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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Unnatural Ways - We Aliens (Tzadik, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

John Zorn’s Tzadik has long been a label that supports artists of the uncompromising variety - one of the newest on the roster is Brooklyn-based guitarist Ava Mendoza and her group Unnatural Ways. Standing at the white-hot intersection where noise-rock, punk, jazz, and free improvisation meet, Unnatural Ways make songs that flirt with recognizable structures, then proceed to send those same structures toppling to the ground in incendiary vortexes of sound. Basically, imagine if the rapid-fire shards produced by math-rockers the Dazzling Killmen were married to the relentlessness of the DKV Trio - then, you might get something similar to what Unnatural Ways have served up here.

Things start strong with “Cosmic Border Cop,” in which Tim Dahl’s fuzzed-out, overdriven bass and Mendoza’s explosive shards of sound engage in what can only be described as sonic combat. Sam Ospovat holds down the fort, so to speak, pounding the kit with unshakable force and keeping the guitars from spiraling off into the stratosphere. For the most part, this is the M.O. of Unnatural Ways and what makes them such a thrilling listen: they find some serrated groove, slice it and dice it up even further into a hundred different rhythmic and melodic offshoots, then return, invigorated, to the root. On tracks like “Most of All We Love to Spy” and “Extraterrestrial Suicides Are on the Rise” they explore more varied textures - Mendoza uses guitar effects to her full advantage, producing sounds that squelch, stutter, and occasionally screech, while Ospovat clatters patiently underneath and Dahl stretches his bass-tones into shapes that are more comparable to alien transmissions than anything resembling rock music.

We Aliens is an album that simultaneously calls to mind the best noise rock groups, as well as the best free jazz trios - despite the jittery restiveness of the players, the musical ideas on display here are fully-formed, functional, and ready to fuck you up.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Momentum - Momentum (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½

By Derek Stone

Momentum is a trio from Norway, featuring Jørgen Mathisen on soprano and tenor saxophones, Christian Meaas Svendsen on bass, and Andreas Wildhagen on drums. If you keep up with the ever-burgeoning Scandinavian jazz scene, you might recognize those names: Mathisen is a member of the Zanussi Five (whose Live in Coimbra is reviewed here), and Svendsen and Wildhagen have done work with Paal Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit. Wildhagen, in particular, was behind one of my favorite releases from last year, the Jonas Cambien Trio’s A Zoology of the Future.

On Momentum, they bring together some of the best elements from all of the different projects with which they’re involved, resulting in an excellent recording that reveals more each time you listen. The first two pieces here are all about setting the scene: “Gaining” is a writhing mass of clattering percussion, saxophone wails, and creaking bass. “Maintaining” is the sparsest of warm-ups, with each player offering only a repetitive, pointillistic stream of clipped notes. When the title track (and presumably the group’s anthem) appears, it’s a pleasant surprise - it’s free jazz, to be sure, but it lurches and swings with a relentless and infectious energy. Mathisen’s moans are Ayler-esque in the way they warble and stretch, while Svendsen attacks his bass with admirable resourcefulness: from lumbering cascades of notes, to bowed screeches, he’s got it all. As I expected, Wildhagen is as creative as ever, always dancing wildly on the line between controlled rhythm and torrential release.

Momentum is an excellent primer for those who want to familiarize themselves with the Norwegian free jazz scene - it’s short, it’s concise, and it often makes you want to flail around the room.

Momentum live:

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Butcher, Lehn, Shipp / The Core Trio

John Butcher, Thomas Lehn, Matthew Shipp - Tangle (Fataka, 2016) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

The trio of saxophonist John Butcher, pianist Matthew Shipp, and analog synthesizer player Thomas Lehn deliver powerful and unique music on 'Tangle'. Shipp, who has been making waves recently discussing his decision to stop making albums, is in fine form, as is Butcher and Lehn, in creating intense climatic and dense passages, accentuated by sparse atmospheric moments.

The opening track 'Cluster I' is a fine example of the Shipp and Lehn pinging ideas off of each other - snippets and sounds, and inviting Butcher to respond with his own rich array of techniques. The peak that Shipp and Butcher reach here, with Lehn interweaving visceral textures, is mouthwatering. The other tracks achieve similar brilliance, engaging with soundscapes sounding at times like underwater laser battles ('Cluster II'), or long walks down crumbling passageways ('Cluster III'). All of what they do is wrapped lovingly in melodically engaging and rhythmically driven improvisation.

The chemistry of Butcher, Shipp and Lehn is apparent and with the analog synthesizer,  their music is a truly refreshing. Let's hope that Shipp's decision doesn't thwart a second entanglement!

The Core Trio Featuring Matthew Shipp - Live (Evil Rabit, 2016) ****

The Texas based core of The Core Trio is Thomas Helton (double bass), Seth Paynter (sax) and Joe Hertenstein (drums). However, it may be okay for The Core Trio to admit they're actually a quartet as Live is the third album to feature Shipp, and his intense attacks and gentle accompaniment are an integral part of the group's sound.

The album's execution is flawless, the attention to detail is impressive, and the music simply flows. Paynter's sax work runs from breathy to fiery and compliments both Shipps' ruminative moments as well as his bold and crushing crescendos. Not 10 minutes into the first track and the quiet that the track opened with has blossomed into a soaring musical arc, the type that is often described as spiritual. Groaning bass and minimalist percussion follow the early climax foreshadowing the next peak, which is signaled by deliberate middle register block chords from the piano.

A solid hour of the Core Trio's music passes quickly. Live is an excellent follow up to 2014's semi eponymous album, The Core Trio with Matthew Shipp.

On Bandcamp there is a also a Core Trio, as a trio, recording from 2015, name your price.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

John Lindberg's Trios

John Lindberg BC3 - Born in an Urban Ruin (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½

By Derek Stone

John Lindberg has been actively performing and composing for around 40 years now, but he’s yet to slow down. His most recent recordings appeared on Clean Feed in September of 2016, and they are definitely a treat for those who appreciate exciting, inventive trio work. The first release I’ll talk about, Born in an Urban Ruin, features Wendell Harrison on Bb clarinet and Bb bass clarinet, Kevin Norton on vibraharp and other percussion, and the inimitable Lindberg on bass.

After an opening track that allows a solo Harrison to set the mood for the album (a mood that is decidedly cinematic), things kick off with the infectious “Vermont Roadside Family.” Here, Lindberg’s bowed-out bass melody seems to be the key component - vaguely sinister, with a hard-driving forward movement that carries the piece along wonderfully. Norton’s vibraharp is a terrific addition, adding as it does a noirish sensibility that complements Lindberg’s compositions well. The next three pieces are actually a unit, called “The Left Wrist,” and dedicated to Roy Campbell, Jr., the celebrated free jazz trumpeter who passed away in 2014. Moving through a variety of moods and containing a number of compositional surprises, the only thing that would make “The Left Wrist” better is an appearance from Campbell, Jr. himself. “Swooping Deep,” the full-band version of the piece that Harrison starts the album with, is a somber, downtempo number that acts as a bit of a breather before the more varied “Devastation of Vegetation,” which bounces nervously from idea to idea, ultimately resulting in the most abstract piece on the record.

Lacking a traditional percussionist, it might seem that Lindberg’s compositions would fall flat or run out of steam - that’s not the case, however. The arrangements and bouts of improvisation are intriguing enough to maintain interest, and the ability of this trio to build up a specific atmosphere is top-notch.

John Lindberg Raptor Trio - Western Edges (Clean Feed, 2016) ***½ 

With Pablo Calogero on baritone saxophone and Joe LaBarbera on drums, Western Edges gives us a chance to see what Lindberg’s compositions look like with slightly different instrumentation. As expected, the result doesn’t disappoint: though it’s still a trio, LaBarbera’s percussion adds a vibrancy that helps transform the overall “feel” of Lindberg’s incredible arrangements. Even on slower numbers, like “Ethereal Extensions,” LaBarbera’s drumwork is vital, lending the piece a kind of anxious energy that is constantly bubbling beneath the surface. That’s not to say that LaBerbera is the V.I.P. of the trio, however - on the aforementioned track, Lindberg’s bass is as restless and exploratory as ever, always seeking out new melodic and rhythmic possibilities within the confines of the composition. “T’wixt D and E” is a heady, fast-paced piece where Calogero truly gets the chance to shine; on this track, his deep, full-bodied tones veer off in numerous directions, from rich clusters of melody to moments of caustic over-blowing. “Raptors” is a showcase for Lindberg’s mastery of technique, with basswork that is overwhelming in its physicality, as if Lindberg were trying to beat the instrument into submission. Western Edges might not be as delicately atmospheric as Born in an Urban Ruin, but it makes up for that with more fervent playing, and with compositions that seem to be more imaginative and complex.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden

A few months ago we dug into a bunch of German jazz festival recordings from the 60s and 70s. It was a joy to spend time with those recordings, suffused in their history and importance, fortunately, it is suffice to say Germany is a still fertile ground for free jazz. Whether it's the rapid-fire ping-pong exchanges, tonal explorations, or extrapolations of the music from Ms. Pac-Man, ideas seem to be flowing free!

Gropper, Graupe, Lillinger - Riot (WhyPlayJazz, 2016) ****

This isn't a debut - Berlin based saxophonist Philipp Gropper, guitarist Ronny Graupe and drummer Christian Lillinger have been sufficiently busy as Hyperactive Kid for well over a decade. They released a few albums on Jazzwerkstatt, and now as it seems that label is winding down a bit, the trio has hooked up with WhyPlayJazz, releasing a live album celebrating their first 10 years together (10 Year Anniversary Live, 2015), and have taken the opportunity to shed the old name. Their new release, Riot, is a texture rich album rife with exploratory electronic sounds, abstract rhythms, wrapped in the musical ease that a long time association can bring.

The opening track's title 'Being Dark is Easy' may as well refer to how naturally the spacious ambience of the night slowly passes until the melodic dawn. Once awake, the group stretches out its arms and embraces the new day. The musicians bring a range of approaches - the guitar is often minimal, offering judiciously placed single notes or chiming chord fragments, and sometimes flat out rocking. The sax, possible the most prominent of the voices, switches between staccato lines and flowing melodies, weaving between the drums and guitar. Of course, Lillinger is more than just the glue that holds the group together, providing pulse and texture, and injecting a lot of personality into the music. The longer tracks are interspersed with short sound exploration - like the 10 second clatter of 'Repeat!' and the minute and a half electric crinkle of 'Demons'. A great listen!  - Paul Acquaro

Themroc 3 (WhyPlayJazz, 2016) ****

Two wind instruments and drums, the Berlin based trio of drummer Michael Griener, trumpeter Richard Koch, and clarinetist Benjamin Weidekamp excel in energetic, enjoyable music making. Parts and passages are obviously composed, there is no way that the syncopated and jaunty melody on tracks like opener 'Post für den Tiger' are made up on the spot, however, they are alive and delivered with as much fresh excitement as if they were. As the track progresses, the three splinter effortlessly into free improvisation.

The songs have elements of humor and reference to more traditional and folk music. Also, as melodic and entertaining as the winds are, special mention of drummer Griener is warranted - he is as much a melodicist as a percussionist, his work on 'Jippi Brown’s 18th Birthday' stands out. By the third track, 'Marsch' it seems like the group is establishing itself in the free-jazz/avant-traditional of the great Zentralquartett.  - Paul Acquaro

Punkt 3 - Ordnung Herrscht (Clean Feed, 2016) ****

Leipzig's Punkt 3 is a trio comprised of Tobias Pfister (sax), Noah Punkt (bass), and Ramon Oliveras (drums). Ordnung Herscht, their album on clean feed records, is a bright, rhythmic work that combines improvised jazz with punk rock sensibilities. Noah Punkt in particular recalls Mike Watt in his playing, with strong notes and deft movements throughout that works well with Pfister's nimble saxophone play and Oliveras' drumming. Standout tracks are "Dieter-Miguel," showcasing Pfister's lyricism; "Rummeln," with its latin tinged polyrhythms, building towards a powerful closure; "Pacgirl," riffing off of the arcade game's theme song, and "Ponk," a free jazz skronk fest. All the tracks are short and to the point, no extensive jams here. And with its brevity, the smart variety of music, and excellent execution makes Ordnung Herrscht a delightful listen. Recommended.  - Stefan Wood

Zur Schönen Aussicht -Willkommen Zuhause (Whyplayjazz, 2016) ****

On this recording from the Dresden based trio Zur Schönen Aussicht, the playing is telepathic and the many pieces mesh delightfully. The website mentions that this was a recording of first takes - good energy coming from high stakes!

The group is saxophonist Paul Berberich, guitarist Joachim Wespel, and drummer Florian Lauer, all new names to me, and while the line up is similar to Gropper, Graupe, Lillinger, the music takes a different path. Whereas Gropper,, really dig into the textures, Zur Schönen Aussicht are more straight ahead, melding choppy melodies, hints of modern jazz, and a little prog-rock into the mix (tell me 'Wir mit wem?' doesn't have a hint of 90125 in its DNA). There are moments, like in the track 'Kritische Masse' that I am reminded of the music of the Mary Halvorson Trio's album Dragon's Head - it has that same lean, angular, irregular, and accessible approach.

From the Ornette Coleman inspired riff on the opener 'Schwingen ohne Club', to the emotive squall and dramatic climax of 'Phlegma und Enge', and finally the woozy drone and gently unfolding melody of 'Herbstlichst', there is a lot to hear, here!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sylvie Courvoisier & Mary Halvorson - Crop Circles (Relative Pitch, 2017) ****½

By Derek Stone

Sylvie Courvoisier’s new album with Mary Halvorson, called Crop Circles, marks the first time that the two have worked together, and it’s indeed a rare treat: a meeting between two of the most inventive musicians working in improvised music today, and an opportunity for listeners to hear the magnificent sounds that result. Recorded in August of 2016, Crop Circles is, as the title suggests, a sublime collection of shapes and figures, one that is alternately awe-inspiring and inscrutable. Sometimes repeating , sometimes spiralling off into new configurations, these shapes are irrefutable proof - not of extraterrestrial life, of course, but of the creative prowess of these two musical heavyweights.

“La Cigale” (literally, “the cicada”) is an introduction that somewhat typifies the approach that Courvoisier and Halvorson take throughout the album: elliptical melodies, played in conjunction, that soon scatter off in oblique, sometimes unexpected, directions. What starts in “La Cigale” as a duet between the two that is slightly disjointed, soon becomes a frenetic dialogue - Courvoisier using the piano’s action as a way to evoke the distinctive vibrato of the insect after which the piece is named, and Halvorson running at a breakneck pace through a wide variety of chord shapes. The brief “Eclats for Ornette” follows a similar structure, but it is even more frenzied; here, Courvoisier issues rapid-fire sequences of notes that occasionally amass into violent, pounded bursts, while Halvorson holds her own with blazing runs up and down the neck. One of the most melodic pieces is “Double Vision,” which is based on an angular theme that is somewhere between whimsical and sinister - this is due to the fact that Courvoisier and Halvorson never seem to fully adhere, leaving an uncanny valley of sorts between the lines that they produce.

Not all of the pieces are so high-strung, of course. “Absent Across Skies,” while always seeming to teeter on the brink of eruption, maintains a kind of nervous tension - the central melody acts as a check, so to speak, for the wilder, more impulsive, stretches that occasionally bubble up. Although it’s the longest track, the sense of constant pressure pushing on all sides of the piece keeps the listener invested in what may or may not happen. Compared to a few of the other tracks, “Your Way” is downright lovely; rather than obliqueness, the musical motif here seems to be rooted in a whirling, dream-like impressionism. “Woman in the Dunes,” while not explicitly “beautiful,” is an exploration of the textures and tones that Courvoisier and Halvorson can conjure up. Courvoisier moves from notes that are knotted together in pristine, twinkling clusters, to rumbling undertones. Halvorson’s use of pedals to shape and alter the sound of her guitar is in full display here, with notes that bend, stretch, and moan.

Calling the album Crop Circles was not a bad move by Courvoisier and Halvorson, as it captures some of the reasons that the recording is so special. First and foremost, the two musicians are masters of combining the familiar with the, well, unfamiliar; like flying over the commonplace sight of a corn-field, and seeing cryptic symbols laid out beneath you, the two always seem undercut their melodies with moments that are perplexing, unexpected, or slightly slanted. In addition, the rhythms and shapes that the two produce together are never straightforward or easy-to-read - as it would be in the event of having to decipher an alien language, the listener is expected to tilt their head, toss away their preconceptions, and open their ears.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ned Rothenberg, Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier - In Cahoots (Clean Feed, 2016) ****½

By Derek Stone

Husband-and-wife duo Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman have a long musical history, appearing in several projects together over the years (including their wondrous entry into Zorn’s famed Book of Angels project). As such, seeing their names together on an album’s credits should be enough to excite any fan of improvisational jazz - with a past discography as extensive and interesting as theirs, you’re bound to get something that’s, at the very least, compelling. Joining them on this latest effort, titled In Cahoots, is Ned Rothenberg, who brings his mastery of various instruments (clarinet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and the Japanese shakuhachi) to the proverbial table. The result is a recording that entices, intrigues, and continuously keeps the listener on their toes.

For that latter sensation, one need only listen to “Inter-State,” a piece that roars along with all the inexorability of a freight train, before reaching a conclusion that roils quietly beneath the weight of what came before. Otherwise, most of the pieces here are slow burners, taking their time to unfold and reveal themselves to the listener. The opener, “Light and Variable Sins,” features a gradual stirring from each of the players - ethereal twinkling from Courvoisier, a series of hesitant plucks from Feldman, and Rothenberg’s searching alto, all of which eventually develop into more complex modes of expression. “Epic Proportions” is where the magnificent sense of interplay between the musicians starts to become more readily apparent; Courvoisier acts as the glue of the group, producing rhythms and textures that, while not terribly straightforward themselves, serve to hold the more abstract wanderings of Feldman and Rothenberg in place. Feldman, as always, is a pleasure to listen to, moving from high-pitched wails to muted figures that are best compared to ripples in a still pond, slowly pushing outward. Likewise, Rothenberg slides through a variety of articulations, constantly surprising with his ability to wrench such a wide-ranging set of timbres and tones from his instrument. He brings that same sensibility to the Japanese shakuhachi, which is played to great effect on the brief, swirling “Shudder to Think.” The longest piece is the self-titled track - at thirteen minutes, it features the trio at their most playful and conversational. Here, Courvoisier seems intent on being as slippery as possible, wiggling her way through tightly-wrought clusters that bubble up, bounce about, and break apart into vibrant splotches of sound. On bass clarinet, Rothenberg dips into melodic streams that are substantially different from those he sticks with on the alto: he’s downright mischievous, gliding through scales with all the alacrity of a squirrel. On another long-form piece, “Dark Shimmers,” Rothenberg’s bass clarinet takes a turn towards melancholic introspection, Feldman provides a mournful underpinning, and Courvoisier’s notes drop like dots of bright ink on an empty map.

In Cahoots is a musical shadow-lantern of sorts, casting all manner of impressionistic images onto the mind of the listener. Because of the tight connections between the players, their inventiveness, and the way the lines they produce seem to spool around one another in perfect sync, one would be forgiven for thinking that the pieces here were meticulously composed. With musicians like Ned Rothenberg, Mark Feldman, and Sylvie Courvoisier, however, efforts at composition could only serve to diminish their vision - the real beauty here lies in the ties between players that are truly, undoubtedly, “in cahoots.”

See Stefan Woods' review of In Cahoots here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chris Corsano, Sylvie Courvoisier and Nate Wooley - Salt Task (Relative Pitch, 2016) ****

By Philip Coombs

A large portion of what these three musicians need to say to each other either happens or is alluded to in the first 10 minutes of the opening track, the record’s namesake, Salt Task, which sets the gears in motion for a journey full of secret handshakes, nods, winks, smiles and ultimately a full album’s worth of discovery as these three gifted musicians sit down for an evening of improv.

Sylvie Courvoisier (Piano) runs the gamut of sounds that can come out of a piano from fingernail shattering percussive hammering to passages that evoke nursery rhymes throughout the opening track to delicate introspective runs in 'Last Stat' (Track Two) to plenty of prepared movements on 'Tall Stalks' to even what could pass for a strummed acoustic guitar on the albums closer, 'Stalled Talks'. There are often times when she is the glue that keeps this project together especially when Wooley and Corsano really go for it.

Then there is Nate Wooley. Without burning through another thesaurus, trying to describe the sounds that one man can squeeze out of a piece of brass, Wooley as with Courvoisier, can turn on a dime and alternate between rich melodic passages and extended technique often in the same measure. Depending on the track, 'Salt Task' for example, he combines with the piano in such a way that sounds like a falling airplane with screaming passengers audible throughout the horrible descend.

Chris Corsano is the wild card here for me. After listening to the album a few times, I realized that Corsano had slipped through the cracks. With a re-evaluation of my focus, he jumped into the forefront and ran with it. On 'Tall Stalks', he sits out for a few seconds and slowly enters with thunderous rolls and an equally delicate hand on the cymbals. The sheer speed that he generate on this track is stellar. Highly listenable on is own, he still becomes the edges of the puzzle that everything else eventually fits into.

So there are the parts of its sum. The sum of its parts is the weaving of these minds, lips, fingers and techniques that produce a very enjoyable listen indeed.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sylvie Courvoisier, Mark Feldman, Ikue Mori, and Evan Parker - Miller’s Tale (Intakt, 2016) ****

By Derek Stone

Sylvie Courvoisier is a Brooklyn-based pianist, composer, and improvisor that the readership of this blog is probably well aware of; with over 25 records released as a leader, and around 30 as a sideperson, she’s an undoubtedly prolific force in the world of contemporary jazz. Luckily for us, 2016 and the early part of 2017 seem to mark a rather active period for Courvoisier, after a relative dearth of recorded output in 2015. Her studio output has surged recently, and now there is a steady supply of recordings with which she can pull listeners into her captivating sound-world. Recorded in 2015, Miller’s Tale is the first of these I’d like to draw readers’ attention to. Along with Courvoisier, Miller’s Tale features Mark Feldman on piano, Evan Parker on tenor and soprano saxes, and Ikue Mori on electronics.

One of the most distinctive aspects of this album lies in the track sequencing; while the first four pieces are full-group improvisations, the last five feature various duo configurations, so that Miller’s Tale becomes a kind of treatise on the dynamics of improvisational group interplay, and how the basic building blocks (e.g. the players) can be switched and substituted to produce results that are often quite divergent. Compare, for instance, “The Reason Why” and “Nothing’s Planted,” which are sequenced side-by-side on the album. While the former has the structure of a conversation, with Parker responding in kind to the melodic phrases that Feldman turns out, the latter seems more like a soliloquy held in the middle of some dense, sweltering jungle - Parker’s ever-inquisitive tenor is on its own, with Mori’s electronics offering little in the way of footholds for him to latch onto. When Feldman and Mori get the chance to engage in a duo improvisation, as in “Riding on a Smile and a Shoeshine,” the effect is equally disquieting; Feldman plucks and pulls at his instrument, drawing out a range of uncanny tones that, in the context of Mori’s enveloping waves of digital detritus, sound absolutely ghostly.

When held up against the dialogic intimacy of the duo improvisations, the tracks in which the full group plays are almost narrative in the way they unfold, with voices constantly bubbling up and dissipating. Considering that Miller’s Tale seems to be either an homage to or an account of the life of famed playwright Arthur Miller (all of the track titles are direct references to either works that Miller has produced or quotations within those works), this is hardly surprising. “Death of a Salesman” opens with Feldman’s distinctive violin, and soon introduces a range of characters: Courvoisier’s percussive plinks-and-plunks, Mori’s understated gurgles, and Parker’s breathless runs.

If the first track is a rapid-fire exchange between old friends, the second, “A View from the Bridge,” is the moment when the conversation has dipped into the bittersweet well of history - atop Courvoisier’s rumbling, drone-like foundation, Parker and Feldman construct minor-key monuments to the past.

The longest piece, “The American Dream,” could very well be taken as an indictment of that which its title references, especially given the current political climate (and considering that two members of the group, Courvoisier and Mori, immigrated to, and have become permanent residents of, the United States). Here, Feldman’s violin can only be described as anguished, shifting through a series of lamentations that always seem to be on the verge of buckling under their own emotional weight. Mori accents this sense of despair with her own burbling rivulets and insectile chirps - anyone familiar with her work knows that she has long been a master of such textures, but they have yet to lose their power to disarm and unnerve. With little-to-no rhythmic underpinning, and a similar lack of melodic anchors, these group improvisations rely on the ability of the players to emulate conversation - the turn-taking, the constant recycling of old ideas, the unplanned arrival of new ideas, and the strained silences. Miller’s Tale has all of this and more, and it represents some of the finest that free jazz has to offer.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Philip Gibbs…

By Chris Haines

Philip Gibbs is a prolific improviser whose work quite often flies under the radar. He self-taught himself how to play the guitar at the age of 13 and has been developing his style, technique and vocabulary ever since. One of the key developments in his playing being a two handed tapping technique that he developed in the ‘80’s and has been refining in different contexts through to the present day. He seems to use this with great effect and it appears to have become quite a significant feature in his armoury of techniques in a very adaptive and flexible way where he has such control that it is more of an approach to playing the instrument as opposed to just another trick or quirky effect. Having been an erstwhile colleague of Paul Dunmall he has appeared on many of the saxophonist’s recordings, including some of the albums recently reviewed as part of our Paul Dunmall week (here, herehere). Here are a couple more recently released albums in which Gibbs features.

Philip Gibbs – Infinite Spirit Perfect Now (Environmental Studies, 2016) ****

This is a set of solo guitar improvisations, which gives us the chance to hear Gibbs’ intricate and often delicate sound structures and textures that have furnished other recordings, often groups, without any other distraction. Derek Bailey comments in his book Improvisation (1992) that for the majority of improvisers the work is about playing with other people, however at some time or another most improvisers explore the notion of solo playing, even though it may seem to contradict the relational content of improvisational collectivism. Personally, I find the exploration of solo playing to be at the very point of improvisation, with the development of a personal vocabulary, complete self-exploration, inward focus, sustainability and a singular vision honing the overall musicality of the musician into something coherent, consistent and individually creative. With Infinite Spirit Perfect Now this is exactly what we get.

The album consists of a set of pieces ranging in length from one minute through to thirteen minutes that provide us with explorative playing, a unity within the material and a coherent outlook throughout the whole of the album. The album starts with one of the shorter tracks ‘A Mad Dreaming’ which is a beautiful vignette with harp-like glissandos and something which sounds like a cross between an African instrument, such as the Kora, with a slight hint of Flamenco guitar added in. This is then followed by the longest piece ‘The Cosmic Mirror’, a much more worked through piece with relation to the material and technique being presented. With an array of similar but subtly differentiated sounds resembling percussive drumming, prepared piano, hammered dulcimer, and musical boxes all being produced through a tour de force of his two handed tapping technique. ‘Alignment’ offers another slight colouration with the exploration of a narrow envelope administered through a ‘wah-wah’ type pedal to good effect, whilst ‘Multiversal-Dance’ a binary form piece contrasting what sounds like the imitation of a balafon (Wooden African Xylophone), produced by virtuosic tapping in a smooth legato style, with that of an object being slid and bounced over the strings in the latter half. The use of pointillistic textures, the gradation of subtlety of tone and the variation of references to ethnic instrumentation produces a complex and interesting set of pieces presented in a very modest way.

Langford, Gibbs, Skerman, Anstey, Kirkbridge – Exchange (Freetone, 2017) ***½

If Infinite Spirit Perfect Now showcases Gibbs’ solo playing then Exchange clearly demonstrates his contributions as a highly experienced musician within an improvising collective, which he has done so effectively for many years. Gibbs’ style of playing is very empathetic with others playing and his own contributions tend to blend in so well with the overall sound environment that often his highly rhythmic patterns and complex percussive textures tend not to sound like a guitar at all. The group on Exchange consists of Mark Langford (bass clarinet & tenor sax), Roger Skerman (drums), Paul Anstey (bass), Hugh Kirkbride (bass) and Gibbs (electric guitar). It is a similar line-up to the group which released Fringe Music (2014), but incorporating another bass in Kirkbride and with Skerman taking up the drum role instead of Bob Helson.

There are eight tracks on the album, each with a suggestive title such as ‘Scuttle’, ‘Fizzle’ or ‘Stream’. I’m not sure whether these titles were applied afterwards or if they were given before the improvisations for semi-instructive purposes and the connotations that they might hold for a performance. From a listeners point of view it’s very tempting to ‘read’ meaning into these musical events especially with such pregnant titles. Tracks such as ‘Chaser’, a two horse jaunt for the double basses, with its naturally sounding overlapping dialogic phrases, whilst the undulated, growing and then fade out of ‘Ripple’ seems to buy into this thinking. Gibbs’ distorted guitar is at the forefront of ‘Trag’ with it’s pyrotechnic display of wails, screams and swirling waves of uproariousness, making full use of the space that Langford’s tacit sax has left. The last track ‘Bird Fish Snake’ moves away from the more direct improvisational approach, that the rest of the album takes, and bears a distinct free jazz feel to it, with Langford’s sax providing a more linear melodic line over the comped chords of Gibbs’ guitar.

Overall the playing on this album is a careful balance of equality between the sounds and the musicians intent, a true collective, with individual instruments coming to the fore on occasion or by circumstance such as when certain others aren’t playing.

Philip Gibbs seems to have been quite prolific over the years with performances such as these within improvisational collectives, and it is also satisfying to hear his solo work with the craft and creativity that his singular vision brings to this.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Evan Parker, Mikołaj Trzaska, John Edwards, Mark Sanders — City Fall - Live at Cafe Oto (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2016) ****½

By Martin Schray

John Edwards (double bass) and Mark Sanders (drums) were my musicians of the year for 2016. Although I was aware of them, somehow I hadn’t realised what an outstanding rhythm section they are (though such a description only scratches the surface). Last year I saw them twice – first, with Frank Paul Schubert (saxes) and Matthias Müller (trombone) as Foils Quartet in Weikersheim, where Edwards played one of the most spectacular bass solos I’ve ever heard, and then in a superb show with Roscoe Mitchell at the Métèo Festival in Mulhouse. They‘re able to lift a good performance to a great one.

Their history with Evan Parker goes back to the wonderful 1997 FMP release London Air Lift (with guitarist John Russell) and the equally splendid The Two Seasons (Emanem, 2000). Since then Edwards has joined Parker in various groups and he and Sanders have become a potent, and ubiquitous, pairing. With the exception of Spring Heel Jack’s The Sweetness of the Water however, the three have never recorded in the same band again, until this album.

Edwards’ and Sanders’ qualities lie in their acute ears and subtlety, as heard at the beginning of in “In Case of Fire“ – both are top-flight free players who complement the two horns. Sanders’ drumming pumps and pushes, full of ringing and shimmering details, while Edwards is both lyrical and brutally energetic, full of unexpected twists and turns, refining Barry Guy’s “all-over“ approach. In the first minutes of the recording he even sounds like an alternative rock bassist gone wild.

And then there are the two reeds. No one who follows this blog doubts Evan Parker’s virtuosic tenor technique – elaborate and spectacular (his circular breathing solos) – but he’s not out to impress. He rather concentrates on timing and placement, the correct cue to contribute something important. Here, it’s the ease with which he counters the quicksilver runs of Mikołaj Trzaska. The Polish alto sax and bass clarinet player sounds very different from Parker, boisterous and soulful, more like Peter Brötzmann or Ken Vandermark. It’s also striking what a remarkably consistent player Trzaska is. Often, even the best musicians find it hard to reach their optimum level, but he’s able to maintain a high batting average in a variety of contexts  (check out Stef’s deep dive on him here).

The combination of the two saxophones can be heard in the opening track, the forty-three minute “Hunting Moon”. When Trzaska joins Parker just over half-way through, their phrasing is so interlocked and focused that they sing as in a choir – the ever-changing nuances and contrasting tonalities suffusing each other, creating a finely woven mesh. Shortly after that bass and drums drop out and the sax lines artfully overlap, revealing distinct musical colours.

The music on City Fall is a testament to a deep affinity, a shared consciousness and respect, referring to a tradition that goes back to the early days of European free music. The best example is the encore “Eternity for a Little While“, beginning with Parker and Trzaska in a saxophone duet, with the latter starting a swinging lick, before the others literally saw it up.

City Fall - Live at Cafe Oto is a perfect example of how a real unit can work. Edwards and Sanders are like a V 12-cylinder engine boosted to - say - 700 horsepower, with turbochargers in the shape of the two horns.

Unfortunately, the album - a double-CD - was released on 23rd December, 2016, so it didn’t make it into my annual Top Ten. It’s definitely one of last year’s best releases.

You can buy it from the label’s bandcamp site, where you can also preview all the tracks:

Watch “Eternity for a Little While“ live:

Friday, February 17, 2017

Matt Turner and Hal Rammel - As on a Pivot of Air (Penumbra, 2016) ****

By Paul Acquaro

As on a Pivot of Air is a 10" vinyl gem that snuck out into the wild late last year. The record is a fascinating soundscape featuring Amplified Palette inventor and player Hal Rammel and cellist Matt Turner. The opener 'The Windows are Frameless' sees the duo ensconced in calm, the atmosphere accentuated by creaks, clops, and double stops. The second track, 'Opening without Glass' takes the same sounds but amplifies and accelerates them. There is pulse, a breath, and a melodic sense brought about by the intersection of the unusual instrumentation and Turner's versatile playing.

The first side is over too soon, but side two starts with 'Outlines Grow Shadowy', which features upbeat repeated figures from Turner, and Rammel responding with percussive clatter and resonant plunks - in a sense, his instrument is like a prepared piano, but at the same time, it is not like a piano at all. The track ends in a frenetic friction-full climax led by a sawing cello. 'Out of the Glowing Haze' ends the album in a more subdued manner. Rammel uses the Palette to generate a percussive foundation for Turner's muted scrapes, while a vaguely menacing 'wind' like sound fills the air around them.

As on a Pivot of Air is a fascinating and accessible document of the beauty that can be found in extended techniques. 

Check out the video below to see an Amplified Palette in action:

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Three from Joe McPhee

By Eyal Hareuveni

“Remember, freedom is a work in progress”, recites Joe McPhee on his duo album with French flutist Jérôme Bourdellon. He is clearly referring to the American political climate, both historic and current, but McPhee's poetic insight is also relevant to the art of free improvisation. These three recent releases from McPhee, with old comrades and heroes of this unique art, stress the profound caloric content of the encounters between long standing collaborators. It is the just and right music for these wrong times.

Joe McPhee / Daunik Lazro - The Cerkno Concert: Music for Legendary Heroes (Klopotec, 2016) *****

McPhee began his collaboration with French sax player Daunik Lazro at the beginning of the nineties. They recorded as a duo (Élan, Impulse, In Situ, 1992), as the A.M.I.S Quartet with fellow McPhee collaborators French flutist Jérôme Bourdellon and reeds player André Jaume (For Frank Wright, Label Usine, 1994), as a sax trio with Evan Parker, self-titled release (Vand’Oeuvre, 1996, and Seven Pieces (Clean Feed, 2016 - reviewed below), as the Lazro Quintet (Dourou. Blue Regard, 1997), and again as a quartet with another McPhee collaborator, guitarist Raymond Boni (Next To You, émouvance, 2006). The Cerkno Concert was recorded live on May 2016 at the Cerkno Jazz Festival, Slovenia.

Joe McPhee plays the pocket trumpet, alto sax, and sings. Daunik Lazro plays the baritone sax except from one piece where he plays the tenor sax. The six improvisations and a McPhee only composition, “Voices for Alto and Tenor” all highlight the rich, resourceful language that these masters share. Both enjoy the intimacy of the duo format, exploring sounds and shifting dynamics. McPhee and Lazro let their breaths converse and sing gently, blossom organically, and fly away, patiently gravitating into an abstract theme, even a subtle melody, or a light swinging rhythmic pattern. The set reaches its emotional climax with “Remembering Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler (in a caravan of dreams given form)”, this last piece not only pays homage to these great forefathers of free jazz but demonstrates how their ideas are still relevant and invigorating with a brilliant quote of Ayler’s “Ghosts”.

Beauty is a rare thing and The Cerkno Concert is the real thing.

Joe McPhee / Jérôme Bourdellon - Octoblue (Label Usine, 2016) ****

After the McPhee and Bourdellon collaboration in the short-lived A.M.I.S Quartet, they continued to work as a duo and recorded Novio Iolu - Music For A New Place in 1998, followed two years later with Manhattan Tango, recorded at Alain Kirili's loft in Manhattan's Tribeca (both albums also released by Label Usine). Octoblue was recorded on November 2012 at Culturel Center Pablo Picasso in Blénod-lès-Pont-à-Mousson, North-Eastern France. Octoblue features McPhee's poem “Eroc Tinu”, written after a concert of pianist Cecil Taylor on April 28, 1979 in New York. The title of the poem is the palindrome of Unit Core, the name of the label created by Taylor, when he could not find a label to produce his music at that time. The album also draws inspiration from the tragic history of the Africans who were brought to America as slaves and the opening piece, “Deep See Dancers”, refers to incidents where slaves were thrown from ships because they were sick or injured.

Bourdillon plays on octobass flute, bass flute, c flute, piccolo and bass clarinet. McPhee focuses on the pocket trumpet, plays the Bb clarinet on one piece, vocalizes and recites his poetry. Their interaction is immediate, urgent, and profound, playing like a restless, two-headed entity. Bourdellon's experimental, extended breathing techniques trigger McPhee to mirror these sonic searches with sympathetic sonorous explorations with his pocket trumpet and clarinet. Bourdellon and McPhee transform their instruments into generators of fascinating and abstract breaths and winds sounds, creating quiet storms in a bucket of water and suggest meditative drones. McPhee adds moving blues chants and recitations as if he was a monk from the Far-East. The two even offer an update to the Marxist anthem 'The International' on “International Spirit”, much more stormy and intense version than the original one, and play a heartfelt tribute to the late pianist Borah Bergman, with McPhee playing a toy piano.

Joe McPhee / Evan Parker / Daunik Lazro - Seven Pieces : Live at Willisau 1995 (Clean Feed, 2016) ****½

The sax trio of Evan Parker. McPhee and Lazro performed in France, Germany and Switzerland in the mid-nineties. Unfortunately, just one recording documented this master trio, a self-titled live album that was released in 1996 by the French label Vand’Oeuvre. Seven Pieces was also recorded live, six days later after the the recording of the first album, on May 19th, 1995 in Willisau, Switzerland, and recovered recently from an old cassette, containing two sets from this concert, by French recording engineer (and electronics musician) Jean-Marc Foussat.

Parker and McPhee have collaborated before, recording two duo albums, Chicago Tenor Duets (Okka disk, 2002) and What If/They Both Could Fly (Rune Grammofon, 2013). Here Parker plays tenor and soprano saxes, Lazro the alto and baritone saxes, and McPhee the alto and soprano saxes, alto clarinet, and pocket trumpet. The three sound inseparable, dancing closely around each other on the emotional, reflective “Echoes of Memory” and the more muscular “Tree Dancing”, chatting like ecstatic birds on “Broadway Limited” or sketching a gentle, minimalist ballad on “Concertino in Blue”, making it impossible to tell who play what. The duet of Parker and Lazro “Sweet Dreams of Flying”, and later Parker solo, “Florid (for G.L.)”, with a masterful usage of circular breathing, already emphasizes their distinct voices, Parker's more serpentine yet structured one, while Lazro's is more free associative. McPhee’s playing of the pocket trumpet on the last, “To Rush at the Wind”, charges the trio subtle interplay with an urgent, wilder tone, inviting some Aylerian cries and shouts,

More than twenty years later, these pieces still sound fresh, relevant as ever.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Gorilla Mask - Iron Lung (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Philip Coombs

My mother, to this day, still has horrible recollections of growing up in a very small town on the east-coast of Canada when polio was sweeping its way across the continent. It wasn’t the disease that had her terrified, it was the cure. She had seen the worried, crying and seemingly disembodied heads of children her age sitting inside this steel medical contraption; this Iron Lung. Still vivid some 60 years later.

So it was on this premise that I started listening to the cure, Gorilla Mask’s Iron Lung. And times have changed, some two generations later, I relish feeling better already.

Peter Van Huffel (alto saxophone), Roland Fidezius (electric bass, effects) and Rudi Fischerlehner (drums) come straight out of the gate with a driving complex tune that screams, not only with the Gorilla Mask intensity, but also a new layer of maturity. 'Hammerhead' combines the sleekness of truncated rhythms mixed with freer jazz interludes which rarely gives your ears time to get a grasp of which direction they are heading in. This is followed up with 'Before I Die', which Fidezius’ bass sets the tone and becomes the foundation of the track as it pounds through the tune. It starts with a fist shaped pick and slowly evolves into a reggae grove with some harmonic effects added for good measure. Huffel enters with a note like he is stabbing a flag into a newly discovered land. This is sounding like a band who have played together for some time and are confident in what they want and how it should sound as this record is produced by Huffel himself.

The record is a real juxtaposition between hard driving punk inspired riffs on tracks like 'Thump!' and more subtle statements like 'Crooked', where Fischeriehner brings a different side of his playing and Fidezius introduces us to his bag of electronic tricks. It is this diversity that adds to their mature sound. Then enters 'Blood Stain' that is a combination of both of these principles.

Iron Lung sounds like a book of chapters that need to be read in order and carefully. Once you do, the novel becomes something bigger, a testament to a band hitting their stride and looking more and more into the future. So let the big iron machine force open your chest cavity and let it fill up with air because you will need it when you sing along with this one.

Here is a great example of their sound:

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Catching Up with Ernesto Rodrigues

By Dan Sorrells

Ernesto Rodrigues has a formidable discography. After launching Creative Sources in 2001 to begin documenting his own music, the label has grown to become an icon of free music—especially music preoccupied with silence and space, texture and timbre. As the label has expanded to encompass more artists, Rodrigues has continued to release his own projects and collaborations with musicians from across the globe. Now, more than 15 years later and with over 100 releases to his name, it can be intimidating to approach Rodrigues’ oeuvre. But it would be a shame to avoid it for fear of not knowing where to start.

Though all born of the same musical sensibility, Rodrigues’ discography could be grouped according to the varied approaches he takes to free improvisation. There are his large group experiments like Variable Geometry Orchestra, IKB, or Suspensão; his lowercase pursuits with musicians like Martin Küchen, Heddy Boubaker and Radu Malfatti; and livelier, more ‘traditional’ interplay on early discs like Multiples or recent releases with musicians like Roland Ramanan, Biliana Voutchkova, and Phillip Greenlief.  There are also long-form engagements: with electroacoustic music and the use of computers and electronics in improvisation; with other strings, pushing ceaselessly against conservatory conceptions of string instruments and their place in music; and ongoing dialogues with close musical comrades like Carlos Santos, José Oliveira, Nuno Torres, and his son, Guilherme Rodrigues, who has appeared on many of his albums, dating back to the first Creative Sources release.

Regardless of the specific approach, there’s an aesthetic that underlies all of Rodrigues’ music, one that values the space that surrounds him as much as the music he then puts into it.  It also values the spaces between sounds and gestures, constantly weighing the balance between what exists in the moment before a musical act and what that act might add. David Toop writes in Into the Maelstrom that “music is a respiratory motion – created in the moment of action then fading away – and through that common bond of presence and absence all sounds are connected.” Thinking of music in terms of breathing—especially improvised music like Rodrigues’—has a certain appeal: something about sound as an exhalation; about silence as the corresponding inhalation, a necessary rest between sounds pushed out into being (and from which all is drawn in that gives those sounds meaning); about organic and corporeal rhythm, tied not to strict tempo but to the thrumming energy that marks the very state of being alive.

Here are a few places to start: all released in 2016 or 2017, and most recorded within that same period. Rodrigues is restless. More concerts are being played, more albums are being recorded, being mixed, being pressed in the factory as you read this. Don’t worry about keeping up. There are pleasures to be had in choosing one and listening closely. Afterward, there will always be  more to explore.

Variable Geometry Orchestra – Maat Mons (Creative Sources, 2016)

As always, the geometry is of the n-dimensional sort. The number of dimensions that vary is impressive: membership, instrumentation, location, duration, and so on. Certainly, the overall shape of each VGO performance is highly variable, like a murmuration of birds, as I alluded to in a review of the earlier Lulu Auf dem Berg. VGO remains a compelling attempt to harness the timbral and dynamic range of an orchestra while maintaining the flexibility in structure and individual freedoms afforded by improvisation. Maat Mons is scaled back from the enormous undertaking of Quasar, released earlier in 2016 and featuring the largest group on record to date, with 46 members. The 21 musicians on Maat Mons are less than half that number, but as with all VGO performances, a mere head count reveals little about the direction the music will take.

The piece rouses slowly, maintaining a low volume and a jittery, charged air of possibility as small groups of players make exploratory advances. But soon Rodrigues changes tack, and Maat Mons harkens back to the bigger free jazz-inspired sound of the group’s earliest recordings, as tapping cymbals and an animated bass line sketch out a shaky groove and the horns begin to raise their voices. As the music becomes more dynamic, illusions of figure and ground emerge in the unplaceable, shuffling timbre of nearly two dozen musicians. The listener is moved through the space in which the musicians are performing, one instrument momentarily the focal point, only to be subsumed in the din and the focus shifted to someone else, the foreground and background in constant flux. Three-quarters through the performance, the music drops to near silence, irregular dribbles of piano over a canvass of radio static and Maria Radich’s sibilant whispers.

Suspensão – Théatron (Creative Sources, 2016)

In Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, he writes of a character who, listening to music in an old timber building, would hope to find “the crowd of dust-motes that he sometimes saw swirling or drifting in a shaft of sunlight.” As he listened to old records, “the movement of the specks” made him “think of energy held in check or of meaning waiting to be expressed. At any moment, the yellow motes might break out of the aimless-seeming formation and might arrange themselves far otherwise; might even comprise a set of signs requiring to be read.”

Théatron called this passage to mind, though instead of accompanying music, the swirling specks are the music itself: sound-motes held in suspension, loosely formed and in constant rearrangement, a set of transient signs hung delicately in the air. The 11-strong Suspensão ensemble deploys its numbers in the service of detail, rather than volume or density—an accumulation of details so fine, in fact, it’s hard to tell whether some are intentional or incidental. Each musician suspends a sound, holding it out into the space, and then another and another, sounds at times hanging in tandem, but all eventually dropping away to be replaced anew. It is music that feels too coherent to be improvised, but which you know could never have been composed.

The hourlong performance is the ninth “Suspensão” piece, continuing work developed on the 2011 double-album of the same name and 2015’s Jadis La Pluie Était Bleue.

IKB – Chelonoidis Nigra (Creative Sources, 2016)

The IKB ensemble – named for the International Klein Blue that adorns the album art of each release – is the sweetspot of Rodrigues’ musical world, as far as I’m concerned. It checks all the boxes: quiet, considered improvisation, but with a bit more lively interaction; a group large enough to pique interest, but not to drown out detailed dialogue; a cast of long-time, dedicated collaborators; an established aesthetic that continues to pay dividends; and a strong emphasis on performance tailored to the unique acoustics of each venue.

Chelonoidis Nigra is the fifth IKB album, recorded live at the end of November 2015 with a 16-piece ensemble. It’s quiet music that you want to experience loudly; it often feels as though, if you could only get a little closer to the sound, whole new levels of activity would be revealed, bustling just beyond earshot. A large group playing quiet music subverts expectations, but there’s a big benefit: low volume forces musicians to listen more closely. Musicians become more invested in a collective sound, shaping one giant sonic event, rather than trading in sixteen competing ones.

Ernesto and I have talked about the fluidity even in his “fixed” groups. Often the logistics of getting musicians together results in fluctuations in size and membership, IKB being no exception. But in many ways, this also benefits the music: it shifts the focus away from personalities and onto the music alone. An underlying concept or matured aesthetic is retained across performances, and so a group can become just the sound: IKB is one species among many. In its approach, an antidote emerges to the negative “excess of expression” Rui Eduardo Paes often hears in improvised music. In the liner notes to Sudden Music, one of Rodrigues’ earliest records, he writes that “the music that we listen to here is ‘sudden’ because it emerges as if by miracle from a surface that we thought neutral (silence) to disappear at once, as if it had never existed.” In the measured investigations of Chelonoidis Nigra, the silence gives, and the silence takes away.

Korhan Erel, Elena Kakaliagou, Jonas Kocher, Hannah Marshall, Dirk Marwedel, Theo Nabicht, Ulrich Phillipp, Ernesto Rodrigues, Wolfgang Schliemann, Nicolas Souchal – HumaNoise Tutti (Creative Sources, 2017)

HumaNoise Tutti is an opportunity to hear Rodrigues in a large group that’s not of his own devising—though there is often such complex and varied activity here, it would be misleading to evaluate it in the context of any one individual. The HumaNoise Congress is an annual gathering of international musicians in Wiesbaden, Germany, who over the course of several days play in every combination and as a group à la Derek Bailey’s Company weeks.

HumaNoise Tutti features three long performances of the full decet, which morph from clamorous counterpoint to restive drones to faint whispers and flits of sound. A rundown of the instrumentation gives an idea of the aural diversity: electronics, French horn, accordion, cello, extended saxophone, contrabass clarinet, double bass, viola, percussion, trumpet. There’s a broad range of musical experience and temperament here, though as with much modern free improvisation, close listening and the suppression of individual virtuosity in the service of atmosphere is the rule (although Souchal opens “Sunday Evening” with a lyrical and rather direct turn on trumpet). In the 21st century, we’re starting to see how lessons from the many “factions” of free improvisation that have arisen over the last 50 years might be pooled into a larger musical practice, one that transcends—or at the very least bridges—idiosyncratic philosophies, scenes, and techniques.

Fernando Perales, Abdul Moimême, Ernesto Rodrigues – Siete Colores (Creative Sources, 2016)

Siete Colores presents a trio of Rodrigues’ viola and the dual electric guitars of Moimême and Argentinean Fernando Perales (perhaps best known for the group Reynols with Anla Courtis). As “23º44'00"S 65º29'00" O” opens what’s immediately notable is the reverb, which lends the impression the music was recorded in a cavernous environment. However, as the piece moves on, there are hints this might be an illusion—effects applied to Perales’ guitar—and that your brain has been fooled in the way reverb easily fools it: into imagining the great open space required to produce what are only artificial reflections of sound. For their part, Rodrigues and Moimême inhabit this imaginary cavern, sounding its depths, generating music with the odd quality of being both ominous and bright.

At the start of “4170 m”, Rodrigues touches bow to string with such lightness that it sounds like the faintest breath through a horn, a remarkable evocation of respiration via vibrating string. The guitars sound so distant, it’s as though they are in another room, or part of another recording altogether that someone is listening to somewhere else far away. Listening feels like a suspension—like walls and floors have dropped away and no matter which direction you reach, nothing solid, tangible will ever be touched. Sound waves may travel through the medium of air, but this music produces a kind of synesthesia, a mental image of prismatic light rippling through the aether, or sunrays splayed upon Seven Colors Hill in northwest Argentina, from which the album takes its name.

Ilia Belorukov, Ernesto Rodrigues, Nuno Torres – Tak Prosto (Creative Sources, 2016)

Tak Prosto is another interesting trio that pits Rodrigues’ viola against a doubled instrument: this time the alto saxophones of Creative Sources regular Nuno Torres and Russian Ilia Belorukov, who in recent years has been increasingly documented by Mikroton Recordings. Tak Prosto consists of a studio track and a longer live recording captured on the previous day.

“Studio” mines saxophone territory similar to musicians like Michel Doneda or Seymour Wright, with an intense focus on controlling very quiet—almost precarious—pitches, sounds that are nearing the edge of the players’ ability to control. These often breathy explorations meld fluidly with Rodrigues’ feathered touch, which often activates the strings just enough to shave off a few wispy harmonics. “Live,” recorded as described at Vertikal Gallery in St. Petersburg, sheds the crisp, sanitized sound of the studio. At times it feels like a fog, or like looking through a hazy film: tones are stretched thinly, slowly, and here and there the outside world seeps through, doors or footsteps, low voices, a distant phone, an inexplicable woodblock tapping that may be the musicians, but may also be someone else, an unwitting accomplice. By the end, what began as a quiet piece of “lowercase” eventually awakens into a louder repartee, with Torres and Belorukov sputtering Parkeresque lines with their strange quality of pulsing time.

Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues, Monsieur Trinité – Aether (Creative Sources, 2016)

Aether opens on frail strings that barely have enough mass to register as sounds. From Monsieur Trinité’s small percussion you begin to get a sense of the open space of the Panteão Nacional, which was formerly a 17th century Baroque church. It’s the same venue that lent the almost psychedelic blurring of sound to previous records like VGO’s Lulu Auf dem Berg and IKB’s Rhinocerus. As “Hesiod” progresses, the strings thicken in tone, Guilherme’s deep pizzicato plucks resounding like notes tossed down a well.

The word “aether” makes me think of something unsettled by the most delicate of touches, set into motion at the slightest provocation, the sense of some disturbed field of energy that a musician is certainly aware of when playing in a massively reverberant space. Ernesto has talked of his interest in site-specific playing, acknowledging the importance of the performance space in shaping music. There are a few moments in “Hyginus” where single viola notes are allowed to fully decay, laying bare the enormous natural reverb in the Pantheon. At one point, the Rodrigues scrape the hairs of their bows along the instruments’ wooden edges, a sound so sharp it sounds like splintering wood, a tree crashing down in the forest. Notes return like boomerangs. But no matter the strength of the attack, each gesture is ultimately engulfed by the Pantheon, slowly stretched and smeared in a sonic environment that effaces all sounds, pulling them into gossamer threads of silence.

Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues, Adam Goodwin, Kriton B. – Nuc Box Hums (Creative Sources, 2017)

A friction quartet, at times quite energized. In addition to viola, cello, and double bass, the instrumentation is notable for Kriton B.’s daxophone, a rather obscure instrument in the class of “friction idiophone,” which consists of a wooden block with contact microphones that can be fitted with a variety of different wooden “tongues,” which are then played with a bow and a second piece of wood called a “dax” that is used to adjust pitch and timbre. The resulting music exists outside the idea of notes, scales, or any other neat Western organization of sound. Still, the daxophone has an affinity with the strings: an impressive array of rasping, scraping, whining sounds, all undoubtedly connected to the pressure and tension of objects rubbing together, and which fit snuggly within more rough-hewn methods for playing string instruments. One is reminded of skull resonance, of sound as a vibration transmitted through a solid object rather than through the air.

The album and song titles are all related to beekeeping, although I hear less Kent Carter’s “insect music” than perhaps the creaks and groans of the wooden nuc boxes themselves as they thrum with activity, as though the contact mics had been embedded in the very walls of the artificial hive. The pieces range from the creaking drones of wind whipping through an old barn to incredibly tense knots of activity, the sense of torsion palpable, like branches being bent and twisted into splinters or the sound beneath the waves as a ship gets tossed against the rocks. The daxophone pushes the three string players away from clean tones and traditional playing: instead, they meet its strange challenge by rubbing strings, bowing wooden bodies, plying out harmonics, or pizzicato attacks with no particular note in mind.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ballister — Slag (Aerophonic Records, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

Ballister is Dave Rempis on saxophones, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums, and Slag is their sixth album.  On all their releases they've tried to stick to their original concept of fire-spitting, adrenaline-fueled music, but always looking to add new ingredients to the brew. There were the energetic explosions of their self-released debut Bastard String (2011), the blues-indebted riffs of Mechanisms (Clean Feed, 2012), the increasingly fragmented musical worlds of Mi Casa Es En Fuego (self-released, 2013) and the experimental hardcore melancholia of Worse for the Wear (Aerophonic, 2015).

Their new album is a mixture of all the above. It picks up the uncompromising approach of tracks like “Fornax“ from Worse for the Wear and it follows the same structure of their CD releases (due to format, the LP and cassette releases are different) – three tracks of more than ten minutes, the first one always a real killer, the second more introspective, the last optional (speedcore jazz or sound exploration). As on Worse for the Wear the song titles reflect a theme: for their last album they used constellations ("Fornax", "Scutum" and "Vulpecula"), now the tracks are named after medieval polearm weapons ("Fauchard", "Guisarme" and "Glaive"), which fits the sometimes belligerent attitude of the music (weapon fetishists can have a look here).

"Fauchard", the opening track, is a typical Ballister piece. It consists of a five-part sequence: first the band sprinting out of the gate with music of pure attack. Lonberg-Holm’s distorted cello sounds more like an electric shredder and Nilssen-Love’s drumming makes you think you’re in a particle accelerator. Both push Rempis, who manages to stay ahead of them with his shrieking, fast, overblown licks (listen to the marvelous passage at about the five minute mark). In this context his affinity with Peter Brötzmann shines through. Nilssen-Love almost brings the piece to a halt by dropping out at top speed - an effective trick often used by Han Bennink. Rempis and Lonberg-Holm seem puzzled, resulting in an unusually contemplative passage. The third part finds Nilssen-Love back in the game and immediately the piece is back in the previous mode, with Lonberg-Holm’s brutal attacks putting you through the grinder again. The fourth section sees Rempis leaving the arena to cello and drums, another quiet phase with Nilssen-Love mainly on cymbals. The last part loops back the beginning, powered by Lonberg-Holm’s feedback orgies and Rempis’ overheated runs going mental again.

Layer over layer, this music is sheer energy – unfiltrated, undisguised – but there are also lines working just under the surface and little gems, like the beautiful duet between Rempis and Lonberg-Holm in “Guisarme“, where the cello/electronics resemble a didgeridoo, or the dark, yet dreamy percussion that dominates large parts of “Glaive“.

The label’s website says that “although the band and these players are often characterized as working in “improvised music,” or “jazz,” or some other equally insufficient moniker, this music rocks in a way that “Rock” hasn’t in years“. Absolutely correct!

Slag was recorded live at Cafe OTO in London in March 2015. It’s available as a CD and a download from the label’s website or from the Downtown Music Gallery.

In addition to this recording, a vinyl LP titled Low Level Stink documenting the group’s Antwerp concert from the same tour, recorded one day earlier, will be available in early April 2017 on the Belgian Dropa Disc label. I’m looking forward to it.

Listen to the album here: