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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Jon Irabagon - Foxy (Hot Cup, 2010) ****

The tacky art work on the cover may deter some of you, thinking that this the umpteenth easy listening jazz CD that has nothing but low quality to offer. A closer look and you will see the references to the first sax trio ever, with Sonny Rollins on the cover dressed as a cowboy in a desert landscape, here somewhat improved by a blonde babe in the dunes.

The content is some of the most fabulous high energy free boppish sax trios that you will hear in a long time. Jon Irabagon blows his lungs out, together with the rest of his organs and his brains for a eighty-minute long unrelenting piece supported with an equally muscular effort by Peter Brendler on bass and Barry Altschul on drums.

When is say "relentless", I mean "relentless": blowing like this for a few minutes will exhaust the most experienced among saxophonists, but the physical power that Irabagon demonstrates here is worthy of a gold medal in various olympic disciplines combined. In that sense it is a great sequel to his previous "I Don't Hear Nothing But The Blues" with Mike Pride on drums, only even more energetic.

The music itself is not adventurous, nor is it new, quite to the contrary, the trio brings phrases and rhythms from the great bop tradition, including blues, but then full of power, adding all the techniques developed in the past decades, driving the music often into wilder ranges, with shifting rhythms and tempi, although the latter is mostly of the high speed genre, with one exception, the "Foxy (Radio Edit)" on which the speed slows down a bit, and this by itself is great fun, as if the speed would be too high for the radio audiences, then it picks up again to end full blast with the ten-minute last track, "Moxie". 

Despite being one lengthy track, it is somewhat arbitrary cut into twelve titles, with obvious recognisable phrases coming back in several pieces. That the music is all about raw energy and forward drive is best illustrated by "Roxy", on which Irabagon keeps blowing the same three notes on and on and on and on for minutes on end, like a railroad worker swinging down his hammer. It's all about the drive.

It is not high art, but it is high entertainment. Not ground-breaking, but at moments hard to believe how so much energy can be kept up for such a long time. Really hard to believe. Great fun!

© stef

"It could be argued that the trumpet is leading the way again ..."

I will share the full sentence of Joe Morris's liner notes to "Tooth & Nail" : "We are now in the second century of improvised music. The entire history of expansion of technique and aesthetics used by trumpeters and guitarists in that nearly one hundred year period is available for us to hear.(...) For the narrow-minded, it's all been done, or it must be done in a certain way to have meaning. For the rest of us the current situation is a fresh start on the original situation, and there is no end in sight". (...) Our community of players is still relatively small, but is now global as well as local. Interestingly, it could be argued that the trumpet is leading the way again, as there is a number of extremely inventive trumpet players in this period who are setting new conditions with new methods".

Guys, you get the gist : open your ears and minds, and get ready for some music, from across three continents that goes beyond the known, in outer space, propulsed by the power of history. 

... and three stellar trumpeters : Nate Wooley, Axel Dörner, Peter Evans ... who luckily are also stellar creative artists ....

Joe Morris & Nate Wooley - Tooth And Nail (Clean Feed, 2010) ****

I have had the chance to listen to this album many months before it was released (thanks Nate!), and even if I found it hard and harsh and raw during the first listens, with Morris's nervous little guitar sounds cascading over each other, bouncing back and forth, with trumpeter Nate Wooley's tones ranging from the voiced to almost soundless whispers.

Because Morris plays acoustic guitar, and because Wooley's trumpet sound is the opposite from muscular, with notes falling out of his trumpet rather than soaring through the ceiling, the music is incredibly intimate and close, warm even, despite the atonal nature of the proceedings. It is an alien universe, but like most avant-garde work, you as the listener need to make an effort too.

And once you've listened to it a lot, you start discerning structure, or repeated patterns, or little echoes that are not so obvious at first hearing.  And once you're in their universe, it all is very welcoming, charming even, precious, sensitive and fragile.

Listen to Morris's intro to the second piece "Gigantica", on which - in contrast to the title - sounds escape from the guitar that you would not expect, almost harplike, yet each note played in singular isolation, with lots of space around them. Wooley accentuates by blowing some little puffs of air over it.  But on other tracks the guitar evolves with arpeggiated chords, equally minimalist yet with a touch more density, with the trumpet adding voiced interaction, in a language that is incomprehensible though touching.

It is a strange universe, but it is coherent, appealing and sometimes even hypnotic.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Ino Imai Axel Nori / rostbestandige zeit (Doubt Music, 2010) ****

German trumpeter Axel Dörner is best known for his work with Alexander von Schlippenbach or with Die Enttaüschung. On this double CD he plays with Kazuo Imai on guitar, Nobuyoshi Ino on bass. Noritaka Tanaka joins on drums on the second disc. 

The band's universe is equally strange and minimalistic as the Morris/Wooley album, yet possibly a touch - but nothing more than that - more accessible, and then only at moments. The first disc consists of free improvisation between guitar, trumpet and bass. The second is built around compositions by Dörner, and with Tanaka on drums you could even qualify the music as jazz, which cannot be said from the first disc. 

Again, you wonder about the nature of music, about aesthetics, about aural discomfort and purity of sound, about refinement, delicacy and finesse. 

And like the Morris/Wooley album, you need to get into this, and harshness will turn into sophistication and sensitivity. 

After you've listened to this music, everything else you hear will sound blunt, heavy and superficial. Lady Gaga for sure, but it was the same with the Mozart I listened to right after this CD. 

And that is bizarre ... but says enough.

Peter Evans - Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten (Self-published, 2009) ***½

In earlier reviews I praised Peter Evans to the stars,especially his stellar "Nature/Culture" solo CD.On this album, his trumpet playing is electronically altered into some kind of bizarre experiment that has some industrial connotations, even valve clicks become percussive sounds with echo and reverb effects. If you listened to it without knowing anything of the context, I do not think one listener out of a hundred would identify the instrument as a trumpet. But that's of course a pointless comment from a musical perspective.

Again, a trumpeter leading us into uncharted territories. And like Joe Morris's liner notes, there is reference to the early 20th Century, but now not to jazz tradition, but to the first atonal composition ever, by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg's, dating from 1908, on which a soprano sings a poem by German poet Stefan George : "Entrückung", with the sentence : "Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten" (I feel air from other planets).

But there is no intimacy here, you are indeed in a more greater expansive space, travelling through space, crossing the final frontier.


Thank you trumpet players for these new vistas, and obviously the musicians going with them on the same journey.

I can only add some more verses from the same poem :

"Ich löse mich in tönen, kreisend, webend,
Ungründigen danks und unbenamten lobes
Dem grossen atem wunschlos mich ergebend."

"I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving,
With unfathomable thanks and unnamed love
I happily surrender to the great breath."


Here is the Stefan George poem in full.


Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten.
Mir blassen durch das dunkel die gesichter
Die freundlich eben noch sich zu mir drehten.
Und bäum und wege die ich liebte fahlen
Dass ich sie kaum mehr kenne und du lichter
Geliebter schatten—rufer meiner qualen--
Bist nun erloschen ganz in tiefern gluten
Um nach dem taumel streitenden getobes
Mit einem frommen schauer anzumuten.
Ich löse mich in tönen, kreisend, webend,
Ungründigen danks und unbenamten lobes
Dem grossen atem wunschlos mich ergebend.
Mich überfährt ein ungestümes wehen
Im rausch der weihe wo inbrünstige schreie
In staub geworfner beterinnen flehen:
Dann seh ich wie sich duftige nebel lüpfen
In einer sonnerfüllten klaren freie
Die nur umfängt auf fernsten bergesschlüpfen.
Der boden schüffert weiss und weich wie molke.
Ich steige über schluchten ungeheuer.
Ich fühle wie ich über letzter wolke
In einem meer kristallnen glanzes schwimme--
Ich bin ein funke nur vom heiligen feuer
Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme.


I feel wind from other planets.
I faintly through the darkness see faces
Friendly even now, turning toward me.
And trees and paths that I loved fade
So I can scarcely know them and you bright
Beloved shadow—summon my anguish--
Are only extinguish completely in a deep glowing
In the frenzy of the fight
With a pious show of reason.
I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving,
With unfathomable thanks and unnamed love
I happily surrender to the great breath.
A violent wind passes over me
In the sway of commitment where ardent cries
In dust flung by women on the ground:
Then I see a filmy mist rising
In a sun-filled, open expanse
That includes only the farthest mountain hatches.
The land looks white and smooth like whey,
I climb over enormous canyons.
I feel as if above the last cloud
Swimming in a sea of crystal radiance--
I am only a spark of the holy fire
I am only a whisper of the holy voice.

© stef

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Books of Angels

For completeness' sake, here are two more valuable albums in Tzadik's Book Of Angels series.

Ben Goldberg Quartet : Baal: The Book Of Angels vol. 15 (Tzadik, 2010) ***½

For the fans of the clarinet, here is again one to listen to with joy for this quartet led by Ben Goldberg, here in the company of Jamie Saft on piano, Kenny Wollesen on drums and Greg Cohen on bass. The music is familiar of course : Zorn's klezmer tunes full of jazzy harmonies and rhythms, but to the credit of the band, what they do with the material is a real pleasure as you might expect, sometimes driving the tunes into wilder territory, with especially Goldberg being really inspired in giving the music a more dramatic, somewhat theatrical edge, which fits well in the overall context of the series. Especially the superfast but short "Lahash" is a real treat unison playing going haywire without safety net, yet falling back into its original tune without blinking. But the four musicians also demonstrate their emotional power on the long "Requel".

Even if the whole series is becoming a little too programmatic, it's still great musical fun.

Masada String Trio : Haborym : The Book Of Angels Vol. 16 (Tzadik, 2010) ****½

The Masada String Trio remains one of my favorite bands. Mark Feldman on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Greg Cohen on bass, are the perfect line-up to give the Masada song book music its true value : highly rhythmic chamber music, with the strings reflecting the whole world of melancholy agony and sadness of the Jewish and eastern European musical tradition. It is equally full of drama and sweet undertones, full of passion and despair. And there are even moments of fun, even joy - despite the series' dark theme, as on "Techial".

Knowing that Zorn composes albums like this one in a few hours, you wonder how much of the music is the result of the musicians' contribution to some sketchy tunes and harmonic directions. Whatever the reality is, the interplay between all three virtusosi is stunning, bringing their incredibly broad bag of musical genres and styles together into a great mixture that can shift as easily from the classical over jazz to folk music and boundary-breaking new music, sometimes all in one track, as in "Bat Qol". The basic concept may be Zorn's, but the end result is almost entirely to be attributed to these three musicians who have made and still make their unique genre a wonderful feast for the ears.

Watch a recent performance of the trio in France for Book Of Angels, Vol. 2

© stef

Little Symphony No 3 - First Thing Tomorrow Morning (Biodro Records, 2010) ****

Recorded as one long track during a concert in Knechtsteden, Germany, the performance by this German-Polish quartet is highly enjoyable, and sounds promising for more to come. The band is Joanna Charchan on sax, Andy Lumpp on piano, Heinrich Chastca on bass and Stefan Hoelker on drums. Lumpp, Chastca and Hoelker form a fixed trio, and their interplay and musical approach of improvisation is quite good.

The real discovery is the Polish saxophonist, who fits in perfectly for this expansive improvisation, which brings the listener from jazzy and rhythmic pieces over more meditative moments to staggering improvised music. The band's greatest asset is its melancholy lyricism, that works extremely well with the unstructured and sometimes adventurous nature of the music. Charchan's tone on alto is round and warm, yet she can bend her notes and shift them to a yearning cry, or play high energy staccato phrases without losing her focus.

As the band's name suggests, the quartet has released albums before, although they're hard to find.

Listen and download from

© stef

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Schlippenbach Trio - Bauhaus Dessau (Intakt, 2010) *****

There are times when you (me) curse musicians like Evan Parker for being so damn hermetic in their playing, or like Von Schlippenbach for being far too abstract or too concrete yet hard to pigeonhole, or someone like Paul Lovens for seeming to be unconcerned about rhythm despite being a drummer, or all of them being so totally out there in their own solipsistic adventurous journey that they completely forgot they still need someone (you, me) to listen to their music and enjoy it.

Then there are times when these three icons of European avant-garde music play together and the result is magic. This is such a moment. Yes, it is abstract, it is hermetic at times, it is an adventurous journey, but one that is strangely accessible, with an openness and a kind of creamy texture (am I influenced by the cover art here? but no the music is creamy too) that is pleasing throughout.

The biggest strength of the album is its forward-moving dynamics, as opposed to the in-the-moment creation of sounds of so much free improv, that take you along, like a boat on a musical river, you're part of it, rather than watching it from the shore how things arrive and disappear, no, here you're floating along, which gives you the great pleasure of being able to follow the flux, evolve with its developments, whether through thundering rapids or ballad-like slower movements. 

The biggest strength of the album is its warmth, its gentle and welcoming sound, despite its abstract nature, with Evans' tenor being quite expressive in his short staccato bursts full of multiphonic inflections and subtle nuance, or maddening hypnotic in his long circular breathing bouts, all accentuated by Lovens' storytelling on percussion, unusual, elegant and or disorienting, and Von Schlippenbach is the power that holds it all together, gives context, backbone and direction, although all three are quite volatile concepts in an environment like this one.

The biggest strength of the album is its fantastic interplay by three musicians who've seen it all, done it all, without any need to confirm themselves other than the ambition to exceed the quality of their art: to make it more eloquent, more expressive, offering new vistas into music, sound, texture, timbre ...

And now that we're at it : the biggest strength of this live album, is the enthusiastic audience that gives the three musicians the level of applause they rightly deserve.

This is music made for listeners.

Watch a performance of the trio in Ulrichsberg, Austria.

© stef

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rawfishboys - Pianoworks/Pianoworksn't (Spocus, 2010) ****

The somewhat enigmatic title of the album can be explained: of the fourteen tracks four come from the piano song book by well-established jazz pianists, such as Thelonious Monk and Enrico Pieranunzi, and the rest are improvisations by this two very gifted young musicians that expand on it : Joachim Badenhorst on clarinet and Brice Soniano on bass.

So, no piano, just clarinet and bass, in wonderful duets that resonate with the melancholy and sadness of the original pieces,without strict adherence to melody and harmonics.

The end results is fabulous : it has the intimacy of chamber music, with both musicians transforming the undescribable warmth of their wooden instruments' into to the color of their tones, even in the free improvised parts. It is calm and lyrical and welcoming, usually slow ... but luckily with a great tasts for adventure, taking the overall sound into areas that are new, with gut-wrenching bowing on bass and hypnotic dark sounds coming out of the bass clarinet, or Badenhorst's unvoiced blowing at times that is more percussive than melodic.

But interestingly enough, the two musicians are called back from their wild excursions by the four composed pieces, which they play full of reverence and admiration for the original piano material, sounding astonishingly beautiful in the traditional sense of aesthetics, lightly dancing, warm and sad. The variation, the contrast between old and new, but also the similarities between them, the transposition of similar moods into different contexts, are what make this album really great. And of course the musicianship. Recommended.

© stef

Friday, August 20, 2010

Architeuthis Walks on Land - Natura Naturans (Carrier Records, 2010) ****

Viola and bassoon make us think about classical chamber music, sophisticated, refined and unobtrusive.

For the non-marine-biologists among us: "architeuthis" is nothing less than the giant squid, and making such a creature walk on land as this duo's name suggests, is hard to link to classical music.

Ergo: you know you're in for a special trip, on land or elsewhere ...

Katherine Young plays bassoon and Amy Cimini plays viola. They improvise in the most fascinating way, tearing and ripping sounds out of their instruments that nobody in history ever suspected could exist in there.Yet even if both artists use the entire range of sounds and beyond, they still do something meaningful with it, creating improvised pieces that are extremely hard to describe : sometimes gentle and intimate, as in "The Field", or hypnotic heartrending drones as in "Below The Thermocline", or open-spaced crackling sounds, as in "Inside/Outside". But whatever they do, the approach is clever and emotional. Young's bassoon weeps and cries unconsolably on "The Surgeon of Fades", with Cimini's multistringed flageolets adding even deeper distress and brokenhearted sorrow. It is full of anger, madness, adventure and expressive power from beginning to end.

Ergo: this is not unobtrusive music. This is not classical chamber music. This is raw and refined. This is expressive sophistication. They've found a voice and musical direction that is all their own. I hope they keep searching in this direction.  

This is there sophomore album, and I haven't heard their debut album, but if it's only half as good, it's also worth checking out.

I can't wait to hear them perform.

Listen and download from Carrier Records.

© stef

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Archie Shepp - The New York Contemporary Five (Delmark, 1963/2010) ****

A great glimpse into the first steps of free jazz, this re-issue of The New York Contemporary Five's performance in Copenhage, Denmark in 1963. The band consists of Archie Shepp on tenor, John Tchicai on alto, Don Cherry on cornet, Don Moore on bass and J.C. Moses on drums.

Truth be told, this is only half the original performance, that was released on two LPs originally, with eleven tracks in total. The European CD version contained ten tracks. Now this first CD release in the US has only six of the tracks. But that should not spoil the fun, quite to the contrary: what a fantastic gift by Delmark to make this music available again.

Young listeners will surely wonder why this kind of music, which is still so close to bop, caused such a stir at that time: there are themes, there is rhythm, there is also a clear structure in the pieces. Young listeners will also wonder about the quality of the playing, the simplicity of the approach, the lack of subtlety, the obvious relying on phrases that were learned for other occasions, and the number of times they clearly got it wrong too.

Yet all of us will enjoy the raw fun, the wild excursions, the improvisations that fly free as the wind, adding stuff as they see fit, transgressing the harmonies, the playing without any other concern than to express themselves, with an overall still civilized anything-goes-attitude.

The album starts with a typical Cherry piece, "Cisum", with elements of army playing and a stop-and-go composition, is followed by the bluesy "Crepuscule With Nellie" by Monk. Then follow the two highlights of the performance : Ornette Coleman's "O.C." and his great "When Will The Blues Leave". Shepp's "The Funeral" and Tchicai's "Milk" finish the album.

Don Cherry and Archie Shepp are the more interesting soloists on the album, yet it's the overall performance, the emotional authenticity, the breakthrough approach, and the overall joy - despite some sad pieces - that make this one worth checking out.

© stef

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Arszyn / Duda - ŚĘ (Lado ABC, 2010) ****

We'll continue with some sax-drums duo, now from Poland, with Tomasz Duda on saxophones and Krzysztof Topolski (also known as Arszyn) on percussion. The music does not have the broad range of the Braxton-Hemingway album I reviewed yesterday, but it has the merit of being extremely direct in its expressivity, starting from the absolute basics of rhythm and phrasing, often adventurous and playful at the same time, wondering about the sounds that can erupt out of their instruments, sometimes tribal, sometimes deep into the avant-garde, sometimes barely touching silence, sometimes wild and agitated, yet always hypnotic and compelling, and increasingly so with the sensitive minimalism that ends the album. 

Stylistically, they hesitate to chose between jazz, free improv and avant-garde, but that does not go at the expense of the album's unity. Worth checking out!

Buy from Lado ABC.

© stef

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Anthony Braxton & Gery Hemingway - Old Dogs (Mode, 2010) ****½

This 4-CD set is the equivalent of Braxton's superb duo recording with Joe Morris some years ago : "Four Improvisations" of around one hour each Braxton keeps changing his instruments, while the other musician, in this case drummer Gerry Hemingway sticks to his instrument, with some changes to vibe and marimba.

This is in-the-moment music, without plan or project, yet full of process : timbral explorations, fast interplay, joint creation and changing of volume and mood, changing intensities as we move along, sometimes raw, never rude, often cautious or even hesitant, but then more to create a sense of vulnerability than for lack of ideas, yet mostly gentle and subtle.

The fact that we get four CDs of one hour each is basically irrelevant, apart from its practical advantages. Musically, it could have been one long four hour piece, or the opposite, dozens of different pieces of shorter duration.

As said before, this is by far the Braxton I prefer : full of freedom, unhindered by his own compositional tricks, adventurous and sensitive, musically interesting and captivating. But it is a duo recording of course, and this is as much Hemingway's album as it is Braxton's, even though the drummer's personal discography tends to more oriented towards composed music, with the exception of his duets with John Butcher: here again he is stellar : versatile, rich, rarely repeating himself, endlessly inventive.

In any case, I haven't listened enough to the album to give it a thorough analysis, but it demonstrates again that there is no music like free music, if played by artists with skills, ideas and emotions. The lack of constraints brings the best out of these two musicians. Highly recommended.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ab Baars & Meinrad Kneer - Windfall (Evil Rabbit, 2010) ****

For fans of free improvisation, here is another great sax-bass duo album, with Dutchman Ab Baars on reeds and German Meinrad Kneer on bass. The album brings you eleven tracks of relatively accessible jazz with each piece having its own musical dynamics, sound and development, created out of nothing more than excellent listening skills and anticipation, the result of having played together a lot.

Yet the most astonishing aspect is the emotional depth that is the exclusive of improvised music, but certainly never guaranteed. Listen to "The Pledge", which gradually evolves from slow and somewhat joyful playing of sax and arco bass into a straining, haunting repetition around a single tonal center.

Baars's influences stretch from Monk over the Art Ensemble Of Chicago to Butch Morris, with whom he played, with the additional eastern element and shakuhachi playing, as on "Bird Talk" or "Eastern Rudiment". Although born and educated in Germany, Kneer is very active in The Netherlands, and his playing is indebted to greats such as Peter Kowald (the physicality) and Barry Guy (the creative irreverence).

Together, they meander between form and abstraction, full of assent and dissent, dissonance and echoing, yet the true power lies in the almost endless variation of timbre in which the dialogue takes place, adding an almost voice-like inflection and subtlety. Despite their freedom of approach, they deal with it in a very mature way : they are beyond the deconstruction phase : there is no shouting, there is no shock element : the music almost arises organically out of spontaneous sounds, and built upon through creative interaction.

In sum, two artists who understand music, have journeyed deep and far to know what works and what doesn't, and use all the constraints and possibilities of the duo format to bring a very varied, coherent, adventurous and intense album.

A joy for the open ear.

© stef

Friday, August 13, 2010

Louis Sclavis, Craig Taborn, Tom Rainey - Eldorado Trio (Clean Feed, 2010) ****

 France has two great clarinet players: Jean-Marc Foltz whose latest album, "To The Moon", still figures in the "Albums Of The Month" section.The other one is Louis Sclavis, without a doubt better known, and quite prolific. The problem with him is that he switches genres easily, between film music, straight-ahead jazz, avant classical, avant chamber jazz, over his great African trio, duets with Aki Takase, tightly composed modern jazz, to more adventurous music. Not all his initiatives are successful, and the breadth of his scope make each new album a surprise in style. That can be good, but sometimes also disappointing.

This trio is pure jazz with composed pieces and improvised tracks, but all with an adventurous streak, and that's only possible and successful because of the superb musicianship both technically and creatively. Sclavis is of course on bass clarinet, but also on soprano sax, Craig Taborn plays piano and Tom Rainey drums, without a doubt each among the best on their instrument today.

The compositions range between the melancholy ("La Visite") and the joyful ("Up Down Up", "Possibilities"), or even the slightly insane ("Luccioles"), but all of them are musical delights. On "La Visite", on which after a long and sad Taborn piano moment, Sclavis brings some of the most heart-rending bass clarinet-playing that I've heard in a while, slowly driving his beautiful playing to a wailing climax.

Sclavis is excellent throughout, using his full skillset on the clarinet from classical over swing to modern music, Taborn and Rainey are not only functional but they create the overall environment becoming a perfect fit for the variations in mood and styles, not just accompanying but creating the context in which the soloist must journey. Despite the variations, the music is still very coherent. One of Sclavis' least polished albums, yet the rawness of the adventure suits him quite well.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lisa Mezzacappa's Bait & Switch - What Is Known (Clean Feed, 2010) ****

This is jazz with a rock attitude but with jazz rhythms and harmonics. The compositions and sound are angular, raw, unpolished, direct, full of drive and intensity. The compositions are full of rhythmic and harmonic changes, with subtle and great improvisations. Bassist Lisa Mezzacappa explains that she's been playing long enough as a sideman, and that it was time for her to bring her own thing. And she does.

As said, the musical vision she creates is entirely her own, with lots of rhythmic delights and raw energy, with long unison phrases between guitar and sax, with fun elements and lots of room for improvisations.

Second, she selects a band of musicians who prove to be a perfect fit. John Finkbeiner's guitar sound and Aaron Bennett's tenor are each other's equivalent. Finkbeiner's guitar is slightly distorted, with no reverb and no sustain, resulting in the kind of in-your-face dry sound, which resides between assertive and aggressive. Bennett's tenor is harsh and rough. Yet both can use nuance and emotional sensitivity when needed.

The rhythm section is Mezzacappa on bass, of course, and Vijay Anderson on drums. They add the solid rhythmic backbone and often provide the most subtle aspects of the music.To Mezzacappa's credit, apart from Steve McCall's "I'll Be Right Here Waiting", which is a short solo bass piece, her main project is to develop the music rather than to demonstrate her skills on her instrument.

The music is influenced by the free jazz and AACM jazz, but also Captain Beefheart's "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" figures on the album. Although all that does not mean very much. This is Mezzacappa's own music, with a sound and approach that are quite specific.

This is really great stuff, authentic and highly enjoyable from beginning to end.

Watch the band perform on Vimeo

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

AMM - Sounding Music (Matchless, 2010) *****

Can you imagine a band consisting of two pianos, saxophone, cello and percussion to sound like a breeze? Add melodica and bass guitar and the end result is a fifty-one minute whisper? Imagine a soundscape that is made of icy fragility, full of surface tension an invisible undercurrents? You can sense it and feel it, but you can't touch it? It's so abstract it becomes concrete?

This can only be achieved by the masters of the genre: John Butcher on tenor & soprano saxophones, Ute Kanngiesser on cello, Eddie Prévost on percussion, John Tilbury on piano, and Christian Wolff on piano, bass guitar and melodica.

Please forget about those instruments. They do not sound as you expect them to sound. They sound different. You do not actually hear piano, sax, percussion or cello.

Also forget about the individual voice of an instrument. You do not hear them as separate instruments. You get a total sound, built up from layers of incomplete sounds, creating something new, something unheard, of ethereal beauty, with no hurry, no sense of urgency, just the slow development of sound, minimal, gliding through silence, delivered with uncanny restraint and control, yet full of suspense, with little moments of recognition : a piano key, the slow release of air through a horn, the sizzling of a cymbal, the pain of a bowed string, a single melodica note, trickling through the overall sound, whose volume swells and shrinks like the coming and going of waves.

It would be boring if it was not so superb. But like most great music, it is full of paradoxes : it is the soundtrack to a nightmare, yet equally inviting, it is relaxing and nerve-wracking, industrial and spiritual, soothing and scary ... it is one long piece, but I was disappointed that it ended so soon. 

© stef

Monday, August 9, 2010

Atomic - Theater Tilters, Vol. 2 (Jazzland, 2010) ****½

As mentioned earlier this year, with the review of "Theater Tilters, Vol. 1", you are all still entitled to Volume 2, now released. The band is still the same, with Fredrik Ljungkvist on saxophones, and clarinet, Magnus Broo on trumpet, Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass and Håvard Wiik on piano.

The second volume is like the first one also a little over fourty minutes long, but as can expected worth every second of it. Luckily, the entire two volumes can be purchased and downloaded from iTunes as one album.

Like all the other albums, Volume 2 brings coordinated chaos, or raw structure, with disciplined yet powerful improvisations, going deep into emotional layers while pumping up the drive for the fun of the playing itself. It is jazz, it is blues, it is adventurous, it is reverent, it is wild, it is sensitive, it is mad, it is full of rhythmic and structural delights.

Those of you who know the band will not be disappointed.

Meanwhile, and quite extraordinary, No Business Records already re-issued two of the classic Atomic albums on vinyl, because the original CDs were already out of print. The re-issues are numbered and also released in limited edition. So if you don't have these two excellent albums yet, be fast if you want a copy. 

I will not review those two albums : they've been in the press sufficiently, with lots of great accolades in the press. Check out the band's website for more information on their discography.

Atomic - Boom Boom (No Business Records, Reissue 2003/2010) ****½

Boom Boom received the Norwegian Grammy for Best Jazz Album 2003. We love the Norwegian jazz jury!

Atomic - The Bikini Tapes (No Business Records, Reissue, 20005/2010) ****½

Limited to only 300 copies!

Watch the band on Youtube.

© stef

Friday, August 6, 2010

Michael Attias - Twines Of Colesion (Clean Feed, 2010) ****

Last year I praised alto saxophonist Michaël Attias' "Renku In Coimbra", a trio with John Hébert on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. This album was recorded live at the same Coimbra festival in Portugal but some years later, and this time with Tony Malaby on tenor and soprano, and Russ Lossing on piano, to form a quintet.

This is modern jazz at its best, with solid themes and rhythms, with excellent improvisations, rich in overall ideas and timbral nuances and texture.The additional horn and the piano add to this overall wealth of sound, especially because of the natural sensitivity of both players, which is very much in line with Attias's own lyricism.

Pieces like "Fenix Culprit", which start with vibrant slowness, like heat hovering over a deserted road, yet gradually pick up speed and momentum without losing the overall sensitivity and core concept, really demonstrate the band's power.

This power is also the result of the band's willingness to be vulnerable and fragile. Listen to "Hunter", on which Malaby and Lossing get the floor for a long introductory duet of extreme beauty and sensitivity before the theme sets in.

On the downside, I wonder about the editing of the performance. This live performance again sometimes has applause at the end, sometimes not, which is a disturbing experience as I've mentioned before. One can also wonder about the last piece, which starts with a two minute duet between the two saxes, then the band joins for fourty seconds to bring the theme once before the track stops, as if aborted.

Don't let this spoil the fun.

PS : For those of you living in New York, the CD will launched at a concert next week, August 19, at the Cornelia Street Café. 

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Marshall Allen, Matthew Shipp & Joe Morris - Night Logic (RogueArt, 2010) ***½

Saxophonist Marshall Allen is possibly best known from his Sun Ra collaborations, but he also released several albums under his own name on CIMP. We find him here with two of today's avant-garde icons, Matthew Shipp on piano and Joe Morris on double bass.

It is an album that leaves me with mixed feelings: some pieces are absolutely stellar, in the same style and among the best compositions that Shipp ever played, reminiscent of Pastoral Composure or Cosmic Suite. Not only the compositions, but the playing is excellent too, ranging from nervous gravitas on "Ark Of The Harmonic Covenant", the first track, over the pounding hesitations of the title track, the hypnotic repetitiveness of "Cosmic Hammer", to the moody soft sensitivity of "Harmonic Quanta" and the post-boppish gentleness of "New Age For The Milk Sea Nightmare".

The album also has two solo pieces: Allen's "Heart Aura" is deeply emotional and free, and Morris's bowed "Res X", which ends the album is a fit closure for this great album.

All this sounds excellent and fantastic : the music is intimate and expansive and lyrical like we've come to appreciate from especially Matthew Shipp. What goes totally against the rest of the album is Allen's use of the EWI (electronic wind instrument), which introduces awful electronics, full of bleeps and squeaks on "Bow In The Cloud" and "Particle Physics". It is a little less disturbing on the latter because of Morris's interaction with his bowed bass, but still...I know, they are in outer space so you need some intergalactic and futuristic sounds, only, it does sound like the early seventies electronics.

I hate to say this, but re-programming the tracks makes this a really great album.

© stef

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Giovanni Maier - The Talking Bass (Long Song Records, 2010) ***½

On the nature of deception : you can be deceived by others, and by yourself. You can be deceived in the positive sense, and in the negative sense. Luckily here, it's in the positive sense.

When I opened this CD package, the cheap look of the cover and the title made me think this was yet another album by an instrumentalist for fellow instrumentalists, with the screaming yellow begging for attention like a big "Buy Now!" sticker on as yet unpurchased and possibly unmarketable commodities.

I had heard Giovanni Maier's previous CD on Long Song, an electric fusion affair with Marc Ribot on guitar - and honestly this was not my style or genre at all, not by a long stretch, and hence not wetting my appetite for further listening.

But then you listen to the music on this album, and the preconceptions are shattered:  it is rich, deep, thorough, with great melodies, excellent musicianship and great interaction. The band is Giovanni Maier on bass, Emanuele Parrini on violin and viola, Luca Calabrese on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Scott Amendola on drums.

Starting with a bass intro, it moves organically into "Disk Dosk" a long suit-like piece with composed parts and wonderful free moments, and especially the latter are staggering, with Calabrese's trumpet and Maier's bass achieving great heights. The next piece, "Crayon Rouge", is even better, starting freely, with a great bass vamp emerging out of the freedom, leading into a sweet and compelling theme, with Parrini's raw viola sounds freely improvising over the hypnotic rhythm, followed by an incredibly bluesy solo by Calabrese.

This is followed by "Due Cellule", which sounds totally free and is - believe it or not - still better than the previous tracks, slow and adventurous. This sense of adventure is even more accentuated on the following track, full of unexpected twists and turns, like the sudden wild outburst by Amendola, or the arco by Maier. "El Manda", led by Calabrese's trumpet is a sad and melancholy piece, with some Latin influences, moving into the open-ended "Soft Transitions", with Maier's gut-wrenching arco flageolets touching some deep emotional layers.The music offers a great texture of sounds, often gloomy, moving, compelling.

Then, and unfortunately, after the band has sucked you into a dark universe all their own, with great stylistic unity, you get two more tracks who belong elsewhere : "Leroy Vinnegar", clearly an ode to Leroy Jenkins, is an  upbeat thing, and "Wrong Is Right", a more joyful boppish track that again is not in line with the atmosphere created previously. The last two tracks are not bad by themselves, if listened to in another context.

In all, let my subjective appreciation of the last two tracks not deter you from checking this album out. All the previous tracks are of a really high level with a grand musical vision that's unfortunately not maintained till the end.

© stef

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rodrigo Amado - Searching For Adam (Not Two, 2010) ****½

What a band! And what music!

Rodrigo Amado on tenor and baritone, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and flugelhorn, John Hébert on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums, four musicians whom I've come to appreciate over the years and who all four stand for creative inventiveness. Here, they come together for the first time, playing the great music of possibilities, but doing so with a very precise voice : you have rhythm throughout, powerfully delivered by bass and drums, not melody per se, but combined lyricism and interaction is what the horns bring. In that sense the tradition of the jazz line-up is respected, but not necessarily musically.

Although the second piece starts with a slow Amado solo, that with its warm and round tone, could well come from jazz in the fifties, but Taylor Ho Bynum's staccato outbursts pierce through this, adding edgy sounds and counterbalance. Interestingly, they keep this strange dialogue going, with bass and drums slightly increasing the tempo into a kind of lightfooted dance, slowly evolving into a more meditative piece of stretched sax notes and muted cornet, all sensitive and subtle, then ending in absolute frenzy.

The third piece starts slowly, yet quite rapidly it becomes more agitated with again Cleaver and Hébert laying down a great rhythmic pulse for the short blasts of the horns. You also get a staggering - yet somewhat lost in the overall concept - three minute drum solo by Cleaver.The highlight is the last piece, which takes you along on a journey through jazz, with boppish episodes, bluesy moments, absolute avant-garde, yet ending with incredible beauty and restraint, deep and warm.

What you get is jazz, strong emotionally powerful jazz, very warm and welcoming, yet utterly free in its delivery. This is without a doubt the best musical result I've heard from Amado so far, full of paradoxes between old and new, between lyricism and abstraction, between the familiar and adventure, between sensitivity and rawness. Highly recommended!

© stef

Jazz Novels

 As an avid reader, I have come across several books that bring the spirit of jazz to live. Many others have used jazz as backdrop for their plots, with Haruki Murakami, who once owned a jazz pub, as the most notable one, but also thriller author Steve Hamilton and a few other ones.

Yet there are three novels in which jazz is at the center of the story, with Michael Ondaatje's "Coming Through Slaughter" as my favorite.

Michael Ondaatje - Coming Through Slaughter (Picador, 1976) ****½

Michael Ondaatje is possibly best known for his award-winning novel "The English Patient", a book that is ten times better than the movie, and an absolutely fantastic read. Ondaatje is a language virtuoso, with a lyrical style that is at the same time intricate and easy to read.

In "Coming Through Slaughter" he tells the story of Buddy Bolden, the cornet player who started jazz in the early 20th Century in New Orleans. Little is known about Bolden's life, or about his music. He suffered from schizophrenia, and was collocated in a mental institution at a relatively young age.

In this wonderful novel, Ondaatje tells Bolden's story through the perspective of the people who were closest to him, as if they were they are delivering witness accounts of what was taking place. Each person, whether his friend the photographer Bellocq, or Cornish the trombone player, or his wife, talks with his or her own voice, alternated with scraps of other material that could shed light on the musician. The result is a patch-work of carefully crafted texts that not only re-create Bolden, but the whole atmosphere and context of turn of the century New Orleans, with its music and its nightlife.

The novel is an absolute delight. A must-read for jazz fans.

It is said that Bolden was the first to merge blues with ragtime and gospel. Here is Ondaatje's descriptive of this, through a testimony of one of the other characters:

"I'm sort of scared because I know the Lord don't like that mixing the Devil's music with His music. But I still listen because the music sounds so strange and I guess I'm hypnotised. (...) The picture kept changing with the music. It sounded like a battle between the Good Lord and the Devil. Something tells me to listen and see who wins. If Bolden stops on the hymn, the Good Lord wins. If he stops on the blues, the Devil wins."

In the marching band he was playing in, Bolden starts doing his own thing while spotting a girl on the sidewalk who reacts to his music.

"March is slowing to a stop and as it floats down slow to thump I take off and wail long notes jerking the squawk into the end of them to form a new beat, have to trust them all as I close my eyes, know the others are silent, throw the notes off the walls of people, the iron lines, so pure and sure bringing the howl down to the floor and letting in the light and the girl is alone now mirroring my throat in her lonely tired dance, the street silent but for us her tired breath I can hear for she's near me as I go round and round in the center of Liberty-Iberville connect. (continuing further for another page like this) my heart is at my throat hitting slow pure notes into the shimmy dance of victory, hair toss victory, a local strut, yes meeting sweat down her chin arms out in final exercise pain, take on the last long squawk and letting it cough and climb to spear her all those watching like a javelin through the brain and down into the stomach, feel the blood that is real move up bringing fresh energy in its suitcase, it comes up flooding past my heart in a mad parade, it is coming through my teeth, it is into the cornet, god can't stop god can't stop it can't stop the air the red force coming up can't remove it from my mouth, no intake gasp, so deep blooming it up god I can't choke it the music still pounding a roughness I've never hit, watch it listen it listen it, can't see I CAN'T SEE. Air floating through the blood to girl red hitting the blind spot I can feel others running, the silence of the crowd, can't see".

Ornette Coleman (was it him?) once said that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture", yet some of us, and Ondaatje in the first place, manage to come close to evoking it.

Roddy Doyle - Oh, Play That Thing (Vintage, 2005) ***½

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle is the master of the long and funny dialogues, taken from real life. Usually he sticks to the common man in Ireland, and many of his novels are really worth reading, such as "Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha", "The Barrytown Trilogy", and "Snapper". To the general public he is possibly best known from the movie "The Commitments", in which a young band becomes the Irish replica of James Brown's music.

In this novel, Irish immigrant Henry Smart arrives in New York, gets involved in some mob troubles and has to flee to Chicago, where he meets no one less than Louis Armstrong, who is turned into a fictional character here, and is even involved in a burglary together with Smart. As in all Doyle's stories, "Oh, Play That Thing" is about the common man trying to make a living, making ends meet in a society whether nothing is given for free. And with no skills or education, they end up in the world of speakeasies, bootleggers and criminals.

The story is rambunctuous, fun and told with the energy and dynamic power we know from Doyle. Whatever stupidities they're up to, you cannot but feel a deep sympathy for the humanity of the characters.

Here is a short description of Armstrong's playing.

"The names danced among the crazy lights that jumped from the mirror ball above the dance floor. He was dancing now as he played, as if his legs were tied to the notes that jumped from the bell of his horn. His steps were crazy but he was in control. He was puppet and master, god and disciple, a one-man band in perfect step with the other players surrounding him. His lips were bleeding - I saw drops fall like notes to his patent leather shoes - but he was the happiest man on earth."

Patrick Neate - Twelve Bar Blues (Penguin, 2002) ***

"Twelve Bar Blues" tells a story that spans several generations, but its key character is "Lick" Holden, cornet player from New Orleans, and a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. It is an epic tale about jazz music, about African American culture and racism, about passion and love.

Even though it is not literature with a big "L", it is wildly entertaining and it creates characters and conjures up an entire world that are highly plausible and fun.

Now, Michael Ondaatje is from Sri Lanka and lives in Canada, Roddy Doyle is from Ireland, Patrick Neate from the UK. I may have missed something, but where is the great American jazz novel?

This is the first review that I post on my two blogz on Jazz CD Reviews and on Literature Reviews, the latter less popular because only in Dutch, but I will change that.

© stef