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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Giovanni Di Domenico, Jim O'Rourke and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto: Delivery Health (Silent Water, 2015) ****

From Joe.

If there's two musicians that surely complement each other its possibly Jim O'Rourke and Giovanni Di Domenico, both are prolific artists, producing a stream of superb albums in the past few years, and both seem to sidestep current fashions, yet stay musically listenable. So this year starts (or was it last year finished) with Giovanni Di Domenico, Jim O'Rourke and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto's "Delivery Health", part of a couple of records that O'Rourke and Di Domenico have collaborated on recently. The group dishes up an excellent slice of improvised music that includes jazz, rock and noise. For those new to these musicians Giovanni Di Domenico plays piano and keyboard, Jim O'Rourke a guitarist (among other things) and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto plays drums. Di Domenico and Jim O'Rourke manipulate (at times) their specific instruments, using electronics or other devices to change their sound. On the other hand Yamamoto stays more (or less) with the acoustic set-up of his drums, which in my opinion helps give the music a truly three dimensional aspect.

The record consists of three pieces, "Transgression is Only Fleeting", "Passe Muraille" and "Superfield". They are placed (although maybe not recorded) in such a way that the record develops sonically from a very calm atmosphere to intense noise and feedback before coming back together with a sort of melodic finale. Giovanni Di Domenico and Jim O'Rourke look after the harmonic areas in a very skilled and sparing fashion. Never is there a moment when you feel they've over-played or just plain 'gone on too long'. As with several of Giovanni's other recordings (such as GOING), the music often has a minimalist direction. This enables the musicians to easily develop subtle ideas both melodically and/or rhythmically, whilst giving plenty space to experiment with their sound. In this case its interesting to hear how much of the development comes from Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and his intelligent use of the drums. Yamamoto, whose playing sits somewhere between the styles of Paul Motian and Edward Vesala, opens up the music like a breath of fresh air. His subtle playing carries you along, integrating the electronic sounds into his rhythms to make subtle and flowing music.

As for finding some comparison or 'handle' which gives an idea of the groups sound one only needs to refer to their press release. The group, or record company, gives a nod towards the 70s ECM jazz rock period, presenting the record as a "[...] blend of early 70's ECM drum sound, [mixed with] long unfolding travelogues [...]", and indeed the group's sound has elements of that crossover feel which was prevalent in the 70s period, when jazz and rock were closely linked. Its a period that was very productive musically and sonically, music from that period seemed to be less about virtuosity and more about musical values such as improvisation, experimentation, sounds and music. To hear those areas being re-examined is, I would suggest, good news for all. 

For all those interested don't hesitate to head over to Silent Water Records to snap up a copy of this limited edition LP. I'm not sure if there's digital copies available, but I'm sure any questions will be happily answered by the record company

The Engines - Green Knights (Aerophonic, 2015) ****

By Stefan Wood

The Engines is one of the many groups formed by the musicians of the ever creative and restless Chicago jazz scene. Here we have: Dave Rempis (saxophone), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Nate McBride (bass), and Tim Daisy (drums). While all are involved with other groups and personal projects, the group — originally a trio, then added Bishop later on — has been a working group for about a decade, influenced by music created in the 60’s by the AACM, and adding to it their own aesthetics. 

 Green Knights is a 2012 live concert at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago, containing six long tracks that are a mixture of post hard bop and free improvisations. “Going Dutch/Spark/Cascades/Tilt” is a massive 33 minute work, running through a myriad of post 60’s jazz music, from the Art Ensemble like improvisations, to the atmospheric free jazz, to free bop, to Ornette Coleman influenced music. The quartet moves from one form to another with ease, and their improvisational skills are very good; the music never lags during that long duration. 

“Looking” is comparatively the shortest track at 8 minutes, a gentle ballad that showcases Nate McBride with a long solo, and Dave Rempis playing reminiscent of early Jackie McLean. “Strafe/High and Low” is a medium fast tempo with powerful playing by Rempis and Bishop, a searing front line of horns augmented with the hypnotic rhythm section of McBride and Daisy. “El Norte/Strafe/Gloxinia/Cocktail Song” is another long track, 29 minutes plus, beginning with sharp and punctuated latin rhythms for “El Norte,” with bouncing tomboys accents by Bishop and an exciting solo by Rempis. It steadily progresses to a faster pace, to where the horns just about explode in their ebullient expression. At the tail end to this track the high energy is tempered by a moody and sonorous tone. “Looking High and Low” is another gorgeous ballad, smooth yet slightly dark, with Bishop and McBride having long solos. “Planet/Cascade/Tilt” has another fast paced latin rhythm that moves quickly towards swinging hard bop, with extended free flowing improvisations by Rempis and Bishop. 

Green Knights is a lively, highly creative live concert by veterans of the modern Chicago jazz improv scene. 


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Nate Wooley Quintet – (Dance To) the Early Music (Clean Feed,2015) ****½

By Martin Schray and Colin Green

When Nate Wooley toured Europe with his quintet in the spring of 2014, he explained to audiences why he‘d chosen to play the music of Wynton Marsalis, having had to defend that decision to US audiences who‘d expected less “conservative” music. For Wooley, Marsalis’ early albums had been revelatory, and a huge influence. Notwithstanding his enthusiasm, European reaction was also mixed: not the “typical” Wooley music they’d expected. On closer listening however, this is typical Wooley music – a high level of technical facility, the subtle use of unusual chords, unpredictable, and occasionally rough round the edges. With Wooley, expect the unexpected.

For (Dance To) the Early Music he took eight compositions from three of Marsalis’ early Columbia albums in their order of release – Wynton Marsalis (1982) (one number), Black Codes (From the Underground) (1985) (four) and J Mood (1986) (three) – but made substantial changes. First, in the arrangements: Marsalis had a classic quintet/quartet with piano, bass and drums (and saxophone on the first two albums), whereas Wooley has Harris Eisenstadt on drums, Eivind Opsvik on bass together with Matt Moran on vibraphone and Josh Sinton on bass clarinet, which gives the music a rather different range of colours. In addition, Marsalis’ rhythm section provides a traditional supporting role – walking bass and swinging drums with a more or less steady pulse. In comparison, Opsvik and Eisenstadt are often brought to the fore, with the drums providing a more elastic beat. Last but not least, Wooley loosens up the structures. In general, Marsalis’ performances take the traditional head/solos/head form. On some numbers Wooley does the same, though naturally, the solos are different, but on others he takes a different direction. On “Skain's Domain”, he starts with a long, persistent, guttural tone, introduces the theme briefly then solos over static chords on the vibraphone, followed by a triple dialogue for trumpet, vibes and bass clarinet, which gradually unwinds as the piece comes to a close.

Marsalis’ early work invites parallels with Miles’ quintet of the mid-sixties (Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams played on his first album) as well as the classics of bebop and hard bop. Wooley strips the tunes back to the bone, giving them a certain remoteness and edge. Marsalis played “Delfeayo’s Dilemma” as a bop tune, like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with whom he served his apprenticeship, but Wooley is less forthright, with Eisenstadt switching between accompaniment and pulse, and the solos having more rhythmic flexibility.

I sense no irony in the album, as the review in the New York Times suggested: there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek or style-conscious about what’s going on here, and those expecting some kind of free jazz riposte to “Jazz at the Lincoln Center” will be disappointed. Integrating a certain abstraction and angularity into the band’s performance of Marsalis’ compositions is simply a mode of interpretation, addressing them in the quintet’s own terms, with respect for the originals. Marsalis’ rendition of “Blues”, for example, is a duet between walking bass and trumpet. Wooley’s version is also a duet, but shorter and with a more condensed melody and a free form bass.

But there is humour of sorts: the album opens with “Hesitation”, and the brisk stop – start phrases of the Monkish tune are followed by a long sustained chord from Wooley and Sinton, a slightly embarrassing fermata, not to close the number but shortly after starting, as if undecided where to go next …before launching into the theme again, this time with bass and drums. The tune’s reprised at the end of the album, and the head-scratching chord has gone, only to reappear as the piece evolves into “Post-Hesitation” with repeated chimes on vibes, the melody reduced to soft phrases on trumpet and bass clarinet, turning the previous procrastination into something more positive.

(Dance To) the Early Music is not a nostalgia trip but a reconsideration of Marsalis’ compositions from a different perspective. Wooley’s admiration for the music is apparent throughout.

The album is available on CD. You can buy the album from the Downtown Music Gallery and Instant Jazz.

Marsalis with “Hesitation” from 1983:

Wooley’s version from 2014:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Wadada Leo Smith & John Lindberg - Celestial Weather (TUM, 2015) *****

A duo album from Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg has been a long time coming. The trumpeter and bassist have collaborated on dozens of albums, beginning with recordings under Braxton’s direction, and continuing through to recent albums with Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet, Golden Quartet and Quintet, and Organic ensembles. Sprinkled between these bigger ensemble recordings, Smith has put together an impressive string of duo albums, in trumpet-drums and trumpet-piano settings. And we were really due for an album like Celestial Weather from these two giants.

The album’s divided into three sections: “Malachi Favors Maghostut - A Monarch of Creative Music (Parts 1 & 2)”, “Celestial Weather Suite (Cyclone / Hurricane / Icy Fog / Typhoon / Tornado)”, and “Feathers and Earth (Parts 1 & 2).” The first section is credited to Smith, the last to Lindberg, and the centerpiece improvisation is credited to both. Let me put it out there right away, this is a truly beautiful album.

Smith and Lindberg have played together for decades, and they each freely lead and follow, in equal measure. As I recall, it’s Lindberg you hear first on Smith’s seminal Ten Freedom Summers album. That’s how integral they are to one each other’s work. The rich balance of sound produced is truly collaborative, and the two friends prompt each other through a duet pushes each into the further ranges of their instruments.

The Smith-composed tribute, “Malachi Favors Maghostut,” is presented in two parts. The opening of the first part finds Smith and Lindberg almost sliding into place. Smith plays an opening melody I’d love to hear in a Golden Quartet setting sometime. Here, without the drums and piano, Lindberg carries the rhythm of the piece forward to its improvised center. I want to say this almost feels like a nostalgia-tinged celebration of the late bassist, the playing from both is lively, with a punching, Lester Bowie-esque solo from Smith. “Part 2” opens in an elegiac mode, with a brief solo from Lindberg leading to Smith playing a solemn ode in clear tones. The bass lines subtly recall Favors’s little-heard solo album, The Natural and the Spiritual, with Lindberg walking along behind Smith, transitioning to the piece’s urgent final section. Lindberg plays a lovely bowed sequence, improvising around a recurring motif, and takes another solo turn, until Smith returns and both push themselves high into the upper range of each instrument. Lindberg closes the tune with three strident, bowed notes, representing each of Favors’s names, or perhaps each of the musicians, or something else entirely.

But, oh!, the “Celestial Weather Suite” is a free improvisatory masterpiece.

“Hurricane” comes to a still center with Lindberg taking a relatively calm solo. After about a minute, he brings Smith back into the maelstrom, urging him into a crisp duet. The brief interplay leads to a Smith solo turn. An angular duet follows, with the two playing contrasting lines, Smith again high and clear, Lindberg displaying a light touch with a staccato bowed run that transforms into a buzzing wind. This is followed by “Icy Flow,” a plaintive blast of a piece. Lindberg plays a searching, chilly solo, before Smith joins him on muted trumpet. The tone of the title is acutely rendered here, with Smith’s lines maintaining the mood throughout.

On “Typhoon,” Smith is again on muted trumpet, this time gently moving through a bright, high line that closes on a muted variation on his typical high blast. The result is unexpected, leaving the listener near but not quite on a precipice. The duo barely pauses before “Tornado,” which, true to its name, is a whirling dervish of improvisation. Lindberg bows a yearning run, circling around a motif for a couple of minutes before changing over to a quick, urgent movement that takes center stage for a brief moment. Smith gives Lindberg a mellow backing, before bowing out for a brief bass solo. When he comes back, his trademark piercing sound centers the listener again. It’s like a beacon in any Smith recording, a flare sent out that says, “Here I am, just follow me.”

“Feathers and Earth” is split into two parts, which according to Lindberg represent the raptors and the earth itself. It’s the briefest composition of the album, clocking in at around 10 minutes total. “Part 1” floats appropriately, considering it’s the raptor tribute. Lindberg, in particular, provides an improvisatory interpretation of wind, sky, sun, and flight. About halfway, he and Smith intertwine their lines in a kind of upward spiral that finally drifts down into some of the lowest registers on the album. “Part 2” blasts the contemplative mood of “Part 1” wide open. Smith and Lindberg each play a modified echo of the striding melody, then transition into a fierce duet that proceeds unbroken for a couple of minutes before abruptly ending on Smith’s final, unaccompanied notes.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Damon Smith, Henry Kaiser, Sandy Ewen

Henry Kaiser & Damon Smith – Relations (Balance Point Acoustics, 2015) ****

Sandy Ewen & Henry Kaiser – Lake Monsters (Balance Point Acoustics, 2015) ***

By Dan Sorrells

The tracks on Relations take their titles from poet Peter Riley’s Company Week, a book improvised along with the fabled Company Week concerts in 1977. Riley, writing at an earlier time about Derek Bailey, also does well to describe the duo of Henry Kaiser and Damon Smith: the guitar and bass are “fully realized in [their] entire range of modes, every possible kind of vibration of string and of the wooden hollow by every manner of plucking and otherwise manipulating the length of gut or wire.”

The acoustic strings of Relations provide ample opportunity for a real duologue; if you accept the analogy of improvisation as a conversation, an unadorned duo may be the clearest and most engrossing. Kaiser was among the first musicians Damon Smith played with upon turning to improvisation, and the two have a musical rapport that reflects their twenty years of collaboration. Relations is an hour of low-velocity, high-impact playing, a mist of messy partials thrown from buzzing, rattling strings. Kaiser’s deft command of harmonics and his brusque, percussive attack are parried by Smith’s wild technique, a furor of skittering bow, thumped wood, and sul ponticello howls. Though a fleet pizzicato player, Smith has increasingly turned to bow work to prod at the limits of the bass, and on tracks like “A Garden, Then Not A Garden” he all but erases the idea of notes in favor of more complex, indeterminate sounds.

But if Smith is pushing ever closer to a center of pure sound, Sandy Ewen is who he will find nestled at its core. Very little about Ewen’s guitar playing is recognizable as such: guitar flat in her lap, she jabs at pickups, scrapes along the bridge, clatters under the strings, tweaks knobs. Her mode of improvising is a whole different species than Kaiser’s, though armed with an electric guitar and his pedals, on Lake Monsters he is often able to contend with Ewen’s peculiarity.

Still, dialogue is more strained here: rather than the fluent repartee of Relations, Lake Monsters is more like charades. In some respects, Ewen and Kaiser powering through their unfamiliar pairing is more in the spirit of Company Week than Relations; common ground becomes less the means to begin improvising than an end that must be sought through intense, focused playing. Ewen acts as a colorist on the more effective tracks like “Mokele-Mbembe” and “Storrsjoodjueret,” with Kaiser plucking harmonics on his acoustic guitar while Ewen hauntingly seems to pass between planes of existence. On “Old Greeny” and long centerpiece “Irizima,” she pushes him into experiments with feedback, Kaiser’s long, distorted vibrato tunneling through her splintered, buzzing haze.

Ewen is also notably a visual artist who makes “microcollages” by melting plastic and other materials together onto projector slides. Being aware of this seems relevant, at least in part, to her music, which similarly melts the guitar’s output—both her own and Kaiser’s—into swirls and drips of sound. Texture feels like a tangible musical quality in Lake Monsters, rather than a word deployed when at a loss for words.

Two provocative releases from last year that aren’t to be missed, and show not only Kaiser’s versatility, but also that of Smith’s Balance Point Acoustics label.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Staffan Harde – Staffan Harde (Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2015) ****½

By Chris Haines

In 1972 a musician from Smögen, a tiny island off the West coast of Sweden, released his eponymous debut album that was to spark-off a career in music, or so it was hoped.  At the time the album was overlooked and quickly disappeared without a trace leaving the said musician disillusioned and downhearted.  Without receiving the critical acclaim that he thought he should get from such a bold statement he sadly left his brief tenure on the music scene to work in a bakery on his home island.
Like many before him and many since, Staffan Harde’s dream of successfully having his music marketed, producing a product that might gain the attention of the world of listeners and then lead on to a prosperous & rewarding career didn’t work out as he had envisaged.  Unlike many others who may have tried, Staffan Harde had produced something that the world really should have woken up to and taken note of.  How different things could have been if this promising debut had received a more positive reception.

A sought after and little-known rarity this LP has for the first time been released on CD thanks to Mats Gustafsson, a long time fan of the record, who produced the re-issue for Corbett vs. Dempsey. s
The album contains a collection of pieces for a variety of instrumental groupings from the quartet at hand, guitar, piano, bass, and percussion.  Apparently influenced by Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music, Staffan Harde’s guitar playing explores the discordant melodies and harmonies more akin in spirit to Schoenberg’s more freely atonal pieces, (rather than the stricter method of the twelve-tone system), whilst showing the firm roots of a jazz tradition.  ‘Bigaroon’, the shortest piece for quartet of guitar, piano, bass and drums, with it’s swung syncopated rhythm, fine interplay and dissonant harmonies between the piano and guitar completely sums-up what this album is about in a concise and precise manner.  ‘Substance II’ is a guitar solo containing varied well-known tunes, including nursery rhymes, that have been harmonised dissonantly, and although this sets-out Staffan Harde’s musical aesthetic, the piece itself has a very academic and compositional exercise feel to it.  Not so for the pieces ‘Cordial L’, and the longest track ‘Electrification’ which provides us with some beautiful playing not only from Harde’s clean toned freely atonal melodies and fast angular legato runs, but also from the other instrumentalists who carefully add their delicate accompaniments, creating a couple of pieces that have the subtle shade and tone of a charming watercolor.

Harde himself recorded some of the music on this album at his home, whilst the rest of it was recorded in a studio in Gothenburg.  Due to this there is a difference in recording quality amongst the tracks but nothing that detracts from the wonderful music on this album.  Re-packaged as a miniature gatefold sleeve the album that has been known only to collectors, and those in the know such as Mats Gustafsson, Staffan Harde’s long lost classic is now readily available to the rest of us.

This only release from Staffan Harde documents a raw but promisingly original music from the guitarist, which over the years could have blossomed into something else, not to mention the impact he may have had as a collaborator with other well-established musicians.  Thinking about an ‘alternative reality’ might be a great parlour game but in this instance it can’t help but make us think that had things worked out differently for Harde he could have become a highly original and critically acclaimed voice within the world of free jazz.

Mats Gustafsson - Piano Mating (X-Ray Records, 2015) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

I really held myself back from learning anything at all about this album until after I listened to it. Because what does a Mats Gustafsson piano album even sound like? What would the great saxophone torturer do with 88 keys at his disposal? All questions became moot once I queued up the album and let it run, first during my commuter’s trek along LA’s notorious 405 freeway, known for having some of the worst traffic in the US. “01” kicks off with steady drones, phasing slightly but otherwise pretty stable. Gradually, though phase and tonal shifting, the track becomes unsettlingly claustrophobic, in a good way. I can’t seem to hear anything outside the car; the sound of tires simply disappears. It’s a remarkably apt soundscape, the pitches seem to match the inorganic expanse of freeway environment. Then, I round a corner, the mountains come into view, and “01” shifts into something earthier, almost tender. How the did that even happen? When I queue up “02,” I feel like I know what to expect now. And yet, the sound is counterintuitively at odds with “01.” It’s warmer, like a meditative breathing exercise. Suddenly, it’s as if I can hear all the sounds surrounding me. From my tires, to squeaking brakes, even settling bridges. “02” triggered something deeply emotional. All this, it turns out, wrung from a ridiculous, semi-useless instrument: the Piano Mate, intended to give the effect of a keyboard-augmented prepared piano, the Piano Mate is supposed to be used with an acoustic piano. To create these droning miniatures, Gustafsson employs the machine on its own, wringing these strange phasing drones out of a machine barely designed to function alone. The brief album brings to mind Zorn and his organ recitals. Who knows what will come of the Piano Mate, but I for one would love to hear more of its strange drones in any of Gustafsson’s many projects.

Link to order and comments from Gustafsson explaining the instrument:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

New Old Luten Quintet - Tumult! (Euphorium, 2015) ****

By Martin Schray

Eighty-two year old saxophonist/clarinetist Ernst Ludwig (“Luten“) Petrowsky is one of the founding fathers of free jazz in the former German Democratic Republic, the one with the longest history. Since 1957 he‘s worked as a musician in different formations although - in contrast to most of the GDR musicians - Petrowsky is self-taught. He made his first excursions into free jazz in the Sixties with his band Studio IV, and in the Seventies founded Synopsis (with Ulrich Gumpert, Günter “Baby“ Sommer and Conny Bauer) and recorded Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa Krokodil (FMP), one of the standout East-German free jazz albums. He also worked with bassist Klaus Koch and trumpeter Heinz Becker, with whom he recorded the seminal albums Selbdritt and Selbviert (the latter with Günter Sommer on drums). In addition, he‘s been a long-standing member of Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Globe Unity Orchestra. After the fall of the wall, Petrowsky worked in various formations, with his wife Uschi Brüning, drummer Michael Griener, as part of the group Ruf Der Heimat and many others. In 2006 pianist Elan Pauer (a.k.a. Oliver Schwerdt) encouraged him to found the New Old Luten Trio with drummer Christian Lillinger. The band expanded to a quintet in 2013 by adding the bassists John Edwards and Robert Landfermann.

The quintet’s music has many characteristics typical of all Petrowsky formations: collective improvisations, rhythmic and harmonic variety, the assimilation of traditional elements, and Petrowsky’s unique style. Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker are obvious influences, as well as German folk songs: he considers himself a traditionalist. The German musician and author Ekkehard Jost describes his playing as “unique, although his sound cannot be categorized easily, his flexibility being his most important parameter“. He can scream energetically like Brötzmann but he can also “sing“ and swing, with phrasing and timbre that can change radically, as circumstances require.

Tumult! contains a single improvisation, divided into five parts: in terms of structure and energy, it’s a constant up-and-down. Petrowsky starts on alto in the first part, the classic iconoclast, driven on by his generation-spanning band (Lillinger, Landfermann and Pauer are in their early 30s, John Edwards is 52). Lillinger, often described as the hyperactive kid of the new German drummers, and Pauer, who reveals more than a passing acquaintance with Cecil Taylor, keep the fire burning. At around 24 minutes Petrowsky’s solo gradually fades (another feature of his style), the others calm down and Petrowsky returns on clarinet for a hectic, but quieter, passage. Just a breather, as shortly thereafter the performace accelerates with the two basses providing the propulsion. All change again, shortly after the half-hour mark –  Petrowsky plays beautiful melodic phrases on his clarinet, while the rest of the band delves into textures. Pauer concentrates on little instruments and short piano splints.

Eventually, in the last two minutes the band pulls itself together for a short finale furioso.
The improvisation’s named “Lutens Letzter Tumult!“ (Lutens Last Tumult!) which suggests we might not hear Petrowsky in such energetic surroundings again. Hopefully, we will - as the power and imagination of his playing are those of a young man.

If you‘re interested in one of the FMP albums mentioned above, Auf der Elbe schwimmt ein rosa Krokodil is on CD (Intakt); Selbdritt and Selbviert are available as digital downloads from the destination.out bandcamp website.

Transmit - Radiation (MonotypeRec, 2015) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Radiation begins with an aggressive bass-line and a forceful thrust of percussion in a slightly odd-meter groove. Then distorted wah of a guitar joins, followed by the growl of the organ, leading us into the type of post-apocolyptic sonic landscape reminiscent of the Tony William's Lifetime circa Emergency. The group however is Transmit and is collective energy of percussionist/guitarist Tony Buck, bassist James Welburn, drummer Brendan Dougherty and keyboardist Magda Mayas.

The follow up, 'Two Rivers' is another journey, dark, serious and mysterious. Where you begin and where you end doesn't even matter, it's what you experience in between. Here texture dominates, the organ spills tantalizingly over everything. The group sound (there are no solos, just a river of music) is complex, fraught with tension and utterly absorbing.

The deconstruction of The Car's 'Drive' from Heartbreak City, is beautiful. It rolls out with a mesmerizing slowness that creeps along as the lyrics unfold. This track is followed up by chime of tiny bells in 'Swimming Alone'. This musical center-piece is well worth the slow build - first to the peculiar and delicate vocals, then to the fantastic post-rock climax, and finally back to some closing tiny bells.

Radiation is an excellent avant-rock album oozing with atmosphere and a dark and somewhat psychedelic vibe.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Meet the Solo Experimentalists

By Eyal Hareuveni

The four solo albums reviewed below share an experimentalist vein, an urgent need to expand the sonic possibilities of the respected instruments - voice, drums, guitar or piano - and to distill from these adventurous journeys, new, personal and often surprising voices.

Natalie Sandtorv - Pieces of Solitude (Va Fongool, 2015) ****

Norwegian vocal artist Natalie Sandtorv has explored before her unique vocal range in different territories - in noisy, improvised setting in the duo The Jist (with guitarist Torgeir Hovden Standal) and with the acoustic jazz quartet Morning Has Occurred, where she added an eerie, abstract element to the quartet songs.

Her debut solo album, the limited-edition vinyl, Pieces of Solitude, sets Sandtorv in another territory, expanding the sonic spectrum of The Jist, using again noise artist John Hegre at the controls. She uses her distinctive-colored voice as a sound material, organically interacting it with live electronics. Now she sounds now as an abrupt and hyperactive alien vocalist, alternating between sparse verses and expressive wordless vocals.

The opening  title piece stresses the seminal influence of the work of fellow Norwegian vocal artist and electronics player Maja Ratkje, but the other pieces, all titled after forms of loneliness, highlight Sandtorv highly personal aesthetics. Sandtorv manipulated vocal and poetic reciting sound fragile and melancholic through the volatile, dense electric storms. Her emotional delivery and her total command of her voice anchors these rich, intense textures.

Unique and moving.

Adam Gołębiewski- Pool North (Latarnia, 2015) ***½

Polish, Poznań-based percussionist, musicologist and sociologist Adam Gołębiewski is a mad scientist of the drum set. He engineers his set and assorted percussion instruments in idiosyncratic manners so it will produce the ultimate and extremes sonic potential, transforming these instruments as new, autonomous sound machines.

On his debut solo album Pool North he investigates methodically the drums skins and cymbals timbral characteristics, using highly inventing set of extended techniques, leaving aside any role of a pulse keeper or applying any rhythmic module. In these miniature, improvised pieces, all recorded live, using only his acoustic drum set with conventional microphones, with no overdubs or editing, the drums sound as  futuristic, disturbing sound objects. He creates amplified noisy and rich drones, nuanced fractured, broken string of otherworldly sounds, chaotic, claustrophobic metallic soundscapes or intense and violent piling of percussive sounds, with some sense of humor as on the cynically-titled “Ellington Tradition”.

Highly inventive, masterfully articulated but very cerebral.

Ido Bukelman - The Drought Bell (Kadima Collective, 2015) ***½*

This is the fourth solo album of prolific Israeli guitarist Ido Bukelman in four years, marking his urgent need to keep exploring and expanding his sonic palette of the guitar, augmented occasionally with sparse percussion sounds and bells. The album was recorded live in Jaffa and two other venues in Jerusalem.

As on his previous albums, Bukelman free-improvised playing is highly associative, usually chord-less, just following his immediate instincts and fleeting thoughts, but not attached to any musical idea or theme, as if he is entranced by his wayward guitar. These immediate sonic associations are delivered as concise, poetic, haiku-like pieces. The only exceptions are “Metal Duck” with its playful narrative and the emotional, melodic “Thirst”, inspired by a poem by poet Israel Eliraz.

Philip Zoubek - Air (WhyPlayJazz, 2015) ***

German pianist Philip Zoubek is known from his free jazz projects with European improvisers as reeds player Frank Gratkowski, trumpeter Franz Hautzinger or analog synthesizer explorer Thomas Lehn. On his first solo album, Air, Zoubek chose to explore the orchestral sonic spectrum of the manipulated and prepared piano.

This decision forced Zoubek to abandon conventional concepts of development or structure, known from his extensive experience in free jazz formats. His prepared piano sound like an mechanical sound machine, sometimes as an out-of-tune but still highly resonating gamelan orchestra, on other times  as vintage, noisy  monophonic synthesizer or even a modest version of Xenakis sound masses and its unique architecture of non retrograde-rhythms.

Air was conceived as a bold attempt to design new sounds and demanding sonic environment that eventually lead to a new realization of Zoubek voice. Still, the most impressive piece is “FER”, where he combines the new found sounds of the prepared piano with the conventional, non-manipulated one, creating an intriguing and minimalist dramatic narrative that is exceptionally emotional.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Scott Clark 4tet - Bury My Heart (Clean Feed, 2015) *****

By Stefan Wood

Scott Clark is an outstanding percussionist. He reminds me of Max Roach, with his propulsive battery of drum work, tight time keeping, and yet loose and free forming, sculpting sounds with an extensive range of instruments. His group, the 4tet, is a modern descent of the classic Roach group of the 1950's, muscular, finely tuned, and gorgeous playing. On their latest album, Bury My Heart on Clean Feed records, is a culmination of a project that Clark had been working on for some time, a suite that explores one of the dark periods of U.S. history, the massacre of Native Americans as the country expanded westward in the 19th century.

From the opener "Broken Treaties," to the conflicts of "Wounded Knee," "Little Crow's War," "Big Horn," and "Sand Creek," and finally "Remembrance," the album is meant to be heard as a suite, a whole that is full of solid hard bop. The 4tet -- Jason Scott (saxophone), Bob Miller (trumpet), Cameron Ralston (bass) and Clark himself play with aggression and precision, as evidence on the opener "Broker Treaties," which begins with a moody opening by the horns, before the drums kick in and the group launches into a fire and brimstone assault, where the horns maintain the theme of the track, while the rhythm section lays down a crushing foundation of strings and percussion. On "Wounded Knee," bass and percussion play a Native American inspired rhythm, Ralston's bass playing the role of a dancer, with horns in the background playing a one note. "Little Crow's War" has Clark playing a tom tom like rhythm, soft and in the background, while Scott and Miller engage in a low key duet that is foreboding and full of tension. "Big Horn" is the centerpiece of the album, a dense, aggressive track where Clark's drums are showcased as he evokes the terrible conflict with a barrage of percussion, horns evoking the clarion calls of battle. "Sand Creek" and "Remembrance" are in contrast, calmer in tone but somber and contemplative. Horns delicately evoke the past events, mournful.

Like Max Roach's We Insist - Freedom Now Suite, Bury My Heart is a statement piece. Do not forget the wrongs that were done to tribes and nations that comprised this country before the settlers moved in, it says. It is a powerful work, and to date the finest that the Scott Clark 4tet has done. Outstanding and gets my highest recommendation.

Abdelhaï Bennani, Burton Greene, Chris Henderson, Alan Silva – Free Form Improvisation Ensemble 2013 (Improvising Beings, 2015) ***½

By Dan Sorrells

In his book on Derek Bailey, Ben Watson quotes John Fordham on free improvisation: “the din, if you’re unprepared, can verge on the traumatic. Not because it’s that unpleasant, or that deafening, or even inexpert (its far from being that) but because it continually reinforces this awesome, discomfiting strangeness.”

Little can really prepare you for the true strangeness of Alan Silva’s synthesizers. You’re immediately plunged into Free Form Improvisation Ensemble 2013, like a diver hitting the water. Label-head Julien Palomo would refer to this as the “real free jazz” of Paris: “the real, lowdown, dirty experiment,” the expats and rejects of the establishment that soldier on in small clubs with small audiences, in service of the music and the music alone. Much of it is ugly and goofy and risky and awkward. It isn’t about cultivating an aesthetic or showcasing virtuosity (at least not as an end in itself). Instead, it aims only to resist the pull of those black holes of music-making: normalization, systematization, institutionalization, homogenization. This is not to say that history or reference are effaced—rather, the uncanny prevails.

Free Form Improvisation Ensemble 2013 is an update to Silva and Greene’s original Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, which first convened more than 50 years earlier in 1962. Despite forgoing the bass, Silva in many ways still occupies that missing role: he’s the aural glue that binds everything together, a sort of omnipresent force of sound that his bandmates must constantly contend with. Though normally something I’d be wary of, former Sun Ra Arkestra drummer Chris Henderson’s electronic drum kit becomes a strength here, because it allows him to more fully commit to Silva’s soundworld. At times he can add a spacey depth, or cross swords with Silva’s odd percussive effects. A long solo that closes the first disc is a testament to Henderson’s musicality and the diversity of the kit.

Greene and Bennani then become the “traditional” instrumentalists. Both are prudent collaborators: Greene is all crystalline chords and shimmering arpeggios, the star-flecked backdrop to Silva and Henderson’s sci-fi adventures, while Bennani narrates in his cool, assured voice. Speaking perhaps best describes Bennani’s tenor playing: he has a range and cadence that's more akin to a raspy whisper than scales of notes or jazzy licks. Sadly, this would be his last appearance on record following his untimely passing in August.

For the most part, FFIE 2013 keeps up a thoroughly weird ambience across its two discs, even if some of the synthesizer and drum sounds flirt dangerously with kitsch. But then again, nothing is safe from subversion and re-deployment. Returning to Bailey, he often said that non-idiomatic improvisation must be the oldest form of music. There’s a Built to Spill album called Ancient Melodies of the Future. That's what FFIE 2013 sounds like: tomorrow’s primordial music, beamed back from some ancient future. Can I claim to love all of its nearly two hour runtime? No. But much of it is brilliant, and at no point was I bored—no single moment is ever indicative of what still lies ahead. It is fearless music, awesome in its strangeness, and traumatic to any preconception.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Simon Rose & Stefan Schultze - The Ten Thousand Things (Red Toucan, 2015) ****½

By Stef

Baritone and alto saxophonist Simon Rose and pianist Stefan Schultze met in 2013 in Berlin, and even if the first came from the free improv scene and the second from a more standard jazz background, their collaboration on this album makes you wonder about these different perspectives because it all sounds so seamless and integrated.

On eleven improvisations these two musicians find a wonderful balance between ferocious destruction and sensitive construction, starting with their instruments, as the piano is prepared with all kinds of plastic sticks and bags, and Rose is a real fan of circular breathing, rhythmic tongue slapping, and other harder to define techniques, yet at the same time, and despite the obvious harshness, the music strikes a deep emotional chord, like a cry full of agony and pain, with vulnerability and even tenderness and intimacy. And that may explain the title, as "The Ten Thousand Things" is a buddhist expression of all the things that make up our world, and their musical reflection gives us this : a myriad of sounds and interactions that make us feel these 'ten thousand things', with all their qualities, and complexities and simplicities and gentleness, and so much more.

What I love about the album is that the two artists have a strong common vision and they go for it, all the way. There's nothing half-hearted here, or no compromising, no crowd-pleasing treats, but only authentic and creative expressivity, like life itself, hard and real like life itself.

It is one of those albums which take you over completely, and because of its emotional power, it has been a soothing album for me, and listening to it dozens and dozens of times, the raw sensitivity of the baritone, the bell-like sounds of the piano, the physical intimacy, the sometimes violent percussiveness, matched the emotional need of your humble servant, at moments when he felt he wanted to smash the things around him while at the same time needing some consolation and sympathetic sentiments. Apologies for the subjectivity, but there is no other way to approach this music : you love or you hate it. This guy loves it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Zarabatana – Fogo na Carne (A Giant Fern, 2015) ****

By Eric McDowell

Even though Zarabatana’s Fogo na Carne was released all the way back at the beginning of 2015, it would be a shame to miss out on the Portuguese trio’s refreshing debut. Named after a blowpipe weapon, Zarabatana plays what the label describes as “a unique brand of ritualistic free jazz.” Live footage of the trio playing in paper masks seems to bear this claim out, as does all three members’ frequent use of a whole arsenal of percussion instruments, from tin cans and shakers to chimes and chromatic bells.

In fact the first track, “Mmória Doç (Intro),” consists entirely of percussion—densely layered and fluidly shifting rhythms—and it’s not until two and a half minutes into the second track, “Memória de osso,” that Yaw Tembe’s trumpet first appears. On this track and several others, bassist Bernardo Álvares is foundational in achieving the impressive effect of embracing pulse without resorting to recognizable groove. Here Álvares’s punchy bass drives everything forward, always just outside our grasp. By its second half the album’s nine-minute centerpiece, “Intro and Outro to Aleph,” falls into a similar approach, with Tembe sketching a lyrical melody over Álvares’s quarter notes while drummer Carlos Godinho keeps busy with his mallets on the snare.

Elsewhere Álvares prefers lush bowing. On “Chamusca Suse” Tembe responds sympathetically, drawing out long lines to layer over the textured bass before switching to percussion to help bring the track to its frenzied climax. But on “Sande Macaco,” the interplay between trumpet and bass is a bit more open, with Tembe worrying a boppish melodic thread while Álvares maintains a darker arco feel. Here we find the capricious Godinho at perhaps his most conventional (a relative measure), concentrating on his kit over his auxiliary percussion and extended techniques.

The sixth and final track, “Jamaca Juiss,” ends the album with another example of what I like most aboutZarabatana’s debut—their ability to remain grounded without lapsing into predictability. Here again for me Álvares is the key, plodding along with a spacious, not-quite blues while his partners weave in and out of the silences. Fogo na Carne, released by A Giant Fern as a limited edition cassette/download, is a short and sweet album—too short, perhaps. We’ll have to wait and see what the new year brings.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Boris Hauf - Next Delusion (shameless, 2015) ****

By Derek Stone

In 2011, Boris Hauf gathered a sextet comprised of three reeds (himself on tenor/soprano, Keefe Jackson on tenor sax/contrabass clarinet, and Jason Stein on bass clarinet) and three drummers (Frank Rosaly, Michael Hartman, and Steven Hess, with the latter also adding electronics). The results, released as Next Delusion, were surprisingly restrained. There were moments of abandon, sure, but the predominant mood was one of brooding calm. Listening to that record was like watching the still surface of a lake, a lake in which you just knew there was some unspeakably terrifying beast. Whether or not you caught glimpses of that beast was beside the point - simply knowing that it could appear at any time was enough to make you feel uneasy.

On the group’s new outing, also called Next Delusion, it’s immediately clear that something is different. The uneasiness remains, and the compositions are just as taut and tense as before, but the sense of danger has been amplified; the proverbial flood-gates have opened up and you have no choice but to get swallowed by the deluge. The first piece, simply called “Bleed,”opens with the synchronized plodding of the drummers. It’s a dense and hypnotic rhythm, and it helps draw us down into the world Hauf has built - a world of submerged rooms, windowless, with no access to fresh air. Eventually, the reeds join in, moving together in fluid lines. The air is getting thinner, however, and a sense of urgency sets in: soon, each player goes off in different directions, producing wild offshoots and branches that give the piece a web-like structure. While Hauf stuck to tenor and soprano on the previous record, here he employs the baritone saxophone - a terrific choice that deepens the sound, fills it out, but also gives a somewhat menacing quality to the ensemble. His tone buzzes, rattles, and cuts through the composition in a deliciously diabolical fashion. In contrast, the other players, Keefe Jackson and Jason Stein, help keep the sound from getting toobogged down. If not for them, the piece would run the risk of becoming a monotonous slog. As things stand, however, Jackson’s tenor and Jason’s bass clarinet give the composition a manic buoyancy that acts as a counterweight to the rumbling low-end.

The center-piece, called “Steps,” hearkens back to the group’s previous record. It’s airy and abstract, but with an undercurrent of electricity that is not dissimilar to the charged atmosphere you can feel before the coming of a storm. The percussionists trade in the pounding drums of the last composition for sounds that are more nuanced: clanging waves, sibilant cymbal-work, and unnerving rattles. The reeds ride atop this rolling river of sound, contributing in subtle ways.

The final piece opens with the drummers locked together once again, sounding out a tribal call to battle. It builds and builds and then disintegrates, at which point the reeds engage in a tangled dance reminiscent of the first track. They continue on in this manner, sometimes frenzied and wild, sometimes serene, and then the composition comes to a close. In all honesty, this short collection of music (only 26 minutes!) could have easily been stretched out by another half-hour or so. Hauf is working with some wonderful musicians here, and the sound is a tantalizing mixture of elements I would have been happy to explore further. In any case, I highly recommend this to people who are more interested in the “textural” side of free jazz. While there are some undeniably fiery rhythms here, the real beauty lies in the atmosphere - when listening, you feel like you’re being swallowed up and subsequently crushed in the belly of a great sea-monster. Coming as I do from the Gulf Coast of Florida, I’ve experienced my fair share of hurricanes. I’ll never forget the feeling of the storm’s central eye passing overhead; you can look up and see the stars, but you do so with the full knowledge that you’re surrounded by an unthinkably immense pressure. This record can be thought of in a similar way. There’s a lot of space here, but it’s never empty.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Swedes Are Coming

Time Is A Mountain - II (Repeat Until Death, 2015) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Some albums make you feel as if the earth moves under your feet and you don’t have any choice but to dance. The sophomore album of the trio Time Is A Mountain has such a hypnotic power, it fills you a vibrating force that sets you in constant motion. The trio features the rhythm section the energetic trio Fire! - bass player Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin - both also hold the massive rhythm of the Fire! Orchestra together with keyboards wizard Tomas Hallonsten. Berthling and Hallonsten are also two thirds of the experimental trio Tape. These three musicians have crossed paths in some of the most interesting Swedish groups of the last decade such as Wildbirds & Peacedrums (with Werliin partner, vocalist Mariam Wallentin, aka Mariam the Believer) or sax player Martin Küchen’s Angels group.

II (after a self-titled album, released by Häpna in 2013) offers seven strong eclectic instrumental gems. Hallonsten sets the timeless atmosphere with his set of vintage keyboards while Berthling and Werliin solidify these flights with infectious rhythms. The trio moves effortlessly between ethereal and melancholic textures on “Alicetti”, mean, dramatic attacks on “Memento Mono” and “Sepian”, psychedelic-lounge soundscape on “Cellowave”, a heavy dance pulse of “Autoboo” or the epic “Drumlings”.

Hallonsten's distinct sound of vintage organs and analogue synthesizers encompasses references from few generations of seminal outfits - from the manic prog-rock of The Nice through the experimental krautrock of Can to the sober post-rock of Tortoise-- but Time Is A Mountain music is not nostalgic at all. It bursts with urgent freedom, a deep understanding of the driving power of rhythm and a healthy sense of the uplifting power of music.

Reeds player Jonas Kullhammar’s Moserobie label celebrates this year its 15th anniversary with its 100th release, quite an achievement for an independent label that is now the most prolific in Swedish jazz. Its latest three releases offer its far-reaching vision, beyond the common categorizations of American and European jazz, inside and out.

Svenska Kaputt - Suomi (Moseobie, 2015) ****

Nothing is Kaputt in the Swedish kingdom, but this time the the jazz-prog-rock-psych quartet Svenska Kaputt decided to salute to the gloomy and barren eastern Finland. Suomi, the quartet's sophomore album, even has a cover that borrows the white and blue colors of the Finnish flag and the vinyl version is printed in blue. Svenska Kaputt feature three former members of Kullhammar now-defunct quartet, bass player Torbjörn Zetterberg and drummer Jonas Holmegard, plus guitarist Reine Fiske who plays with Holmegard in the prog-rock group Dungen. Holmegard played in the earlier-expanded version of Fire! Orchestra while Kullhammar still plays with the Orchestra.

As on its debut self-titled album (released on 2012) the sonic universe of the quartet finds inspiration in Nordic heroes as Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal and sax player Jan Garbarek, Swedish psych-prog keyboards player Bo Hansson and the seminal British prog-rock group Soft Machine. Now spicing it with inspirations from Finnish jazz legends as sax players Paroni Paakkunainen, reeds player Juhani Aaltonen and late drummers Edward Vesala and Matti "Keisari" Oiling (keisari means the emperor).

The three long compositions - “Paroni”, “Vesaaltonen” and “Keijsaren”, penned by all the quartet musicians - distill beautifully these inspirations and highlight the unique, hybrid aesthetics of this quartet. All are performed in a slow-cooking dramatic pathos of typical complex prog piece, often even with a some bombastic prog sound. But Svenska Kaputt dares to open these structured narratives to intense, fiery improvisations of Fiske on the guitar and Kullhammar, who alternates between the baritone sax on “Paroni”, tenor sax, oboe and siren on “Vesaaltonen” and tenor sax and piano on ““Keijsaren”.

Torbjörn Zetterberg Och Den Stora Frågan - Om Liv Och Död (Moserobie, 2015) ****

This is the sophomore album for in-demand double bass player Torbjörn Zetterberg’s Och Den Stora Frågan (the big question) sextet, after its acclaimed debut in 2014, and seventh as as a leader. The sextet feature close collaborator, Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, trombonist Mats Äleklint, sax players Kullhammar and Alberto Pinton and drummer Jon Fält. Silva, by the way, participated in a recent performances of Fire! Orchestra.

The title Om Liv Och Död (on life and death) suggests the contemplative-philosophical spirit of this album. Zetterberg opens by raising a dilemma in a short brief solo bass pieces, and then the sextet constructs and reconstructs its conflictual aspects in a patient, loose manner that stresses the opinionated, individual voices of the sextet. But soon, and between the brooding Zetterberg solo pieces and the philosophical titles, the driving energy of these excellent musicians storms in propulsive Mingus-ian “Säkra Tvivel”, “Vad Är Det Som Dör” and “Innan & Efter”. All keep the loose interplay and offer generous room for brilliant solo improvisations of Zetterberg and Äleklint, Kullhammar and Pinton. This remarkable journey ends with a melancholic tone, “Springa Runt I Hjul”, where Zetterberg dark, deep-toned arco playing contrasts the gentle, melodic playing of Silva, Kullhammar and Pinton, both playing flutes.

Per ‘Texas’ Johansson- De Långa Rulltrapporna I Flemingsberg (Moserobie, (2015) *****

During the nineties reeds player Per ‘Texas’ Johansson and pianist Esbjörn Svensson were the most celebrated jazz musicians in Sweden. But after Johansson released his acclaimed album Alla Mina Komposar (EMI, 1998) he decided to change course and studied nursing and began to work as anesthesiologist nurse at the Huddinge hospital in the southern suburb Flemingsberg of Stockholm, a location that inspired the title of the album, referring to the long escalators in Flemingsberg metro station. In recent years Johansson began to return to active music life, recording with trombonist Mats Äleklint Quartet (Moserobie, 2013), pianists Cecilia Persson (Open Rein, Hoob, 2014) and Klas Nevrin (Live at Lederman, Found You Recordings, 2014) and recently worked in Barry Guy Blue Shroud project. He also played in a recent performance of Fire! Orchestra.

Finally, after 16 years Johansson recorded his comeback album. Former collaborators from his last album join him - sax player Fredrik Ljungkvist (on two tracks, and he also played in Fire! Orchestra early-expanded version) and guitarist Johan Lindström (who also plays in the group of former Esbjörn Svensson Trio, bass player Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket). Johansson decided to employ a unique no-bass instrumentation. He plays on a set of clarinets - Eb, Bb, Bass and contrabass clarinets, cor anglais and the tenor sax, Mattias Ståhl plays on vibes and marimba, Lindström on the pedal steel guitar and young Konard Agnas on drums.

Johansson is gifted with a warm and beautiful sound, and his playing radiates an immediate, profound emotional impact. His clever compositions suggest a highly personal architecture, based on gentle, swinging pulse and strong, stimulating themes, but do not subscribe to any conventional jazz patterns. Moving, song-like pieces like “Det Nya”, “Där Du Gått Förbi”, “Narkos” and the title-piece highlight his ability to charge even fleeting melodies with an emotional depth. Hard-driving and playful pieces like “Tjuven” or the self-titled homage to Ljungkvist or “Gång”, with Ljungkvist, offer brilliant and sometimes even ironic perspectives on the jazz legacy, never relying on a specific genre or an era.

Late arrival for the best of 2015 lists but a fantastic contender.

Duon som Imploderade - Yksi Kaksi (Found You Recordings, 2015) ***½

This album has nothing to do with the Fire! Orchestra, though, at times it carries the same volcanic spirit. Soprano and alto sax player Niklas Persson and double bass player Patric Thorman have been playing together for more than ten years now, first in the free jazz Kvintetten Som Sprängdes (The Quintet That Exploded), whom had already released two albums, and now on the stripped-down Duon Som Imploderade's (The Duo That Imploded) debut Yksi Kaksi.

Their chamber-like interplay is far from an intimate or emphatic meeting, portrayed best on one of the titles of these improvised pieces, “A Friendly Chat with the Enemy”. These ten pieces, short solo and more elaborate duo ones, cover many aspects of a free-improvised meeting. The atmosphere is quite physical and dense, even on the most lyrical and spare pieces as “Den Arga Kvinnan på Ambassade” or the playful “Slut på Tiden” It is clear that both Persson and Thorman aimed to challenge themselves and explore the possibilities of such setting and expand the sonic spectrum of their instruments.

Per Gärdin / Rodrigo Pinheiro / Marco Franco / Travassos - Oblique Mirrors (Ibn Musik, 2015) ***½

Concluding with a release that has nothing to do with the Fire! Orchestra universe. In 2013 soprano and alto sax player Per Gärdin joined the Portuguese RED Trio for a short tour in Portugal. Oblique Mirrors is a side project from this tour featuring RED trio pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, drummer-percussionist Marco Franco, who plays with Pinheiro in Portuguese Luís Vicente quartet Clocks and Clouds, and electronics player Travassos, electronics, known from the Pão trio, and much more as the graphic designer, responsible for the covers of Clean Feed label.

The six free-improvised pieces sketch and intense and dense textures, full with flowing ideas and immediate interplay and playful games but with no attachment to any pattern, pulse or narrative. Travassos electronics are kept in the background, adding spare colors to these heady sonic collisions. His contribution adds an otherworldly sounds to the abstract and minimalist pieces, as “Refraction”, “Sphere” and “Dispersion”, when the shades of sounds, touches, scratches overtones and multiphonics set the dark and close atmosphere. The last piece, the conflictual “Aperture”, brings this meeting to its most intense noisy climax before concluding in a peaceful quiet coda.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Steve Swell - Kanreki. Reflection & Renewal (Not Two, 2015) ***½

By Stefan Wood

Steve Swell’s Kanreki. Reflection & Renewal is a double-disc offering from Not Two records, celebrating the musician’s 60th birthday with a variety of live performances, compositions, writings, and artwork. The result is uneven, as the music is pulled from different times and places and the modes and approaches are different.  However, it’s a grab bag tribute that offers up some real gems.

The opener is a thirty plus minute live track, “Dragonfly Breath: Live at Zebulon,” a furious effort that pummels the listener with a barrage of sounds, from Paul Flaherty’s sheets of sounds from his tenor sax, to C. Spenser Yeh’s Shrilling violin, to Weasel Walker’s battery assault of percussion. Swell’s clarion-like tone from his trombone leads the charge, heralding a cacophony of sounds that force you to pay attention. “Essakane” is decidedly different, a dynamite free bop track with a powerful front line of horns, Magnus Broo on trumpet and Ken Vandermark on tenor. Recalling the 60’s Jazz Messengers and 70’s Terumasa Hino led groups, the horn section — along with Joe Williams on bass and Michael Vatcher on drums — go off on a seven-minute excursion combining familiar hard bop notations and rhythms with bursts of spontaneous improvisations. A real stunner. 

“Schemata and Heuristics for Four Clarinets” is a showcase for Swell’s more classical leanings, an eighteen-minute work that features the clarinets of Ned Rothenberg, Guillermo Gregorio, Miguel Malla, and Zara Acosta-Chen. It is a lengthy exploration of the tone and playing of the clarinet, from fast paced group synchronizations to slow, meditations. Overall it has a feel not unlike what is occurring in contemporary chamber classical, and that is a testament to Swell’s compositional skills. “News from the Upper West Side” concludes the first disc with a voice/trombone duet, Tom Buckner providing the voice. Eight minutes of abstract voicing and gurgitative horn playing. 

The second disc begins with a Steve Swell solo: “Splitting Up is Hard to Do,” a mostly one-note affair that subtly changes tone throughout the eight-minute duration. It is followed by three tracks called "Live at the Hideout.” With Guillermo Gregorio (clarinet), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics), the trio engage in sonic abstractions for thirty plus minutes. Your level of listening pleasure to these may vary, as the music seems to wander, being a touch too self-indulgent. Composite #8 features Darius Jones (alto sax), Omar Tamez (guitar), Jonathan Golove (cello) and James Ilgenfritz (bass). 

Overall, Kanerki, Reflection & Renewal is a composite of works of varying quality and approaches that make it less cohesive than his other albums.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Ches Smith Trio - The Bell (ECM, 2016) *****

By Paul Acquaro

The Ches Smith Trio album that I'm waiting for is 'Live from Winter Jazzfest'. The two times that the trio has played at the NYC jazz festival have been revelatory. The first show, two years ago, was as I understand it, entirely improvised. This time, as a part of the ECM showcase, they performed the compositions, in sequence, off of their debut release 'The Bell'.

Over the intervening two years, the group has developed a decidedly atmospheric approach. During the 2016 show, Smith switches between drum kit, various percussion, and the vibraphone, Craig Taborn takes full control of the lovely Steinway grand piano and Mat Maneri, seated in the middle, runs his viola through several effects, giving the trio a rich tone. Live, they are true to the spirit of the album (or should that be vice-versus?) embracing the crystalline sound that makes something ECM.

Then, perhaps just to let those of us who saw them in 2014 that we are all in the right place, the group reaches a peak of energy and sound. The song is most likely 'Isn't It Over,' which is the third track on The Bell. Maneri plays an akimbo melody while Taborn shadows with a biting harmony. Smith, a master of rhythmic subterfuge, is creating pockets out of elliptical patterns, connecting in unexpected ways. On the album, and in concert, the mini-epic is spellbinding - a whorl of music that arise from seemingly nowhere.

It may make sense to loop back to the beginning at this point … the album starts with a pregnant five seconds of silence before a bell - of course - rings out. What follows is a quiet construction of the landscape, an awakening, as the piano plays an insistent pulse, the viola weaves strands of melody, and vibraphone plays a percussive role. Over the course of ten minutes, tensions and expectations are laid. In the follow-up, 'Barely Intervallic', the tension is released and the group begins shading in the blank spaces, and towards the end of the song were ready for 'Isn’t It Over', the aforementioned first catharsis of the album. 

The follow up 'I'll See you on the Dark Side of the Earth' is a minimalist dreamscape that ends as a powerful rock song. Speaking of which, the track 'Wacken Open Air' must refer to the colossal metal festival held annually in Germany. The song isn’t that heavy, but it is dense, with stuttering rhythmic starts and stops and shards of melodies. In fact, Taborn and Maneri interact in almost a classical mode, while Smith provides texture until they all dip into a bit of the metal. At the WJF show, the group expanded this part, leaving some of the audience with jaws agape. The closing track ‘For Days’ is a nice summation of the album. Playing off of subtle, and not so subtle, rhythmic changes and unusual melodies, the group gives a little bit of everything that makes the album so engaging.

The Bell is a captivating series of dreamlike images of emotion and subconscious thought disguised as songs, and best taken in as a whole. If The Bell is the harbinger of what to expect from 2016, we’re in for an incredible year of music!

Available from the Downtown Music Gallery

Sunday, January 17, 2016

ROVA Channeling Coltrane - Electric Ascension Live (RogueArt, 2016) *****

By Stef

When John Coltrane's Ascension was released in 1966, jazz critic Bill Mathieu from Downbeat wrote "This is possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded", an apt description of Coltrane's free jazz masterpiece. My Penguin Guide To Jazz says "If Coltrane had never recorded another note of music, he would be guaranteed greatness on the strength of Ascension alone". My Oxford Companion To Jazz calls it "one of his most awesome, daunting, recordings". Dave Liebman called it "the torch that lit the free jazz thing". It was a fourty minute long group improvisation with two trumpets (Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johson), two altos (Marion Brown and John Tchicai), three tenors (Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders), two basses (Art Davis and Jimmy Garrison), one piano (McCoy Tyner) and one drums (Elvin Jones). This band of jazz icons improvises as a group around changing sound structures, alternated by solos of the band members, in this way shifting between sonic density and lightness, between rhythmic and a-rhythmic passages, playing with dissonance and harmony, resulting in music that sounds like rolling waves of sound full of musical power and relentless emotional weight. If you don't have it yet, run to the store now!

So why cover this masterpiece? Who has the audacity to think that it can be improved? Who has the arrogance to pretend people are waiting to hear a new version of it? I never understood why anyone would dare cover what is already sublime, a clear strategy for failure as the new version's mediocrity can only be obvious to anyone familiar with the original. But then it does happen! Already in 1995, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the piece, Rova took its first take on Coltrane's Ascension, and it took till 2005 for it to be released as a really strong album that does not try to emulate the orginal, but rather uses it and gives it a different direction without relinquishing what makes the original powerful (ROVA::Orkestrova - Electric Ascension (Atavistic, 2005). Rova has played Ascension at various festivals and concerts in the past decades, with changing band members, but with pretty much the same instruments : four saxes, two violins, trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and electronics, indeed, something else entirely than the original line-up of Coltrane's band.

Now, fifty years after Coltrane's original release, we get what we can already call one of the must-haves of the year, a musical event that will be hard to match, not only because of the music, but because of the total package : a CD, a Blue Ray and a DVD for what is called : "a 21st century reimagining and arrangement" of Coltrane's masterpiece.

And I can tell you that you will love the total package. The music itself was performed at the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2012, with the following band members : Bruce Ackley on soprano saxophone, Larry Ochs on tenor saxophone, Steve Adams on alto saxophone, Jon Raskin on baritone saxophone, Chris Brown and Ikue Mori on electronics, Hamid Drake on drums, Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman on violin,  Nels Cline on electric guitar, Fred Frith on electric bass, and Rob Mazurek on cornet.

They start with electronics to set the scene of today's sound, and then the whole band joins with the grand theme of the composition, followed by improvisation around it by all musicians together, a sonic firework of flowering notes that weave in and out of the theme based on hand signals by Jon Raskin ... and then the solos erupt out of the theme, mostly for duets or trios, sometimes highly energetic with fast-speed reactions to each other, sometimes in chamber music simplicity and calm, sometimes ferocious and wild, sometimes solemn and spiritual, sometimes with crackling electronic soundscapes, yet always full of purpose and focus for more than sixty minutes of musical delight, every so often falling back on grand joint harmonies which unravel again in new musical vistas in a wonderful eb-and-flow between collective interplay and intimate interaction between two or three individuals. This is no longer Coltrane, this is something else entirely, but in the spirit of the master, a modern piece of art that can stand on its own. Needless to say that all musicians are excellent and fully comfortable with the material, and if any names have to be mentioned then Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman are worth highlighting because of their contribution to the overall sound, and their surprisingly free improvisations are exceptional (meaning I have never heard them perform in such a free context).

You get the performance on CD, obviously. On the Blue Ray, you get the entire concert in wonderful visual broadcast quality, filmed with more than a handful of cameras, with a director who knows what and who needs to filmed when, which is usually one of the shortcomings of concert videos.

The DVD offers both the concert and "Cleaning The Mirror", a documentary by John Rogers on the concept of Electric Ascension, including insightful interviews with some of the fifty musicians who have performed the piece so far : Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Nels Cline, Andrew Cyrille, Art Davis, Jason Kao Hwang, Eyvind Kang, Rova, Jenny Scheinman, and Elliot Sharp. The documentary offers musical excerpts, archival photos, and behind the scenes footage.

For those interested : the band will perform Electric Ascension today at the NYC Winter Jazzfest.

"ELECTRIC ASCENSION @ 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival - a few excerpts from the most recent live performance of Electric Ascension

Excerpts from “Cleaning the Mirror” - a documentary from Rova’s January, 2016 DVD/Bluray/CD release: Rova Channeling Coltrane