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Friday, August 31, 2012

Magda Mayas & Christine Abdelnour - Myriad (Unsounds, 2012) ****

By Stef   

German pianist Magda Mayas and Lebanese saxophonist Christine Abdelnour are known for their sonic explorations that go way beyond the sound you can expect from their respective instruments. After last year's "Teeming", we find them back for this album. Again a short one, thirty-five minutes in total, yet as you can expect each one of them incredibly intense.

Basically, the only thing you get on this CD are sonic sculptures, raw, organic, sensitive, .... rhythm, pulse, patterns, harmonies and lyricism are absent, totally absent, just to be replaced by new sparks of imagination, full of as yet unimagined territories, with effects that can as easily frighten as move the listener.

The end result is beautiful, with music stripped of every useless ornamentation or decoration, revealing a level of physical and emotional sensitivity coupled with a coherent aesthetic vision.

The fascinating aspect is that despite the succession of a myriad of sounds, their interaction also offers an interesting dynamic movement, with changing scenes and evolving levels of intensity.

Fragile, ethereal, intense and beautiful. A great listening experience for music lovers with open ears.

Listen and download from CDBaby.

© stef

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Francois Houle 5+1 - Genera (Songlines, 2012) ****½

I am in the midst of a two week vacation from work. I wanted to spend some quality Dad time with my 4 month old daughter and at the same time I thought (naively) that it would also be a perfect time to catch up on some reviews that have been sitting in queue on my mp3 player for the last couple of weeks.

The reality of my situation was quite different. It consists of most nights up at 2.30am tending to a little girl with a either a bad stomach, is hungry, or just looking for attention.

2:30 in the morning, I have found out, is the perfect time to have the Olympic TV coverage on mute in the background as we are both trying to catch a few winks of sleep.

Periodically, with one eye open, I would spot a Canadian athlete about to compete in a sport that many of us won't watch again until this time four years from now. Point being, I am always amazed when one of ours can compete on a world stage. This is also true when it comes to our music. I guess it is a part of our collective inferiority complex.

Luckily for me I still had Francois Houle 5+1's album Genera to listen to and it forced me to turn off the shot putt finals and get my brain to focus on something other than television.

'Essay #7' put the first big smile on my face. It starts right out of the gate with a great groove supplied but the near telepathic rhythm section of Harris Eisenstadt on drums and Michael Bates on bass. Benoit Delbecq, (piano and the +1 in the 5+1) masterfully plays over this groove until he gives way to a back and forth discussion between Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet and flugelhorn) and Samuel Blaser (trombone).

Clocking in at a little over 12 minutes, 'Guanara', the longest track on the album, demonstrates Francois Houle's (clarinet) ability to choose his musicians wisely. This is a great ensemble piece where everyone hits their mark every time. A slow burner where everyone gets equal time to contribute to the song's evolution, time well taken advantage of as none of it is wasted. This is a tempo where structure and free jazz meet and fall in love.  Houle also chooses his notes wisely as well. He plays without grabbing all the attention and that is a real strength. It forces the listener to go to him and not get hit in the face with a backhand of sound.

Delbecq gets to play around by himself at the top of 'Piano Loop (for BD)'. It is moments like these where he really gets to shine and can easily keep the pace once the rest of the band eases their way into the track. Solos mix with rhythmic elements and back out again in a tapestry of give and take. It ends with very deep rumblings from Blaser.

Now that my vacation and the Olympics are over, I can get back to listening to and writing about more great music like this.

Can be purchased from

© stef

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Maya Dunietz, John Edwards, Steve Noble: Cousin it (Hopscotch, 2011) ****

Does a piano know that it is piano, or a bass that it is a bass or a drum kit that it is a drum kit? If they did there would only be some ways to play an instrument. Since they do not, there are endless possibilities to make use of them. You can prepare the inside of the piano with found materials, you can hammer on the strings or pluck and stroke them, you can use all kinds of stuff as percussive material in addition to the original drum kit, you can bow the cymbals, or put small ones on the toms, you can even beat them with your hands, you can arco the bass strings in unusual ways etc.  This is what Israeli pianist/composer/sound artist Maya Dunietz and the British  rhythm twins John Edwards (b) and Steve Noble (dr) do:  they use their instruments as raw material to explore new sound worlds.

Dunietz, a young voice in free jazz, is already one of Israel’s leading musicians in new music and a unique pianist who makes use of the whole piano improvisation history being able to quote the style of almost every great jazz pianist from Cecil Taylor to Marilyn Crispell or even Keith Jarrett. Certainly her approach is clearly post-modern avant-garde, but her playing  can  also be humorous, tender and abrasive – a unique player in other words. Edwards and Noble, who are to British free jazz what Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are to Jamaican reggae, keep Dunietz going by knitting a tight rhythmic carpet enabling her to lift off and pushing her to the limits of creative improvisation. 

Nevertheless they never forget to remain focused, adding fuel to the fire themselves. You can feel how Dunietz enjoys when Edwards and Noble join her on a certain groove or cool down the atmosphere or even start swinging for short segments, as in "And Under" and "I call you to order and a little bit of chin chin Jidwin". But elsewhere, on "Goose Bumps" and "Soleri", for example, which start like found object or bell symphony miniatures before the piano and the bass shyly enter the scene, they seem to encourage her to start off for a real free jazz breakout. Here the musical language of Edwards and Noble is highly eloquent, creative and varied - often even sophisticated, while Dunietz pulls out all the stops making her piano sound like needles raining down on a tin roof. What they display here is a constant box of surprises, an elegant stream of ideas, a mixture of splendid landscapes of sound, alternative rock grooves, boogie-woogie riffs, swing themes and wild boisterous outbreaks.

To me Maya Dunietz is one of this year’s newcomers and I am really curious about her future albums.

The trio celebrated the release of this recording at a live concert at Cafe OTO in London in December, 2011. 

If you want to see how exciting they are and especially how energetic Maya Dunietz is you can watch the second part of the concert  here: 

© stef

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Max Johnson Quartet (Not Two, 2012) *****

With the onset of fan donation pages all over the Internet, artists, musicians and inventors of all sorts can now speak directly with their fans and solicit funds for all types of projects. Some are fantastical like 'help me turn into a cat' fund or 'help make my paper clip rocket ship a reality', but more often than not it is a musician with a book of songs that means the world to them and are looking for a way to make their vision a reality. There are even added perks to sites like these. They come in the form of incentives for the public's donations, such as a copy of the completed album or even executive producer credits.

The Max Johnson Quartet is a success story born from this new artist driven way to produce music. From a business model to recording and art work, (fantastic by the way if you can get a close look at it) to getting Not Two Records to back the recording.

Track 1 entitled 'Elephant March', is as close to a perfect track as I have ever heard. It has an accessible opening jazz structure and not just one designed to get to the solos quickly. It is full of youthful abandon and it sounds like it could fall apart and moment in a good way, a very good way. Tyshawn Sorey (drums) is tasked with a very complicated chart as the rest of the quartet; Max Johnson (bass), Steve Swell (trombone), and Mark Whitecage (saxes and clarinet) try everything in their collective power to shake him. They are sometimes ahead of the beat and sometimes behind it. Part pebble tossed in a clear pond, part tsunami but always on the verge of disaster yet still gorgeous to look at (listen to).

Part of what makes a leader great is the ability to be humble when needed to be, be genuine and confident in their decisions and have the skill and ability to perform when the finger eventually gets pointed at them. A perfect audible explanation of this is 'Lost and Found (for Henry Grimes)'. Johnson studied under Grimes during his stay at New School University and this track reads part final exam and part pride in what was passed from master to student. Johnson travels through many bass techniques without ever sounding like a warm up exercise. The track is a well thought out and very personal dedication indeed.

'60-66' is one of those tracks that start out as a good idea in theory but ends up being a great track in reality. It develops into a track of duos as Swell and Whitecage build a sound to give way to Johnson and Sorey who also develop their own sound. Each time the duos change it gets better until the finale where both duos are on fire.

Johnson releases a sigh as the album comes to an end on 'Iset-Ra'. A joyous melody leads to a bass solo where all the pressure of making an album and the realization of why people do it in the first place all gets released through his fingers and the wood and steel responds.

So follow your musicians closely and donate to get their albums released. It could mean the difference between getting them recorded or not.

Available from Instantjazz or bandcamp

© stef

Monday, August 27, 2012

Getatchew Mekuria + The Ex + Friends Y'Anbessaw Tezeta (Terp, 2012) ****

By Stef  

Many years ago, when I first listened to the Ethopiques series, I was baffled by the musical quality, and the incredibly compelling power of the music, with long lyrical themes and hypnotic repetitive and highly danceable rhythms. The series gave a historical overview of Ethiopian jazz, with the ones with Mulatu Astatqe being my favorite. 

The genre also captivated the attention of Western musicians, with Russ Gershon's EitherOrchestra releasing a double live CD with Mulatu Astatqe on the same series. Saxophonist Michael Blake also covered an Astatqe tune on his "Elevated" CD, called "Addis Abeba". The sounds of Ethiopian jazz also resonate in the various "Angles" albums, led by Martin Küchen. 

The album under review here is also easy to recommend. The musician is tenor saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, born in 1938, and someone who evolved in parallel to free jazz, without knowing about Ayler or Ornette Coleman, creating his own breed of improvised music.

In 2006; the Dutch band The Ex invited him for a joint album, which sounds OK but nothing more, with too much emphasis on the rock or punk sound of the Europeans.

Not so on this album, which is superior on every level. First of all, the band is bigger and consists of better musicians, including Arnold de Boer on trumpet, Terrie Hessels and Andy Moor on guitar, Katherina Bornefeld on drums, Xavier Charles on clarinet, Ken Vandermark on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet,  Brodie West on alto saxophone, Joost Buis and Wolter Wierbos on trombone, and Colin McLean on bass.

Second, because of this, the sound is full, warm, accessible and guaranteed to suck you in and keep you captivated till the last note has died out.

Third, the music itself is mainly the Ethopian real compositions, with The Ex just adding support rather than determining the sound, or forcing the saxophonist to play on the simpler rock base.

As I said : easy to recommend : great tunes, great playing, great fun.

  © stef

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paul Rutherford & George Haslam with Samuli Mikkonen Trio – Raahe ’99: For Paul Rutherford (Slam, 2012) ****

A rumbling of piano chords delivers Raahe ’99, a recently unearthed meeting between British heavyweights Paul Rutherford and George Haslam and Finland’s Samuli Mikkonen Trio, a concert that might forever have existed only as a flickering memory of those who attended the Raahen Rantajatsit festival in July of 1999. This month marks five years since Rutherford’s passing, and it’s hard to imagine a posthumous offering that’s more vital, more present, than Rutherford’s music. He is among those who have unlocked immortality.

Raahe’s beyond one man, though, however decorated. It’s a writhing, twisting worm of a performance, a collective contortion that certainly moves as though it’s a single creature. Separated into 15 tracks (with some bizarrely descriptive titles like “Bass prominent, taragato subsides, quintet re-assembles with a nod towards swing before the final coda”), the album unwinds as an unbroken 53-minute thread, an almost thematic program of improvisation that morphs from movement to movement as its elements fluctuate and rearrange. Despite its freely improvised nature, this is a thread pulled from the fabric of the jazz idiom, and rather than manifesting as out-and-out free jazz ruckus, the music’s changing directions unfold in a linear, logical manner as players enter and exit, their ears tuned as much toward melody as they are to dynamism and turmoil. 

Haslam’s baritone sax and Rutherford’s trombone make for an imposing frontline. Mikkonen and his crew are an equal match. Mikkonen can play out, but he’s not a very abstract player, and he’s never far removed from a melancholy sort of jazz lyricism. He’s just as inclined to take the lead has he is to slip into the rhythmic framework, the true strength of the Finnish trio. There are times when drummer Mika Kallio tosses in some incredible syncopated beats, or bassist Uffe Krokfors locks into a hypnotic motif, and you can feel the whole group tighten in a driving, exciting way that serves to remind that a well-stated rhythm is hardly the bane of “free” improvisation.

Raahe ‘99 is a completely satisfying piece of music, and a damn lucky find. It’s painful to think that a great capture like this might have been lost for good, spirited away along with one of its creators. Mr. Rutherford is greatly missed, but lives on in a most profound way through performances with peers like those on Raahe, searching musicians who bring out the best in each other.

Buy it from the label here.

© stef

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Jerry Granelli Trio - Let Go (Plunge Records, 2011) ****

I've been a fan of drummer Jerry Granelli since I stumbled upon News from the Streets in the mid 90's. The double electric guitar line up and organic pulse of the music just bowled me over at the time. Over the ensuing years, Granelli's output has been consistently interesting and unique, like with the V16 group featuring electric slide guitarist David Tronzo, and he continues his high quality offerings with the recent trio recording Let Go, an acoustic outing that is quite an expressive and evocative endeavor.

I'll admit though that it took a few listens for its more subtle nature to grab my attention. It was during Danny Oore's soprano solo on 'A Chinese Saloon' that my attention was suddenly seized. With Granelli's drums accentuating off beats and creating dramtic dynamics below the lyrical woodwind, I started listening more attentively. 

The trio's sound and melodic ideas are refined and exciting, hardly using volume as a critical dynamic, the music streams effortless from each musician. They can play it rather straight ahead, like the bluesy figure like on 'A Woman Who Wants to Waltz', as well as more esoterically like on 'Letter to Bjork'. On the latter, percussive clatters spark up against a repetitive melody bowed on the bass while other tones chatter like insects in the background. 'Leaving 1313' is another tune with a subtle pocket and the opening 'Bones' features some grittier sax playing and loose but structured passages and with some free playing.

Though the trio is ostensibly woodwind, drums and bass, Simon Fisk doubles up on cello and Canadian singer Mary Jane Lamond is featured on a couple tracks. The vocal tunes are sung in Gaelic and while lyrically lost to me, are rhythmically and melodically endearing. 

On his web site, Granelli writes:

let go of what you want it to be. let go of how you think it to should be. even let go of your vision.
and so we began by bringing in compositions and tearing them apart to find out what worked.
This recording is a crystallization of that process.

This album is one to let yourself go in, it's smart and satisfying, and contains an subtle energy that intensifies with each listen.

Friday, August 24, 2012

John Zorn - The Hermetic Organ (Tzadik, 2012) ****

There is no shortage of personalities. A seemingly endless list in fact of people whose voices are so distinctive in their chosen profession, that it is almost impossible not to hear that voice when they choose to delve into something else, something different. A prime example of this for me was when George Carlin decided to write books. Even though he is not on stage and you can't hear him, it is almost certain that it will be his voice rattling around in your head as you read. The book will give you everything that he was known for; the pauses, the quirks, the sarcasm, and of course all of the in jokes. You can almost hear him with your eyes.

In a similar sense, we are all familiar with John Zorn and his language with the alto saxophone. His pauses, his quirks, his sarcasm and of course his in jokes are all recognizable.

In "The Hermetic Organ", Zorn decides to offer up his voice to us and the heavens through a completely different instrument, the pipe organ.

The recording begins before the first note is played. A very nice touch as it sets the mood of being in a church, and waiting for something. People are there but not talking. The acoustics have a mind of their own. The natural reverb of a footstep seems to ring forever. Then the low drones of the opening track 'Introit'  begin. With contrasting wisps of the highest registers, occasional bells, and combined with the constant pulsating rhythm, it is definitely time to get into Zorn's head for the quick 36 minute running time that this album has in store for us.

A little of Zorn's humor gets into the next movement as he almost makes it sound as if a mouse had gotten lost in the massive instrument and was being chased by the runs being played by Zorn's right hand. There are even some of his surf elements here albeit slower, possibly due to the limitations of the pipe organ.

From here the music continues to build until we approach what seems to be a church crumbling moment, a time when all the stained glass explodes outward and a great beast is summoned. Then, rather unexpectedly, at the 20 minute mark, there is a pause for nearly 2 minutes. It is here that we get a slight break form the onslaught of the organ but again to have a chance to hear the church. A footfall, a cough in a far away pew, a sniffle all add to the experience. The tension is broken soon enough with a piercing note before the album's conclusion.

This is a type of recording that needs to be savored, played loud and with good headphones.

With my comparison to a great comedian not withstanding, this is a very serious recording, especially with the themes he tackles and the environment he tackles them in. Rarely is Zorn recorded solo lately and this alone makes it special. In a year of a new Zorn album every month, it would be a shame to see this one get ignored.

Zorn talking about the project can be viewed here:

Can be purchased from the label.

© stef

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Luigi Archetti - Null II / III (Die Schachtel, 2012) ****½

By Paolo Casertano

Some scattered thoughts from the upper deck of the “Stef Free Jazz Blog Summer 2012 Cruise”

As with every summer, the entire Review Team is sailing the seven seas on a ghost vessel. The hold is full of albums to review, everyone is in his narrow cabin listening to a pile of records, sharpening his sabre and waiting for the pirate boarding - one of our favourite activities - the captain has fixed at 6.00 p.m. The following are some consideration I have collected in the wait. Please forgive their incoherence, I was pondering whether to worthily support Martin, Troy, Dan, Philip, Tom, Steve, John and Joe along the gangway on the prow or instead pounce from the hawsers of the mainmast as Stef and Paul are used to do…


Luigi Archetti - Null II / III [Die Schachtel 2012] **** ½

First preamble

Before writing something about it, I’ve been listening several times to the whole and rich two parts opus by the Swiss avant-garde guitarist Luigi Archetti on the excellent Italian label Die Schachtel (yes, the artist is Swiss with an Italian name while the label is Italian with a German name, for the pleasure of chiasmus lovers and obscure meanings searchers). The musician is also known for his duo with cellist Bo Wiget (that is Swiss with a German name … the mystery is growing) and their several acclaimed releases on Rune Grammofon (that as you know is Norwegian, and ok, I quit). Together with a wide activity as visual artist that you can follow and admire on his personal site . The release completes the “Null” trilogy - the second of his career if you consider the “Low Tide Digitals” series on the abovementioned Scandinavian label (and three is certainly a complex and cryptic number … does this mean something? I’m sorry I can’t help).

My first thought has been: how many similar works are released every month? The “processed guitar style” has become itself a flourishing subgenre of electronic music and sound manipulation. In great measure, various of these releases are tagged with the unfathomable and “then always valid” definition of drone music. And in any case, many of its representatives have gained justified appreciation beyond the electronic etiquette’s boundaries. Christian Fennesz and his ubiquitous collaborations, Aidan Baker and his profuse production, the long and powerful Japanese adrift with Chihei Hatakeyama and Hakobune, the interesting - at least to me - Stefano Pilia, or again Ferran Fages who shares his production between guitars and turntables. This is just to name few of them. It may happen that some of these performers are also identified as player of “resonant objects” - another largely abused formula. Shouldn’t we consider already every musical instrument as a resonant object itself?

I want to be clear. I appreciate many outputs of this music with no reserve and despite the lack of originality that can affect sometimes the genre. But this is may be true for a large part of standard jazz as well, I believe.

Second preamble

It seems to me there’s lately a recurring issue on the blog. Many of us, me included, feel like justifying and describing what they consider as jazz before reviewing a work with no evident standard jazz elements or structures. Here you have my point of view.

Jazz is a human language, we could start from here and agree at least on this. As all human idioms, whether they are natural or artificial and after they are hence born or created, they act as living things. To put it in a quite short way, as Ferdinand de Saussure (also Swiss, but with a French name - oh my god!) would say, their grammars are subject to the forces of time and people making use of them. That means they’re going to change unpredictably and unstoppably.

During a recent live set of a “Swing-Dixieland-Manouche” quartet (for those who believe in definitions) I’ve heard the leader declaring, as an explanation of their musical approach, that jazz production between the 20’s and the 30’s of the former century had been the highest and purest expression of this genre. And that was exactly the reason why the group had chosen to play covers of the abovementioned epoch or at least a sound-a-like production. Let’s not debate on the first half of such a way of thinking, being that personal and anyway a matter of taste. It is the following conclusion to have my attention. You could, I admit it, believe that Shakespearian English or Ciceronian Latin are linguistically superb, but would you ever conclude that for this reason you should speak in such a style?

Third preamble and conclusions or the real review (if you want to skip the first two steps)

What I meant with the previous thoughts is that often, according to a maybe unintentional cultural elitism, many crummy jazz releases are preserved from severe judgments that would not be spared to stigmatize a pop, rock or electronic album. And this is because usually a jazz musician is at least a decent instrumentalist and because the tradition and the music field he has chosen should let us believe he has something interesting to express. While using an electronic device or a computer is often considered as an easy way to hide or mystify a lack of preparation and musical culture. I admit it, the advent and the accessibility of digital tools has resulted in an overproduction of music, mainly forgettable (was it really different in a 18th century royal court?), but at the same time, when mastery in rotating knobs or using a software is levelled, when every one has collected the same amount of RAM, ideas still make the difference. Exactly as with a good instrumentalist, maybe fast and accurate, but possibly boring and without anything to say musically.

It’s tempting to conclude that I consider jazz, and moreover free jazz, not anymore as genre but as an approach, a development model to organize sound structures, often giving the chance to test and overstep the boundaries of an instrument’s conventional technique (but not necessarily) and to surprise the listener with a personal choice or through a path he would hardly had gone for. This may result in considering sometimes even a pop, rock or funk work as a jazz album. I cannot find a proper solution to such a contradiction, but I can’t see as well a concrete problem in it.

Luigi Archetti, that is in any case even a gifted guitar player with a solid background in microtonal music, delivers a great work. The twenty untitled pieces of the double album explore all the possible range of sounds and effects you may produce through a wise and refined reprocessing of a sound source. The guitar is mostly unrecognizable.

Deep bass texture acting as rhythmic structures, remote buzzes growing as blasts of wind to reach the intensity of a suffocated storm. There are distant chords starting as drills and then vanishing in trembling whistles. Sometimes strings are pinched creating arrhythmic and dissonant loops. Archetti uses a really large palette of effects and sounds. A ghostly note dripping out of a can; a percussive clatter sustained by brief eruptions of sound magma, chaotic at first but then pouring and flowing along riverbed the artist has dug for them, and then again distorted gongs and shades overwhelming fragile beats. Every sound appears to be refracted to different surrounding surfaces. Vibrato, tremolo, delays, reverbs and echoes. Each effect contributes to build a dense music grammar.

Fine, this is maybe far from a Django Reinhardt solo, but I can’t stop thinking the approach must be comparable. Because soon after a first listening, you may notice that the composition often follows rigid and rigorous counterpoint rules. A wave of raw sound may act as a classical opening, strengthened by a bass base, suddenly interrupted by a far grating chord performing as the composition refrain. Elements are interchangeable, but their role in the structure, once that is given, works exactly as their - let’s call them - orthodox counterparts (a strings choir, a drum tempo, an ensemble crescendo, an encore and so on).

So, as others - more reputed than me - reviewers have already stated: “yes, this is - once for all - jazz!”

I should have said it maybe 5O lines ago but the schooner we should predate is still far on the horizon … tonight our coffers will be even more full of records!

Listen to some excerpts here
Buy from the label mailorder Soundhom.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Martin, Haynes and Driver: Freedman at Western Front (Barnyard Records, 2012) ***

By Martin Schray

One day, when Quentin Tarantino will shoot a remake of John Ford’s “The Searchers”, which will also be about a search party of righteous men, there will be a scene at a campfire out in the loneliness of the American prairie. The men are looking for the youngest daughter of a female left-wing African-American politician who was kidnapped by some KKK members to teach her a lesson. The area where they are is rather inaccessible, that’s why they have to use horses. The men had a hard and frustrating day, they do not know if they are on the right track and it’s been a while that they had left their beloved ones, so the mood is rather melancholy. Then the leader of the search party suggests that it would be great if someone could play some music but he guesses there were no instruments. Justin Haynes, one of the men, answers: “Well, actually I have a ukulele with me. I could play some songs.” “And I could use the little suitcase we found this morning as a drum kit,” Jean Martin, another member of the party, adds. “I have some bristles of a street sweeper. I could play on the edge of a table which would make a nice bass,” says another man called Ryan Driver. And then they start playing a crude way of swing, sometimes delightful, sometimes melancholic, and the others round the campfire fall in some kind of melancholia, smoking their cigarettes, longing for the good old days.

“Freedman at Western Front” is weird jazz music; however, the musicians are prominent figures of Toronto’s experimental music scene and they have chosen instruments that are deliberately makeshift which makes it possible to deconstruct the music. Thus, the trio exposes the bare skeleton of jazz and brings up new possibilities and provocations set upon them by the collective limitations of their tools. The band’s way of playing is relaxed and Haynes is a very skilled ukulele player. But the greatest surprise is Jean Martin, who articulates the notes so well with such a tiny piece of steel making it really sound like an upright bass. But he is not only trying to sound like an acoustic bass, he manages to create a lot of burpy, purring, and clanging noises you wouldn’t expect to come out of his instrument as well.

The trio plays the music of Myk Freedman, a jazz composer and lap-steel player for St. Dirt Elementary School (another project on Barnyard Records), and it is truly innovative. What makes this music so interesting is its immediacy, its banality and its minimalism.

The album is fun to listen to but in the end the concept does not last for a complete record, the novelty factor loses its fascination after a while. The music is tighter when the trio sticks to strict song structures like in “The Gunk Under Pretty Pebbles”, “Hay” or “Plants and Animals”, when they lose the grip on the songs (“Clicking with the Clique”) it gets a bit pretentious. Nevertheless an interesting approach.

You can buy it from the label or download it from

Watch “The Gunk Under Pretty Pebbles”:

© stef

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Silke Eberhard & Alex Huber - Singen Sollst Du ... (Not Two, 2012) ****½

By Stef   

Both German alto saxophonist Silke Eberhard and Swiss drummer Alex Huber belong to the young generation of highly trained and skilled musicians who are willing to create their own sound, while keeping the legacy of the past.

Eberhard made previous albums in tribute to Ornette Coleman (with Aki Takase), to Dolphy (with Potsa Lotsa), and she even transcribed several of the latter's solos. Her great strength is the combination of this tradition - you can hear it in every track : the pulse, the attention to form - with her own natural sense of lyricism and an adventurous playful spirit.

She is one of those musicians who seem to thoroughly enjoy what she is doing, without pretence, without the need to make strong musical statements, yet the end result is better than some of the guys "with a mission to be the world's greatest innovator".

And Huber is the same. If you can ascribe lyricism to a drummer - Jack DeJohnette, Hamid Drake, Paul Motian - well, Huber has it too, but with his own character, style and approach.

Even if this is free jazz, the music "dances". It is quite physical, an emanation of happiness, and definitely a joy to listen to.

And for those who want to know what the title means, the answer is unsurprisingly "You Shall Sing ..."

Singing and playing and dancing .... only to be enjoyed!

Available from Instantjazz

© stef

Dans Les Arbres - Canopée (ECM, 2012) ****½

By Stef   

In April 2008, I guess I was the first reviewer to hail the unique musical vision of "Dans Les Arbres", the debut album of the French-Norwegian minimalist band with Xavier Charles on clarinet and harmonica, Ivar Grydeland on acoustic guitar, banjo and scruti box, Christian Wallumrød on prepared piano and harmonium, and Ingar Zach on gran cassa and percussion.

I gave the album a five-star rating and rightly so. The band manages to create a sonic universe built of pure sound, carefully improvised as one minutely paced coherent and minimalist vision. Every single note requires attention and respect as it adds something tiny to complete the slowly evolving dynamics of timbre and lightly woven texture.

So it is on this album. Bringing again this strange magic of purity and beauty, pristine and mesmerising and free and fragile like insect wings, transparent as mist, yet the result of incredible concentration, self-constraint, control of the various instruments, masterly interplay, and strangely enough driven by an uncanny intensity.

Like lots of great music, it is this paradox of lightness and intensity, of freedom and control that leads to again a magnificent result.

It is hard to believe that it took four years to release their sophomore album.

Again highly recommended.

© stef

Foxes Fox – Live at the Vortex (Psi, 2012) *****

By Troy Dostert

This is the latest release from what has become something of a free-jazz supergroup, with Evan Parker (tenor saxophone) joined by John Edwards (bass), Steve Beresford (piano), and Louis Moholo-Moholo (drums), as well as a guest appearance by the great Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn.  With such a stellar lineup, could anything whatsoever go wrong?  Well, no.  In fact: this is close to as good as it gets in free improvisation.  All fans of the genre should have this recording.  Period.

The first four musicians have worked together in a quartet formation on two previous releases: Foxes Fox and Naan Tso (the former released on Emanem in 1999, and the latter on Psi in 2004).  The kind of mutual understanding and empathy these prior encounters have brought about are definitely evident here, as the players respond attentively and adroitly to each other’s contributions.  This is truly a collective undertaking, even if these guys lack nothing by way of well-established individual identities.

Parker is his usual brilliant self, whether offering fluttering cascades of notes or more pensive statements.  Beresford is simply outstanding, with an abundance of ideas: using Taylor-esque flurries or huge percussive attacks, his playing here is a continual marvel.  Edwards’ contributions on bass are no less superb, employing a great range of textures and techniques (enhanced by his use of amplification, which lends a palpable physicality to the sound of his bass that is really compelling).  And finally, Louis Moholo-Moholo is a terrific anchor to this group, as his steady rhythmic pulse and subtle touch support the others and fuel their incessant explorations.

But this is undeniably an instance where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as all four musicians build on each other’s ideas consistently and brilliantly throughout the recording.  The 39-minute opening track is a sensational model of group interplay at its finest, with no one individual dominating the proceedings; each is able to generate ideas that are then utilized by the others.  The group does a particularly noteworthy job of developing the ebb and flow of the music, as more intense passages are built up and sustained, then gradually de-pressurized as new ideas are allowed to percolate and simmer, only to then be brought back up to a frenzied roar.

And after the first track is over, and the listener is catching his or her breath, we get to hear the addition of Kenny Wheeler on the last two tracks.  Wheeler’s presence here is wonderful in bringing a lyrical dimension to the performance, as one would expect.  Which is not to say that Wheeler is unable to bring the goods when it comes to energy and power: particularly on the second track, Wheeler is able to match Parker’s intense barrages of notes quite convincingly, as the two spar with each other during some remarkably energetic dialogue.  But there’s no question that Wheeler helps Parker explore the subtler, more melodic side of his playing, and there are a number of moments of sublime beauty on the last two tracks as a result.

It’s also worth noting that the music here is very well-recorded; it’s a live recording (from 2007), but the crowd at the Vortex has been taken out of the mix, making it feel almost like a studio album.  This is pivotal in allowing us to appreciate fully the distinctive contributions of each musician to the work as a whole.

In sum: a masterpiece of free-improvisation.  Don’t hesitate to get your copy!

Available from Instantjazz

© stef

Monday, August 20, 2012

Fred Lonberg-Holm's Fast Citizens - Gather (Delmark 2012) *****

Posted by Joe

Oddly enough in a world where the vast majority of 'big' names in jazz come from New York we here on the Free Jazz blog seem to review few groups, or musicians, coming from the 'big apple'! When writing about American improvised music in the past years my I notice that there seems to be less real experimentation coming out of New York centred scene (generally). At the present, and probably since longer, it's the Chicago scene that's producing - in my humble opinion - some of the most interesting music in the states. Delmark, a label from Chicago is constantly working on bringing out new music : free jazz, post rock, or other musics, and in most cases it's rarely disappointing. Fred Lonberg-Holm is one of these musicians that is part of this exciting Chicago scene and probably most notably known as part of the Vandermark 5. In this case he is part of another co-operative 'The Fast Citizens', made up from some of the newer and open-minded players on the scene. The idea of the 'Fast Citizens' is that one member takes a leading role as director for the project, although I think they all contribute compositions, and a very interesting idea it is. Until now we've had 'Aram Shelton Fast Citizens' and 'Keefe Jackson Fast Citzens' which although I haven't heard either (as yet), if they're half as good as this recent record I'll be putting them on my christmas wish list immediately!

So, what about this edition, and who are these Fast Citizens? Answer : Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Aram Shelton (alto sax/clarinet), Keefe Jackson (tenor sax/clarinet), Josh Berman (cornet), Aaron Hatwich (bass), Frank Rosaly (drums, etc). The music these players specialize in is probably most closely related to post Ornette free-bop. But it's also part of the whole Chicago scene style which has produced such as the Vandermark 5 and The Engines who often combine free elements, swing and melody together, crossing boundaries stylistically, unlike more abstract approaches in improvised music.

The Music : Infa-Red  (Tk1) sets the scene with a snaking bass clarinet solo invoking the ghost of Eric Dolphy played by Keefe Jackson, and a fast furious hard biting alto solo of Aram Shelton - somewhere between Jackie McLean and Ornette! Fred Lonberg-Holm gets to play his frenetic lines over a wonderful melodic backing which releases into a trio dialogue of alto, bass clarinet and cello before bringing back the original theme. It's a great way to start, but the fun doesn't stop there It's a Tough Grid (Tk2) comes at you with a wonderful cornet/cello duo before developing a melody played by bowed cello/bass, bass clarinet, alto and cornet a wonderfully arranged piece which showcases Aaron Hatwich and Keefe Jackson and later Aram Shelton blowing hard! Much of the music on this album takes it's direction from the experiments of Grachan Moncur, Jackie McLean, Ornette, Eric Dolphy, John Carter and others from this lineage. However tunes such as Later News (Tk3), Simpler Days (Tk6) and Faster, Citizens! Kill, Kill! (Tk5) use elements of post-rock with loops and processing via Lonberg-Holm's cello effects giving the music a very modern mixture, whilst leaving space for soloists to blow over. Sometimes - as in Faster, Citizens! - one wonders if it's guitar or cello with hard strummed chords creating a chordal backing, or as a distorted melody line. Lazy Day (Tk4) is a particular stand out (for me) and the closest one gets to a ballad, featuring Aram Shelton on Bb clarinet. It starts as some modern 20th Century composition, developing into a lovely lilting improvisation. To keep you on your toes the mood changes at the end when cello and clarinet battle it out in a Mingus/Dolphy type love dance ... and then on to the final theme.  

Equally important to the success of this disc is the wonderful use of the doubling instruments, tenor sax/bass clarinet and alto sax/Bb clarinet, also the cornet and cello (in all it's disguises), the music takes on endless colours and combinations - solos, duos, trios etc. The melodies are strong, but never throw-away. The arrangements are thought out to perfection with no notes wasted, nuances and tempos all being treated with respect, and as the album progresses each track offers up new ideas. The rhythm section shows it's perfect empathy with the music, changing moods, tempos (an amazing tempo change on Infa-Red !!!) and styles at will. I could say soooo much more, but my reviews too long already ......!

A excellent release from this strong co-operative, and a record that won't disappoint. Everybody pulls punches on this record, however, there's no squeak-honk-freak outs for those more interested in chaos. It could be on my list of top records of 2012?  
Post note : If you look up these musicians (from the Fast Citizens) you'll notice these guys are very active and can be found playing in many different areas and groups.

© stef

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Joe Moffett - Ad Faunum (Not Two, 2012) ****½

Trumpeter Joe Moffett's group is described as a "microtonal free jazz quintet" which after listening to Ad Faunum seems pretty apt. However, what that tag doesn't convey is how they smolder with such intensity, releasing wisps of melodic smoke that hints at the powerful combustion within.

The group features a somewhat unusual line up, joining Moffett is Noah Kaplan on tenor sax, Giacomo Merega on electric bass, Jacob William on double-bass, and Luther Gray on drums. Moffett uses the various combinations of the basses and horns quite intriguingly, interweaving lines, and playing off the contrasting textures to create a very dynamic sound.

The first tune, 'Herdsmen', is episodic, starting with the group delivering a bunch of rhythmic hits and a somewhat askew melody. While seemingly a straightforward delivery, unexpected harmonies belie the subtle microtonal use within the melodic passages. The drums and bass join in with a subdued energy that adds intensity and depth but never overpowers.

The follow up, 'The Other Species', kicks off with the sax playing an unaccompanied introduction, but soon hands off lead to Moffett. The ending of the song features both Moffett and Kaplan playing intertwining melodies while William adds low bowed bass lines. Again, it is a smart and somewhat subdued exploration of tonality and restrained power. Passages throughout the tunes show off the leader's unique understanding of how to shape the sounds and scales from the trumpet. For the most part, Moffett usually sticks within the horns more common tonality, and judiciously uses extended technique to shade and color.

The tune 'Matador' shows off a different side of the group, featuring a pulsating electric bass and the two horns playing uptempo lines over the drums abstract swing. Some element of it, maybe it is the bass way down in the mix and the drums vibrancy, makes me think just a little bit of Miles Davis' Filles de Kilimanjaro. By the time the last song, 'Where Buzzards Fly', rolls around, the potential energy has turned kinetic and the group is (actually, has been) firing on all cylinders .

Ad Faunum is an expressive album featuring abstractly constructed songs and compelling free improvisation. It engages the listener with a strong core of energy and delights with intelligent phrasings and interactions.

© stef

Friday, August 17, 2012

Hilary Hahn & Hauschka: Silfra (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012) ****

By Martin Schray

Yes, you are on the right website. No, we are not going mainstream now. But why then a review of a record on Deutsche Grammophon, the keeper of the Grail when it comes to classical music? And why an album by Hilary Hahn, the American Grammy Award winning violinist, who has hardly ever crossed the boundaries of classical music? Well, the answer is quite simple: The music on this album is completely improvised and Hahn, who improvises here for the very first time in her career, has teamed up with Volker Bertelmann, the German innovator of prepared-piano also known as Hauschka.

Inspired by Eric Satie and John Cage but also jazz musicians like Sun Ra, Hauschka is a prolific improviser who thinks that “it’s enormously important to get out of your individual bubble, and also to work with someone opens a lot of doors in your creativity.” So improvisation is the foundation of his work with Hilary Hahn and in order to make this possible they have worked together for two years exchanging files over the internet or ideas in rehearsal studios, where they regularly met “to create a kind of natural understanding”, Hauschka said in an interview.

Finally they developed certain goals where their project aesthetically should lead to but they had nothing written down when they met in Iceland to work with Valgeir Sigurðsson, who has worked with artists as different Björk and Bonnie Prince Billy. “The location and that particular studio,” Hahn said in an interview, “really helped us to get out of our own heads and away from our individual contexts.”

For Hauschka, who usually unsettles a conservative classical audience by putting small pieces of metal, clips, table tennis balls or different kinds of foils into his piano’s strings, sound exploration, randomness and spontaneity are crucial elements of music. Hahn is contributing to this spontaneous way of composing by adding sparse but concentrated (sometimes overdubbed) parts to the songs. Many songs work with clusters, that’s why there is a strong repetitive element which puts the music close to electronics.

However, “Silfra” is an album about nature and the central piece of the album, the 12-minute “Godot”, captures some of this spirit Hahn and Hauschka felt on Iceland while recording. The prepared piano sounds like metallic drizzle – very percussive, the violin is reserved, almost floating like an echo over the track and therefore creating a somber and nostalgic atmosphere. It is music for a personal soundtrack in your heads, I listened to it while watching the clouds and the wind in the treetops before a storm came up and I could literally feel the intensity of the playing.

“North Atlantic” refers to Iceland’s natural wonders – the piano sounding metallic again bringing up images of the breaking of the waves or geysers shooting water, Hahn adding minimal phrases as if she was playing while watching northern lights. The whole track is an improvised conversation of melodies and rhythms, music that would dissolve if you repeated it.

Silfra is a geographic feature near Reykjavik, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, a metaphor for the working process of the musicians. There is a great natural elegance, a calmness (“Stillness” is the name of the first track), and simplicity tangible on the album, it is just plain beautiful. Give it a try.

You can watch and listen to some music here:

© stef

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Eri Yamamoto Trio – The Next Page (AUM Fidelity, 2012) ***½

By Tom Burris

Okay, I have to be honest.  Initially, I had some real problems with this album – the first two tracks, actually.  I’d put it on, hear a gentle folk melody that sounded like it was being reinterpreted by the early Keith Jarrett trio, which is pleasant, & then it would turn a corner into Bruce Hornsby-land and I would grit my teeth and try to endure…  Well, after a few attempts I finally wised up and began listening at the beginning of the third track.  Yamamoto’s solo in this song, “Just Walking,” is where it really starts to take off; the rhythm section glides with a pulsating groove that accurately corresponds with her every phrase.

Yamamoto is a real songwriter, not simply a riff-collector, and the trio, with bassist David Ambrosio and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi, often walks a very thin line between tightly-controlled melodicism and abstraction.  It’s an intricate design that shows the beauty in the details throughout the listening experience, from the controlled improvisation of the musicians to the way the recording is sequenced.  The overall sense is that this is a real band, pulling together in an effort to highlight the fact that this is a unified collection of real songs.  The only drawback is that this occasionally makes the music feel a little too polite.

The album’s tracks are also divided into two distinct sections, split by one minute of silence.  This is the “break” between sets, as the record has also been sequenced to reflect the feel of a live performance.  Right before the break we hear a bluesy, film noir-ish track that contains a loose solo from Ambrosio and a track with great group-swing that features Yamamoto’s unwavering sense of melody during her solo.  The track that ends the first “set” is the title track, which is a bit more abstract in its melodic approach than heard previously, without losing any of the conventional beauty of the earlier songs.  It’s a perfect set closer; and serves as almost a summary of everything that is good about this trio.

“Up & Down” opens the album’s second half with an aptly titled composition by Takeuchi.  It begins with a bang, then slows to a crawl, then speeds toward an up-tempo groove.  Melody here is abstract to the point of being skeletal, but the themes are as catchy as a hip-hop chorus.  No small feat!  “Dark Blue Sky” is dark and brooding, in the way that reminds me of the Dolphy-era Chico Hamilton group, mallets and all.  The bridge on this track is absolutely stunning – and I’d like to point out that Yamamoto has a gift for writing bridges.  The one in “Catch the Clouds” is another gorgeous break away from the routine before gently dropping the listener off back home.  The last cut, “Swimming Song,” clips along in 6/8 time with Takeuchi playing perfectly placed accents that propel the group forward.  Here Yamamoto reminds me of Andrew Hill, in the way she simultaneously pushes against and pulls from the harmonic structure of the music to arrive at impossibly original melodic statements.  The track is also perfectly suited for a drum break by Takeuchi, who makes the most of it.

The interplay between these musicians sounds telepathic.  And I have to admit that those first 2 tracks have grown on me.  I now hear the beauty of the folk melody of “Sparkle Song” and the lyrical elements of “Whiskey River” without (much of) a thought of Bruce Hornsby.  Sometimes you have to put your prejudices aside and open your ears a little.  That’s just the way it is.

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Musician links:

© stef

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Various Artists - 13 Miniatures For Albert Ayler (RogueArt, 2012) ****

(***** for Joe McPhee's closing track)

By Paolo Casertano

Reviewing a compilation can be a hard work.  Even when the compilation is a large excerpt of a well-matched tribute to such a seminal and groundbreaking free jazz figure as Albert Ayler. RogueArt gives us the chance to have a documentation of the influences and legacies of the great saxophonist. 

Looking at the names of the artists performing in this concert, held in Paris on December 2nd 2010, is retracing the last thirty years of free jazz and improvisation history. From the saxophones of Urs Leimgruber and John Tchicai to the drums of Ramon Lopez and Simon Goubert, through the pressing poetry contribution of Steve Dalachinskythe trumpet of Jean-Luc Capozzo and the many voices of Lucia Recio. With giant and superb musicians as Barre Philips, Joëlle Léandre, Evan Parker and Joe McPhee (I’d die to see such a quartet in a jam session) towering for the joy of our ears on their respective instruments.

Listening to the album is indeed enjoyable. And there are, in my opinion, three gems. First is the beguiling dialogue between Joe Mcphee’s sax and Jean-Luc Capozzo’s trumpet. Second is the next piece, a solo by Evan Parker, which takes my breath away with his circular breathing (yes, I know… I’m sorry). The third, and my favourite, is Joe McPhee, the closing act. The author of what I consider as one of the recent best releases, the Ithaca duo with Eli Keszler, offers us here an intimate and touching solo made of silent whispers and feeble moans. Shivers. If one day we will decide to set a new category on this blog for “the best track of the month”, my vote will go to this piece.

I believe Albert Ayler (or Elbert Héileur - as you can appreciate from the French introduction) would have been happy of such a party in his honour.

Listen to excerpts here and buy if you like in the same place. Buy from 

Please take a look at a picture that 
I particularly like.

© stef

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Katharina Weber, Barry Guy, and Balts Nill – Games and Improvisations – Hommage a György Kurtág (Intakt, 2012) ****

The great Hungarian composer György Kurtág intends his many short Játékok (games) as naïve art. Each short piano piece is made to sound as if written by a child experimenting at the piano keyboard for the first time.  The air of pure, unfettered curiosity and experimentation in these works mirrors an atmosphere that also surrounds some of the finest free improvisation, which is why Katharina Weber’s new spontaneous spin on the Játékok is so successful.

On “Games and Improvisations,” the German avant-classical pianist performs eleven of Kurtág’s iconic miniatures. Two of them stand alone at the album’s mid-point and ending, but the other nine are used as short prompts upon which she expounds in nine untitled improvisations. For these, Weber is joined by the veteran British bass virtuoso Barry Guy, and genre-crossing percussionist Balts Nill, who spends the entire recording sitting on the floor playing pots, pans and other found objects.

Improvisation is often referred to as “composition sped up” and indeed, the group finds ways to capture the essence of each Kurtág piece and take it beyond its original confines with great success. While explicit themes from a Játékok may be difficult to pin down while listening to its new companion piece, repeated listening reveals fantastic conceptual echoes such as Weber’s key-pounding fists after “Palm Stroke” and Guy’s expert counterpoint after “Dialog for the 70th Birthday of András Mihály.” At other times, the trio adds vivid new narrative Kurtág’s stories, such as the fever-dream of an improvisation following “Falling Asleep.”

The sound of the group and overall approach on the recording is one of classicism and delicacy. Indeed, Weber’s treatments of the Játékok themselves compare very favorably with the definitive recordings by Kurtág and his wife Marta on the ECM Label. All three musicians execute the improvisations with complete precision and control. Guy’s muscular playing allows him to produce extremely accurate and piercing treble tones on his very low instrument. His pizzicato playing mingles seamlessly with the timbre of Nill’s toys. Likewise, Nill uses his spread of percussive objects more as an orchestral player than a kit drummer. The result is color and texture, laid out across the music without cliché.

“Games and Improvisations” is a recording the rewards deep and repeated listening but manages to sustain a certain immediacy throughout. Just as one isn’t going to find much easy or pleasing about Kurtág’s rough diamonds, there isn’t much to enjoy in the improvisations from a melodic or rhythmic standpoint. That said, for one who’s willing to drop jazz and classical prejudices and listen like a a child again, there’s a great deal of beauty to hear on the album. Weber, Guy and Nill manage to achieve the primal with great intelligence.

Highly Recommended

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Glas - Live at Brötz Gothenburg Sweden 2012 04 12 (Bandcamp,2012) ****

There was just a cryptic email and a link to Bandcamp for this short (35 minutes), inexpensive (free) and exciting album called Glas Live at Brotz

The group, Glas, from Norway is Lars Larsson on saxophone, Gunnar Backman on guitar and live loops,  Peeter Uuskyla on drums, Niclas Rydh on trombone and Anders Berg on bass, and they are pretty dynamic collective. The first song 'Comb Jelly', starts with  a sprawling free jazz blow out atop a feed back drenched drone. The sax style invokes the sound of Mats Gustafsson's FIRE! From there, it only gets better. A heavily effected  guitar  provides a whirling solo that segues into a vibrant swinging free section. The second song, 'Tiktaalik', starts ethereally, single notes plucked from the air, but over the course of its 20 minutes, it builds in density and richness, contracting and expanding. The heavily effected guitar contrasts with the dual horns, as they play elongated lines behind the more strident plucking. The drums carry a strong pulse, not settling into a groove so much as propelling everything forward. 

Sometimes you get lucky, and good things appear from nowhere. 

Check it out at (and download for free):

© stef