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Monday, February 29, 2016

Bones - Bones (Leo Records, 2016) ****½

The Bones Trio consists of Ziv Taubenfeld on bass clarinet, Shay Hazan on double bass, and Nir Sabag on drums. This, their debut release for Leo Records, is a compelling and coherent album that can easily swing from exhilarating bop to more abstract modes of expression. Despite these oscillations, and despite the sometimes loose feel of the compositions, the members always maintain a keen rapport with one another.

The first composition, “Under the Ab Tree,” foregoes accessibility or straightforward melodies, opting instead for a sumptuous shapelessness. The sounds they conjure up here are warm, inviting, but teasingly cryptic; the ultimate effect is that one is encouraged to keep listening, if only to find some key or clue. Luckily for us, the next piece, “Blue Key,” offers just that - a point-of-entry for those who might be disoriented by the relative formlessness of the opening track. In the opening section, the drums and bass are joined together in a rhythmic lockstep, but the piece soon develops in a different direction. There are excursions to unmapped areas: Hazan engages in an enthralling arco solo; Sabag produces loose, rolling waves of percussion. After these extended improvisations, they return to the initial theme and close out the composition.

“Milonga” is a solo exploration by Taubenfeld, and it has a similar effect on me as the circular-breathing techniques employed by Evan Parker: it calls to mind a kind of prehistoric ritualism, all swaying limbs and disembodied ululations. It’s entrancing, but the reverie is quickly dispelled by the swinging and spirited “Kiwi Flower.”

“Gold Wood” is distinguished by drummer Nir Sabag’s lengthy explorations in the middle. He starts restrained, with a steady and leaden beat, but gradually the pounding becomes louder and more vigorous. Soon, Hazan and Taubenfeld return and play the same motif with which they opened the piece.

“Buses Chasing Pigeons” is rhythmically direct, Hazan providing a walking bass-line and Sabag propping everything up with an unwavering groove. Taubenfeld, on the other hand, careens manically from note to note; it does, in fact, sound like an audial representation of pigeons bolting. In “Egge,” he takes a similar route, but the tempo and note-density are intensified. Likewise, Sabag and Hazan here play with an exuberance that is positively invigorating after the relaxed pace of the previous piece.

The closing composition, “Citrus Village,” revolves around a straightforward, tuneful theme, and everyone plays it relatively safe. It’s a nice way to conclude the album, and it plants a listenable seed in your mind that (in my case, at least) grows into a firm resolve to hear the album again.

A note on the production: it’s fabulous! The sound is warm and spacious, and at times it feels like you are in the very room in which the album was recorded. If there had been any hint of tinniness or cool detachment on this thing, I feel that the entire endeavor would have suffered. Fortunately, that’s not the case. A wonderful release, and one that I can heartily recommend!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Joe McPhee and Chris Corsano Schorndorf, Manufaktur, 2/18/2016

By Martin Schray

It was a longer period of icky weather in the south of Germany when on Thursday, February 18th, the sky cleared up for a few hours and an almost full moon appeared. Nevertheless, it was very cold outside. Inside the Manufaktur, one of Mats Gustafsson’s favorite jazz clubs worldwide, it was quite cosy, though. The club, which also promotes rock shows, dance events and night flea markets, is a marvelous venue when they present jazz concerts. The people sit at small tables, an exquisite jazz record dealer is a permanent fixture and huge banners at the walls show Roy Campbell, Peter Brötzmann, Matana Roberts and Joe McPhee.

McPhee has been a welcome guest before in Schorndorf, for example with Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet + 1, Universal Indians, and Survival Unit III. This night he brought along drummer Chris Corsano, who debuted at the club. Both have released three albums so far, Under A Double Moon, Scraps and Shadows and Dream Defenders, all three of them full of excellent boisterous and soulful music. Corsano, a man who looks like one of the young boys in a William S. Burroughs novel, is known for his punk/rock/jazz background (he has played with musicians as different as Björk, Thurston Moore, Nels Cline and Paul Flaherty) and his intensive and imaginative style. That’s why some people might have expected a rough set - and they were not disappointed at the beginning. However, the two musicians’ mission was a different one that night - they were there to play the blues.

And who could play this music better than Joe McPhee, the great man of sorrows on the scene.

After the second track he said that he had always liked to play ballads, just to start a solo number which was so tender, touching and fragile that the audience hardly dared to applaud. Then he announced a tribute to Ornette Coleman, one of his “personal gods“. McPhee knew Coleman from the early 1960s because his apartment in New York’s Barrow Street was close to Coleman’s rehearsal room, and the version of “Lonely Woman“ he played then was of the utmost beauty, the atmosphere he created made the imaginary woman’s loneliness, desperation and desolation almost tangible.

In addition, Chris Corsano was the expected congenial partner. In the second set he used a lot of extended materials like bows, woodblocks and hoses to create spherical off-the-wall sounds. On the other hand his drumming reminded a lot of Milford Graves and Sunny Murray that night which fit very nicely to McPhee’s heavy vibrato sound. It’s often been surprising how deep, sensitive and subtle his drumming can be.

“When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again“. McPhee howled this phrase again and again before he left the stage (in a very good mood, by the way). There’s nothing more to say.

After a 70-minute-drive I arrived home. It had started raining again.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Two Guys

By Colin Green

Barry Guy & Ken Vandermark – Occasional Poems (Not Two Records, 2015) ****

In November 2008, Ken Vandermark (reeds), Barry Guy (double bass) and Mark Sanders (drums) undertook a short tour of England. Two of the gigs, from Birmingham and Leeds, appeared on Fox Fire (Maya Recordings, 2009), one of Vandermark’s most impressive recordings where he rises to the challenge of playing with Guy and the new areas into which this pushed him.

Guy and Vandermark played again six years later in November 2014 at the Alchemia Club in Kraków during the ninth Autumn Jazz Festival, their first time as a duo. Guy was at the end of a week-long residency with his Blue Shroud band and Vandermark (who has a work ethic that puts the rest of us to shame) had agreed to the date at the end of over two months on the road, exhausted and travelling to the sound check direct from the airport. And yet, as is often the case with impromptu meetings in trying circumstances, as Vandermark says, “something special happened”.

On this album, we have nine of the pieces they performed over two sets. The titles have been provided by Guy, inspired by the poet Robert Lax, whose poems have distinctive layouts and make use of the repetition and permutation of a small body of words. According to Guy, “his singular focus on the world around his chosen space is indicative of the way improvisers work – gathering, analysing, inventing and trading ideas in the moments that we are allowed to express our art.” A fair general description of much of what’s going on with he and Vandermark, but works of abstract theatre that takes place in a rarefied realm, the nuances of which have no precise descriptive equivalent.

With Guy, one gets not just the standard dimensions – the melodic (horizontal) and chordal (vertical) – but the opening up of a third dimension in which shapes move and merge in a continual state of flux. The brilliant intensity of his playing has been likened to the flow of molten lava, the kind of thing that prompted Cecil Taylor to observe, “If I played bass I'd play the way you play”. Guy’s distinctive style is generated from the sonorities of his instrument and idiosyncratic actions (plucked, bowed, scraped, sometimes all three together) and the various treatments and devices he uses, resulting in a very personal vocabulary. But it’s also a language so rich – a sound world that has an almost visible texture, full of ridges, offshoots, nooks and crannies – that other musicians can’t fail but to be inspired. It probably helps not to think too much, and simply respond on a visceral level: exactly the condition of the weary Vandermark. Throughout, one feels the thrill of their having absolutely no idea where they’re going to end up.

At the most general level, these duos explore convergences and conflicts between two voices: communicative and non-communicative, sympathetic and contrasting. Right from the bell, they both go for it. ‘Nature is a Wolf’ is dominated by Guy’s repeated sliding chord, like an incessant cry, and Vandermark’s gnarled, hyper-compressed line. As the titles suggest ‘Light cuts Shadow’ and the ensuing ‘Shadow cuts Light’ can be seen as plays on positive and negative space, contrasting sides of the same thing. In the first, both instruments match each other in mood and texture as if mirroring different aspects of the same material: long, high notes, slithered bowing against rapid scales and leaps on the clarinet, ostinato figures locking them together, even a brief folksy episode. In the second piece the complimentary contrasts are this time in register, long resonant notes on the bass clarinet against dense spicatto and pizzicato on the bass. Roles are then reversed when Vandermark switches to the top end of his range and Guy descends to the lower.  The remainder of the piece alternates between these two areas, with contrasting levels of energy. ‘I will Sing to You of The Moments’ is an exercise in perpetual motion, repeated patterns never quite symmetric, moving in and out of alignment and becoming more elaborate as the piece progresses.

There are times however, when Guy and Vandermark seem engaged in two distinct trains of thought, juxtaposed rather than in dialogue. On ‘States of Being’ which opens the second set, they start in the same place but rapidly move in different directions, wrapped in the virtuosic expansion of their own material, side by side, eventually acknowledging the presence of the other and returning to common ground, and finishing with a unison flourish.

Not only do relations change, so do characters and locations. Vandermark can move at will between different provinces in the landscape of free jazz, reflecting his wide-ranging interests, musical and otherwise. This means he doesn’t have a style so much as a series of self-imposed personae. He experiments, not with inclusiveness – trying to cover as much ground as possible – but by moderation, narrowing the range of ideas, colours and textures for each improvisation, the better to explore his chosen region, adjusting focus as he moves from one piece to the next. Vandermark is aware of the importance of boundaries. On ‘Pan Metron Ariston [Every Good Thing In Measure]’ (an old Greek saying) for tenor alone, he limits himself to a blues tune as the basis for a study in split notes, distortion and overtones, contrasted with staccato tonguing and key clatter, sounding a little like a combination of Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann, (with whom he’s played in the trio Sonore). In “Riding the Air’ there’s a continuous line of smeared gestures and phrases on bass clarinet, mainly in the lower registers, as if in mimicry of Guy’s bass which responds in like kind, resulting in mutual imitations. Broken off by Guy’s change of pace and a solemn plucked tune, Vandermark moves back providing gentle sustained notes in accompaniment as Guy’s melody and subtle harmonics sing with ever greater eloquence.

‘Black, White, Red, Blue’ is a bass solo, beginning with a simple succession of plucked glissandi notes which alternate with passages employing an ever increasing range of techniques and devices, below the bridge up to bouncing sticks threaded through the strings. Each time the glissandi notes return they become a richer melody, and as the two textural areas switch their opposition increases, perhaps reflected in the title – pairings of tonal opposites and complimentary colours.

The encore is ‘Curving of the Wave’, a series of quick-fire bursts and exchanges between tenor and bass suggesting that both players had been reinvigorated by their meeting.

The Living Room + Barry Guy – Live at Literathaus (Ilk, 2015) ****

As well as playing in long standing groups and with seasoned musicians, Barry Guy likes to take chances with new ensembles and younger players. Multitude (Cave12, 2010) recorded with Diatribe, a duo of laptop and drums, is a good example, as is this album recorded at Literathaus in Copenhagen in December, 2012 with The Living Room: Torben Snekkestad (saxophones & reed-trumpet), Søren Kjærgaard (piano & keyboards), Thomas Strønen (drums). There’s nothing to suggest the trio were overwhelmed by Guy’s presence (he and Snekkestad had previously recorded Slip Slide and Collide) and Guy is a consummate ensemble musician – unsurprising given his work with everyone from Derek Bailey (subsequently, Philipp Wachsmann) and Paul Rutherford in Iskra 1903, which set new standards in group listening, to the Academy of Ancient Music, one of the pioneering orchestras devoted to period instruments and ‘historically informed’ performance.

These three improvisations can be likened to a whirling constellation – forming, dissolving and reforming – so that no element remains fixed. They’re packed with incident and contrast, frequently eschewing the navigable in favour of multiplicity. ‘Part #1’ brims with activity, simultaneous and overlapping, sometimes focused other times divergent, switching from the bold and assured to gossamer delicacy like a succession of jump cuts.

‘Part #2’ is more restrained: hammered strings on the piano and bass, light percussion and Snekkestad on reed-trumpet (a trumpet with a saxophone reed, having a limited range of notes and distinctive timbre). He plays low burrs over Guy’s glassy bowings and glacial chords on piano. There’s a gentle duet between saxophone and pizzicato bass which becomes more urgent when joined by rapid runs on the piano, increasing in intensity until Snekkestad’s tensile line hangs over a blur of piano, bass and drums. The piece ends with the ripple effect of descending figures and a gradual decay into silence.

‘Part # 3’ opens with Snekkestad’s soprano saxophone cutting through a tangled rain forest of percussive sound. The texture thins out to soft pluckings and scrapings and then builds up again over a web of bass and drums before dying out with light repeated phrases on piano and synthesiser. A piece of ebb and flow.

Both albums are demanding, requiring careful scrutiny and the re-evaluation of expectations. It’s not that they’re cutting-edge (a questionable desideratum) but they involve a complexity of thought and shifting relations which need to be grasped in order to appreciate the movement and balance between the constituent parts, a sign of the depth and capacity for renewal the musical language provides. Words still have some catching up to do, but descriptions will always fall short.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Tom Rainey Trio - Hotel Grief (Intakt, 2015) ****

“Hotel Grief,” the latest from the Tom Rainey Trio (Rainey on drums, Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones, and Mary Halvorson on guitar), is a live recording from December 30, 2013. For a few reasons, mostly the lack of online chatter, this group seems underappreciated. Yet, the trio consistently churns out dynamic, sensitive improvisation.

Tom Rainey, leader of this group, has a resume about a mile long, and surely most readers of this blog are familiar with his work with Tim Berne, Tony Malaby, and Mark Helias, as well as his recent recordings with Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock. He’s been a regular fixture for decades, but this stretch of trio albums released in the past few years have demonstrated the emotion in his performance. Rainey’s collaborative style brings a good deal of surprise to the whole, as he leaves himself open to the river of ideas flowing from Halvorson and Laubrock.

My music library is rapidly filling up with albums led by or featuring Mary Halvorson. This isn’t a complaint, just pointing out the degree to which her sound has come to signify the 2010s. Her waves of sound, accented by effects pedals, complement Rainey’s fluid drumming. Despite the recognizable touchstones of her style, one of the more impressive aspects of Halvorson’s playing is how she gives herself over to the feel of whatever recording she’s on. She’s been on an incredible range of ensemble records this year (Laubrock’s Anti-House, Tomas Fujiwara’s Hook Up, Jacob Garchik’s Ye Olde, Tomeka Reid’s quartet), and it’s interesting to hear how she slightly augments her very distinct sound to adapt to the group dynamics.

And then there’s Ingrid Laubrock. To me, she’s the standout of the recording. I can’t be the only one consistently surprised by her imaginative improvisation, which marries a rich tone with clipped, languid phrasing. The key, though, is Laubrock’s fierce and fiery approach. She’s developing a unique voice on the saxophone and pushing herself to expand her vocabulary with a passionate dedication to the art of improvisation. While it’s not impossible to hear the roots of her style in her earliest records, I feel like I’m listening to a completely different person from the one who recorded those first albums with the F-IRE Collective.

Recorded live, there’s a nice shape to the trio’s performance. The opener, “Last Overture,” gives each member a chance to introduce themselves through an early solo turn. Halvorson opens the song in a textural mood, and her solo is a lovely wash of chords. Rainey’s solo, when it comes around 5 minutes in, is big and bold, somewhat atypical of his signature light touch. Later, when he and Halvorson break into a rock groove, the beat feels oddly metered, and their interplay with Laubrock gives the whole moment a kind of Berne-ian feel. Halvorson layers distortion and pedal-tinged riffs, while Rainey gradually pulls at the threads of the beat, moving all around the drum set. Finally, Rainey and Laubrock fall away, and “Last Overture” ends in a moment of sustained guitar.

There’s a brief pause before “Hotel Grief,” which is a stunning achievement, the high point of the album. Halvorson tweaks the volume knob so her guitar melts in and out of the background. Rainey plays what I’m keen to call melancholy drums. I don’t quite know how he achieves this, but his interplay with the trio is emotionally complex. It’s a passionate, languid improvisation, one of two tracks stretching nearly 20 minutes. The second, “Proud Achievements In Botany,” opens with a searching sax and gentle background fills from Rainey. A few minutes in, Halvorson and Rainey create an eerie mix of effects that gently lead into Laubrock playing a low, patterned line. Gradually, the three transition into an extended minimalist improvisation that quickly ratchets up the tension, maintaining it for minutes on end. It’s an fine example of the power and range of this trio.

Video from 16 April 2015

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Free, Not Jazz

By Joel Barela

It's that time again: the transition from one calendar year to the next, the time when we (and most music publications) review music we either missed or didn't get to in its release year.  It also happens to be the perfect time to review a handful of items that don't necessarily fit with a site's standard style.  Below, you'll find three albums that don't necessarily share techniques or concepts with more traditional jazz formats.  HOWEVER, these three releases are - in their own ways - absolutely "FREE."  

Bishop-Orcutt-Corsano - Parallelogram (Three Lobed Recordings , 2015)

Three Lobe's Parallelogram was originally released as a five LP box set comprised of material from ten different artists/groups.  Each record saw a strange "pairing" of artists - one playing side A, the other side B - that either complimented each other through common thematic material or technique or else through puzzled together dissonance.  While the entire box set is definitely worth checking out, it's the fifth LP (also available as a digital download) that proves the most overtly "free."  Side A finds Caught On Tape (Thurston Moore & John Moloney) fresh off their early 2015 stellar release, Full Bleed, and on the path of musical deconstruction and literal destruction.  The duo spend the entire side deconstructing Moore's Ono Soul - from his 1995 solo release, Psychic Hearts.  Three Lobe's notes nail the description of this piece, labeling it a "roller coaster of squall, feedback and intuitive exchange(s) bookended by the original "pop" material."  It's an aggressive, interesting piece indeed, but it's the LP's b-side that truly lifts the record into the space where the cosmic and chaotic converge.  Culled from a day show recording of their performance at the Hopscotch Music Festival, Bishop-Orcutt-Corsano's Parallelogram (each LP in the set carries the collection's name) documents only the second live appearance from this trio of underground luminaries.  Chris Corsano - reviewed several times over on this site for his stellar play on numerous records - handles the sticks.  Alan Bishop - of Sun City Girls fame - plays an adventurous bass over the entire album and delivers the record's only vocals on the trio's cover of Politician - the most intense and fucked Cream cover I've ever heard.  Bill Orcutt brings his four-string axe attack - developed during his tenure with noise visionaries Harry Pussy - to the fray.  The Bishop-Orcutt-Corsano half lasts just seven songs and just over 16 minutes but, for its inventive freedom of play and live ferocity, it comes highly recommended.

Laddio Bolocko - Live & Unreleased (1997-2000) (No Quarter, 2015)

As a full review of this record is imminent, I'll keep this brief.  Suffice to say, this record was fifth on my list of favorite releases in 2015.  As Aquarius Records wrote when they made the album available in their San Francisco shop, Laddio Bolocko (now defunct) are/were "masters of some ineffable musical alchemy, at once willfully difficult and extremely challenging, but also totally melodic, and mesmerizingly hypnotic.  The krautrock vibe is huge - a motorik streak a mile wide runs through the works of LB, but they're also an explosive rock band, capable of total facemelt on par with most metal bands.  They're also immersed in some wild, avant psychedelic free jazz ... That might sound like it makes for a mess, but if it is, it's a glorious, unfuckwithable mess."  The first part of the collection delivers some jam monstrosities and short, twisted musical sketches.  I hear a lot of This Heat references regarding these pieces, but this first part really reminds me of the most experimental moments of CAN.  The collection's second half trots out the no-holds-barred live cuts.  If you're like me, I suspect you'll enjoy the first part for its creativity and view of process, but it's this second half that will truly stir you.  Having already gone on too long, I won't get into the DVD, but yes, there's a DVD.  I'm not awarding stars in this roundup, but if I was, this collection would receive my highest rating (italicized, capitalized and underlined).  A bonus (if you need one): Kid Millions - one of my favorite drummers on planet Earth - handles the liner notes.  Get this immediately.

***The players:

Drew St. Ivany, guitars
Ben Armstrong, bass
Blake Fleming, drums
Marcus DeGrazia, horns

Lubomyr Melnyk - Rivers and Streams (Erased Tapes, 2015)

For those of you not yet familiar with Mr. Melnyk, let's start with the statistics: He is the fastest pianist in the world ("sustaining speeds of over 19.5 notes per second in each hand SIMULTANEOUSLY").  He holds the record for most notes played in an hour ("sustaining an average speed of 13 notes per hand per second over the course of 60 minutes, yielding a remarkable total of 93,650 INDIVIDUAL notes" articulated).  And even if one attempted to cast aside his accomplishments and technique as all style and no substance, one would still have to account for and explain Melnyk's invention of Continuous Music.  "Based on the principle of continuous and unbroken lines of sound from the piano, Continuous Music is created by generating a constant flow of rapid (at times EXTREMELY rapid) notes, usually with the pedal sustained non-stop.  The notes can be either in the form of patterns or as broken chords that are spread over the keyboard."  How is this in any way "free," you might ask.  First, a quick internet search will find several interviews where Melnyk elaborates on the improvisational aspect of his technique and the physicality of playing such an immense amount of notes over such extended periods.  It's particularly interesting to hear him describe the pain he must endure to deliver his pieces live.  Second, it really needn't be said but creating an entirely new form of music requires and, in many ways, defines "freedom."  Rivers and Streams isn't the solo behemoth that Windmills is, but it does find Melnyk in some interesting collaborations. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Paal Nilssen-Love: Large Unit

By Eyal Hareuveni

There are very few working free jazz big bands, if any big band at all, that toured as much as Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love's 12-piece Large Unit (including the sound man Christian Obermayer) in 2015, not even his close collaborator Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra. 40 performances within 60 days, beginning with a European tour, continuing with a North American tour, and finishing with a second European tour. Such a busy schedule called for a unique documentation.

The resourceful Nilssen-Love, already acting as the drummer, composer, booking agent, producer, festival organizer and merchandizing tycoon (you can get the Large Unit albums in vinyl, discs and cassettes box formats plus t-shirts, tote bags, vinyl bags and even Large Unit underpants), suggested a new format - a photo book plus two live recordings of the Large Unit and a shorter EP.

These recordings feature the new lineup of the Large Unit - Finnish electronics player Tommi Keränen replaces noise master Lasse Marhaug (both are the Testicle Hazard duo), Swedish tuba player Per Åke Holmlander replaced Børre Mølstad and Danish reeds player Julie Kjær replaced Kasper Værnes, turning the Large Unit from an almost all-Norwegian band, with the exception of Swedish trombone player Mats Äleklint, to a pan-Scandinavian big band.

Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit - 2015 (PNL, 2CD + Book, 2015) *****

2015 is a beautiful limited-edition gem, not only because of the great music, but also thanks to the insightful photos of of bass player Christian Meaas Svendsen and Peter Gannushkin, taken on-and-off-stage and the amusing notes of all the Large Unit musicians and the interview with Nilssen-Love.

The first disc was recorded at the Casa del Popolo club in Montreal and features small units of the Large Unit, one duo and three trios, playing short free-improvised pieces. The Large Unit interplay often involves such small units playing off and against each other, and these impressive pieces highlight the strong individual languages and offer new ideas for future combinations within the Unit interplay.

The second disc capture the Large Unit at the height of their powers in the last performance of the North American tour at the Earshot Jazz festival in Seattle. It feature new arrangements of older pieces - “Fortar Hardar”, “Erta Ale II” and “Fendika” and two new pieces - “ANA”, the title piece of the forthcoming Large Unit release, and “Circle in the Round”. The Large Unit plays with endless fiery energy, even when it stripped down to small units, as if possessed by a higher force. Keränen, trumpeter Thomas Johansson, Äleklint and Holmlander shine on “Fortar Hardar” before the inevitable volcanic eruption of the whole Unit. “ANA” revolves around an infectious brass fanfares and a manic driving pulse that just keeps intensifying from the first second until the last one. “Circle in the Round” is the only loose form piece, developed patiently through a series of individual solos, including a most beautiful one of Kjær on the flute. “Erta Ale II” is re-arranged as a piece that highlight the massive front line of Äleklint, Johansson and sax players Klaus Elierhusen Holm and Kjær. The whole Unit now is in tight and fiery mode, ready for the last piece, the Ethiopian-tinged explosive-addictive pulse of “Fendika”.  

The unassuming perspective of Svendsen photos, together with his intuitive sense of photo composition and the short notes of the musicians, shed light on the demanding life on the road. The complicated logistics puzzle of arranging such tours, having all the musicians packed in three dense vans, and the need to balance different needs and tastes, including between vegan and carnivores. But above all it reflects the fun that all had together between “driving, soundchecking, gigging, sleeping”, multiplied few times, as Äleklint summarizes it. But with few detours to the Niagara Falls, swimming in Lake Erie, singing karaoke at a Korean barbecue after a 6-hour performance, buying shoes and driving a Harley-Davidson. Others like Kjær and Holm comment about the different types of humor - Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish, Keränen advises where to avoid eating Polish food in Chicago, but all are very appreciative about this invigorating experience. “This is what we live for”, writes drummer Andreas Wildhagen. “Nothing can be more rewarding than creating energy and music in the moment, let the sounds flush and blow out like they should in the ‘now’”.

Nilssen-Love, obviously the most experienced working musician in this band, performing about 200 to 250 days a year, notes that the Large Unit “takes having fun serious”. He suggests insightful perspective about the importance of such tours: “a band needs experience from the road in order to develop. The music changes and people interact in completely different way if you’re out for more than a week or so”. He concludes by saying that “this feels like a beginning of it”.

He is completely right. This Unit has much more to offer.

Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit - Rio Fun EP (PNL, 2015) ****

Rio Fun is piece that was part of the Large Unit repertoire already in 2014. This EP was recorded live at the end of the first European tour of 2015 at the Bimhuis club in Amsterdam. 

It is a 25-minutes complex piece that evolves through few phases, emphasizing the tight and fiery interplay of the Large Unit and its rich sonic language. It begins and ends with a gentle and quiet dance-like movement of brass coupled with disturbing electronics, and moves through a fierce duel between trumpeter Johansson and trombone player Äleklint, commanding solos of Holm on the baritone sax and Holmlander the tuba, amid intense and dense onslaughts of all the Unit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Paal Nilssen-Love: Collaborations

By Nicola Negri

The trio of Michiyo Yagi, Lasse Marhaug and Paal Nilssen-Love has been active for a few years, but never released any album before now. Nilssen-Love needs no introduction, a powerful drummer and hard working innovator involved in many projects around the world, constantly seeking new grounds to explore. Lasse Marhaug is another well-known figure in the field of improvised music, bridging the gap between electro-acoustic soundscapes and noise. Michiyo Yagi is a virtuoso expert of the koto, an ancient traditional Japanese zither, and has been active in free improvisation for almost twenty years, collaborating with many important international artists. Their first record together, Angular Mass, has just been released by PNL, Nilssen-Love’s own label, along with Soul Stream, in which the trio is augmented by the very special guest of Joe McPhee.

Michiyo Yagi, Lasse Marhaug, Paal Nilssen-Love - Angular Mass (PNL, 2015) ****

Michiyo Yagi – electric 21-string koto and 17-string bass koto
Lasse Marhaug – electronics and objects
Paal Nilssen-Love – drums and percussion

Angular Mass (recorded in 2011) revolves around typical improvisational frameworks, with long excursions that move from sparse, scattered sounds to dense, loud sections and back again. The overall structure of these pieces may seem obvious, but they reserve more than a few surprises along the way, with unusual instrumental solutions and varied dynamics. Nilssen-Love alternates between his typically muscular drumming and a more restrained percussive activity, always pushing the music in different directions. Lasse Marhaug makes an excellent work on both the noisier sections and the more minimal passages with intriguing electronic textures that always retain a rich, physical quality. Throughout the album Yagi takes full advantage of the distinct sound signature of the koto, exploring its melodic and rhythmic potential or transforming its output through extended techniques, carefully avoiding the pitfalls of easy exotic characterization. The central piece of the album, Spotlight Devil, is especially interesting, and represents a peculiar change of mood, with a sombre pattern on the koto that evolves through minimal tonal variations while the beautiful textural work of percussion and electronics creates a fascinating, cinematic atmosphere, before the abstract finale returns to more familiar improvisational strategies. This record is dense with ideas and the longer tracks might be overwhelming at times, but the musicians are always aware of each other, always listening and keeping the music flowing.

Joe McPhee, Michiyo Yagi, Lasse Marhaug, Paal Nilssen-Love Soul Stream (PNL, 2015) ****1/2

Joe McPhee – pocket trumpet, tenor and alto saxophones
Michiyo Yagi – electric 21-string koto and 17-string bass koto
Lasse Marhaug – electronics and objects
Paal Nilssen-Love – drums and percussion

In Soul Stream (recorded in 2013) Yagi, Marhaug and Nilssen-Love are joined by Joe McPhee, that confirms once again to be one of today’s great masters of creative music, still pushing the envelope after almost fifty years of glorious career. The main characteristics noted in the previous record are all present here, with a colorful palette of instrumental voices and agile dynamics. The main expressive mood is different though, with an even more focused output from all the members. The tracks tend to be more structured, thanks in large part to the lyrical quality of McPhee’s playing, and often take on a fascinating narrative dimension, like a soundtrack for some futuristic film noir. The first track, Tear of the Clouds is an excellent example: Yagi builds a slow, steady base of bass notes, with McPhee on trumpet entering with breathy, short accents that soon become a beautiful blues tinged monologue, complemented by the bent strings of the koto. Nilssen-Love supports the music with rolling drums and crashing cymbals, pushing the piece to more abstract territory, while Marhaug weaves a rich electronic fabric in and out of the ensemble sound. On other tracks the music gets definitely noisier, like in Torque, in which McPhee unleashes a long wailing solo on the alto, amid the storm created by the concerted efforts of the trio, with the harp-like strumming on the koto in stark contrast to the overall free jazz character of the piece. The album ends with another highlight, that combines both the narrative and abstract dimensions: The Unbroken develops through static noise and frenzied percussion along with powerful vocal outbursts by McPhee, until Yagi picks up a resonating ostinato that accompanies the surging electronics to an intense ending. A true ensemble effort, this record keeps a cohesive approach and tight interplay throughout, revealing at each turn new shades of creativity and a treasure trove of unusual timbres and eccentric ideas. Highly recommended.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Paal Nilssen-Love - News from the Junk Yard (PNL, 2015) ****

Over the next few days, the blog is celebrating the work of percussionist Paal Nilssen-Love...

By Eyal Hareuveni

Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is one of the busiest musicians in our galaxy, performing about 200 to 250 performances a year. His playing is often characterized by an amazing level of energy and intensity, but ironically such description of his work misses a large part of his art. Nilssen-Love always has been a sonic explorer, always challenging himself to find new ways of expressing his art and developing new sonic ideas, through new collaborators, free improvised formats and eventually also through solo drums sets.

News from the Junk Yard is his fifth solo drums album, following Sticks & Stones, recorded at the Sofienberg Church in Oslo in 2001 (Sofa Music, 2001); the live recordings of 27 Years Later, recorded at the Molde Jazz Festival in 2012 (released as cdr by Utech Records, 2005, re-released by PNL, 2010), and Miro, recorded at the at Foundació Joan Miró, Barcelona in 2008 (PNL, 2010), and the home recording of Cut & Bleed (iDEAL Recordings, 2014), introducing for the first time the wide range of percussive instruments he had accumulated across the world throughout his travels, from Korean gongs to scrap metal sheets from Ethiopia, later featured also in his power trio The Thing latest Shake! (The Thing/Trost, 2015).

News from the Junk Yard was recorded at the studio of Nilssen-Love frequent collaborator, noise master Lasse Marhaug, and continues to explore the sonic possibilities of Nilssen-Love collection of instruments, first featured on Cut & Bleed, now adding instruments from Indonesia and Ghana. This recording avoids any sort of powerhouse drumming as explored on 27 Years Later or Miro, still it is a very intense one.

Nilssen-Love creates dense percussive textures, often morphing his colorful assortments of metallic and wooden instruments into an abstract, otherworldly sound art, but with a remarkable command and focus. “Don’t Mess with Texa” stress how far he can transform the sounds of percussive instruments from the Far East into nuanced yet nervous drone that searches different degrees of resonance and reverberation, forming a lasting accumulating effect. “Agg” and “Rec Re” discover the sounds of the skins when pressured and manipulated in diverse manners, sounding now as weird, abstract noises, bringing to mind the manic noises of Japanese Merzbow or the sound artistry of David Jackman, aka Organum. “Laces” builds a multi-layered meditative and atmospheric net of tones and overtones out of clashes of gongs, cymbals, and other metal instruments. The last piece, “Oots”, is the only one that revolves around a playful theme, still, taking the percussive, resonant play with sounds into its intense, extreme terrains.

Highly impressive.      

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Aber das Wort Hund bellt ja nicht (But the Word Dog Doesn’t Bark) - a film by Bernd Schoch (DVD, 2015)

Editors note: we refrained from a star rating on this fascinating new documentary on the Schlippenbach Trio only because Martin provided the excellent liner notes for the DVD's booklet. It could easily be a 5 star review, but instead, allow him to give you an inside perspective ...

By Martin Schray

How can you make a documentary about a free jazz band and try to do the musical genre justice? Is it possible to avoid pictures that are actually superfluous and only distract from the music? That was the challenge for director Bernd Schoch when he decided to follow the Schlippenbach Trio (Alexander von Schlippenbach on piano, Evan Parker on saxophone and Paul Lovens on drums) on their “winter journey“, an annual tour they’ve been doing for about 40 years now and which leads them to almost the same venues every year. The jazz club in Karlsruhe was the place Schoch chose for four consecutive concerts between 2007 and 2010.

What strikes you immediately is the film’s very rigid form: But the Word Dog Doesn’t Bark is about fragments, bodies and reduction. It consists of four parts, the first three episodes show the individual musicians, only the last one presents the band. What is more is the fact that Schoch concentrates on parts of the body which are crucial for the process of music making, e.g. when the camera focuses relentlessly on Lovens’s right forearm, Parker’s face and hand or Schlippenbach’s fingers. However, the film doesn’t only show hands in motion. Especially when we watch Evan Parker we can also observe how he waits for the right moment to join the others. As a result of this approach, the film gets very close to its protagonists, there is hardly any distance due to the extreme (and sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful) close-ups. This can lead to surprising effects, for example when the camera creeps along Schlippenbach’s face, it makes him look like a strange creature completely immersed in his music. Although you are drawn into the images, this way of presenting the trio is not easy to enjoy. Schoch confronts the viewer with very long shots, which is why you have to concentrate and be patient - like the musicians themselves when they improvise.

These sequences are contrasted by short interview passages in which you can see winter landscapes, birds on a winter sky or drawings of Schlippenbach’s son. They are about creating improvised music (Parker, Schlippenbach) or tour routines and food (Lovens) and the musicians explain how important musical routines are for them, and what it means to create something new on the basis of what they have achieved so far without repeating yourself.

Schoch tries to paint a picture of the trio with these fragments, he wants to display the process of music making itself. Schlippenbach, who was very skeptical during the shooting of the film, is very satisfied with the result in the meantime.

The Word Dog Doesn’t Bark is a very unorthodox documentary about one of the most fascinating and long-lasting projects in free jazz and at the end you will know what roast duck with dumplings and red cabbage and free jazz have in common.

The Word Dog Doesn’t Bark lasts 48 minutes (like a typical set of the trio). The DVD also contains two hours of extra interviews, which are very insightful and sometimes funny and melancholic (Paul Lovens is a wonderful story-teller).

You can get the film from, from or directly from
the artist:

Watch the trailer here:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Anna Högberg Attack (Omlott, 2016) ****½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Swedish sax player Anna Högberg's all-female sextet Attack's debut album is one of the most expected releases this year. Attack premiered in the 2013 edition of the Stockholm Jazz Festival and since then its performances gained praises all over, including a heartfelt endorsement from Högberg role-model, sax-titan Mats Gustafsson, who promises that Högberg’s Attack will “melt your brain as we know it”.

Attack features Högberg (who plays also on Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra, guested in The Thing recent Shake! and plays in the Dog Life trio) on alto sax, Malin Wättring and Elin Larsson on tenor and soprano saxes, Lisa Ullén (who plays in the Nuiversum trio with bass player Nina de Heney and vocalist Mariam Wallentin and leads her own quartet), double bass player Elsa Bergman and drummer Ann Lund.

Högberg's compositions, as well as a short one by Bergman, emphasize the individual voices of Attack and suggest a fresh and irreverent perspective on modern and free jazz. Högberg playing tends to burst instantly into fiery, restless solos, rich with melodic inventions, while Wättring and Larsson, each in her own distinct manner, opt to structure their solos in a more patient and methodical way; Ullén fleshes the loose theme with resonating, skeletal segments and inventive rhythmic playing while both Bergman and Lund inject a highly personal sense of pulse and space, still locking in driving rhythms.

Together Attack can alternate quickly between melodic and contemplative interplay, almost as if breathing-singing tender songs, and an intense and energetic eruptions, often in the same piece, and at times even adds experiments with sonic searches. Attack can attack powerfully, without holding back, as on the opening piece “Attack” or on “Borderline”, or trying to merge the contrasting approaches as on “Familjen”. “Lisa Med Kniven” highlights the imaginative and creative language of all musicians, beginning with unique bass lines of Bergman, rolling into light yet open swinging pulse with Ullén and Lund while the three saxes front adds layers of the theme with high-octane power and beauty, culminating with a great solo of Högberg. The last piece “Högberger”, stresses again the saxes massive front, bursting now in nervous parallel solos, but concluding in a poetic, compassionate hymn-like coda.

Attack delivers Gustafsson promise, “freeing the jazz, attacking the jazz”.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Pixel - Golden Years (Cuneiform, 2015) ****

By Stefan Wood

Pixel is a Norwegian quartet that has won a lot of attention in their home country for their fusing of popular music with group jazz improvisations. They happen to also be fine musicians. The group is comprised of Ellen Andrea Wang (vocals and bass), Jon Audun Baar (drums), Jonas Kilmork Vemøy (trumpet), and Harald Lassen (saxophone). Golden Years is their third album, a tight, cohesive effort that is very appealing.

The variety of influences and range of sounds from track to track keep the listener engaged. At times there is a lightness to the vocals and accompaniment that is lounge like, at others recalling alternative rock music. And then on the few instrumental tracks they display their improvisational chops, playing very tight in their use of the post bop and free improv techniques, as if they have been playing for decades, when in fact this is only their 5th year as a group. Their instrumental sound is not dissimilar to other contemporary improv groups like Atomic or the Chicago Underground groups. With vocals, Pixel straddles the rock, lounge and alternative music genres effortlessly. 

Stand out tracks are "Nothing Beats Reality," a free form fusion of afrobeat rhythms and post hard bop; "I Have the Right to Go to Sydney," a delightfully upbeat track that is a crazy mix of sweet vocals recalling Prince's "When Doves Cry" with free jazz and funk, and "Move On," which sounds like Neena Cherry & the Thing, but less edgy, having complex and sinuous movements. "Slinky," the album's most accessible track, is Stereolab like with the repetitious beat, here used only by the trumpet, and the use of male and female vocals which is minimal at first, then becoming a chorus, gentle and floating. 

Pixel's Golden Years is a good album that is very accessible and should appeal to a wide audience. They are different than groups like the Bad Plus because they are not doing interpretations of popular music songs. They are taking those aesthetics as a basis for creating improvised music. Recommended.

Search Ensembles - s/t (and/OAR, 2015) ****½

The Search Ensembles is a collaborative work, not so much a working group as it is a concept where many people contribute recordings to. Initiated by an/OAR founder Dale Lloyd, the Search Ensembles is a collection of old field recordings and new studio recordings that are intended to be sonic voyages to unexplored places, past and present, mysterious and evocative. They are abstract field recordings, aural textures of alien fields and landscapes that have traces of familiar tribal rhythms and beats, but any direct recognizable influences are not discernible. 

Contributors to this initial effort are: Alan Courtis, Cédric Peyronnet, Cyril Henry, Dle Lloyd, David Tobin, Jani Tulchin, Katerina Nejepsova, Loren Chasse, Michael Northam, Petr Tzar, Phil Legrand, Slavek Kwi, and Stuart Arentzen. Some just provide the field recordings, others are musicians. Listening to this reminds me of the abstract soundscape albums of the 70s and 80s, African Head Charge channeled through F/i and early Tangerine Dream. The rhythms are trance-like; haunting and with reverb. The instruments - whistle, guitar, flute, banjo, percussion, electronics - are rarely identifiable, the exception being the track “PL,” Phil Legard employing Robbie Basho-like abstractions with his banjo, and “KN SK,” with Nejepsova’s haunting flute and Kwi’s percussion. 

What makes this album above average is its creative use of “found” recordings, and mixing with electronics to create unusual and compelling soundscapes. I am eager to hear more from this project. Recommended for the sound adventurer.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Leap of Faith Orchestra - Hyperbolic Spirals Vols 1 & 2 (EvilClown, 2015) ****

By Paul Acquaro

From what I can tell, Hyperbolic Spirals is the most complete manifestation of saxophonist and orchestrator PEK's musical vision to date. Rarely does something so musically big and audacious come together in such a complete package!

The first track on the fist volume of the set is the core Leap Of Faith band (named below) - a quartet of intrepid and uncompromising Boston-based musicians who adhere to a very free and organic approach to music making. The opening half hour 'Asymptotes' is a great example of their collective thinking and individual aesthetics. Next up is a set by the Metal Chaos Ensemble, which while sharing some members with LoF, focuses on both typical and unusual percussion instruments. The rumble is augmented by stream of consciousness woodwind melodies that help to bind the whole event together. 

However, it is the Leap of Faith Orchestra that has cornered the market on the sounds of the subconscious. The orchestra, comprised of all the woodwinds, cello, and vast array of percussion instruments and beyond, creates a sound that is otherworldly and mesmerizing. Scrapes and clangs of metal, a hybrid cry of rooster and human, fill the opening sequence to Vol 2 with a palpable tension. 

The first 20 minutes is all texture and a diffused soundscape. However a culmination of chimes around the 10-minute mark seems to signal a new movement: the mood lightens, the clouds lift, and the pulse quickens. It takes a while for a somewhat anticipated buildup of the wind instruments to occur, but when it does, it's huge. Mixing with the chimes and splashes of sound from the metal, it's really quite moving when it reaches its zenith.

The orchestra is comprised of the core Leap of Faith quartet of cellist Glynis Lomon, drummer Yuri Zbitnov and saxophonist Steve Norton on saxophone, along with PEK, and the Metal Chaos Ensemble, which includes Andria Nicodemou, Matt Somalis, and Kevin Dacey on an incredible array of percussion instruments. How a LoF works is that there is typically three sets to a show: a guest artist, LoF and then a combined set. This is the combination of PEK’s two groups and was recorded live at a church in Somerville, MA in September 2015. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Anders Lønne Grønseth - Mini Macro Ensemble 2nd Edition Volume 1 (Pling Music, 2015) ****½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Norwegian composer-reeds player Anders Lønne Grønseth has developed a highly original compositional aesthetic for his Mini Macro Ensemble, called The Bitonal Scale System. Grønseth is inspired by his studies in the modal scale theories of Indian classical music and the maqam-scales system of the Near and Middle-East (and through his collaboration with Indian lap-steel guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya) in modern 20th music, most notably from works by Olivier Messiaen, Arnold Schönberg, and Béla Bartók and in improvisation over chords and chords sequences as played by jazz musicians and from his experience as the leader of the Sphinx quartet and duo work with its pianist David Arthur Skinner. As adventurous and cerebral as this innovative, genre-bending combination of sonorities and ideas may sound, it is actually transformed into an arresting, organic language that excels with an unassuming flow.

Grønseth compositions are beautifully performed by an octet that features reed and string instruments, Fender Rhodes, and the Indian tabla drums. This is the second, expanded edition of the Micro Macro Ensemble, following the self-titled debut (Pling Music, 2008) that featured Grønseth and pianist Morten Qvenild improvising over arrangements for a string quartet. The current ensemble began working together in 2011 and features, among others, keyboardist Anders Aarum, tuba player Martin Taxt (known from the experimental Microtub trio and his label, Sofa Music), and cellist Sigrun Eng (who plays in the Slagr trio). The ensemble plans to release another volume of its work this year.

The ten compositions offer a rich spectrum of colors and sonorities that blend naturally despite their different origins, without sounding too exotic or conceptual. Grønseth succeeds to balance all the elements and to find common, continuous veins between all. In the opening "Aureolin", the ethereal-sounding Indian bansuri flute of Hanne Rekdal introduces the fleeting theme, before the atmospheric-distorted Fender Rhodes of Aarum develops this vein, while the ensemble enjoys the light swinging pulse of versatile tabla player-percussionist Andreas Bratlie and bass player Audun Ellingsen, whose rhythmic power brings to mind the telepathic play of late multi-instrumentalist Colin Walcott and bass player Dave Holland (beautifully captured on Cloud Dance, ECM, 1979) . The spirit of the meditative opening part of the Indian raga, the alap, is given a fresh, impressionistic interpretation on “Orchid”, with moving clarinets solos by Grønseth and Morten Barrikmo. The mysterious “Auro Metal Saurus” suggests a complex, dark cinematic texture with an impressive tuba solo by Taxt that references the rhythmic role of this instrument in Henry Threadgill ensembles. This most beautiful album is concluded with the reserved, emotional “Malachite”, sounding like an untimely, universal hymn, embracing all sounds - melodic, airy and even some eerie ones.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tomeka Reid Quartet – s/t (Thirsty Ear, 2015) *****

By Tom Burris

Simply seeing the names of the musicians in this band made me do a double-take. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara, bassist Jason Roebke, guitarist Mary Halvorson are all in cellist Tomeka Reid's quartet?!? The various styles of these players coming together into one NYC-meets-Chicago supergroup works so well on paper it promises to be an absolute dream. But you know how supergroups turn out... Well screw your cynicism – and mine – because the debut recording from the Tomeka Reid Quartet is an absolute gem. Seriously, I have to pull back a little when writing about it or I'll be ending every other sentence with five exclamation points. Nobody wants to read that shit.

So what's so great about it? I'm going to list several reasons & try to contain myself.
  1. Like the music of Thelonious Monk, this music brings pure unadulterated joy into the world and makes the drudgery and gray awfulness of Midwestern life bearable. Thirty seconds into Dolphy's “17 West,” - the only non-Reid penned tune here - Reid and Halvorson are dueling, teasing, prodding.. “This is what you came to hear, right?” The clash is frenetic and joyously furious, setting the tone for everything to come. Even sullen, somber tracks like “Super Nova” sound like happy songs to me. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's got something to do with an acceptance of all of life, given the ideal balance of every nuance and note. Reid's vision is broad and all-encompassing. Every new sound is intuitively balanced by the introduction of its polar opposite. It is idealistic and inclusive. Who wouldn't want to inhabit this world?
  2. Mary Halvorson is the perfect foil for Reid; and never once does she steal the show. Mary's a rock star if jazz ever had one – ironically because she's the consummate team player. When she plays underneath Tomeka's gorgeous autumnal melody on “Etiole,” she combines the harmonic beauty of Jim Hall with precise rhythmic drops Keith Richards would envy. Subtle, original, and absolutely on point. Halvorson duels with Reid often, but it's playful and loose and elliptical. Sometimes, as on “Woodlawn,” the solos don't sound predetermined at all. They're simply part of a normal spontaneous conversation where two people start interrupting each other excitedly, then pull back and listen – or wait to talk, whichever option is more urgent at any particular time. Endlessly fascinating.
  3. Reid's compositions get stuck in your head – in the best way. The melodies are durable and smart. The sounds and influences are diverse as well, running from French cafe jazz to blues to a couple of pieces that sound a little like the otherworldly soundtracks Popol Vuh used to make for Herzog films. (Reid is no stranger to film music. She wrote and recorded a soundtrack to the 2014 documentary “Harry Who & The Chicago Imagists”.)
  4. Roebke and Fujiwara are a rock solid rhythm section who are also sensitive players. It's the balance thing again. It's the key to everything – and it starts here. If these two guys couldn't walk that line, none of this would work. They're kind of the unsung heroes of this disc, but that just proves how well they perform their jobs. Very rarely do these guys drop metered time, but when they do it's still perfectly balanced between pulse-time and impulse-time, and between themselves and the other two players.  
This was my pick for Album of the Year in 2015. It is the best debut album from a jazz quartet I've heard in a long, long time. It is seriously making winter bearable. Highest recommendation.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Nu Band (KSET, Zagreb, Croatia; 2/1/2016)

Photo by Martina Vuković

There aren’t that many groups in the constantly shuffling and rearranging world of jazz that manage to have relatively long and consistently creative careers. The Nu Band, with Joe Fonda on bass, Mark Whitecage on alto saxophone and clarinet, Lou Grassi on drums and Thomas Heberer on trumpet, is one such band. Almost fifteen years and seven records on, rising from the grief of losing the legendary trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr, they’re still here, doing their thing, and carrying all those indelible experiences collected through decades of taking part in free and modern jazz’s formative moments.

At first glance, The Nu Band’s mixture of styles might appear as a dated remnant of history, unpalatable to lovers of current, adventurous iterations of free jazz and improvised music. Yet, in reality and especially during live shows, the quartet comes across as an immortal and always fresh fragment of the past that has been reinvigorated with many characteristics of the contemporary and experimental sides of jazz collected along the way. The result is a style in which free jazz, bop, free improv, and experimental tendencies combine with that well-known activism and spiritual energy that fueled musicians like Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman. Sonically, they might remind the listener of younger outfits such as Mostly Other People Do the Killing. But while Moppa Elliott’s band often uses influences from the history of jazz as peculiar building blocks, these guys were actually there when these elements were being created. Because of that, their approach to jazz is inseparably tied to the origins and traditions of the genre and, as such, carries strong undertones of bop and melancholy lyricism.

Photo by Martina Vuković
All of this and more was obvious during their recent concert in Zagreb; from the disjointed, free bop start of “Seventh Heaven” right until the end of the groovy, handclap-eliciting closer “Listen to Dr. Cornel West.” Even if appearing a bit tired and possibly blue, The Nu Band played a very good concert that at times reached powerful, sincerely inspired heights. This spirit of joy in the music was especially obvious in Joe Fonda’s and Thomas Heberer’s performances. If Fonda often appeared to be a human conduit for all the elation and zest of politically and spiritually charged tunes (“Listen to Dr. Cornel West”), then Heberer injected considerable amounts of European improvisational and avant-garde schools of thought and his ICP Ensemble into the typically funky and groovy New York-scene pieces. In that regard, it was very interesting to hear how Heberer’s usually ascetic, angular, and freely improvised style relaxed and took shape around the significantly more metaphysical, danceable, and softer music. It’s difficult to find faults in the way that Heberer has been incorporated into the band, refreshing certain aspects of its sounds, while avoiding any temptations of mimicking or emulating the irreplaceable Mr. Campbell.

While The Nu Band’s presented repertoire was compositionally diverse, featuring tunes (predominantly from the latest two records) written by all band members, some patterns could be discerned. For one, the structures of each of the songs were carefully and strongly composed with a purpose to act as anchors around which the musicians were to roam freely. Thus the firm rhythmic and harmonic components became foundations for long group improvisations, whilst the themes and moods that they strolled around took on alternately joyful and calm, nostalgic tones. It’s a very enjoyable formula whose many qualities became especially obvious during Lou Grassi’s and Joe Fonda’s dynamic songs, punctuated with bursts of improvisational freedom, solo spots, and segments in which the players’ trajectories matched, bringing them into a swinging, bopping motion, but always under the shadows of bluesy notes. Somewhat expectedly, alongside Whitecage’s pieces like “Little Piece,” it’s Heberer’s compositions, such as the one dedicated to the memory of Roy Campbell Jr, that painted the bravest and most dissonant picture, appearing as improvised music trapped in a moment.

This was a concert that yet again underlined the beautiful dichotomy of The Nu Band’s music; strewn between calculated, minutely prepared music and the compelling, rather loose performance. A wonderful evening, even without the encore.

Photo by Martina Vuković

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Carlo Costa’s Acustica - Strata (Neither/Nor Records, 2015) ****

By Derek Stone

Carlo Costa is percussionist for the group Earth Tongues, whose album Rune was reviewed here by Stef. That recording is an exploration of sound, space, and the often tenuous threads that bind the two together.

Strata is a piece written by Costa, and it moves through similar territory. Performed by a thirteen-piece ensemble, it’s a transfixing combination of improvised elements and Costa’s own compositions. It is largely an exercise in egalitarianism and restraint; there is no tonal or rhythmic center, at least not for any extended amount of time. Costa’s purported intention with this piece was to “utilize layers of sound in different combinations ranging from spare single layers to densely stacked multiple layers while retaining a level of transparency throughout.” Thus, these layers comprise the sonic strata of Costa’s structure - a structure that mirrors geological phenomena in its smooth gradations, sudden shifts, and occasional displays of force. As far as I can tell, the piece has been segmented into five distinct sections, divided from one another by the sound of a ringing chime.

Section 1: In the first section, angular shards of melody arise from Todd Neufeld’s acoustic guitar, while flautist Kyungmi Lee summons a series of crystalline tones.

Section 2: The second section opens with spurts of air and hissing undercurrents; it almost sounds like the ensemble is being recorded in a field of bubbling geysers. The brass instruments (trumpet, trombone, and tuba) come together to produce an extended series of chords that are accentuated by the wide gaps between them. The pauses are pregnant and illustrate just how well this group makes use of space. Towards the end of this section, violist Miranda Sielaff bows out a sonorous and melancholic stream of notes that contrasts nicely with Todd Neufeld’s jagged productions.

Section 3:  The double basses, helmed by Sean Ali and Pascal Niggenkemper, produce a sustained moan, while pianist Jesse Stacken offers a simple, but cryptic, melody on the piano. On trombone, Ben Gerstein plays sparingly and reservedly, and Joe Moffett soon arrives with anomalous vocalizations through his trumpet. The flute and strings occasionally rise from the void, silky and ephemeral.

Section 4: The chime rings out, and bass clarinetist Jean-Brice Godet appears. Gradually, the other musicians insert themselves into the composition - Carlo Costa offers a rolling, slack rhythm, guitarist Todd Neufeld sends out a single, repeating chord, and the piano and horns are like leaves that have fallen to the surface of a stream, swept effortlessly along by the current beneath them. As this section progresses, Strata reaches a level of density that is unmatched by the half-hour that came before, with the strings tracing out a doleful lamentation and Costa increasing both the speed and complexity of his drumwork.

Section 5: Another chime. Now, the horns and reeds come together to generate a series of steely chords that are interspersed with bouts of silence. After the relatively opaque and crowded layers of the previous section, it’s doubly effective. Costa sweeps the cymbals, producing sibilant, metallic sheets of sound. Pianist Jesse Stacken returns with the motif that appeared in the third section, but he’s alone. There’s no soft pulse from Costa, no brassy peals, not even an airy exhalation from the reeds. The silence roiling behind his four notes is thick, complete, and intoxicatingly electric. When the final note has dissipated, it’s hard not to feel a sense of unease - largely because there’s no closure, no firm conclusion that wraps everything up and imbues it with a grand purpose. That’s not to say that Strata is hollow; it’s an enthralling work, and Carlo Costa clearly intended for it to be an expression of his own ideas about sound. Itis an exploration of the instruments’ various timbres and resonances, the way they interact in a closed space, and the effects that these interactions have on the ever-changing mood of the composition. With each listen, I come to appreciate Costa’s concept more and more, and I believe that it was executed near-flawlessly.

Carlo Costa’s website states that the ultimate result of the piece would be to create “the effect of a change of perspective in the aural space.” I think that Costa and the musicians involved were largely successful in doing so; listening to it is like occupying a palace of sound, in which the floors and staircases are constantly shifting, and doors that you intended to go through disappear, only to reappear in other places entirely. However, there is never a sense of chaos or turbulence - the movements here are glacial, deliberate, and frequently imperceptible. For a piece that utilizes thirteen musicians, it’s surprisingly minimalistic. The emotions and sensations that it conjures up, on the other hand, are immense.

Kyungmi Lee - flute, piccolo flute
Joe Moffett - trumpet
Ben Gerstein - trombone
Dan Peck - tuba
Jonathan Moritz - tenor and soprano saxophones
Nathaniel Morgan - alto saxophone
Jean-Brice Godet - clarinet, bass clarinet
Miranda Sielaff - viola
Todd Neufeld - acoustic guitar
Jesse Stacken - piano
Sean Ali - double bass
Pascal Niggenkemper - double bass
Carlo Costa - percussion

Saturday, February 13, 2016

SFS – The Ragging of Time (Bruce’s Fingers, 2015) ****

By Eric McDowell

What does it take, in 2016, to surprise listeners conditioned to the unpredictable riches of creative music? I’ll speak from recent personal experience: I started up one of Simon Fell’s latest releases and sat back while the audience applause came and went, at which point a few pick-up snare notes ushered in a kind of Dixieland swing. Fair enough, I thought, tapping along relatively unfazed—until just a few seconds later everything cut out mid-phrase. I was checking my headphones for an interrupted connection when I began to hear faint breathy noises and soft bowing. Before I knew it, the Dixieland melody was back, only to disappear literally five seconds later, replaced this time by a more confrontational brand of free improvisation, barbed with brittle guitar and disparate percussion. Hardly was the first minute over when the swing surfaced once again…

The Ragging of Time was commissioned by the Marsden Jazz Festival and recorded there in 2014. According to John Quail’s liner notes, the Festival wanted a composition that would help “restore the birthright of early jazz to make those traditional sounds new, to make them shocking, to make them the ‘Devil’s music’ as it was once before.” While “shock” may be an extreme term to apply to the double-take episode described above, the effect may be analogous to Nate Wooley’s recent and more personal homage to traditionalist champion Wynton Marsalis, where in a certain simple sense reversion becomes advancement. But like Wooley, Fell avoids the potential traps—irony, gimmick—laid for him by his ambitious project.

In an essay on Joe Harriott, Bernie McGann, and “Ornettocentrism,” John Corbett criticizes the reductively linear dominant narratives of the jazz tradition, arguing that “the real stuff of jazz” is both “recursive, looking deep back into its past, and futuristic, skipping ahead several steps on the time line.” The disarming leaps in the first moments of The Ragging of Time exemplify, almost in caricature, this sense of nonlinearity (what Joe Morris terms an “ontological perspective”). Rather than a Disneyland tour of “jazz through the ages,” we get multi-directional collision, juxtaposition, and montage: a more accurate representation of the complex ways in which influence actually functions—and thus the ways in which jazz history is actually experienced, interpreted, and carried forward by musicians. But neither does Fell slip into a simple binary pattern, overemphasizing the contrast between the extremes of early jazz and contemporary improvisation. Instead, across three long sections, he explores a wide range of styles and references—Dolphy, Lovano, and Webern are mentioned on the label site—sometimes butting them up against each other, sometimes superimposing one over another, sometimes inhabiting the gray areas in between.

Of course, the audience isn’t clapping at the idea alone. Even an interesting concept like this has limited value without skillful and inventive musicians to realize it. For The Ragging of Time, Fell assembled a strong sextet responsible for many highlights beyond those first few moments: Percy Pursglove on trumpet, Alex Ward on clarinet, Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet, Richard Comte on guitar, Paul Hession on drums, and Fell himself on double bass. Later in the twenty-three minute first track, “Lebam Lebam (Un Cauchemar),” after some equally lyrical and textural trumpet playing from Pursglove, Ward takes a wonderful solo over a swing section, pushing the traditional idiom to its limits. In “Unstable Cylindrical Cycle” Comte turns up to crash an ongoing moderate 6/8 rhythm pattern; there’s great fun and tension in hearing one era, one sensibility, overlaying another. A little deeper in the same track, Fell, Hutchings, and Ward improvise an absorbing meditative passage. And “The Human Omelette (1926),” the final track, begins with more impressive group improvisation before soaring off into uptempo swing—which suddenly stops, resumes after a while, and then cuts out again… But if you think you’ve got the picture, go listen to the music itself and see for yourself what all the applause is about.