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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff (ECM, 2015) ****½

By Troy Dostert

Although it’s been a few years since pianist extraordinaire Vijay Iyer’s last trio release (Accelerando), he’s certainly been keeping busy.  Last year alone he made an excellent guest appearance on Trio 3’s Wiring, some fine contributions to Arturo O’Farrill’s Offense of the Drum and a splendid classically-shaped release under his own name, Mutations.  On this recording he’s back with his regular trio, featuring Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crump on bass.  And it’s a superb document of these musicians’ continual evolution and mutual exploration.

One definite difference from the trio’s earlier releases is the choice of material: whereas the previous recordings included some eyebrow-raising inclusions (M.I.A.’s “Galang” on Historicity, or Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” on Accelerando), here the trio’s covers stay safely within the jazz canon: Monk’s “Work,” Coltrane’s “Countdown,” and Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.”  The group remains just as committed as always to re-envisioning these tunes, however (with the exception of “Blood Count,” played straight, and gorgeously, by Iyer alone).  “Countdown” in particular is virtually unrecognizable, with only the loosest allusions to the understated melody of the original.  And the same spirit of adventure and possibility characterizes Iyer’s own compositions on the record as well.  Whether it’s Marcus Gilmore’s frenetic techno-influenced beat on “Hood” (dedicated to longtime Detroit DJ Robert Hood), or the slightly off-kilter yet irresistible rhythmic foundation of the title track, or the use of open space (and some fine arco bass from Crump) at the opening of “Geese,” each piece offers something distinctive and compelling.  Gilmore really deserves special mention, simply for the elasticity of his sense of rhythm: what frequently makes this music so fascinating is Gilmore’s ability to establish a steady pulse while at the same time subtly altering and toying with it—allowing the listener to engage each track, but never to get too comfortable in doing so.

Ultimately, the trio manages to anchor their rhythmic and melodic investigations within a sense of structure and purpose that is highly effective, giving the record’s tracks a cohesive feel, even when they’re at their most boundary-stretching.  And you can readily tell that this is a trio with deep roots playing together as a unit: there’s no ego or self-promotion involved, as the virtuosity on display is always in service to the demands of the pieces themselves.  Here’s to hoping that there will be many more recordings from this trio, as it continues to reveal new and exciting potential with each release.

Learn more.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Atomic - Lucidity (Jazz Land, 2015) *****

By Paul Acquaro

The opening bars of Lucidity reminded me of something. The refined relaxed piano and unison melody on the trumpet and sax invoked a sound that was at once classic and unique. From what I read here, structure, sound, and attitude referencing classic post-bop / free-jazz, mixed with free passages and virtuosic playing is the winning formula that Atomic has been tweaking over their many albums since 2001. I can't imagine any reason to change it, it's a delight.

I had the pleasure of seeing Atomic for the first date of their recent North American tour. In the opening moments of the show, saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist introduced the band - the great Magnus Broo on trumpet, the intense Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten on bass, most recent member Hans Hulbœkmo on drums and then the empty bench of the group's main composer pianist Håvard Wiik. Dues to unforeseen circumstances, Wiik was detained in Europe. With grace and humor, the temporary quartet's modified set list still left the audience gobsmacked. And it was kind of a tough crowd - a glance around the room revealed a number of well known musicians listening. After the sets, Broo explained how they reached back into their repertoire and quickly rearranged the tunes. You couldn't tell. 

Well, listening to the album, you can a bit. The album is a bit less raucous; however, even this is with many exceptions, for example on the title track, they delve deep and energetically into group improv. The moments of reflection, like on 'Start Stop' is where you see how much the piano has an impact on the group's sound. Wiik is reserved, he opts for splices of sound, fragments of melody, outlining and letting the group full in the sound. Fredrik Ljungkvist's clarinet work on the same track is excellent as well, working with ideas that reference blues and mainstream jazz, his sound is rich but light. Broo is on point too, using scatterings of sound and a bricolage of styles to shade in his part of the piece. 

Hulbœkmo, who joined in late summer, taking over from the Paal Nilssen-Love, connects with the group in all the right ways. His playing can be lithe and driving, or flat out powerful, and he locks in tightly with Haker-Flaten who walks, runs, swings and stomps throughout on the upright bass. A highlight of their interplay happens on the track 'Major' while Wiik's piano punctuates, Broo's trumpet navigates, and at the half way point, he plays a fantastic solo with the bass and drums skittering about.  

The gentle and lyrical December closes the album on a sentimental note, but not too sentimental. There is an edge, a brightness, to Atomic's classic sound. There is something subversive happening, and even at its most delicate, it's as tough as nails. Highly recommended.

Take a listen.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Luis Lopes Lisbon Berlin Trio – The Line (Clean Feed 2014) ****

By Chris Haines

Masayuki Takayanagi used to encourage his students to have their own guitar trio, seeing it as the definitive ensemble for a guitarist to be able to learn, experiment within and lead.  This was the unit that he felt his students could be ambitious with, the trio equally providing the basic elements of melody, harmony and rhythm.  Many guitarists enjoy working within a traditional trio format of bass, drums & guitar and there are many great albums that have pushed the boundaries whilst using these instrumental forces.  Luis Lopes is no different in this respect and he has previously released two excellent albums using the trio to great effect: What is When with Adam Lane & Igal Foni as well as the first album by the Lisbon Berlin Trio, comprising of Christian Lillinger (drums), Robert Landfermann (bass) & Lopes himself on guitar.

So it was with great excitement and expectant anticipation that I approached this album, especially after the excellent debut, which was a near masterpiece within the genre and complete with the same line-up.

The opener is Dark Suite (Prologue) providing a quiet and gentle, but slightly sinister start to the album with its tentatively bowed double bass, delicate percussion and diminished guitar motives.  The feeling of this piece being revisited, altered and expanded further on its sister track Dark Suite (Epilogue) later in the album.  At the heart of this album is the thirteen minute Mother Snake, a busy, industrious and chaotic sounding piece, which is full of energy during the first half of the track.  The second half continues with the noise based material but in a continuous drone based way, discarding the more pointillistic texture of the beginning and creating an over-arching binary form where the two textures both contrast and compliment each other.  Unlike the debut where there was a fine balance between the flowing free jazz playing and the forays into free improv, The Line places its emphasis slightly more on the noise-based materials and fragmented free improvisational textures.

It certainly seems that this trio is Luis Lopes’ experimentation unit that forges ahead with the sonic explorations that his other projects might benefit from in a more refined and subtler way.  Having said that I much prefer the rough forms and purely creative play that the Lisbon Berlin Trio has to offer over that of his other work.  This is at times a demanding album and due to the selection of materials that are worked with it is not as immediate as the debut, but the eventual pay-off is nearly as great.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Marinated Improvisations

By Tom Burris

The following improvisations were recorded in 2012, but released at the end of 2014. 

Barker/Dunmall/Dahl - Luddite  (New Atlantis, 2014)**** 

Ludd-ite, noun, def: one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change.

21st century English working reed-man, Paul Dunmall, joined Yank drummer Andrew Barker and bassist Tim Dahl in NYC for a meeting.  The subject of this meeting was recorded – but what was it about the luddites that was on their minds?  Destruction of technology, or even a major opposition to it, seems a bit unlikely – after all, they're putting it down in a recording studio - but these days one can be considered a luddite for simply carrying last year's iPhone.  It is completely true that our tech age moves quicker than is practically needed.  In fact, it has become such a part of modern life that to live without regard to “keeping up” with technological advances is to almost exist outside of (a large segment of) society altogether.  In our new economy, can the term Luddite be synonymous with Outsider?  Aren't “free” players usually referred to as playing outside?   Let's consider that the modern luddite (sic) is as complex as the thing(s) he rejects – maybe more so.   He must practice what is possibly the most advanced system of all.  He must successfully navigate his way to freedom without a preordained map, electronic or otherwise, via the discipline of intuition. 

On “Shame Game,” the album's opener, the trio moves hypnotically through uncharted waters with all hands on a Ouija board deck.  Once sufficient courage has been worked up, Dunmall easily weaves in and out of Barker's crazy waves of floating trash as Dahl plunks and prods from behind, keeping the big ship moving down an obstacle course through a deep fog.  This is the intuitive map they will follow throughout the voyage.

Dunmall and Barker ditch Dahl on half of the album and perform as a duo, as on the title track.  Barker empties a kitchen junk drawer onto the floor and wades loudly through the glass, plastic and wood while Dunmall plays his sax through a wah-wah pedal into an amp that feeds back often.  He also briefly mimics a theremin before diving headlong into Jimi Coltrane mode.  At times they sound like two teenagers who just heard On The Corner and decided they could do that too; and then at other time it's as if the universe is nothing but pure interstellar space. 

Other highlights:  On “No Pity Party,” another duo track, Drunmall's intense-yet-extremely-melodic playing plows through Barker's multi-directional driving like a Boss.  The track peaks with what sounds like an ecstatic avian conversation around a newly-filled bird feeder.  “Champion” is a leisurely drive that accelerates only during the turns.  Barker spins an egg beater through a drawer of paperclips on “Spells” as Dunmall's rambunctious melodicism astounds with equal amounts of forcefulness and sensitivity. 

At the end of the disc (“Flecks”), birds flutter and leaves rustle.  An Englishman and a New Yorker emerge from the leaf pile, shielding their eyes from the sun.  They begin to play their instruments, slowly coming to life.  The sounds they make function as a spiritual caffeine, fueling new ideas and energy almost quicker than is practically needed.  Aaaaand the world turns.

Joe McPhee & Chris Corsano – Dream Defenders  (MNOAD, 2014) ****

The glorious onslaught of early Joe McPhee reissues in 2014 are still getting fairly regular play around here.  It's still jarring to hear the differences between those early assaults and his patient soft harmonics-blowing today; but it's also a fairly standard line of maturity.  A man learns patience as time marches onward.  He listens better.  He knows when to speak and when to hold back.  Events are filtered through experience.  The elder man still contains the intelligence and fire of his former self; but his actions are no longer held captive by his passions.  A man who has truly grown is guided by wisdom.

Chris Corsano is experiencing a similar transition these days, I think – although it's not as obvious.  He still loves to keep on the attack.  He's still the guy who lists Adris Hoyos as a major influence (and that's a great thing).  But his role as a support player is not just being perfected, but re-perfected over & over with every collaboration.  He still dazzles; but he is also aware that dazzling isn't that important in the grand scheme of things.  He's one of the smartest percussionists working today. 
So the passionate men have matured.  So what?  It makes for deeper music, that's what!  At one point on “Tell Me How Long Has Trane Been Gone (for James Baldwin),” McPhee is blowing super-soft harmonics – so quietly that the sound of clacking keys is almost louder than the notes – and Corsano enters with bowed cymbals, endlessly weaving an eerily beautiful web around McPhee.  It's gorgeous and ominous, like a blizzard at dusk.  Corsano bows alone for a short while.  When McPhee reenters, playing a perfect flurry of notes, it's as if your guide has arrived to gently move you through the storm to safety.  His presence puts you at ease.

At one point during his two-minute solo intro on “Ain't No Thing (for Duke Ellington),” Corsano pounds out a pattern that sounds like the Drummers of Burundi – all of them!  When McPhee enters, his tone is simultaneously warm, inviting, shrieking, splattering and lovely.  It's as if they're both reminding us of their full capabilities, how large their arsenal really is, and how badly they don't want to simply throw it all at us.  “Here's just a short peek at what we could do to you if we wanted to...”  A sophisticated show of force is far more effective than a being exposed to a wild bunch of yahoos shooting their weapons off in every direction until they run out of ammunition. 

McPhee plays around with various two-note riffs on “The Icarus Effect” while both musicians allude to some pseudo-rumba tempo for about two-thirds of the track.  It is a flawed flight, but a fascinating one.  The highlight for me is “Other Evidence,” featuring Monk's famous melody leaping and loping out of the saxophone bell, and being chased by Corsano up a ladder into the clouds within one minute.  It suits its precise and concise author well; the whole track times out at 2:16.  It is perfectly stated.  Perfectly contained.  Perfect. 

Note:  I'm giving this one 4 stars instead of 4.5 because Corsano is often buried in the mix.  It sounds like McPhee was playing through a PA and Corsano didn't have a single mic on his kit.  And the recorder's lone stereo mic was placed somewhere at the back of the room.  But overall, the music here is so rich it's a minor complaint.  And at the price of the download it's a total bargain!

Available here:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Torben Snekkestad & Barry Guy - Slip Slide And Collide (Maya, 2014) ****

By Stef  

Both Norwegian saxophonist Torben Snekkestad and British bassist Barry Guy have been classically educated and have performed and released classical CDs, but they are equally active in modern music and jazz. On this duo set, both musicians improvise on thirteen relatively short pieces, and what they bring us is more than worth listening to.

The album's title, "Slip, Slide and Collide", is taken from a metaphor of the movement of tectonic plates on our planet's crust, and gives an indication of what both musicians do, but then it doesn't, because it reduces their interplay to some mechanical geographic occurences, instead of intentional dialogues, which can be fierce, but also gentle, and even emotional. 'Utsira', the first track gives a good example of the latter, when Snekkestad's sax howls like a sad dog, with notes being bended to higher pitches, full of agony. In 'Ombo', the two musicians engage in a more parlando discussion, with short bursts full or surprise and antagony.

On the long 'Gurumna" we get the opposite: the bowed bass creates a foundation of long stretched notes, an invitation for the sax to join in the dark and ominous atmosphere, which is wonderfully dispelled by the almost joyous and lyrical 'Silda', on which the sax sounds warm and round, while the bass sounds like tumbling pebbles.

My favorite track is 'Cruit', a sensitive and beautiful interaction between bowed bass and high-pitched sax.

These two artists know their instruments, they sense each other well, and use the space for maximum contribution, including the occasional silence or resonance. One of the better sax and bass duets of the last years.

Monday, February 23, 2015

On Clark Terry

By Stef

Yesterday, trumpet and flugelhorn player Clark Terry passed away at the age of 94. He was not a free jazz musician, not by a long stretch, but a real bopper and bluesman, so I am a little bit out of my league commenting on him. But then again, he has offered me so much musical joy, and still does, when I listen to his albums with the Trumpet Kings, the four trumpet front with Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and Harry 'Sweets' Edison, and with Oscar Peterson on piano, playing blues and boogie and bop in a great spirit of improvised fun and the happiness of playing together, mostly live with enthusiastic audiences, who still applaud after each solo.

I'm listening to it now, and it's hard to qualify the music as artistic, in the sense of creating innovative listening experiences, yet what it lacks in artistic character, is largely compensated by the entertainment level, the presence of the musicians, the beautiful sounds of the trumpets and the fantastic atmosphere.

Thanks for the great music, Clark!

Ross Hammond & Catherine Sikora – Perfect Plasticity (Gold Lion Arts, 2015) ****½

By Chris Haines

Released this month by Gold Lion Arts this live recording is a cassette only release and is limited to 50 copies only.  Recorded at the arts centre in Sacramento this duo recording documents the talents of Ross Hammond (electric & acoustic guitar) and Catherine Sikora (tenor saxophone).

Perfect Plasticity is a great little set containing four improvised pieces of varying length.  The music the duo offers gracefully moves between bold approaches where melodic lines freely interweave with one another whilst individually vying for prominence and the more delicate attentive playing of lead lines and accompaniments.  A variety of textures and sounds keep the momentum of the music driving forward with more contemplative sections mixing in with knotty and twisted lines.  The space afforded to each other at times is also worth a mention, with either musician allowing the other to come to the fore, which provides a good contrast in the foreground sound.  Sikora’s melodies float along in a freely associative way whilst Hammond can be found providing equally writhing lines to match or considered chordal voicings that provide a decorous counter balance.  In fact, each musician uses a wide variety of compositional tools but in a natural and spontaneous way allowing the music to develop instinctively from within the dyadic relationship.

The two musicians have really provided us with a treat on this recording and I highly recommend getting hold of this one.  The cassettes can be purchased direct from Gold Lion Arts, but hurry, as they won’t last long!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Jorrit Dijkstra - Music for Reeds and Electronics: Oakland (Driff, 2014) ****

By Antonio Poscic

Dutch saxophonist and composer Jorrit Dijkstra has had a fruitful and successful year. While he appeared on quite a few excellent releases (such as "New Crosscurrents - Live Bimhuis Amsterdam"), the record that piqued my interest the most was “Music for Reeds and Electronics: Oakland”. Daring, brave, and exploring uncharted territory (at least to my knowledge), it was one of my picks for most innovative record of 2014.

Indeed, a reed quintet enriched with electronics is not something you encounter every day. Dijkstra and his outstanding, experienced collaborators, Phillip Greenlief, Kyle Bruckmann, Frank Gratkowski, and Jon Raskin, present us with an imaginative and peculiar take on the format. As Dijkstra himself notes, this album melds experimental music with short compositions that connect the textural possibilities of reeds and electronics. Free jazz, free improvisation, electronic music, noise, and modern chamber music all converge in a set of 10 inspired tracks.

The quintet’s approach comes across as if each aforementioned style has been meticulously sewn into the others. Modern chamber music compositions provide the basic structure which is then mutated with shades of free jazz phrasing, analog and drone-like electronics, and improvisations. Even though it might appear as such at first glance, this is not a work of hermetic inaccessibility. Of course, it’s not lush either, but rather minimalist, coming closer to current experimental electronic music tendencies than jazz. There’s a sense of strange, idiosyncratic beauty in this intellectually challenging endeavor highlighted by occasional touches of groovy rhythms and melodies (“Feuilles Vertes”). On most tracks, the music eschews categorization. As an anonymous commenter reflected on the “Happy New Ears” award a few years back, the adjective “innovative” is nowadays quite often tied to electroacustic meanders. In that context, this record is no exception.

While as a whole everything works out nicely, there are two minor issues. The first of those is that the especially alluring dialogs between reeds and electronics are not present on all songs. Case in point, the album opens with two tracks played by reeds only, while the really interesting parts “kick in” on the third track “Easel” when the electronic instruments perform for the first time. The interactions, struggles, and counterpoints between reeds and electronics are surely the most compelling aspect of this album. For proof of that, look no further than the tracks “Headlands”, “Lope”, and “Veg”. The other thing that bothered me a bit is related to the very format and arrangement of this album. It’s comprised of short, individual compositions that feel fragmented and disconnected from one another, each revealing a separate world of ideas, all functioning without a binding, collective thread. At times, this can spoil the listener’s immersion in the music. Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles that we might as well disregard.

While “Music for Reeds and Electronics: Oakland” is a great record, there’s still room for improvement. Since this is only the first of three planned releases in the series, we’ll see what Dijkstra and his cohorts have in the bag for us on “Amsterdam” and “Chicago”. The bar has been set very high.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Masters of the Power Ambient and Drones

By Eyal Hareuveni

Ambient or drone music often carry the infamous new-agey badge of simplistic, one-dimensional, numbing kid of music. But these are just artificial definitions. Given the creative, strong-minded musicians, who know how to improvise and sculpt a fascinating sonic range out of their instruments and such music can be arresting, even disturbing music, with surprising spiritual tones. The recent releases of YODOK III, Dirk Serries and the new duos SAW and PUUL suggest that there is much more to explore within such loosely-defined genres.

YODOK III - The Sky Flashes, The Great Sea Yearns (A New Wave of Jazz, 2015) ****½

The YODOK trio - Norwegian, Trondheim-based drummer Tomas Järmyr and amplified tuba and flagbone player Kristoffer Lo (who began YODOK as a duo) with Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries, already sold out its limited edition sophomore only Double LP album. This release expands and enriches its debut sonic universe. Powerful drone-ambient pieces, all spontaneously improvised, all developed methodically and patiently as mysterious, otherworldly rituals.

Within this loose framework this trio does wonders. Järmyr exquisite work with the cymbals charge this patient interplay with dark tension and Lo and Serries highly creative usage of effects and pedals add layers upon layers of detailed and rich sounds. All the instruments adapt new, much richer, deeper sonic forms with a fascinating, profound resonating quality that deepens the feeling that these soundscapes do not subscribe to conventional definitions of time and space.

The emphatic and open interplay suggests a great focus in sketching the ritualistic spirit. Still, each of the four extended pieces on this album has its own distinct sound and color. Despite its ritualistic, even trance-like nature, none of these slow pieces sketches a peaceful, meditative narrative of the ethereal kind. Its focused interplay and rich, voluminous sound form a massive and all-encompassing presence that demands surrender to its grandiose energy and sheer, often innocent beauty.

John Dikeman / Dirk Serries  Cult Exposure (A New Wave of Jazz, 2015) ***½

This free improvised sax-electric guitar duo has nothing to do with previous duos of similar instrumentalists. The meeting between the muscular Brötzmann-ian sax wails of American, Amsterdam-based sax player John Dikeman, known from the free jazz bands Cactus Truck and Universal Indians, and the reserved, serene playing of the effects-laden guitar of Dirk Serries forced the two to transcend any possible comfort zone.

On the first piece the two still struggle to find for a possible ways of interaction without seeking a common ground. Dikeman plays his tenor sax in a powerful, nervous mode confronted with Serries structures of spare, noisy textures. But on the second title-piece Dikeman patiently taps his wails to the fractured loops that Serries structures and the two form a restless and tense, yet much more restrained soundscape. The third piece, “Whisper Edge” already morphs Dikeman extended breath techniques and gentle squeaks with the subtle, meditative of Serries atmospheric guitar and on the last piece,  “The Monolith Song II” , the two offer another collaborative pattern that brings the two back to the starting point but in a less confrontational interplay. Serries creates an intense, noisy pattern on which Dikeman can expands on with fiery, emotional blows.

Dirk Serries - The Origin Reversal (Projekt, 2014) ****

The album title suggest a kind of return to the basics. Indeed, Serries revisits the time when he created hypnotic ambient soundscapes under the alter-ego moniker vidnaObmana, a name he used since the mid-eighties until the the middle of the last decade, often for the same label. Serries uses his extensive experience and employs his effects laden electric guitar to sketch patiently on real-time, nuanced layers of gentle and warm sounds that transform into meditative textures. Each of the five serene, resonant soundscapes has its delicate dynamics and defined spirit and all sound surprising rich in detail, depth and color.

SAW - No Way Black (Lamour, 2014) ***

SAW is the new duo of Tomas Järmyr, who plays percussion here, and fellow Trondheim-based improvising guitarist Eirik Havnes who adds electronics and amplified circular saw-blades to his sonic arsenal. The minimalist, cinematic drones on Saw debut album, mastered by Serries (who goes here by the his other ambient moniker, Fear Falls Burning), reflect the the wild scenery of the northern Norway, where the sun either never rises or never sets. The sonic textures sound timeless, even static, but patiently more colors and shades are revealed and morph into powerful, dense walls of sounds. The longest piece, “Black”, stands out with its enigmatic, dramatic progression, like a timeless-mystic-hypnotic ritual that convey  threatening yet fascinating scenery of wild, remote parts of Norway.

PUUL - Puul (Optical Substance Records, 2015) ***

Puul is the another new duo of British bass player Tim Harries, known for his collaborations with British Brian Eno and Bill Bruford’s Earthworks among many others, and Norwegian sound designer and electronics artist Terje Evensen, known for his collaboration with trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær. The two first met in British drummer Martin France Spin Marvel band (Molvær played in Spin Marvel second album, The Reluctantly Politicised Mr. James, Edition Records, 2010) and worked together as a duo since 2011.

PUUL offer eight short contemplative and minimalist ambient soundscapes, each with its own subtle, dramatic dynamics. Harries electric bass usually suggests a certain spacious, fragmented bass mode and Evensen expands it with dark, mysterious sonic undercurrents with distant percussive touches, all accumulate to a haunting audio-cinematic experience.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Kris Davis - Waiting for You to Grow (Clean Feed, 2014) ****

By Stefan Wood

Kris Davis is a pianist hailing from Vancouver, currently residing in New York, and has been garnering praise for her creatively adventurous work in the NY music scene. She is influenced by Cecil Taylor, but stylistically covers a wide range, from jazz standards to minimalist works. Waiting for You to Grow is her latest effort on Clean Feed, the Portuguese based label that is at the forefront for contemporary improvised music. It is a trio session, with John Herbert on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.

“Whirly Swirly” opens the album with a military style drum solo from Rainey, before the others come in and counter with a seemingly disjointed and angular response, piano keys banging and bass plucking like industrial machines. It moves from this to a minimal soundscape where piano keys are struck almost in silence, bass strings bowing with a low shrill, before eventually building back up to a heavy and fervent percussive conclusion by all three artists. “Twice Escaped” is a little more straightforward, with Davis leading the way with intricate piano notes that grab the listener with its seemingly repetitive manner but is drawing a more complex soundscape. “Berio,” (a reference to Italian composer Luciano Berio) is a track that begins with a contemplative mood highlighted by Herbert’s bass playing, that moves toward a tension between piano and drums, that begins slow but builds speed, as Davis embarks a series of flutters and flurries that Rainey responds to with more active drum work. It is a high point on the album. “Hiccups” is another delightful track, piano notes darting in and out, descriptive of the title, while bass and drums provide ample support, propelling the music towards a very fluid and boppish course and conclusion. “Propaganda and Chiclets” begins with an agitated trio setting, as all three musicians create a light but low rolling thunderous moment, building in intensity but dissipating just before reaching pure noise and chaos, retreating back towards a more contemplative mood. “Waiting for You to Grow,” is a low key mood piece, Davis tastefully working with the almost silence with delicate keyword, bass and drums embellishing and adding more dimension. It is a beautiful track and ends the album on a very high note.

The album is excellent overall, again displaying Davis’ skills and original improvisations. Recommended.

Tim Daisy and Jason Stein - Alive at the Woodland Book Center (Relay,2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

I'm glad I had the opportunity to write about Tim Daisy and Jason Stein's duo album Alive at the Woodland Book Center. I have an unfettered bias to all things bass clarinet and have enjoyed Stein's woodwind work in his other recordings including The Story this Time. Daisy's discography is excellent as well, as the reviewers from this blog will eagerly attest to. Together, they do not disappoint as already proven by their work on Bascule.

Growling humming thrumming and drumming - the tracks on Alive at the Woodland Book Center entitled 'Reading', 'Thinking' and 'Being' are just a subset of the overarching category of "Playing One's Ass Off". Kicking off with a tentative melody over some mallet work, the duo is just warming up. Soon Stein's playing begins getting more aggressive, with bigger and bigger intervallic leaps and the most appropriate use of the instrument's ability to create low register blats to help underscore the intensity of some passages. 

The energy is unmistakable throughout, but on the track 'Being', it seems even more so. The duo is connected - Daisey's percussion locked in with Stein's lines as the two propel each other forward, the expressive melody takes over the whole horn as the percussion furnishes complex counter rhythms. 

This is an excellent recording sounding recording of the duo in action. Give a listen here on Bandcamp ... or better yet just get it, at $2.99 you're not going to find a better deal!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dave Rempis: Days of Ballister and Rempis (Day 3)

Nate Wooley, Dave Rempis, Pascal Niggenkemper, Chris Corsano - From Wolves To Whales (Aerophonic 2014) ****

By Martin Schray

Apart from the different line-up this band differs a lot from Dave Rempis’s Ballister project, something which is obvious as to sound, approach, notion and environment. While Ballister is deeply rooted in the Chicago scene (Ballister’s Paal Nilssen-Love can be considered a member of this scene too, due to the fact that he has often played with the Chicagoans), Rempis has decided to play with some of the protagonists of the New York scene on this album. The members of the band can almost be called a super group, especially Nate Wooley (tp)  and Chris Corsano (dr) belong to the new stars of improvised music. Moreover, Pascal Niggenkemper, a German/French bass player, also moved to New York some years ago, where he has made a name for himself.

Rempis once described the difference between New York and Chicago like this: “I also think the pressure is off here a bit compared to New York. (…) Gigs are also easier to come by. (…) There are also fewer industry people in Chicago – i.e. critics, record labels, jazz tourists, etc. – so we can actually work here and focus on our music, and have regular performance opportunities, without the added pressure of competing with everyone to get on the next big festival in Europe, or get a record out on ECM. (…) The musicians in Chicago are more easily able to achieve a balance between spending their time doing the busy work of pursuing a “career” and creating something that’s artistically worthwhile, since these opportunities aren’t dangling in front of them all the time.”*

But no matter if they are part of different scenes Wooley, Rempis, Niggenkemper and Corsano share a similar musical vision which made it easy for them to communicate.

There is a lot of Ballister-like energy playing on From Wolves To Whales, especially on “Count Me Out” with its overblowing tour-de-force between Wooley and Rempis, and it’s particularly Wooley who sounds like a hissing tiger here. But in general the stylistic range is broader, from microcosmic sound pallets (“Slake”) to semi-structured song forms and cool jazz allusions (the second part of “Swingin’ Apoplexy”), which highlights the new group’s musical possibilities.

However, the best and most fascinating track is “Serpent’s Tooth”, which begins with an unusual saxophone loop that reminds of Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare trilogy, before Wooley drops in with his reverberating wah-wah trumpet lines encouraging Rempis to step up the pace.

In conclusion, you can say that From Wolves To Whales is a very promising debut that makes you want more.

*The passage is taken from an interview with Burning Ambulance.

Listen to “Slake”, the first track of the album, here:

You can buy the album from Instantjazz or the label.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dave Rempis: Days of Ballister and Rempis (Day 2)

Ballister – The Ballister Monologues (Astral Spirits Records, 2014) ****½

By Martin Schray

I could have used the same introduction for today’s review as yesterday, which is no surprise since The Ballister Monologues presents Ballister on their last gig of the same spring US tour 2014 as Worse for the Wear – but now playing for a roughed up and good-humored audience in Austin, Texas.

There is still the same energy and this recording is even harder and rougher than Worse for the Wear because Rempis’s and Nilssen-Love’s approaches are more clearly contrasted by Lonberg-Holm’s electrified cello debris, which makes the already powerful listening experience even more intense. Their sound is still brutal and physical, yet there is a new element added to their music – and this element is the groove.  Ballister intersperse driving rhythms like prominent hardcore techno beats (on the bass drum) and monotonous claves (in “The Woman Who Loved To Make Ballister Happy”) with noisy textures and sporadic melodic interjections as in “My Angry Ballister” when Rempis’s minimal circular breathing meets Nilssen-Love’s dark tumescent drums while Lonberg-Holm, who is on guitar here, sounds like a Jimi Hendrix gone crazy in the further course of the track. The musicians are at their best when Nilssen-Love adds rock grooves (apart from the great free jazz drummers he also loves John Bonham, he once told me) and fierce drum’n’bass passages to the already hellish bitches brew (“The Woman Who Loved To Make Ballister Happy” after 12:19 minutes is my favorite moment on the album).

However, it is no surprise that they can get lost in grooves since Rempis said in an interview that he loved playing time, whether it was something that was really swinging or an odd-meter feel. He also pointed out that he got comfortable with the fact that it was just something he gravitated towards and enjoyed more and more after a certain period when he was more interested in European improvised music. For him both styles are important possibilities “within the larger context of being an improviser that carry equal weight as musical tools”.

The Ballister Monologues shows Rempis’s influences – like Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and Chicago improvisers like Fred Anderson. It’s a superb piece of music!

The Ballister Monologues is available in an edition of 150 cassettes and as a digital download. You can buy it from the label.

Listen to “The Woman Who Loved To Make Ballister Happy” here:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dave Rempis: Days of Ballister and Rempis (Day 1)

By Martin Schray

Since Dave Rempis moved from Boston to Chicago in 1993 he has been an integral part of the Chicago scene – as an improviser, composer, bandleader and jack-of-all trades for new music. He has made his name as a member of bands like Vandermark 5, The Engines, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s Chicago Sextet, Ballister, Rempis Percussion Quartet and his duo collaborations with Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly, he helped form the presenters’ collective Umbrella Music and is also one of the organizers of the Pitchfork Music Festival, a huge alternative rock event in Chicago, he helped curating the Umbrella Music Festival and he has even started his own label – Aerophonic Records. It seems as if he wants to become Chicago’s John Zorn.

“Dave Rempis is one of the artists that I admire most on the contemporary scene,” Ken Vandermark, one of his mentors in Chicago, said, “he is completely dedicated and disciplined in his approach to music. (…) This is how the music moves forward, through the activity of innovative people with Dave's attitude and generosity.”

Rempis loves to be independent, for him it’s enough to have a platform to release his projects and to have direct contact to the people who buy and listen to his music. Moreover, Rempis’s label is deliberately avoiding working with Amazon, iTunes and the other outlets independent labels typically use to reach the market because he doesn’t believe in the stumble-upon-theory. He said that he has spent years building his network within the music, and that his own label was the first chance he had to communicate with his fans immediately. This is more important for him than winning a handful of potential sales “through a faceless corporate entity that’s profiting off so many other artists.”

Not only is this a very likeable attitude, but whenever you have the chance to talk to him you’ll find that Rempis is simply a very nice and interesting guy. In the next three days we will have a closer look at his most recent releases.

Ballister – Worse for the Wear (Aerophonic, 2014) ****  

Michael, one of my boyhood friends, is an amateur scuba diver. Once he told me that he was drift diving, a type of scuba diving where the diver is transported by the currents caused by the tide. The current gave him the impression of flying and allowed him to cover long distances underwater, so that it was possible for him to see more habitats and sea life than usual. He said that he felt as if he was completely helpless – yet in a fascinating way. First he felt shocked, then he just let himself go and at the end – after he was released from this force of nature – he needed to relax and orientate himself. That’s how you might feel when you listen to “Fornax”, the first track on Ballister’s Worse for the Wear, an album recorded live in Chicago on their spring tour in 2014.

From the very first second you are in the middle of sheer power and raw energy – after  playing together for more than five years Dave Rempis (saxes), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, electronics) and Paal Nilssen-Love (percussion) obviously don’t need to warm up anymore. They started their Chicago set with enormous velocity, it’s a whirlwind of emotion and sound listening to Rempis’ soulful and almost classic free jazz saxophone, Nilssen-Love’s surprisingly mad but dry-as-a-bone drumming and Lonberg-Holm’s electronics which seem to be put through the meat grinder. On top you get some grindcore vocals for free.

Ballister’s typical characteristics like abrasiveness and immediacy are juxtaposed by introspective passages and moments of almost quiet beauty which result in a complex, tight, yet accessible structure. There are moments of sudden stops when one of the instruments seems to be left alone (like the sax after 13 minutes in “Fornax”, like the drums just a few minutes later and like the cello as well at the end of the same piece) which has a breathtaking effect because there is no lack of intensity – the track has just zigzagged to move off in a different direction. Only Nilssen-Love’s Chinese gongs announce the end of this tour de force.

“Scutum”, the second track, basically takes the same line, although Lonberg-Holm mainly does it without electronics concentrating on pristine cello sound (at least at the beginning). “Scutum” is darker and a more desperate listening experience than “Fornax”, since the calming moments have gone. “Vulpecula”, the last track, at least provides some of them, albeit in a discomforting manner.
In a nutshell: A typical Ballister album for people who like their first four releases as well as a great chance for beginners.

Listen to “Scutum” here:

You can buy the album from InstantJazz or from the label 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tellef Øgrim & Anders Berg – November (Simlas, 2014) **** / December (Simlas, 2014) ***½

By Chris Haines

Here are two releases from the tail end of last year by Tellef Øgrim (guitar) and Anders Berg (bass), the first release November being a full-length album, whilst December is a short follow-up EP.

Firstly Tellef Øgrim is a fine technician of the fretless guitar, which over the years he has mastered producing, in particular, the excellent album of solo pieces for the instrument Some Dodos Never Die.  Mr. Øgrim continues his exploratory journey on November, this time in collaboration with bass player Anders Berg. The pair have created a fine album of improvised duo pieces, which also contains a healthy amount of electronic-based music enabling them, at times, to create a much fuller sound, and work with an extended palette of colours and rhythms.  The track Oslo is a good example of this coming on like a more edgy Fennesz track, whilst the more straight forward improvising of 422.2 with its funky bass motive and free-rock guitar interjections played over the clattering of electronic drums is interspersed with sparser moments. This use of space is also used to good effect on the title track, which creates a chilly November feel to it accentuated by the tremolando picked melodic line.  There is some fine improvising from both musicians on this album, and I am a particular fan of Tellef Øgrim’s freely chromatic guitar playing, as illustrated on 422.1, which he then carefully uses to great effect in a restrained and compositional way on the rest of the album, I only wish there was more of it!

December gives us another 3 tracks from the duo, which carries the feel and way of playing set-up on the album onto this short EP.  Thou Shalt Maketh Me A Sandwich is worthy of a note not only for it’s throw away title but also for the unwieldy guitar sound which Tellef Øgrim appears to be wrestling with, whilst Anders Berg is due credit, providing a solid but freely moving bass line and perpetual rhythmic underpinning to provide a continuous thread to the piece.

November made it into my Top Ten for last year’s releases and I do hope that we hear some more from them both, either together or individually, in 2015.

Both recordings are available for download at the Simlas Bandcamp site.

GuitCussion - Blue Congo (Brakophonic, 2014) ***½

By Paul Acquaro

The blog has covered some of the music coming from a somewhat intertwined scene in Sweden that includes the groups GlasHeadJiveBaptet, and some of the solo material from guitarist Gunnar Backman. GuitCussion is another permutation, in which we find Backman joined by second guitarist Stefan Thorpenberg and drummers Henrik Wartel and Per Ander Skytt, who together bring an atmospheric approach to some rock oriented free playing.

The inspiration of the double duo of the group came from Wayne Shorter's 1969 Supernova which found the saxophonist with a double duo of Sonny Sharrock and John McLaughlin on guitars and Jack Dejohnette and Chick Corea drums (yup, Corea on drums). Thorpenberg describes the music of GuitCussion as "a very intense and sweaty form of freejazz, with some Nordic harmonic influences."

Indeed, some of the tunes of GuitCussion have that certain soaring sound associated with Terje Rypdal or even Jan Garbarek, and there are moments during the album where the music feels like an avalanche of sound.  Brash and wide swaths of sound pour from the guitars and the drums push and push. However, unlike groups where the power excess of the electric guitar is the focus, GuitCussion works with a big ensemble sound in which precise melodic lines and ambient textures are given weight. The guitarists use the sonic distinction of their instruments - Thorpenberg sticks to the classics like the Les Paul and Backman utilizes a double neck guitar that controls some serious digital equipment  - to their advantage on the epic tone poems of Blue Congo.

Some of the highlights include the shifting palette on the track 'Radio Nowhere', the tactile interplay on 'Broken View', and the sheer power of the slowly erupting 'Phoksundo'.

Fans of Rypdal's Chasers and rock based improv in general, give a listen:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Andrew Drury - A Content Provider

By Paul Acquaro

Brooklyn based drummer Andrew Drury is a phenomenon to watch perform as his playing often transforms the instrument itself. His kit will be disassembled during a show as unorthodox methods and unexpected equipment, such as violin bows and actually blowing into the instrument, are used to play the drums. It is little surprise then to see Drury releasing two separate albums, visually of a pairing, but musically as diverse as could possibly be - one a solo percussion piece playing out the possibilities of a single piece of percussion and the other a take no prisoners free-jazz-rock quartet.

Andrew Drury - Content Provider (Soup and Sound Recordings, 2015) ****½

How to read that title, Content Provider? Is Drury stating that he is simply providing content for consumption or is he content with the music he provides to the world? There is a lot of wiggle room in there, but, I'm going to go with both for arguments sake: with a band as versatile and virtuosic as this, how can you not be a satisfied content provider? 

Joining Drury is tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, tenor saxophonist Briggan Krauss, and guitarist Brandon Seabrook. The four create a style of music that is equal parts free jazz, modern jazz, and jazz-rock. There are strong compositional elements in each song, and the tracks breath freely - remaining fresh even after repeat listenings.

The tracks 'Keep the Fool' and 'The Band is a Drum Set' bookend the album with some solid rock inflected riffs. The former kicks off with an intro from Drury, Seabrook then ups the ante with a driving lead and the deeply syncopated groove sports some fierce playing by Laubrock and Krauss. The second track 'El Sol' is a bit more abstract, featuring fully improvised sections that lead seamlessly in and out of the composed ones. The title track is a really interesting composition, with an introduction melody possibly referencing 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' for a split second, but what follows is no Deodato. A solemn procession leads into a free exchange, giving off the feeling that no one single person is leading, no one is holding back, and everyone is providing a piece of the content. That is true of the whole album - there is no single voice that dominates, everyone has an integral part in the sound. Referencing his home borough, the composition 'Brooklyn Commune' has very interesting twisting and intertwining lines, and some wonderful free form saxophone work. 

A really excellent album that mixes free playing with some very strong heads and great ensemble playing. 

Andrew Drury - The Drum (Soup and Sound Recordings, 2015) ****

A whole album performed on one drum, a floor tom, that is used and abused in ways hithero unimaginable. Besides being one of the more arresting solo percussion albums of late, the album is really a thesis that begins with Drury stating 'The Drum', and then goes deep to prove it in as many ways as possible.

The first track, the aptly titled 'Hidden Voices', starts the drum debauchery. Drury finds every conceivable way to make his drum talk and sound in a manner that is the exact opposite of a drum solo, pulling out the most obtuse and unexpected sounds. His approach is not haphazard, uncontrolled, or random, rather it is extremely thoughtful and well practiced. In fact, when it comes to the title track,  I've listened to groups with many more musicians and instruments who produce less sound than Drury does here with just one drum. There are layers - a drone, a rattle, a pulsation that almost promises more - if possible. And it is - like 'Aluminum Donkey Dance', where the scream that begins the track then showcases the polyphonic abilities of the drum or 'Thesis/Antithesis' on which somehow Drury produces a tone that sounds like a slightly choked cello. An album highlight is 'Askew' that growls and reverberates so palpably that you feel the the friction of the fingers and sliding across the drum head.

It's hard to say that this is an album that you will listen to over and over like Content Provider. Rather, like a thesis, it's a labor of love for the researcher and certainly argues a case for the subject matter. On the other hand, listening to this album is utterly fascinating as it transcends and transforms the drum into something else entirely. 

Andrew Drury and the Content Provider band will be at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY on Tuesday, Feb 17th for a double CD release concert. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Supersilent - 12 (Rune Grammofon, 2014) ****½

By  Paolo Casertano and Martin Schray

Martin: It’s been a long time - almost four years - since Supersilent published their last album. Before that, Supersilent had shrunk from a quartet to a trio after drummer Jarle Vespestad left the collective. Since then it has just been Arve Henriksen (tp, electronics), Ståle Storløkken (keyboards) and Helge Sten (electronics). That change had a dramatic impact on the group, one that left them looking for a coherent artistic concept. The result was the strange and extraordinarily gloomy Supersilent 9, on which they all played Hammond organs, the very accessible Supersilent 10, where they do almost completely without electronics and actually play unplugged, or Supersilent 11, which consists of old material with Vespestad. Now, for the first time after his split, the band sounds as if they had found a way to deal with their reality as a trio.

Interestingly enough, I have listened a lot to Sun Ra’s music last year and now that I have been delving into the work of Supersilent again, I recognized a lot of Ra’s influence on their music, especially the synthesizer sounds seem to come directly from one of his albums, something I haven’t realized since you introduced me to their music about two years ago, Paolo. How would you - as a true “supersilencer” - categorize this album?

Paolo: Martin, first of all, let me say that everything seems to reconnect. Recently I’ve been listening painstakingly to Sun Ra as well (mainly thanks to the excellent selection compiled by Marshall Allen that drove me through the boundless Sun Ra discography in which it’s easy otherwise to feel lost). And we also can’t ignore that Helge Sten, a long time collaborator - kind of extra member - of the Norwegian group Motorpsycho, had a prominent role especially in one of their most famous albums (and furthermore, one of my favorites): “Angels and Demons at Play”. Again Sun Ra. I’m not speaking of the music genre, but of something more subtle and hidden. Something “alien” would be easy to say.

But coming back to this album, the first thing I notice is the “choice” to go for a more traditional conception of song, shorter and fully developed compositions instead of the long growing suites that have always typified their approach (or can it be the result of the new structure of the group, considering that Supersilent, as we know, don’t use to rehearse anything before the recording of their work and neither speak about their musical plans, giving the widest possible meaning to the concept of improvisation?). As you say Martin, for the first time they seem truly reconciled with the absence of the drum. In some way I’ve always seen Vespestad as the only soloist of the group, especially in their live sets, with the other members - even the dominant Henriksen - focused on building a frame where the drummer could explode. At first Vespestad’s leaving the group took Henriksen to fill this void and to take over the “melodic” role, often favoring the drum kit to his trumpet (and the results were nothing less than amazing anyway).

The opening track also reminds me of a dry version of the Vangelis score to the first scenes of Blade Runner, undressed of all the orchestral tinsels and even gloomier than the original. When the flying car finally approaches the roof of a megalithic building, synths start howling and climbing on each other. It is Storløkken here to interrupt the background vortex of tension with short cutting passages. Henriksen also seems to be seeking new routes for his trumpet in the group context here, in some moments his presence is far and the metallic effect is very distant from his recent solo production, warm and blowing, or from what we find also shortly later in this same album. All in all it’s always enchanting how they instinctively seem to merge an industrial structure with a folk, almost pastoral soundscape. Listening to a Supersilent work always brings you to the dawn of some musical conceptions and routes, but at the same time what they sound never seems surpassed or lacking of modernity. What do you think, Martin?

Martin: Like you I adore Motorpsycho a lot (especially “Angels and Demos at Play” - maybe their magnum opus) and I also thought of the Blade Runner soundtrack (one of my favorite films, by the way). As you said: compared to some of their other albums it is obvious that Supersilent 12 is a compilation of rather short fragments. Yet every track here has at least one feature to recommend, so that all of them are somehow unique and none of the tracks could be omitted - whether it’s “12.2” with its cacophony of car honk sounds or “12.5”, in which Henriksen’s trumpet seems lost in reverie when he is confronted with electronics in space (which sounds like a meeting of Sun Ra and Miles Davis). Also, the ditty-like intermission in “12.8” or the simple beauty of Henriksen’s trumpet in front of ultra-low bass notes and brutal noise (“12.13”) make perfect sense. Listening to Supersilent 12 in the context of their last albums it seems a lot more experimental again, especially compared to Supersilent 11 with its organic drumming and its approach somewhere between Kraftwerk, ambient sounds and acid jazz grooves. In the end, I like their music better without a real drummer because now they can focus on exploring textures.

Paolo: We may say that after 15 years as a group and ten official releases, Supersilent have not lost their attitude to explore new paths and reconfigurations. The three actual members have progressively evolved from a group to an “enlarged cohesive musician” and this gave them even more chances to build a stage for any incoming collaborator (in my opinion what already happened somehow with Vespestad). Just think to their recent tours with John Paul Jones or the gigs with Stian Westerhus.

Supersilent is dead. Long life to Supersilent.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sonny Simmons - Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom And Brilliance / Chasing The Bird (Improvising Beings, 2014) ***½

Part II: Chasing the Bird

By Stefan Wood

“Chasing the Bird” is the second half of the massive eight disc box set of “Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom and Brilliance,” almost four and a half hours of drones, sonic textures and electronic abstractions, metal, and blues. Drawing elements from all these genres, Simmons and Julien Palomo conjure a fascinating musical environment.

The first 14 tracks, all untitled, are short works (except for one 14 minute track) that recalls early Tangerine Dream than a typical Simmons free jazz session. Echo chambers, menacing electronics weave in and out meshed with Simmons’ plaintive horn, buzzing, honking, swirling and undulating. There are moments where it sounds like a soundtrack to an early eighties sci fi movie, all sound effects and pulsating motions. Tracks hum like an air conditioner on a hot summer night, or a spaceship drifting into the unknown. Simmons add to these effects with steady and carefully placed moments that move a narrative along, if any, before stopping and moving on to something else. There’s a bit of Stockhausen cut ups as well, cut and paste textures that bleep and blurp with Simmons gluing it all together with his ballad like playing on top. The fourteen minute opus which is the centerpoint of the set, an indescribable mash up of Sun Ra electronics and chants, Phaedra era Tangerine Dream mixed with Goblin, and Stockhausen. There is about five minutes of silence at the end of the track. All in all, an intriguing look into an alternate universe of improvised electronic sound.

“The Breathe of Life” is comprised of four long tracks that continue the explorations of the previous set. Track one begins with an unexpectedly touching vocal by Simmons doing “All the Way” a la Billie Holiday, before the pulsating waves and sheets of sound enter and the listener is blasted off into an Arkestra like electronic space journey. The middle eastern like horn playing returns in track two, a gentle track that just drifts, not doing anything more. Track three is more ambience. Track 4 is a thirty minute opus that starts gentle then builds slowly thoughout, gentleness becoming more insistent, guitars involved this time,creating its on melody, and Simmons purposefully swings thoughout. “Old Lonesome Road” is comprised of three long tracks, none shorter than nineteen minutes, an unusual mixture of blues and progressive space ambient music. It is as if Simmons is playing the blues in front of a synthesized soundscape — not dissimilar to Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. I could imagine Simmons’ music playing in Deckard’s apartment. The length of these tracks form a trance like mood that is at times spellbinding, others tedious. Given such freedom, Simmons and Palomo unshackled just go for it for long stretches, to the point where it is hard to distinguish a beginning, middle or and end. Perhaps that’s the point. But the sheer volume and weight given to all the pieces is exhausting. “We Can Turn Invisible” is such an example of an intriguing set up but it doesn’t really progress; it just exists as a sonic work. “Going Through the Storms” has an epic ballad feel to it; a plaintive tune at the edge of the apocalypse. It is easily the stand out track of the bunch, especially with Simmons singing towards the end, like Junior Kimbrough’s over his deadly blues riffs. “Worlds of World of Worlds Of” concludes the set with two 19+ minute tracks of very deliberate and patient soundscapes that move slowly but one can hear the subtle structural shifts of tempo and mode, as in “To Change the Harmonic Structure.” “Dead Years Ago, Million Years” is a moody, downbeat conclusion, dreary at times but when Simmons begins to play, he brings some hope and optimism to the piece, and towards the end it leads towards a positive outlook and feel.

It is safe to say that this project could not be endorsed by any established record company, and thanks to the internet, and artist can indulge and explore in manners that could not be financially positive even a few years ago, without some forward thinking benefactors. This set is available through Bandcamp, where one can get a sample of this magnum opus. It’s a fascinating document; a set where an established artist in the music scene just releases himself from any preconceptions of himself and genre, and jumps off into the unknown. It should be applauded, and for that it gets my recommendation. Not everything works, but that’s not the point. It’s the effort and the attempts that are intriguing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sonny Simmons - Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom And Brilliance / Chasing The Bird (Improvising Beings, 2014) ***½

Part I:  Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom And Brilliance 

By Stefan Wood

Sonny Simmons' massive eight disc box set, "Leaving Knowledge, Wisdom and Brilliance," is a genre defying, deeply personal and spiritual effort that dips into so many realms that one single review can't do it justice. It is almost eight hours of music! I can only break it up into two parts, and here, the focus is on “Leaving Knowledge," with Simmons on sax and Julien Palomo on electronics.

The ten tracks that comprise this session are excursions into sonic realms that are alternately eerie, uplifting, and trance like. Like a Vangelis or even a Jean Michel Jarre, Palomo sets the stage with tones that move back and forth like a gentle wave, and Simmons plays on top of it. The tracks are very lengthy, all over 10 minutes, many over 20. Starting with “The Inner Outer Chord,” the overall mood is low key, hypnotic, unexpectedly blues like. Like a mellow electronica version of Junior Kimbrough, where the dirge like despair becomes here meditative, peaceful, uplifting. Blues ragas mixed with synthesizers. Simmons will from time to time pierce the mood with his vocals, uttering blues phrasings. “What Do We Know? - Who Are We” has a middle eastern flavor, with Simmons’ evoking a middle eastern horn as he solos, notes echoing as if from a distance, with Palomo adding extra exotic flavors for a little drama. Then Simmons breaks into a more familiar jazz solo, before giving way to electronics, ending the track with a soft ballad like mood. “You Are Not Higher Than Angel” comprises of two tracks with the same title, a total of 28 minutes. Simmons again evokes the middle east horn sound, more somber this time, with percussion tapping with the horn. It evolves to a full blown raga, with sitar in tow, all instruments reverberating, increasing in tone before falling to silence. The second track goes straight back into the raga, more forward and strident this time. The tension is palpable and the playing is terrific — for me, these two tracks are the high point of this set. “Five is the Thumb” is space music, all ethereal and dreamy , establishing a tone, before the electronics get a little harsher and noisier, building tension, falling back into an electronic music tone, Jean Michel Jarre like, with Simmons chanting along with the pulsations. "Four is Equal to the Fingers” is another raga like track, thirty minutes of slow moving tones before climaxing with a few minutes of high energy playing. “The Fatherlands” is a bit more up front, a persistent and demanding percussion and far eastern like plucking that burrows itself into one’s consciousness like a woodpecker. It changes halfway to a soothing tone, percussion relegated way off into the background, Simmons playing almost ballad like. “Three is A Powerful Figure” is the most Vangelis like track on this session, Blade Runner like, the electronics creating a menacing mood and Simmons chanting and playing in kind. It’s like being taken to a realm that is unfamiliar and not quite welcome, but you are compelled to experience it and be affected by it. “You Are Not Higher Than Angel” is the final track, featuring a bit of everything that has gone on before, droning electronics, chants, middle eastern horn phrasings.

For the three hours, “Leaving Knowledge” takes the listener through a journey of sounds, flavors, and moods. It is a spiritual journey, one far removed from the works done in the late 60’s and 70’s that made Simmons known in the improvised music scene. Overall, the tracks by themselves are neither here nor there -- not exactly passive background music, Simmons and Palomo are too inventive to let just things lie. These are textural works that incorporate elements from many genres and cultures. Worlds apart from what Simmons has been known for in the past, his ESP work, to his revival in the 90's, “Leaving Knowledge" is a look into an artist who has shed himself of the burdens of his own history and gone off deep into the unknown. It is one heck of a leap, and makes for compelling listening.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Zanussi Five - Live in Coimbra (Clean Feed, 2014) ****½

By Antonio Poscic

The Scandinavian (especially Norwegian) jazz scene has been home to a slew of wonderful bands and projects during the past years. This time around, it’s bassist Per Zanussi and his quintet that impress us with some amazing and involving music.

Live in Coimbra is, as the name says, a live recording of Zanussi and his cohorts’ performance in Portugal during the Jazz ao Centro 2013 festival and the group’s fourth release. A record so good that by the time you’re done listening to it, you’ll wish that you could’ve been there. Because while the sound of Zanussi Five is difficult to pin-point and describe succinctly and precisely, it’s always positively endearing and imbued with a tinge of Latin (or is it Mediterranean?) intensity and temperament that’s just enough to make it highly addictive and almost danceable. There’s a bit of everything here, from ambient touches to funkiness and exotic modes, and not one of these elements feels out of place or forced. Not at all. It’s beautiful, yet complex music.

Whilst the intro to the record, “Celestial”, is muted, minimalist, even resembling electroacoustic music, the following four tunes are quite dynamic. Groove and wild improvisations intersect while the seductive, pulsing bass lines and Gard Nilssen’s drumming act as anchors. “Hidden People” might remind you of Lars Hollmer’s antics and “All Wrath”, the longest track and a “magnum opus” of sorts, showcases all of the musicians’ chops. Zanussi never imposes himself, playing with fluidity and acting as a true leader. The group is elegant and nimble in their execution, whether swinging or pushing subdued phrases during ballads, painting an accomplished and compelling picture with Zanussi’s material.

There’s rhythm, there’s melody, but the quintet never overindulges and lengthy, interesting, and inspired improvisations break and reassemble the colourful mosaic. Meanwhile, the three dominant reedists, Kjetil Moster, Jorgen Mathisen, Eirik Hegdal on both saxophones and clarinets, propel the ensemble, making waves and splashes. The powerful harmonies carried by saxophones might even fool you into thinking that you’re listening to a big band jazz ensemble, possibly evoking Martin Küchen’s Angles 9. I digress, but this record once again shows that Küchen and Zanussi are kindred souls sharing similar sensibilities, something quite obvious when you listen to their beloved Trespass Trio. Yet, Zanussi’s vision of jazz is unique and, as I’ve said before, this collective is not afraid of combining and toying with idioms from various corners of the jazz (and not only jazz!) scene.

The unfortunate thing concerning releases coming near the end of the year is that they often get overlooked. If I had heard this album earlier, it would have been a strong contender for my best of 2014 list. Lovely music, great musicianship, and inspired compositions and performances make this a no brainer to recommend. And Per Zanussi, well, he proves once again that he is not just a great bassist, but a great leader as well. Hats off to the guys!