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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Andrew Smiley - Dispersal (Astral Spirits, 2017) ****

By Eric McDowell

As much as releasing a solo album represents an act of bravery, it happens often enough that the distinction has dulled a little since, say, For Alto. But even Braxton’s first (and still astonishing) solo statement wasn’t quite his debut as a leader. The solo debut album is something rarer—and even braver. With Dispersal, guitarist Andrew Smiley joins the likes of Wadada Leo Smith and, perhaps more to the point, Keiji Haino, in a lineage of creative musicians who dared to debut alone. Of course, like Smith’s, Smiley’s first album under his own name follows on the heels of an already impressive resume of work in other leaders’ groups. We’ve heard him, for example, on Little Women’s last two releases; on the Chris Pitsiokos Quartet’s One Eye with a Microscope Attached; and on Will Mason’s own ambitious debut, Beams of the Huge Night (he also makes up one half of guitar section of the drummer’s band Happy Place). But Dispersal marks something of a shift—perhaps a release—from these groups’ often forbiddingly technical and tightly structured sounds; unlike Mason’s grand and expansive Beams, Smiley’s debut is compact, intimate, and raw—all qualities that suit it perfectly to an Astral Spirits cassette.

None of that’s to say that Dispersal doesn’t depend on technique or structure for its emotional power. Spanning 27 minutes, the piece takes a vaguely narrative shape as the conflict between its various counterpointed elements—voice, tone, texture, and rhythm—plays out. To create the drama he does, Smiley relies not on special preparations or effects but, as he notes, simply on his fingers, pick, and voice. It’s this in part what lends Dispersal its overwhelmingly personal and physical character. Particularly during the piece’s chaotic sections, listening to the intensity of Smiley’s playing it’s almost possible to feel the strain in your own hands. Of course, testing your technical boundaries this way entails a certain amount of vulnerability, especially when you’re the only one on stage. But as with Smiley’s singing, which he himself calls “very basic and limited,” the correlation between technique and emotional effect isn’t straightforward. A better singer—hell, even a better guitarist—couldn’t hope to produce more “perfect” results.

The piece begins in balance with guitar and vocal tones sounding in patient alternation, equally pure, and develops from there into a simple but beautiful counterpoint. It’s not until three minutes in that the first hint of trouble, an abrasive sour guitar note, sneaks in. At the same deliberate pace, tension mounts as Smiley pits rhythmic and textural complication against clean guitar and singing. While there’s a certain improvisational looseness to his playing moment to moment—partly an aesthetic choice, partly an effect of the way he pushes himself in places to the extremes of distortion and speed—it would be a disservice to the guitarist to underestimate the control required to orchestrate Dispersal’s epic cycles of calm and chaos.

“During the years in which I was developing this music, I spent a lot of time thinking about wolves, and feeling empathy for their struggle to live alongside humans,” Smiley says. “I would like this release to bring awareness to the intelligence of wolves, and their right to exist within ecosystems.” At the cost of all the various experiences and reactions this music has the potential to inspire, it would be too easy to read a man vs. animal program into this dedication. But it’s somehow heartening to find that through the end of the album, Smiley’s voice—his actual singing voice, innocent and imperfect—survives the six-string onslaught. Whether it’s for wolves or not, a note of hope is what we need right now.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Burning Ghosts - Reclamation (Tzadik, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Where to start with Burning Ghosts? Thematically, they’re one of the most politically conscious bands out there, with a keen mix of justice, outrage, and empathy. Trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom, guitarist Jake Vossler, bassist Richard Giddens, and drummer Aaron McLendon are each insanely skilled. They’re self-described as jazz-metal, but their sound, especially on their sophomore album Reclamation, is filtered through a decidedly SoCal aesthetic: think Sunset Strip metal and glam meets San Pedro and Long Beach punk. There’s a moment in the opening “FTOF” when Vossler rips a guitar solo so classically metal I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do a slow walk towards the camera in a “Hot for Teacher” parody video. At the same time, the music is often ragged and raw, reflecting the urgency of the moment.

As much fun as the album gets, however, Burning Ghosts isn’t just here for fun. Vossler and Rosenboom, who share composer credits on the whole album, are well aware of how influential and necessary art is to spreading politically charged messages. The titles give you some sense of intention: “The War Machine,” “Radicals,” “Gaslight,” “Zero Hour,” “Revolution.” “FTOF” (“Fuck the Old Firm”) opens with a brief McLendon solo, then Rosenboom joins and the two introduce the melody in syncopated duet. After their initial statement, Vossler and Giddens join and the song takes off. “Radicals” is one of the album highlights, with an outstanding solo from Giddens. Shortly after his solo, the band turns on a dime and drops into a proto-funk rhythm. The dexterity of the band members is incredible, with Rosenboom sounding inhumanly fierce.

Giddens is highlighted again on the loose suite “Betrayal” / “Gaslight” / “Catalyst.” The rotating spotlight helps to bring each member in and out of focus on an album that barely takes a break. Even the balladic opening of “The War Machine” leads to an piercing elegy for the churning death and destruction of America’s longest war. Of course, this is my interpretation, but the performance, especially Rosenboom’s trumpet playing throughout, definitely drove me in that direction. McLendon is absolutely brilliant, switching up rhythms, and effortlessly blending free playing with heavy thrash. In addition to Burning Ghosts, I recommend checking out McLendon and Vossler’s duo album, Versus.

Rosenboom’s playing often reminds me of Peter Evans, each of them deftly uses a variety of techniques to express a range of emotions. Reclamation seems very much like a personal journey for each member, one that maps quite well onto the experience of the majority of Americans, as we enter into this most unbelieveable year of 2017. Everything is cacophonic, and weekly threats on freedom and safety amplify the collective emotional response. Sometimes, you need a loud, stomping, raucous outlet. And Reclamation delivers loud, stomping, raucous playing that ends appropriately with “Revolution,” 2:30 of note-perfect, head-banging joy.

If, like me, you’ll be in the LA area on October 5, come see Burning Ghosts at Angel City Jazz Fest’s Metal Jazz Night.

Available from Tzadik

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Todd Neufeld – Mu’u (Ruweh, 2017) ****

By Chris Haines

I first heard Todd Neufeld’s playing on the Samuel Blaser Quartet’s Pieces Of Old Sky, an album in itself of significant interest and beauty, which was also his first recorded outing (according to his own discography). I was impressed by the maturity that his playing showed combining thoughtful and empathic interjections into the music whilst smoothly bridging the gap between Blaser’s lead work and the rhythm section. So it’s with real interest that I approached his first solo recording Mu’u. Assembling fellow musicians, also connected with the Ruweh label, we have Tyshawn Sorey on drums (and bass trombone on two cuts), Thomas Morgan on bass, Billy Mintz on drums, Neufeld on guitar, and Rema Hasumi’s voice on four of the pieces. Apart from Sorey, this is the band that recorded Hasumi’s interesting Utazata album, the first release on this fledgling label. It is no surprise then that the musicians gel well and produce a very slick and extremely professional set of musical performances on Mu’u. As can also be expected from Neufeld, he is very generous to his fellow musicians and allows each performer to come to the fore on many occasions providing a colourful and contrasting set of sounds.

An example of this comes immediately on the second track ‘Echo’s Bones’ which starts with a congas solo, subtly joined by the drums before the rest of the band come in. Hasumi’s voice is framed beautifully by the rolling percussion sounds and Neufeld’s guitar doubling the melody, then breaking down into a bass solo before some fragmented and thought-provoking lead lines from the guitar which end up challenging Hasumi’s smooth but full-bodied vocals that are a delight to behold. There is a lot of space within this music, it doesn’t feel cluttered, and every sound has a distinct role and purpose. It is thoughtfully put together and the essence of this is clear to see in ‘Entrance’, the shortest piece on the album, a single line melody broken into small fragments with much space between each one, carefully and delicately accompanied by percussion like a miniature watercolour. With everything laid bare it feels that this is the beating heart of the music, the modus operandi, the inner workings that belies all the music on Mu’u. In stark contrast to the mellower nature of most of the pieces is ‘Cgf’, a boisterous affair containing some great lead work, but still with the guitar/percussion spine fully in place. Other notable tracks are ‘Contraction’, the longest piece at just under fourteen minutes, with sparse sounds at times reminiscent of Gagaku, spoken word passages – like a piece of Jazz poetry, and free improv sections with a more melodic lilt as favoured by the second generation of British improvisers but without the acerbic jump-cut notions. ‘Novo Voce’ also has Sorey playing the bass trombone, with Neufeld providing some harsher dissonant and distorted tones, a wordless vocal, and some more straight ahead playing on the drums as the piece builds to a repetitive climax. The sounds carefully unfold throughout the album producing at times a dreamy landscape punctuated with prominent and well-defined musical figures.

Neufeld has played and recorded with many artists over the years and Mu’u is an accomplished testament to the services he has offered others, it is his first as a bandleader and hopefully with more solo projects to come after such a promising start.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

W-2 - Fanatics (Astral Spirits, 2017) ****

By Eric McDowell

Harsh, dense, uncompromising—it’s a shame we ground these descriptors into cliches before W-2 hit the scene. They won’t do us much good here, since falling back on the familiar is the last thing the Brooklyn-based synth/sax duo of Chris Welcome and Sam Weinberg is about. No, Fanatics is a work of constant invention, forty-eight blistering minutes of wide-awake improvised interplay. Like any machine left running on high, the album gives off a heat that teases the boundary between pain and pleasure, happily warm and white hot. Yet with this latest installment in their discography—their third album in this specific vein since just March of last year—the duo seems unlikely to burn out any time soon.

Whether the listener can keep up is another question, though what stake Weinberg and Welcome feel they have in the answer isn’t necessarily clear. Any attempts to boil the music down to simple emotional effects—anger or primal aggression seem obvious—are as unconvincing as the tired adjectives above. Instead, despite the urgency and immediacy of the music, there’s a self-consciousness about Fanatics that introduces a certain kind of distance into the proceedings. Perhaps it starts with the title itself: calling the album Fanatics spins the perspective on the duo’s fanatical improvising, pointing straight at it and casting a shadow of knowing performativity over a genre that’s so often celebrated for being “raw” or “authentic.” Track titles like “Beige and Distrustful” and “Decisive Profanity” suggest that Fanatics may be designed to disrupt, to shock by premeditation rather than by spontaneous enthusiasm. Even the pace at which they’ve been releasing material seems part of the act. And at a certain point, track after track, album after album, the unending intensity starts to feel almost like a test of sorts, if not a prank, pushing the limits not so much of what music can be or of what instruments can do, but of what even die-hard free jazz fans—that is, fanatics—will claim to enjoy.

Now wait: none of that’s to say that this album doesn’t test musical and instrumental limits (it does) or that no one will honestly enjoy it (I certainly do). After all, any effect or commentary—intended or imagined—would be dead on arrival if Weinberg and Welcome weren’t such formidable instrumentalists and improvisors. W-2 is a perfect name for the duo not just because it sidesteps some unwieldy alliteration but also because it encapsulates their incredible ability to “double” one another. Part of the magic is in their way of matching and complementing each other’s voices, from the earsplittingly shrill to the gutturally grating to the digitally gritty. But along with that, of course, comes good old-fashioned listening. Weinberg and Welcome respond to the second-by-second unfolding of each improvisation with ultra sensitivity, deftly chasing each other around every sonic corner. Listening closely, though, it’s actually not that hard to pull apart the strands, isolating Weinberg’s sometimes surprisingly melodic saxophone from Welcome’s nightmare video game stylings. Does doing so diminish the overall effect the duo is so skilled at crafting? Maybe, but perhaps that’s part of the point: to find in deconstruction a source of wonder.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fred Van Hove & Roger Turner - The Corner (Relative Pitch, 2017) *****

Projected on the wall of the gallery at the Haus Der Kunst in Munich for the FMP exhibition was an electric 1974 performance of a brawny young Peter Brotzmann on sax, a mischievous Hans Bennink on drums, and an intense Fred Van Hove on piano. This for some reason came to mind as I was listening to this incredible duo recording from a concert at London's venerable Cafe Oto in late 2015. Though missing the powerful winds, there is the same intensity and focus from Van Hove and a similarly sympathetic collaboration by percussionist Roger Turner.

Turner has long been a main stay in the British improvised music scene, for example, working closely with folks like Lol Coxhill, Phil Minton and John Russell. Van Hove made his mark early on in the first generation of European avant-garde musicians and is renowned for both his playing and teaching. Turner and Van Hove first played together in 1983 and their long association can be discerned easily on The Corner. Turner's supportive playing is well matched with Van Hove's probing and voluminous drive, and is perfectly in tune during the introspective moments. Both of which occur amply during the 26 minute opener 'Life Dealers'.

The duo's repartee is in fine order from the get-go. For example, about ten minutes in, moments of light pianistic whimsy meets Turner's crisp percussion and the two instruments begin pushing each other to extremes. 'Shopped', the second track, is a concise seven minutes and begins on a more tenuous and mysterious ground than the exuberant opener. Van Hove's chords are bright and welcoming, but unusual. Their intrigue emanates from their lush and unique voicing.

The duo's dramatic dynamics are certainly present on the twenty minute 'The Hat'. Van Hove has all the pedals pressed as he builds a wall of sound that we would all happily pay for. This track ends with Van Hove suddenly dropping out, giving Turner a few moments of skittering solo percussion alone time. Van Hove eventually rejoins to bring the epic to a close. The last track, 'More Light' is another terse follow up. Where the previous tune was a dense construction, this one is structurally light and open, like a sweet digestif after the heavy aural meal.

The night of music at Cafe Otto must have been a real treat for those who had a chance to attend. Fortunately Relative Pitch has given the rest of us the opportunity to experience it as well. Who knows, perhaps some 40 odd years in the future, at some exhibition of 21st Century Avant-Garde, a visitor will be treated to the visage of the august Van Hove and feel the music still reverberating from that long ago concert too.

Regardless, it's pure exhilarating - get it, enjoy it!

Monday, September 25, 2017

MiND GAMeS - Ephemera Obscura (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Derek Stone

MiND GAMeS is a quartet consisting of Angelika Niescier (whose NYC Five is a recent favorite of mine) on alto sax, Denman Maroney on “hyperpiano” (I’ll get to that in a moment), James Ilgenfritz on bass, and Andrew Drury on percussion. The first release from the Brooklyn-based group was for the excellent OutNow Recordings label, but they’ve sinced moved on to Clean Feed, a choice that is brilliantly reflected in the quintessentially Clean Feed-ian cover art: a figure, some cross between Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and a World War II-era gas attack victim, stands amidst what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Despite the decidedly ominous artwork (courtesy of Travassos, longtime designer for the label), the music contained within is an absolute pleasure to listen to - sometimes exuberant and complex, sometimes dim-lit and impressionistic.

The first few tracks belong to this former mode. “Harkinsish” is not unlike the small groups that Braxton was a part of in the mid-70’s, with wonderfully insistent basswork, Niescier’s lines that, despite their tunefulness, suggest hidden complexities, and Drury’s subtly-morping rhythms. Throw in Maroney’s “hyperpiano,” and you’ve got all the pieces you need to build a composition that, in its aversion to straightforward melodicism, is pleasantly puzzling. What is this hyperpiano, you ask? The Clean Feed page for the album makes note of “objects placed on the interior strings” - while the effect is not that noticeable in the first two or three pieces, it is nevertheless clear that there is something distinctive in Maroney’s playing: a breeziness, a light touch, a shiftiness. “Selonica” is the perfect example of this. Maroney’s contribution consists of a series of succint lines, Monk-ian phrases that sound as if the fat has all been trimmed off, but his presentation of them is such that each figure feels lush, full of ideas and potentialities.

When it comes to the second mode, that of the “dim-lit and impressionistic,” the group take things in a more subdued direction. “Ephemera Obscura” is a textural exploration of sorts, with the upbeat lyricism of previous tracks being boiled off to reveal the tonal essences underneath. The centerpiece is the 17-minute “Imprint 2,” which has at its heart a motif, glacial and serenely beautiful, that owes more to 20th-century minimalism than it does to contemporary jazz. As the piece unfolds, it undergoes various transformations that keep your attention locked: Maroney’s muted lines swell, recede, and permutate, Drury’s rhythms bubble and intensify, and Niescier moves from indistinct asides to confident assertions. It closes with evocative arco-work from Ilgenfritz, rustic lines that perfectly cap off the transportive feel of the piece. “Imprint 2” is the perfect example of how, in a composition where not much changes on a structural level, you can still get lost in the details. When “Ballard Compound,” with its pounding, unrelenting rhythms, appears, it’s a bit of a shock to the system - it almost feels like snapping out of a reverie.

With Ephemera Obscura, MiND GAMeS have made one of those jazz recordings that I love: the kind that offer a veritable grab-bag of styles and approaches. Bouncing, intricate pieces, dusty abstractions, long-form minimalism - it’s all here, and it’s all lovely. Highly recommended!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Swedes Are Coming #3

By Eyal Hareuveni

More hot music from the Swedish Kingdom that can guarantee a warm winter for all who are going to spend the coming months on the Northern hemisphere.

Vilhelm Bromanders Initiativ — Allt åt Alla (Signal And Sound Records, 2017) ****

Vilhelm Bromanders Initiativ is a new quintet led by young double bass player Bromander, exploring the free jazz of the sixties - when music was like a “raised fist, heard in every note” - and contemporary improvised music, all in a collective, non-hierarchical manner. Bromander is known from the groups The Ägg, pianist Klas Nevrin's Revoid Ensemble and drummer Anna Lund’s Hurrakel! band. His Initiative features trumpeter Niklas Barnö (Fire! Orchestra, Je Suis! And Snus trio), pianist Lisa Ullén (leader of her own quartet, duo with double bass player Nina de Heney,  Anna Högberg Attack), drummer Christopher Cantillo (Parti & Minut, Viva Black), and young sax player Marthe Lea.

Allt åt Alla (everything for everyone) is a limited-edition vinyl (only 300 copies),  recorded in October 2015. Bromander leads the Initiativ with great authority, balancing cleverly between the abstraction of the strong, melodic themes and the joyful improvisations. He and Cantillo set a restless, infectious pulse for the Initiativ, leaving enough space Barnö, Lea and Ullén to pursue extended, intense improvisation.With such natural, experienced improvisers as Barnö, Ullén and  Cantillo, and obviously Bromander himself, even Lea, the Initiativ can not go wrong. The longer pieces - “Rockefeller Rock”, the title-piece and “en Bortglömda Utopin” (The Forgotten Utopia) stress how the Initiativ shifts organically and instantly between restrained balladic modes to ecstatic, hard-swinging improvisations and even sound-searching, abstract solos. The Initiative brilliant music do nod to past masters, especially Charlie Mingus and Don Cherry, but sound fresh and and powerful.  

Viva Black feat. Gretli & Heidi - Mal Sirine (Kopasetic, 2017) ***1/2

How does the warm and soft timbre of wood sounds when it meets the whining, cools and shiny sound of glass? The chamber-jazz-meets-contemporary and folk-music trio Viva Black - double bass player and leader Filip Augustson, violinist Eva Lindal and drummer Cantillo - answers this intriguing question. The third album of the trio, Mal Sirine (precious home in Swedish), is a collaboration of Viva Black with the sisters duo Gretli & Heidi, aka Catharina Backman and Carin Blom, who sing, yodel and play on glass harp. glass bells and glass bowls and bottles. This unique collaboration began in 2015 when Augustson was awarded a grant to compose music together with Gretli & Heidi and drummer Peter Danemo. The new music was premiered a year later in The Reactor Hall R1 in Stockholm, once the first nuclear reactor of Sweden but nowadays a experimental performance space, 25 meters deep in the ground.

Danemo, Augustson and Backman and Blom contributed compositions for Mal Sirine. Danemo’s title-piece employs the full sonic spectrum of the the extended Viva Black, exploring at first abstract yet tense soundscape that patiently blossoms to a  mysterious, gentle ritual, later Augustson and Gretli & Heidi lock it in a light-swinging rhythmic patterns. Augustson’s “Drew’s Brew” bass line was inspired by master Drew Gress, but here it suggests the course to atmospheric, delicate horizons where the silent glass meets the singing violin . Backman three-parts suite “R1” is the most challenging, politically motivated piece. The expressive glass sounds are used as thematic departure points, conceptualizing an atomic bomb detonation.  First, the quiet, almost soft, annihilating heat radiation, then the deafening, cacophonic massive shock waves and last the sudden death of the intense thermal winds, expressed here as a rhythmic, passionate yodel-fest. Some kind of a gruesome death.

Seval - Fragile (Found You Recordings, 2016) ****

Seval is the Swedish group of Chicagoan cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, originally formed as a one-off project to perform his songs and which previously recorded only instrumental piece. Fragile is the third album of Seval and unfortunately the last one by the Chicagoan and the four Stockholm-based musicians - vocalist Sofia Jernberg (Fire! Orchestra), trumpeter Emil Strandberg, guitarist David Stackenäs, and double bass player Patric Thorman. Lonberg-Holm composed songs especially for Seval and over the years the quintet have developed new strategies of negotiating with the songs. These songs navigate freely between art songs, classic jazz standards and pop formats, but do not commit to any convention.

Lonberg-Holm’s strong melodic lines and Jernberg’s exquisite, operatic phrasing  and her more eccentric wordless vocalizations are the core of Fragile songs. Their contemplative abstraction of the songs’ tenuous-melancholic, emotional territories is later reflected by the whole quintet reserved, nuanced interplay. But there are few exceptions. “I Am Not Worried” adopts a more urgent and chaotic interplay and “Empty” follows in a similar vein with the timbrel searches of Lonberg-Holm and Stackenäs, balanced by the gentle phrasing of Strandberg and the solid pulse of Thorman.  The last song, “We Are Not Alone”, concludes Seval beautiful journey with a song that alternates between the dark and dissonant and the gentle and melodic. Like most relationships and like the adventurous work of Seval.      

Jari Haapalainen Trio - Fusion Machine + Fusion Madness (Moserobie, 2016, 2017) *** / ****

Jari Haapalainen Trio fuses jazz, rock and funk in a series of stripped down, driving and powerful blows. JH3's aesthetics are simple but very effective. Down to the bare essentials, spitting concise sonic shells, and racing to the next one. JH3 trio features drummer Jari Haapalainen, a busy pop and indie music producer who has played in The Bear Quartet; sax player Per ‘Texas’ Johansson (Fire! Orchestra, the orchestral works of of double bass master Barry Guy)  and electric bass guitarist Daniel Bingert, a recording engineer, known from his work with local pop star Robyn and with ABBA’s Benny Andersson.

JH3's aesthetics are simple but very effective. Most of Fusion Machine and Fusion Madness pieces are about two minutes and even less. The trio often introduce an infectious theme or a killer riff, grind it in  a typical aggressive mode, dance with it a little bit more, then spit it out. There is no time to spend on redundant technical acrobatics. Few pieces stand out on Fusion Machine - the balladic, emotional “Ingrid 15”; the ironic-playful-swinging “Ich bin ein berliner” and “Mörka rummet” that sound like a theme for a TV crime show. JH3 recipe works better on the more varied Fusion Madness. Still, such a title commits the trio to a higher standard. Now JH3 sounds as a swinging version of John Zorn’s Naked City blended with George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic groups. Tight, aggressive and super fast, but less punkish. Johansson is a charismatic improviser and articulates the strong melodies with economic authority, flying over the fat rock-solid bass lines of Bingert and the driving pulse of Haapalainen. You can listen to pieces like the mean ballad “Sleep Is The Cousin Of Death” or the seductive “I Det” and “Our Man in Berlin” repeatedly, almost forever. The last piece, “Amnesie Versus Hausaufgaben” (Amnesia versus Homework), with German vocalist Mirko Köhler (known also as Fuse Empire) is a brilliant conclusion to this album. You can order the third album of JH3, Fusion Nation, soon at your nearest record store.    

JH3-Jari Haapalainen Trio New Release April 2017 Fusion Madness Trailer from daniel bingert on Vimeo.

Need more?

Fredrik Nordström - Gentle Fire / Restless Dreams (Moserobie, 2016) ***½

Tenor sax player Fredrik Nordström is known from previous collaborations with pianist Bobo Stenson, double bass player Palle Danielsson, and American viola player Mat Maneri , and the bands Dog Out and The Country. His new double album features a classic jazz quartet - pianist Jonas Östholm, double bass player Torbjörn Zetterberg, and American drummer Gerald Cleaver, exploring two complementing sides of his art.

Nordström is well-versed in the history of jazz and Gentle Fire is rooted in the legacy of modern jazz on both sides of the Atlantic. He dedicates a heartfelt composition to Swedish pianist Bengt Egerbladh, who composed most of the music to the classic jazz album of Lars Lystedt Sextet Jazz Under The Midnight Sun (1964), and offers a reserved, contemplative cover of the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer standard “Moon River”. Restless Dreams offers a more personal, open and inclusive perspective on the jazz legacy and music at all. The moving ballad “KK” is dedicated to the Polish film music composer and pianist Krzysztof Komeda. The mysterious-haunting “Volacno Ballad” pays tribute to the Icelandic singer-artist Björk,  Nordström cleverly abstract a marching motif of Carla Bley on “Don’t Bley Me” and concludes with another beautiful homage, the meditative “Everlasting Moments”. This piece was composed after the periodic film by the same name (2008) that followed another heroic woman, working class photographer Maria Larsson, and was directed by Jan Troell with a soundtrack by Matti Bye.  

Pombo - Blåmärken (Queenside, 2016) ***1/2

Pombo means dove in Portuguese. Pombo is also the name of a quintet of Stockholm free birds. Blåmärken (bruises in Swedish) is the third album of this group that mixes poetic-furious, protest pop songs - all sung in Swedish - with fiery sparks of free jazz. Pombo front line features pianist Felicia Nielsen, sax player Anna Högberg leader of her own groups Attack and Dog Life and member of Fire! Orchestra, and vocalist Marie Hanssen Sjåvik, supported by the rhythm section on double bass player Gus Loxbo and drummer Nils Wall.

Blåmärken portrays the contemporary world where all those who were left out on the outside carry some kind of bruises. The single from this album, “Lampedusa”, after the Mediterranean Italian island where the Syrian-Kurdish three-year-old refugee kid Aylan Kurdi drowned on its shore, captures best Pombo message. The song begins with a catchy-rhythmic motif that makes you hum it instantly, disturbed by the subtle electronics of guest Christof Kurzmann. But after surrendering to the passionate vocals of Hanssen Sjåvik comes roaring baritone sax of Högberg and bring you back to the painful reality. This song climaxes with a concise, Brötzmann-like raging sax solo that mirrors the thorny lyrics that calls the European leaders sick and fools.  

Saturday, September 23, 2017

On the last two days of the Guelph Jazz Festival…

By Connor Kurtz

"The piano ain't got no wrong notes," says Monk; Matthew Shipp's Saturday morning solo performance in the River Run Centre was a clear continuation in that thinking. Shipp's set, much more-so than the previous night's trio, was largely filled by emotional exploration using juxtapositions of beauty and dissonance. The dissonant sections were intense and maniacal; the crowd sat in uneasy expectations for the profound emotional relief that Shipp so expertly brought. Shipp used plenty of melodic patterns within his performance, but they refused to let themselves become obvious. The pace flew freely as Shipp drifted from high to low notes, drifting from incomprehensible mayhem to minimalist pseudo-waltzes. Much like Peter Brötzmann's performance just three nights earlier, Matthew Shipp gave a masterful and challenging performance which resulted in a strikingly honest presentation of emotion which could resonate with the entire audience.

Photos by Owen Kurtz

Not long later, the crowd moved to the Guelph Little Theatre for the first of the day's two double bills. The first act to play was Way Out Northwest; the trio of John Butcher, Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff (the latter two performed alongside Peggy Lee the previous night). Although the whole cast was present in the previous night's double bill, Way Out Northwest sounded quite a bit different than either act. The largest difference was that they focused on a form of acoustic improvisation that was far more subdued than what was earlier heard. Müller in particular drifted towards a much more minimalist approach, calling reference to musicians like Eddie Prévost in several sections. Due to the contextual changes, Dylan van der Schyff was allowed a larger role in the spotlight; he took this as a possibility to focus on more quiet and more varied explorations. Butcher completely set aside his electronics, as well as most of his ultra-extended-techniques, to perform a set which was more traditional, yet true to his distinctive language. Butcher often occupied the role of the main focal point, but, to this reviewer, it was Torsten Müller' multifaceted drumming which was the highlight.

On the second half of the double bill was René Lussier' MEUH, which features Pierre Lavoie on lap steel guitar, Martin Tétreault on turntables and Lussier on electric guitar. MEUH hit the audience with great surprise by opening with a track that might be described as a slight perversion of the country & western musical formula, but the greater surprise was to find that the group's entire set was based on this type of song, and not just that, but that it was incredible! Lavoie held the songs together with his impeccable lap steel playing which, while hardly eccentric, simply oozed technical and creative ability. Martin's turntables were abstract and scratchy; they largely existed to cast otherworldly ambience over the tracks, but there were several moments where he was directly cued by René to provide beautifully imaginative counterpoints to his guitar improvisations or even just the song's own melodies. It was typically impossible to detect the source of his LP's, which switched many times through the set, but the brief moments where they played near 33rpm to expose old jazz recordings filled the crowd with joy. René's guitar rested some place between the two performers. Largely, he played bluesy riffs alongside Lavoie to keep the songs rolling, but he often unexpectedly broke into wild improvisations, sounding completely out of place in the context of the song, but in the context of the festival right at home. René also had microphones placed on the floor to amplify his feet, so he could tap away to create an awkward pseudo-percussioninst which came and went. The set, although an odd addition to the festival, was wonderful, sincere, joyous and a huge success.

The day's second double bill brought us back to the River Run Centre to listen to Josh Zubot's Montreal quartet, MendHam. MendHam burst right into a powerful riff, which seemed to be largely inspired by John Zorn's Masada. The quartet played with extreme focus, all sticking closely together both figuratively and literally. Drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli's swinging rhythms are complimented by Nicolas Caloia's walking bass, and this is the first time that something so blatantly "jazz" was performed in this festival. Baritone saxophonist Jason Sharp belts out thick coughs of sound, leaving the melody to Zubot's violin, which often lays closer to classic Canadian fiddling. When the group breaks into improvisation, the song seems to drift away instantly. The improvisations are surprisingly minimal and sparse, especially in comparison to the bombastic themes. During improvisations, Zubot shines brightly, performing a vast amount of styles including the knocking of the instrument's base and col legno bowing.

BassDrumBone, the trio of drummer Gerry Hemmingway, bassist Mark Helias and trombonist Ray Anderson, started off their set with a gigantic mess of free improvisation. It sounds bizarre, conflicting and all wrong. Not too long later, the trio bounced up into a lengthy repeated theme which is both lovely and accessible. During what was certainly the best banter of the festival, it's announced that the piece was written by Hemmingway and was largely inspired by Don Cherry. Throughout the set we were exposed to lengthy compositions by all three performers, and they all had their own eccentricities and strengths. Gerry Hemmingway proved himself to be one of the most talented drummers in contemporary jazz (or in the festival, at least). He performed with a large array of tools and techniques, all mastered to his own unique style, and they were all executed in their perfect moments. One unaccompanied drum solo was easily the most virtuosic of the night. If this were any other ensemble, I'd likely have already gone into Mark Helias' genius. Especially during his own composition, he shines as a marvelously talented improviser who seems to be largely influenced by minimalist classical music. Trombonist Ray Anderson keeps his sounds subtle and sophisticated. He rarely does anything to draw much attention to himself, but he provides an essential counterbalance to the other performers. His own composition is another beast in itself, calling new age ambient music to mind.

The festival's final double bill, the second last event, began on Sunday at noon with a solo performance by Mark Helias. He opened with a gorgeous longform minimalist improvisation, seemingly influenced by Stefano Scodanibbio: a wonderful way to start the day, in this reviewer's eyes. He played melodies that were enchanting and comforting; this level of beauty was rare in the festival. During the improvisation, Helias made subtle switches between traditional and non-traditional styles; resulting in an exciting performance. Next, he played an original composition titled Like I Said. The piece is much more focused on harmony than the improvisation, and cements my belief that he must take strong influence from minimalist composers like Scodanibbio. The last piece played was a piece by Don Cherry, which was a spectacular ending to an otherwise subdued set.

Following up Mark Helias was the very exciting reunion of Tom & Gerry (analogue synthesist Thomas Lehn and percussionist Gerry Hemmingway). As a big fan of the duo's 1999 Erstwhile Records release, this was the most anticipated event for this reviewer; and it came very far from disappointing. At the beginning, the duo played with remarkable restraint and maturity. Just as the 1999 CD was an essential document in the era's budding reductionist improvisation scene, Sunday's performance paid homage to the contemporary reductionist improvisation scene which is quieter than ever. But not just was the set the festival's quietest performance; it was also the loudest. When havoc appears, the whole room begins to shake and it becomes the only moment of the entire festival where earplugs may be recommended. But not just are these moments bombastic and visceral; they are also welcomed, warranted and deserved. Nothing is simply done for shock or anything so easy, this music is careful and methodical. Gerry's toolkit had only grown since the previous night's performance, but Lehn's had actually shrunk as he moved towards a more refined and subtle method of improvisation. Although the performance does have a comfortable spot in the field of contemporary improvisation, it carried much more emotional weight than may be expected in this form of music. In certain moments, Thomas Lehn emitted high tones and beeping LFO's to create brain-shaking pseudo-techno beats. A long section of Gerry simply humming into a harmonica while Lehn worked on harmonizing high pitch tones with soft waves of static was a highpoint, and another was when one of the highest dB catastrophes quickly collapsed into Gerry ringing tiny bells over Lehn's soft processed static. In short, Tom & Gerry continue to be just as spectacular, contemporary and provocative as they were nearly 20 years ago.

The festival ended with one last performance at Silence.: the local duo of Barnyard Drama (singer Christine Duncan and Drummer Jean Martin). Very quickly, Barnyard Drama established themselves as a powerful provocative force; as Duncan shouts out oddball poetry, and gives shoutouts to a large amount of the audience. Jean Martin creates an equally oddball beat, which moves around randomly and often detaches from any form. Martin also controlled electronic modifications of both performers through a laptop and MIDI pad, where he enabled delay effects, tones and sequences. The set was enchanting, and the hour-long performance floated away like minutes. Barnyard Drama had cast their spell, and they had brought the Guelph Jazz Festival to an ending which was both intimate and weird.

The 2017 Guelph Jazz Festival was the first for artistic director Scott Thomson, and he's put together a wonderful string of concerts. There were plenty of surprises and odd decisions; but there wasn't a single ticketed event that I wasn't grateful for having attended.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Continuing Adventures of Damon Smith

John Butcher, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter - Catastrophe of Minimalism (Balance Point Acoustics, 2017) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

Bassist Damon Smith writes in the notes for this release, which was taped live in Oakland, California in 2008, that he likes to let recordings age: "You are very sure about the music when you live with it for a few years before putting it out in the world."

It makes sense: let the ingredients over time interact, if done right, perhaps an unanticipated richness develops around them, ideas that perhaps didn't seem right at the time turn out to be brilliant moves, something perceived as a mistake when it was played has somehow completely melted into the whole. While uncertain what, if any of these things apply here, what is certain is that Catastrophe of Minimalism is a sumptuous and intense album, sure to tickle the most fickle palette.

Saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Weasel Walter round out the trio. The first track 'An Illusionistic Panic Part 1' begins among a spate of percussive hits, saxophone smears, and bowed bass. The melange of ingredients exist both together and seeking their own space. Coming together with a cymbal crash, the tone is set for how these three musical provocateurs will proceed. 'A Blank Magic' follows, featuring skittering multi-phonics from Butcher, expressive and unexpected anti-patterns from Walter, and textural friction from Smith. The fevered pitch that Butcher brings the group to with a repetitive circular phrase and the subsequent percussive tangent that follows on 'Modern Technological Fetishes' is worth the price of the album alone.

Each track provides a different angle on the inner workings of this trio, each offering it's own complex arrangements of overtones, undertones, and meaty notes between. The titles, like the ones for Six Situations are inspired and borrowed from the mid-20th century artist Dan Flavin

Here, have a whiff of this particular good vintage:

Leap of Faith - Domains (Evil Clown, 2017) ****

Smith has relocated a few times over the years, from his website: "After many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, and six great years in Houston, Texas working regularly with Alvin Fielder, Sandy Ewen, David Dove & Chris Cogburn, Damon moved to the Boston area in the fall of 2016.” So, though he is a recent arrival in Boston, it obviously wouldn't be long before he was beckoned into the Leap of Faith multi-verse. Leap of Faith is the work of Boston based woodwind player David Peck (aka PEK), along with the core group of cellist Glynis Lomon and drummer Yuri Zbitnov. The trio is joined on Domains by bassists Silvain Castellano and Smith.

Those who have ventured into Leap of Faith's musical world know of the rich rewards and decadent dangers contained within. Domains starts quietly, a bed of sound is made through various percussion instruments and what sounds like a subconscious accordion. There is a rumble from down in the bass register, and as tempo and temper pick up, the bowed sounds of the low strings swirl about, while the contra-alto clarinet spins a rich suspended gossamer web around the skittering percussion. It would be quite hard to pick out which is Castellano and which is Smith, however a Leap of Faith recording isn’t so much about the individual voices, but rather, the totality of the improvisation. Veering from bowed to bouncing to bitonal, the basses dominate, and the group weaves their dark magic around them (check out the music around the 55 minute mark - its intense!).

Recorded live at Outpost 186 in Cambridge, MA in August 2017, Domains is a unique album. With the tilt towards the strings, the set is dominated by the low frequency instruments and features a different level of gravity. Absolutely captivating.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Alvin Fielder / Frode Gjerstad / Damon Smith — The Shape Finds Its Own Space (FMR Records, 2016) ***½

By Rick Joines

The Shape Finds Its Own Space is a set featuring Norwegian Frode Gjerstad on clarinet and alto saxophone and Americans Alvin Fielder on drums and Damon Smith on double bass recorded at the No Idea Festival in Austin, Texas, on February 25, 2016. The album’s title, and the title of the three-part 38-minute improvisation—“angles, curves, edges, & mass”—comes from an artist’s statement by Ellsworth Kelly:
I have worked to free shape from its ground, and then to work the shape so that it has a definite relationship to the space around it; so that it has a clarity and a measure within itself of its parts (angles, curves, edges, and mass); and so that, with color and tonality, the shape finds its own space and always demands its freedom and separateness.
Ellsworth Kelly is an apt muse for an improvising, free jazz musician. He sought to escape representation and the conventions of easel painting on a rectangular canvas, yet his abstractions always abstract from real objects: windows, frames, and the wall around them, the tombstone curves of Tour de France kilometer markers, the way light bounces off rippling water. “The form of my painting is the content,” Ellsworth proclaimed.

Can free jazz musicians transpose this visual artist’s goals into their medium? Kelly’s method of composition was to avoid composition: chance eliminated the need to decide where things go. Likewise, Gjerstad, Fielder, and Smith play without knowing how things will unfold. They work their instruments and shape their music, revealing its plasticity, but music also resists and makes its own demands. It has limits both the body and imagination must respect. Fielder modulates in and out of rhythm, riding a cymbal and at times positively swinging as Smith walks growling, fat-fingered bass lines. Smith’s strings whisper into hazes of harmonics and dive in glassy shrieks. Both flirt with mixtures of pure improvisation and conventional musical beauty, unlike Gjerstad who opts for the unrestrained. I am not a fan of his frightened-wounded-nearly-dying-animal-spinning-on-a-rusty-turnstile-whose-tea-kettle-is-at-the-boil style, but he’s been at it for decades, and others find it enthralling. Like the abstract artist, these improvising musicians wander out to the edge of the real and the imaginable and wobble there on the precipice where the aesthetic ends and its opposite begins.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Danny Kamins / Damon Smith / Alvin Fielder / Joe Hertenstein — After Effects (FMR Records, 2017) ****½

By Rick Joines

So much depends upon a title.

After Effects is Danny Kamins’ first album as bandleader. Kamins (baritone sax), a Houston-native and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, directs jazz ensembles at Rice University and plays in the lo-fi drone band CARL and the noise band Etched in the Eye. He has good company for his first outing: Damon Smith on bass, and Joe Hertenstein and the legendary Alvin Fielder on lots of things percussive. Fielder, Kamins reports, provided the meteorological titles for these entirely improvised songs, so (I’m guessing) the names postdated the playing. Thus, the titles and their themes would seem to have had no impact on the creation of these songs, but knowing the titles influences how, or what, one hears in them—innocent though they were of their names when brought to life.

Because the first track of After Effects is titled “In the Beginning,” the first two and half minutes of low rumbling of bass and drums, which turns suddenly violent and then rhythmic, which lacks form then gains it, puts me in mind of Genesis. Where there was nothing, now there is something, sorting itself out—gathering and yielding, creeping and flying. The quartet sounds loose and shifty, sometimes hurried or harried, so when Kamins’ baritone finally enters, it is like the spirit moving upon the face of the waters, creating order out of disorder. The rest of the songs’ titles indicate this “beginning” may be of a great storm, so my imaginings may be off track, but if this was called “Improvisation #1,” I may not have imagined anything much at all, and I doubt I would enjoy the song as much.

In the next track, “Land, Sand, Water,” Fielder and Hertenstein sprinkle and grind their percussives like sand accreting and eroding at the water’s edge. Kamins’ baritone flows like waves over their cobbled contours. Then Smith’s bass, like land after the flood recedes, appears. At the cartographic edge of things, each instrument maps its own shapes—intersecting, overflowing, demarcating—until it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. “Storms” (Parts 1 and 2), follows hard upon, as if produced by the confluence of land, sand, and water. Here these musicians hit their stride as a unit. The pair of drummers, one per channel, create constant atmospheric rumbles and irreconcilable rhythms through which Kamins’ breathy, ballsy, red-blooded baritone cuts. Smith’s playing is restrained and pushed back in the mix, but his bruising pizzicato and gashing arco arcs like lightning through the thunderous throatiness of Kamins’ sax.

One’s tempestuous imagination continues to roam over the rest of the album, lulled by Smith’s louré bowing in “The Gentle Breeze,” buoyed and battered by the Doppler effects of Fielder and Hertenstein’s bells and skins in “The Wind,” attentive to Kamins’ lyrical, wavering foghorning in “The Shore,” and magnetized by Smith’s scratch tones and rhythmic walking during “The Hurricane and the Calms.” In “After Effects,” each instrument sounds as if it’s been through the worst of it and is piecing itself back together uncertainly, anxiously assessing the damage in the final song, “The Cleanup.”

Perhaps because of the songs’ titles, everything on this record takes on some added significance. There are often moments of near silence, as when the eye of a hurricane passes over, and, like a hurricane, the playing of the rhythm section swirls, its power rising from within. While an alto sax may zoom like a thunder shower, a tenor squall like a storm front, a baritone lumbers like a slow-moving tropical storm over great space, a behemoth laboring to pick up speed. Kamins has a penchant for long, tremulous notes, but he also has a powerful lyrical ability that avoids the familiar, idiomatic, soporific sounds often associated with the baritone sax. His tone is contemplative, stately, and, like the great storms over the ocean and the beasts beneath, he plays majestically so as to inspire the imagination.

Danny Kamins

After Effects

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Joe McPhee / Damon Smith / Alvin Fielder - Six Situations (Not Two, 2017) *****

The 19 minutes of the first track off Six Situations, 'The Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy', is a journey through the joys of improvised music making. The core duo of bassist Damon Smith, and drummer Alvin Fielder, first played together in 2010 and their collaborative spirit remains strong through today, as evidenced by their recent duo release Song for Chico. Saxophonist Joe McPhee, of course, is a musician whose presence always enhances the 'situation.'

Launching into a spirited set at Brooklyn's Roulette during September 2016 the newly formed trio's approach is captured well in a line from Smith's liner notes: "What emerged between Alvin and myself is mix of total free improvisation with swinging quarter notes never far away." Add McPhee to the proceeding statement and you have Six Situations in the making: swinging, energetic, and free. It's a winning combination that melds the wild pulse of classic free jazz with edgy and exciting improvisation.

The aforementioned first track begins with a long passage where Smith and Fielder exchange ideas and lay the groundwork for McPhee. He comes in with some hearty sounds which builds momentum over tje looping pulse. Smith's solo passage about half-way into the track deftly incorporates space and dynamics to accentuate the taut scratching passage before an actual howl escapes from McPhee as he re-enters the conversation. The tune winds down with a concise bluesy refrain and an extended percussion outro.

The follow up 'Blue Trees in Wind' is again introduced by Fielder's and Smith's extended techniques – deft plucks and bowed skronks, all applied expertly around Fielder's brushwork. McPhee enters with a laid back melody that begins to fray and fracture as the piece continues. Smith injects a tumultuous counter melody as the tension comes to a head. 'Alternate Diagonals' does indeed offer a different perspective on the previous direction. This time McPhee takes the reins and introduces a Gustafsson-like rhythmic figure that the others rally around. It's short but powerful. 

The next track, a 23-minute track entitled 'Red & Green Alternatives' starts off the second half of the album which doesn't disappoint. The song is more textural, starting off with soft percussion and light smears of sounds from Smith. When McPhee shows up, it's nearly 10 minutes in, following an intense duet. He vocalizes through the instrument before settling into a forlorn solo melody.

All said, Six Situations documents three excellent musicians sharing a strong musical rapport. The rich supply of ideas in their collective possession is enough to make the most of any situation.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Alvin Fielder / Damon Smith Duo—Song for Chico (Balance Point Acoustics, 2016) ****

By Rick Joines

That free, improvised jazz gives pleasure to its connoisseurs seems obvious. Even more obvious is the displeasure it causes everybody else.

Avant-garde music of any genre—for those who play it, compose it, and listen to it—answers a desire to be disoriented, a hankering to indulge in lawlessness, a longing to be free. It makes us happy—we get it, and it gets us. If, like other kinds of music, free jazz resembles language, what sort of communication is it? We often refer to the interplay between musicians as “conversation,” but other than the fact that notes follow notes in linear time, most free, improvised jazz eschews ordinary, idiomatic syntax. To some, it sounds like random noise, yet to us, it is beautiful. Or maybe it’s true: we’re just weird.

The album Song for Chico, with Alvin Fielder (b. 1935) on drums and Damon Smith (b. 1972) on contrabass, contains what lovers of free jazz love in spades. Here is an example of the two of them at work:

Even one versed in the intricacies of improvised music would be hard pressed to describe their playing as a “conversation,” yet we believe there is a sort of communion because the playing sings in a language whose mysteries we feel we understand. But how?

There are six tracks on Song for Chico, and each seems completely improvised (though I’m not certain that is wholly true of “Variations on ‘Untitled’ by Cecil Taylor” or “Roots by Johnny Dyani,” but I’d say their improvisational-to-composed content is high). Watching Alvin Fielder behind the drums and Damon Smith behind his bass, and listening to them, leads one to wonder if they are particularly aware of one another’s presence: what each plays might be what they would play even if the other one wasn’t there. Because what they both play—note by note—so lacks a clear, standard harmonic connection or any melodic sequence, when Fielder quotes “Salt Peanuts” in “Improvisation 1,” even that short bit of something familiar feels, somehow, odd. Yet to me, and probably to them, their songs cohere as songs. Perhaps it is a matter of mood or tone, or of some kind of simpatico.

What is most evident on each of the tracks on Song for Chico is Fielder and Smith’s technique. In fact, the album is almost entirely “about” technique. Fielder wields a battery of sticks and brushes; he makes music using every nut, bolt, stand, skin, cymbal, and underside of his kit. He almost never “keeps time.” In this sort of music, time is not a thing that can be “kept.” It is fluid and unpredictable—like nature. Smith’s technique puts me in mind of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion”: Smith’s playing is “like the wind that lashes everything at once.” He is an aggressive bassist, stormy and dramatic. Scratch tones, ponticello, tremolo, spiccato, ricochet, glissando, trills, detaché, legato, louré, slurs, slaps, martelé, jeté, sautillé, staccato, saltato, col legno, saccadé, buzz, snap, and nail pizzicato—name a technique, or extended technique, and chances are it’s in a song and in Smith’s arsenal. There is nowhere he won’t bow or pluck or strum—hard. Sometimes he even rubs his bass’s belly.

The species of free, improvised jazz on display on Song for Chico is what music sounds like when the “like” language barely holds, or does not apply at all. Yet Fielder and Smith are not just two guys in a room making an erratic cacophony. If free jazz is “like” a language, or mode of communication, it must be something like the communication within a murmuration of starlings, or a school of fish, or like a peloton of 120 professional cyclists, elbow-to-elbow, hurtling down Rue d’Somewhere at 40 MPH. The consciousness of the other and the communication between them about speed and direction is immediate, precognitive, innate. They are all headed somewhere, but who knows where, how long it will take, or how they will get there, exactly? There is a pleasure in the practice of working together as one mind and one body, in the stretching and condensing, in the speed or agility that would be impossible if alone.

Alvin Fielder and Damon Smith are masters of their art. Their communication—with each other and with us, the listeners—seems subliminal; it transmits outside of the range of the “normal” consumer of music. It is a signal broadcast to all, but not all receivers are able to pick it up, or decipher it as theme or dialogue. Yet for those attuned to it, the music they make is magical, and “what they have to say” is persuasive and elegant, even if we have a hard time explaining why, or how, it is. “To interpret language,” Adorno claims, “means: to understand language.” And “to interpret music means: to make music.” “Musical interpretation,” he notes, “is performance.” Fielder and Smith interpret a style of music that demands and rewards our interpretation, and demands performance from the critic, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

On the first three days of the Guelph Jazz Festival…

By Connor Kurtz

The 2017 Guelph Jazz Festival started big on Wednesday with a solo set by the one and the only Peter Brötzmann in the Guelph Little Theatre. Brötzmann opened the night with a long piece on his signature tenor saxophone, which was full of emotion and surprise. Rather than the aggressive bombardments that made Peter Brötzmann such a popular name, he opted for a far more soulful improvisation which carefully drifted from melody to non-melody and from style to style. Themes and motifs came and went through the piece, even making surprise returns on the pieces which would follow on different instruments.

The biggest surprise of the night, for this reviewer, was that his clarinet performance ended up both harsher and quicker than the first tenor performance. Even though there were long stretches of careful melody in the piece, it was dominated by abrasive textual improvisations. Next, he took off his jacket and took out his taragoto to perform a wonderful clash of cultures, focused on experimental repetitions and full body movements.

Finally, he took out his tenor saxophone once again to play a brief piece which, to this review, sounded to be an aggressive younger brother to the first piece, but was later confirmed in an on-stage interview to be a piece from Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. Brötzmann also teased the idea of releasing a Brötzmann Plays Standards CD, and hinted towards future work with drummers Han Bennink and Andrew Cyrille.

On Thursday night in the River Run Centre was the Toronto-based chamber jazz quartet Cluttertones, who were accompanied by Hong Kong-Toronto pianist Lee Pui Ming. In their two-hour set, they covered a huge amount of music ranging from free improvisation to contemporary classical music to vocal pop. Cluttertones' greatest appeal, for this reviewer, was the clear mutual respect and artistic comfortability that all performers shared. This allowed for a huge variety of improvisations using different members of the ensemble, where no members make attempt to steal any unnecessary spotlight.

Gracing the stage of a small performance space simply known as Silence on Friday was the Montreal-based trio known as Jane and the Magic Bananas. Sam Shalabi, on guitar and electronics, and Alexandre St-Onge, on bass guitar and electronics, are both known quite well for their involvement in the wonderful psychedelic rock group known as Shalabi Effect. Michel F. Côté, on drums and feedback, may not be as well known outside of Montreal's musique actuelle music scene, but there's no denying that this trio has brilliant chemistry (upon the end of the trio's first piece a man could be heard yelling "Seriously? Yes!"). All musicians found beautiful ways to mesh their instruments with their electronics, and the result was a psychedelic wasteland which left the whole crowd enamored. The music may have little to do with jazz, but it's difficult to say exactly what genre of music this does have to do with. What this reviewer knows for sure, is that this performance was visceral, inspiring and that it won't be easily forgotten.

Later, in the same night in the River Run Centre was the very exciting international trio of saxophonist John Butcher, analogue synthesist Thomas Lehn and pianist Matthew Shipp (all three performers will be playing again throughout the weekend). The trio's performance was nothing short of dazzling and constantly exciting. John Butcher's improvisation was kaleidoscopic in range, seemingly covering just about everything except traditional saxophone soloing. Thomas Lehn crafted a thick atmosphere of challenging tones and pops which filled the room, and even seemed to make the chairs shake at times. Through (what I assume to be) a MIDI-keyboard, Lehn's fingers move like a mad man's, in direct opposition to the much more careful Matthew Shipp. Matthew Shipp's performance was emotionally controlled, which created a wonderful balance against the two experimentalists. Shipp carefully crafted melodies and repetitions, imposing pseudo-form over the entire piece. It's hard to imagine a much more perfect 2017 jazz trio than this.

Following up the trio's performance in a double bill was the Vancouver-based cellist Peggy Lee with an octet of great improvisers to perform her suite, Tell Tale, written in response to the recent HBO series, Deadwood. Following the trio was surely tough, but the Peggy Lee Octet won over the crowd enough to warrant a standing ovation from nearly the entire audience. The piece drifts from gorgeous themes and songs to extended improvisations and back again, including lengthy unaccompanied solos for both the contrabass and drums. Highlights included pianist Chris Gestrin's reductionist approach, which seemed to take inspiration from the minimalist notion of a pulse, and guitarist Ron Samworth's use of effect pedals, which reminded this reviewer of Alexandre St-Onge's performance just hours earlier. Tell Tale is available on a 2016 CD, released by Drip Audio.

Saturday will include a solo performance from Matthew Shipp in the River Run Centre at 10, a double bill of Way Out Northwest (John Butcher with Torsten Müller and Dylan van der Schyff of the Peggy Lee Octet) and René Lussier’s MEUH (which also features turntablist Martin Tétreault) in the Guelph Little Theatre at 2, and a double bill of Josh Zubot’s MendHam (which also features composer and percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli) and BassDrumBone (Mark Helias, Gerry Hemmingway and Ray Anderson) in the River Run Centre at 8. Sunday will include a double bill of Mark Helias (solo bass) and Tom & Gerry (Thomas Lehn and Gerry Hemmingway, that is) at noon in the Guelph Youth Music Centre, and Barnyard Drama (Christine Duncan and Jean Martin) at 8 in Silence.

Check back later this coming week for continued coverage.