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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Jemeel Moondoc & Hilliard Greene - Cosmic Nickelodeon (Relative Pitch, 2016) ***½

By Joel Barela

Jemeel Moondoc's The Zookeeper's House was a stunner - a 5-star record on this site in 2014 and, by most accounts, a verifiable masterstroke. Contemplative in moments, it also spent a fair amount of time a-roar. Hilliard Greene knows. He was there; played bass on the record and afterward, he and Moondoc decided to work in duo on a more intimate affair. Cosmic Nickelodeon is that eccentric dilation.

'Blues for Katie' opens with Greene's simple figures and simpler variations allowing Moondoc space to breathe. No pyrotechnics in his blues, this is straight soul, almost dipping into a sound like southern gospel. It's a lovely opener and one that Moondoc lends to Greene for a quick solo with a few snapped strings before he closes the spiritual.

'Spiritual Melody (Swing Low, Deep River, Wade In the Water)' carries the gospel sound a bit further - no surprise, given the title. This is a more isolated, more introspective piece. Greene sustains an arco of simple but staggering beauty. This is a deliberate, ponderous, passionate "solo." Overdubs are evident, but they also belong to Greene. Moondoc rolls out of the gate on 'The Founding of the Lost World' with quick figures. Greene's nimble plucks follow in odd, irregular phrases. On 'Hi-Lo', Moondoc's solemn blasts mirror the plod of Greene's somber arco. The bassist's shift to pizzicato eventually becomes an insistence on a more chittering dialogue. Moondoc complies with some of the album's strongest and most brisk phrases. In the end though - and, again, in the spirit of the record in total - the duo returns to hash out its initial contemplation.

We aren't long to wait for Greene's arco to return, as it begins 'Here Now Gone Now' in the same somber clip; though it ultimately leads to playing more joyous - even rapturous in moments. Greene saws away in spurts and cements the fact that while Moondoc is perhaps the bigger "star" - and is, of course, brilliantly named - this is the bassist's record. Pizz furthers said assertion, a pizzicato solo to match Greene's earlier exploits in arco. Unlike the earlier spiritual however, Pizz is all stomp and swagger. The bassist spends most of the 11+ minute title track walking all over the given space. The simplicity of his runs on this closing song sets Moondoc aloft for some of his most bizarre and wonderful figures (borrowing liberally from giants like Coleman).

This isn't the titan that The Zookeeper's House was, but what did we expect? Sometimes masterstrokes are clumped; sometimes they're followed by a more ponderous conversation, an examining of the moment as it was. Compared to Zookeeper's House, this conversation's like smoke: not as threatening initially as the more obvious fire, but eventually, it fills the room.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Julie Kjær 3 - Dobbeltgæenger (Clean Feed, 2016) ****½

The discography of Danish, London-based alto sax player Julie Kjær is unfortunately quite slim. Her last solo album with her Danish Kvartet was released seven years ago (Baglæns Ind I Det Forkerte Rum, Gateway, 2009). She collaborated with the all-women chamber jazz Pierette Ensemble (Akrostik, Gateway, 2014) and in a yet-to-be-recorded free-improvising trio of tenor sax player Rachel Musson and cellist Hannah Marshall, Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit (2015 and Ana, PNL, 2016) and the London Improvisers Orchestra.

Dobbeltgæenger is the album that can mark Kjær as a sax hero to reckon with. Her trio feature one of the greatest rhythm sections around, the free-improv veterans double bass player John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble, whose list of collaborations with sax players only encompasses legends as Peter Brötzmann, Joe McPhee, Evan Parker, Alan Wilkinson and Lol Coxhill. Kjær 3 was recorded at the Vortex club in London on January 2015.

Kjær has a distinct sound of her own, edgy and opinionated, full of intense energy, often extended with her breathing techniques. For this recording, she wrote five pieces and the other is a trio improvisation. All the pieces suggest a wise and nuanced approach, matching sounds with rhythm. The opening piece, “Out of Sight”, is a masterful demonstration of fast-shifting rhythmic dynamics, from a playful pulse to abstract and subtle free-improvised segments, without losing the focused interplay. “Face” and “Dear Mr. Bee” offer an even tighter rhythmic form, cemented by Edwards' exemplary driving role, played on the bow on the latter. Both pieces enable Kjær and Noble to elaborate on the rhythm with surprising and arresting ideas. “Alto Madness” highlights Kjær's inventive and commanding play of extended breathing techniques which are transformed into a playful, humorous chase between all three musicians. The trio free-improvisation “Pleasantly Troubled” suggests a more restrained and contemplative spirit, where they construct and deconstruct the tension patiently and yet still with great rhythmic focus. The last title-piece (in Nordic mythology dobbeltgæenger is a ghostly double who precedes a living person and is seen performing their actions in advance) is the most open-ended piece, stressing the highly personal and always searching vocabulary of these three gifted musicians and their immediate interplay, wisely sketching a moving texture that attaches more colors and nuances.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sarah Bernstein Quartet – Still/Free (Leo Records, 2016) ****

By Eric McDowell

There’s something bold in the first part of Still/Free, violinist Sarah Bernstein’s debut quartet album, released earlier this year by Leo Records. This boldness isn’t arrived at by the more common and obvious method of all-out technical bombast but rather by sustained quiet control and a sense of patience bespeaking true confidence. That is to say, if the eponymous opener introduces an introspective world of unhurried arpeggios, rich hesitations, and gradual repetition, it is not out of timidity but out of masterful restraint.

In following this first track with a second quiet meditation (“Paper Eyes,” a ballad), Bernstein ups the ante, challenging listeners to stick with her while she puts off showcasing dynamic range to continue building a relatively “still” atmosphere. Of course with such a stellar group of musicians at her disposal—Kris Davis on piano, Stuart Popejoy on electric bass, and Ches Smith on drums—this is no real risk on Bernstein’s part, or chore on the listener’s. Bernstein herself as leader and composer gets much of the spotlight throughout the album, but not an inordinate amount—as expected, any of Kris Davis’s solo is worthy of highlight-status. And it’s to the rhythm section’s credit that they understand when to hang back, playing for the tune and in support of their band mates.

None of which is to suggest that the quartet as a whole doesn’t know how and when to show off its full capacity. After a head in the style of “Syeeda’s Song Flute,” “Cede” sets off on some compelling uptempo swing; where Bernstein’s solo makes thoughtful use of space, Davis’s grows by degrees, bringing Smith along with her cymbal crashes and rim shots and all. Popejoy takes a fluid and lyrical solo to lead the tune into a final rollicking pass over the theme. Track five, “4=,” begins with a repetitive gesture that loosens into a passage of group improvisation showcasing not only Bernstein and Davis’s individual talents but also their impressive interplay. But this is only the beginning: after four minutes, the quartet comes together for a kinked melody, which in turn sets up a more traditional series of solos over a funky ostinato/groove. In the predictable but effective pattern, Bernstein solos, then Davis—but Smith’s follow-up turn is a special treat, more musical than technical but still affording a welcome opportunity to catch the drummer’s chops in action.

If “4=” isn’t the album’s centerpiece, the 10-minute “Jazz Camp” may be. This piece combines all the best elements of the others—solos from Bernstein, Davis, and Smith; sensitive interaction between everyone; and incessant, hypnotic repetition. But even in this penultimate track Bernstein introduces new elements: eerily processed violin drones to haunt the tight 5/4 ostinato, as well as snippets of poetry radioed in during planned pauses. Still/Free has traveled a great distance from its opening meditations, but it’s not quite done: “Wind Chime,” with its gentle storm of pizzicato violin, tinkling piano, and blustery cymbals, provides the album a beautiful closing note.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Akira Sakata/Giovanni Di Domenico/Roger Turner/John Edwards - 15.01.14 (OTOROKU, 2016) ****½

By Joel Barela

Drone. String scratch.  Sax.  Eruptive drums.  Di Domenico finally lays his hands on the keys.  Two minutes in to the near-39-minute track, some semblance of ensemble play emerges - emphasis on the some.  Di Domenico bleeds his keys, drop-by-arpeggiated-drop.  Sakata's phrases are fierce and declarative; as always, his improvising is wild, his stretched notes wretched and beautiful at once. Just past five minutes, Sakata's repetitive phrases prompt a sustained kick and arco-on-repeat from the rhythm section while Di Domenico's hands cascade down the keys before pouring on a series of block chords.  Sakata continues to be Sakata; the best part: so does everyone else.  Which is to say that while the mad saxophonist has earned the right to stomp over songs exactly when and exactly how he pleases, it isn't always a given that his bands will do the same.  Here, they do.

I've written enough "this isn't jazz" or "isn't necessarily jazz" or "isn't free jazz" in my recent reviews to delight in writing now that this is absolutely FREE jazz. Seven-and-a-half minutes into Kaigara-Bushi - based on a traditional folk song - there has yet to be a clearly defined solo.  Everyone on stage seems game to play anything they wish all at once.  And, awesomely, it works.

A minute later, Di Domenico gets a drum rumble with cymbal hits like knife slashes, a power-walked bass turned arco pulls to match the cymbal hits and no Sakata. He uses the space to cut the demented rhythm sound with the highest of treble drops. But it's fleeting, as Sakata returns a minute later to twist the bones of the song into something ponderous and murderous at once.  At the 10:30 mark, Di Domenico takes the piece into something comparatively meditative, though Sakata's alto antagonizes in steady complaints and Turner is all too willing to follow the bandleader in cranked dynamic runs.

Two minutes later, all gives to a drumroll.  Then a single left-handed piano chord.  Scratched notes; then: Sakata.  But not on reeds.  He coughs.  Then growls.  Wretches and shrieks, and then growls a scat. The band responds to this call, then cedes the floor to his grunts and mumbled vowels.  He blows a few notes, screams a bit, then interprets his own vocal eruptions on his "main" instrument. Oddly enough, his screamed nonsense leads Sakata into his most melodic and lyrical improvising to this point.  It reminds of Coltrane at Temple University; but Sakata's done this before - notably, on last year's Flying Basket.  Its closest relative stylistically might be Tristan Honsinger's growled phrases on last year's incredible Henry Crabapple Disappear by In the Sea.

From here, the playing becomes much more contemplative.  It doesn't slow so much as stretch to near-silence between combustible phrases.  Turner taps and Di Domenico plays elastic plinks that seem like nighttime reflections, simultaneously sincere and unsure of themselves.  They're lovely, and potentially dangerous.  At 25:30, Sakata shakes his bells at Di Domenico's ponderings.  The procession, initially a hellcart of sorts, becomes something more dreamlike, even saccharine.  Hardly a bad thing; in fact, it's a nice respite before Sakata soils the finery with a nocturne-on-psychedelics moan.  Later, Sakata erupts in growled phrases once more, followed by two bass plucks, two cymbal crashes and some left-hand menace.  Sakata growls again, then screeches the whole piece to silence before raising his reeds again.

What to do after a 39-minute opener of such high theatrics? Instead of coffee & cigarettes, the band goes full street brawl with a four-and-a-half minute fire jam appropriately called Tornado.

In case it isn't obvious, Sakata-san is a musician whose product seems uniquely suited to my twisted sonic preferences.  As the initial piece in the set slides into its final melodic musings, we see clearly the dynamic gap and perfect fit Di Domenico's classical style is for Sakata's wildness.  I have never set foot in Cafe OTO (an issue of location, not choice), but I really wish I'd been there on this night. And I love how the simplicity of the album's title vibes perfectly with Sakata's prevailing aesthetics. His unhinged improvisations and manic vocal manipulations seem foreign and exotic and maddening to so many, but for Sakata, it's just another date, another gig, another day in the life.  Awesome.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Dikeman, Hadow, Lisle, Serries, Verhoeven, Vincente and Webster: Hard-working and Free

By Eyal Hareuveni

It is always interesting to discover how different schools of free improvisation adapt to each other and redefine this loose, inclusive art.  Amsterdam-based American sax player John Dikeman's free improvisations are rooted in the legacy of the fiery American free jazz and the volcanic aesthetics of European sax players as Brötzmann; British sax player Colin Webster and drummer Andrew Lisle are coming from a more distinct European school of free improvisation, while Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries has gravitated in recent years from being a master sculptor of power drones to a daring improviser who injects elements of metal and ambient into his free-associative settings.

All are prolific musicians, performing, and recording non-stop and keep collaborating with each other in different, changing formats. Dikeman and Serries collaborated on Live at  Le Vecteur Charleroi (Belgium 10/28/2014), as a duo on Cult Exposure (A New Wave of Jazz, 2014 and 2015) and again on Obscure Fluctuations (Trost, 2015) ; Serries and Webster collaborated on Cinepalace (A New Wave of Jazz, 2015); Webster and Lisle keep playing together in different formats and recently released the duo recording Firehouse Tapes on Webster’s Raw Tonk label.

The three new releases of these hard-working musicians offer arresting strategies of collaborative free improvisation.  

John Dikeman/ Andrew Lisle / Dirk Serries / Colin Webster - Apparitions (A New Wave of Jazz, 2016) ***½

The quartet of Dikeman, Webster, Lisle and Serries recorded last year a live album, Live at Café OTO, capturing the quartet performance from April 1st, 2015 (Raw Tonk, 2015). Apparitions was recorded a day later at the Sound Savers studio in London, and released as A New Wave of Jazz limited-edition double-vinyl (only 240 copies, no download version!).

Apparitions, unlike the volatile spirit of Live at Café OTO, stresses a different approach for this set of four collaborative free improvisations. Here the four musicians explore a kind of a slow-cooking interplay, a calm and conversational one. Apparitions begins and ends with the minimalist “I” and “IV”, where all restrain their playing to low whispers, skeletal guitar lines and brushing of the cymbals, building the tension tension patiently and methodically until reaching a brief and fierce climaxes. “II” and “III” up the temperature and emphasize an immediate and edgy free-associative interplay.  Serries acts as the backbone of the quartet, sculpting their course with commanding metallic-resonating, economic lines that offer a thematic bridge between the restless sax outbursts of Dikeman and Webster and the sparse and fractured pulse of Lisle.   

Kodian Trio - I (A New Wave of Jazz, 2016) ****

Lisle, Serries and Webster reconvened again in October 2015 for another studio recording at the same studio in London, now calling themselves the Kodian Trio. This trio is supposed to be a working group and is already touring the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Again I is a limited-edition vinyl (240 copies with a download price of €500).

The interplay on Kodian Trio debut is much more energetic and experimental than the one explored on Apparitions. Serries and Webster alternate the leading roles, both sounding aggressive and assertive. Serries explores noisy feedback and metallic percussive terrains. Webster attacks and explodes, employing extended breathing techniques blended with dense, fast crys. Lisle avoids the abstract, fractured drumming and colors the improvised texture with inventive, fast-shifting dynamics. All three sound as pushing the sonic envelope to its extreme edges in each of the five improvised pieces.

The last two pieces, “VII” and “III”, are the most focused one. On the first one Webster flirts with a jazzy, Balkan-tinged theme while the latter develops almost like an Indian raga. Beginning with a slow and contemplative introduction of the theme, dispersed into an abstract, searching texture and then gels into a cathartic interplay, where the rough, metallic strumming of Serries collides with the fast sax shouts of Webster and the forceful drumming of Lisle.  

John Dikeman / George Hadow / Dirk Serries / Martina Verhoeven / Luís Vicente - Live at Zaal 100 (Nachtstück Records, 2016) ****

This ad-hoc quintet convened on February 2016 in Anderlecht for a studio recording and later played at the Zaal 100 club in Amsterdam, releasing this live recording as name-your-price, download-only album, donating all profits to Unicef.  Dikeman plays here the tenor sax, Portuguese Luís Vicente plays the trumpet (both Dikeman and Vicente collaborate also in the Twenty One 4tet that its debut album on Clean Feed was recorded in the same venue), Serries the electric guitar and his partner Martina Verhoeven on the double bass and British, Amsterdam-based George Hadow plays the drums.

The untitled 40-minute piece begins as an urgent and explosive free jazz meeting. The charismatic Dikeman and Vicente take the lead and exchange fleeting ideas, pushed by the driving pulse of Hadow. Still, there is enough enough room for Serries and Verhoeven to shift this energetic interplay of the quintet into a more, nuanced and multi-layered searching mode. Eventually all five musicians gravitate patiently again into a tight and immediate interplay. Dikeman and Vicente still lead, but now Serries and Verhoeven alter the rhythmic basis into a restrained and minimalist drone texture that balance the eruptions of Dikeman and Vicente.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Erik Platz - Life after Life (Allos Documents, 2016) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Erik Platz's debut disc,  Life After Life is an atmospheric outing made from a unique pairing of instruments. With the help of James Falzone (clarinet), Leanne Zacharias (cello), and Don Benedictson (bass), percussionist and composer Platz takes the time to develop an environment for the group to take his compositions on an inward journey. Throughout, a thoughtfulness permeates the album. 

An evolving theme entitled 'Life after Life' appears interspersed between the album tracks. It's a short melodic phrase that keys the listener into its arrival (if you're not looking at your playlist, of course) and acts as a sort of touchstone. Falzone's rich tone on the clarinet really shines throughout the recording, his piercing tone balanced by the deep textures of the cello and bass. This pairing of strings lends a lovely dark hue to everything - especially in the klezmer-like melodies that are spun in 'Seeds of Life'.

Of the other tracks, 'Blood Meridian' is a standout - it's a complex and layered cycle of ideas with short melodic snippets that grow, often reaching a peak, then dissolving, connecting loosely to the next idea via textural percussion passages. These sound fragments and ideas come together in an unusually intriguing sequence of events.  The closer, 'Marrakech Highline', while nicely constructed and based on repetitive patterns and very gentle tones, is perhaps a little too gentle for my ears. However, that is a tiny complaint about this nicely conceived and constructed recording.

Check out 'Seeds of Life" from Life After Life here, it's a captivating and slightly mysterious tune that is worth spending some time getting to know:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

David Murray, Lester Bowie, John Lindberg, et al. – From New York (jazzwerkstatt, 2015) ***½ (****½)

By Troy Dostert

Here we have a three-CD set released by the good folks at jazzwerkstatt, one of the less-visible labels dedicated to keeping creative jazz and improvised music alive in these precarious times.  If it weren’t for jazzwerkstatt, it’s possible that iconic records like Charles Gayle/Rashied Ali/William Parker’s Touchin’ on Trane would still be out of print, which would truly be a loss.  And they’re also releasing a number of vital and important contemporary recordings, such as Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa.  So I feel a bit churlish in faulting them too much for their  shortcomings.  But even so, some of their decisions do seem very perplexing, such as this particular release.  Most of the music here is top-shelf creative jazz, so in that respect, I have little to quibble with.  But why these three discs, all of which have already been previously released by the label, are joined together here is beyond me.

The set is called “From New York,” or perhaps “New York Box, Vol. 1” – I’m not entirely sure of the definitive title.  But in any event, one might assume that all of the music here was probably recorded in New York City.  Well, no, that’s not the case, as the third disc, which features two groups with the great Lester Bowie, consists mostly of music that was performed at a concert in Berlin.  So maybe it’s because all the artists here have a strong New York connection?  Not exactly.  While that may be largely true of David Murray and John Lindberg, you can’t really make that claim for Bowie, for whom Chicago was typically home base due to his leadership of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and his involvement within the AACM generally.  True, the personnel on these records overlap somewhat: Bowie plays on disc one, Murray’s Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, and drummer Philip Wilson plays on both Murray’s and Bowie’s discs.  But that still doesn’t explain the decision to package these discs as having some kind of distinctive New York tie-in.  And the eras represented here are also very different: Murray’s and Bowie’s recordings date from the late 70s-early 80s period of some of the most important music coming out of the loft-jazz and Chicago scenes, while Lindberg’s is much more recent, from 2010.  Oh well.  I can’t make any more sense of it at this point.  But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

The music itself is great—especially Murray’s disc and disc two, John Lindberg’s Live at Roulette.  Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club is one of the earliest documentations of Murray’s recorded legacy, so it doesn’t have quite the swagger and sheer dominance on the tenor that he would eventually develop more convincingly later in his career.  But the adventurous, spirited, soulful sound he’s always been known for is there in huge quantities, and it’s clear the band is having a lot of fun at this gig.  Bowie does take a while to get going—his solo on the opener, “Nevada’s Theme,” stumbles around a bit at times—but the two horns generally have excellent energy throughout the set, their shared just-off-center disposition giving the material both rawness and accessibility.  And the rhythm section, featuring Wilson and bass legend Fred Hopkins, is simply outstanding: fully in sync from the get-go, yet amazingly fluid and malleable in their rapport.  It’s no wonder that Murray worked so often with Hopkins in his groups over the years: the nimble musicality of his playing is joyous to behold.

Of the three discs, Lindberg’s (A)Live at Roulette was the real revelation for me.  I’ve long admired Lindberg’s prodigious bass technique, but here it’s truly sensational.  Listening to his arco work on “One for Ayler” or “Send Off”  is stunning.  But all his playing here is exceptional; the disciplined command he displays on the instrument is one thing he has in common with Hopkins, although their styles are very different.  Don Davis is also terrific on soprano/alto sax and bass clarinet, and Kevin Norton’s contributions on drums and vibes are superb.  All in all, six extremely tight and focused post-bop tracks, including “MC5,” a rousing tribute to the Detroit rock legends: listening to Lindberg’s electronically-distorted bass onslaught is another ear-opening experience.

Disc three, which consists of Bowie’s The Great Pretender and Steel + Breath, isn’t quite up to the level of the other discs, although there are certainly some inspired moments, especially on the opening cut, “Mother’s Mode and Peace,” a 24-minute free/modal performance of depth and power, with some fantastic over-the-top playing from Ari Brown in particular.  But much of the rest of the Great Pretender is fairly straightforward gospel music, and while it’s effective and well-played, and even stirring at times in its intensity, it’s not of particular value for its improvisational prowess.  Other tracks are enjoyable enough, such as the calypso-infused “Tobago, Tobago,” but aren’t especially noteworthy.  The Steel + Breath, tracks, the last three on the disc, are Bowie’s trio with Philip Wilson and William Parker.  The music is very good, with the second track, the freely-improvised “Philadelphia,” revealing Bowie in a particularly fiery mood--but the three tracks seem to be more of an add-on afterthought at just a little over twenty minutes total.

Since all of these discs are available separately from jazzwerkstatt, and there doesn’t seem to be any special-pricing incentive to buy the set, it’s hard to recommend the box as a whole as offering anything of value beyond the individual recordings themselves.  That, combined with the puzzling packaging, requires me to deduct a star from my review.  But since so much of the music here is exceptionally good, and worth owning, I’d prefer to end on a positive note by celebrating the vision and spirit that these recordings do offer in abundance.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

David Ades - A Life In A Day (Lionshare, 2015) ****½

By Derek Stone

A Life In A Day was recorded on September 18, 2013. Three weeks later, alto saxophonist David Ades passed away, a victim to the lung cancer that he had been battling for nearly two years. Ades undoubtedly knew that any day could be his last, but he never allowed that knowledge to subdue him, to crush his spirits or pinch the glorious flow of notes that he’d been unleashing since he was 18. Recorded with saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, A Life In A Day is a testament to the transformative power of music - no, it might not be able to rid the body of disease or pluck us from the arduous situations in which we find ourselves, but it can lighten the load, lift us up, and give us hope. When listening to this recording, it’s clear that Ades dedicated himself to harnessing that power. During this session (as on uncountable others), he poured his heart and soul into his saxophone. Two years later, we’ve finally been given the chance to hear the wondrous sounds that were created that day.

The first time this group got together, we were given A Glorious Uncertainty. That album was an exuberant display of the tight rapport between the four players, but its title is perhaps even more apt for A Life In A Day. While the pieces on A Glorious Uncertainty could occasionally veer into boisterous, hard-driving territory, this album is relatively understated. The uncertainty here is in greater abundance - there’s an exploratory mood that manifests itself in gentler, more expressive playing. In other words, the tempest has been turned inwards, resulting in tunes that are more introspective. A lot of that is due to Cleaver: on the last effort, he roared out of the gate with rhythms that approximated rock in both tempo and style. Here, he tends to give more space to the two saxophonists, encircling their figures and melodies lightly, rolling along the outskirts. His percussion work has gotten more subtle, and it’s all the more effective for that reason.

The first piece, “Slow Song,” illustrates this more subdued approach perfectly: it begins with the Ades’ lilting, earnest melodies, the soft skittering of Cleaver, and Helias’ esoteric constructions (reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison’s work in Coltrane’s last quartet). Malaby stays out of the picture for the vast majority of the track, giving Ades time to engage in a fervid soliloquy. “Bark” is the first chance they have to truly stretch out and enjoy each other’s company, and it’s absolutely gorgeous - on the alto, Ades frequently swoops upwards to the higher registers, but he never abandons his warm, expressive tone. When listening to the labyrinthine webs that are often spun in improvisational jazz, I like to visualize, to picture the shapes being made. Taken with Malaby’s sonorous, more languid lines, the resulting image of these two players is that of a dalliance between birds. Perhaps Whitman can explain it better than I:

The rushing amorous contact high in space together,
The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,
Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,
In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling...

On “Removab,” everyone picks up the pace: Helias provides urgent, elastic bass-work, Cleaver pushes things forward with his quietly insistent rhythms, and the two saxophonists (particularly Malaby) reach for the stratosphere. Malaby opts for the soprano sax here, and the switch seems to thaw any inhibitions he might have; he’s never stuffy, but in this piece he’s downright irrepressible, overblowing, squeaking, honking, and generally squeezing every note out of his instrument like a thirsty man would squeeze water from a cactus.

A quick word on Mark Helias: he’s the heartbeat of this group. While Cleaver delimits the compositions and provides them with steady, electrical pulses, Helias pumps the blood. Malaby and Ades spend a great deal of time attempting to escape orbit, so his presence is doubly appreciated - he makes sure that the melodies’ muscles are still flexing, and his throbbing bass-lines are the roots that keep the whole affair grounded and stable (side note: the fact that I need to use mixed metaphors to describe this group is proof of how hard they are to pin down). Hear: “Blahh,” in which Helias’ strong, sinewy notes tumble over one another in a ceaseless march. I shudder to imagine him replaced with a more sluggish, sedate bassist - the others players would undoubtedly suffer for it. Helias is not always locked into the same routine, however. On “Arco and Alto,” he switches to (you guessed it) arco while Ades mans the (yep) alto. The title is a bit misleading, because Malaby pops up too, playing soprano. Without Cleaver, there’s a definite change-of-pace, a looser and more abstract feeling, but that haziness eventually resolves itself - Helias goes back to pizzicato, and the track comes to resemble the others more closely.

A Life In A Day is a group effort, of course, but you’d be excused for taking it as primarily a showcase of the unbridled energy and skill of the two saxophonists. That’s not to downplay the contributions of Helias and Cleaver -  these compositions would be incomplete without them - but it’s simply to point out just how incredible Ades and Malaby sound together. Even more incredible is the fact that, in these sessions, Ades was playing beneath the weight of his disease, beneath the weight of the knowledge that it could be his last-ever recording. When listening to these pieces, it certainly doesn’t sound that way. He sounds light as a feather. I suppose that’s the most important message to be gleaned from this album - that even the threat of non-existence can’t quell the joy and sense of freedom that music provides. In Ades’ spiralling streams of notes, you can truly hear a life. As the album’s title suggests, these sounds were performed and recorded in the span of a single day. However, it’s safe to say that that they will echo for much, much longer.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Uli Kempendorff's Field - Heal the Rich (Why Play Jazz, 2016) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Saxophonist Uli Kempendorff's quartet Field is guitarist Ronny Graupe, drummer Oliver Steidle, and bassist Jonas Westergaard. Their music is a great example of the vibrant and highly syncopated blend of modern bop/free jazz that seems to be pouring out of Berlin as of late (I'm thinking of groups like Die Enttäuschung and Soko Steidle).

The group acts as a tight cohesive unit on Heal the Rich and their taught interplay propels them along as they jump right into the fast-paced opener 'Dreiturwaltz'. It's an electric buzzing - charged particles of sound reacting to each other, intensifying at each contact - the guitar and sax breaking out into musical fistfights and the whole group ablaze. The follow up 'Aggressively Loving It' begins, somewhat ironically, with a subdued melodic line from Kempendorff, shadowed by Graupe. A quick push by the drums and the pulse quickens. The often understated guitar playing provides crisp and focused comping and the sax responds in kind. The abstract "Sehr Nüchtern" ('very sober'), introduces a more atmospheric vibe, as it advances like a curious dream. Percussion and off-beat tones create a soundscape that eventually coalesce into a rhythmically complex melody.

Throughout, the group's lightning quick interactions and reactions keeps the music flowing and exciting. The comfort and ease the members of Field have playing together is a treat to hear.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MMM Quartet – Oakland/Lisboa (RogueArt, 2015) ****½

By JA Besche

Jazz is probably the most scrutinized music in the world.  Not necessarily by the media or public at large, but one would be hard-pressed to find the same level of debate within the fans, players, and historians of another genre, mostly asking the metaphysical question of “what is jazz?”.  This has to do with many factors, mostly how jazz originated as a truly American, truly black art form that came out of the bonds of slavery, and how far it has come since then, how it has branched out musically, and how it has been consumed and reinterpreted across cultures and social classes since that time.  Adding to this is the serious nature in which fans and players analyze the concept and technique behind a recording, which, if not more profound, is definitely more esoteric than most genres of music.  Even within free jazz, we have certain (false) dichotomies that have been created since the likes of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler birthed the concept.  Typically this has to do with the impetus behind free jazz, which in its infancy was mostly a response to the restrictions and staleness of post-bop paradigms, but in equal measure the rejection of the status quo of society, black empowerment, and cultural revolution through the freedom of expression.  On the other end of the dichotomy is what is commonly called European creative music, which some have taken as a sort of cultural appropriation, or at least less genuine than the free jazz being played in New York lofts during the 1960’s.  There is also the idea of the “white hanger-on” being less talented, more content to skonk and screech with no purpose or ethos, making wanky, long jam sessions that do nothing but satisfy their own neurosis.  As I implied before, I find this to be a false dichotomy and in reality the people who argue along these lines aren’t really serving any purpose for anyone except to satisfy their own egos (in my opinion), especially some 50-60 years after the fact.  Jazz has not died and it probably never will while music is still being made, at least in spirit and in the development of improvisation techniques.  Everyone is entitled to their personal opinions about certain music, but to write it off for some perceived lack of authenticity because it’s been analyzed too narrowly is not helping anything.

As I had recently read an op-ed dismissing the genre of free improv as generally talentless “white hanger-on music” (whereas third stream was the writer’s chosen authentic form of looser improvisation), these and other thoughts popped into my head as I listened to this album, which is quite comfortably in the free improv column.  This is probably the one (nebulously defined) genre that receives most of the criticisms I’ve described above.  Sometimes records in this vein take themselves so seriously that they come off as almost laughable in their pretense, others are so cheeky in their approach that they make the listener feel like the butt of a joke, and others still are just a woman playing “tenor balloon” (I love you Judy Dunaway!).  It’s often the kind of stuff that has detractors of the genre painting its musicians and fans as taking themselves way too seriously, but those who follow the genre know that there are incredible displays of musicianship and passion to be found on many recordings.

So, I had these thoughts swimming around in my head as I sat and listened to MMM Quartet’s album Oakland/Lisboa from Rogue Art records.  I can’t say that I like all free improvisation, or that it sometimes doesn’t feel like a huge exercise in pretense, but this is not the album for that.  This is a barrel load of talent, passion, technique, and most importantly FREEDOM.  I think that the creative music that spawned from free jazz was the natural progression, and that while the original free jazz that spawned in America is incredible and life- affirming in so many ways, it’s not something people should try to mimic ad infinium, which would obviously be against the spirit of free jazz in the first place.  Our need to define and categorize things can sometimes obfuscate the simple beauty of those things we take for granted because they don’t fit neatly into a specific box. 

I’ve already gone on too long of a rant without saying enough about this album, but its all here.  Yes, the band is irreverent (MMM stands for MillsMusicMafia, obviously tongue-in-cheek), but the music is as serious as it gets without being self-important.  You have, in my opinion; four of the best musicians in the world in this genre, who together have an incredible understanding of each other’s playing.  For a live free improv performance you would think that this had been expertly mapped out beforehand.  Leandre seems to know exactly when to pluck her strings or when to saw right into your head with her heavily bowed double bass.  Fred Frith is the best non-traditional guitarist ever, I assume.  On this record, he makes just the sound of plugging in an electric guitar (leaving the cord touching the input but not quite fully plugged in, creating a droning electronic squelch) sound like art.  It sounds like something anyone could do to the untrained (like those parents who think their kids can paint as well as Picasso or Pollack), but it’s about knowing the players around him, understanding space and timing; it’s not easy yet he pulls it off impeccably.  Urs Leimgruber adds so much texture through unorthodox playing of his saxophone that makes it sound more like a tenor balloon (I still love you, Judy Dunaway!), before he provides crucial counter points with melodic phrasing during the noisier moments of his compatriots.  Alvin Curran is most recognizable as the one playing a traditional instrument, his microtonal piano runs cutting through the fog at crucial times.  On the other hand, his sampling and electronics work provides immense layers of dense and tough to distinguish sounds, adding a large amount of textural and dramatic elements.  They do all of this for a long time, never losing steam, never running out of ideas, morphing in and out between tonal playing and pure texture, between cacophony and silence, showing their virtuosity one moment before deconstructing the idea of a musical instrument the next.  It’s not just thought provoking or ultra-progressive, but enjoyable, fervent, and well made.  Dividing and categorizing art, trying to fit it into neat categories, and then judging it based on how it fits into such categories is not what anyone remembers.  Records like this are what people will remember, and most importantly, what will continue to push other musicians to progress, take risks, and build an ecstatic community based on freedom of expression.  As a fan, one can’t ask for much more. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book of Angels, Vols 24 - 26

By Lee Rice Epstein

With the increasing attention on John Zorn’s classically-oriented output, it’s a little too easy to overlook his massive Book of Angels project. With 27 volumes already released, Zorn’s completely outdone himself, taking some of the most notable aspects of Masada Book 1, traditional Jewish harmonies filtered through a pianoless Ornette-inspired quartet, and repeatedly blown them apart and reassembled them into compelling, and catchy, ways. Here’s a brief look at the 2015 releases.

The Spike Orchestra - Cerberus, The Book of Angels, Vol. 26 (Tzadik, 2015)  ***1/2

First, I love that Tzadik bills this as “the Big Band Masada project you’ve been waiting for.” From one perspective, there have been a handful of big-band Masada projects throughout the Book of Angels series. And yet, about halfway through the album, when the London-based, 18-piece Spike Orchestra hits its Ellingtonian stride on “Armasa,” it’s clear this really sounds unlike any other Masada project. In truth, the big-band swing kicks in about a minute into “Gehegial,” the album opener. Cue up 00:35 and be transported to a fantasy New York where Harlem borders Hasidic Williamsburg. The band, led by vocalist Nikki Franklin and trumpet player Sam Eastmond, wears its classic big-band influences on both sleeves and waves them like huge flags. “Hananiel” is a straight-ahead swinger that really cooks under Stewart Curtis’s clarinet solo. “Lahal” nicely blends orchestral verve with klezmer, showcasing Sam Leak on keyboards and Paul Booth on tenor sax. The centerpiece of the album, and my personal favorite track, is “Armasa.” Erica Clarke lays down a banging baritone sax riff, and gradually the rest of the band layers on until about 2 minutes in, when the swinging melody takes over. Clarke remains the highlight of the track, but the high brass section of Eastmond, George Hogg, Noel Langley, and Karen Straw adds brilliant counterpoint. On the final track, “Pahadron,” a guitar-heavy stomp backs Franklin’s almost mystical vocals. A brief klezmer-inspired bridge segues into a melancholy solo from Eastmond. The closing moments are an inspired blast of chaos, hinting at some greatness to come. Definitely recommended.

Mycale - Gomory: The Book of Angels, Vol. 25 (Tzadik, 2015) ***

GOMORY is Mycale’s second entry in the Book of Angels. The all-women vocal quartet—Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei Koutsovitis, Basya Schecter, and Malika Zarra—uses a pared down, crystalline minimalism that recasts the original Masada quartet. Vocals are sung in multiple languages, including “Portuguese, Berber, Hebrew, French and Spanish” according to Tzadik. I’m going to go ahead and start by damning with faint praise: GOMORY is a fine follow-up to the group’s debut, MYCALE, and it’s certainly a welcome installment in the bonanza of new groups that have sprung from Zorn’s imagination. But the resulting album is little more than a sequel to a great album, so some of the shine has been rubbed off. However, Mycale remains a remarkable interpretation of Zorn’s work, and this group, much like the Masada String Trio, has become a staple of the whole Masada project. “Huzia” alternates wordless staccato rhythms with a gorgeous sung melody. The mix of languages gives the whole recording a decidedly Sephardic flair that plays against the more pronounced Ashkenazi influence of the first Masada quartet. On “Pelial,” Mycale undercuts a yearning melody with a barbershop-influenced rhythm. About a minute later, the quartet coos soothingly before transitioning into a kind of four-way vocal duel. Popping and leaping in different directions, Gottlieb, Koutsovitis, Schecter, and Zarra open up the spaces between each other, providing an intriguing refraction of the opening minute. For anyone who enjoyed Mycale’s debut, I highly recommend this album. For those who are new to the band, either is a perfect place to begin.

Klezmerson - Amon: The Book of Angels, Vol. 24 (Tzadik, 2015) ****

Klezmerson’s 2011 Tzadik album, SIETE, was a major breakthrough for the band, and AMON is a thrilling follow-up. As a band, Klezmerson’s more out-there moments belie a lightness and humor that’s woven into Zorn’s music. Much like Masada represents a filtering of traditional Jewish music through various world musics, primarily jazz, Klezmerson’s Benjamin Shwartz weaves together elements of Sephardic music, filtered through a Mexican-infused klezmer sound. The result is danceable, funky, and richly satisfying. The stage it set on the opener, “Samchia.” Reeds start with a brief teaser over light rhythm guitar work, as Moises Garcia provides a piercing call and response on trumpet. Before the first minute is up, Chatran Gonzalez and Gustavo Nandayapa join on drums and percussion, and horns and strings swing into the pulsing melody. If I’m not mistaken, this is the largest band Shwartz has recorded with under the Klezmerson band. In total, there are 16 names on the liner notes, and the credits include strings, brass, and reeds, as well as Central and South American guitars, like leona, jarana, and requinto, and seemingly infinite layers of percussion. Tzadik likens the result to the Secret Chiefs 3 album, and I’d include Eyvind Kang and Zion80’s album in there, as well. These large groups seem eager to tap into the deep postmodern roots in Zorn’s music, pulling together influences from Naked City, Painkiller, and Masada. On “Yefefiah,” the group lightens up Shwartz’s cocktail-inspired arrangement with a smooth ‘50s-inspired Latin groove. And album closer “Amabiel” kicks off with layered guitar work that before morphing into a groove that wouldn’t be out of place on a movie soundtrack of young Israeli spies finding love as they battle surf Nazis off the Argentine coast (someone, make this movie so Klezmerson can soundtrack it). For a Masada Book 2 project, this just feels exactly right. Highly recommended.

The Spike Orchestra teaser:

Klezmerson teaser:

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Thomas Chapin - Night Bird Song ('Olena Productions, 2016) *****

A few weeks ago I had a chance to catch a screening of this new documentary on saxophonist/composer Thomas Chapin. It was an early cut of the film, and about two and half hours long. Not knowing a tremendous amount about Chapin, I went in thinking that 2.5 hours on a sunny Sunday afternoon is quite a commitment ... yet as the film neared its end, I was not ready to leave, I wanted to -no, needed to - see and hear more about this tremendous musician.

Stephanie Castillo, the filmmaker, is the sister-in-law of the late Chapin, who passed away from leukemia in 1998. She turned her eye towards making a documentary on Chapin a few years ago, after not really know him when he was alive (she explained in a Q&A that she lived in Hawaii, while her sister Terri lived in New York with Chapin). What she uncovers is a rich and focused life that comes into sharp relief in light of his untimely death.

The film, using footage, photos, documents and interviews, presents Chapin's life in two parts: the first a rather chronological log of his life growing up in Connecticut, his family, his growing musical interests, and his studies at Rutger's in the early days of its renowned jazz program. The film moves on to his work as music director of the Lionel Hampton big band, the fury of his group Machine Gun, and finally the creation of the Thomas Chapin Trio with bassist Mario Pavone and drummers Steve Johns and Michael Sarin. In watching the arc of Chapin’s foreshortened career, you cannot help but see how his ambition and focus were always underscored by his humanity and genuine curiosity. It can be humbling to watch.

The second half delves into some darker topics. There is mention of a brief period of alcoholism, followed by Chapin's spiritual discovery and his creation of the group "Sprits Rebellious" - a deep dive into Latin music which is still as fresh and enjoyable today, as evidenced by the performance by guitarist Saul Rubin and bassist Arthur Kell at the film’s screening. This coincides with the success of the Thomas Chapin Trio and the brilliant string of albums on the Knitting Factory label and is explored through conversations with people who knew and worked with Chapin, including Knitting Factory Label founder Michael Dorf, Downtown Music Gallery owner Bruce Lee Gallanter, bassist Mario Pavone, guitarist Saul Rubin, Terri Castillo Chapin, and many others.

In the final stretch of the film, we are confronted by Chapin's illness, which manifests during an extensive trip to Africa. It’s hard not to be swept with emotion as you watch this man who put so much energy into his music and had so much his lust for life, be taken by cancer.

My one complaint is that I wish there was more and higher resolution video footage of Chapin at work. I suspect that when he was working at his prime in the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was just harder and a bit more costly to do video - not everyone walked around with HD video cameras like they do now, just rampantly documenting!

Needless for me to say at this point, Night Bird Song is a moving film that will hopefully present Chapin's small but brilliant body of work to a new set of appreciative listeners.

The filmmakers are now taking the work to the major film festivals, and you can check with the Downtown Music Gallery as they may have DVD copies of the film available.

The film can be viewed Wednesday, April 27 at 8:30 pm during The New York City International Film Festival.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Alberto Pinton Noi Siamo- Resiliency (Moserobie, 2016) ****

Italy-born and Stockholm-based reeds player Alberto Pinton's new quartet is called Noi Siamo - 'We are' in Italian - a name that echoes the conscious-confident titles of Ornette Coleman's classic quartet albums. The title of this Noi Siamo debut album, Resiliency, and the title of the opening piece, “Krigarens Väg” (The Warrior’s Way in Swedish) suggest even more about the spirit of Pinon’s music. Now few will be surprised to know that Pinton is also an experienced marathon runner.
Resiliency is only Pinton's ninth album as a leader (though his discography encompasses about sixty recordings as a sideman).  Recorded live at the famed Glenn Miller Café in Stockholm on July 2015, is features Pinton alternating between baritone sax, bass clarinet and clarinet. His quartet is comprised by trumpet player Niklas Barnö, known from the groups Suis!, Snus,and Mats Gustafsson’s a Fire! Orchestra; double bass player Torbjörn Zetterberg, who has collaborated before with Pinton in his Quintet, the Dog Out quartet and Zetterberg’s group Och Den Stora Frågan, and drummer Konrad Agnas.
Pinton wrote all of the six compositions. The 18-minutes “Krigarens Väg” and the extended “Magnetism” and “Kapten K” captures faithfully the urgent and powerful intensity of this quartet. These loose pieces dwell between the post-bop and the fiery free jazz of the late sixties territories but without subscribing to any form or convention. Pinton and Barnö keep exchanging commanding, muscular solos, pushed by the restless, fast-shifting rhythm section of Zetterberg and Agnas. Pinton's charismatic voice on the bass clarinet on “Magnetism” sounds like an inspired transformation of Eric Dolphy's innovative sound on that instrument. The intimate, open-ended duo of Pinton and Barnö on “Tangible-Intangible” emphasizes even further the telepathic interplay both have developed. Later their conversational solos on “Lacy and the beautiful ballad  “L’Aquilone” goes even deeper.  
Great performance, great quartet.  

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dan Weiss - Sixteen: Drummers Suite (Pi Recordings, 2016) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Dan Weiss returns with a slightly larger ensemble and a more-cohesive, driving vision. His previous album, FOURTEEN, was a grand big-band spectacle. On SIXTEEN: DRUMMERS SUITE, Weiss has crafted a glorious tribute to six of the all-time great drummers: Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Tony Williams, Philly Joe Jones, Kenny Clarke, and Ed Blackwell. The source material for each composition (“Elvin,” “Max,” “Tony,” “Philly Joe,” “Klook,” and “Ed”) comes from specific patterns performed by each drummer on a certain recording. And truly, one could spend hours digging into the original recordings, comparing them to these compositions, digging further into each drummer’s discography to pull together the various threads of inspiration that informed how Weiss attempted to shape each track in the style and personality of its namesake. But I want to spend slightly more time on what an exceptional big-band album this is.

“The Drummers Meet” introduces the album’s concept with a Weiss solo that incorporates elements of each drummer’s style. Weiss then abruptly kicks off “Elvin,” the track that inspired this entire project. Sixteen retains many of the same players from Fourteen, with a few additions and substitutions: Stephen Cellucci, Thomas Morgan, Jacob Sacks, Matt Mitchell, Miles Okazaki, Katie Andrews, Anna Webber, David Binney, Miguel Zenon, Ohad Taylor, Jacob Garchik, Ben Gerstein, Judith Berkson, Lana Is, and Jen Shyu.

Morgan introduces “Tony” with a brief solo. About a minute in, the horns lay down the first melodic line, followed by a short piano duel and harp riff. By the time Taylor, Binney, and Zenon begin trading saxophone solos, the rhythm section, along with the vocal trio, is absolutely swinging. Later, Mitchell is heard on glockenspiel backing Okazaki, a pairing that recurs a couple of times throughout the album. And these are the kinds of moments that showcase Weiss’s imagination, dazzling interplays often between instruments you’d never typically match up.

“Philly Joe” opens with a beautiful tabla pattern, eventually settling into a meditative choral stretch that takes up most of the middle section. A Xenakis-inspired horn pattern pulls the track forward into a fascinating blend of new music and wordless vocals, that somehow segues into a Mitchell organ solo, countered by Sacks’s circular piano line. During the last third of “Klook,” Morgan and Weiss perform an evocative duet, teasing a pairing I’d love to hear more from.

At 15 minutes, “Ed” is the undisputed standout. Opening with a free, unaccompanied chorale, the entire band gradually joins in, adding another voice and layer to the floating improvisation. There seem to be shades of color here, rather than discreetly composed lines (though I may be mistaken), as only a few melodic elements repeat. After Weiss joins on cymbals, there’s an extended duet by Sacks and Mitchell, echoing some of the lines heard during the horns’ warmup. The echoing line is picked up again by the saxophones, and the full band comes and go in thick waves, with Binney and Zenon occasionally singing a high alto note above the fray. Weiss plays a couple of tabla-inspired drum solos, but “Ed” somehow manages to showcase all sixteen players at once. Webber’s flute, like Binney and Zenon’s altos, cuts through in later sections, but the group’s heady interplay is what’s being showcased, in many ways an inspired reflection on all the drummers honored here. The album fades out on a contemplative conversation between guitar, glockenspiel, and piano, punctuated by quiet fills from Weiss. It’s an unexpected finish to the thicket that came before, suitably elegiac and thoughtful.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Peter Brötzmann, Heather Leigh – Ears Are Filled With Wonder (Not Two Records, 2016) ****

By Colin Green

The duo of Peter Brötzmann (reeds) and Heather Leigh (pedal steel guitar) has been causing something of a stir since their first meeting at Glasgow’s Tectonics Festival in May last year. The pedal steel guitar has long outgrown the familiar C&W twang but it doesn’t have much of a profile in free jazz or improv. Not anymore. Leigh is US born but now resident in Scotland, and on her recent album, I Abused Animal (Ideologic Organ, 2015) we also hear her haunting voice.

This album was recorded during a residency by Brötzmann’s Octet, of which Leigh formed part, at the Alchemia, Kraków in November 2015. It consists of the title piece, at just under half an hour. I also had the chance to catch the duo during their recent short tour of Britain at Salford’s Islington Mill, Brötzmann’s first visit to Manchester since the Eighties. Their set lasted about twice as long as the album performance but covered more or less the same ground.  

Leigh’s playing is often simple but hypnotic; like Brötzmann, reduced down to essentials and shorn of frippery, and a perfect foil for his repertoire of dramatic peaks and troughs as he excavates down to the core, the stuff that matters. They play without a break using overlapping blocks of material as one picks up from the other or introduces something in contrast. Brötzmann opens with impassioned calls on tárogató accompanied by glistening, slightly queasy guitar arpeggios. He moves to vibrato-laden tenor, building into smeared bursts of energy urged on by Leigh’s warped slide guitar, edged with distortion. On clarinet, an instrument for which Brötzmann reserves some of his most reflective and lyrical playing, his brooding melody is supported by quivering tremolos, jolted by abrupt changes in tuning.

In Salford, the duo raised the temperature to boiling point with Leigh’s incessant riff and Brötzmann blasting though the ceiling, before ending on a dreamier note.


Islington Mill:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Taku Sugimoto - Septet (Ftarri, 2015) ***½

By Nicola Negri

Rebecca Lane – flute
Michael Thieke – clarinet
Johnny Chang – viola
Koen Nutters – contrabass
Derek Shirley – cello
Taku Sugimoto – electric guitar
Bryan Eubanks – sine-tones

Guitarist Taku Sugimoto is usually associated with Onkyo (sound), a style of improvisation that developed in the early 2000s around “Off Site”, a gallery and performance space in Tokyo. A style based on pure sound, low volume and a massive use of silence, whose proponents were more concerned with the act of listening than with producing any intelligible musical statement, a sonic dimension in which music simply happened.

This approach was not exclusively Japanese, of course, and the same aesthetic approach can be traced in other contemporary improvisational communities, most significantly in the Echtzeitmusik scene in Berlin, still active to this day.

Sugimoto was one of the first among those improvisers to seek new grounds to explore beyond the experience of Onkyo, and this new record is a good representation of his interest in composed materials and a more conspicuous sound presence.

Septet consists of a thoroughly composed piece that fills the entire record, for a total of 38 minutes.

Sugimoto’s usual attention to detail and timbre is focused on long tones and slightly shifting durations, sacrificing silence for a musical piece saturated with sound, and improvisation for a strictly determined formal structure.

The composition is conceived as a double concertino for clarinet, flute, and small ensemble (formed by musicians of the Wandelweiser Group), where the two main “soloists” repeat a single tone throughout the entire piece, while the other instruments (viola, cello, contrabass, guitar, and sine-tone generator) produce a deceptively narrow spectrum of microtonal variations beneath them.

There are recurring pauses in the composition, and the slow, relaxed pulse gives the illusion of a living, breathing organism. Clarinet and flute do their best to keep every iteration identical to the preceding one, letting the inherent character of each instrument to slightly color the sound. The other musicians work on a determined set of microtones that gives the impression of almost motionless waves of sound, with the exception of Sugimoto himself, whose single guitar accents, slightly displaced on the formal grid, discreetly come to the fore by virtue of this apparent disjunction from the ensemble.

At first the compositional idea at the base of this record may seem more interesting than the actual performance, but repeated listens reveal a surprisingly rich sonic environment, with complex dynamics and carefully chosen timbres. The end result is a peculiar aural experience, and in a sense is both a development and a reminiscence of Sugimoto’s first works, inviting the listener to almost forget the general outline and to focus instead on every single sound produced, exactly like those improvisations at “Off Site” fifteen years ago.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Dave Rempis, Elisabeth Harnik, Michael Zerang - Wistfully (Aerophonic, 2016) ***

First off, I am loving this new run of digital releases from Aerophonic records. First was the excellent Engines double album, GREEN KNIGHTS, and now comes a stellar improvised outing from Dave Rempis, Elisabeth Harnik, and Michael Zerang. The album, recorded live in Graz, Austria in 2013, features Rempis on alto and tenor sax, Harnik on piano, and Zerang on percussion, yet even this simple listing misrepresents the range of each performer’s contribution. The recording, even the grouping, exists almost by luck. The trio hadn’t performed together, and only met up as Rempis and Zerang went on tour following a Resonance Ensemble residency. The resulting performance is every bit the kind of album you want from a freely improvised session. 

Recently, I was trying to explain to a friend what’s powerful about improvisation, and how if you’re new to it, you may need to see a group live to grasp what they’re accomplishing. That’s probably not the case here, as the trio’s range is somewhat larger than a single performance or recording can possibly capture. Harnik’s piano playing is massive, encompassing a range of sounds that matches the Zerang’s broadly percussive style. On “Wistful 2,” the pair creates a metallic and angular clanging that plays under Rempis’s sparse solo line. Harnik occasionally adds chords to deepen the sound, but its her extended techniques inside the piano that really challenge the listener. Zerang takes the lead on “Wistful 3,” with a rollicking solo that explores the various timbres of the drums and cymbals, a neat counterpoint to Harnik’s percussive piano playing. Rempis opens “Wistful 5” with a barely accompanied solo that embodies the title’s emotional state. 

Rempis has a genuine gift for imbuing free improvisation with emotional honesty and humor, and I look forward to hearing more from this digital series. There’s a little more risk in these settings, and much greater rewards for listeners willing to go along.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Alister Spence Trio - Live (Alister Spence Music, 2015) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Making a live recording - a really good one - is considered in Australian slang to be somewhat of a 'slippery eel’ . You need to have a good sounding space, an able sound engineer with state-of-the-art equipment, and obviously, you need the musicians to be in top form. Fortunately, the stars aligned above the Sound Lounge in Sydney, Australia on March 20, 2015 when the trio of pianist Alister Spence, double bass player Lloyd Swanton and drummer Toby Hall recorded their first live album after about twenty years of working together as a trio.

Live, the trio's sixth recording, sounds fantastic and it captures this experienced trio's essence at its best. The trio has toured United Kingdom, Canada and Japan. Spence, its leader and the composer of most of its pieces, has developed an international career in recent years, recording with Scottish sax player Raymond MacDonald, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, American pianist Myra Melford and Swedish rhythm section of double bass player Joe Williamson and drummer Christopher Cantillo. Swanton is renowned composer and plays in another legendary Australian trio, The Necks. Hall is known for his collaborations with pianist Mike Nock.

The telepathic, tight interplay of the trio allows the three musicians to shift the dynamics instantly from thoughtful and fragile interplay to an intense and dense one, morphing abstract textures into propulsive pulses or playfully building and releasing the tension, as demonstrated impressively on “Felt”. “Brave Ghost” highlights the trio's patient manner of constructing and deconstructing Spence's cyclical melodic theme in many clever ways, alternating organically between a bluesy rhythm (with a commanding solo from Swanton), to ecstatic piano flights. 

The free-improvised “Not Everything But Enough - opening” and the following , Spence-penned “Mullet Run”, stresses the trio's expansive and open interplay. Spence adds samples and Hall alternates on the glockenspiel, and all together sketch a mysterious and subtle multi-layered texture. Their music's complex architecture is patiently fleshed out, but never settles on any pattern, pulse, or theme for more than few brief seconds, and just keep searching on and on. The trio concludes the set with “Seventh Song”, developing the moving theme in an economic and reserved manner, as if playing its skeletal outlines is enough to illuminate its profound structure.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Waxwing - A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists (Songlines, 2015) *****

By Derek Stone

The title of Waxwing’s new album might seem a bit obtuse, but once its origins are known, it reveals itself to be simultaneously illuminating and heartbreaking. Ross Taggart, a saxophonist/pianist in the Vancouver jazz scene, was dying of cancer - laid up in the hospital, half-awake, and likely under the influence of a large number of painkillers, Taggart might not have been in the most lucid state-of-mind. Thus, when a visiting friend asked him what he needed, he gave the following cryptic response: “a bowl of sixty taxidermists” (Read the whole story here). That phrase, with its twin evocations of absurdity and poignant sadness, is perhaps the best representation of what this album manages to do. As well as being a dedication to Taggart, it’s a meditation on life, loss, and the mysteries that inhabit both. Waxwing consists of only three musicians: Jon Bentley on saxophone, Peggy Lee on cello, and Tony Wilson on electric guitar. While some might suppose that such an arrangement allows for only a limited range of possibilities, Waxwing dispel that notion with ease - A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists is a rich, multi-faceted work, and it’s an unmitigated success.

The first track, “A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists,” immediately demonstrates the fine interplay between these three musicians: over Wilson’s simple, spiky pattern, Lee and Bentley lay out a winding, sinuous motif that is given dramatic weight by the guitar’s minor-key chording. It’s a striking composition, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate the direction the album will take - the next piece, “For Ross,” is melancholic, meditative, and achingly lovely, and its structure is much more conventional, Bentley’s saxophone producing an exquisite, emotive stream of notes. One of the joys of this record is the way in which the players juggle sentiment and style. Given the album’s subject matter and dedications (to both Taggart and Claude Ranger, who disappeared in 2000), it would have been incredibly easy for it to become a schmaltzy mess. It’s to the credit of all the players involved, however, that it didn’t; the emotional moments are tucked in the folds of the album like glittering jewels, and they are brought forward sparingly and delicately. In other words, we don’t get beat over the head repeatedly with heart-rending themes and histrionics - the emotions here are unaffected, authentic, and they are all the more effective for that reason.

There are many things to love about this album, but one of them is its wide array of styles and moods. While there is definitely cohesion between the individual pieces, there’s also the sense that each composition is incredibly distinctive, revealing something special and unrepeatable. Take “Clementine,” for example: it’s an old traditional, and many of us have probably heard the tune a thousand times or more, but this particular version locates a heart of sorrow in the central melody. It’s possibly the most moving moment on the record, if only because the players have taken something a bit stale and breathed new life into it, transforming it into a devastating lullaby in the process.
Waxwing aren’t afraid to branch out into more abstract modes, either.  Pieces like “Snow Blind” illustrate what happens when the group works together in a more improvised setting. Peggy Lee and Jon Bentley offer hesitant, sputtering notes, and guitarist Wilson snakes along menacingly in the background. “Dune” is an expertly-constructed sonic landscape, and it conjures up the world that its title suggests: desolate stretches of desert, shriveled plants, and the sucking-in of scorched air. After a feverish, dream-like introduction, cellist Lee provides the austere back-bone for the piece; Bentley and Wilson soon join her in creating an exotic, expressive sound-sculpture.       

A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists is a treasure-trove of melody, emotion, and masterful musicianship, and I truly believe that there’s something here for everyone. This is bold, exciting, fervent, often daring, but always eminently listenable jazz - do yourselves a favor and pick up a copy soon!