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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.