And it is fun at times, like "Cowboy", or meditative, like "Ballad", or built on tradition, like "Groove". Ribot seems to revere the smallness of this musicality, to enjoy the intense beauty of tiny shifts and melodic try-outs, or even the pleasure of moving his fingers over the strings, playing his songs calmly and softly, creating tiny music with great charm. "Exercises in futility" could in that sense even be a philosophical statement of "practising small things". Grand!

Elliott Sharp -Octal, Book One (Clean Feed, 2008) ***

On this album Elliott Sharp plays his brand-new custom-made Koll 8-string electroacoustic guitarbass, of which he is very proud and which, if we may believe the liner notes, is a small miracle of special technology. Sentences like "the instrument has a Lollar humbucking eletromagnetic pickup which was amplified through a 1958 Fender all-valve Champ amplifier with 8-inch speaker mic'd with a Neumann TLM170 condensor and simultaneously fed into a direct box, with both running into Sytek preamps" drive me absolutely through the ceiling and the roof with horror. And the two-page liner notes contain mostly sentences such as this one. I mean, who cares? We're talking about music, not an advanced course in electronic technology. Nevertheless, the music he brings is not uninteresting, and some of it even sounds great. Regardless of the technology, his technique is unique and some of the results he produces are astonishing. I'm not sure whether this can be called jazz (nor does Ribot's album for that matter), probably just avant-garde music, in which he incorporates elements from jazz and blues. Sharp does not create melodic music, but rather jumpy rhythmic harmonic and chordal movements, with lots of fast finger picking, plucking and strumming, using his ebow once in a while. As usual with Sharp, the blues is not far away, and tracks like "Modulant" and "Quaternion" are avant-garde blues. Although this album will certainly be of interest to guitar players, some parts of it are also entertaining enough for listeners who do not play the guitar.

Listen and/or download Octal from eMusic.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Joe McPhee & Dominic Duval - The Open Door (CIMP, 2008) ****½

This is the third duo recording by Joe McPhee and Dominic Duval, after Rules Of Engagement, Vol. 2 (1999) and Dream Book (2004), and next to a quite substantial number of releases with Trio X. In essence, the music is not too different from the Trio X albums, the only major difference is that it is more conversational, less rhythmic, more focused on sound than on melody. And yet ... The 25-minute first track starts slowly, almost hesitantly, gently, with the two musicians probing each other, then, close to halfway the piece, they start in earnest, with McPhee blowing from the depth of his heart and soul, majestically supported by Duval, who intensifies the intense moments, and deepens McPhee's warm tone in the more melancholy moments, switching to arco when the alto becomes moody and plaintive. Both McPhee and Duval are real equilibrists, balancing between exploratory free form and traditional elements, always with an incredibly sincere and selfless approach to music. It's hard to describe, but in comparison with many other avant-gardists, they're not looking for shock effects, or a "have you heard this", or a "watch me break boundaries" kind of attitude, they don't care where they are going to, the music takes them, sound after sound, deep into musical and emotional possibilities, possibly leading to some sudden dancing steps or shouting through the horn or circular breathing, or just plain beautiful melodious soulful and spiritual melodies, ... they do it all, in a very genuine and authentic manner. I will not describe every track, but what both musicians do on "A Poetic Resonance" is absolutely timeless and masterful - it's classical, it's jazz, it's blues, it's avant-garde all in one, it's sad and joyful at the same time, it's emotional and clever. It's music as it is meant to be. Just excellent.

Listen and download from iTunes.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tom Arthurs/Jasper Høiby/Stu Ritchie - Explications (Not Applicable, 2008) ***½

This is British trumpet-player Tom Arthurs' first trio release without a harmonic instrument, giving an even more fruitful environment for his abstract and complex approach to musical composition. He is accompanied by Jasper Høiby on bass and Stu Ritchie on drums. You don't often here a continuous thematic flow, rather, the music jumps and down with frenetic energy, sudden twists and turns, repetitive phrases which at close listening are not all that repetitive, stops and starts, angular changes, high intervallic jumps ... All three musicians are sufficiently skilled to negotiate even the most unexpected turns in the road, and often at high speed and in unisono. That approach often gives a roller-coaster effect, yet the downside of the absence of a continuous rhythmic bass-line or vamp results in an all too cerebral feel, creating a sense of emotional distance. Dave Douglas often comes to mind, not only in terms of trumpet sound, but also in his approach, although Arthurs definitely does not copy him, therefore this music is too specific, and he is clearly managing to create his own recognisable tone and musical voice. The band is undeniably very skilled, if they now could get a higher level of emotional power, they could become really great.

Listen and/or download from eMusic.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bar Kokhba - Lucifer, Book Of Angels, Vol. 10 (Tzadik, 2008) *****

I think that John Zorn is the kind of person who would milk a cow until only dry skin is left, often without too much concern about the value of what his milk pail contains when he goes to the market. He is also commercially clever enough to bring all the albums on his label out in different series, often with numbered volumes, in the hope of getting the collectors among us to all look forward to the next release, wallets at the ready. And I must admit, I am one of them. Not all of his releases are worthwhile, and his 50th birthday celebration series could have been more compact, as could his Masada Songbook, etc. But a major success from the very beginning was his Book Of Angels series, and especially this album was one I was really looking forward to, secretly hoping this one would also be a double CD (which it is not), as were the three previous ones (Bar Kokhba, The Circle Maker, 50th Anniversary 11) with the band consisting of Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Marc Ribot on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, Joey Baron on drums and Cyro Baptista on percussion. If Zorn should be remembered for one thing - and I think he should be for many things - it is for this wonderful musical fusion he created. Bar Kokhba brings a unique mixture of klezmer, classical orchestration, world music, chamber jazz, latin, rock, and not in the bland way that is often the hallmark of fusion, but this music is something entirely different, new, refreshing, accessible, melodic, rhythmic ... beautiful. The nice thing about the music is its simple restraint and musical wealth, deep sentimentality and bluesyness, yet avoiding any cheap effects or other pitfalls. All musicians shine on this album. Listen to Ribot's bluesy guitar on "Zechriel", adding his usual 50s rock 'n' roll tremolo bar effects to his sound, or to Friedlander's dark arco on the gloomy "Mehalalel", or to Feldman's frenetic solo on "Abdiel" and how Friedlander reacts to it, while the whole rhythm section builds up the tension for a grand finale. The wonderful economic effectiveness of bass, drums and percussion are not only absolutely unusual, but could also be a nice example of the adagio that "less is more". What you hear is a full sextet from beginning to end, yet the music remains light-footed, dancing, with melody and music receiving the full attention. It all sounds so simple, but believe me, it is not. Simply excellent.

Listen and download from iTunes.

Watch a video from a 2007 performance in France

Scott Fields Freetet - Bitter Love Songs (Clean Feed, 2008) ***

With his guitar trio, the Scott Fields Freetet, the guitarist wants to get even for all the problems caused to him by people he trusted and especially the one he loved. The titles of the tracks leave nothing to the imagination : "Yeah, Sure, We Can Still Be Friends, Whatever", "Go Ahead, Take The Furniture, At Least You Helped Pick It Out", "My Love Is Love, Your Love Is Hate", etc, etc. And with that knowledge in mind, you would expect some raw, frustrated, angry or even violent music, or at best some sad blues-drenched wailing. What you get is nothing of the sort, though. You get abstract and free music, nervous and agitated, often sounding like Joe Morris, all in the mid-tempo range, with the exception of the fifth track, "I Was Good Enough For You Until Your Friends Butted In", which is a little slower and closer to a blues in form and feeling. Sebastian Gramss on bass and João Lobo on drums play well and supportive, because Fields is not always easy to follow. Despite many good ideas, the emotional disconnect between theme and form is too big a gap to bridge for me. This soft-toned, gentle, open yet nervous music is the opposite of the destructive anger you would expect. Fields would have done better by presenting is music "as is", leaving more to the listener's imagination, rather than pointing the direction with words. Now, it's just a nice album which will certainly be of interest to modern guitar-players.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Toshinori Kondo - Silent Melodies (Off, 2007) **½

Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo has quite a track record. He has played fusion, free jazz with Brötzmann (Die Like A Dog, Little Birds Have Fast Hearts), John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and he has had his own rock-band IMA, and he figured in more modern combinations with DJ Krush and others. Overall, he must have made over a hundred recorded performances.

On "Silent Melodies", he moves into a more spiritual atmosphere, playing solo with lots (I mean lots) of electronics. If my information is right, this must be his third solo release, after Touchstone (1993), and Fukyo (2004). He also made a DVD, based on his Blow The Earth Project, of which you can watch a clip below. The music on this album is very comparable to what you can see on the video. Long melancholy pieces, hesitating between real spirituality and new age kitsch, between humility and self-indulgence.

Without a doubt, Toshinori Kondo has great technique, but you need more to be a great artist, such as musical vision and creativity.

In certain moods at certain moments, this music can be of interest, though it tends to get boring after a while.

Rob Brown Ensemble - Crown Trunk Root Funk (AUM Fidelity, 2008) ****

Saxophonist Rob Brown is not only a pleasure to hear in the various bands he's a member of, but all the albums he released under his own name are all of interest. The reason : he has a great sense of music, combining strong and creative melodic approaches with rhythmic inventiveness, without losing touch with the jazz tradition, and above all : the emotional power of his alto is probably the greatest fun. His ensemble for this album consists of Craig Taborn on piano and electronics, William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The first track "Rocking Horse", sucks the listener headfirst into Brown's universe, with a strong bass vamp, great drumming by Cleaver, wonderful and sometimes eery accents by Taborn, and with Brown soaring above, through and under the music. It's the first time Brown records with a pianist in one of his own bands (not taking his duets with Shipp into account), and the collaboration works well, especially because Brown's themes are often strange, with high intervallic jumps, as on "Clearly Speaking", but in unison with the keyboards the result is excellent. On "Sonic Ecosystem", the slow theme is played by sax and arco bass in together from beginning to end, above Taborn's changing electronic tapestry, subtly supported by Cleaver. More than on his other album's, Brown compositional skills come to the fore, without relinquishing the necessary freedom to make his music breathe and live. Especially the last track, "Worlds Spinning" is worth mentioning, because of the totally free middle part, in which Parker's arco creates a great musical environment for Brown's free and sensitive blowing. And that's when I find this band is strongest : when the music is open-ended and not too much orchestrated.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Schizo Quartet - Don't Answer It (Loose Torque, 2008) ****½

The Schizo Quartet is Jon Corbett on trumpet and Nick Stephens on bass. Yes, a quartet consisting of two musicians. Hence the "schizo". Corbett and Stephens have a long musical history together, going back to the late 70s when they were both member of John Stevens' "Away". What you hear on the nine tracks on this album, is a conversation between two friends, without purpose or direction, telling each other stories in their own musical language, reacting and commenting upon the other one's ideas. These two artists have nothing to prove anymore, and that is probably one of the main strengths of this album. The conversations they have are insteresting ones to follow, at times fluent, then halting, or calm or agitated, sometimes the two come to an agreement and find each other in the same tonal region, knodding heavily as they reach a common understanding in staccato blasts with nervously plucked bass or in slow horn tones accompanied by soft arco bass. On the title track, you can hear a phone ring after about 4 minutes, hence the title : "Don't Answer It", with the underlying idea : "what we are doing here is much more important/fun than anything else that might disturb us". And rightly so.

The two musicians exploit all their instrumental skills, with all the different shadings and tones that they can create. "In Vino Veritas" gives a nice example of this, Corbett's double-toned trumpet-playing, half-muted and open, is echoed by Stephens' alternating plucking and bowing, and what you hear, surprisingly, comes close to the sound you expect to hear from a quartet.

This music has no structure, no purpose, other than the joy of playing these notes together, in its most minimalistic and pleasurable context, act and react, incite and create. It is full of expectations and little surprises at what might come next, listening intently. It is not angry. It doesn't want to shock, or even break boundaries. It has no further aspirations. It just is. It is open. It is totally free. It just is. And it sounds great too.

Listen to
Loose Talk
Smoking Room

Order from Loose Torque.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kreng - DJ set

Now here is an interesting concept by Belgian DJ Kreng : take 24 free jazz or avant-garde solo albums and mix them into one. In itself this is of course an utterly bizarre notion, like cutting copies of abstract paintings into pieces to use the lines to create something else. By doing that much of the original artistry is destroyed, both in intention and in performance. But so what? Why not use the notes, bits and pieces of phrases and create something else out of it? In my eyes this is the exact opposite of what free jazz is all about - there is no spontaneity, no improvization, no authenticity, no group interaction, no emotional directness ... So we need other criteria to evaluate this. I will let you judge it for yourself.

Download the entire mix Kreng DJ Set

For more information on the initiative : here is the link to FantOOm Records. The full list of the original material is also to be found on this website. You can of course challenge yourself. Listen to it first and see whether you can identify the music's origin.

Maya Homburger - plays J.S. Bach and Barry Guy (Maya, 2008) *****

I grew up with Bach (dad) and Louis Armstrong (mom). Classical music and jazz, and especially free jazz, are more related than some people would want to accept. Often the string players or string ensembles are the first to agree with this, for obvious reasons. Especially violinists and cellists. Once in while a pianist too, but it's often an either/or situation. Jarrett played both, so did Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, but neither of them integrated jazz and classical, they kept their output as separate releases. But that's not what I mean. Classical music, and especially baroque music and free jazz are really close relations : the music has an unadultered purity, a directness combined with instrumental virtuosity, musical wealth (anything goes), and emotional strength. The only difference that the first is fully composed and the other fully improvised (and even one and the other are not entirely true). "Bang On A Can" already moved in that direction, but what Maya Homburger does here, is really strong. Yes, she plays Bach, but how, reverent, but different than the original, without hesitating to slow down the process, to bring a really idiosyncratic performance. She starts with Bach violin sonatas, then moves into the lengthy middle part, Barry Guy's Aglais, then ends with Bach's partitas for solo violin.

A risky endeavour. But the result is brilliant.

I know it's not jazz. Nevertheless, it's brilliant.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jason Kao Hwang's Edge - Stories Before Within (Innova, 2008) ****

This is violinist Jason Kao Hwang's second release with his "Edge" band, consisting of Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Ken Filiano on bass and Andrew Drury on drums, and like the previous release, the music is excellent, open to world influences or modern classical while being predominantly jazz. Jason Kao Hwang mixes these different influences, both thematically and rhythmically into new musical forms, drawing "the improviser forward into a place in which they reveal their essence,” he writes in the liner notes. “We hear each individual musician spontaneously respond to the vibration field that illuminates what the heart searches for. Improvisation discovers and reveals another universe.” The pieces' length allow for such long and open variation, mood, tempo and style changes. "Cloud Call" starts with almost classical violin, then moving into mid-tempo improvisation, coming to a climax half-way with the whole band, then falling away and leaving the space to Taylor Ho Bynum to give a great and sensitive improvisation, spurred on by Filiano, and ending in a joyful and spirited manner by the whole band. "From East Sixth Street" starts funky with drums, bass and trumpet, moving into a great violin and arco bass duet in the middle part, a nice drum part by Drury, and ending with the core theme. "Walking Pictures", is bluesy, with walking bass and moody trumpet, evolving into a more avant rhythmless expressiveness when the violin takes over, screeching and crying, and back to walking bass in more traditional form, leading to a great impactful bass solo by Filiano. "Third Sight" is influenced by Korean music, starting with a unisono theme and otherwise not special if it weren't again for Filiano's playing. The last track "Embers" is a winner. The slow viola intro, accompanied by sparse trumpet notes, very light and very deep, moody and abstract, and when Filiano joins on arco and Drury accentuates with great cymbal work, the musical richness becomes complete, for a real slow impressionistic piece with stellar bowing work by both Jason Kao Hwang and Ken Filiano. In all, an excellent album with four great musicians, great musical vision by Jason Kao Hwang.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Matthew Shipp - Right Hemisphere (RogueArt, 2008) ****½

Matthew Shipp (piano) and Rob Brown (alto sax) have played a lot together before, and released some great duo recordings, and Brown, Whit Dickey (drums) and Joe Morris (bass) have performed a lot together too (and recorded at least on all Dickey's albums), but they never released an album as a quartet. That's what we get here. The title itself is a paradox of sorts. Shipp explains in the liner notes that the right hemisphere is "the intuitive side of the brain, the god part of the brain, the part that processes in wholes not in linear sequences, the part that is out of time and rooted in eternity". Now, saying that, and claiming that as the underlying process for the album is very much a left hemisphere thing to do, rooted in the rational, part of the conceptual. Hence the paradox. And the music reflects that paradox. The concept for the 11 tracks are pre-discussed, abstractly without rehearsal, yet the performance results from the musicians' improvisation on it, interacting and creating the concept together. In most of the tracks, Shipp is one of the most decisive factors in the overall direction of the piece, setting the tone and the atmosphere, yet without taking leadership, easily offering the lead voice to Brown, whose unbelievably strong emotional playing is a pleasure to hear. Shipp is a true master in getting the best out of his band-mates, and not only on this album, even to the extent that he is absent on two tracks. And that works well too : Brown, Morris and Dickey unleash all their skills on "Falling In", and then you think you've heard some strong emotinal playing, until you hear the short piano solo ballad on which Shipp demonstrates his sensitivity. But the quartet goes way beyond pure emotions, creating art for the sake of art, searching novelty and pattern-breaking approaches in order to get this new expressiveness, this new sound. It's avant-garde in that sense, but with a high emotional component, as can be heard on "Hyperspace", but especially on "Lava". The last track "Red In Gray" is an absolute beauty, a mid-tempo improvisation, still agitated, but less nervous, more coherent, more soulful too, than some of the other more abstract tracks on the CD. "Pent-up pensiveness erupting like into volcanic tides of overflowing Lava smothering breathing swinging hot drum solo deep within the core where always this earth is alive slipping ever so gently Red In Gray elegantly reuniting us with the flesh where one barely feels the blood as it flows thru the ashes back into our hearts warming our bones", that's how Steve Dalachinsky describes those two tracks, and that's pretty close to what I thought, yet a little more right hemisphere.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Barry Guy/Mats Gustafsson/Raymond Strid - Tarfala (Maya, 2008) ****

Raw power, pure energy, free adventure, channeled and controlled music is what you get on this live recording from a performance at Culturen Västerås, Sweden, 2006, by bassist Barry Guy, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and percussionist Raymond Strid. But more importantly, the trio does it together, extremely close together. You will hear things here that you will have rarely heard, going deep, especially in the middle of the title track. Listen how the trio moves from very "vertical" staccato percussive musical note-dropping to an almost instantaneous outburst of long notes, pizzi to arco, and long wailing sounds on the sax, then slowly bass and drums start propulsing the tune forward, increasing the rhythmic intensity ... then some soft notes and the whole thing falls into silence for some hesitating solo sax tones, and the two other musicians follow suite in a very sensitive subdued fashion, barely disturbing silence, ending in some fluttering sounds, strongly driven by Guy's bass. The second track is quieter, more contemplative at moments, with some squeaking sounds explorations for a short term, yet moving back to silence, as if a flock of birds were disturbed and calmed again. "Icefall", the third track, is again sufficiently lengthy to allow for broad sound explorations, starting with unrelenting power play, then slowing down and even coming close to a melodic approach, with a subtle and sensitive finale. In the last track, Gustafsson switches to baritone sax, going low and deep, while Guy by contrast goes more regularly into the high notes on his bass. This piece, although it starts with pointillistic splatters, evolves into somehting fierce and violent and it is a great closer for this excellent free performance. And even the musicians enjoyed the result.

Mats Gustafsson describes it as follows : "I have no idea what we were eating and drinking that day in Lennart Nilsson's rockin' and dynamic club in the old industrial town of Västerås, but for sure there was a different kind of music coming out of our instruments that night! Listening back to it makes me wanna dance, scream and fly (all at once, of course) The flow, the flooooow and the brutal energy of the music just makes me smile (and I tell you, listening back to my own music usually doesn't make me wanna smile that often), and smile for a long time."

And smile he should.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Chopsticks - Chopsticks (Chopsticks Records, 2007) ***

Chopsticks is a new Belgian jazz label, and their first release carries the same name. It's a compilation of music by four bands that all partly consist of the same musicians, bringing music that is related like distant cousins, all jazz, all adventurous without taking too many risks, some more avant, some more world, some more fusion. The musicians are very good, and we can only encourage their new initiative, even if the record lacks a little coherence. The individual bands sound promising (although I really don't like rap music, as Barkin' does on one track), and the next thing they will have to do is to create a little more of a unique style. Dare let go, guys...find your own voice.

Moker is :
Mathias Van de Wiele (guitar-composition)
Bart Maris (trumpet-flugelhorn-electronics)
Zeger Vandenbussche (tenor saxophone)
Dajo De Cauter (double bass)
Giovanni Barcella (drums)

Brick Quartet is :
Mathias Van de Wiele (guitars, alto horn)
Dimitri Simoen (drums, bass clarinet)
Lode vercampt (cello)
Ben Sluijs (sax, flute)
Joachim Badenhorst (clarinets, tenor sax)

Barkin' is :
Steven Segers (vocals)
Mathias Van de Wiele (guitars, alto horn)
Dimitri Simoen (drums, bass clarinet)
Zeger Vandenbussche (tenor sax)
Tom Callens (alto sax)

Prak is :
Mathias Van de Wiele (guitars, alto horn)
Dimitri Simoen (drums, bass clarinet)
Bart maris (trumpet, electronics)
Dajo De Cauter (double bass)
Giovanni Barcella (drums, poetry)
Zeger Vandenbussche (tenor sax)
Lode vercampt (cello)

Listen to
Brick Band : Zoonomia
Prak : Deformita' e Constanza
Moker : SOS
Barkin' : Smells Like ...

(I must add that these samples do not really do much credit to the quality of the music on the CD)

Etienne de la Sayette - Treize Duos En Forme De Banane (Petit Label, 2006) ****

If you like sophisticated and sober world jazz, then you will like this CD by Etienne de la Sayette, a French reed player, who also plays kaval, bamboo flute, whistle. On these thirteen duets, he is consecutively accompanied by Emmanuel Duprey on piano, N. Prévôt, S. Montagny, C. Heyman, T. Henning on conch shells, Philippe Guyard on accordion, Nicolas Talbot on bass, Korish Tabba on oud, Youval Micenmacher on tof and bendir, Florient Guibert on didjeridoo, Sylvain Gontard on flugelhorn, Otso Lahdeoja on banjo, Vincent Leguéné on congas, Azraël Tomé on mandolin and finally Cyrille Méchin on clarinet. The music is nice, excellent, rhytmic and fresh. The variety of approaches and instrumentation gives this album a wide range of musical influences too, and some interesting new try-outs (as an example, listen to "La Complainte Des Cons" below, in which the conch shells form a great rhythmic basis for the soprano to soar freely). Some music is plain European folk music from a variety of influences, but mainly from France and the Balkan. Most tracks would fall under world fusion or world jazz categories, although the musicians don't shy away from new things. The great success of de la Fayette's approach is the unpretentious approach, bringing intimacy and openness at the same time. Fans of The Paradox Trio or The Tin Hat Trio will certainly enjoy this music.

Listen to
Valse Des Nuages
La Complainte Des Cons
Liti Tapa/Audrey

Friday, March 14, 2008

Matana Roberts - The Chicago Project (Central Control, 2008) ****

I'm so happy to hear a new Matana Roberts album. Her Sticks & Stones records are worth looking for, especially Shed Grace, because she is a wonderful synthesist, integrating the best of modern free jazz in her music, as she does here. At least the sound quality is much better than last year's Utech release (see also her comment about this). Her quartet consists of herself on alto, Jeff Parker on guitar, Josh Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums, all Chicagoans, hence the title. Her compositions are very melodic and rhythmic, yet very free at the same time, very soulful and bluesy, in the best AACM tradition. And the great thing here is the variation she brings into every piece, which are well-structured, with lots of style variations, rhythm and tempo changes, while maintaining this free edge. The addition of Jeff Parker on guitar is a good one, because his playing is at times harsh and unpredictable, pushing Roberts into new musical areas, and at other times, gentle and traditional as can be, as on "Nomra". Roberts's tone is warm and clear, and her indebtedness to Coltrane is clear, both in her playing as in her composing, especially on "Love Call" and "South By West". The first is initially as expansive and spiritual in its approach as Coltrane himself, yet moving into Brötzmann territory, the latter ends in a beautiful duet with Parker's guitar. Fred Anderson is her sparring partner on three sax duets : "Birdhouse 1", "Birdhouse 2" and "Birdhouse 3". Despite these tracks improvisational abstractness, the soulful and bluesy undertone remains a constant. Yet the most beautiful piece is "Exchange", which shifts from a free boppy high intensity start, past some abstract unisono transition into an absolutely wonderful bluesy melody, then to free improv, and back again. A rich, creative, expressive, varied and synthetic album. We need more of this.

Listen to
Love Call
Birdhouse 2

You can download from

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Roy Campbell - Akhnaten Suite (AUM Fidelity, 2008) *****

Roy Campbell has always been one of my favorite musicians, because of the unbelievable emotional strength of his trumpet playing and his musical vision. For this album, recorded live at the Vision Festival in 2007, he teams up with some of his former band-mates and musical friends : Billy Bang on violin, Bryan Carrott on vibraharp, Hilliard Greene on bass and Zen Matsuura on drums. Truth be told, I am not a fan of the violin (in a jazz context) nor of the vibraphone (in general), with some exceptions of course. Luckily, this is one of those exceptions. Campbell has always had an interest in ancient Egypt, and this is his second Nile Suite if you want, the first one is the one with Dennis Gonzalez (highly recommended). This album is very much in the same vein, with long slow pieces, full of middle-eastern scales and spiritual yearning. The pieces all are relatively traditional in their format, with a strong rhythmic basis and a recognisable theme. The rhythms are jazzy, middle-eastern and even a little Latin at times. The themes are long, broad, dramatic, cinematic, impressive and imposing, nicely evoking the power and the spiritual vision of the great pharaoh Akhnaten, who - in order to break the power of the ruling classes of priests - claimed that there was only one god. A major epidemic outbreak swept through the region, killing a large part of the population. His opponents claimed that this was caused by the wrath of the gods. His son Tutankhamun succeeded him on the throne at the age of nine. After his reign, his religious beliefs were overruled by the class of priests, and both father and son were even deleted from all records in the pharaoh' lineage. So - drama enough to inspire Campbell's fantastic suite, in which his trumpet-playing deservedly plays a major role, with Bang and Carrott nicely contributing and offering the necessary depth and contrast. Campbell's soloing is melodic but above all wailing and crying, varying between intimacy and powerplay, and emotionally strong in a way that few trumpeters can equal. Green and Matsuura's contributions are excellent and very functional in helping to create the overall coherent atmosphere. Grand and majestic music!

I am a fan of Campbell, so my review may be a little too subjective.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Read more on Akhnaten on Wikipedia, to which I added Campbell's new album.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

60,000 visits

Today this blog reached 60,000 visits since its creation a little over a year ago (and that on my birthday, what a present!).

If you google "free jazz", this blog now figures on the third spot after Wikipedia and, not bad I would say...

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I want to thank all the musicians and labels that send me their material for review. Keep doing it, there aren't that many outlets for non-traditional music.

Thank you all for the interest and thank you for promoting good music.

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Charles Lloyd Quartet - Rabo de Nube (ECM, 2008) ***

Charles Lloyd is one of those musicians who totally threw me off balance when I saw him perform with his Sangam trio some years ago, with Zakir Hussain on tabla and Eric Harland on drums. What they brought was absolutely fantastic, as was the album with the same name. So is Lloyd's duet album with Billy Higgins, "Which Way Is East" (and of course Forest Flower, but that's another story). Most of his other albums were of the kind that you appreciate for their accessible emotionalism and great execution, but almost too sweet and too polished. The same impression strikes me with this live album. Again, the musicians are great : Jason Moran on piano, Eric Harland on drums and Ruben Rogers on bass. Yet the adventure is gone. Tracks such as "Migration Of The Spirit" are soft mainstream tracks, on "Booker's Garden", even Latin rhythmic influences come up to support his playing of the flute, "Ramanujan" goes even more into world music territory when he picks up his taragato, but a mere shadow of the music on Sangam. On the long "Promethius" the whole band can demonstrate their skills, and they do it well too, but the whole thing never really gets off the ground, never strikes a chord, does not create a novel listening experience. It's all a little bit too mellow for me. "Rabo De Nube" literally means "tail of the cloud" in Spanish, a poetic concept, yet in South American Spanish it means "tornado", as it was meant in the original song by Silvio Rodriguez. I think here it means the former, I wish it was more of the latter.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Between silence and noise - what is music?

I often get reactions from my close family members (wife, children) like "How can you listen to that stuff?", "Is that music?". And they have a point. Because that's what I thought too, many years ago. I could not understand how anyone could listen to this kind of noise (free jazz, avant-garde jazz, free improv, ...). Today, I realise that much of the music I liked then, so many years ago, now comes across as bland, superficial, uninteresting and boring. Personal taste evolves, but not for everything. The great masters still hold strong, and that's probably what makes them masters.

There is a lot of music that I still do not understand. Some for cultural reasons (Chinese music!), some because probably my mind is not open enough, or simply not big enough to understand all the nuances and subtleties.

Here are two recent albums, which are very close to one another, yet miles apart in my appreciation. And I'm not sure why.

Jean-Luc Guionnet / Seijiro Murayama - Le Bruit du Toit (Xing-Wu Records, 2007)


The first, by French saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet and Japanese percussionist Seijiro Murayama is called "Le Bruit Du Toit", "the sound of the roof". This is zen music. There is more silence than music (I kept turning up the volume at first, but there was nothing to hear ...). And when there is music, it is mostly Guionnet playing one single tone in all its variations (if that's not a zen paradox, I don't know what a paradox is), multiphonic, with different pitch, shading the sound color. The other sounds you hear is the roof of the zen temple creaking, and the occasional percussive noise by Murayama, although he gets all intense at the end of the first track. This is music which creates a tiny ripple effect on a silent pond, a breeze on a still lake, a shadow of a cloud. Gentle, music as a hesitating question, as a refusal of anything more than this simple sound, the absence of expectations. Despite the sparsity of it all, I can listen to it, I can even enjoy it. It is even impressive in its uncompromising rich emptiness.

Tim Barnes, Nate Wooley & Jason Roebke Trio (Esquilo Records, 2008)

By comparison, percussionist Tim Barnes, trumpeter Nate Wooley and bassist Jason Roebke just released (100 copies only) their first trio album, called "Trio". The comparison with Guionnet/Murayama is in place, because silence also dominates this record. You do not hear percussion, you do not hear a trumpet, you do not hear a bass. The only thing you hear are some ruffling sounds, some whispers, air escaping valves, some crackles maybe, a few unidentified sounds. I listened to this album. I listened to it twice. I don't know what it says. I don't know what it means. Maybe it says a lot, too much for me to grasp. It makes me feel small if that's the case. Maybe it says nothing. Maybe it's just pulling my leg. It makes me feel silly if that's the case. Yet I know these musicians. I know of their skills in more "traditional" environments. They are excellent musicians. Why would they use their talents for this kind of music? I appreciate their search, yet I do not even understand what they are searching for.

There isn't that much difference between the two records, though. Silence and limited sounds. The first is musical and understandable. The second offers nothing more than meaningless sounds to me. I do not even understand the difference of my appreciation between both albums. Maybe one day I will understand. Maybe one day, I will hear what I miss today, like some years ago, when I did not like what I like today. The variability of judgment. The absense of universal truths. Maybe one day, this will be a great album.

Order from Xing-Wu records.
Order from Esquilo records.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Aki Takase & Silke Eberhard - Ornette Coleman Anthology (Intakt, 2007) ****½

Silke Eberhard is a German alto saxophonist and clarinetist, and Aki Takase a Japanse pianist. Together they take on Ornette Coleman's early compositions, using the tunes in the best of jazz traditions, undoing most of the "free" element in the process, bringing the essence of the melody in a compact, reverent, almost classical form. What you get are 36 Coleman compositions each lasting on average 3 minutes. And the great thing is that it works! Eberhard's playing is nothing short of stellar, rich in tone, full of controlled emotion, accurate and free. Her way of carrying the tune and expanding on it, is really wonderful. Eberhard's rendition of "Lonely Woman" alone is fabulous, slow, precise, deep while Takase limits herself to some soft chordal support (on this track at least). The two musicians approach Coleman's music from various angles, exploring the melodies, the rhythms and the overall feeling with all the wealth of their rich musical baggage. Modern classical music is at times as much present as honky-tonk jazz from the bars of New Orleans, and everything in between. Listen how Takase plays "The Sphinx", referencing almost the entire music history in one tune, from Mozart to wild atonal freedom! Their joy in playing Coleman's tunes is overly present in every note they play, and that's possibly the greatest part of the album. The fun is almost tangible, and the light playfulness of Ornette's compositions has rarely been brought in this way, with the exception of Don Cherry. Pieces such as "Round Trip", are caught in their very essence, depite the fact that the track is only a little longer than one minute. Two great masters of their instrument demonstrate what music is all about. Apart from their great performance here, they demonstrate again that Ornette Coleman is really one of the great composers of the last century ... in any genre. If you're interested in Coleman, this record is not to be missed.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Trio X - The Train & The River (CIMP, 2008) -- DVD

I've just watched this new DVD on CIMP, bringing a documentary on Trio X's performance in Vilnius, Lithuania in 2006. The documentary consists of interviews, mostly with McPhee and Duval, and some insights by Jay Rosen at the end, interspersed with footage of the performance and very colorful images of trains, tracks, rivers and a "lonely woman" character. The title "The Train And The River" refers to the Jimmy Giuffre song, but has to be seen here as symbolical, with "the train" standing for the journey of being on the road, but also of musical travels and "the river" symbolising life itself. The documentary is nice, and it's great to hear musicians speak about their art. McPhee speaks about his youth and influences, about musical classification (terms such as "free jazz" and "avant-garde" don't mean anything), about spiritualism and romanticism. Yet the music is of course the most interesting part. And the few fragments (but fragments only!) are astonishingly good, with the band playing its recent playlist, including their variation on My Funny Valentine, of God Bless The Child and of Coleman's Lonely Woman. It's really too bad that CIMP did not profit from the occasion to do the same thing as RogueArt did with the Peter Kowald documentary : to release the DVD together with the CD. I know I have this special favoritism for "Lonely Woman", but McPhee's rendition is among the most beautiful and most sensitive to be heard. It would be a shame to keep it to these few snippets on the documentary without making the full version available (true : also to be found on "Playing With The Elements" and on "Roulette At Location One", but not as powerful as here). The appetites are wet, the hunger remains...

Watch video excerpt on the Trio X website.

Kevin Frenette Four - Connections (Fuller Street Music, 2007) ****

"Boston is just a stone's throw from New York, and yet the two cities are worlds apart, as far as music is concerned. While the spirit of jazz has haunted the streets of New York for a hundred years, jazz music is more of an intellectual affair in Boston. (...) Nevertheless, musicians such as Joe Morris and Joe Maneri have managed to develop an idiom whose unmistakable unification of intellectual calculation, uncompromising desire for independence, expressive fire and introverted nobility could only be possible in Boston's musical climate". The words are not mine, but those of Wolf Kampmann on the liner notes of Bostonian Jeff Platz's Bright Light Group of several years ago, yet the same text could have figured on guitarist Kevin Frenette's debut album, on which he is joined by Andy McWain on piano, Todd Keating on bass and Tatsuya Nakatani on percussion. You don't have to look far for the intellectualism with track titles such as "Network Theory", "Logic Synthesis", "Correlation Coefficient", "Combinatorial Mathematics", etc. ... which are as far removed from the soul and blues tradition of jazz as can be imagined. Despite it's abstract nature, the quartet's musical approach is interesting. Without clear compositions, it brings nervous and agitated music, intense and busy. It often reminded me of Jackson Pollock's approach to painting : the whole canvas is full with streaks and splatters of paint. There are no clear reference points or figurative possibilities, yet the overall effect is coherent, balanced and even symmetrical. There is structure, but not in a melodic, rhythmic or temporal sense. The four musicians play together, almost all the time simultaneously, with short bursts of notes and phrases, almost unconnected within the playing of the individual instrument, yet very much connected to the whole, built around a tonal center. The third track "Logic Synthesis" brings a little bit of a breathing pause in the album, leaving more space and openness in the music. The longest track "Combinatorial Mathematics", is also quite open too, and probably emotionally the most expressive, if that notion is applicable to this kind of music. Not all the tracks are successful, but the skills of the four musicians in delivering the goods is excellent, making this highly unusual approach something worth listening to. Because of the music, Frenette, McWain, Keating and Nakatani all individually create interesting new explorations of their own instruments. But you will need some open ears at times. To end with a more famous quote by Thelonious Monk : "You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong. It’s making it sound right that’s not easy" (although I'm not sure in which category Monk himself would have put Frenette's music, I would put it in the latter).

Listen, download or order from CDBaby.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mark Helias' Open Loose - Strange Unison (Radio Legs, 2008)****

Mark Helias' Open Loose trio consists of himself on bass, Tom Rainey on drums and Tony Malaby on sax. And yes, what more can you ask for in jazz-land? All three musicians have an extraordinary track record and resume, and are hence much in demand, with Helias and Rainey figuring easily on more than 100 CDs, and Malaby on more than 50. And they are not just mere creative instrumentalists who fit in any musical environment, their level of artistry is high too, as was already demonstrated on the previous albums of the trio. "Strange Unison", falls perfectly within the line of expectations. This means that the musical quality is high throughout, with nice compositions, a great rhythmic drive and great soloing, free and unbound, yet all within the range of what can be called "accessible", full of emotional power and creative interplay. It also means that a little bit of the risk and the adventure are gone, but what the heck, who cares?

Listen to
Blue Light Down The Line

Jason Stein's Locksmith Isidore - A Calculus Of Loss (Clean Feed, 2008) ****

"Locksmith Isidore" is a trio consisting of Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Kevin Davis on cello and Mike Pride on percussion. Locksmith Isidore is also Jason Stein's grandfather, figuring on the cover. Stein has played on some real free albums in the past year, Bridge 61, with Ken Vandermark, Kyle Bruckman's Wrack and in Keefe Jackson's Project. Mike Pride received good marks from your servant for his "Scrambler" last year, because of his uncompromosing approach. Stein started playing clarinet only when he was twenty, obsessed as he became with jazz after listening to Monk and Dolphy. That fascination drove him to study music at Michigan University where he graduated. Kevin Davis was unknown to me, and appears to be an experimental and free jazz cellist now living in Chicago. His cello-playing on this album is mostly limited to pizzicato playing. The music the trio performs here is special. Their approach is light, open, with lots of space for the individual musicians. The first track is very gentle, with all three musicians outdoing themselves in the softness of their touch and the sparsity in the use of notes, as if they were a rare commodity, to be used with care and in rationed amounts. The second track is more assertive in tone, with stop-and-go rhythms, now aggressive, then plaintive wails coming from the bass clarinet, all improvised but with a strong unity and focus in the approach. Only the third track, "That's Not A Closet", has a more traditional structure : a joyful theme is expanded upon with some raw improvisation. The longest piece, "Caroline And Sam" starts with slow experimental sounds, one woven on top of the other, more avant-garde than jazz, but gradually, ever so slowly, the cello starts playing some gentle and graceful arpeggios, accentuated by light vibe sounds, as a fragile lullaby. And that's probably the strength of Stein's musical approach : he loves sounds and he loves silence and he loves intimacy and the possibilities of free forms. Yet the trio does not shy away from intense interplay either, as they demonstrate on the fifth track, on which Davis plays arco, competing with Stein in shrillness of sound and both with Pride in some rapid machine gun interaction, but never (totally) out of control, using intensity to emphasize the contrast with the soft underbelly of their improv. The last track is again in a fully composed form, unisono even, sweet and nice, fading out in 30 seconds of absolute silence, resigned. A young band with a great musical vision and strong emotional approach.

Ulrich Drechsler - Daily Mysteries (Cracked An Egg, 2007) ***½

Much in the same vein as his previous album, "Humans & Places", Ulrich Drechsler continues with sad, sophisticated jazz, that falls within the post-bop category. Next to Drechsler on bass clarinet, the trio further consists of Heimo Trixner on Guitar and Jörg Mikula on drums. Much as on the previous album, human emotions play a central role. Not the all-important dramatic incidents, but the daily mysteries, these little things that affect us, quietly, compassionately, tenderly, ... And so is the music. Despite the drums, this can be qualified as chamber jazz, because the mood is still, the moment silent, the context calm. Drechsler looks for the esthetics in melody and performance, and he succeeds well in this endeavour. His playing is great, subtle, full of nuance and emotional depth. Adding the guitar to replace piano and drums gives his music an even stronger fragile touch of vulnerability. Both Trixner and Mikula are excellent, not only technically, but especially in capturing the mood of the music in all its openness and frozen emotions. For lonely or even romantic late evening moments ... and therefore a little too soft in its approach for my taste.

Listen and download from eMusic or from Crackshop.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Mark O'Leary/Dylan Van Der Schyff/Wayne Horvitz - Flux (FMR, 2007) ****½

The title "Flux" gives a good idea what the music sounds like : fluid, forward motion. And that's how the music is, almost ethereal, with low density, floating, flowing. The Irish guitarist continues on this album with the concept he started with Mat Maneri and Matthew Shipp on "Chamber Trio", only now the guitar comes often close to the sound of Maneri's viola. Using his foot switch, the attack on the strings is muted, giving the low-toned sustained guitar sounds an ebb and flow feel. O'Leary is accompanied by Dylan Van der Schyff and Wayne Horvitz. Horvitz certainly is hard to compare to Matthew Shipp, yet his bluesy and less cerebral playing gives the music a rich feel, and Van der Schyff's precise and accentuating drumming is a great asset in giving this flowing music some depth. The music itself is highly unusual, impressionistic, panoramic, mostly without discernible melody or rhythm, without soloing even : the three musicians play as one entity, interweaving sounds to create a light texture, full of possibilities, full of emotional span, often very much in the same vein as ECM music from the eighties, yet without the cold remoteness. The most "traditional" tune, if that word can be used, is "Contextual", in which a typical Horvitz approach in his Sweeter-Than-The-Day-style can be heard, bluesy and rich. This is intimate, elegant and soft meditative music. Mark O'Leary is a true artist : his artistic project appears to be his main concern, not the demonstration of his skills. I saw him perform recently on a more fusion-inspired gig, and he can play as fast as the so-called guitar heroes, making the restraint he demonstrates here, in this calculated sound pointillism, even the more attractive and worthy of respect. Through their improvisations, the three musicians create something unique, quite coherent, reacting fast to each other while moving on in the same direction, like waves forming a stream. As the CD moves on, the music gets a more eery, abstract quality, with some uncanny sounds, yet very intimate as well, and it's unclear whether it's sad, calm, anxious or all together, as the flow of life itself ...

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Diablo En Musica - Improvisations (Out In Space, 2008) ****½

Diablo En Musica is a free jazz band consisting of Herb Robertson on trumpet, Rich Messbauer on bass and Tom Sayek on drums and percussion. The album is structured in two suites "On The Phone" and "Sound Mind", the first consisting of seven tracks, the second of eight. This is free and rhytmic improvisation, with three musicians showing their instrumental skills, but more importantly also their ability to create coherent music full of intensity and openness. The music itself, with all its emotional range, gets the central place, with an exceptional sense of unity despite the variation. Some tracks are solo (bass), some duo (drum/bass, drum/trumpet, bass/trumpet) and some trio, which does not give a real feeling of a band playing music, yet that 's not really important. It's the music and the overall effect that counts. Those familiar with Herb Robertson should not be deterred by his reputation of very avant-garde releases, because this album is relatively accessible, quite soulful, meditative at moments, with more often than not a rhythmic foundation. Themes and melodies are absent, but the sheer musicality of the album transcends the need for those. I hope this is not a one-time effort by this band. Highly recommended.

Listen and download from CDBaby.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Peter Kowald & Laurence Petit-Jouvet - Off The Road (RogueArt, 2007) ****

Hurray for the courage of the French label RogueArt for releasing this superb double DVD + CD in one package, documenting a visit by Peter Kowald to the United States in 2000. And not only their courage is laudable, also the unbelievable quality of the two DVD's. The first one is basically "On The Road", giving a kind of chronological overview of Kowald's trip, visits, car problems, meetings, street dialogues, snippets of performances with artists across the US, including Kidd Jordan, Marco Eneidi, Alvin Fielder (not "Fidler" as the cover announces), George Lewis, Assif Tsahar, Rashied Ali. There is music to be heard, for sure, but the overall impression of a musician on the road is the main theme, and Laurence Petit-Jouvet's documentary is so rich in content and so well filmed, that it could stand on its own, probably even of interest to people not interested in Kowald himself. The second DVD gives basically four performances, one live at the Empty Bottle with Floros Floridis on reeds and Günther Baby Sommer on drums, the second with Ken Vandermark in a studio, the third with Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake, and the fourth, the grand finale, approx 10 minutes of Kowald solo in the studio. Some of these takes can be viewed on YouTube, but they are not available for download. Apart from the sometimes great performances, the short interviews in between with the artists are often interesting and even enlightening, talking about cultural interaction, freedom (in music and society), universal language, emotional rapport, transcending one's own self-created limitations, etc.

Some of the most interesting performances (but unfortunately not the one with Floridis and Sommer) are to be found on the CD : a bass duet with William Parker, the trio with Jordan and Fielder, a duet with George Lewis on trombone, a duet with vocalist Anna Homler, a quartet with Marco Eneidi on reeds, Eddie Gale on trumpet and Donald Robinson on drums, and then the trio with Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake, and another magnificent solo bass piece, this one performed live.

The frustrating thing about this package is that you know that much of it remained unrecorded (or recorded yet unreleased). And on the other hand not everything is successful either, or at least not always to my taste. Yet for those interested, some of the performances were released by other labels, such as "Illuminations" with Gino Robair and Miya Masaoka or "Deals, Ideas and Ideals" with Tsahar and Rashied Ali and "Ghetto Calypso" with Marco Eneidi, Damon Smith and Spirit.

A great document on a great bass player.