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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Christmann- Gustafsson-Lovens - TR!O (FMP, 2010) ****

In 1994 cellist and trombonist Günter Christmann, drummer Paul Lovens and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson performed together for the first time as a trio. Now, in 2010, their performance is released on CD.

Musically, it shows that what was avant-garde then still is avant-garde today, sixteen years later, and very much so. The music also demonstrates that even within avant-garde, this trio was thinking quite ahead. What you hear is an incredibly intense interaction between three masters, barely using their instruments other than to produce sounds - not phrases, not melodies, just timbral explorations of coloring, restrained power, blocked flux, sudden release, shades, changes in intensity, and all this against a broad canvas of silence.

Critics who claim that all modern and avant-garde jazz is just noise will find both denial and confirmation here.
It is not noise in the traditional sense : the volume is kept down, allowing for even the most subtle of movements to be picked up by the mikes. No other music, not even classical chamber music, allows for such nuance of sound perception.
Yet it is noise in its most traditional sense, in its most primitive and basic meaning : what you hear are scraping, screeching,clattering, gurgling, hammering, hissing, shouting, rumbling, ticking, weeping, thundering, chattering, ... all coming out of instruments, not in a structure, but raw and in immediate reaction or as propulsion for other sounds.

Ten years ago, I would have run away from this as fast as I could, arms in the air screaming bloody horror.

Today, and don't ask me why, I can listen to this intently, as I have done several times back-to-back and in bits and pieces, enjoying the incredible power contained, almost locked-up, in this music, full of tension despite its minimalism, with sometimes no sound, then all three simultaneously letting out a shout from their instrument, as if read from some sheet music. The greatest quality of the music is the total effect, including what is not being played, not only in the silence, but in what is being suppressed. That is by itself a rare achievement.

Watch a more recent performance by the trio. There is less silence here than on the album, but it will give you an idea of what kind of music they bring. 

© stef

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Barcella / Van Herzeele Duo - Monday Sessions Live at El Negocito (El Negocito, 2010) ***½

The cover contains no information, not even the names of the artists on the side, the sixteen page booklet has no words, only pictures. The label is totally obscure. Welcome to free jazz land. The band is Giovanni Barcella on drums and Jeroen Van Herzeele on sax.

The music is free as the wind. Raw, unrelenting, full of energy and intensity. It could go in any direction. And it does : from the wild opening track to the more sensitive gospel-like and Ayleresque second piece, which of course does not stay in sweet-and-nice-territory, but gradually develops into intense playing, with screaming sax and mayhem drumming.

The recipe is known of course, and you get what you can expect. Sure, it is not the most memorable free jazz sax-drums duo, but it sounds so real, so true, so direct, as if you were there, with two guys playing their heart out, laying bare their souls. And that is absolutely fantastic, even if the format is known.

I enjoyed every second of it, and so did the ten people in the audience.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stephen Gauci, Kris Davis, Michael Bisio - Three (Clean Feed, 2010) ****½

In the past years, I praised saxophonist Stephen Gauci's to the stars, I praised pianist Kris Davis for her innovative musical creativity, and I praised bassist Michael Bisio for his inventive and emotional playing. Then you get them as a trio, and it's a guarantee that sparks will fly.

The playing is unconventional, so is the structure of the compositions, and so are the order of the pieces, starting with "The End Must Always Come", with an intro of heads-on heavy piano chords and a frantic right hand, with Bisio's bass trying to keep up with Davis's stream of consciousness. Gauci joins with short staccato bursts, then starting with wild phrases with the piano circling around the same tonal center, increasing the wild intensity, yet gradually the piano limits itself to repetitive phrasing over a single note by the bass, and beautiful soloing by the sax, full of resignation for the inevitable, giving up all struggle, leaving the floor to the polyrhythmic repetitive piano.In short, a kind of strangely evolving piece, yet full of depth, introducing the listener into a real wonderland.

"Like A Dream, A Phantom" starts with solo sax, with a piano response in an almost post-boppish way - I almost expected Davis to start grunting along like Jarrett - then shifting from slow romanticism to more intensity, with Gauci organically joining in with repetitions of the same note, the piano dropping away, and Gauci's heartrending playing tenderly supported by the warmth of the bass, mirroring the growth of intensity by the piano earlier in the piece.

The most expressive piece is without a doubt "Something From Nothing", with the piano, sax and bass playing muted percussive sounds, like a mad and relentless rhythm section, with the occasional voiced note arising out of the agitation, now a piano key, then a single sax tone, or a string plucked. The piece's magnificent restraint creates an equal level of tension, that is gradually, ever so slowly released, not in a tune, but in a rhythmic playing with the same notes, around which the three instruments start adding tiny expansions, maintaining all the while the relentless tempo they set from the start.

I will not review each track. You get the picture: each piece is carefully and inventively structured, capturing the soul of music, turning the familiar upside-down without changing it completely, offering new perspectives on interaction, making the unexpected essential in each piece, treating the listener to fantastic ear-candy and to some fun too: on "Groovin' For The Hell Of It", a quite free development suddenly hits the wall of a halted piano rhythm, going totally against the established groove, sounding like the sax is taken by surprise, but smoothing things out as they proceed. The same playfulness in the interaction can also be heard on the last track.

And despite all the wide explorations of the possibilities of the instruments, it stays relatively accessible, even Bisio's fantastic "Now", a bass solo beyond the conventional, with a few piano strings plucked in the middle part.

The album's highlight is "No Reason To Or Not To", a slow minimalist yet wonderfully lyrical piece, on which the trio sets down a mood and atmosphere with sparse sounds, not built around solos, but around a few cautious phrases.

An absolute delight, this album. You can keep listening to it: joy and new pleasures are guaranteed with each listen. Without a doubt, these three musicians understand music in a very profound way and manage to create music that is also utterly creative and deep. Don't miss it. 

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, July 26, 2010

Warning: name-dropping beware ...

When you read the names of John Coltrane or Miles Davis or other jazz legends on album covers, you have to be doubly watchful: chances are high their names are being used to get your money out of your pockets. I had never heard it done with Ornette Coleman's name, but there's a first to everything.

The sad thing about the two albums that I'm mentioning here, is that I truly appreciate the label and the musicians, but somehow both of them have missed a point.

Jamaaladeen Tacuma - Coltrane Configurations (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010)

Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma is possibly best known for his work with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time in the 70s and 80s. Here he is bringing a tribute to John Coltrane, playing "India", "Dahomey Dance", "Impressions", "Naima", and "A Love Supreme". The band is Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass guitar, Tony Kofi on alto and soprano sax, Orrin Evans on keyboards, and Jim Hutson on drums.

The music is a pitiful demonstration of technical skills over Coltrane's tortured and abused masterpieces. Coltrane's great, sweeping and compelling sound is reduced to night-club funk with slapping and wah-wah bass sounds and glittering fusion keyboards. Or Coltrane meets a third rank Bitches' Brew. It is full of pretense and false emotions, showing off, etc. And it's not that I hate Coltrane tributes, some, like Branford Marsalis' take on "A Love Supreme", I quite like even.

I think these four musicians completely misread the music of John Coltrane, even if they can play his tunes.

Dave Liebman - Turnaround - The Music Of Ornette Coleman

This album received the "Jazz Record Of The Year Award" from the German Jazz Journalists & Critics. It just shows how jazz journalists make their choices: a safe bet on Coleman as the historic jazz icon, a safe bet on Liebman the great sax-player.

The downside is what this band, further consisting of Vic Juris on acoustic and electric guitars, Tony Marino on acoustic bass, and Marko Marcinko on drums and percussion, does with Coleman's material. They turn it into your average middle-of-the-road jazz, just playing the tunes in a quite polished and orderly fashion, after having sucked out the spirit, the rebelliousness and the raw vision that the original Coleman material still has these days.

The playing itself is not middle-of-the-road though, just listen to Marcinko's drumming on "The Turnaround", or Marino's bass-playing on "The Face Of The Bass", Juris on "Bird Food", but yes, music is so much more than technical skills on an instrument. Even my all-time favorite tune, "Lonely Woman", is as on an earlier Liebman recording, reduced to new-agey pulp by his playing of the woodflute.

It is all sweet and nice, like a stuffed lion in a museum, looking quite healty, if a bit dusty, and you run no risk, there is no more danger, it doesn't move anymore, you can watch it, and remain totally indifferent. That's the advantage compared to the real stuff, which creates emotions instead of nice tunes. 

What is wrong with the "German Jazz Journalists and Critics"? What about all this other great music that is being produced, also on Jazzwerkstatt?

I also truly hate writing negative reviews, but because of the big names involved here, I thought you needed some warning. There are more valuable things to spend your money on.

© stef

Free free music

Especially in the newer regions of experimental music and avant-garde jazz, the internet offers great opportunities for promoting material that is difficult to get released by established labels. The self-promotion often coincides with a willingness to share the material freely, as a matter of necessity or of principle.

Here are a few "labels" from which you can download the material. The music is often minimalist, soundsculptures with electro-acoustic elements.

Zpoluras is the blog on which you can find different new bands, albums and links to the new labels and music. Several of the album are available for free download too. 

Paulo Chagas and Bruno Duplant - Complicity (self-published, 2010) ***½

This is a duo album by Paulo Chagas on woodwinds and field recordings and Bruno Duplant on double bass. The music is minimalist, with careful explorations of sound, quite respectful in the interaction, quite adventurous while being inobtrusive at the same time. The duo builds its sound around silence, and these sounds are often out of the ordinary. Chagas' wide choice of instruments leads to sufficient variation to keep the attention going for the whole fifteen tracks, ranging from flute on the first track, to the undefinable moan of the wind instrument on the last piece. Duplant's contribution is of the same high level, varying strongly between arco, pizzi and a whole array of uncommon sounds, including percussive ones that you can get out of a bass.

Rhizome Records is created by French bassist Bruno Duplant, and has released one album so far.

Astula Democratica - Illusio (Rhizome Records, 2010) ****

Astula Democratica is built around the same core musicians : Paulo Chagas on winds, reeds, violin & some electronics, José Oliveira on percussion and amplified objects, Bruno Duplant on double bass, violin, acoustic guitar with objects, and toy electronics. On some tracks the band is expanded with Fernando Simoes on trombone &amp voice, and Philippe Lenglet on prepared acoustic guitar &amp autoharp. The music is a not less intense than the duo recording, and equally unclassifiable, with some clarinet playing that sounds almost classical on the weirdest possible electronic background, full of doom and gloom. Despite the expanded line-up, the music is as minimalistic, yet it is all the richer for it. I'm not sure whether I can call it accessible avant-garde, because there are few points of recognition, but the band clearly stays away from noise or abrasive moments. They may need some help with their knowledge of Latin, but otherwise this is a fine album.

Array is a "label" founded by multi-instrumentalist Massimo Magee, with the telling mission statement "When we are no longer bound by the constraints of time, the past-present-future, the beginning and end, it is then that we must turn to concepts like arrays that allow us to consider all the endless possibilities that would be available to us simultaneously in that one endless moment outside of time".

Tim Green, Massimo Magee, John Porter - Of An Evening (Array, 2010) ***½

The trio of Tim Green on drums and mobile phone, Massimo Magee on sopranino , clarinet, piano, signal generator, laptop feedback, tape recorder with blank tape, walkie-talkies, field recordings, recordings of prior drum improvisation by Tim Green, amplifier feedback, and John Porter on soprano also works in the realms of minimalism. The two saxes enter into mad and excited dialogues, but in contrast to the two previous albums, at moments they raise the volume, creating mad interaction with the drums going full force. The second track, "Experiments In Hypnotism", moves a little beyond the level of the audible, with sudden peaks of madness. "In Which We Encounter A Groove", is - as its title suggests - the most jazzy piece. Have I sued the word "mad" three times? Well, it tells.

Zero Centigrade - I Am Not Like You (Twilight Luggage, 2010)

I am a little less thrilled by this duo recording by Tonino Taiuti on acoustic guitar and Vincenzo De Luce on trumpet. We enter the realm of sound collisions where the actual source of the sound no longer really matters. The sounds are raw and unpleasant to the ear, but that's obviously not a criterion for quality. That's what mainstream jazz fans will say about free jazz, or what classical music afficionados will say about rock music. Since it is all available on the internet, I will leave the evaluation over to you.

The challenge of breaking boundaries is that, while deconstructing the known, you have to create something new in the process, something that is worthwhile listening to - and not just fun to play.

You will need open ears for much of the material on these albums, and even if not everything works, some of the adventurous parts integrate moments of great playing - and listening - and we can only applaud the musicians for their vision and audacity in shifting boundaries, both musically and in terms of publishing their music.

© stef

Friday, July 23, 2010

Zorn in various forms ....

John Zorn : The Goddess—Music for the Ancient of Days (Tzadik, 2010) ***½

For those of you who like the surf jazz rock loungy kind of music of "The Gift","The Dreamers", and other of the most accessible in the Zorn discography, here is another album you will enjoy. It is a celebration of "Women in Myth, Magick and Ritual throughout the Ages", whatever that means. Musically, it is not really adding much the existing catalogue, yet again the music and the playing are excellent. Easy to swallow and digest, but a pleasure to hear.

The band is Rob Burger on piano, Trevor Dunn on bass, Carol Emanuel on harp, Ben Perowsky on drums, Kenny Wollesen on vibes, and Mark Ribot on guitar. 

John Zorn : Dictée/Liber Novus (Tzadik, 2010) ****

"Dictée" (track 1) and "Liber Novus" (track 2) is musically a lot more interesting. Starting with a weird fog horn call and ambient sounds, it leads into a recitation in French by Sylvie Courvoisier, like a dictation, and even if I abhor text recitation in music, on this album it really fits with the absolutely uncanny things you can hear, changing in line-up texture and mood every so often, from Asian to ambient, to romantic, to pastoral, to avant-garde, it is disorienting, frightening, The whole doesn't sound like one piece but rather as snippets of music integrated into a very coherent whole, over which other sounds are added to give it a sense of unity. It reflects the ambiguity in the music, which is at moments friendly and welcoming, yet equally foreboding and full of existential angst, a paradox of emotions dear to Zorn.

The band is Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, French narration, Okkyung Lee on cello and Korean narration
John Medeski on organ, Ned Rothenberg on shakuhachi, bass flute, and clarinet, David Slusser on sound Effects, Kenny Wollesen on vibes, percussion, and "Wollesonics", John Zorn on Foley effects, samples, German narration, Stephen Gosling on piano. 

The second track, "Liber Novus", is based on the book by Carl Gustav Jung, with Freud one of the fathers of psycho-analysis. In this book, Jung claims that he encountered figures in his active imagination : "The figures, according to Jung, "brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life". Which is a quite frightening concept too, although also an illuminating one. The music is again out of the ordinary, with Medeski's organ as the unifying and predominant instrument, with lots of ambient sounds, varying levels of intensity and calm, and with a whole zoo of animal sounds to cheer you up, and juxtaposed joy and horror, and somehow ending in resignation.

A strong album.

John Zorn/Fred Frith Duo : Late Works (Tzadik, 2010) **½

This is the fourth duo collaboration between John Zorn on alto and Fred Frith on electric guitar. Their first album, "The Art Of Memory", was often used by a friend as the ultimate example of non-music. He will not be disappointed to hear that their approach has not changed over the years. What you get here is beyond words: a long improvisation of two musicians who are willing to do what has not been done before, and this with raw energy, without taking the listener into consideration for one single instant. You can respect them for trying something new, but it's not because it's daring and harsh, that it's good. It is not for the faint of heart, although interestingly on two pieces they move into more harmonious sonic environments ("The Fourth Mind" and "Slow Lattice"), and in my opinion these two are absolutely stellar. For the rest of the noise and violence, it is not really my cup of tea.

For those who have forgotten what Zorn and Frith sound like:

© stef

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What happens when they stop beating the drums?

For the answer to the question above, see my original post on solo bass albums. Apart from that, I can say that I like solo bass albums. First, I like the deep sound of the bass, its power and beauty, and when played solo, the full sensuality of the strings on wood become all the more clear, often hidden in the overall sounds of bands, even small ones, or impossible to hear when driving a car, unless you really turn up the volume.

So it's always a pleasure to introduce new solo bass albums, this time by two prominent bassists in the current modern jazz scene: Jason Roebke and Robert Landfermann.

Jason Roebke - In The Interval (Self-published, 2010)***½

This EP is Jason Roebke's second solo bass album, one in which he delves even deeper into the nature of sound and silence than in his previous one. The album starts with a plucked note, followed by a barely audible successor after 33 seconds, then a second hard note after 50 seconds. then 1 min. 13 seconds, then 1 min. 44 seconds, gradually decreasing the intervals between notes, while at the same time changing his touch, and adding - again barely audible - other less identifiable sounds, changing between resonating sounds and suddenly muted ones, playing single string or chords, gradually increasing the intervals.

It is very minimalist, but only temporarily, because by the tenth minute, the bass is playing for real, still slowly, but sensitively, cautiously, precisely, but if you thought it would continue picking up speed, you're wrong, it becomes unpredictable, with long silences being alternated with some extended techniques, some boppish playing, some silence.

The result of this is quite unexpectedly that you cannot listen differently than in a very concentrated way. Everything you anticipate will happen, does not happen, so rather than listening in on automatic pilot, you're forced to be there with your full attention on the bass, its sound and the silence surrounding it. And I must say, that is an exceptional feat for a solo bass album. Another example that less is more and that lack of repetition is guaranteed to keep you alert.

Listen and download from iTunes.

Robert Landfermann - Null (JazzHausMusik, 2010)***½

German bassist Landfermann's approach is different. From the very first track he goes beyond any sound you think could ever come out of a bass, piercing, industrial, resonating, screeching, howling animal-like. Quite impressive stuff.

I knew him only from his collaboration with Christian Lillinger's Grund. But despite his young age, he has already played on several dozen albums, and this is his second solo bass album.

The mad timbral approach of the first track is not continued in the second piece, which is a high tempo complex piece which make you wonder whether you actually hear only one bass. Most pieces are relatively short, somewhere between three to four minutes, just setting down some ideas and exploring sounds, some of which are absolutely staggering, like the piercing whale songs of "Ich Habe Nie Gelernt Zu Frieren" (I have never learned to freeze), or the tribal drumming on the next piece.

Alternating virtuoso playing in a regular fashion with interesting explorations, this is a clear bass-player's album in the first place. In contrast to the piercing sounds of the first track, he ends the album in the most convential of ways, but no less brilliant, with some great classical-sounding arco playing.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Both albums complement each other somewhat. Roebke tries to make a musical statement, a solo bass album that can be enjoyed by non bass players. Landfermann is less interested in musical expansion or the building of tension than in the sounds he can create with his instrument, leading to much more variation by definition.

If you like the sound of the double bass, like I do, I can recommend both albums.

Watch Roebke and Ayako Kato perform:

© stef

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grand and epic ...

John Coltrane was not only a phenomenal saxophonist, he first and foremost changed the course of jazz in a couple of years time, lifting it out of the confines of urban entertainment into the world of art and spiritual power. He incorporated some of Albert Ayler's and some of Ornette Coleman's ideas, but he integrated those into something grand and epic, into a musical sphere and language that did not exist before him. He turned even a chidren's song like "My Favorite Things" into a mesmerising dimension of floating and endless energy and expressivity.

He turned jazz into a whole new thing. The music of Jarrett's American and European quartet's would not have existed without Coltrane, nor would for instance Abdullah Ibrahim's "The Journey", to give just a few examples.

Here are two albums which capture this great new dimension in music.

Amalgam - Prayer For Peace (No Business, 2010) *****

The first one is Amalgam's "Prayer For Peace", recorded in 1969, and it might well be the re-issue of the year. The band is Trevor Watts on alto, Jeff Clyne on bass and John Stevens on drums, with Barry Guy playing bass on the title track.

"Tales Of Sadness" starts with arco bass and a wonderful melody on the alto, slowly, very slowly increasing the intensity till they're playing up a storm after a while,with especially Watts doing an extraordinary expressive piece while staying within the tune, overblowing like crazy, till absolute madness, relentlessly, without losing sight of the melody which suddenly comes shining back through the mayhem like a sudden smile breaking through the tears on a face full of agony and fear. This track is nothing short of phenomenal, and by itself worth buying the album for.

The second piece, "Judy's Smile 1", is less intense, yet equally beautiful, and it is continued on the second side of the vinyl LP with "Judy's Smile 2", which starts slowly with great bass-playing by Clyne, and perfect accents by Stevens for a quiet almost gospel-like melody on the alto. Then Stevens starts pushing up the tempo, and the piece gains again a strong momentum, going beyond bop in a more free fashion.

Also the last piece, with Barry Guy on arco, lifts the music into high spheres, fully delivering the title's content, without any need for further explanation, reverent, expansive, spiritual and full of inherent beauty and emotional depth. Magnificent!

Buy from Instantjazz.

Faruq Z. Bey With Northwoods Improvisers - Emerging Field (Entropy Stereo, 2010) ****½

Saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey is possibly less known than Trevor Watts, but he's a free jazz player who incorporates some Ayler with Coltrane and African music.

On this album, he is joined by the Northwood Improvisers, which is Mike Carey on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, and shaker,  Skeeter C. R. Shelton on alto and tenor saxophone, Mike Gilmore on marimba, Nick Ashton on drums, and Mike Johnston on percussion.

The music has this grand and expansive approach that Coltrane introduced. Through a strong rhythmic backbone, very African in nature, and long-winding thematic improvisations, the music soars, and yes, it is less complex than Coltrane, or less expressive than Amalgam, but it is so compelling and hypnotic, that it is a real delight. The interesting thing is that this music sounds like it was made in 70s, reminiscent of some Art Ensemble work, or Human Arts Ensemble, or Sonny Simmons, but less wild, more controlled and accessible, but indeed grand and epic. A really strong and recommended album. 

Both of these bands are indebted to Coltrane. Even if their approach is totally different, you can hear the great master's legacy and inventive power still playing in these bands.

I am open to lots of musical genres, from classical over rock and prog-rock and avant-garde and trip-hop to ... well, no, not as far as rap, but in all frankness, none of these genres has the breadth, depth, expressive power and sheer musical delight as jazz.

To a large extent thanks to Coltrane.

© stef

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ben Syversen - Cracked Vessel (2010) ****

If anything, this album made me listen back to Dave Douglas and his Tiny Bell Trio with Brad Shepik and Jim Black. Not only is the line-up the same, with Ben Syversen on trumpet, Xander Naylor on guitar, and Jeremy Gustin on drums, and true, all three need some more practice to reach the technical excellence of the Tiny Bell Trio, but their approach to music is comparable : raw, rock and world music influenced, adventurous and melodious at the same time.

The greatest thing is their unbridled enthusiasm for their music, combined with a strong discipline in making it work in a natural and controlled fashion.They keep up the great music throughout the album, from the very first notes of "Frontman", with trumpet intro, then muted electric guitar strings, gradually getting their raw voice, with great counter-rhythmic drumming, going against the grain in the best of fashions with Syversen clear playing gradually fading out. Yet they can also be jubilant as on "Weird Science", sufficiently powerful to start a spontaneous little dance on the spot.

But it's not all rock 'n' roll and funk, with "Bad Idea" they show their more melancholy side, somewhat reminiscent of Eastern European music, and almost organically they make the piece evolve into more grunge-like sounds, but without really losing the piece's real nature. "Krazzle" is more fanfare and funk at the same time, again a rhythmic delight built around a compelling theme, with lots of room for quite adventurous improvisations. "Apparition" is totally "out there", as its title suggests, in the eery spheres of exploratory  soundscapes.

This album is wildly entertaining, creative at the same time, and the guy's have something to tell. A band to watch. And to enjoy.

Listen and download from Bandcamp or CDBaby.

Watch the band on Youtube, but with another guitar player

© stef

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kirk Knuffke, Kenny Wollesen, Lisle Ellis - “Chew Your Food” (No Business, 2010) ****½

I'm a lover of small ensembles, and the trumpet trio is surely one of my favorites, and when the musicians are Kirk Knuffke on trumpet, Lisle Ellis on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums, quality and skills are almost guaranteed. The performance on this LP was recorded live at Roulette in New York last year.

I have appreciated Knuffke's playing and music before, and I will do it again here. His tone is always full and warm, and he's a master at taking tough bends easily. The music is jazz in its purest sense : improvisational joy and emotional expressivity in a compact form. There is nothing but pulse in the pieces they play, even if the rhythms are not always explicit or when there are no patterns, the three musicians interact so well that they invent on the spot and keep this pulse going. Most of the pieces are uptempo, and real fun. The last track on side A, "Whatever's Next", shows a more bluesy side of the trio, slow and full of pain and agony, but then just in terms of feeling and mood, and without falling back on familiar structures.

The second side starts with great interplay between Ellis and Wollesen, over an open tune, but then comes the title track, a real goose bumps piece, slow again, with Ellis playing arco and Knuffke crying his heart out over soft fingerbeats on the toms, and Wollesen's drumming even evolves into a wonderfully restraint and mesmerizing drums solo, which leads us into the next piece, more mid-tempo, open-textured yet again so full of soul.

Critics who claim that free jazz is all about noise and violence, or that avant-garde is all cerebral and abstract stuff, should listen to this album to be contradicted. This trio is almost jazz in its pure essence : three guys making music straight from the heart, and truly liberated in spirit, and with instrumental skills of such a level that it's all conveyed as if without the slightest effort. Great stuff!

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Friday, July 16, 2010

William Parker in Italy

William Parker has something with Italy, he has released several of his own albums on the Italian Rai label, and he has played a lot with Italian musicians. Here are again two new releases, but with a totally different approach.

William Parker & Gianni Lenoci & Vittorino Curci & Marcello Magliocchi - Serving An Evolving Humanity (Silta, 2010) ****

This album starts in the best of free jazz traditions: full blast ahead, with a piano that seems to hammer all keys simultaneously, wild sax-playing and a rhythm section that goes totally berserk. The band is William Parker on double bass, Gianni Lenoci on piano, prepared piano and voice, Vittorino Curci on alto and soprano, voice and megaphone, and Marcello Magliocchi on drums.

The "berserk" piece is suddenly harnessed into a repetitive pattern by Curci, with Lenoci following and releasing the tension too, and the piece turns into calm surroundings creating an atmosphere like rain dripping from the leaves after wind and storm have gone, and the piece goes even quieter, with the playing turning minimal, full unexpected turns, sensitive and raw, until all hell breaks loose again, detonating in your ears, relentlessly, ... and becomes even quieter afterwards ... yet somehow the tension increases.

The second piece of the suite starts with Parker playing arco and pizzi simultaneously, setting the scene for an eery and slow avant-garde piece, yet full of a bluesy soul. I am less convinced of the shouting by Lenoci (we could have done without), yet the rest of the piece is staggering : Curci's alto is wailing with a rare expressivity.

The last part of the suite is totally minimalistic, with Lenoci plucking his strings, carefully, cautiously, precisely, Parker playing his shakuhachi, later his shenai, adding interesting world music textures.

It took me some time to get into this album. At first listening it sounded somewhat unfocused, with no real sense of direction or coherence, yet after listening several times in its entirety, the music on the album does evolve, it does flow, and the three pieces do form one unity. There is a lot to listen to, and its worth listening to, more than several times. Enjoy!

Listen and download from eMusic.

Tiziano Tononi Feat.William Parker And Emanuele Parrini - Vertical Invaders (Black Saint, 2010) ****

Italian drummer Tiziano Tononi is a great fan of the early free jazz of the sixties. He has made several tribute albums to Ornette Coleman, to John Coltrane, to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and to Don Cherry. He also played with William Parker before, and released "Spirits Up Above"in 2006. Like on that album, Emanuele Parrini plays violin and viola.

The music is quite free boppish, with explicit rhythms and composed themes, yet it still is something else than what you would expect. Parrini's violin is one of the determining factors of the overall sound: his playing is slow, with long stretched notes trying to imitate a horn, often in the lower registers. The opening piece is an example in case, and on the wonderful "Like Leroy Jenkins", to whom the album is a kind of dedication, his minimal kind of lyricism shows its full expressive power.

On the three title tracks, they leave the beaten track completely and start exploring the various possibilities of combining two string instruments and percussion, and with great effect: Parker's bowing changing roles with Parrini going pizzi is quite nice, as is Tononi's rumbling drumming and precise accentuation.

Yet the musicians go beyond their usual instruments. Parker plays his shenai on one piece, and shakuhachi on a long and beautiful composition dedicated to Alice Coltrane.

The last piece is a long mournful reprise of "Like Leroy Jenkins", played solo by Parrini, a very sad ending.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Watch William Parker with Lenoci, Curci, Magliocchi

© stef

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Stefano Pastor - Freedom (Slam, 2010) ****

As a tribute to the free jazz greats, "Freedom" is a bizarre album, but then in the positive way. The line-up is already special, with Stefano Pastor on violin, George Haslam on baritone sax and tárogató, Gianni Lugo on soprano sax, and Giorgio Dini on double bass. So you get three solo instruments and one bass to play the rhythmic parts and the thematic backbone, if any.

As Pastor writes in the liner notes : "It is my belief that, in choosing to play jazz or to relate to jazz, a musician is bound to feel at ease within the context of a libertarian and egalitarian culture, namely a revolutionary and popular culture; he cannot escape it, on grounds of his intellectual consistency".

And the music on this album has this quality : all musicians are free to join as and when they see fit, they react spontaneously to themes thrown into the group, join in unison, or improvise in parallel lines. The end result is quite charming and even intimate, while also trying to make the political statement above come true.

The most typical example of this is the third track, "Emancipation", on which the three solo instruments start quite avant-gardistic with short bursts of sounds without clear pattern, yet reacting to each other like a conversation of birds, yet gradually unison lines emerge, with some great "blue" notes adding a jazz element, then shifting to gospel, still in relative free form, and then halfway through the track Dini's bass joins with a steady vamp, pulling the soloists along with him and Haslam's baritone builds a great theme, with violin and tarogato playing a parallel countertheme, then all three continue soloing through each other, beautifully, respectfully.

Even if there are themes, the fun is to play with them and around them. The fact that Pastor's violin sounds more voiced than you would expect from the instrument, with a somewhat hoarse quality, brings it close in timbre to the saxes, creating a great unity in the interweaving layers of improvised phrases. Some pieces are meditative, like "Elevation", others more "harmolodic" in the Ornette Coleman sense, such as "Dance", that also contains swing elements, and with Haslam by coincidence or on purpose playing a phrase from "Happy House".

Without being too overly adventurous, the musicians create a real fun approach to jazz, alternating well between meditative parts and moments of joy.

© stef

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Daniel Carter and friends

Trumpeter and saxophonist Daniel Carter is in my opinion strongly underevaluated. He does not have a very pronounced characteristic that makes him instantly recognizable, yet he is one of the few people who can really build a song while improvising, with mood, melody and lots of soul, regardless of the context or the line-up. Carter is not a power-player, quite to the contrary, he is more into sensitive soul or expressive lyricism, while being adventurous at the same time. He is probably best known for his performances with Other Dimensions In Music, one of my favorite bands, or Test, or several of his recordings with drummer Federico Ughi, or his duo album "Nivesana" with percussionist Ravi Padmanabha. I was not too convinced about his collaboration last year with Talibam!, but at least Carter is open to look for new things. I saw him play recently with Jeff Platz, again a real treat, in a different context again, yet equally powerful. Here are two new albums with him, both worth checking out.

Daniel Carter, Alberto Fiori, Tom Abbs, Federico Ughi - The Perfect Blue (Not Two, 2010)****

The Perfect Blue is an absolute delight. The music is a kind of ode to the "blue feeling" in jazz, and it basically incorporates the ingredients of jazz history, with "cool" period evocations, boppish pieces, post-boppish improvisations, to free stuff and avant-garde, but throughout the music the undefinable emotional nature of jazz shines through, the kind of sad life energy that is hard to explain.

The band is Daniel Carter on alto, tenor and trumpet, Alberto Fiori on piano,Tom Abbs on bass, and Federico Ughi on drums.

From the very first notes, the cool "If You Come This Way" to the nervous excitement and fierce shouting and blowing on the long "To Pass On", your journey will also lead you to the sensitive, slowly hypnotic post-boppish "Till Late In The Night", which could have come from Jarrett's American quartet of the early eighties. On "We Was There", the "blueness" of restraint expressivity, wonderfully accentuated by Abbs' arco demonstrates again that real soul does not necessarily arise from forceful playing, but the following track "Fight In Sight", starting with nervous rhythms by Ughi sets the perfect backdrop for some fierce opening wails from Carter. Fiori is a pianist in the real bop tradition, comfortable in the various shades and nuances of the style, and he is the perfect companion for Carter's versatile skills to lay his soul bare.

The album will not shift musical boundaries, but it is so beautiful and fun!. Highly recommended.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Claire DeBrunner, Daniel Carter, Ken Silverman, Tom Zlabinger - Macroscopia (Metier, 2010) ****

We find Daniel Carter back in a totally different environment with Claire DeBrunner on bassoon, Ken Silverman on guitar, and Tom Zlabinger on bass. Carter uses some small percussion to emphasise rhythms once in a while. The sound of the bassoon is possibly the most determing for the overall sound, yet it must be said that Silverman's unconventional guitar-playing and Zlabinger's often hypnotic bass playing are really good.

All the pieces have a great sense of pulse and forward movement, with sounds interweaving freely, leading to sometimes beautiful and fragile soundscapes, sometimes haunting like "Dumbo Twilight", sometimes more explicitly rhythmic like "Riff Tide", sometimes more abstract such as "Life Rattle".

The music is hard to qualify. It is jazz in a way, but it's equally open to new music and modern classical. I did not know DeBrunner, but the way she uses her bassoon in a context like this is of course highly unusual, yet at the same time a kind of revelation. True, I recently also reviewed albums with Sara Schoenbeck and Katherine Young on bassoon, yet there is a difference in approach.

Totally different than "The Perfect Blue", the album is equally rewarding, for its openness, subtlety and adventurous lyricism. Again a great demonstration of Carter's versatility. His home is where true emotions can be expressed, regardless of style or genre.

If there's a downside to the album, then it's the fade-outs, which - as regular readers know - I really hate : why stop great music in mid-action? Would anyone watching a soccer game or a basket-ball match be pleased when the last ten minutes were never shown? Same with music, I think.

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lapin/Poore/Schubert/Turner/Bledsoe - Seek it Not with Your Eyes (Red Toucan, 2010) ****½

Music should speak for itself. That is in short the philosophy of Russian pianist Alexey Lapin.

This performance at The Loft in Cologne, Germany, is the first time in his life he performed outside of Russia. Originally, Lapin was going to perform with Melvyn Poore on tuba and euphonium, and Matthias Schubert on tenor sax. Yet drummer Roger Turner happened to be around so he joined the improvisation. Flautist Helen Bledsoe joined for the second set, and hence only appears on the last two tracks.

And the music does speak for itself, very much like so many of the releases on Red Toucan, the music has an incredibly organic quality, with notes and textures growing out of what just precedes, without intention of going anywhere, without predetermined plan, yet expanding with the life juices it sucks up around itself, feeding on previous notes, living off the energy of the other, sometimes giving space to other outgrowths, sometimes pushing them away, moving with the environment while being part of it, floating on the breeze or creating their own storms.

The great quality of this band is their incredible openness and discipline in creating these compelling soundscapes that follow their own logic, sounding flawlessly harmonious even without identifiable patterns. On the longest piece, "Little Ways To Perceive The Invisible", the little notes played by the various band members weave a tapestry around a backdrop of silence - and there are moments when you barely hear anything - sometimes sounding like animals in a jungle, at other times like faraway thunder, yet it all flows and moves forward, relentlessly, often hypnotically.

Other pieces have more moments when the volume rises, and sometimes jazz is to be heard, but musical categories sound outdated in this context. Listen how, on the last track, the piano and tuba suddenly fall into the same haunting forward-moving eery unison phrase as if they are trees suddenly pushed sideways in the upcoming wind, without possibility to escape, with Bledsoe playing a weird solo over it, like an intimidated bird in a wild flight. It is music, full stop.

All five tracks have this sense of immediacy and deep presence which are hard to describe. The overall effect is really powerful without being intrusive or noisy. The only thing you can do is try to be part of it. Close your eyes and join them on their exceptional musical journey.

It doesn't exist if you don't listen.

© stef

Friday, July 9, 2010

Harris Eisenstadt - Woodblock Prints (No Business, 2010) *****

Combining many styles and genres into one single blend that sounds fresh and new, like a great and cool cocktail, is relatively unique. Mixing stuff is easy, creating something of which the whole is more than the sum of its parts is a strong feat, but using those parts to create something entirely new is a major achievement. It's the opposite of kitschy world fusion, often the last resort for lack of creativity.

I know a few albums that transcend these genres. Now there is a new one to add to two albums that I listen to time and time again : they integrate composed jazz, played by a solid low-sounding horn section with tuba and electric guitar, solid percussion, world music and rock influences, friendly in atmosphere yet totally non-conformist. ... and they have some of the most beautiful and compelling themes imagineable.

I add the two older albums, The Kingdom Of Champa, and "Racines Du Ciel"  for reference, but will not review them. Check them out. They're great. Although different, they share the same warmth, drive and musical conflict. Full of paradoxes and synthesis. Tight arrangements ánd wild excursions, western ánd eastern music, today ánd the past, gravitas ánd light-footed, familiar ánd avant-garde.

Drummer Harris Eisenstadt is an artist with many approaches to music. Two years ago he released the fantastic "Guewel" with two trumpets and free african rhythms, last year "Canada Day", which received general acclaim, and now he's back with music that really defies categorisation.

First of all the line-up is quite unusual with Michael McGinnis on clarinet, Jason Mears on alto saxophone, Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, Mark Taylor on french horn, Brian Drye on trombone, Jay Rozen on tuba, Jonathan Goldberger on electric guitar, Garth Stevenson on acoustic bass, and of course Harris Eisenstadt on drums.

Second, the music is inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, as depicted on the cover, yet contrastingly, whereas the Japanese art is purposely created against empty space, the density and complexity of Eisenstadt's arrangements are high, with no space for silence, but that is easily compensated by the overall warmth coming from the horn section.

Third, the compositions are tight, with influences even from classical music in some parts, especially so when Schoenbeck's bassoon comes to the foreground, playing in pure chromatic scales without dissonants, but it is equally big band jazz and rock music. The music can be sweet as Glenn Miller yet as raw and wild as free jazz, which it certainly isn't.

Fourth, Heisenstadt's lets the band play his music. Although there are rhythmic subtleties galore, this is not a drummer's album: it's all about the music: gentle, compelling, expansive, inclusive, refined, but equally hard at moments, full of power and drive, with sound explorations and sonic expressivity that are only to be found in the most adventurous forms of jazz.

Since the music cannot be described, ranging from solemn classically sounding chamber jazz full of counterpoint, to exuberant jazz, I will refrain from doing so.

I can only say that Eisenstadt again shows what real creativity means. Surely the result of hard work and many, many try-outs before chiseling this music out of the hard block of musical tradition. It was in there all the time, only nobody saw it ... until now.

... and man, these horns sound so wonderful ...

Buy from Instantjazz.

Michael Blake - The Kingdom Of Champa (Intuition, 1997)

 Inspired by his trip to Vietnam, Michael Blake's debut album is still very often in my player. The track "Mekong" is an absolutely stellar theme, but so is the whole album. Wild, sweet and expansive.

Michael Blake (bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); David Tronzo (slide guitar); Tony Scherr (lute, acoustic bass, electric bass); Rufus Cappadocia (cello); Thomas Chapin (flute, bass flute, piccolo, baritone saxophone); Steven Bernstein (trumpet, slide trumpet, cornet); Marcus Rojas (tuba); Bryan Carrott (vibraphone); Scott Neumann (drums); Billy Martin (percussion)

Listen and download from eMusic.

Rêve d'Eléphant Orchestra - Racines Du Ciel (De Werf, 2001) 

When I heard the track "Les Folies De Cécile" so many years ago on my car radio, I drove immediately to the nearest record shop to buy it. Grand themes over strong rhythmic backbone, full of African and Indian influences. Played by Pierre Bernard (flutes), Laurent Blondiau (trumpet - flugelhorn), Michel Debrulle (drums); Jean-Yves Evrard (guitars), Michel Massot (tubas -trombone), Etienne Plumer ( tablas - drums), Stephan Pougin (drums, etc.)

Listen to Les Folies De Cécile.

© stef

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Unity of action, time and place ... or unity of style?

Despite my wild enthusiasm for anything that is genre-breaking and liberation from constraints, there are still things which bother me, because of their lack of constraints. The Greek philosopher Aristotle already discussed the three cardinal rules for theater : the unity of place, time and action. This is of course a load of bollocks and these kind of rules only exist to be broken.

The unity he missed though, is the unity of style. If you establish a vision on what something should sound like, or look like, or feel like, you should stick to it. The best albums in music history have that unity of approach : Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue" or "Bitch's Brew", Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon", Lou Reed's "Berlin" or Metallica's "Black Album", to give just a few examples from different horizons. 

This is the thing that has been bothering me about the two following albums. Both contain great music. However, both contain great music in different stylistic universes. And even though the different parts are excellent, when listening to the album as a whole, in one piece, it is odd somehow. If they had organised these tracks differently, and put them in two separate albums, instead of now on a double CD, the end result might have been stunning. Now I am left with more than just a little frustration about what might have been.

Conference Call - What About (Not Two, 2010) ***½

Conference no longer needs introduction. It's the stellar free jazz band consisting of Gebhard Ullmann on tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and bass clarinet, Michael Jefry Stevens on piano, Joe Fonda on bass, and George Schuller on drums. A kind of supergroup if you want.

The first piece, called "After Like, Part 1" is fully improvised and creates an otherwordly eery environment, without real established rhythm, or patterns whatsoever. It is organic and flows like the wind, grows like nature, with the power and drive increasing as it moves forward. It is fantastic. The next piece is in the same vein, certainly at the beginning closer to free improv than to jazz.

Then you have a style-shift for the next three pieces, which are composed, and built around traditional concepts, although they do evolve into exploratory timbral excursions, yet the harmonics, the theme remain the central focal point, whether ballad-like, as on "What About The Future?", or boppish as on "Circle".

CD2 starts with "After Like, Part 3", the qualitative equivalent of the first tracks of the first CD, fully in the same vein, and equally stellar: Ullmann's playing is fabulous, but the eery accents by Stephens, Fonda's arco and Schuller's extended use of percussive possibilities are of the same high level.

But then to my dismay, the next piece is a polka! True, it gets the necessary deconstruction, but to hear this somewhat humorous track after you've been entranced by a fabulous musical universe, is a real shame. "Litmus" is boppish again, and the last two pieces could again be part of the more serious atmosphere of the first track. Ullmann is better than I have heard him before.

So you get the bizarre mixture of real artistic creation with some silly or plain entertaining music, true, all brought with great skills and drive, but somehow not fitting together. 

A selection of the best pieces on the album would have resulted in a real musical treat. Two great albums in two different styles somehow got mixed here.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Trio BraamDeJoodeVatcher - Quartet (BBB, 2010) ***½

The Dutch trio BraamDeJoodeVatcher is Michiel Braam on piano, Wilbert de Joode on double bass, and Michael Vatcher on drums. For their twentieth anniversary of the band, they invited a wordclass list of modern jazz musicians to complement their trio with a horn part : Michael Moore, Paul Dunmall, Mats Gustafsson, Taylor Ho Bynum, François Houle and Peter van Bergen. A quite impressive list of musicians.

The four pieces with Michael Moore, spread over the two CDs, are great modern jazz compositions with improvisations with some world music influence. They sound fresh, inventive and joyful.

The piece with Mats Gustafsson of course belongs in a different league and style. His raw tone and unpredictable phrases, filled with the gravitas of life is truly at the other end of the spectrum of Michael Moore's feeling of optimism. Houle adds some abstract lyricism to the proceedings and calms down the piece toward the end.

The two pieces with Taylor Ho Bynum are also in a different style. The first is a great open-ended composition, allowing Bynum for interesting explorations over De Joode's wonderful bass. The second piece starts great, full of eery whispering sounds, yet then it really collapses into a kind of twelve bar blues that may entertain your run-of-the-mill audience, but is in stark contrast to the beginning.

Peter Van Bergen brings us fully in the avant-garde context, with soft yet eery blowing, yet the second piece brings us back into the same twelve bar blues as on the first CD. Again, the contrast is too abrupt, from the subtle and sophisticated to the hard predictable beat of the blues.

Paul Dunmall uses his bagpipes for a relatively mild melodic theme, but as you might expect ... he shifts to wild unmelodic blowing, only then with sensitive abstractions.

Again, all the pieces have their own merit, and all fall easily within the category of excellent improvisations, yet it all lacks unity. It does demonstrate the great versatility of the Dutch trio and the breadth of their musical interests and capabilities. It is a great celebration to their twenty years of playing together, so they are allowed to include all this variation. In all, this is a fresh album with many faces.

Listen and download from CDBaby.

© stef

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Marcin Oleś & Bartłomiej Brat Oleś - Other Voices Other Scenes (Fennomedia, 2010) ***

The ungrateful thing about a soundtrack without the pictures is that you cannot possibly imagine what is taking place and why the music is as it is. The same holds true for this album by one of my favorite rhythm sections: Marcin Oleś on bass and Bartłomiej Brat Oleś on drums. This double CD brings you thirty-six snippets of soundtrack for eight different movies, animations or theater performances. For two of those movies, the band is expanded with Łukasz Czekała on violin and Kuba Puch on trumpet, and with Jakub Urbańczyk on tuba and Jarosław Spałek on trumpet respectively. The Oleś brothers add other instruments as well, with Marcin playing double bass, piano, keyboards, acordeon and acoustic guitar, and Brat playing drums, percussion, gongs, tabla, marimba piano, keyboards, compositions

The end result is quite atmospheric but most of the time nothing more than just that : nice yet non-committal sound to accompany images. And that is of course partly the objective of the original compositions.

That being said, some of the tunes are really nice, almost in the same league as Evan Lurie, or even John Zorn's music for films : quite accessible, yet fresh minimalist pieces on which a few well-chosen sounds create a sad, or eery, or introspective, or menacing environment. That these environments are created by a few brush strokes by a few instruments is a stellar achievement. The downside is that like with all soundtracks, there is no expansion or exploration: the music is simple by definition : a theme needs to be set, easy in the ear because a first listen is all you get with your main attention going to the visual movements, and repeated several times to get entrance in your less attentive part of the brain.

A nice stylistic exercise, yet for the real thing, check out their real Duo album.

© stef

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Steve Hubback & Ad Peijnenburg - Arrows (FMR, 2010) ****½

What a great album! Master percussionist and "sound sculpture artist" Steve Hubback meets Dutch minimalist saxophonist Ad Peijnenburg, for eleven varied pieces of highly creative, invigorating and spiritual music. Hubback is not a rhythmic percussionist per se, but is more interested in the sounds coming forth of his many bells, drums and gongs, while in contrast, Peijnenburg is a very rhythmic player, often resorting to repetitive phrases built around a tonal center.

The title of the first two tracks "Impression From Silence" already give a glimpse of the program: the sensitive and careful creation of sounds around silence. There is no sense of urgency, there is no clear melodic or harmonic structure, but the listening experience is magnificent. Listen to the wail of the sopraninosax on "Prooi", which I already thought sounded like a wounded animal, even before I read the Dutch title, which means "prey", just to let you know how evocative these artists are.

"Something Circles" is almost funky, with Peijnenburg indeed playing a pretty basic circling phrase on his baritone sax. It sounds simple and straightforward, yet juxtaposed to Hubback's floating cymbal work, it results in great effect. "Mole Dance" falls in the same category, yet the short piece is permeated by a bluesy feeling, without being too explicit.

In sum, apart from the brilliant first two pieces, you get nine shorter pieces, full of musical joy, with tribal rhythms, interesting concepts which are never overly extended but kept to their bare essence: a cadence, a feeling, a mood, a timbral exploration : light-footed and fun. An ode to life. In terms of recent reference : it fits well in the same series of other great sax percussion duos : Han & Frode by Bennink & Gjerstad, Nada by François Carrier & Michel Lambert,  Circle & Line by Donat Fisch and Christian Wolfarth


For additional reference, please also check Peijnenburg's duo album with William Parker, called Brooklyn Calling.

© stef

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Chamber jazz

Chamber jazz is a jazz subgenre that often mixes romanticism with classical influences, played by small ensembles without percussion but with strings. Well, if that's the definition, then here are two great albums that fully meet the description.

Jean-Marc Foltz, Matt Turner & Bill Carrothers - To The Moon (Ayler, 2010) *****

In the liner notes you can read that the sole plan for the session was : "Let's find some music, somewhere... over the rainbow", and the three musicians got to work, resulting somewhere "on the moon". The trio is Jean-Marc Foltz on clarinets, Matt Turner on cello, and Bill Carrothers on piano.

I have shared my admiration for Foltz's playing in earlier reviews, Matt Turner is known for his work with Scott Fields, Jeff Song and Bill Carrothers, yet his best album is still with Ken Schaphorst's trio "Indigenous Technologies", Carrothers himself has made some name in the past years with his own musical approach, one which is usually too mainstream to find a place on this blog but certainly one with great merits. Of the three, Turner and Carrothers are the ones that are used to color within the lines, Foltz daring to go outside of the lines, and their combination is a strong one.

The music on the album can be described as abstract lyricism, or modern romanticism. On some pieces patterns emerge, but not necessarily, and if they do, the trio manages wonderfully to steer away from cheap sentimentalism, yet they add the raw, unexpected and expressive elements that make this music so fascinating and refreshing.

I will not review each piece, but give some examples. On "Black Butterfly", Foltz's bass clarinet soars over a dark, odd-metered left hand by Carrothers, and when Turner's elegant stretched and mournful arco tones join, you get a musical universe full of conflict and joy, all created within barely three minutes.

"Knitting Needles" starts with eery flageolet tones on the cello, with the clarinet repeating a single dark phrase, and Carrothers playing great percussion inside his piano. Again the world is full of gloom and darkness, Turner starts playing full-toned circling around the same tonal range, as does Foltz, and with Carrother's relentless hammering the end result is staggering and hypnotic.

"Moondrunk" is fully within the world of romanticism, with slow atmospheric piano chords, but listen how Foltz's use of timbral changes on his clarinet adds emotional power, twisting his tone into a heartfelt cry of madness, ending in a barely audible moan. He takes this concept even a step further on "Crosses", which could have fit well within the David Darling catalogue on ECM if it were not for Foltz's gut-wrenching sounds on clarinet.

I am more than a little excited about this album. It is not free jazz, far from it, yet for an entirely improvised piece of music, it has the kind of restraint and discipline that is rare. What the trio does is so strong and lyrical that it is highly recommended, regardless of genre classification. Their technical mastery and subtle creativity lifts this music far above the average. Even if some pieces are abstract, and there is some left-of-center playing, this is an album that should please wide audiences. Let's hope it does.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Giovanni Di Domenico - Terra Che Cammina (Spocus, 2010) ****

We know Belgian-based pianist Giovanni Di Domenico from his album with Tetterapadequ, and his recent collaboration with Alexandra Grimal, Seminare Vento. On this album, he is joined by John Ruocco on clarinet, Ananta Roosend on violin, Anja Naucler on cello, Claus Kaarsgaard on bass.

The music is slow, intimate, precise, and quite expressive. The album starts with solo piano, an eery melody, with sparse notes of the right hand repeating a bluesy phrase. Yet it starts for real with the second piece, with the strings offering a harmonic backdrop for lyrical free soloing by Ruocco. "MM" is possibly one of the strongest compositions, because of the stark contrast between the almost single chord hammering of the piano against the slow intense theme played by the strings, that start going their own way as a result of the piano going berserk, yet when the strings find back the theme, the piano is subdued, and tamed into sparse intimate notes.

Some pieces are short, and create a world in less than a minute, such as "Hombre", others are quite expansive, like the long "Brainbow", on which Kaarsgaard gets a three minute bass intro, full of restraint and wonderful pace-setting, before Di Domenico adds his minimalist piano touches to deepen the created atmosphere.

Di Domenico brings a total concept, with ambition and the result is excellent. Influences can be easily found in jazz as in African or Middle-Eastern music as in classical music, often combined, yet all very subtle and very much in its own stylistic universe of intimacy and closeness. And to their credit, the band does not shy away from some jokes or playful antagonism, as on "Sirr". Jazz with strings is often overly sentimental or arrogant kitsch, yet this album develops its own kind of creative vision on the possibilities of the string ensemble in jazz. Recommended!

Buy from Spocus Records.

© stef

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Giancarlo Locatelli & Alberto Braida - The Big Margotta (Brokenresearch, 2010) ****

Pianist Alberto Braida and clarinetist Giancarlo Locatelli have played a lot together before, and I think this is their third duo album, just released on vinyl LP. The album consists of two long improvisations of very abstract and intense interaction.

Their music is made "in-the-moment", yet with a lyricism that is omnipresent. There is no noise, no use of extended techniques, just notes entering into often sensitive and hesitant dialogues, flowing into the next approach, releasing tension, adding some soft timbral shifts over equally shifting harmonics, once with short rhythmic undertones, often without, moving together, slowly forward, intensely forward, without sense of urgency yet eager for the next note, curious how the other player will move along, with once in a while vague phrases from jazz history piercing through yet more often than not the notes are new, fresh, full of surprise of being born, here on the spot, and not alone, but together, here, with this other instrument that joins them on the journey, slowly, hesitantly, but full of character and ideas.

This music will require repeated listens to reveal its true power, yet because of its universal nature, it's relatively accessible from the start, despite its level of abstraction.

© stef

Friday, July 2, 2010

Adam Rudolph & Ralph Jones - Yèyi (Meta, 2010) ****

Percussionist Adam Rudolph and reedist Ralph Jones bring one long improvisation, changing instruments and tone as they move forward on their journey.

Adam Rudolph plays membranophones and idiophones, such as handrumset (kongos, djembe, tarija, zabumba), frame drum, thumb pianos, cup gongs, kongo slit drum, glockenspiel, percussion. He also plays chordophones and aerophones: sintir, melodica, berber reed horn, overtone horn, and mulitphonic singing. Ralph Jones plays mainly aerophones, to know : alto & c flutes, bass clarinet, tenor & soprano saxophones, ney, hichiriki, hulusi, umtshingo and bamboo flutes, and some idiophones such as bamboo sticks and shakers.

As you can imagine, the music is full of African influences, with hypnotic polyrhythms, some singing and expansive playing. Despite the limited line-up, they vary quite well between sad, joyous and spiritual moments, giving their music lots of depth.

As the liner notes comment : “Yèyi” refers to the yodeling of the Mbuti pygmies, one of the oldest indigenous people of the Kongo region of Africa. Their inspiration on the music is twofold, according to Rudolph: one is in the communal harmony with nature towards which the artists strive, and the second is in the legacy of a culture that has rippled outwards over continents and generations, through the African-American musical influences that Rudolph and Jones draw upon".

Friends, this is musical joy and authenticity from beginning to end. Simple and profound.

Yusef Lateef & Adam Rudolph - Towards The Unknown (Meta, 2010)

The quality and authenticity of the Rudolph and Jones album make the contrast with this album all the greater. On this album with string and horns ensemble, Rudolph and reedist Yusef Lateef each composed a concerto for each other.

This album is full of arrogant pretense, false emotions, and with an ambition that is both misplaced and unmet.  The foundation is often good though, some of the pieces and interactions between Lateef and Rudolph sound fantastic, if only the reeds and string ensemble were absent.

The Go: Organic Orchestra Strings are :
Violins - Sarah Bernstein, Charles Burnham, Trina Basu Mark Chung, Elektra Kurtis, Skye Steele, Midori Yamamoto Violas - Stephanie Griffin, Jason Hwang Cellos - Greg Hefferman, Daniel Levin

The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble are :
Roberta Michel, flute James Roe, oboe Marianne Gythfeldt, clarinet Erik Holtje, bassoon Tim McCarthy, horn Thomas Verchot, trumpet David Nelson, trombone Joseph Kubera, piano Conrad Harris, violin 1 Lynn Bechtold, violin 2 David Gold, viola Aron Zelkowicz, cello Troy Rinker, contrabass

In sum, both albums are at each other's extreme. The one deep and authentic, the other shallow and arrogant.

© stef