Thursday, December 31, 2015

Albums of the Year 2015

2015 was another exciting year for the Free Jazz Collective. We welcomed several new reviewers: Peter Gough, Eric McDowell, Joel Barela, Lee Rice Epstein and Derek Stone and had over 1600 albums on the review list to do ... oh, if we could only reviewed each and every one! Anyway, typical laments aside, here is our collective album of the year and then everyone's top 10 lists - please let us know what your picks are!

The Top 10

This year's top album of the year was a tough one. When all the votes were tallied, we were at tie for the top place, only after an unprecedented run off vote, we present the top album of 2015:

  1. Rodrigo Amado, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, Chris Corsano – This Is Our Language (Not Two Records)

    As Peter Gough stated in his review:

    This Is Our Language is a natural extension of the similarly titled This Is Our Music by the Ornette Coleman Quartet (Atlantic, 1961). Amado’s group enjoys the same clairvoyant chemistry as Coleman’s did, and are no less equipped to deliver their message. Amado et al. summarize and expound upon the fifty-odd years of achievements in free jazz that have passed since Coleman’s opus.

    From all of us here at the Free Jazz blog, thank you Rodrigo, et al., for the wonderful music - we expect more in the coming year!

  2. Stephen Haynes – Pomegranate (New Atlantis)

    This was a very very close second place, it was almost another tie. Stef, in his review, wrote: 
    When Haynes does release music, it is of the best possible kind : high quality, strong musical vision and always in the company of great musicians.

  3. Vox Arcana - Caro’s Song (Relay)
  4. Agustí Fernández – River Tiger Fire (Fundacja Słuchaj!)
  5. Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor - Tales of the Unforeseen (TUM)
  6. Eve Risser - Des pas sur la neige (Clean Feed)
  7. Luís Vicente, Théo Ceccaldi, Valentin Ceccaldi, Marcelo dos Reis - Chamber 4 (FMR)
  8. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Pt. 3: River Run Thee (Constellation)
  9. Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love - Candy (PNL)
  10. Pascal Niggenkemper – Look with Thine Ears (Clean Feed) 

And now, in no particular order, our reviewer's top 10s and more...

Stef Gijssels

  • Luís Vicente, Théo Ceccaldi, Valentin Ceccaldi, Marcelo dos Reis - Chamber 4
    An incredibly strong combination of avant-garde form with deep and soulful emotions, full of rich ideas, superb musicianship and interaction, unique in its musical vision, full of contrasts of light and darkness, tight interplay and incredible focus
  • Gush - The March
    Great trio with Mats Gustafsson, Sten Sandell and Raymond Strid giving themselves completely
  • Eve Risser - Des Pas Dans La Neige
    A great musical journey on pian by one of the most fascinating pianists of the moment
  • Larry Ochs - The Fictive Five
    Super star quintet lets music flow out of visual imagery, and vice versa
  • Stephen Haynes - Pomegranate
    Light-footed, innovative and sensitive open-textured music 
  • Deux Maisons - For Sale
    Unique musical vision
  • Joëlle Léandre, Delbecq, Houle - 14, Rue Paul Fort, Paris
    Beautiful album by three musical visionaries at the top of their skills
  • Joe Hertenstein, Pascal Niggenkemper & Thomas Heberer - HNH
    Fantastic trumpet, bass, drums trio redefining the format through inventive music
  • Baloni  – Ripples
    A wonderful and poetic trio of clarinet, viola and double bass
  • Earth Tongues - Rune
    Low density/high intensity music by a trio of trumpet, tuba and percussion, austere, disconcerting and pure

Paul Acquaro

  • Mette Rasmussen / Chris Corsano Duo - All The Ghosts At Once (Relative Pitch Records)
    Energetic duo with up and coming Norwegian saxophonist and the ever versatile American. Sonic blasts and self-restraint.
  • Tim Berne's Snakeoil - You've Been Watching Me (ECM)
    A new high from Berne. An accomplished group gains new depth with the inclusion of Ryan Ferreira's textural guitar work.
  • Pulverize the Sound - Pulverize the Sound (Relative Pitch)
    And they do! An uncompromising debut by an unusual power trio - drums, bass and trumpet.
  • Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid & Mike Reed - Artifacts (482 Music)
    A beautiful and thoughtful album paying tribute to and extending into the now the work of the AACM.
  • Marcelo dos Reis & Angélica V. Salvi - Concentric Rinds‏ (Cipsela)
    Guitar and harp and voice. Who would of thunk? A hushed beauty of an album.
  • Cortex - Live (Clean Feed)
    This Norwegian quintet plays 'classic' free jazz with vim and vigor, and live they are just on fire.
  • Ken Vandermark & Nate Wooley - East by Northwest (Audiographic)
    Gorgeous duo album that rekindles the spirit of Bobby Bradford and John Carter, with all the thoughtfulness that these new masters bring.
  • Joe McPhee and Paal Nilssen-Love - Candy (PnL)
    A box set documenting a dozen years of collaboration and conflagration. A treasure.
  • Barry Altschul's 3Dom Factor - Tales of the Unforeseen (TUM)
    The veteran drummer ain't slowing down! The second release by this powerful trio with Jon Irabagon and Mark Helias plays free, Monk, Bley and more.
  • Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House - Roulette of the Cradle (Intakt)
    Another great set from the saxophonist whose music taps deeper into the sweet spot between composed and the free each time.

Lee Epstein

  • Matana Roberts - Coin Coin Chapter Three : River Run Thee (Constellation)
    This new chapter of Robert's Coin Coin epic is revelatory, a wildly innovative soundscape with piercing focus.
  • Amir ElSaffar - Crisis (Pi)
    This album has become vital to 2015. Urgent, passionate, mournful, and glorious. 
  • Susana Santos Silva - Impermanence (Susana Santos Silva)
    THIS LOVE floored me, but IMPERMANENCE has captivated me. I listen to it daily. "Oblivious Trees" may be my #1 track of the year.
  • Vijay Iyer - Break Stuff (ECM)
    I still strongly prefer Iyer's originals to the covers, but his trio's interplay is flawless, both technically and creatively. 
  • Dave Douglas Quintet - Braze n Heart (Greenleaf)
    The record I was waiting for from this quintet; nothing here disappointed. Oh shines, especially her interactions with Mitchell (my vote for 2015's MVP). 
  • Nate Wooley - Battle Pieces (Relative Pitch) / Nate Wooley Quintet (Dance To) The Early Music (Clean Feed)
    I am absolutely cheating here, though I don't think either of these records can exist without the other. Both find Wooley and his respective groups fully committing to his unique vision. 
  • Eve Risser - Des Pas Sur La Neige (Clean Feed)
    Some albums, you can't really be prepared for. Even the marketing material didn't aptly describe Risser's patient, challenging, and ever-shifting prepared piano. 
  • Nicole Mitchell, Tomeka Reid, Mike Reed - 
  • Artifacts (482 Music)
    Exactly the AACM tribute needed to show both the deep history and fresh voices that still exist. I want so many more albums with this trio. 
  • Henry Threadgill Zooid - In For A Penny, In For A Pound (Pi)
    An expansive album that showcases, more than anything, Threadgill's democratic approach. 
  • Jacob Garchik - Ye Olde
    My first review for the blog, how could I not include it? Seriously, though, this is a fantastic, intricately composed concept album. 

Dan Sorrells

  • Quatuor Machaut – Quatuor Machaut (Ayler) 
    Quentin Biardeau’s powerful saxophone quartet—inspired by Guillaume de Machaut’s 14th century polyphonic mass—in a gorgeous set that blends Machaut’s score, Biardeau’s compositions, and spectral improvisation.
  • Stephen Haynes – Pomegranate (New Atlantis) 
    A student of Bill Dixon pays tribute by internalizing Dixon’s philosophy rather than his sound, resulting in a profoundly inspired, completely immersive soundworld.
  • Variable Geometry Orchestra - Lulu auf dem Berg (Creative Sources )
    Ernesto Rodrigues’ haunting freeform orchestra returns with a massive, reverberating slab of sound. A great example of how a deft conductor can overcome the problems of large-scale improvisation.
  • Áine O'Dwyer - Music for Church Cleaners, Vol. I + II (MIE)
    Recordings on a large pipe organ that blur the lines between solo improvisation, performance art, and field recording.
  • Desert Sweets – A Place Meant for Birds (Balance Point Acoustics)
    The trio of Damon Smith, Biggi Vinkeloe, and Mark Weaver return more than a decade after their last meeting. Varied—and at times almost spiritual—free improvisation.
  • Agustí Fernández – River Tiger Fire (Fundacja Słuchaj!)
    A 4-CD collection of Fernández’s 60th birthday celebration concerts at the Ad Libitum Festival. Widely ranges from cutting edge electroacoustic improv to beautiful piano ballads.

  • The Pitch - Frozen Orchestra (Amsterdam) (SOFA)
    The Berlin-based quartet--augmented by six additional players, including Lucio Capece, Okkyung Lee, and Robin Hayward--executing one long drone, but with a level of shifting detail that is intoxicating and damn near time-warping.
  • Daniel Levin & Juan Pablo Carletti - Illusion of Truth (OutNow)
    A well-established cello and drums duo that serves as an improvisational lightning rod. Overflowing with energy and ideas.
  • Luís Vicente, Théo Ceccaldi, Valentin Ceccaldi, Marcelo dos Reis - Chamber 4 (FMR)
    Gorgeous “chamber improvisation” from young French and Portuguese players. This is the next generation of European improv, and they mean business.
  • Ingrid Laubrock – Ubatuba (Firehouse 12)
    A wind quintet from one of NYC’s hardest-working saxophonists! Complex music that further extends Laubrock’s already impressive compositional chops.

  • Favorite Concert: Battle Trance (Travis Laplante, Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner, Patrick Breiner) at SPACE Gallery, Portland, ME

Martin Schray

  • Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Pt. 3: River Run Thee (Constellation)
    Still the most interesting project in modern jazz, ambitious and fascinating
  • Kammerflimmer Kollektief: Désarroi (Staubgold) 
    A wonderful combination of alternative pop, sampling and free jazz; a band at the peak of their creativity
  • Pascal Niggenkemper – Look with Thine Ears (Clean Feed) 
    It’s hard to believe that Niggenkemper creates these various sounds without any electronics

  • Peter Brötzmann: Münster Bern (Cubus Records)
    At the age of 74 Brötzmann is a league of his own, a true masterpiece indeed
  • Nate Wooley Quintet: (Dance to) the Early Music
    Wooley plays the music of Wynton Marsalis - unusual, fresh, and extremely well-played
  • Switchback: Switchback (Multikulti)
    I could listen to the bass clarinet/saxophone battles of Zimpel and Williams for ever, and ever … and ever
  • Gush: The March (Konvoj Records)
    No top ten list without the great Gustafsson; Sandell and Strid bring out new facets in his playing
  • Baloni: Ripples (Clean Feed)
    Clarinets/saxophones, viola and bass produce magical sound colors between improv and new classical music
  • Nick Mazzarella/Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten/Avreeayl Ra: Azimuth (Astral Spirits)
    Mazzarella has a great sound, intense and moving; it reminds of the great Coltrane
  • Jeff Henderson/Tom Callwood/Anthony Donaldson: The Voice of an Angle (iii Records)
    I am in love with the relentless tribal grooves in front of which Henderson shines in a very Brötzmann-ish style

  • Musician of the Year: Evan Parker (at the age of 71 Parker has released several great albums and he played incredible concerts, e.g. with his quartet and his Electro-Acoustic Band in Mulhouse, his tribute to Butch Morris with his Large Ensemble in Sant’Anna Arresi or the Schlippenbach Trio; Parker seems to seethe with ideas and creativity)

Colin Green:

  • Peter Brötzmann ‎– Münster Bern (Cubus Records)
    Brötzmann at his best:  uplifting, profound and probably a masterpiece.
  • Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø, Raymond Strid, Nina de Heney – Oslo Wien (Va Fongool) 
    Exceptional talents weaving their magic.
  • Bobby Bradford / Frode Gjerstad Quartet – The Delaware River (NoBusiness Records) 
    So much going on I could listen to this band all day.
  • Ivo Perelman, Mat Maneri, Joe Morris – Counterpoint (Leo Records)
    Music to tie yourself in knots to (in a good way).
  • Agustí Fernández – River Tiger Fire (Fundacja Słuchaj!)
    A glorious celebration of a multitalented pianist.
  • John Tchicai, Tony Marsh, John Edwards – 27 September 2010 (Otoroku)
    A fitting memorial to one of the greats, to launch Cafe OTO’s new digital download service.
  • Evan Parker, John Edwards, Eddie Prévost, Christof Thewes , Alexander v. Schlippenbach – 3 Nights at Cafe Oto (Matchless Recordings)
    Now an established trio with two  guests: group playing at the speed of thought.
  • Roscoe Mitchell Quartet – Celebrating Fred Anderson (Nessa Records)
    A tribute by one master to another in the AACM’s fiftieth year.
  • John Dikeman, William Parker, Hamid Drake – Live at La Resistenza (El Negocito Records)
    In the tradition of Albert Ayler and Charles Gayle: intense and moving.
  • Rodrigo Amado, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, Chris Corsano ‎– This Is Our Language (Not Two Records)
    Recorded before Ornette’s passing, but his spirit lives on.

Troy Dostert:

  • Matt Mitchell - Vista Accumulation (Pi)
    One of the finest pianists on the scene today creates a splendid dual-disc release filled with complex interplay and a mind-bending mixture of composed and improvised music.
  • Rudresh Mahanthappa - Bird Calls (ACT)
    Superb addition to Mahanthappa’s formidable catalogue: keeping the spirit of Bird alive by going in his own unique direction, and with a top-notch band as well.
  • Amir ElSaffar and the Two Rivers Ensemble - Crisis (Pi)
    A totally infectious exploration of multiple musical currents: Iraqi maqam meets jazz, with an irrepressible groove at the heart of it all.
  • Barry Altschul’s 3Dom Factor - Tales of the Unforeseen (TUM)
    A stellar group at the top of its game. Jon Irabagon is in especially fine form on these six group improvisations.
  • Maria Schneider Orchestra - Thompson Fields (Artistshare)
    For sheer lyrical beauty, Schneider really has no peer. With her long-established group of seasoned veterans, a stunning recording with orchestral sweep.
  • Vijay Iyer Trio - Break Stuff (ECM)
    A stellar piano trio record, Iyer once again challenges expectations and rewards dedicated listening.
  • Potsa Lotsa Plus - Plays Love Suite by Eric Dolphy (jazzwerkstadt)
    Silke Eberhard continues to offer valuable insights into Dolphy’s legacy, this time by exploring one of his unfinished compositions. Both challenging and lyrical, very much in keeping with Dolphy’s own spirit.
  • Kris Davis Infrasound - Save Your Breath (Clean Feed)
    Charting new paths in composing for medium-sized groups, Davis continues to impress and dazzle. A moody, mysterious, and bewitching record.
  • Lama and Joachim Badenhorst - The Elephant’s Journey (Clean Feed)
    A highly creative ensemble, with adept use of electronics and particularly fine trumpet work from Susana Santos Silva.
  • James Falzone’s Renga Ensemble - The Room Is (Allos Musica)
    Intriguing and subtle group interplay with an excellent line-up of horn players. Along with Kris Davis’s Infrasound, another triumph for the clarinets in 2015!

Peter Gough

  • Evan Parker, John Edwards, Eddie Prévost, Christof Thewes, Alexander von Schlippenbach - 3 Nights at Cafe Oto (Matchless Recordings)
  • Rodrigo Amado, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, Chris Corsano - This Is Our Language (Not Two Records)
  • Paal Nilssen-Love - Cut and Bleed (Ideal)
  • Nick Fraser, Tony Malaby, Kris Davis - Too Many Continents (Clean Feed)
  • Dead Neanderthals - Worship The Sun (Relative Pitch)
  • John Dikeman, Dirk Serries, Steve Noble - Obscure Fluctuations (Trost)
  • Stephen Haynes - Pomegranate (New Atlantis)
  • Vox Arcana - Caro’s Song (Relay)
  • Pascal Niggenkemper - Look With Thine Ears (Clean Feed)
  • Michael Zerang and The Blue Lights - Songs from the Big Book of Love (Pink Palace)

Eyal Hareuveni

  • Jakob Buchanan –  Requiem (Buchanan)
    Danish trumpeter beautiful, monumental homage to “our deceased - and to life itself”, with his quartet, vocalist Indra Rios-Moore, Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and Aarhus Cathedral Choir
  • Agustí Fernández – River Tiger Fire (Fundacja Słuchaj!)
    4-discs celebration of the great Catalan pianist 60th birthday. Check his new trio with cellist Frances Marie Uitti and electronics player Joel Ryan
  • Jakob Bro - Hymnotic / Salmodisk (Self Produced)
    Danish guitarist unique tentet (3 saxes, 3 double bass players, 2 drummers and keyboards player) imaginative collaboration with poet Peter Laugesen
  • The Thing - Shake! (The Thing /Trost)
    No group sound like The Thing and The Thing sound universe becomes even more bigger and more beautiful
  • Rodrigo Amado, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler & Chris Corsano ‎– This Is Our Language (Not Two)
    Great free music, great musicians and another great release by Portuguese sax player Amado.
  • Nuiversum - Ballads on Now and When (Repeat Until Death)
    The trio of free highly creative Swedish musicians - pianist Lisa Ullén, double bass player Nina De Heney and vocalist Mariam Wallentin.
  • Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble - Crisis (Pi)
    Moving, complex music that merges organically jazz with Middle-Eastern scales.
  • Made to Break - Before the Code (Trost)
    One of Ken Vandermark’s most interesting and most ambitious group, sound-wise, blending elements of free improvisation, electronics and composed-contemporary music.
  • Susan Alcorn - Soledad (Relative Pitch)
    The compositions of Ástor Piazzolla sound more beautiful and profound in the ascetic arrangements of pedal steel guitarist Alcorn.
  • Mats Gustafsson & Nu Ensemble: Hidros 6: Knockin' (Not Two)
    Wild and playful tribute to the songs of Little Richard by an energetic 12-musicians ensemble (including Fernández and The Thing).

  • Best performance: Fire! Orchestra, Jazzhouse, Copenhagen, Denmark, July 10-11, 2015
  • Best DVD: Voice - Sculpting Sound with Maja S.K. Ratkje, a film by IJ. Biermann & Kai Miededorp (Myrland Films)
  • Best book: Philip Glass - Words Without Music: A Memoir (Liveright)

Joe Higham

  • David Sylvian - There's A Light That Enters Houses With No Other House In Sight (Samadhisound)
    I liked the great mixture of poetry and electro-acoustics, very daring I found for a 60 minute piece.
  • Philip Jeck -  Cardinal (Touch)
    A new discovery for me, a really interesting way of working with sound using vinyl and other instruments. I'm busy trying to find his back catalogue.
  • Going - Machinery II (Silent Water)
    I found this record very organic and the use of electronics mixed with acoustic instruments made for an exiting, progressive and listenable modern music.
  • Sylvaine Hélary - Spring Roll - Printemps (Ayler)
    A very musical album which is brimming over with ideas both improvised and composed. Great compositional planning.
  • Erik Honoré - Heliographs (Hubro)
    Honoré somehow manages to dodge under the limelight. However, his way of reworking sound into music is quite exceptional. I think this might have been released at the end of 2014.
  • Oneohtrix Point Seven - Garden of Delete (Warp)
    An excellent, and very different, follow up to his "R Plus Seven". Very approachable!
  • Di Domenico, O'Rourke and Yamamoto "Delivery Health" (Silent Water)
    A late addition to the list. A strange organic trio which crosses several musical boundaries. Very intense music which challenges the listener.
  • Eve Risser - Des pas sur la neige (Clean Feed)
    One of the highlights of 'traditional' improvised piano music this year. Following in the footsteps of pianists like Keith Tippett or Matthew Shipp.
  • Dave Douglas - High Risk (Greenleaf)
    Dave Doulgas always comes up with very listenable and progressive jazz. Here he dabbles in electronics with Shigeto, along with modern groove musicians Jonathan Maron and Mark Guiliana.
  • Shigeto - Intermission (Ghostly International)
    Another late choice which was inspired after listening to "High Risk" from Dave Douglas. Shigeto/Zach Saginaw mixes jazz and electronics in a very inspiring way

Joel Barela

  • In the Sea - Henry Crabapple Disappear
    Quartet led by Tristan Honsinger. Honsinger does his best Beefheart and the players play a fucked take on improvised chamber jazz (another Astral Spirits gem)
  • Swans - The Gate [Live]
    Recorded in Berlin. A rock lobotomy
  • Ghost Bath - Moonlover
    North Dakota Black Metal with field recordings and piano solos. Big and scary and beautiful
  • Krallice - Ygg Huur
    Insane modern classical unit (via black metal); album named for three-piece suite by Giancinto Scelsi
  • Laddio Bolocko - Live & Unreleased
    Badass prog quartet. Drums, guitar, bass & sax. Complex and heavy
  • Matthew Shipp Trio - To Duke
    As much as Our Lady of the Flowers (another from RogueARTS) got to me, I returned to this one more
  • Mario Diaz de Leon - The Soul Is the Arena
    Modern composer's latest album of crazy chamber music. Two duos and a massive I.C.E. piece
  • Peter Brotzmann, Keiji Haino & Jim O'Rourke - Two City Blues 1 & 2Just so awesome to hear Brotzmann's horn and Haino's pipes in the same freaked out tunes
  • Akira Sakata, Jim O'Rourke, Chikamorachi & Merzbow - Flying Basket
    A single 72-minute jam complete with a superhuman rhythm section, O'Rourke trying to bleed his guitar out and Sakata screaming
  • Kamasi Washington - The Epic
    I know this didn't get the "god" treatment on this blog that it got everywhere else (and it really shouldn't have), but it's still a damn good, damn FUN listen. Music to move to, drive to, etc. And sorry to the haters, but these fuckers can flat play

Stefan Wood

  • Common Objects - Whitewashed with Lines (Another Timbre)
    An excellent double cd set of abstract compositions and improvisations.
  • Bobby Bradford/Frode Gjerstad - The Delaware River (NoBusiness)
    A high mark of free improv, this live set features excellent playing of two veterans of the jazz scene.
  • Rodrigo Amado - This is Our Language (Not Two)
    Inspired by Ornette Coleman, Amado and his group expand and extend on the jazz master's work with a brilliant set that showcases their own unique voices.
  • Hu Vibrational - The Epic Botanical Beat Suite (Meta)
    Their best album to date, music that mixes jazz improvisations with abstract electronics in the vein of African Head Charge.
  • Barry Altschul's 3dom Factor (TUM)
    Their best album, charged with powerful playing and telepathic interactions, one of the finest trio albums in years.  
  • Oliver Lake and William Parker - To Roy (Intakt Records)
    A brilliant duet album commemorating fellow musician Roy Campbell.  Oliver Lake's best playing in years.
  • Paal Nilssen-Love - Cut & Bleed (Ideal)
    Outstanding solo playing that uses percussive elements to create textures and voices that transcend.
  • Luther Thomas - In Denmark (ILK)
    A double album commemorating the great jazz musician in two different concerts at the end of his life.  Beautiful music, spiritual and uplifting.  A late 2014 release.
  • Mark Helias - The Signal Maker (Intakt)
    The second best trio album this year, hard hitting, pulse pounding post free bop jazz.
  • Monash Art Ensemble - Helias (Jazzhead)
    A 2014 concert but released this year, an outstanding collaborative effort between AACM jazz musician George Lewis and  students of the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music of Monash University.

Chris Haines

  • Garrison Fewell / Alessio Alberghini – InVerso (Floating Forest)
    ...beautiful & serene duets released just before Mr. Fewell sadly left us…
  • Raoul Bjorkenheim Ecstasy – Out of the Blue (Cuneiform Records)
    …combining the power of the Scorch Trio with the diversity of Krakatau…
  • Liberty Ellman – Radiate (Pi Recordings)
    a Threadgill inspired group sound with plenty of creativity and great ensemble playing…
  • David Chevallier – Standards & Avatars (Cristal Records)
    ...a great balance between new material and standards…
  • Ross Hammond & Catherine Sikora – Perfect Plasiticity (Gold Lion Arts)
    …wonderful improvising which is free to choose it’s own path…
  • Otomo Yoshihide – Guitar Solo 2015 LEFT (Doubtmusic)
    …a brave and successful musical critique of Takayanagi’s ‘Lonely Woman’ LP…
  • Stephen Haynes – Pomegranate (New Atlantis Records)
    …Stephen Haynes has pulled together a creative improv collective that keeps it fresh and interesting…
  • Henry Threadgill Zooid – In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi Recordings)
    …an inspired set of cadenzas forged by Threadgill’s open compositional aesthetic…
  • Mary Halvorson – Meltframe (Firehouse 12 Records)
    …a set of covers for the guitarist’s first solo album - highly expressive and bold!
  • Jeff Platz – Sour Grapes (Glitch Records)
    …this one slipped under the radar, but it shouldn’t have…

Paolo Casertano

  • Paal Nilssen-Love - Cut and Bleed (iDeal Recordings)
    Dirty percussions and clanking in the fog, this record keeps haunting me at night
  • Roscoe Mitchell Quartet - Celebrating Fred Anderson (Nessa Records)
    This record just embodies my idea of heroism…blowing this way at 75…
  • Peter Evans Quintet - Destination: Void (More Is More Records)
    Great musicians, relentless composition architectures, balanced mix of innovation and tradition, a reasoned leadership. I enjoyed all the time I listened to it
  • Evan Parker, Joe Morris and Nate Wooley - Ninth Square (Clean Feed)
    My gratitude to some of my favourite musicians in general – each of them with so many great releases during this year - and to one of the labels with the highest quantity/quality ratio
  • John Butcher - Nigemizu (Uchimizu)
    It is always rewarding to listen a John Butcher solo work, and the sax has almost nothing to do with it
  • Brötzmann - Münster Bern (Cubus Records)
    I’m inhibited from compiling a list without Brötzmann, and this is a masterpiece
  • Stefan Keune, Dominic Lash, Steve Noble - Fractions (NoBusiness)
    The perfect example of a trio with no centre. This is free music and NoBusinees is so important
  • Bobby Bradford / Frode Gjerstad Quartet - The Delaware River (NoBusiness)
    Intense, sincere, intelligent brass dialogue between two veterans…I can just keep on listening. One of the rare examples of an artistic “journey” - along a river in this case - going really somewhere…
  • Pulverize the Sound - Pulverize the Sound (Relative Pitch)
    My cup of tea, please just give more and more distortion to the bass and I’m happy
  • Mats Gustafsson Nu Ensemble - Hidros6 Knockin' (NotTwo)
    A late 2014 release, but maybe the best overview on the group of musicians enlivening the free jazz scene in these years

Eric McDowell

  • Raphael Roginski, Plays John Coltrane and Langston Hughes - African Mystic Music (Bôłt)
    Breathtaking intimate interpretations of Coltrane classics and Hughes poems for solo guitar. 
  • John Butcher - Nigemizu (Uchimizu)
    Butcher manages to recruit a stunning range of sounds from his tenor and soprano saxes for these mesmerizing, well-built solo performances. 
  • Stephen Haynes - Pomegranate (New Atlantis)
    An album as deliciously jeweled as its eponymous fruit. Tastes better with each listen.
  • The Thing - Shake (The Thing Records/Trost)
    All the seismic power you'd expect from an album called Shake by The Thing--plus some quieter moments, too. 
  • Joelle Leandre & Serge Teyssot-Gay - Trans 2 (Intervalle Triton)
    Serge Teyssot-Gay's guitar makes a wonderful companion for Joelle Leandre's mix of intense pathos and wild fun. 
  • Vox Arcana - Caro's Song (Relay)
    Predictably superb results from an experienced and versatile trio. 
  • Andrew Drury - Content Provider (Soup and Sound Recordings)
    Complex and heavy but energizing music--the tight riffs are as good as the free-form explorations. 
  • Tomeka Reid - Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thirsty Ear)
    Profoundly lyrical sounds from a well-cast quartet. Halvorson sounds as good as ever without stealing the show.
  • Going - Going II (Machinery) (Silent Water)
    Two keyboardists and two drummers weave two slow-building, hypnotic jams. 
  • Will Mason Ensemble, Beams of the Huge Night (New Amsterdam)Complex, robust music from an exciting new drummer/composer.

Tom Burris

  • Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thrill Jockey)
    Not only my favorite album this year, this is one of the finest debuts of any jazz quartet in forever. The balance between improvisation & composition never wavers too far in either direction, but the real draw here is the feeling of pure unadulterated joy the players emit over the course of the entire recording. Stellar. 
  • Vox Arcana – Caro's Song (Relay)
    Tim Daisy's compositions reach new heights as the trio of Vox Arcana bring their telepathic powers to the point of group levitation. A major achievement for both Vox and Daisy. 
  • Matthew Shipp - To Duke (RougeArt)
    A gift to Duke - and to us. Matthew Shipp proves he knows his place in jazz history far better than those who attempt to paint him into a contrarian corner. Now you know what “Fuck Bird!” really means. 
  • Marcelo Dos Reis / Angelica V. Salvi – Concentric Rinds (Cipsela)
    Harp and acoustic guitar duets that are so disarming you'll stop in your tracks. The liner notes say the music is all completely improvised – but I'm still trying to wrap my head around that claim. 
  • Upsilon Acrux – Sun Square Dialect (New Atlantis)
    The sound of math rock gods calculating a mind being blown. From a world where Yes are capable of making Funhouse. 
  • Nate Wooley Quartet – (Dance to) The Early Music (Clean Feed)
    The farthest-out of modern trumpeters interprets.. Wynton Marsalis?!? It's very great. Shut my mouth. 
  • Daniel Levin Quartet – Friction (Clean Feed)Levin's music continues to progress as it becomes more approachable, making this his finest effort as a leader to date. 
  • Mary Halvorson – Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
    North America's greatest guitar hero finally makes her solo debut. It's all cover material of the highest caliber. Essential. 
  • Kaja Draksler & Susana Santos Silva – This Love (Clean Feed)
    Thoughtful trumpet and piano improvisations operating somewhere near intuitive genius. Both musicians are in peak form these days & this collaboration magnifies each of their respective gifts. 
  • Michael Bisio – Accortet (Relative Pitch)
    I'm a sucker for an accordion in a jazz setting and this is a really good disc. The album wanes a bit as it progresses, but the first half or so contains the type of joy one generally finds in the music of Monk – or the Tomeka Reid Quartet.

Antonio Poscic

  • Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee 
    The third installment of the COIN COIN series sees Matana Roberts embrace a minimal, exploratory format that enables her to create her most spiritually and artistically inspired work, both intimate and universally powerful. 
  • Luís Vicente, Théo Ceccaldi, Valentin Ceccaldi, Marcelo dos Reis - Chamber 4
    Lush and nuanced collection of "chamber improvisation" pieces that flow with ease and grace, connecting the avant-garde with the beautiful. 
  • Pascal Niggenkemper - Look with Thine Ears
    An incredible solo album on which Niggenkemper guides us through a maze of impossible sounds extracted from his prepared bass. 
  • Kris Davis Infrasound - Save Your Breath
    Pianist Kris Davis and her octet comprised of some of the best musicians around embark on an adventure that is equal parts atmosphere, focused improvisation, and surprising subtleties. 
  • Peter Brötzmann - Münster Bern
    Brötzmann plays a solo set both raw and lyrical in a Gothic cathedral. Easily one of his greatest records. 
  • Pulverize the Sound - Pulverize the Sound
    Peter Evans (trumpet), Mike Pride (drums), and Tim Dahl (electric bass) in a anything-but-conventional improvisational trio that challenges and rewards whether pulverizing or playing softly. 
  • Vox Arcana - Caro's Song
    A new record of formidable quality by one of Tim Daisy's most accomplished and welcoming ensembles. 
  • Rodrigo Amado/Joe McPhee/Kent Kessler/Chris Corsano - This is Our Language
    An album dedicated, in spirit, to the great Ornette Coleman, that both pays respects and expands on his legacy. 
  • Benjamin Duboc & Alexandra Grimal - Le Retour D'Ulysse [Promenade]
    Duboc & Grimal find themselves fluent in a common but cryptic language, interacting joyously through its medium while weaving stories and revisiting legends. 
  • Rudresh Mahanthappa - Bird Calls
    Furious but controlled playing by one of the most recognizable and melodic saxophones in jazz. While dedicated to Charlie Parker, it's a record that feels 100% Mahanthappa.

Matthew Grigg

  • White Out w/Nels Cline - Accidental Sky (Northern Spy)
    Superset supremos in fine company and expansive mood
  • SSBT - 247 Main (Astral Spirits)
    What the?! free everything missive from subterranea 
  • Akira Sakata & Jim O'Rourke with Chikamorachi & Merzbow - Flying Basket (Family Vineyard)How do you top the last quartet platter? add Masami Akita
  • Thurston Moore + Mats Gustafsson - Live at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (Prisma Records)
    Burning and bloody, their most complete duo statement to date
  • Exploding Star Orchestra - Galactic Parables Volume 1 (Cuneiform Records)
    Mapping new constellations past Saturn's rings
  • Tiger Hatchery with Paul Flaherty - Live In New Haven (Ergot Records)Spirits rejoice, omis vir tigris 
  • Bill Nace, Steve Backowski, Chris Corsano - Stolen Car (Golden Lab Records)
    Vampire Belt - Backowski sandwich, peppery 
  • Kid Millions & Jim Sauter - Bloom (Astral Spirits)
    Knock out blow in round 3
  • New Vocabulary - ST (System Dialing Records)
    Unsanctioned but as ever, Something Else 
  • Makaya McCraven - In the Moment (International Anthem)
    Beats, Rhythms & Live

Derek Stone

  • Schlippenbach Trio - Features
  • Rodrigo Amado, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler & Chris Corsano - This Is Our Music
  • Tim Berne's Snakeoil - You've Been Watching Me
  • Bram de Looze - Septych
  • Ivo Perelman, Mat Maneri & Tanya Kalmanovitch - Villa Lobos Suite
  • Ivo Perelman & Matthew Shipp - Callas
  • Luis Vicente, Marcelo dos Reis, Valentin Ceccaldi, Theo Ceccaldi - Chamber 4
  • Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Ch. 3: River Run Thee
  • Mary Halvorson - Meltframe
  • Pulverize the Sound - Pulverize the Sound

More Polls

On a related note, Troy Dostert and Paul Acquaro participated in Francis Davis' NPR Jazz Critics Poll. You can see our selections (and our peers as well) here.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Lucia Martinez & Agustí Fernández ‎– Desalambrado (Pasoancho Productions, 2015) ****

Agustí Fernández (Day 2)

By Colin Green

The duo of piano and drums brings to mind some of the seminal recordings of free jazz: Don Pullen and Milford Graves at Yale, Cecil Taylor’s historic concerts with Max Roach and his multiple meetings with European drummers in Berlin; Irène Schweizer’s various duo albums with the top percussionists of the improvising world; the recordings of Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. Desalambrado (Wire Fencing) stands both within and outside that tradition, in a way we’ve now come to expect – not just one thing but illustrations of a number of possibilities.

Piano and drums frequently produce a barrage of sounds and feats of bravura, two huge and often competing spheres of resonating energy reflecting that these are both percussion instruments. This is what we have on the title track – an exploding star, releasing cascades of tone clusters, rapid trills and glissandi on the piano, which gradually fade like shock waves, echoed by pulses from Martinez’ trap kit. ‘De Ida Y Vuelta’ (Back and Forth) sounds like Fernández’ left and right hands are playing a game of ping pong across the keyboard, with Martinez’ sensitive snare stuttering alongside. He then goes for a long run (more of a blur) chased by the drums, before returning to his game. They both make it sound easy, but playing of this fluency and attention to dynamic shifts is achieved by few.

It’s not all pyrotechnics, however. In ‘Venga La Esperanza’ (Come Hope) Fernández picks out the bare outline of a melody that never seems to fully resolve. Gradually, it becomes bolder only to fade away, leaving the patter of percussion to bring the track to an end.    

Other pieces take place on an altogether different scale, still exploring the percussive nature of the instruments, but more as pieces of sound sculpture within an integrated auditory field where for long stretches it’s impossible to distinguish the treated interior of Fernández’ piano and Martinez’ collection of exotic percussion. In ‘El Sonido De Los Ecos’ (The Sound of Echoes) we enter a finely observed world of small things in which many of the sounds seem to emerge from and shrink back into, nature itself – tappings, rustlings and scuffles. ‘La Otra Orilla’ (The Other Shore) is full of scrapes and groans which could have been conjured up from the spirit world.

‘La Vida Sin Maletas’ (Life without Baggage) is a curious piece. It begins with the kinds of intervals and use of extreme registers one finds in the piano music of Messiaen, combined with tiny gongs and metal percussion. Everything slows, almost to the point of evaporation with scraped cymbals, tiny trills on the piano strings and Martinez’ use of brushes. Internal scrapings on the piano reinvigorate the piece, along with a primitive electronic whine that sounds like a stylophone being disassembled. Then it ends.

The album itself closes with Aguatrémula (Shimmering Water) a virtuoso display aptly described by its title, which can be seen in the second clip below. Truly breathtaking.

This is the first release on the Pasoancho Productions label, run by Martinez, Hebert Cruz and Mario Burbano. The CD is limited to 260 copies, with a nice hand-made jacket. There’s a special edition of a further 40 in a carton with a small sculpture designed and made by Cruz. The album is also available as a download.

From the opening piece, ‘Punto De Partida’ (Starting Point):

The end of ‘Aguatrémula’:

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Agustí Fernández– River Tiger Fire (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2015) ****½

Agustí Fernández (Day 1)

By Colin Green

The pianist Agustí Fernández turned sixty last year, and in celebration Maciej Karlowski – journalist, jazz critic, curator, CD producer and chairman of the Sluchaj Foundation – invited him to perform over four days during the Ad Libitum (At Liberty) festival in Warsaw, choosing three of the formats himself with Fernández directing a group of musicians for the fourth performance, who were left to him. The concerts are on each of the four CDs that make up this set, more a book than a box.

In his liner notes, Fernández is almost apologetic for the diversity of material and suggests there’s a unifying thread which runs through the performances, though he’s reluctant to say exactly what it is. I don’t have a problem with diversity however, and this is one of the most varied collections I’ve come across. Versatility is a prerequisite for playing free jazz and it might be said that as in life, musical character is best considered in different settings, and is rarely reducible to just one thing. The festival celebrated Fernández’ multifaceted imagination and his ability to both blend with others and make his music distinctive. The funding for such events in Poland, and the commissioning of new works, is something one would like to see more often in other, more affluent countries. As with any lifetime retrospective, it can only represent the view at the time. As Fernández puts it: “This retrospective, as a summary or inventory of my work, makes sense now, not before or after”.

What emerges is a musical figure of outstanding ability and singular vision, a combination of both free jazz and aspects of contemporary composed music. He’s spent time with Cecil Taylor but also studied with the composer Iannis Xenakis in Paris, and cites Paul Bley and Evan Parker as major influences. According to Fernández, we have moved from a musical world with an exclusive focus on notes to one in which tones and sounds predominate: “The way we perceive sounds and music has changed…In every sound there is a note, and every note is a sound as well”. This duality can be heard throughout the works performed at the festival.

The title piece, ‘River, Tiger, Fire’ is a Conduction of the Ad Libitum Ensemble of ten musicians – Wacław Zimpel (alto clarinet, ukrainian trombita, khaen (laotian bamboo mouth organ), Ray Dickaty (soprano & tenor saxophones), Gerard Lebik (tenor saxophone), Artur Majewski (trumpet), Dominik Strycharski (soprano, alto & bass recorders / blockflutes), Patryk Zakrocki (violin), Marcin Olak (electric, acoustic guitars), Rafał Mazur (acoustic bass guitar), Ksawery Wójciński (double bass), Hubert Zemler (drums) – together with Fernández, who directs from the piano. The title is taken from the closing passage of Jorge Luis Borges’ philosophical essay A New Refutation of Time, which seeks to establish that time does not proceed in a linear fashion although typically, it’s more an exercise in the play of ideas (as Borges  points out: “new” only makes sense by reference to linear time). Similarly, for Fernández the notion of non-linear time has provided the inspiration and a poetic model for the work. The difference between objective ‘clock time’ and how it’s perceived in music is something that has puzzled him: “The many facets that rhythm can adopt are all facets of the same phenomena: how do humans deal with time in music, and how, through understanding these different conceptions, do we get to a broader concept of time?”

Fernández has plenty of experience working in this medium, having played in the larger ensembles of Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Mats Gustafsson, but he has a different role here. Arguably, the central issue with free jazz orchestras or big bands is how to marry the spontaneity of improvisation with overall coherence on the larger scale. This is a problem with which many have grappled over the years, with differing degrees of success, and a variety of methods have been employed: standard notation, graphic scores, numbers on cards, signs, hand movements, or any combination of them. There’s also Conduction, developed by the late Lawrence D. ‘Butch’ Morris which has become increasingly popular (Fernández played with Morris on his ‘Conduction # 113, Interflight’ back in 2000). It’s a technique using prearranged signs and gestures to modify material in real time, but I confess to being a bit hazy about the details and how much it differs from the other options. I suspect there’s an overlap.

Thankfully, it’s not necessary for the listener to be aware of how exactly Conduction works in the piece as it’s only a means to an end, but it’s clear that the basic material is drawn from a common pool of motifs and rhythms, explored over the course of the work and returning in different contexts, evoking non-linear time. The other distinguishing feature is the various kinds of music that are played, a spectrum of colours and contrasts. Not a mishmash of indigenous dishes stirred together on the same plate but an exercise in how different music and genres can be put together, highlighting both salient sounds and common traits. Fernández has given careful consideration to the components he deploys and the whole piece is executed with gusto by the ensemble, successfully combining the freshness of improvisation with a bigger picture, neither inhibiting the other.

Divided into eight parts there’s no real sense of progress during the course of the work: it’s more an accumulation of views from different perspectives. There is nevertheless, a definite feeling of birth in ‘I’ as the undifferentiated sound of wind instruments is transformed into chirruping parts, and closure in ‘VIII’ as the piece reaches a stirring conclusion.

Fernández uses the forces at his disposal with restraint. Often, a section will begin with a chamber-like passage of unusual combinations: a recorder with vocal overtones accompanied by a scratchy violin (‘II’); jazz guitar, piano, soprano sax and double bass studiously unwrapping a motif (‘III’); the cursive line of the bass clarinet with pizzicato violin and acoustic guitar (‘IV’); and electric guitar harmonics and chimes (‘VI’). Gradually, Fernández introduces new layers and textures – an incessant rhythm which builds to a raucous climax (‘III’) and in ‘IV’ the bass clarinet takes on a definite swinging groove. ‘V’ is more static, dominated by the exotic sounds produced by placing objects inside the piano, then by the sound of gongs and woodblocks.

There’s also wit, an easily overlooked feature of music. ‘VII’ starts with a hypnotic rhythmic figure on acoustic bass guitar that had previously appeared as a sort of mad march in ‘II’, and forms the basis of a rock rhythm for distorted guitar and tenor sax. The riff is broken off twice to allow feeble interjections from violin and then trumpet, completely out of place. The music builds further but then fades away and we’re transported to a completely different location: a dialogue for violin and double bass, later joined by a delicate combination of bamboo mouth organ, flute and trumpet. ‘VIII’ is a mixture of Cajun and middle-eastern music over which the tenor sax plays a rousing melody. Labels might make this sound contrived, but the merger is effortless, as can be heard in the clip below.

‘Thunder’ is a performance by the trio of Fernández, Frances Marie Uitti (cello) and Joel Ryan (live “electronics” – which I take to mean, sound processing). So far as I’m aware there’s been no previous meeting of the three, though Fernández and Ryan have performed together on a number of occasions in Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

The live electronic manipulation of instruments has been around for as long as I can remember (like much else in improv, it originated with the European Avant-Garde) and the fascination is obvious – an opportunity to extend the sonic palette and add new dimensions or layers to acoustic instruments with the potential of feeding material back, to be responded to in real time. Sadly, the actual thing has often been disappointing, with performers overwhelmed by the possibilities and in some cases, underwhelmed with the results. Improvised music is of course, open to all sounds, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. It depends on the context. Developing a musical language and judging the strengths and weaknesses of any new medium requires discrimination and inevitably, trial and error. Going digital resulted in huge technical advances, but musically it compounded the problem: even more options more easily obtained.

I recognise the dangers of generalisation and my exposure to such ventures is limited, but in my view the difficulties in live processing are rooted in a failure to take account of the clear differences between acoustic instruments and electronic sounds, reflecting their quite different genealogies. As a rule of thumb, the fewer instruments the better. When they revert to a more traditional role, the number increases, or there’s too much processing going on, there’s a risk of the electronics amounting to nothing more than an ambient haze, flooding the acoustic space and producing a monochromatic sound – usually resembling a swarm of bees – which over a long span is not terribly interesting and bears no meaningful relation to the acoustic instruments. At worst, electronic processing squashes the dynamics and washes out the textures of the instruments, robbing them of their expressive potential and providing nothing equivalent in return.

The most fruitful instances of live processing have been those which don’t overcomplicate matters and focus on common ground and areas where there’s a connecting tissue from one medium to another, allowing both sides to retain their timbral identities but also facilitating areas of transition, merger and ambiguity, exploiting the natural and the synthetic. Not an easy balance to strike, but something that’s achieved in ‘Thunder’. Piano and cello are an established chamber grouping but this is not typical of the music they usually play, with electronics grafted on. They largely limit themselves to simple phrases, gestures and textures as raw material for processing, each side respecting the territory of the other.

Significantly, what we get is an audible realisation of time passing together with memories of what went before, the processing allowing phrases and textures to reappear in different guises. High trills take on life of their own once segregated from the piano; col legno bounces on the cello become skittering sounds swooping across the soundstage; and a short upward motion on the cello returns at intervals, each time more distant until only a vague outline remains: a dying recollection subjected to the relentless procession of time.

There are periods when piano and cello are left to develop material alone with only the lightest of electronic touches: faint echoes and harmonic refractions – a simple melody on the cello is accompanied by its shadow lower down, or it carries on a ghostly dialogue with its delayed self. In ‘II’ there’s a passage where vaporous trails of sound float over sustained chords on the cello, which is actually quite moving (not something I ever thought I’d say of this medium, which generally appeals more to the head than the heart).

On occasions, there are more processes going on than one can keep track of, but this produces a sense of exhilaration rather than confusion – like a hall of mirrors, full of copies and counterparts. And yes, there are tremolo textures where it’s impossible to determine who’s playing (or has played) what, that become a pulsating body of sound which feels as if one’s being carried along inside a thunderous storm.

‘Live in Warsaw’ is a performance given by the Aurora trio where Fernández is joined by Barry Guy (double bass) and Ramón López (drums). The trio – named after its first album – has been a working unit for over ten years and has produced four previous albums. It’s a vehicle for exploring material within the trio format in a way not generally heard elsewhere in their individual output and can be seen as a confluence of two streams: the piano trios of Bill Evans, generally regarded as having set the standard by which the format is judged, and a continuation of Barry Guy’s previous piano trio with Marilyn Crispell (who recommended Fernández as her replacement) and Paul Lytton, which often used tunes from Guy’s other works in new arrangements. There’s more, of course: melody predominates, and there are some memorable tunes here. ‘A Moment’s Liberty’ (surely a tribute to Evans’ ‘Re: Person I Knew’) is full of brooding melancholy, richly orchestrated by Fernández in the opening and closing solo sections. ‘David M’ is played as a haunting Moorish melody, then given the slow blues treatment with twists and turns typical of the trio.

Noted for his tapestry of mercurial shifts and slides, Guy is equally gifted when playing a more traditional role, supporting and picking out counter-melodies. Complimentary dialogues between him and Fernández abound, with López providing shifting layers of percussion.

But the trio can morph into other regions where texture and pure sound are the focus, as when ‘Bielefeld Breakout’ becomes the volcanic eruptions of ‘Zahori’ before coming to rest in ‘Aurora’, the transitional passage played with quasi-baroque ornamentations on piano. Guy’s ‘Come and Go’ consists of hammered clusters on piano and dense thickets of bass and percussion, with the fragmented runs of Crispell’s ‘Rounds’ integrated into the mix.

The contrasts continue: after a beautiful reading of ‘Can Ram’, the performance closes with the bombastic ‘Algarabia” (Hubbub/Uproar).

‘Mnemosyne’s Labyrinth’ (the Greek Goddess of memory) is a mesmerising recital given by Fernández alone. All but one of the numbers appeared on his earlier El Laberint de la Memòria (The Labyrinth of Memory) (Mbari Musica, 2011). It amounts to a suite of pieces “inspired by Spanish folk music, both real and imagined. Perhaps it is my personal recollection of the classical Spanish piano from my student days on the island of Mallorca.” The acoustic of the Witold Lutowlaski Polish Radio Concert Hall gives the piano a sympathetic bloom, absent from the earlier studio recording.

This is a lovingly crafted homage to music that helped nurture Fernández’ musical personality. Mostly, it proceeds at a reflective pace, a wistful and dreamy atmosphere suggestive of the sun-drenched days of youth (later in life, it never seems to shine in quite the same way). His control of rhythm, colour and texture is impeccable throughout, music that sounds completely idiomatic. Fernández invests these simple tunes with a dignity and grandeur reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s treatment of standards in his solo concerts, using the types of phrasing, voicings and musical development one hears in classical piano music, giving something very personal a universal resonance. As mentioned by Fernández, there is a rich body of such music written by Albéniz and Granados, much of it based on Spanish folk music and popular song. One can hear its imprint in his playing generally, not just in this recital, especially in some of the spicy flamenco rhythms and the way in which he colours chords. ‘La Niña de la Calle Ibiza’ – previously recorded with the Aurora Trio – is a romantic ballad, perhaps a girl from Fernández’ youth (later in life, their memory shines more brightly).

There are also forays into more complex material: ‘Flamarades’ sounds like a group of hovering fireflies and ‘L’esmolador’ consists of a dancing line interspersed with soft scrapings across the strings. ‘Evanescent’ is a delightful play of cross-rhythms over the full range of the piano, followed by a motorised figure which gradually becomes a cloud of pedalled resonance in the bass registers, engulfing all.

As in the Aurora Trio concert, Fernández is alive to new transformations and further idioms, never settling into one kind of music for too long. This might also mirror the recital’s title, a series of free associations flowing one into another, and that identifying the tricks played by the filter of memory – the difference between an accurate recollection and one that’s rose-tinted – can be something of a conundrum.

The full range of Fernández’ activities extends beyond the music performed on this collection, but it provides a valuable insight into the broad base now available to improvisers and the sheer variety of projects with which they can be involved (finances permitting) – possibly a reflection of our increasingly pluralistic world. After listening to these performances, I realised there was a unifying thread and “labyrinth” provides the clue. Nothing akin to Ariadne’s thread but the labyrinth itself, which defies clear linear progress and suggests an aesthetic embodied in the ‘fictions’ of Borges (one of whose English language collections is entitled Labyrinths) moving at will between different periods and styles, blurring the fictional and the real, confusing original with copy, and embracing the enigmatic: making the familiar, unfamiliar. In other words, it’s the very diversity of these works which constitutes the unifying thread.

The set is available on CD and as a download from Bandcamp.

The Aurora Trio back in 2007 with Fernández’ ‘Can Ram’, which features in their performance on this set:

Monday, December 28, 2015

Joëlle Léandre, Delbecq, Carnage The Executioner - Tout Va Monter (Nato, 2015) ****

By Stef

"Tout Va Monter" is a collaboration between Joëlle Léandre on bass, Benoît Delbecq on piano and Carnage The Executioner on voice, beatbox and percussion. Who? Yes, Carnage The Executioner, the stage name of Terrell Woods, rapper and beatboxer from Minnesota. Interesting you might think and it almost made me put down the album without listening to it, allergic as I am to rap music, but then there is no mention of "rap music" on the album's cover, so let's give it a try.

And well, Léandre and Delbecq have always been open to include other sounds in their music, opening their minds and ears to other people's projects, and so why not make an effort myself?

And honestly, this album is really worth listening to, because Carnage The Executioner does not rap on the album, he adds percussion and beatbox, and some electronics I guess, and it all gells quite well with the music of the jazz musicians, who open up their music to let him in. The result is often very rhythmic, but without necessarily having a steady beat, the music keeps its open jazz feel. The thirteen tracks are all relatively short, but upbeat, full of playful moments and strange incantations, as if this was some ritual music, a community dance in which everybody is welcomed, adding eery and ephemeral sounds too resulting in a deepening of the mystery, because Delbecq's piano sounds like percussion, and Léandre sings in her usual style, and Carnage's beatboxing sounds like real percussion, and then you have the real piano and the real bass coloring and shaping the music.

It is as fun as it is perplexing and surprising, and a great example of how musicians from different horizons can meet and create something meaningful, by listening hard and moving in each other's direction without relinquishing their own sound.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Joëlle Léandre, Benoit Delbecq & François Houle - 14, Rue Paul Fort, Paris (Leo, 2015) *****

By Stef

Some four years ago, I gave a 5-star rating to a duo collaboration between French pianist Benoît Delbecq and Canadian clarinettist François Houle for their album "Because She Hoped", a great result of years of collaboration. On the other hand, the collaboration between Léandre and Houle also goes back for more than a decade and with four albums so far, and they are also easy to recommend.

They now form a trio on this magnificent album, and I think it's even the first album on which Léandre and Delbecq collaborate, so even in that respect it's a historic moment to have two of France's most distinguished improvisers on the same record.

And they do not disappoint us, quite to the contrary, they create music that is all their own, an eclectic mix of jazz and free improv with classical elements and even folk music as their basis.

What we get here are three musicians who are among the best you can get on their respective instruments, and at the same time innovators and musical visionaries, now giving us this mature and fresh music, offering versatile and open improvisations with moments that can be qualified as meditative, impressionist, dreamy, mysterious, full of intense lyricism and wonderful spontaneous harmonious developments. Sounds are predominantly as can be expected from each instrument, although timbral excursions do occur, especially by the piano and the clarinet.

The recording has furthermore the intimacy of chamber music, and that's literally what it is, having been performed live as a private home concert, which explains the address of the title. And even despite the limited setting, the music still leaves lots of open space, moments of silence surrounded by just one or two instruments driving the improvisation forward, with caution, accuracy and audacity.

Despite the overall sense of sadness and melancholy, they also alternate with moments of fun and playfulness, as on the fourth track, or as on the sixth track, when a folk melody is used as the basis for free fun.

In sum, this is a real treat, performed by three magnificent musicians who sculpt a common sound out of thin air, beautiful and sensitive and free.

Don't miss it.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Larry Ochs - The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015) *****

By Stef

I couldn't agree more with Larry Ochs' statement that "if you're looking to understand music, one is approaching it the wrong way", because it is the experience that counts, the total impact of the sound on your own biochemistry, including such bodily reactions as emotion, spiritual delight or goose bumps.

On this phenomenal album, the saxophonist assembled a New York band consisting of Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper on bass, Nate Wooley on trumpet and Harris Eisenstadt on drums, at the occasion of Ochs' curatorship at The Stone in New York, and these musicians, under Ochs' leadership create that unique experience that escapes rational disection and analysis.

The approach taken here is to create musical imagery, scenic moments that are partly composed, and mostly improvised, as if you can see the music in your mind's eye, and these are mostly abstract landscapes with changing and shifting horizons and colors, with a strong horizontal feeling of flux as the unpredictable sounds move the listener forward on this journey.

The album consists of four tracks, three of which are dedicated to visual artists - Wim Wenders, William Kentridge, Kelly Reichardt - in the same tradition as Steve Lacy, and it are the movies or visual installations by these artists that act as inspiration for the music, even if it is not made to accompany these movies.

One of the most striking features of the sound are the two basses, which lay a great sonic foundation for the music, not rhythmically, but in terms of the overall color of the pieces, acting in concert, or alternately, challenging each other or reinforcing the sound. Yet the entire band is stellar, five musicians who live in their most natural habitat of free flowing sounds, joining the short themes that pop up once in a while, then take off again on different paths but in the same direction.

It's the way I like music, beautifully free, sensitive and deep.

Friday, December 25, 2015

William Parker – For Those Who Are, Still (AUM Fidelity, 2015) ****½

By Tom Burris

AUM Fidelity has presented us with a great gift by releasing this three-disc box set of four previously unreleased compositions by William Parker, all of which are essential listening for any regular reader of this blog.  The pieces range from quartet performances to Parker's first composition for a symphony orchestra.  It's a beautiful box, packaged in the same hand-crafted style as last year's Wood Flute Songs release.  Since Mr. Parker requires no real introduction, let's jump right into the music.

Disc 1 features two compositions, opening with the 28-minute meditative (but very active) For Fannie Lou Hamer.  The namesake of this piece was was a civil rights leader, chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and an American hero; and it was performed in NYC by the Kitchen's house band way back in 2000.  The words of William Parker are brought to life by vocalist Leena Conquest, whose recitations have the dramatic-but-plainspoken arc of Patti Smith's early work; while her melodic handling of the lyrics recall Nina Simone or Abbey Lincoln (but this has more to do with content than with the original style and sound of Conquest's voice itself).  JD Parran and Sam Furnace are both credited with “various winds,” adding unique bursts of color and texture to the music in ways usually reserved for percussionists.  It's hard to believe this work hasn't seen a release date until now, given the success of the end result.

The nine relatively short song-form pieces that make up Vermeer, performed here by Parker & Conquest with pianist Eri Yamamoto and saxophonist Darryl Foster in a studio session from 2011, round up the first disc.  I'm going to get my own bias out of the way now: I do not particularly care for the Trained Voice.  I don't generally like vocalists who project outwardly.  To me, it comes off as overly dramatic, overwrought, and ultimately false.  But this is a personal bias; I'm not saying this style of singing doesn't work.  It just doesn't work for me.  Having confessed this, Conquest's vocals – which had been so central to the success of For Fannie Lou Hamer - on the self-titled opener continue to annoy me with their studied perfection, not only because of the stylized work but also because it is in the way of Yamamoto's subtle and on-point playing.  Here's a quick rundown of the rest of the pieces:  “Awash In The Midst Of An Angel's Tears” is a fascinating piece featuring furious clusters of notes by Yamamoto, ending with unison playing and singing of the theme.  And now, for all of my whining about her performance on “Vermeer,” Conquest completely owns “Essence,” a short, bluesy piece that also allows for beautiful interplay between the players, especially between Parker and Yamamoto.  Parker's rubbery bass line locks in with Eri's straight “block” style, creating a tongue-in-groove thing that holds the music together with subtlety and more than a little style.  “Sweet Breeze” has me again wishing for a more untutored vocalist, which I think – again just a matter of personal taste – would be a better match for Parker's plaintive and direct lyrics.  There are two versions of “Flower Song.”  Take 2 is the one presented first; and it is split into three distinct parts, all played very freely.  It is a brilliant piece with not one note out of place.  On Take 1, Parker keeps meter time while Yamamoto plays simple chords, letting them hang with the damper pedal all the way down.  The insanely gorgeous melody goes free after a couple of minutes, but this section isn't nearly as good as what wound up on Take 2.  I can see why Take 1 was included – the straight melody is so beautiful – but it is ultimately superfluous to the masterful second take.

Disc 2 was recorded in January 2012 in Paris & features Rob Brown (alto), Cooper-Moore (piano), Hamid Drake (percussion), and Klass Hekman (bass saxophone) in conjunction with Bill Cole (double-reeds), classically-trained Indian singer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, and Senegalese griot Mola Sylla on traditional African instrumentation.  The work is titled Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks and was written specifically for this group of musicians.  The composition opens with “Villages, Greetings & Prayer,” which features a short sitar loop and some didgeridoo drones in an India-meets-North Africa raga.  The meeting of these traditional sounds is based on the theme of Universal Tonality.  “We don't invent sounds, we are allowed to encounter them; we don't own them, they existed before we were born and will be here after we are gone” is how Parker himself explains it.  The introductory piece seamlessly transforms into “Souks Have Fallen Like Rain,” on which spiritual siblings Parker and Drake lay down a hot groove over which Brown and Cooper-Moore vamp.  Cole and Bandyopadhyay take turns wailing over the top, which eventually changes to a swinging flow – and allowing for some fine performances by Sylla and Bandyopadhyay.  “The Giraffe Dances” suffers a bit from Drake being too far back from the microphones; but his performance radiates excitement, driving Brown and Cooper-Moore to wondrous heights as he breaks into a quick hard-bop tempo.  Brown plays a theme around the nine minute mark that shines like the sun; and the other players appear when – and only when – they have something to add to the music.  It is really at this point where the combination of these players and this music begins to gel in an unearthly, spiritual way.  Cooper-Moore and Sylla stack beautiful melodies on top of one another on the transcendent “Tour Of The Flying Poem.”  Bandyopadhyay drops an unexpectedly straight melody out of the English countryside onto Hekman and Cooper-Moore on “Children Drawing Water from The Well.”  Parker, Hekman, and Cooper-Moore play further and further out as the music progresses, but never break pulse.  Considering its manic swinging right out of the gate & incredibly strong theme, “Where Do You Send The Poem,” reminds me of a vintage Mingus composition.  Sylla and Bandyopadhyay further explore the dynamics of the previous piece.  Bandyopadhyay sounds a bit like Yoko Ono here, which hadn't occurred to me on any of the previous cuts at all.   There are only two minor drawbacks to the entire work: the poor mic placement on the drums (as stated above) and the length of this last track.  It doesn't seem to develop much over the duration and wears on this listener a bit.  However, in terms of achieving a sense of universal tonal spirituality, and considering the genuine unity of so many disparate sonic palates, Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks is a barely flawed masterpiece.

AUM saved the Monumental for last.  Disc 3 contains Ceremonies For Those Of Us Who Are Still, Parker's first composition for symphony orchestra.  It was commissioned by Poland's National Forum of Music and is performed here by the NFM Symphony Orchestra (with members of the NFM Choir), alongside Parker, Charles Gayle (!), and Mike Reed.  So how can you describe a jazz group working with a symphony orchestra without invoking Skies of America?  You can't.  It's the first thought I had as soon as the music began.  Fortunately, I love Skies of America so it's a favorable comparison.  On top of that, the sound Parker achieves in combining these elements is huge – and dynamic as hell.  It's also an ideal soundtrack to a Midwestern winter.  Some highlights: Parker drops the bass in favor of the ngoni (that harp-looking African instrument) to play against the orchestra on “Light Shimmering Across A Field Of Ice” and the result is beautiful.  “Rise Up In Sound” gives a glimpse of what “Sun Ra Plays Skies Of America” would sound like – with Charles Gayle ripping up the horizon out front.  Gayle also tears out in front of everyone on “Ritual” in a way that is completely stunning.  It is a euphoric wash of sound that leaves me mesmerized every time.  “Tea Leaves Of Triple Sadness” is the finest arrangement of the composition, combining all of the many separate elements perfectly.  Flaws?  Yeah, maybe a couple.  “My Cup” and “Encore” both sound like they're trying too hard, which is completely out of character with everything else here.  These pieces sound like warring factions in a battle of bombast, working against each other for the entire duration.  I keep thinking either I'm not hearing these tracks correctly or I'm not understanding the intention of Mr. Parker.  The set concludes with a trio improvisation by the Parker/Gayle/Reed trio that was originally played prior to the premiere of Ceremonies For Those Of Us Who Are Still.  It clocks in at 25:25 and would make a fine release on its own.  (A one-sided LP perhaps?)  Good Lord, the way Parker and Reed lock down on this thing!  It really is a monster.

Available from Instant Jazz and the Downtown Music Gallery.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Saxophone Round Up, Part 2: Nick Mazzarella / Dave Rempis / NoahPreminger / Jonah Parzen-Johnson

Nick Mazzarella Trio - Ultraviolet (International Anthem, 2015) ****

From the opening moments of Ultraviolet you know you are listening to something special happening. With an approach not unlike mid-period Coltrane in tone, Nick Mazzarella plays with a fearsome intensity. “Neutron Star” kicks off the album with a four note melody that is repeated, transposed up and down and then opens up into some solid free playing.

The Chicago based alto saxophonist's trio here includes bassist Anton Hatwich and Frank Rosaly, two players we’ll meet up with again very soon. The stripped down trio is everything you can want - agile, powerful, and exciting. Mazzarella is a powerful player, his tone is focused and precise, and really digs into the grooves.

Rempis Percussion Quartet - Cash and Carry (Aeroponic, 2015) ****½

So, here we have some interesting overlap, an earlier version of the percussion quartet included aforementioned bassist Anton Hatch and Frank Rosaly in the line up along. On Cash and Carry, Hatwich is replaced by Norwegian powerhouse bassist Ingebrit Haker Flaten, while Rosaly and percussionist Tim Daisy remain with saxophonist Dave Rempis.

Recorded live in 2014 at the Hungry Brain in Chicago, there are only two tracks - “Water Foul Run Amok,” clocking in at 39 minutes and then “Better than Butter” at a mere 15:30. “Water …” starts off with a kick in the teeth.  There is a quick count off by one of the drummers and then Rempis’ just explodes. A short theme is repeated a few times and then breaks into an impassioned solo run. Haker-Flaten’s precise pizzicato plucking is powerful and propulsive. However, it’s the percussion that gives this trio both its name and purpose. The two drummers, who can be heard on the the left and right separate channels (not sure whom on which) stay out of each others way while working together to create a dense latticework of rhythms and pulse.

“Better Than Butter” starts differently - the clatter of percussion is joined by the bass in an abstract dance. The space between the sounds is the exact opposite from the first track, and when Rempis joins, the approach isn’t full gale force, but rather approachable melodic.

We covered Rempis' Chicago Reed Quartet back in the summer, and this fantastic release deserves equal attention.

Noah Preminger - Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar (s/r, 2015) ****

Saxophonist Noah Preminger treat of an album was recorded live at the classic Greenwich Village jazz haunt, the 55 Bar. Preminger, whose previous albums seem mine a more modern jazz vein, has opted here instead to deconstruct two old blues: Booker T. White’s 'Parchman Farm Blues' and 'Fixin to Die Blues' in a style that tips it hat purposefully to the harmolodic approach of Ornette Coleman.

The first track begins with an invocation, a yearning blue note laden melody shared between Preminger and trumpeter Jason Palmer. The recognizable blues form is soon is stretched out and in the interactions between sax and trumpet one can hear echoes of Coleman and Cherry. The rhythm section is Kim Cass on bass and Ian Forman on drums and they do an absolutely commendable job in keeping the fields tilled and fertile.

The root in the blues and traditional jazz makes the adventure that the musicians go on over the next half hour both accessible and utterly enjoyable. I'm not sure if you can call it blues any more but it sure does become some pretty classic sounding free-jazz.

Jonah Parzen-Johnson - Remember When Thing Were Better Tomorrow (Primary Records, 2015) ***½

Remember When Thing Were Better Tomorrow is an unusual and absorbing solo album by Jonah Parzen-Johnson. Recorded live on baritone saxophone and analog synthesizer, there are no loops or overdubs, just the sounds of a lone cyborg.

Parzen-Johnson opts for simple elongated lines that interact with the pulsations and textures from the synthesized tones. For example, the second track “If You Can’t Sleep, Just Shut Your Eyes” the waves of synth gives the saxophonist a basis to build, with just basic pieces, a hopeful tune. “Never Stop Counting,” the follow up, begins with a more biting sound from the synth. Again, it’s simple building blocks fused with his baritone sax that create the unusual textures. “Eyes Like Paddles” follows, and after a long solo introduction, his accompaniment gets heavy and mixes with his forlorn melody into a dark and moving track. Parzen-Johnson ends the album with a Neil Young song, “On The Way Home” - stripped of it’s chords and rendered on Barri sax, it sounds like a spiritual.

I find myself coming back to this one.