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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Jazz from the Middle-East - between experiments and kitsch

 By Stef

The concept of "jazz" is very wide, and it covers a wide variety of subgenres which are totally unrelated. Jazz is inclusive music, in that it absorbs, integrates and adapts interesting elements from other musical genres easily. And also in the Middle East, and Lebanon maybe even more so because it is one of those countries which has more inhabitants living outside the country than inside, which of course leads to broad cultural influences.

Possibly the most experimental of all music comes from the Al Maslakh label, which organises the annual  IRTIJAL festival and releases few but regular releases with musicians such as Sharif Sahnaoui, Mazen Kerbaj, Raed Yassin, Bechir Saade, Christine Sehnaoui, but also Brötzmann, Ingar Zach, Michael Zerang, Rodhri Davies.

Sharif Sehnaoui - Old And New Acoustics (Al Maslakh, 2011)

I have not heard this album yet, but I look forward to hear it. Sharif Sehnaoui is a minimalist, percussionist and guitarist, as you can watch on the video below. His playing can lead to fascinating results, with hypnotic and chime-like sounds bouncing off in all directions, erupting out of his horizontal guitar. Check out some of the tracks on this album, "The Ruptured Sessions Vol. 2", a series of four albums by Ziad Nawfal dedicated to present contemporary Lebanese music. Vol. 2  is dedicated to experimental music.

Amir ElSaffar - Inana (Pi, 2011) ****½

The best album in this overview comes undoubtedly from Iraqi trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, whose "Two Rivers"  I have reviewed and praised before. The band consists of Nasheet Waits on drums, Carlo DeRosa on bass, Tareq Abboushi on buzuq, Zafer Tawil on oud, violin and dumbek, and Ole Mathisen on sax, who replaces Rudresh Mahanthappa from the earlier band.

The end result is a fantastic blend of Middle-Eastern scales and sentiment, joined with the complexities of jazz, and both genres find themselves perfectly in the rhythmic changes and the improvisational space.

The album is gripping and moving, not only because of the beautiful melodies and interplay, but also because the soloists achieve strong emotional expressivity both in the expected parts, but even more so in the subdued parts. Amir ElSaffar's quartertone trumpet playing is exceptional, with a sound that shimmers and vibrates like distant air on hot sand.

Possibly the best world jazz album you will hear this year.

Rabih Abou-Khalil - Trouble In Jerusalem (Enja, 2011) ***½

I cannot describe the moments of joy I have had with some of Germany-based Lebanese oud-player Rabih Abou-Khalil's earlier work. He opened a new language in his own personal fusion of jazz and Middle-Eastern music, with its incessant rhythmic changes, its meandering snake-like coiling themes, its tongue-in-cheek humor, well balanced with technical mastery and a profound emotional depth.

In the past few years, he's been repeating his own idiom a little bit too much to my taste, doing the same thing over and over again, but then with different line-ups, and adding the occasional other cultural influence.

This project is of a different nature. He wrote the score for a German silent movie from 1922, "Nathan der Weise", based on a play by German author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, which advocates religious tolerance in Jerusalem in the period of the third crusade in the 12th Century, with the hope of making judaism, christianity and islam to live in peace.

The core band is known from previous albums: Rabih Abou-Khalil on oud, Michel Godard on tuba and serpent, and Jarrod Cagwin on frame drums. They are accompanied here by the Bundesjugendorchester (BJO) or German Youth Orchestra, conducted by Frank Strobel. The soloists are Tobias Feldmann on violin, Sarina Zickgraf on viola, and Sophie Notte on cello. Somehow the use of a classical orchestra is not alien to Abou-Khalil's compositions, since they are also quite prominent in Arabic classical music, and in the music of, for instance Egyption diva Umm Kulthum.

Abou-Khalil's music is recogisable as always, with lots of high speed forward driving motion, like the perfect score for car chases in police series, alternated by slower and more subdued moments, jubilant moments, solemn moments, and darkly menacing moments. This is a film score : it adds drama to the images, forcefully so, with an emotional immediacy that is needed to support the action.

It is nice, well played, with moments of beauty, and possibly a good accompaniment for a movie none of us are likely to see.

You can watch the entire movie "Nathan der Weise" (1922) here.

Ibrahim Maalouf - Diagnostic (Mi’ster Prod, 2011) *

And then to be totally unfair, there is also France-based Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, nephew of author Amin Maalouf, whose "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" is a must-read for everyone interested in world politics and history. My review of Maalouf's previous album "Diasporas" led to an avalanche of negative comments, and to my horror, his musical kitsch is even pushed further on this album.

I can accept that it is not Maalouf's intention to make jazz, but just to use its instruments to make some other music. Regardless, it is still kitsch. His trumpet-playing is really good though, but his musical taste demonstrates that blending styles without subtlety and clear artistic vision, keeps it in the domain of cheap entertainment. With Zalindê on batucada, Oxmo Puccino on voice, Sarah Nemtanu on violin, Nenad Gajin on guitar, Jasser Haj Youssef on Arabic violin, Jérémie Dufort on tuba, Piers Faccini on harmonica, Jasko Ramic on accordion, Guo Gan on erhu, and Serdar Barcin on saxophone. All other instruments are played by Maalouf.

Watch the clip to get my point - all cheap effects by excellent musicians, move to minute eight to hear the expected rock explosion.

Arab music is among the most beautiful in the world, and one that builds on many elements that are quite present in modern jazz : improvisation, spiritualism, rhythmic and instrumental mastery, as well as openness to new forms and cultures. We can only hope that the "Arabian Spring" will open the Middle-East even more to the rest of the world rather than closing down upon themselves. Yet on the other hand, authenticity and cultural heritage need also to be preserved. The music can become richer by incorporating true artistic wealth, but it can also decide to move into the realm of kitsch, and blend only those parts that sell. The latter will disappear because too shallow and too much part of today's entertainment business, the former will hopefully create new things that will still be listened to in the future.

Done with the preaching, now.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ochion Jewell - First Suite For Quartet (Mythology records 2011) ****

By Joe Higham

Ochion Jewell's CD titled First Suite For Quartet released on David Binney's Mythology label, seems already one step ahead of your 'average' first CD release that I often get to hear. With such a grandiose title I was curious to see if a through composed piece of 48 minutes could hold my attention, and especially for a first album! Many first albums often attempt negotiating tricky chord progressions combined with displays of multiple time signatures and out of control technique, making for awkward and often unsatisfactory listening. Here Jewell has written music which is immediately spiritual in outlook and mature in content. On 'First Suite For Quartet' there's a fine balance between 'improvised' music and structured improvisation, it seems the compositions are open ended enough to allow each player to express himself. The music is however not 'free jazz', but certainly related to the modern school of 'melodic-free'(*)... if such a school exists yet (LOL). There's plenty of interesting directions taken within these tunes which keep you guessing, tempo changes, rubato sections, modal ostinato riffs, romantic melodies that gently unfold, and even some driving post Coltrane(ish) ideas giving the soloist time to blow hot and cold. The musicians work within the suite format letting the tunes unwind at their own pace, giving the music a sort of natural flow that links the sections together organically.

Ochion's arrangement of the material is central to the success of this project. The tunes are played in solo, duo, trio or quartet formats, with much attention given to dynamics, giving the music relief and so maintaining interest throughout. As for individual tunes there seems little need to comment as the music flows from the start with the opening soprano sax/piano duo through to a re-harmonised version of 'You are my Sunshine', bringing the album to a close with a (lovely) piano trio! In fact the music is best heard as the suite that it is meant to be, with the tunes being carefully ordered to allow each tune/track to flow effortlessly into the next. Finally, I should add that the playing (from the musicians) on the album is impeccable, played with just the right amount of solo space, in/out playing, and no waisted notes.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes music that flows like a river.

(*) For 'Melodic-free' think of 'Dawn of Midi' meets Keith Jarrett's classic 4tet with Motion, Haden & Redman ... if you see what I mean?


Friday, October 28, 2011

Matthew Shipp & Joe Morris - Broken Partials (NotTwo, 2011) ****

By Paul Acquaro

The music starts getting tense midway through 'Two' on Matthew Shipp and Joe Morris' vibrant new duo recording 'Broken Partials'. Shipp extracts all the sound he possibly can from the piano while Morris, intense and focused on upright bass, contributes a swarm of sound below the piano. Soon, like Shipp, he is digging fiercely into the acoustic depths of his instrument.

Shipp's improvised melody on 'Three' begins with angular notes and puncuating tonal clusters that are ever evolving and rarely resolving. The music is dense and always moving forward, roiling and rolling, as Morris adds weight to Shipp's frenetic flights. 'Four' slows down a bit, with Morris taking center stage with a spacious bass line, at least at first, while Shipp sprinkles in boppish snippets and chords, not full phrases but nascent ideas and suggestions throughout. 'Six' builds up in tension, using repetitive motifs like building blocks. I was particularly drawn to 'Eight', Shipp's lines are lighter, favoring the upper registers of the keyboard but soon builds in intensity along with Morris whose initial plucking becomes strident bowing and the intensity is masterfully built and released. All of the tracks possess a forward momentum that carries the listener seemlessly through the shifting and unsettled ideas.

The recording is sonically rich, the acoustics and overtones have just as much presence as the actual notes and tones. I took the opportunity while listening to Broken Partials to revisit the Shipp/Morris duo album 'Thesis' (Hatology, 1998) on which Morris plays acoustic and electric guitar. Regardless of the instrumentation, the duo posseses a sympathy for each others playing that allows their separate lines to intertwine and meld like an ongoing, and sometimes freewheeling, conversation with Shipp seemingly stating and restating the facts and Morris spitting out rapid responses and interjections. A really interesting listen, 'Broken Partials' makes for some excellent eavesdropping.

 Buy from Instantjazz.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nu trumpets

 By Stef

Nu jazz is a term used to describe the genres flirting with rock and electronics, often with solid electric guitars and electric bass, with overdubbing and other studio effects, resulting in a more manipulated, less improvised kind of music. Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer was one of the first in the genre, with his stunning "Khmer", released on ECM, an album with elements of dance, heavy beats, screaming guitars, floating synths and soaring trumpet, alternated by slower, more meditative moments.

But of course there are others, comparable in the approach described above, but with differences in spirit : Rob Mazurek and Cuong Vu.

The Saõ Paulo Underground - Tres Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform, 2011) ****½

During his stay in Brasil, cornettist Rob Mazurek created the Saõ Paulo Underground, like its Chicagoan namesake, switching from duo to trio to quartet, now with Mauricio Takara on drums, percussion and cavaquinho, Guilherme Granado on keyboards, electronics and samplers, and Richard Ribeiro on drums.

The music is a rich amalgam of Latin rhythms, upbeat melodies, catchy themes, funny moments at moments completely distorted or even attacked by heavy psychedelic electronics. The beginning of "Colibri" somewhat reminded me of Marc Ribot's "La Vida Es Sueño", but otherwise the nature is more rhythmic and wall of sound, with many, many layers of music, often lightfooted, but then with a twist. Fun, but with a sharp edge.

For those of you familiar with the two previous albums of the band, they will be in for a surprise : the music is pretty straightforward in form and melody, yet with an incredible wealth of ideas and playfulness with sound, as in the strange dark rumbling that suddenly begins to dominate the tune, pushing back the repetitive guitars and trumpet theme on "Lado Leste". Also Mazurek's joyous, often jubilant trumpet-playing is fantastic, as in his EP "Him" many years ago, this is again a rhythmic sound fest that will leave you in a good mood for many hours to come. The Don Cherry of today.

The attention to detail is everywhere, and the result is finished : just as it should be.

Listen to a video with bad quality sound, but sufficient to give you an idea of the music :

Nils Petter Molvaer - Baboon Moon (Sula, 2011) ***½

I have called Rob Mazurek a musical genius once, just because he keeps pushing his own boundaries, and hence also ours, delivering fantastic albums in many styles, all invented by him.  Nils Petter Molvaer's "Baboon Moon" is of a different nature : he created his own style with "Khmer" and has basically stuck to it since, perfecting it, polishing it, making it more dramatic and accessible for broader audiences.

The quality of the playing, also by Stian Westerhus on guitar and Erland Dahlen on drums, both from a rock background, is exceptionally good and varied. But it is more of the same, better at times, quite impressive at moments, but more of the same nonetheless. But like all good rock music, it is easy to digest and quite compelling. Molvaer is also a great builder of tension, leading the band and the overall sound to predictable paroxysms of volume and ending his soaring solos in ever increasing high notes. Molvaer is a master of drama, in the same vein as Pink Floyd, and actually, some tracks, like "Bloodline", and even more "Sleep With Echoes", could have been penned by the later day Floyd - think "Division Bell".

Too polished, too predictable, yet great fun.

Listen to "Mercury Heart"

Cuong Vu - Leaps Of Faith (Origin, 2011) ***½

This album has been lying here for a while, because of the mixed feelings I have : Cuong Vu is an interesting and good trumpeter, who is a little bit unsure of which direction or which voice to take. I have liked all his previous albums, and I like this one too, though a little bit less. His 4-tet further consists of Ted Poor on drums, Stomu Takeishi and Luke Burgman on electric bass, who take on some standards, such as "Body and Soul", "My Funny Valentine", "All The Things You Are", and - for crying out loud - even "Something" by The Beatles, and - for crying out louder - "My Opening Farewell" by Jackson Browne.

Even with some highly questionable core material, they make these "standards" completely their own, and in a quite interesting way, as in the title piece, which is based on Coltrane's Giant Steps. Some pieces are great, especially "Childlike" and "I Shall Never Come Back" (sound clip below), two compositions by Vu. If I can give him one advice : stick to your own musical vision, and stay away from covers; What you do is great, especially in the dark atmospheric, modern and inventive compositions you create. Let the old guys rest.

© stef

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Side A - A New Margin (Clean Feed, 2011) ****

 By Stef

In one of Ken Vandermark's many projects, he plays in "Free Fall", a trio format with Norwegian pianist Havard Wiik and Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten, as a tribute band to the music of Jimmy Giuffre.

Now we find him again in the company of Wiik, but accompanied by Chicagoan Chad Taylor on drums. Like with Free Fall, this trio is also strongly rooted in jazz tradition, with fixed (?) rhythms, elaborated compositions and harmonic development. The musical skills demonstrated by all three musicians are staggering, both on their instruments as in the phenomenal interplay, yet as so often with great albums, the quality of the music itself is what really counts and it also receives their full attention.

Wiik is a stylist, someone with a gentle touch, and strong sense of lyricism, and his combination with Vandermark's incredible skills of shifting from patterns to breaking them and back again in one seamless motion work well with Taylor's rhythmic complexities. Actually, all three excell in the key ingredients : lyricism, powerplay and tradition-pushing.

The tunes range from sweet, as in "Trued Right", or abstract bluesy, as on "Arborization", to clever rhythm-shifting in the phantastic and genre-crossing "The Kreuzberg Variations" to powerplay on "Comeling". There is madness to be heard, yet controlled or contained, and joined with some more universal feelings as melancholy and tenderness. The variation is great, as are the compositions, almost equally divided among the members of the trio.

The line-up is unusual too (check on the "Sax Piano Drums Trio" in the right column to get to know more of them), yet one that works extremely well because it offers harmonic, rhythmic and a wealth of solo opportunities, while keeping the improvisational freedom of a small ensemble.

In any case, great stuff, and not to be missed.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Benjamin Duboc - Primare Cantus (Ayler, 2011) ****½

By Stef

French bass-player Benjamin Duboc has been reviewed quite extensively on this blog in the past few years, and rightly so, with the quintet "Afterfall", the quartet "Nuts"the piano trio "Free Unfold", the sax trio "Les Fées Du Rhin", the trumpet-bass duo with Itaru Oki, and now, he released his first album under his own name, and what an album.

It is a box set with three CDs, the first one a solo bass improvisation of fourty-two minutes, but not of the kind you would expect. Duboc plays primarily on the tail-end of his bass, combining bowing and pizzi, resulting in a mesmerising repetitive sound, over which the loose strings are strummed. Intensity and finesse are the words that best describe the endless shifts in tone shading and coloring.

The second CD starts beautifully, with Jean-Luc Petit on baritone and tenor saxophones, playing three stupefying improvisations with shimmering nebulous sounds coming from both instruments. This exceptional power is continued in three pieces with  Didier Lasserre on snare drum and cymbal, equally minimal and intense, with percussion and bass creating and embracing sounds you will have rarely heard from this sober line-up. On the last three tracks, Duboc plays duets with tenorist Sylvain Guérineau resulting in quite different, more abstract and voiced sonic environment, in which suddenly the tension of monotony is broken.

The third CD starts with bass in duo with Pascal Battus on "guitar pickup", creating a slowly moving deep-sounding minimalist environment, full of monotal shifting intensity, and the weird electronics coming from the guitar. The second piece is solo bass - I assume - and is little more than white noise, as an interlude before the weird frenzy of the closing piano trio starts, with Sophie Agnel on piano and Christian Pruvost on trumpet, first loud and dissonant, then moving to the barely audible with the trumpet sounds nothing more than physically intense blowing with minimal release, then Agnel takes over with scratching strings gradually leaving more room for voiced keys, supported by the deep hypnotic repetitive tones of the bass, and near the end, the incredible tension builds up for a terrifying doomsday finale.

This album is fantastic for many reasons. First, it brings together some of France's most explorative and skilled musicians. Second, it shows how jazz has found its way in a more modern artistry, one that is inventive and leaves a deep emotional imprint in the listener's brain. You want to listen to some parts again and again, and you look at the album lying there in full anticipation of the next listen. Third, the quality of it all is superb. Even if it shows the new way, it is for sure among the best of it.

The album's only downside is it's aspect of being a collection of various parts, put together quite skillfully and with its own logic and listening sequence, evolving from solo to over duo to trio, from slow monotony to a paroxysm of sound at the end.

In any case, this CD box comes as highly recommended for listeners with open ears, and without a doubt it contains some of the best things I've heard this year.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Friday, October 21, 2011

From the old school

By Stef

The CD-player in my computer is broken, I am travelling too much, too working too hard, including evenings, ... even required to pay attention to my family .... hence some time issues for the daily delivery of new reviews.

Hence the compiled and somewhat shorter reviews. Today some stuff from the old school ...

Moholo-Moholo, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Rev. Frank Wright - Spiritual Knowledge And Grace (Ogun, 2011) ***½ 

Recorded in 1979 in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, some musicians of the South-African "apartheid diaspora", Louis Moholo-Moholo on drums, voice, Dudu Pukwana on alto saxophone, Johnny Dyani on bass, piano, voice, meet Reverend Frank Wright on tenor saxophone, double bass, voice. On two fully improvised sets, the collaboration works well, because the South-Africans knew "how powerful a Zulu Frank was", and it works really well, free form, floating and rhythmic and hypnotic like the free jazz of those days.

The Lou Grass PO Band with Marshall Allen - Live At The Knitting Factory Vol. 1 (Porter, 2011) ***½  

Less old, but with Sun Ra veteran Marshall Allen (then 77 years old) on alto, drummer Lou Grassi's PO Band, brings the real free jazz, with Paul Smoker on trumpet, Steve Swell on trombone, Perry Robinson on clarinet, and the late Wilber Morris on bass. The performance was recorded at the Knitting Factory in 2000 and varies greatly between slow contemplative and sensitive moments on the one hand, and free for all blowfests on the other.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kim Myhr - music redefined, guitar redefined

By Stef

If you are a jazz purist, there is no need to read further. If you're a musical adventurer, please continue reading.

Last year I gave Mural's "Nectar Of Emergence" a five-star rating, because of the surprising listening experience I had from the minimalist power that is evokated by the band's music. Today, I present four new albums featuring Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr, whose journey is quite comparable and joined at the hip with Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach.

The first time I heard this musical approach was with "Dans Les Arbres", whom I've seen perform in the meantime, and their uninterrupted improvisations are as impressive as their recordings.

I'm not sure whether the genre has a name : you can call them minimalist acoustic soundscapes, or "silencescapes" if that word exists, in which the musicians' incredible knowledge and control of their instruments lead to the most fragile and subtle interchange of almost isolated sonic ingredients to create one single overarching sound. Some call this noise, but it is basically its exact opposite.

Mural - Live At The Rothko Chapel (Rothko Chapel, 2011) ****

Mural is Jim Denley on flutes and sax, Kim Myhr on guitars and zithers, and Ingar Zach on percussion.

The minimalist aspect comes from the fact that the musicians only play individual tones, which appear from nowhere and evaporate into thin air. They are usually stretched but not necessarily. The intensity with which the notes are played vary greatly, as is the density of the whole band playing together. What you hear is beyond instruments, like wind, like raindrops, like dark underground rumblings, the sound of flowers opening, of dungeon doors closing, of birds awakening ...

You are in a strange universe, full of surprise and wonder. It is as sweet as it is dark.

Kim Myhr - Live at Ringve Museum (Audition Records, 2011) ***½

On this EP, Kim Myhr, who plays 12-string, baroque and nylon string guitars, zithers and small percussion, is joined by Burkhard Beins on percussion and objects, Kari Rønnekleiv on viola, violin, and hardanger fiddle, and Nils Ostendorf on trumpet. The Norwegian-German quartet's music is very much in the same genre as Mural, but with a more percussive approach of all instruments. The focus is again on the overall sound texture of the four instruments, whose single-toned approach creates strong tension and a desire for release. Despite its ressemblance at times, this is not music for Zen meditation.

You can listen and download the full album on the label's website.

Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Kim Myhr - Stems & Cages (MNJ, 2010) ****

With a 13-piece orchestra, you would expect the density of Myhr's music to increase, together with the "noise" element, but the opposite is true. Even if improvisation is still at the core of the music, some pieces are clearly composed and arranged, which makes the single-tone approach and the mixing of sonic ingredients even the richer, resulting in a vibrating resonating intensity.

In the last few pieces the smoothly-flowing approach gives way to dissonance and vocal eruptions, full of inherent drama, as if Japanese No theater and dark ambient got intertwined to become something else, deeper, more resonating, more disconcerting  ...

The band is Kim Myhr (guitar), Kari Rønnekleiv (violin), Sidsel Endresen (voice), Christian Wallumrød (piano, harpsichord), Clare Cooper (guzheng), Michael Duch (bass), Jim Denley (flutes, sax), Klaus Holm (clarinet, sax), Espen Reinertsen (sax), Eivind Lønning ( trumpet), Martin Taxt (tuba), Tor Haugerud (percussion) and Ingar Zach (percussion).

Listen and download from eMusic.

Watch on Youtube :

Silencers - Balance des Blancs (Sofa, 2011) ****

Fans of French pianist Benoît Delbecq should be cautious, because the pianist has played in many styles over the years, but on this album he dives deep into the sonic unknowns of his instrument, and is joined by
Kim Myhr on guitar and resonant objects, Nils Ostendorf on trumpet and Toma Gouband on percussion.

Any listener without knowledge of the subgenre will really have a hard time to tell which instruments are used on this album, on which the subtle and lightest of touches make the instruments and strings resonate. I rarely use the liner notes to describe the music, but the description is a good one : "The music itself flows dexteriously between fragile sounds and large, open spaces to more densely articulated structures. The minute attention to detail attests to the sensitivity of the musicians: every little sound is important and has the potential to lead the music in new directions".

It is no surprise that the album's title is "Balance des Blancs" (white balance) a photographic term for the various shades of white that can be given to a picture. Our eye perceives all these whites as white, but when put next to each other, the differences become apparent.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Watch on Youtube

In sum, all this music is an absolute treat for the listener. Its minimalism is deceptive, because it lies at the basis of the incredibly intensity of the total sound, which is rich, varied and compelling. It redefines music because the notions of harmony, melody and rhythm have become meaningless. Yet at the same time it has a resonance with life that is quite strong, as if you are listening to the soundtrack of life itself, all natural and unpredictable, with shifting emotional layers that require attention, that grab attention, in which details suddently become significant and perceived ground tones dissapear like fog in the sun.

It sounds like the natural heir to free jazz and free improvisation, assimilating former styles and genres, taking out all patterns while remaining inclusive. I truly hope this young generation of artists will find audiences who are as willing to give up preconceived musical notions and just enjoy the experience.

Isn't it all interchangeable and is this not a musical dead end, you may ask? Yes, maybe with superficial listening, as many audiences commented on free jazz in its early years. But this music requires full attention. Listen to all of the above, and decide for yourself ...

... and enjoy it. 

© stef

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Joe McPhee & Michael Zerang - Creole Gardens - A New Orleans Suite (No Business, 2011) ****½

 By Stef

John Coltrane had it, Albert Ayler had it, Joe McPhee has it : the incredible artistry to create depth - a true, warm human emotion - at the same time as spiritual breadth- the feeling that the sound resonates with the planet, the sky, the universe. To capture only one of those is already a feat given to few, but both qualities is exceptional.

He is accompanied on this album by Michael Zerang on drums, who demonstrates his fantastic percussive and listening skills on this duo journey. The album is (almost) bookended by a pocket trumpet and drums duet, but one that really smears sound around, devoid of form or clear direction, until gradually, out of the muddy whispers, clarity of sound and basic rhythm emerge, solemn and confident, although struggling at times and falling back in windy washes, but the real thing begins when McPhee picks up his warm alto, for long longing and yearning notes, with Zerang adding crisp subtlety and drama. The tension increases when McPhee starts his signature singing when playing sax, with the drums resorting to screeching accompaniment, as a dual cry for humanity.

The title already suggests the content is inspired by the devastation of hurricane Katrina in 2005. And it is without a doubt the best musical performance dedicated to the catastrophic event (as by Terence Blanchard or Wynton Marsalis).

How to be all soul and all spirit with just two instruments and remain captivating and compelling from beginning to end may seem like a great challenge to many, but these two fantastic mugicians do it.

The music comes in LP and CD format, with the latter having one track more. 

Highly recommended.

Buy from Instantjazz.

Joe McPhee - Sound on Sound - Solo 68-73 (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2010) ***

This limited edition CD is a compilation of solo pieces by Joe McPhee that he recorded in the "first period" of his career, next to his sax, he also plays organ, kalimba and a few other instruments, without shying away from overdubs and effects on echoplex. The album shows us an artist experimenting with tone and color and voice.

For those who know the artist he has now become, it is nice to listen to, and a must-have for McPhee completists, but not essential. His "Alto" and "Soprano" on Roaratorio are better. 

© stef

Friday, October 14, 2011

Kris Wanders - Mani Neumeier Quintet - Taken By Surprise (Not Two, 2011) ****

By Paul Acquaro

The Kris Wanders and Mani Neumeier Quintet's Taken by Surprise is an excursion into free but highly melodic improvisation, and Wanders and Brett Evans' tandem tenor saxophones on the the impassioned "Oxymoron" is an inspiring opener. The quintet is rounded out by Rory Brown on bass, Yusuke Akai on guitar and Neumeier on the drums. The rhythm section is top notch with Akai's guitar providing dry, clean, rhythmic and probing accompaniment, sometimes comping chords and other times bursting out with appropriately felt tonal clusters. However, it's Neumeier's drums that acts as a real connective element here, as much a lead voice as a rhythmic engine with plenty of pulsating energy and responsive playing. Brown's bass is almost an agent provocateur at times, often falling back in the mix creating a sonorous foundation, but appearing at times with abrasive and fiery accompaniment pushing the other players into ever more dangerous territory.

The songs run the gamut of engaging moods and modalities. Approximately halfway through the title track, "Taken by Surprise", I was. The previous ten minutes prior had been an intense improv with Wanders and Evans going full bore, then the group dropped out, leaving the bass and guitar alone together to create a melodic stew. The effect was palpable, lightening up the space and setting up the next slowly building climax. The final song "Not On Radio" begins with a what seems to be a somewhat composed beginning, with the guitar tripling up with the saxes. Like the other tunes, it builds into a fierce and complex group statement.

Taken By Surprise is a rich, energetic and interesting album. Over the course of the three long improvs (all around 20 minutes a piece), the interplay of this group is quite impressive and each twist and turn of the recording is rewarding.

Buy from Instantjazz.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Darren Johnston's Gone To Chicago - The Big Lift (Porto Franco, 2011) ****

 By Stef

Trumpeter Darren Johnston is a musician who has incredible ears and an openness for many subgenres of jazz, ranging from the simple trio combo as with "The Nice Guy Trio" to more adventurous stuff as on "Reasons For Moving" or "Third Impulse", with the recent "The Edge Of The Forest" somewhere in between.

On "The Big Lift", he continues his journey, exploring musical possibilities and arrangements, surely a long stretch beyond mainstream, yet so very rooted in the jazz tradition, with a band of Chicago's finest musicians :
Jeb Bishop on trombone, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes, Nate McBride on bass, and Frank Rosaly on drums.

And these five musicians' interplay is incredibly tight and loose at the same time : they stick to the agreed structures and arrangements while improvising freely and abundantly before unexpectedly falling back on unison lines and solid rhythmic patterns. You can hear blues, swing, calypso, funeral band and big band arrangements in a way like you've never heard them before : stretched and pushed beyond tradition, while retaining the value of their original character and musical enjoyment. Inventive compositions meet instrumental prowess meet human warmth.

Listen and download from eMusic.

Buy from Instantjazz.

The Nice Guy Trio - Sidewalks And Alleys/Walking Music (Porto Franco Records, 2011) ***½

We find Darren Johnston back in the company of Rob Reich on accordion and Daniel Fabricant on bass for their sophomore album with the trio, now accompanied by a string quartet consisting of Mads Tolling and Anthony Blea on violins, Dina Macabee on viola, and Mark Summers on cello.The album consists of two five-piece suites, hence the double title. Musical influences from all over the world are brought in a jazzy, chamber-like setting. If you like the Tin Hat Trio, or Gato Libre, you will surely enjoy this too. Fresh and light-footed.

Listen and download from eMusic.

© stef

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Daunik Lazro - Some Other Zongs (Ayler, 2011) ****½

By Stef

French saxophonist Daunik Lazro is possibly best known outside of France from his collaborations with Joe McPhee and Evan Parker, and even if that is no guarantee for celebrity status, it at least draws the context and the nature of his playing. He is a sonic explorer of sentiments, or an emotional adventurer of sound, epending on your approach as a listener.

This second solo album is quiet and subdued, like quality wine allowing you to take small sips to enjoy his playing to the full. Volume and violence are absent, to the advantage of a calm sensitivity, that is often close to the music of John Butcher, using the resonance of the space he plays in, as the St. Merry church in Paris on most of the tracks.

Some of the pieces are absolutely stunning, like the "Zong At St Merry 2", short of four minutes long, but of a crushing or devastating emotional and aesthetic power, complex, ambiguous, full of internal conflict and drama. Other pieces are less focused, but give more time to develop concepts, in the spur of the moment, without too much apparent planning for a coherent evolution, and in normal circumstances this would be a negative, yet not here. Surprise may follow tenderness that precedes agony and the end result may sound like obstinate yet spiritual abandon ... unfathomable like human nature and therefore utterly captivating.

Rarely have I heard such a calm intensity ... 

... and his sound is absolutely magnificent.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Deric Dickens - Speed Date (Self Published, 2011) ***

By Stef
Being a fan of duets with percussion, Brooklyn-based drummer Deric Dickens seems to have made an album that really fits my taste.

On twenty short tracks, Dickens plays duets with Ben Cohen on tenor saxophone, Jon Crowley on trumpet, Kirk Knuffke on coronet, Jeff Lederer also on tenor saxophone, Jeremy Udden on alto and C melody saxophone, and Matt Wilson on drums, wooden flute, and "Makers Mark Bottle".

The music is - not surprisingly - influenced by Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman, free quite often, yet also sometimes with rhythmic base and a theme. Some pieces like "Original Self" are more traditional, with once in a while a reference to Ayler, as in "Duck Dance", but the fun stuff clearly dominates. As a kind of self-imposed limitation, some tracks are stop-watched at 1:14 minutes. 

This is an album without any other ambition than to bring fun stuff, enjoying the interplay of rhythm and lyricism in its simplest format. This is not great art, nor is it really innovative, and neither were the objective I think, but an incredibly fun album that's been in my car for the past week. When stuck in traffic jams, or when having trouble adjusting to the light of day, or worrying about the small and big things of life, agonising about everything I should have done but failed to do, just listening to this put me back in the right mood. Therapeutic music? Possibly among the best, without pretense.

Buy from the artist. And available via Amazon and iTunes as of October 18.

© stef

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ehran Elisha & Roy Campbell - Watching Cartoons With Eddie (Outnowrecordings, 2011) ****

By Stef

Ehran Elisha is possibly one of the best unknown drummers around. I know - and have - his two albums on CIMP that were released some ten years ago. Now Elisha is back and how, again with Roy Campbell on trumpet, who performed on both previous albums too. And to my great joy, it is a duo album, like the great Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell album "Mu", a musical milestone in free jazz history.

The title of the album - "Watching Cartoons With Eddie" - refers to the great drummer, who was Elisha's teacher and who "forced" the student to watch cartoons on the video before taking on the serious stuff.

And even if both musicians continue the musical legacy of their two great role models, they make their own music, in the same spirit of openness, and musical joy, and creative mastery, and human warmth, and spiritual value. They add some more drama though, as on the long "Aesthetic Encounters", with tribal deep-toned toms and muted horn, longer developments and less playfulness as you get with Cherry-Blackwell, even if musical joy is quite present, as in the title track or in "The Dizzy Roach" - a reference to the duo album that Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach released ("Paris 1989" - also easy to recommend). Apart from the African polyrhythmic delight, there are also Middle-Eastern phrases and scales in "Faith Offers Free Refills", on which Campbell's somewhat hesitating flute intro quickly switches into exuberant trumpet playing.

Great stuff and fun stuff!

Listen and buy from Outnowrecordings.

© stef

Saturday, October 1, 2011

DuH - In Just (Red Toucan, 2011) ****

By Stef

The band's name comes from the origin of the players : Deutschland und Hungary, because drummer Martin Blume and reedist Frank Gratkowski come from Germany, while Szilárd Mezei on viola and Albert Márkos on cello come from Hungary. All four musicians fit well within the European tradition of free improvisation : their abstract sounds color empty silence, while interacting in the moment with each other.

This coloring surpasses what you might expect from the instruments : sounds can be stretched, as is easily done with two string instruments, yet are often limited to short bursts, whispers or phrases that come and go gently, yet all together paint a canvas that is well illustrated by the artwork on the cover, as subtle as pointillism and as dynamic as action painting.

Even if abstract and hermetic at first listen, drop your preconceived notions and natural tendency for pattern recognition : just listen to the sounds and how they organically move forward, shift, intensify, change volume, oscillate, bounce and merge and let yourself be absorbed by the wonderful aesthetic these four musicians create. 

Recommended for listeners with open ears.

Buy from Instantjazz.

© stef