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Monday, July 31, 2017

Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro - 13 Thirteen (Erstwhile, 2017) ****½

By Connor Kurtz

When the apes in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey first encountered the large black rectangular object known as the Monolith, they reacted with extremely strong senses of confusion, fear and curiosity. Soon after, the film showed the creation of the first ever tool, and it was clear to the viewers that it was the Monolith which allowed this to happen. The Monolith didn't bestow any intelligence upon the apes, but it opened them up to the curious abstract thinking that is responsible for all human discoveries (whether it is scientific or artistic). The Monolith has since become an essential concept in popular culture and subject to many metaphors within the art world, but I can't think of any recent examples that are more accurate than the new double album from avant-guitarists Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro, 13 Thirteen.

Keith Rowe and Michael Pisaro are likely names that require no introductions, so I'll keep it brief (although they both have their own long and interesting histories): Rowe has been one of the most prominent figures in free improvisation for 6 decades and counting, with a career starting with the historic AMM group. Pisaro is likely the most famous composer to emerge from the international Wandelweiser group, a group of composers focused on the role silence plays in music and post-Cagean composition, although he has broken out of that role as a prominent avant-garde musician over recent years. They are likely the two most popular musicians releasing music on Erstwhile Records today, and have both become integral parts of the label's aesthetic. Both artists had independently released their own mammoth works which exceed the 2.5 hour runtime of 13 Thirteen on Erstwhile Records just last year (Rowe's 4 hour solo The Room Extended and Pisaro's piano work collection The Earth and the Sky, which isn't much shorter), so it comes as a shock that this album feels larger and more exhausting than either of them.

A likely reason for this comes down to the compositional idea which was used to create 13 Thirteen: both musicians independently created their own scores (sharing nothing more than a common duration of 140 minutes), which they then performed and recorded on their own. They then met and played the two recorded compositions over top of one another, and then improvised live over those recordings. If this weren't already complicated enough, they actually recorded two separate improvisations, which they then edited and mixed together, choosing their favorite parts from each recording [1]. The final result that the listener hears is the two compositions and the edited improvisation, all mixed together by Pisaro. All four of the aspects of 13 Thirteen (Rowe's composition and improvisation, and Pisaro's) stay distinct enough so that the listener can easily guess what the origin of a certain sound might be, but close enough to allow the album to work as a single atmospheric work.

From the album's concept, one might think that this would end up as an overcrowded chaotic mess, but it is saved by the fact that all four aspects end up being quite sparse. There are several moments when the listener is left to meditate on soft tones or static, as well as those where we patiently sit on the edge of our seats while anticipating what may come next in the duo's subtle guitar improvisations. There are, of course, also the occasional moments where egos clash and sounds collide into messes of disorienting noise, but for the most part this consists of nuanced improvisations which show plenty of respect to the other performer. There is no denying that the two play with attentive and cautious ears, making it so events can join together in sequences, allowing one to seem like a trigger for the other, or in moments, allowing the two to create an illogical harmony. I'd say that the album's incessant minimalism and often refusal to progress may become the album's most difficult aspect for many listeners, although I do believe that once the whole set has been digested, the slow pacing feels perfect in retrospect.

Keith Rowe named his score Fate, and his improvisation Life (a reference to Vasily Grossman's 1959 novel Life and Fate, which this reviewer has never read). Fate is a graphic score which was included in the album's beautiful packaging; a scanned image of the score appears below. It is of no surprise that Rowe's composition takes the form of a graphic score, given his long history with Cornelius Cardew's Treatise [2]. What did surprise me, however, is that the score relies heavily on the geometry of the page which it was written on. As can be seen upon careful inspection, several of the written events were designed and placed using straight lines which stretch along the page: this forces a sense of form, as well as patterns, into the otherwise abstract composition. What we also get is several instances of the number 13 used in the sequencing of events; this is something we'll see more blatant examples of in the Pisaro score. The most obvious event in Fate is the plus symbol which occurs many times throughout the score. This symbol takes the sounding form of a hammer-struck chord which makes itself just as obtrusively significant in the recording as it does in the score. Each time the sharp metallic sound rings, it feels important. It isn't a great exaggeration to say that it feels like an aural lobotomy. Every time it sound, it seems like a major stylistic shift should occur, which rarely happens, but it does often act as a trigger for the improvisers to try something different. An alternative reading is that it may represent the ticking of a clock, extremely amplified and slowed down; creating an allusion to the inevitable end that Fate brings to every Life.

Pisaro's score is titled Melody and his improvisation is Event. The score for Melody is sadly not included in the packaging, besides two glimpses of timed whole notes which are printed on the CDs. I'd guess that there are two reasons for this: 1) Melody exists in multiple forms and couldn't possibly be presented as a single image, and 2) Melody doesn't contain the painting-like beauty and intrigue that graphic scores carry. Pisaro's score has two aspects, both taking their material from Dmitri Shostakovich's 13th String Quartet. The first is actual samples from an uncredited recording of the composition. Pisaro takes four short samples from the score (taken from what Pisaro deems to be "turning points" within the piece), and places each of them within his score three times. It's worth adding that, as Pisaro pointed out to me over a very insightful email, four samples multiplied by three repetitions creates 12 sounds, allowing the piece to be split up into 13 sections. The 13th String Quartet begins with a 13-note melody, which makes up the basis of Melody's second aspect: sine tones. The sine tones are actually an extremely slowed and extended version of these first thirteen notes, replayed four times (each in a lower register than the previous). Sampled music is new to Pisaro's compositions, but minimal sine tone patterns are one of his greatest hits. This is an example of one of the album's strongest themes: the combination of the familiar and the new.

The two improvisations have their own surprises as well, as the two musicians refuse to fall back onto the genre's, or their own, clichés. On Life, Rowe performs possibly more subtle, more quiet and, well, less than ever. His interest in simple sustaining static drones seems to have hit a peak, so if the quiet simplicity of his 2015 collaboration with John Tilbury, enough still not to know, seemed slightly boring to you, you likely won't enjoy this one much either. On recent albums like The Room Extended and September, Rowe cemented the use of musical samples and radio snippets as a crucial aspect of his aesthetic, but after hearing that Pisaro would be sampling Shostakovich in his score Rowe decided to leave them at home. This seemed to be a beautiful and selfless idea, as it allows the Shostakovich quotations to play a larger role than they would among a field of radio music. It's no surprise that Rowe is in perfect form here; a lifetime of experience has ensured that the man can do little wrong at this point, even though he still tries his hardest to push himself into undiscovered corners. What I noticed more than ever is that Rowe seems to  listen closely to the sounds around him while performing here, when he used to play quite selfishly (what I mean is that he used to pay little mind to the sounds around him, not that this is necessarily a bad thing). I've already spoken about the idea of one sound sequence triggering another, but it sounds especially wonderful to hear what sounds can stir up change in Rowe's performance.

On Event, Pisaro subverts expectations by playing in a way which is surprisingly not subversive. Pisaro's improvisation covers plenty of ground, but what is most memorable is when he plays simple repeated melodies which would likely feel at home in pop or ambient music. In most free improvisation circles, this style of playing may be seen as too obvious, or cliché; but of course it's context which makes this style so exciting. A reference it carries is to the playing of AMM member John Tilbury, who doubles as Rowe's most frequent collaborator since leaving AMM, who brought subtle breaths of melody and harmony into his improvisations. Pisaro deliberately shakes things up by bringing this to the next step: removing the subtlety from the melody to make it fully present to both Rowe and the listener. Pisaro implemented this strategy in an attempt to pull a different response from him by introducing something foreign, which must have been a great success as I just wrote a paragraph on how unique Rowe's performance was from previous recordings. Pisaro's guitar sounds very clean in comparison to Rowe's, so it presents a welcome accessibility to this otherwise dense and off-kilter recording.

I usually don't mentally separate performers from each other so much when listening to an improvisation, especially when they play the same instrument, but for some reason it seems important here (perhaps due to the fact that the improvisations have their own titles). There is plenty to find interesting in the interplay between the improvisations, as I previously discussed, but they are both also interesting in their own rights. The two have one of the most interesting chemistries I've heard in this style of music (an exciting surprise, because I found that there was a lack of chemistry on last year's improvised Pisaro / Christian Wolff duo), largely due to their completely different styles while still using the same base instrument (an interesting thought brought from my brother is that this actually sounds like there is only one guitarist). This album makes me feel something that I've never felt before from an album, let alone an improvised release, and that's that I'm currently listening to four unique statements at once, and I'm actually able to both enjoy and take in the information from each statement. One could also say that the four join together to create a fifth statement, which allows for a surface level enjoyability before the listener begins to more carefully inspect the nature of what it is that they are listening to.

When we watch 2001 we recognize the Monolith as an unnatural object because of its flawless black colour, and its flat surfaces and right angles. 13 Thirteen is the same – we recognize this as not being natural improvisation due to it often carrying references which must be composed and pre-determined. And more importantly, just like the Monolith, we're left asking why?, and to which there is no answer. All we have is this massive black rectangle, or this two and a half hour piece of music, and we're left to marvel. The Monolith didn't carry intelligence, but it incited intelligence by inspiring curiosity. 13 Thirteen is an album that I am glad to say has both greatly excited me and inspired me, and I believe it is capable of causing a similar effect in many others. 13 Thirteen is certainly a great album on its own, and I think that it will stir up more great albums in its wake.

[1] I recently watched a documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which discussed many of the forward-thinking technological innovations used on the album. One in particular was the use of multiple similar tracks being mixed together, allowing the band to choose the aspects that they like from the individual recordings in a way not dissimilar to what Rowe and Pisaro do here. This tactic has since become extremely popular in popular music, but improvised music still tends to prefer the single live recording method. Here is Erstwhile Records founder Jon Abbey on the matter, in interview with Pitchfork: "The idea was basically to recreate a concert situation: You get into a studio and play a set like it was a show, but recordings aren’t concerts, and concerts aren’t recordings, and I think a lot of people fall down trying to make one equal the other. I also think pure collaborative improv in recording makes less and less sense these days. It can still be great live, in the moment, but as far as recordings, the boundaries of an improv session often kill it before it has a chance to start."

[2] Treatise is a 1967 graphic score by Cornelius Cardew, a member of AMM at the time, which has been performed by Rowe several times in several ensembles. For those interested, here is a link  to the full 194 page score, as well as a link to a fascinating animated analysis of the score.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Peter Brötzmann, Steve Swell & Paal Nilssen-Love - Live in Tel Aviv (2017) ****

By Derek Stone

If ever a group deserved the title of “free jazz power trio,” it would be this one. Legendary reedist Brötzmann, American trombonist Steve Swell, and the mighty Nilssen-Love have been playing together since early 2015, and have two masterful live sets under their belt, Krakow Nights and Live in Copenhagen. Both of those recordings boast a dense, muscular, yet occasionally free-wheeling sound that, in many ways, perfectly encapsulates just what these three players are all about - namely, raw power and fierce creativity. Live in Tel Aviv, which documents an October ‘16 performance by the trio, is the perfect entry-point for those who might be intimidated by the relatively long lengths of those prior albums - at only three-quarters of an hour, it is a thrilling condensation of the group’s strengths.

The set opens forcefully, with a wild call from Brötzmann heralding a half-hour of exhilarating, unbroken improvisation. In the first few minutes of the opening piece, called “The Greasy Grind,” we are shown the group’s wilder, more high-octane side, with Nilssen-Love’s martial, rock-tinged rhythms, Swell’s molten lines that stream out in a feverish rush, and Brötzmann’s ever-potent squawks and bellows all coming together to form a potent brew. As things stretch on, however, a taste is given of the trio’s versatility and range - at one point, for instance, Brötzmann and Swell engage in a tantalizingly brief tango of sorts, dropping their typically harsh tones in favor of rich, full-bodied lines that hint at romance. Later, Brötzmann squeaks out a series of knotty, exotic shapes that serve to ratchet down the overall intensity. Meanwhile, Nilssen-Love is constantly shape-shifting and exploring new rhythmic terrain, moving from powerful pummeled beats to rolling, intricate measures that showcase his control and restraint. On the second piece here, the wonderfully titled “Ticklish Pickle,” Swell’s rubbery sputters and odd permutations open things up and (in the process) remind me that the trombone is severely underutilized in most free jazz groups - its liquid textures and good-natured bounce make for a hell of a listening experience! Around the midpoint, Brötzmann uses and abuses the clarinet to great effect, producing both warm, rich lines and tortured shrieks in the span of a minute.

Live in Tel Aviv is the perfect addition to this trio’s steadily growing discography - it’s a lean, compact distillation of their sound, but it never sacrifices the exploratory spirit found on previous outings. Here’s to hoping for many more releases from these three in the near future.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Hang Em High – Tres Testosterones (Gig Ant / Boomslang Records, 2017) ****

By Rick Joines

Hang Em High: a trio of international bad asses
  • Bond (Polish): two-string bass and electronics
  • Lucien Dubuis (Swiss): clarinets—bass and contrabass
  • Alfred Vogel (Austrian): drums, pots, pans & etc.
Genre of the album called Tres Testosterones
  • Already-Done-Stole-Your-Woman-Cowboy-Noir
  • Low-Down-Psychedelic-Gangster-Blues-Rock
  • Make-My-Day-Punk-Jazz
Alterati accrescitivi
  • to add a suffix to an Italian noun(i nomi alterati), instead of an adjective, to emphasize the noun’s greatness, immensity, length, girth, or potency
  • example: testosterone / testosterones; see also testosterous; testosteroneus
On a May evening in 2012, passing by a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Atwood Tavern—I heard what I assumed was a band covering a Morphine song. I wandered in. Fatback and greens were on the menu. A slew of good Kentucky bourbon lined the back of the bar. What else could a Southern boy do but belly up and enjoy the fare? The band kept playing Morphine songs. Could this possibly be a Morphine tribute band? How unlikely. Yet how cool if it was. Turns out, it wasn’t a cover band at all—it was Vapors of Morphine ><—original members Dana Colley on baritone sax and Jerome Deupree at drums, with Jeremy Lyons replacing the fallen genius, Mark Sandman, on two-string bass and vocals. Once, back at the end of the last century, during my grad school days, I became addicted to Morphine, and now, after a decade off the stuff, I was getting a straight fix. It became immediately addictive again. I dusted off my CDs and starting shooting again.

Somewhere around the time I wandered into Atwood’s, Bond’s old addiction to Morphine also kicked in. He scored a two-string bass, hooked a bass clarinetist and a drummer, and they played a Morphine tribute gig in Poland. In 2013, the trio released Hang Em Highand in 2014, the raucous Beef & Bottle. Tres Testosterones is just as rollicking as those two, but it marks an evolution in the band’s identity and imagination. On this album, Hang Em High perfects the dark, sophisticated acerbic grit reminiscent of Morphine, yet they realize a mischievous, dirty, sexy cleverness that is all their own.

Most of the songs on Tres Testosterones follow rock song structure. Bond and Vogel lay down libidinous rhythms that establish earthy themes while Dubuis’ clarinets provides the Mark Sandmanesque crooning, off-beat, raunchy, bent-note melodic lines that often soar into ejaculatory, ecstatic improvised solos. The ruttish, muscular playing of Bond and Vogel gives proof to the altered noun of the album’s title: these are three (tre/tres) very (très) macho dudes disseminating virile tunes, but these studs pull it off with a wanton wink that is more ironic than X-rated.

The song titles provocatively play on the band’s boasted excess of Wild Western testosterone: there is the bad guy threat “Plata o Plomo” (silver or a bullet), an obligatory “Tumbleweed,” and a song for the morning after too many beans out on the range, “Bowel of Power.” “Bella Mortadella” pays homage to the Italian “bologna of death”—a mash of leftover pig parts, spices, salt, sugar, and chunks of fat that could possibly be the worst-for-you food on earth, but is, they say, addictive. There is also “Col’donuts,” which, depending on how you say it, might refer to a mountain of donuts or a big ol’ mound of testes.

This is an album that can be enjoyed on many levels. The sophisticated individual playing and the interplay can be as superbly tight as a prog or math rock band, yet it can veer daringly into loose, exploratory modes of free jazz. There is also plenty of toe-tapping pleasure to be had focusing on how one player or the other establishes and riffs on a theme, on Bond’s sinister bass lines, on the perfection of Vogel’s sweet timing, or on getting lost in Dubuis’ sinuous melodies that mutate into unhinged solos drifting over rhythmic high plains.

The Morphine influences are obvious, but everyone has their influences. Hang Em High draws from Morphine, yet their experience playing with luminaries of the jazz and avant-garde world give them artistic resources that transcend the original. They play with expectations of genre while rearranging them and turning them inside out. This is a fun record. I dare you to listen to it and resist its manly charms.

Tres Testosterones can be heard here:

Hang Em High homepage:

Friday, July 28, 2017

Shelter - Shelter (Audiographic, 2017) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

Shelter, a new project from saxophonist Ken Vandermark, starts out on somewhat familiar ground - Nate Wooley's trumpet and Vandermark's sax hurtling a melody with an uptempo urgency. It all seems quite normal until they smack into the rhythm section, and the momentum is suddenly yanked in a different direction. An akimbo pulse takes precedence, and Vandermark joins bassist Jasper Stadhouders on some low register counter point, while drummer Steve Heather plays a tight near-funk beat. Wooley continues with an energetic and rhythmically deft melody. About halfway through they switch it up - Stadhouders picks up the guitar and Vandermark takes over the lead, delivering a series of musical punches. As the track winds down, Heather unveils his full array of his percussion and amid a colorful clatter some forlorn notes from the baritone saxophone.

The quartet follows a different muse on  'Accidentals Don't Carry'. In fact, I wonder if this is just a split in a continuation of the first track as it begins with Heather's abstract percussion, which is soon joined by Vandermark in a flurry of activity. Wooley joins in the fun, and it becomes a duet between drum and trumpet. A bit after the midway point, Vandermark rejoins and plays a tandem melody with Wooley. The track 'Burnt Nijal' also starts with Heather's percussion (albeit more sparse this time) and his use of the simple electronic noise maker, the cracklebox. Wooley, matching the boxes' tones, certainly shows his command of extended technique. The track is a playground of sound and light mayhem, constricting around a gentle theme that soon comes undone again. Of all the tracks, 'Bartleby' has the most traditional free jazz approach. Heather's extended solo leads to an intense blow out. The final piece, 'Pan', ties it all together. The track is built around a medium-tempo electronic beat, while a simple but effective bass line under-gird snippets of melody and electronic noise. It's at once retro and the future, and it really ties the room together.

My iTunes has categorized Shelter under punk. I wonder where algorithms get their ideas. Maybe there are rock elements, irreverent moments where Wooley pushes his trumpet into white noise and Stadhouders' distorted guitar adds some crunch, or Heather adds a percussive clatter, but more importantly Vandermark seems to be onto something. Combining his recent duo work with Wooley and his powerful electronics heavy group Made to Break (which includes Stadhouders), the outcome, Shelter, is a forward thinking post-free Jazz/post punk/post rock milepost on the way to somewhere altogether new.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Raoul Bjorkenheim Triad – Beyond (Eclipse Music, 2017) ****

By Chris Haines

I’ve been following the progress of Bjorkenheim’s Triad project with great interest over the last few years as they’ve gradually released bits and pieces on Youtube and Soundcloud, which I’ve become incredibly excited about. As a trio comparisons with the Scorch Trio may be drawn, although in my opinion wrongly as they’re a slightly different kind of beast to that group, and musically probably have more in common with Krakatau, another of Bjorkenheim’s previous projects, due to their inclusion of ethnic influences. It’s no secret that Hendrix’s playing was a big influence on Bjorkenheim’s sound and on Beyond this is particularly in evidence, not just in the soaring lead lines but also in the more dissonant tones that can be found colouring some of the freer passages. It seems that the group’s original mandate was to be a vehicle for revisiting the work of Coltrane, Monk, and Hendrix as well as for airing Bjorkenheim’s own work, but what we have in Beyond is a set of original pieces.

The album gently eases in with ‘Act of Will’ a rhythmically free piece with its bowed guitar (or his viola da gimbri), change in harmonic envelope and a tension building scalic climb. Next up is ‘Move On’, the sort of piece that you might have expected to open the album, with it’s strong opening rock intro on the drums and probably what is Bjorkenheim’s most Hendrix sounding playing on the whole of the album along with what sounds like an overdubbed organ sound. The variety of the pieces on this album offers a good contrast across the tracks, with some well thought out sounds and structures that Bjorkenheim can clearly improvise over. The third piece ‘Defiance’ comes over like a piece of Japanese Ceremonial Music with it’s slow and stately tempo, cleverly used percussion colours and long sustained guitar tones – shakuhachi style. The title track is an atmospheric piece and the soundscapes created wouldn’t be out of place on an early Tangerine Dream recording, whilst ‘Arise’ gives us another subtle change in hue through the use of whole-tone playing. The last piece, ‘The Rain Is Over’ is Bjorkenheim’s deconstruction of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ played like the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ a lá Hendrix at Woodstock style.

This isn’t your normal kind of jazz guitar trio, (although you wouldn’t expect that with Bjorkenheim) with a wide range of influences and genres coming into the mix to show a group that’s comfortably conversant with creating different shades and tones. Although by today’s eclectic standards maybe this is precisely a 21st Century jazz guitar trio!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

William Parker, Cooper-Moore, Hamid Drake, and Rob Brown @ Shapeshifter Lab July 12, 2017

By Paul Acquaro

About two weeks ago I had an unexpected opportunity to see In Order to Survive perform at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn. The concert was a celebration of bassist and band leader William Parker's new double album just released on AUM Fidelity, featuring the formidable quartet of pianist Cooper-Moore, bassist and leader Parker, drummer Hamid Drake, and saxophonist Rob Brown. I write 'unexpected' not because I had not know about the gig, but rather a prior engagement was rained-out only an hour before the show, and so I boogied over to Brooklyn just in time!

 In Order to Survive: Cooper-Moore (p), William Parker (b), Hamid Drake (d), Rob Brown (s) Shapeshifter Lab, Brooklyn, NY. July 2017.
I'm feeling compelled to mention this show, not so much as a review, but as a way to just give my thanks for such incredible music. The two sets that I took in were more than a sum of their parts, and of course any chance to hear the dynamic duo of Parker and Drake is not to be missed. The effortless interconnectedness that they share invites the listener into the inner circle; however, Cooper-Moore and Rob Brown, are, to my ears, under-known legends in their own right. Cooper-Moore's piano playing was at turns introspective and unhinged, he was as apt to drop an elbow onto the keyboard as he was to turn out an exquisitely beautiful phrase. Brown is a master of building his playing up to daunting peaks, always direct and forthright, his musical instincts are a great compliment to Parker, Drake, and Cooper-Moore. Both sets that night were excellent, and since I am writing this in retrospect without any field-notes, I simply recall the first set being more straightforward improvisation working off the sketches by Parker, and the second set being an inward journey with a long arc building to an exhilarating peak. I'm fairly confident no-one from crowd left dissatisfied - and I'm sure more than one picked up Meditation/Resurrection as they left.

Speaking of Meditation/Resurrection, I had not been able to give the CDs a good listen before the show. So, it was afterwards that I finally pulled out the CDs and sat down with it. The first thing to note is that the first CD is not with Cooper-Moore, but rather has the two horn front-line of trumpeter Jalalu-Kalvert Nelson and Brown. This line up has a slightly leaner sound, and the opening track "Criminals in the White House" features the trumpeter's sharp and eviscerating lines front and center. Later, during the track "Handsome Lake", the listener really gets the sense of what reviewer David Menestres meant when he wrote that Parker's compositions "feature deceptively simple melodies and rhythmic hooks that provide launching pads for creative solos." Brown's fitfully abstract and blues drenched solo over Parker's solid groove is nearly worth the purchase alone. Parker's own fractalized solo leads back to the hard-bop head, kind of leaving you with a bit of musical whiplash. Another outstanding moment on the CD happens on 'Horace SIlver part I', Nelson and the ever inventive Drake deliver a passage that more than hints at the viability of duo album.

The "In Order to Survive" CD, like the aforementioned show, is something to behold. The opening moments are the meditative ones, sort of. Cooper-Moore lightly rocks backs and forth on a chord structure reminiscent of a mid-period Coltrane/Tyner collaboration on "Sunrise in East Harlem" and Parker plays at the edge of consonance. The tension that arises from it is almost to much to bear. Enter Brown and the energy shifts, Cooper-Moore expands his fills, Drake adds a little more drive, and Parker and Brown engage in a melodic/textural interplay that is a sweet and sour layer upon the modal cake. The second track, "Some Lake Oliver", is already a sharp contrast to the previous track. In the early moments, maybe three minutes into its nearly 12 (all of the tracks are at least 11 minutes), the pulse is mid-tempo but Brown is in the stratosphere, jumping intervals and assembling musical twigs and branches into a structure ready for Cooper-Moore's melodic ornaments. They reach a level here that reminds me of the show - Brown's musical id is unleashed, Drake and Parker lock down the rhythms, and Cooper-Moore is at once percussive and melodic, pushing the intensity ever higher.

Parker's liner notes are pretty extensive, he includes meditations on the meaning of music, poetry that accompanies two of the song titles (there is no vocals on the discs, just in the liners), and his appreciation for the musicians who appear on the two discs. Stealing some of his words, "when music works on a high level it doesn't age. It is neither old nor new, it is Now! Living in the moment, it becomes the thing we need to revive us."

I didn't mean to write this much, I simply put the album on and this came out. Thank you Mr. Parker!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Colin Stetson - All This I Do For Glory (52HZ, 2017) ***

By Daniel Börker

First there is a beat. A beat built by Colin Stetson's Sax. Colin Stetson on the way to the club? Yes and no. Of course, maybe like Oren Ambarchi said Hubris was his way to the club (at least that's what I read).

To prepare myself for this review I read the last one that was published on a Stetson album, which was written by Paolo Casertano on part three of his New History Warfare. Paolo's last sentence stuck with me,  he wrote that he had hoped for something new on the next record. So here we are with All This I Do For Glory and the question is, is there something new to discover?

First of all, you would recognize Colin Stetson on this album without knowing the name on the cover,  his way of playing his patterns throughout the album is recognizable, and so I think the 'new thing' is the beat you hear in the beginning.

The first track 'All This I Do For Glory" starts with a strange beat, to slow to dance to. Colin Stetson's music is kind of hypnotizing. And the 'beat' on the first track does quite a good job in that respect. Over the beat he plays his sax-patterns, reminding you of minimalist music. There is already a lot to read about the way he treats his instrument to produce the sounds you hear, so I won't repeat it here. I get lost in it every time I hear it, and the first track is a very good example of it, especially if you haven't heard his music before.

The second track "Like Wolves on the Fold" also starts with sounds that build a strong beat, but in this one the singing sounds seem to be stronger (I think I can hear him breath.) The track has an urgency to it, and the beat doesn't find its way to the dance floor again.

The third track "Between Water and Wind" intensifies the urgency. The sound gets a bit darker but in the end I stick to my original musical observation: This time it's all about the beat.

I could take you through all six tracks, but I still come to the same conclusion that this is the difference, the new thing.

So what does it mean to me, the listener?

I am glad that things change. I like it to recognize an artist by his sound, his way of composing and still realize that he tries to develop new approaches, so I appreciate this step that Stetson takes on this album. While I write this paragraph I am listening to New History Warfare part 3 to compare the two once more. I am immediately captured by the energy and the urgency of the music.

All This I Do For Glory is a catchy album and I like it, but I miss the ruthless sound of the older albums including his collaboration with Sarah Neufeld. It seems as if this new album was an effort to sound a little bit more catchy than before and still be recognizable. So Paolo, he's changed.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Christian Lillinger/Tobias Delius - Dicht (Relative Pitch, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

Julia Neupert, the host of the SWR2 Now Jazz radio show "Freejazzblog On Air", has a theory about the way musicians play their instruments: She claims that their style is similar to the way they talk. Be it quick, moderate, hectical or bewildered - everything is reflected in their music. And she has a point: Think of Peter Brötzmann, who could declaim very uncompromisingly and brush off other people’s opinions very harshly when he was younger. However, he’s seemed to mellow with age when you talk to him these days and so has his music, for example on Münster Bern. Another example is Han Bennink, who likes to tell funny anecdotes and whose performances always have something clownesque.

This theory also works for the young German drum wizard Christian Lillinger and saxophonist/clarinetist Tobias Delius. Delius, a real cosmopolitan who was born in Argentina and has lived in Mexico, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany, speaks eight languages and he can easily jump back and forth between them. On the saxophone he combines the swing sound of Ben Webster and the hard bop tradition of Sonny Rollins with elements of the blues and a traditional free jazz attitude. Or, as Olie Brice put it: “I like his massive, warm sound and his melodic style rooted in the great jazz tenor tradition, with a completely flexible and free approach to improvised interaction.“

In conversations Delius often mumbles, he sometimes gets lost in anacoluthons, just to use very elaborate and eloquent constructions in the next sentences. Lillinger, on the other hand, is someone who talks very rapidly, his sentences ricochet through the air. He throws in ideas, interrupts his thoughts, turns in another direction, just to be absolutely precise within a second. As a drummer his style is incredibly inventive and unpredictable, it’s as if he was an electric toy which is wound up and cannot be stopped.

In their duo they combine Delius’ instant melodies with Lillinger’s quick-witted responses, it’s a fascinating dialogue, a give and take that works in raucous and laid back moments. "Pea Jaw Zinc Zee", the longest track on Dicht (German for "tight"), is a good example of this. Delius plays chopped and blurred lines, he quotes Evan Parker motives and creates tender blues riffs, he interrupts, starts anew, tries something completely different, while Lillinger pushes him forward and forces him to zigzag with his phrases, click sounds and sparse notes. It’s as if they were eyeing each other. When Delius plays a swing riff in the middle of the track, Lillinger resigns attacking it and prefers to support it delicately. Only in the last few minutes they seem to agree out of the blue and tighten the reins. When the listener has just noticed that something has changed they stop the track track right in the middle.

Dicht is like a high speed conversation in different idioms. It’s fun to listen to it over and over again to discover Delius’ hidden references and just to acknowledge that Lillinger is the most interesting European drummer at the moment.

You can buy it from or

Watch them live here:

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two from Tomeka: Part 2

By Eric McDowell

With her stunning quartet debut in 2015, Tomeka Reid made her full emergence onto the scene after a period of incubation with masters like Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, and Mike Reed. That we’re still eagerly awaiting a follow-up quartet album, though, isn’t to say that the cellist has been on vacation. Not only playing a supporting role on fellow Chicagoan Jamie Branch’s own recent knock-out debut, Reid has also shared the spotlight in duo and trio settings—on Nessa and International Anthem, respectively—that showcase the varied aspects of her talent.

Hear In Now - Not Living in Fear (International Anthem, 2017) *****

Whereas Nessa has been promoting creative music for half a century, Chicago-based International Anthem released its first album less than three years ago. In just that short time, though, the label has grounded its reputation by turning out some of the most exciting and rewarding sounds around—not only high-profile favorites like Jamie Branch’s Fly or Die or Jeff Parker’s New Breed, but also gems like Aleuchatistas’ Arrebato and Bottle Tree’s self-titled debut. (Of course, it also brought us Nick Mazzarella’s Ultraviolet in 2015, too.) Getting the idea that wherever International Anthem goes—math rock, soul, free jazz—the common denominator is quality? The label’s foray into chamber music will only confirm your suspicions.

Cellist of the hour Tomeka Reid makes up only one-third of Hear In Now. New York violinist Mazz Swift’s impressive resume includes appearances not only with the likes of William Parker and James “Blood” Ulmer but also with Whitney Houston and Kayne West. And Sienese double bassist Silvia Bolognesi has extensive experience in both classical music and free jazz, having and studied with Parker and played in the Butch Morris Orchestra. The trio was born out of a commission for the 2009 Woma Jazz all-female festival, and they recorded their self-titled debut on Rudi Records in 2012. Five years later, Not Living in Fear finds the trio in top form. Especially for a group brought together by outside forces, they play with natural compatibility. At the same time, their collective dynamic benefits from the infrequency of their collaborations and the collision of worlds that attends their meeting up: Reid, Swift, and Bolognesi play with a drive bordering on competition—not the kind that declares a winner, of course, but the kind that pushes each player to new, otherwise unreachable heights.

Not Living in Fear begins with a sample of these dynamics. For an album loaded with tight compositions and heart wrenching themes to open with an untitled improvisation (“Impro 3”) asserts Hear In Now first and foremost as a trio of accomplished and daring players, ever ready to plumb the unknown. Whatever assumptions you come in with, these first four and a half minutes are sufficient to wipe them clean. Forget the tradition of jazz cello or violin. Instead, think Shostakovich. Think Schoenberg or Ferneyhough. “Impro 3” is dark, chaotic, physical—when the trio finally sync up at the end, it’s to lurch away, maimed but in harmony.

The album’s compositions are no less affecting—or impressive. Follow-up “Leaving Livorno” is as pained as its title suggests, Swift spinning a tender folkish melody over a pizzi bass/arco cello ostinato. While much of the album resides in what might be called the heavy-hearted—see “Prayer for Wadud,” another tribute to the master cellist, for a prime example—some pieces make the argument for “bittersweet” as a more accurate descriptor. “Last Night’s Vacation,” for example, contains some of the album’s most buoyant themes, starting with an all-pizzi introduction and settling in on angular melodies passed back and forth between cello and violin. But the jaunty lines are continually washed over by harsh, dissonant textures. The title track builds from more pizzi improvising into an upbeat, even uplifting ostinato, over which guest singer Dee Alexander perfectly captures the album’s delicate balance of despair and optimism: “Don’t be afraid / Living in fear / It’s very clear / That life throws a curveball / Every now and then.” It’s wise to position this moment smack in the center of Not Living in Fear, since we need six tracks to prepare and six more to recover. But of course the effect comes not merely from the lyrics themselves but as much or more from Alexander’s skill as a vocalist.

In fact, the same could be said for the trio’s interpretation and development of each of the album’s compositions, which are potent on their own but gain their true power from the playing. Reid herself often acts as something of a middle-woman, calling on the cello’s relative versatility in this context to supply rhythmic support, melodic counterpoint, and all manner of complexities. Not to say she doesn’t step out: see her solo on “Transiti” for some of her boldest playing yet. While Bolognesi’s instrument similarly inclines her to certain roles in the trio, she’s by no means stuck playing support. Naturally on “Requiem for Charlie Haden” she takes the lead over her colleagues’ anguished bowing, soloing with fierce energy. And on “Cicle” she gets to have it both ways, underpinning the cello ostinato in the theme and then delivering another demanding solo. Swift and her violin may take on much of the responsibility for the album’s many memorable melodies, but her improvisation is no less noteworthy. On tunes like the menacing “Terrortoma” or the daintier “Cantiere Orlando,” her solos are frankly breathtaking: wonderfully dynamic, they range and rage, equally technical and lyrical.

“Cultural Differences,” the thirteenth, final, and longest track on Not Living in Fear, seems to summarize all of the album’s disparate elements—free improvisation, heartbreaking melody, freewheeling solos, even some singing. If in society, cultural differences can be either a source of tension or a cause for celebration, in Hear In Now they’re both at the same time.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Two from Tomeka - Part I

By Eric Mc Dowell

With her stunning quartet debut in 2015, Tomeka Reid made her full emergence onto the scene after a period of incubation with masters like Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, and Mike Reed. That we’re still eagerly awaiting a follow-up quartet album, though, isn’t to say that the cellist has been on vacation. Not only playing a supporting role on fellow Chicagoan Jamie Branch’s own recent knock-out debut, Reid has also shared the spotlight in duo and trio settings—on Nessa and International Anthem, respectively—that showcase the varied aspects of her talent. 

Nick Mazzarella & Tomeka Reid – Signaling (Nessa, 2017) ****½

Now in its 50th year of operation, the Midwestern label Nessa’s slim but carefully curated catalogue includes landmark AACM albums like Lester Bowie’s Numbers 1&2 (the label’s first release), the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People In Sorrow, and Roscoe Mitchell’s Nonaah, along with more recent releases by Von Freeman, Anthony Braxton, and, again, Mr. Mitchell (but who can get enough?). Nessa’s latest measures references to the past against in-the-moment freshness in an intoxicating blend.

Signaling begins, in fact, by nodding to history with “Blues for Julius and Wadud,” a tribute to the great sax/cello partnership of Julius Hemphill and Abdul Wadud. Over Reid’s nimble plucking and strumming, alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella—yet another member of the Chicago scene—blows lyrical, probing lines. The follow-up title track, in contrast, shows the duo in a slightly different mode: lacking the structural reference of the blues or the historical reference of honored forebears, Mazzarella and Reid have only each other to interact with—a task for which they’re more than equipped. While “dialogue” could well describe the fragmentary, equal exchange of musical ideas that results, the chosen title better captures the telepathically sensitive interplay between the two musicians.

And it’s this quality—so rewarding to listeners and players of improvised music alike—that makes Signaling such a success, whether Mazzarella and Reid are playing with a single mind or exploiting the contrasting capabilities of their instruments. Such contrasts are on further display on “Like So Many Drops of Water,” where Mazzarella’s long, doleful lines range over Reid’s busy plucking as if to call up Ornette and his “Lonely Woman,” another key alto reference point. “Rediscovery of an Age” and “Let It Be Known” form a mirrored pair, the former accelerating from a mellow stroll into scrambled sprint, the latter de-escalating from the tension of Reid’s sawing arco to the relative relaxation of something like a walking bassline. And “The Ancestors Speak” highlights the saxophonist and cellist almost in isolation, with Mazzarella starring in the first half and Reid in the second, the two crossing paths along the way.

At just over two minutes each, the album’s shortest two pieces highlight the different directions the less stratified and more immediate approach of the title track can take. Whereas the quick-witted interplay on “Interstices” is fueled by the energy sparked by the two musicians’ focused attention on each other, closer “Invoking a Spirit” is as solemn as its title promises, Reid’s rich arco matched perfectly by Mazzarella’s sustained phrasing. On the other hand “Topographies,” the longest track, splits the difference, beginning as another chatty match and ending as a broad-textured meditation. Hearing the duo ride that transition without losing each other in the least encapsulates the pleasure of hearing Signaling as a whole

Friday, July 21, 2017

Catching up with Küchen

By Eyal Hareuveni

Swedish sax player Martin Küchen moves freely between free jazz projects, with his groups Angles 9, All Included and the Trespass Trio, to free-improvised, experimental projects where he explores new sounds and textures. His recent releases highlight his free and always searching spirit.

Trespass Trio - The Spirit of Pitesti (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

This is is already the fourth album of this Swedish-Norwegian trio, featuring Küchen on baritone, alto and sopranino saxes, fellow Swedish veteran improviser, drummer-percussionist Raymond Strid, and Norwegian double bass player Per Zanussi. The Spirit of Pitesti was recorded in Oslo on November 2015 and tells the story of the Romanian city Pitesti, known for its notorious local prison that was used during the early fifties, at the time of the totalitarian communist regime, for re-education experiments of political prisoners In that brainwashing process of the prisoners, violence between the inmates was common and even encouraged by the Securitate secret police. The procedures got so out of hand that the communist authorities stopped everything after five years. The prison staff was pardoned, but 16 inmate collaborators were sentenced to death penalties.

“The experiment is not over”, Küchen writes in the liner notes. “A dry, hot and edgy wind that leaves you every time you feel it coming - and yet it comes again, with new promises, with new procedures how to tackle the now unspirited spirit”. Trespass Trio transform this sad story of Pitesti into a highly cinematic, emotional journey of resistance and defiance, charging the painful memories from that dark era with disarming compassion and tenderness. The interplay of the trio is telepathic, full of emphatic, gentle passion that brings to mind some of Charlie Haden's most spiritual, bluesy ballads. These melancholic, fragile ballads are delivered with a rare economic restraint for such a powerful free jazz unit, except for the playful, rhythmic “Fri Kokko (Free Retardo at the Koko Club)”. Only 36 minutes long, but every second radiates with profound beauty.

Küchen & Müntzing Scheibenhonig ‎– Rop På Hjälp (Inexhaustiable Editions, 2015) ***½

Küchen's Scheibenhonig duo finds the saxophonist working with former electric bass player Herman Müntzing. Today Müntzing is a teacher of improvisation at the Academy of Music in Malmö, and plays on many things. All these things are spread on the studio floor - kitchen gadgets, strings and sticks, old harmonium case, toy electronics, metal, various wood and plastic things, megaphone, toy synth, mandolin and “failtronics”, begging for Küchen and Müntzing attention. Küchen occasionally plays also on the sopranino sax and Müntzing plays also on the flexichord, a 12-stringed electric instrument made out of strings and pickups from 2 electric guitars, built especially for him by his brother, and contact mics. 

The duo was formed in 2010 and Rop På Hjälp is its debut recording, released in a limited-edition of 100 copies (plus a download option), with paintings by Tímea Ferth. It was recorded in Küchen's home town, Lund, during June 2014. The two pieces are free-improvised following Küchen and Müntzing associative train of thoughts. The first track is a busy one, gravitating around a mechanical, toy sounding pulse, ornamented by imaginative yet cacophonic rattle of weird sounds and noises that stress the duo great sense of invention, playfulness and clever drama building. The second, shorter piece suggests a sparse, naive texture that touches and goes a game-like rhythmic pattern, still, captivating with its amusing, sometimes bewildering sonic inventions.

Martin Küchen / Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga ‎– Bauchredner (Cathnor Recordings, 2015) ***½

Küchen's meeting with Greek, London-based Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, who plays the amplified, stringed zither, was recorded in a studio in Lund on September 2013, following two previous sessions, the first at Lazaridou-Chatzigoga's home in London and the second in a galley in Malmö, the night before the recording. Lazaridou-Chatzigoga is theoretical linguist and an experimental improviser who employs ebows and objects on her old German zither resonance box to produce sustained or granulated sounds. She has collaborated before with other sonic explorers such as trumpeters Nate Wooley, and Axel Dörner, clarinetist Xavier Charles, and violinist Angharad Davie. Küchen plays on this recording the alto and baritone saxes, muted most of the times, and radios.

Bauchredner refers to a 1923 painting by Swiss-German Paul Klee, Bauchredner und rufer im moor (Ventriloquist and Crier in the Moor), that is used for the cover of this limited-edition release of 150 copies (plus a download option). One of the interpretations of Klee painting suggests that the little, imaginary creatures inside the ventriloquist may symbolize the odd noises and voices that seem to emanate from him. The atmosphere of this album is indeed focused on such odd noises and voices, delivered in an enigmatic, intimate atmosphere. Küchen and Lazaridou-Chatzigoga patiently weave layers of static noises, noisy breaths and whispers, raw feedback and resonant metallic sounds. Both distill these weird sounds into a meditative storms that suggest, in their turn, disturbing dream-like states, but full of psychedelic colors.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Amina Baraka & the Red Microphone (ESP-Disk, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Poet and activist Amina Baraka, has just released, I believe, her first recording on the storied ESP-Disk label. Her album of spoken word and inside/outside jazz is a spot-on debut, drawing deeply on her life, culture, and politics. Baraka is the widow of writer, activist, and music critic, Amiri Baraka, mother of current Newark, NJ mayor Ras Baraka, and has a lot to talk about.

It starts with a simple melody on piano, then sax, propelled by a straight-ahead drum beat, Baraka lets out a blood curdling scream matched tonally by the flute and sax, who help her land on the phrase 'Mama cries time step’. He words are sharp and clear, and her tone somewhere between scolding and excited. I still haven't figured out what all the words mean on this one, but I don't mind, the words fly by, syllables to be savored, and meanings to mull. The gun-slinger metaphor for Billy Bang’s playing in 'The Spirit of Billy Bang’, however, I get. Along with the spare accompaniment from bassist Laurie Towers, it's a parable about the late violinist - or maybe it is about the woman playing the bass - or maybe again its about the free associations and sumptuous imagery that end up meaning more that way, anyway.

The rest of the band re-joins on 'Things I Like', woodwindists Ras Moshe Burnett and Rocco John Iacovone (also on piano), drummer John Pietaro and Towers start in on a relaxed lounge number as Baraka cites things that she likes: a Monk tune, Albert Ayler's Ghost, Henry Fonda, a People's War, a Revolution, and sushi, among life's other pleasures. Later, over a caressing blues, Baraka reminisces about growing up on 'Afro American Child'. It's a tribute to the past and the hard truths of growing up, going from memories of “men in striped suits and big country hats” to “women standing over the stove frying chicken, one hand on the small of they back” but as time moves on, the music grows wilder, and memories turn to “growing up, taking rides in rich people’s neighborhoods” and then to “we grew up without civil rights … marching with Dr. King … knowing we couldn’t turn the other cheek”. This is a twenty minute free associative tour de force of American history, through the words of someone who lived it. It’s a reminder of where we have come from, and how much further there is to go. The music and words mix and feed off each other, reflecting each other's intensity and meaning, a quote from a Monk tune or the C-Jam blues may suddenly appear, and so may a passage as free as it comes.

While I’ve only made it about halfway through the album here, perhaps a little more, there's more to take in, especially later as the past turns to the present on 'Fascists'. With her sometimes acidic, sometimes sweet, but always on point lyrics, Baraka and her band of like minded travelers have delivered an unexpected gem.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Elliot Cardinaux - American Thicket (Loyal Label, 2016) ****

Pianist and poet Elliot Cardinaux floats into this set of music and poetry quietly and when the first track ’Thicket’ ends on the phrase "There never were any Indians in Columbus’ America" you know something is happening, even if you don’t know exactly what it is. Though it took me a while to get to this album, when I finally dove in, I soon found myself enjoying the unexpected moments when surreal snippets like "I’ve ruined all my life but I’ve got nothing to show for it – teach me how to ask a question, any question" jumped out at me. Yes, I thought, as I trudged to the train on my daily commute, what are the questions that I do not know how to ask? The ambiguity allows meaning to form from a multitude of angles.

Just as important, though, is the music. The line-up speaks volumes: violist Mat Maneri, bassist Thomas Morgan, and percussionist Flin van Hemmen help Cardinaux in creating an abstract yet supportive environment for his words. The music is thick and buzzing on ‘Thicket’, it is 10 minutes of fractured rumbling that reaches a ruminative peak towards the end, which finds Morgan and Van Hemmen digging deep into the pulse and Maneri adding an affective shimmer to Cardinaux’s introspective playing.

Cardinaux has a flat affect to his voice. On ‘Questions (to the Thought)’, in a highly effective, near monotone, he recites the aforementioned words about life, before Morgan’s walking bass line forms a musical spine around which tendrils reaching out from the viola wrap around. The pianist lays down crisp tonal clusters and arpeggiated lines, and as Maneri starts digging in, van Hemmen responds, and they start building to an apex that only lightens up at the end with a series of drum rolls and a final decisive pluck from Morgan.

The tracks, some instrumental, some with short surreal verses interspersed, and at least one with a delightful parable ('Angel'), flow quietly from one to the other, often reaching muted climaxes that help round flesh-out Cardinaux's intriguing imagery. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Miriodor – Signal 9 (Cuneiform, 2017) ****

By Chris Haines

Maybe in part due to the amazing amount and quality of new improvised music that I had the privilege of listening to and writing about over the last year, I have recently been revisiting old albums, many from the seventies and eighties, some of which I probably haven’t listened to since then. Much of this music could be said to come under the umbrella of progressive rock, which in some ways has enabled me to ‘clean my ears’ in a way that Murray Schafer might approve of before I reconnect with the wealth of improvised music that is continuing to be released, with the audience interest for it also gaining momentum at present. One of these groups, Miriodor, is still going strong and far from reforming to hash out old favourites to a worn-out audience, as many progressive rock bands have, their music is still fresh and vibrant having recently released a new and interesting album in the form of Signal 9.

This is the ninth studio release from the avant-rock group who have been steadily releasing an original catalogue of work over the last thirty-odd years. A group that is also recognized and linked with the Rock In Opposition movement, and although they weren’t one of the original groups in that loose collective, there are sounds and structures in their music which are reminiscent of bands such as Henry Cow. Originally hailing from the French Canadian province of Quebec, the group has had many line-up changes over the years, with the current formation consisting of Pascal Globensky (keyboards), Rémi Leclerc (drums), Bernard Falaise (guitar), and Nicolas Lessard (bass, keyboards). Signal 9 is also dedicated to one of the founding members of the group, François Émond, who sadly passed away during the making of the album.

Miriodor’s music is often comprised of complex composed structures with sudden switches between a variety of stylistic themes and genres, making for a colorful and interesting heady mix of diverse musical moments. If I were to pull out one track off the album that defined the group’s sound the most, the piece ‘Portrait-robot’ would probably be it. One of the longer tracks on the album it starts with a motorik bass and drums rhythm, which is joined by an angular keyboard melody before the guitar comes in signaling an immediate change of melody. This gradually builds and builds in typical rock fashion, which then collapses into ambient and electronic sounds. After a while the music regains the strong rock rhythm section backing topped by mellotron sounds that quickly give way to a humoresque and circus-like music. Without any musical theme wanting to outstay it’s welcome it quickly proceeds into a final thematic section that is a development of the ambient and electronic passage. As mentioned previously it is these many changes in stylistic musical material, incorporation of humour and whimsy, classic rock backing, fragmented/angular melodies, and experimentation with sound, which are either all incorporated into the longer tracks or are shorter tracks juxtaposed alongside one another in the running order, that characterizes the musical mission statement of the group.

The album is excellently arranged and the clear structures define and shape the wealth of musical information that is being communicated to the listener in an ordered and resolute manner. Miriodor seem to find a way to keep an originality to their music without doing anything radically different from album to album. For me this is the essence of good musicianship and artistic vision, which they encapsulate in the cocktail of sound that they have consistently produced over the life span of the group. In this respect Signal 9 is a rewarding album for their many fans and as good a place to start for any who are unfamiliar with their enjoyable brand of progressive music.

Here’s the opening track off the album, Venin.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Toshimaru Nakamura and Martin Taxt - Listening to the footsteps of living ones who are still on the ground (Ftarri, 2017) ****½

By Connor Kurtz

In this reviewer's extremely biased eyes, Toshimaru Nakamura is one of the most important electronic musicians of the 21st century. Toshimaru Nakamura is best known as the man behind the no-input mixing board[1], and one of the earliest and most prolific names in onkyo-style improvisation[2]. What might be easily glanced over on the packaging of his new full length collaboration with Martin Taxt, Listening to the footsteps of living ones who are still on the ground[3], ends up being the most important aspect of what makes this a standout in Nakamura's recent discography: Nakamura is not credited on no-input mixing board, but simply credited on mixing board[4]. I'll explain the importance of this shortly. Martin Taxt is a young Norwegian tubist, best known for his work on the SOFA label which he co-founded. Earlier this year he performed as a member of the excellent EAI trio Muddersten, where he unleashed a huge array of electroacoustic tuba goop.

Although Nakamura began in the historically quiet onkyo music scene, his recent music has been taking a surprisingly unsurprising turn towards the noisy. On his most recent solo album, No Input Mixing Board #8, a duo with saxophonist Katsura Yamauchi and one previous duo with Taxt[5], Nakamura has made this stylistic turn obvious. These albums were certainly an enjoyable disturbance of the ears, but Listening feels like a step forward, perhaps a culmination in this maximalist style. Not just is the music harsher[6] than any of these earlier albums, but it is also more dynamic, more exciting and more progressive.

Let's get back to Nakamura and his mixing board. When they say that he is performing on a mixing board rather than a no-input mixing board, one would think that he must be using a some-input mixing board, which is indeed the case; and that some-input is nothing other than the tuba of one Martin Taxt[7]. What this means is that Taxt improvises live, and his output is then manipulated by Nakamura live with his some-input mixing board[8]. A wonderful idea – and what makes it even better, is that the dry single of Taxt's tuba is completely absent (meaning that we exclusively hear the output of Nakamura's mixing board).

The system for improvisation that these two have constructed is wonderful, because it completely changes around how duo improvisations are meant to work. They typically work by having both performers listen closely to each other, and basing what they play off of that. There's an element of counterpoint. One school of thought is to pay attention to nothing and play solely what your heart says to play. Either way, the name of the game is intuition – but the listener will always listen to the two performers separately, and try to understand them as a whole (and the performers are aware of this). In this new system, intuition remains king, but the context is completely different. I see there being two different ways of this being performed: 1) Taxt's tuba is led into Nakamura's mixing board which is led into headphones which Nakamura wears. In this system, Nakamura can only hear what's coming from his mixing board and Taxt can only hear what's coming from his tuba, so they can only respond to their own outputs, although Nakamura's is still determined by Taxt's. 2) Taxt's tuba is led into Nakamura's mixing board which is led into an amplifier. In this system, both performers can hear Nakamura's amplified mixing board and Taxt's live (acoustic) tuba, so Taxt can improvise off of how his Tuba sounds after manipulation and Nakamura can improvise off of what Taxt is currently playing. Another possibility in the second situation is that the amplifier could be turned up loud enough to provoke feedback from however Taxt's tuba is mic'd; this could explain some of the album's harshness. Either way, the listener exclusively hears the output of Nakamura's mixing board. So, to us, Taxt's improvisation is lost and only becomes used as a source for Nakamura's. Then an easy question occurs – is this really still a duo album? Well, I'm not sure, but I do know that I like when an album leaves me with a question that I don't know how to answer.

Taxt's improvisation is something that I have little to say about, simply because it's mangled beyond recognition before it even reaches my ears. Sometimes we get glimpses of the loud, full and deep sound of the tuba bursting through the electronic glob of noise, but more often than not we're stuck with something that I doubt even Taxt could identify as a tuba. So then, what of Nakamura's improvisation? Well, I'm glad to state that he is in top form here. On albums like Good Morning, Good Night and Between[9], he mastered a minimal style which was focused on analog electronic snaps, crackles, and pops, as well as simple drones resembling test tones. Even before that, he experimented with simple IDM-lite rhythms and melodies on his early solo albums which would make up the earliest entries in his No-Input Mixing Board series. As I previously said, his style here is blatantly maximalist, and perhaps takes from the rapid-fire madness of Japan's own noise scene. Sounds are distorted and pushed deep past the thresholds of clipping, and they're constantly mutated in high enough speeds that it will sound constantly moving[10].

It is generalizing to say that Nakamura's improvisations are always like that, this is just where they are most easily memorable (read: shocking). The album works in three tracks: two 10 minute pieces sandwich a 16-minute centerpiece. They are all named after the Japanese cities in which they were recorded. The tracks all have their own improvised themes and modes, making them all delightful distinct from each other. On Osaka, the opening track, Taxt's acoustic tuba can most easily be heard. He operates in slow but full patterns and rhythms as Nakamura gradually adds noise and pushes the track closer to clipping and eventually past it. The track is very linear, making it easy to take in and follow, but on Kagoshima things lose all predictability. It kicks off with some light percussive sounds. Feedback grows and noise overcomes, and the listener is dropped face first into a maze of electroacoustic textures and walls of electronic noise. Album closer Okinawa is an even deeper dive into the harsh noise maelstrom. In this track, it's often hard to tell that there was ever even a tuba at play, as the listener is lost in the void of sheer hellish miasma[11]. The album ends with a tuba howling like a foghorn before a full fade to black.

So all in all, this album thoroughly subverted all of my expectations in a way which I find to be both interesting and a joyous pleasure to listen to, and that's exactly what I want from this kind of album: it's one thing to give the listener something that they want, but it's another thing to give them something that they didn't know they wanted. There's an immediate level of novelty that the album grants from its pure noisiness, but there's deeper levels of enjoyment as well that keep me coming back over and over. The three track structure works flawlessly, allowing the listener to directly juxtapose the three. What we're left with is a great noise album that doubles as a great free improvisation album, and one that I'm certain will end up as a highlight of Nakamura's 2010's discography.

[1] No-input mixing board refers to when a musician plugs a mixing board's output into its own input, rather than connecting to any outside sources. This creates an internal feedback loop, which can then be manipulated with the levels on the mixing board.
[2] Most notably, Nakamura was involved on the now infamous, although in my opinion quite lovely, 2004 Erstwhile Records double album Good Morning, Good Night alongside Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide.
[3] The title is so lovely that I almost feel bad that I'll simply be referring to it as Listening from now on.
[4] This is so easily glanced over that Nakamura is still credited with no-input mixing board on the album's RateYourMusic entry at time of writing.
[5] Nakamura and Taxt's Pan on Fire, released on Monotype Records only a year and a half prior, could easily be seen as a precursor to this.
[6] There are moments on Okinawa where this music could be mistaken for the soul-shaking electronic noise of Incapacitants or Merzbow!
[7] If you are anything like this reviewer, you should be bouncing in your chair in joy at this realization.
[8] Some-input does feel more realistic than just-input, because I am very confident that the mixing board's output is still being processed by itself to construct feedback loops.
[9] Between is another Erstwhile Records double album, this time from 2006, by Nakamura and Keith Rowe. I personally consider it to be the masterpiece of the 00's EAI scene.
[10] This is assisted by the fact that there are two improvisers moving at once, so this ends up sounding like double speed.
[11] I wouldn't usually make a note to point out a reference, but the situation here is slightly different. Sheer Hellish Miasma is a famous album by American noise titan Kevin Drumm, and if you can make it through Okinawa with a smile I'd highly recommend that album.