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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Paula Shocron / Germán Lamonega / Pablo Diaz - Tensegridad (Hatology, 2017) ****½

I suppose it’s a bit of a conflict of interest to write this review since I also wrote the liner notes; however, since I've decided to barrel ahead anyway, I am going to further transgress and paraphrase liberally from the notes I wrote for the album. When I started on them, I took the opportunity to do Q&A's with the SLD trio's pianist Paula Shocron, drummer Pablo Diaz, and bassist Germán Lamonega, and what came out was a story of believing in your art, making connections, and a lot of perseverance. 

The SLD Trio is a group of young Argentian musicians, who along with a small, dedicated, and increasingly beset group of artists, are working to find a space for free improvisation in Buenos Aries. If you can, track down Jason Weiss’ excellent profile of the group and the Argentinian improvisational music scene in Wire 399. Here, you will meet two thirds of the trio along with other prominent players, whom are all interconnected … a term which brings me conveniently to the album's title Tensigridad. From the liner notes:
The term 'tensegridad' is the Spanish translation of the word 'tensegrity' - a portmanteau coined by the 20th Century inventor and visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, who in the 1960 combined the words "tensional" and "integrity". The term refers to the strength and internal cohesiveness of interconnected individual components. The pieces may or may not actually be connected directly, but they are a part of the web of interconnectedness that gives the whole structure its form and structure. A classic example of this term is the geodesic dome, a self-supporting structure that Fuller popularized.The term however, has traveled beyond architecture and into other disciplines like biology, where the term ‘biotensegrity’ is used to describe the body's muscular-skeletal system is a connection of muscle and bone that operates in a comparable manner. 
This concept to me is an apt description of the self-supporting community that is so key to creative/improvised music scene. I met the trio of them a couple years ago when they were visiting New York (part of an annual pilgrimage) after their last album release Anfitrion. They have slowly been integrating and extending the New York improvisation music scene, performing in the city and inviting musicians to perform in Buenos Aires.

Now, about the music ...

The album begins with Lamonega's solo bass introduction to the track ‘Vera’. His tone is rich, and the legato phrases and double-stops lay a strong foundation for his bandmates. When the other join, the piano’s hypnotic arpeggios and the solid pulse of the percussion generate a mounting intensity. Throughout, the motion is generated by the energy of repetition, growing every higher until it breaks, where at the end Lamonega is left alone, again, to end the track.

The Mal Waldron tune ‘Snake Out’ begins with Shocron concentrating on the piano’s lower register, her attack is sharp and determined. These are not delicate or tender melodies being expressed, rather the trio is making a bold musical statement. The interconnectedness of their approach is the focus here, and the intensity of the song is the result of years of close listening and strong reactions.

Skipping ahead, on the title track ‘Tensegridad’, Shocron is melodic and driving, the strident movement of the chords giving the song its geometric shape. A quick build-up ensues with Diaz’s drums follow along, reacting and ultimately reinforcing the angles, and finally hooking up with Lamonega’s brisk walking lines, which adds a heft to the captivating, and all to soon over, track.

While there are many other fine tracks to explore, like the humorous and infectious ‘Casa Rodante’ and the spoken word ‘Universe Tiene Sentido’, the track ‘Connie’- a tribute to Connie Crothers, the New York based pianist, composer, and educator who passed away in 2016 - is a heartfelt tribute from Shocron. The connection between these two pianists developed on the trio’s very first trip to New York several years ago, and the emotion that imbued Crother’s work has deeply affected Shocron. The track is the emotional highlight of the recording and the juxtaposition of intense feeling with quiet reflection is incredible effective.

This is a trio with a calling to reconnect and whether or not you buy into my interconnectedness blather, along the way, the SLD trio is making moving, creative, and thoughtful music and it’s well worth your time to get your hands on the CD or download. Please regard my conflict of interest as your gain.

Monday, October 30, 2017

David Grubbs – Creep Mission (s/r, 2017) ****½

By Daniel Böker

For the last three weeks I've been waiting for the new album from David Grubbs. I've been following his music for years now. Years ago, he had a duo called Gastr del Sol with Jim O'Rourke. This is where I discovered his unique way of playing the guitar. Mostly he uses a clean sound and somewhat catchy chords. But every time, his songs or tracks open up to something that is far beyond pop-music (which is why I think it is appropriate to write about his latest album here).

Listening to the new record I realize that the routes Jim O'Rourke and David Grubbs each took are very different but they both move between song and sound. Every few years Jim O'Rourke releases an album with perfectly composed pop songs. After that he continues to work in the field of improvised music with guys like Keiji Heino and Oren Ambarchi.

David Grubbs has also worked with different musicians over the years whom I have tried to follow. He worked with Mats Gustafsson, with Andrea Belfi, with different electronic sound artists and musicans such as f.s.blumm. Jim O'Rourke seems to separate his two approaches to music completely. David Grubbs puts tracks and songs on the same record, standing side by side.

Another difference between the two might be that Grubbs' way of playing the guitar was and is always recognizable. On some of his records the free often electronic based tracks stood side by side with the more guitar-based songs. David Grubbs often composed songs in which he actually sang. So there was (and maybe still is) a connection with "pop-structures".

On the last couple of releases though something changed. The connection between his catchy approach and the free or improvised tracks grew stronger.

I've been listening to the new record Creep Mission over and over again. All the ingredients are there: The typical Grubbs-guitar, electronics and some drumming, this time by Eli Keszler. Nate Wooley is adding some trumpet sounds on four of the seven cuts.

There are no vocals on this record which might be another indicator for the theory that David Grubbs is breaking down the barrier between the two different approaches he is following. And the outcome is outstanding. The album is not harsh or wild. The sound is very calm but if you are listening closely there are many different layers to it. Listening to it you are waiting for an outburst to release the tension that is there but it seldom comes. Grubbs holds this tension between song and sound, between calmness and outburst.

The first track 'slylight' is a very good example for this. It starts of with a few guitar picks that sound almost shy. There is this bass-tone he plays in so many of his pieces which is a sort of grounding to the open chords he usually adds. It takes more than a minute until Eli Keszler comes in with his drumming. But this also is rather calm, and it is a lot of cymbals. Three minutes in the sound changes as both the guitar and the drums intensify. Grubbs switches to a minimalist guitar pattern, the drums retreat to near silence, and Nate Wooley adds a breathy trumpet. So the course of this piece moves from very calm and kind of catchy (or at least easy to grab) to openness with a minimalistic tone to it. This is the tension I hear within Grubbs' music that I enjoy so much, and on this album he holds it at his best.

The second track 'Creep Mission' is also a very neat interplay between Keszler and Grubbs with Wooley entering after a few minutes again. The other tracks are different and still recognizable Grubbs. 'The Bonapartes of Baltimore' features only Grubbs and his guitar, 'Jeremiadiac' has a strong electronic woof (added by Jan St. Werner) to it, and so on.

The info on the homepage of DragCity describes the album as bi-composed/improvised. Though the credits on the CD go to Grubbs alone with the exception of 'Jeremiadiac'. The relation between composed and improvised is similar to the relation I tried to describe with the 'pop-structures' and the more open parts. All this tension makes this album a worthy listen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Flo Stoffner/Paul Lovens/Rudi Mahall - Mein Freund der Baum (Wide Ear Records, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

When I recently talked to legendary German free jazz drummer Paul Lovens he told me that he had a new project with clarinetist Rudi Mahall (they both know each other from the Globe Unity
Orchestra) and Swiss guitarist Flo Stoffner, a man who’s relatively new on the improv scene. I came across him only this year at the Zurich Intakt Festival when he played a very good duo set with Evan Parker. Lovens has a high opinion of Stoffner and said that he was a musician who’s up and coming.

Stoffner is a promising musician indeed. He says that he’s influenced by guitarists like Jimi
Hendrix, Bill Frisell and John Scofield, but his style rather reminds me of Derek Bailey or Olaf Rupp. Unlike many people he thinks that there’s a lot to discover on this instrument, there were still new fields worth to be explored. His playing is rather lean than offensive and boisterous, he uses precise little melodic fragments here and there. In this trio he foils Rudi Mahall’s swinging approach with very clear reductionism.

Mein Freund Der Baum (My Friend the Tree) is reminiscent of a collage - sound snippets are taken out of contexts, they’re rearranged, just to be rejected, changed, and rearranged again. The music constantly shifts and fractures. The result is a fragmented, diverging, only seeming chaos on the one hand, but it’s actually a perfect piece of work on the other. Blurred and smudged sounds, disgorged and pulled, compete with abstract blues riffs á la Captain Beefheart as if marbles were rolling down a street paved with strings. The music’s a gigantic in-and-out breathing, a permanent stop and go. Paul Lovens is the key figure to me, his rare, accurate tidal-wave-like attacks, which oppose his sublime bevy of percussive clatter, force Mahall and Stoffner into new, surprising dynamic contexts.

Finally, Rudi Mahall is excellently attuned to his band mates. There’s a passage towards the end of “Mein”, which is characteristic for the trio’s music: Lovens delivers an almost steady beat, Mahall responds to the phrasings of the guitar, matching Stoffner’s chopped and scraping notes with a series of squeaky high clarinet tones. The effect is extremely interesting, at times it’s like friends discussing a complex problem - enthusiastic, reflective, and pointed.

The album resembles a chamber-music-like update of the Evan Parker/Derek Bailey/Han Bennink album The Topography of the Lungs, reflecting this cutting edge free improv classic’s ultra-concentrated force and controlled energy. It’s full of excellent musicianship and unexpected twists and turns. Really recommended.

Mein Freund Der Baum is available on CD. You can buy it from

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Trevor Barre - Convergences, Divergences & Affinities: The second wave of Free Improvisation in England, 1973–1979 (Compass, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Convergences, Divergences & Affinities: The second wave of Free Improvisation in England, 1973–1979
is Trevor Barre's second book exploring the improvisational music scene in England. This time he moves the timeline from the formative years of the first generation (1965 - 1972) deep into the 1970s, covering the years between 1973 and 1979, covering the rise of the second generation of players and a broadening of the 'scene'. In a sense, he is chronicling a time of change, when the musical revolution of the 60s in which the roots of British improvisation was still energetic and branching out to new venues, new configurations, and beyond London.

The Second Generation had some different ideas than the First Generation players. Barre beings up quotes that had been used, like 'insect music', to describe some of Gen 1's music, and credits Gen 2 with reintroducing the heretofore shunned identifiable 'tune'. This was, as Barre says, a marker of the Gen 2 attitude: a refusal of the refusal found in Gen 1's music. He writes "the gradual reintroduction of these features into free improvisation marks one of the key features of gen two and its influences."

The book spends a good portion of its first half tracing the shifting scene framed through the advance of Gen 1: Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Paul Rutherford, SME, and AMM are given updates, along with new collectives. Attention is paid to importance of collectives and concert series that settled into new venues, creating a new quilt work of support. This includes organizations like the Musician's Cooperative, (which included 1st Geners like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Paul Lytton, and John Stevens) and the subsequent London Musicians Collective. Other folks who figure prominently include Martin and Madelaine Davidson, who founded the essential Emanem label and hosted concerts, as well as Janice Christianson whose Albion Music series was a serious vehicle for Bailey (who later in this period started Company).

Newer arrivals, like Turner and Beresford are situated in the history but it's still very much the Gen 1 story. When Barre then transitions to Gen 2, he begins by digging deeper into the work of Steve Beresford, David Toop, Terry Day, Lol Coxhill, the groups Alterations, Three/Four Pullovers, Promenades, and Recendents, and others. He makes a critical decision to also discuss post-punk bands of the day (Scritti Politti for example) and explores the intertwining aesthetics with the Gen 2 efforts. Interestingly, he observes that most of Gen 2's output did not make it into the seminal Cook/Morton guides, which he argues underscores that Gen 2's approach had cross pollinated with other experimental music had moved further beyond jazz then even Gen 1 (though Incus and Enamen did a lot to preserve their work). As Barre gets into the personalities and pathos of the Gen 2 musicians the reader is left with a good sense of the irreverence that many of these musicians shared, along with the tensions that both drove the music and underscored its place in the punk and no-wave world.

Just as Barre begins with Gen 1 and ramped up to the second generation, he does the same when expanding the scope to include musicians outside of the core London scene. Drummer and future FMR label head Trevor Taylor, and guitarist Ian Brighton (check) get mentions along with several collectives. The take away is that the spirit of free improvisation flourished around the country, with like-minded folks assembling in their respective cities to create self-supporting scenes. The nature of such collectives is their essential ephemeralness and as Barre points out 'the practical difficulties involved in communication between the various collectives would also have been considerable, in those pre-internet days, with reliance on 'snail-mail.' One begins to wonder though, just how much better is it post-internet? Perhaps the 5th volume, covering the years 1996 - 2002 will begin to explore this topic.

Early on, Barre references the release of the Smithsonian Collection of Jazz in 1973 and the rise of the Jazz at Lincoln Center in the 1980s, as a canonization of 'Jazz' and a shift away from valuing creativity and surprise with virtuosity and training. He writes, "the 1970s was perhaps the last gasp of modernism in jazz, as it was in rock. Almost everything subsequent to these years can be described as 'revivalism' of some kind or another." This is not a theme constrained to this publication, for example, the beginning of Michael Heller's recent book Loft Jazz: Improvising New York in the 1970s (which deserves a review here as well), also discusses how this period seems to be where the pioneering free and improvised music made a shift from away from some mainstream focus and major label interest. The connection is not lost on Barre who draws this parallel a few times, notably during his lengthy survey of the rise of the rhizomal improviser collectives in small cities throughout Britain in the late 70s existing in concert with but wholly independent of the London scene. He also explore the feminist discussions that arose in the 70s, and the double standards that seemed to apply to the Femnists Improvisation Group, begun by member of both the improv and rock scenes.

Pluckish prose and nimble nouns abound. I think Barre is feeling less constrained in this book, volume one felt a little more academic in its presentation, not a lot, but more. Here too, Barre is a bit more apt in looking at sociological and psychological underpinnings inherent in his review of the past, he leans on his professional background in this area to apply concepts and vocabulary from the field, which can be interesting and fun in it's own right. The penultimate chapter sees Barre exhuming his stash of Musics, which was a publication managed by many of the folks mentioned in this review, that was  somewhat like a trade 'zine, publishing 32 issues between 1975 and 1979. Here, he speculates on the prescient passages and obscure interpersonal dynamics in retrospect. I suspect there will be some good arguments had between folks who are most invested.

Overall there is a breezier tone in Convergences, Divergences & Affinities than in his first book, and a slightly obsessive search for patterns. There are moments of political commentary on current events like Brexit and Trump (which Barre draws a sharp parallel between a yearning for a golden age and trends in modern jazz). Another item that pops up on occasion is the looming years of Margaret Thatcher's government and the '"less generous attitude towards the arts ... just around the corner." Foreshadowing I hope!

See the review for Beyond Jazz: Plink, Plonk & Scratch, the Golden Age of Free Music in London 1966–1972

Update: earlier reported Kindle formatting issues have been corrected. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Two from Squadra Omega

By Derek Stone

Squadra Omega is a self-described “psych/avant/kraut rock collective,” but even that heady set of signifiers doesn’t completely capture what the Italy-based group, whose core members call themselves OmegaMatt and OmegaG8, accomplish with these two newest releases. Acid-fried funk, loop-based electronics, pastoral folk, you name it - the duo (and whoever they tap to accompany them) is seemingly unintimidated by the “kitchen-sink” approach to improvisation. While their previous record ( the stellar Altri Occhi Ci Guardano) comprised a double album’s worth of material, with “Materia Osura” and “Nervoso,” the group have pared down any excesses and simultaneously gifted us with two separate, laser-focused long-players.

Squadra Omega - Materia oscura (GRANDANGOLO, 2017) ****

Opener “Massa mancante” is immediately grabbing. Over propulsive percussion and an ebullient bass-line, joyful synths swirl, with a bouncy, irresistable keyboard calling to mind the effervecent psychedelica of another time. Despite its seeming indebtedness to similarly playful kraut-psyche groups like Neu! (especially those drums), however, the piece never feels stale or played-out. “Mondo brana” rides on a simple two-chord acoustic guitar pattern and lilting drumwork, with OmegaMatt’s incisive electric guitar motif adding a flare of dramaticism. With its additional layers of synth and sax, one can’t help but think of the Rock in Opposition movement of the late ‘70s - there’s an undeniable thread running from those English avant-prog groups to Squadra Omega. After an explosive bridge section in which the combined force of the instrumentation serves to rouse anyone whose attention might have been slipping, “Mondo brana” moves into stranger, more interesting, territory; atmospheric slivers of organ and a wailing sax weave in and out of an electronic stew, the whole thing brews and simmers, and it finally gives rise to a jittery, high-tempo coda. The concluding track, “Le oscillazioni dell’universo giovane,” sees the group at the height of their experimentation. Burbling synths, cavernous electronics, spectral percussion that moves in fits-and-starts - if not perfectly analogous to the “the oscillations of the young universe,” it at least manages to evoke feelings of slippery, unplaceable apprehension. From there, things get even more abstact. Various reed instruments join up in a primeval lamentation of sorts, while swathes of synths act as the implacable wind underneath. It may just be the influence of the piece’s title, but upon hearing this segment, images of “the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters” and the like flooded my mind, and I imagined something like the dawn of humankind - newly-formed eyes opening upon a pre-historic dawn. And, fittingly enough, the dawn does come: a cloud of gently-plucked acoustic guitars arises from the aether, vocal chants coalesce, and those ever-present synths wrap it all up in a warm embrace. While the first two pieces on Materia oscura are certainly enjoyable, the final track is the most ambitious and most rewarding, and it’s to be hoped that Squadra Omega develop this kind of open-ended exploration more in future releases.

Squadra Omega - Nervoso (Holiday Records, 2017) ***½

Nervoso is a live recording that captures an improvised session between OmegaG8 (on bass and electronics), OmegaMatt (on guitar, organ, sax, and electronics), and OmegaFrank (on drums). Even without that tidbit of information, it’s immediately clear that the group have taken a differerent direction here when compared to Materia oscura - the instrumentation is lighter, the tempos slower, and the joyous, tightly-wound melodies of that previous record have uncoiled. OmegaMatt’s electric guitar-work too has undergone a transformation - from bold, bright, and near-histrionic, to muted, tremulous, and exploratory. Percussionist OmegaFrank (who I’m not sure was a part of the Materia oscura sessions) takes an approach that is probably more palatable to the frequenters of the Free Jazz Blog: loose and unfixed, with textural shadings that are more in service of the overall atmosphere than any particular rhythmical tack. “Nervoso I” spends the majority of its time in a dank, twilit vault, until the guitars are slowly swallowed up by gaping, wide-screen electronics. Just when you thought they had been totally submerged, OmegaMatt crawls (or rather erupts) out of the muck with a funky, frazzled solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Davis’ mid-70s fusion classics. OmegaFrank supports him and the equally in-the-pocket OmegaG8 with compact, buoyant percussion that belies the airy, loose-limbed drum-work of the album’s first few minutes. Squadra Omega are not ones to let the listener get too comfortable, however - within the spin of a minute or two, the grooves have dissolved into a morass of swirling synths and, at one point, frenzied saxophone bleats. It’s a glorious meltdown, indeed.

“Nervoso II” might open with looped, carnivalesque electronics, but it quickly establishes itself as the darker, more brooding cousin to the first track’s freak-outs. If I had one complaint about Nervoso, then, it would be that the group didn’t take the opportunity to take things in a different direction on this second piece. Squadra Omega are great at jet-black soundscapes, sure, but they are even better at using those soundscapes as launch-pads to other planets entirely. “Nervoso II” shudders and shakes, and OmegaFrank’s nervous, rolling percussion hints at a coming explosion, but it just never takes off in a way that leaves you satisfied with the album as a whole.

In any case, Nervoso is an excellent accompaniment to Materia oscura, and now I’m wondering what it would sound like if the pieces on these two separate recordings had been shuffled around and put on the same album - perhaps, like Altri Occhi Ci Guardano, it would be another genre-busting stunner. Alas, we’ll never know..but you could certainly do worse than simply buying up both of these records and playing them back-to-back, again and again, to your heart’s content.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Incidentals (ECM, 2017) ****½

By Chris Haines

This is the fourth album by Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, with the usual quartet of Oscar Noriega (clarinets), Matt Mitchell (piano, electronics), Ches Smith (drums, percussion), and Berne (alto sax) being augmented by the guitarist Ryan Ferreira, which along with David Torn’s production and additional musical treatments gives the band’s sound an extended palette of additional colours and textures from previous releases.

The backbone of the album, and not only because it’s programmed right in the middle of the running order is the piece ‘Sideshow’, a 26-minute long flight of fantasy full of daring, intrigue, and musical delights. The piece starts with Mitchell at the piano, whose playing throughout the album is an absolute wonder, pulling all the other elements together as well as combining a very rhythmic and percussive style, at times reminding me of the British improvising pianist Howard Riley. Starting with a syncopated and circular melody in the left hand, this is quickly joined by a complimentary pattern the pianist plays in his right hand forming a delightful texture that’s not too dissimilar to Conlon Nancarrow’s studies for player piano. From here the piece moves through a variety of musical ideas including whole band unison melodies, grooves, growling guitar, a section with Noriega’s clarinet and Mitchell’s piano that offers shades of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of time, atmospheric sounds including carefully placed bowed cymbals, a very free passage for piano, percussion and guitar which develops into a wonderful atonal lead line (again Mitchell’s playing really pins this section down), pointillistic percussive textures, Torn’s screaming guitar sound combined with ceremonial drumming and all this before we even mention Tim Berne’s sax playing. This he thoughtfully adds throughout to enhance the overall composition of the piece often doubling-up with other instruments to form powerful and strong melodic phrases that soar above the complex musical fabric. With such a long piece and with the strong variety of ideas contained within, in lesser hands this could have sounded like the musical equivalent of a patchwork quilt, but there is no chance of that here, the linearity is so smooth and fluid that the musical direction flows in an unhindered and silky way. Surprisingly this piece is the other half of ‘Small World In A Small Town’ from the You’ve Been Watching Me album, the two pieces having been combined into one gigantic composition when played live.

Fear not those who are wanting to hear Berne’s freewheeling sax playing as there is plenty of this on the rest of the album, such as on ‘Incidentals Contact’, a real collage of sound from the band whilst Berne creates virtuosic lines which twist, intersect and writhe over the top, before joining a groove with the rest of the band and allowing Noriega’s clarinet to bubble-up from out of the resulting mix. Both the wind instruments combine again on ‘Stingray Shuffle’ to imitate the sustained guitar sounds with their Siren-like calls. After the atmospheric and restrained chamber music beginning to ‘Hora Feliz’, the album’s opening track, the piece arrives with a chromatic melody played in unison before really opening up with some great free solo improvising with Berne leading the way.

As one would expect from an ECM release the production is highly slick, but more than that is the way the music has been put together by Berne as the leader, and also from this group of musicians who have executed the ideas with clarity and precision. Incidentals provides us with a compositional masterclass in the use of colour and texture, which for me, comes across as a really strong aspect, or dare I say, a focus for the album from a listeners point of view. Unlike the product from which the band derive their name there is no fraudulent substances here, nor any merchandise of dubious quality to be had, instead we find a very well crafted and rich tapestry created from carefully selected auricular elements.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Roligheten – Homegrown (Clean Feed, 2017) ***½

By Gustav Lindqvist

Roligheten. What a brilliant last name! I can’t help but to explore it a bit. Roligheten is the last name of saxophonist André, who’s album Homegrown I’ve spent some time listening to, and which you’re about to learn more about. But Roligheten is a peculiar name for me coming from André’s neighboring country Sweden. Roligheten is not only the name of a very small village in Sweden, with about 85 inhabitants. It’s also a village in Norway, in the Telemark region. (Telemark by the way is known to me as a form of alpine skiing with a free heel, as opposed to the most common ways of alpine skiing where the whole ski boot is fixed to the binding of the ski. It looks very elegant and free when you see a skilled telemark skier in the alps). Roligheten as a noun, in Swedish, is a form of witticism or fun joke. But there’s more. Rolig happens to be the Swedish word for funny, where as in Norway AND Denmark the word rolig means calm.

Now, let’s see if we, in the music of Roligheten, can find music that’s free from bindings but which is elegant, witty, funny and calm.

Roligheten Quartet consists of André Roligheten (‘European Jazz Orchestra’, ‘Team Hegdal’, ‘Gard Nilssen´s Acoustic Unity’) on tenor and soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, Adrian Løseth Waade (‘Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’, ‘Bone Machine’) on violin, Jon Rune Strøm (‘Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit’, ‘Nu Ensemble’, ‘Frode Gjerstad Trio’ and many other constellations) on double bass and Erik Nylander (‘Ola Kvernberg Trio’ to mention one, and heard on the very recent Honest John album International Breakthrough) on drums and percussion.

Looking only at the titles of songs on this album and musicians involved I felt that this could go in any direction. I must say I was intrigued to hear a violinist playing in a song called Telemark Tango on a jazz (supposedly) album. Would they go with the fiery Argentinian version or the melancholy found in ‘Finnish tango’, or something in between?

I was pleasantly surprised throughout the album.

It starts off with ‘Bratsberg Boogie’. A mystic and a bit Egyptian-like melody begins the song, but suddenly it stops and the scene changes. I had to listen very closely to try and understand what was going on. Was this a second theme? A variation? It was almost like the instruments were dispersed and then called to come together again. Once together, Nylander leads the way and together they start adding in structure. But they keep adding layer after layer and you can never settle and relax, you’ll get lost. There’s lots going on within the song; between individual musicians and as a quartet. I try to hold on to something, but Roligheten keeps pushing me around refuses to settle. In Nidkjær(Zealous), which serves very well as an intermezzo between Bratsberg Boogie and ‘Telemark Tango’, we’re given beats of bass, violin and bass drum in different tempos for 3 minutes. It feels like the quartet is gearing up for the tango.

…and indeed. ‘Telemark Tango’ allows the now well rested quartet to spread its wings. But there’s more inside the tango. Roligheten weaves in what sounds like short middle-east influenced melodies in small portions with Nylander keeping the tango going. Having the violin doing these excursions is a clever move rather than having Roligheten doing it. It also adds to the ‘homegrown’ feeling (pun intended). ‘Syvsover’ paints a fragile picture. Slow paced violin and sax telling a sad story at first, but there is a couple of bursts of energy from Roligheten challenging the status quo, but I’m left alone in the end. Saft Suse’ (I’m told this is a seldom heard powerful expression, not like a curse word – but almost. Norwegians, feel free to help out here). Happy to hear André Roligheten play front and center in this song. He’s got a meaty tone and the contrasts with the violin makes me appreciate this song even more. The entire album continues like this. Not jaw-dropping surprises, but rather subtle and elegant details hidden within the songs and melodies.

I don’t think Roligheten wants to push free jazz boundaries with Homegrown, but this certainly is elegant, it’s funny and witty at times but I’d say most importantly it’s telling multiple stories within each song. Keep this album running for a couple of hours and you’ll start hearing the nuances.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Steve Lacy – Free for a Minute (1965-1972) (Emanem, 2017) ****½

By Colin Green

Steve Lacy’s discography is, to put it mildly, complicated. Over 150 albums recorded on a variety of labels, mostly European and now defunct. Saravah, Soul Note and Hat Art made a decent stab at cataloguing his work, which has been continued, posthumously, by Martin Davidson at Emanem, mainly known for his invaluable documentation of the Brit Improv scene. Previous releases by the label have included School Days (1960/63), The Sun (1967/73), Avignon and After - 1 (1972/74) and 2 (1972-77), Hooky (1976) and Cycles (1976-80), and we now have Free for a Minute (1965-1972), the first official release on CD of two significant albums: Disposability and Sortie, plus some previously unreleased material. It plugs some important gaps for anyone wanting to get a better understanding not just of Lacy, but free jazz in a crucial period of its development.

In 1965, frustrated by the lack of gigs and recording opportunities in New York, and so as to put some distance between himself and the music scene of his home town, Lacy took the opportunity to travel to Europe where he spent a year, initially in Copenhagen for a residency at the Cafe Montmartre with Don Cherry, then Paris, eventually settling in Rome, with an excursion to London in 1966 “for a minute” (a favourite expression of Lacy’s, to refer to something of relatively brief duration) where the cover photograph was taken.

Disposability (Vik, 1966) was recorded in Rome in December 1965, featuring Lacy (soprano saxophone), Kent Carter (double bass) and Aldo Romano (drums). In mono – though it has better depth than some of the heavily separated stereo recordings of the era – and with distorted ride cymbal noise reduced by Davidson’s remastering, this was Lacy’s fifth album under his own name, but the first to feature some of his own tunes. He felt his writing had matured sufficiently to bear repeated performances, and recording.

The album looks both backwards and forwards. 'Tune 2' was written by Cecil Taylor, with whom Lacy had worked for about six years in the Fifties, appearing on the pianist’s first two albums. Although a formative influence it’s difficult to detect any of his more obvious traits in Lacy’s music. Taylor opened his eyes to possibilities but was “not decisive with regards to the choice of a personal style” said Lacy. His performance here is very different from that which appears on Taylor’s At Newport (Verve, 1957), although perhaps ironically, structurally if not stylistically, it’s similar to what Taylor was doing at the time. The deceptively simple melody is almost immediately subjected to variations, which push it to its boundaries, in an unsystematic manner, with jump-cuts between different but equally valid ways to treat the material as it’s compressed, extended and paraphrased in coextensive currents.

In New York, Lacy’s piano-less quartet with Roswell Rodd (trombone) had performed Monk numbers almost exclusively, his second album, Reflections (New Jazz, 1959), comprised only Monk tunes, and he had even played briefly with Monk’s quintet and big band. Disposability features three typical Monk compositions – elliptical, with ambiguous harmonic progressions and matching rhythmic twists: hooks that offer no definitive resolution, thereby encouraging players to extemporise (one of the reasons so many of Monk’s tunes have become standards right across the jazz community). Presented in relief with the crisp articulation afforded by the soprano sax, Lacy’s version of ‘Pannonica’ is very much by the book: choruses of standard duration, each with a different take on the melody. Too much interference might destroy its particular beauty. On the other hand, with ‘Coming on the Hudson’, Lacy accentuates the irregularities of Monk’s tune, so that bar lines seem to dissolve and the piece moves at will between two different tempos. ‘Shuffle Boil’ falls somewhere between the two approaches, with the tune divided into a call and response between soprano and double bass. Lacy had met Carter in Paris and they continued to collaborate for many years; their empathy and complimentary movement are apparent throughout the album.

Lacy would subsequently return to Monk’s music with renewed vigour, but for the immediate future his focus lay elsewhere. The four Lacy pieces give an inkling of his idiosyncratic compositions to come, tunes sometimes as brief as their one-word titles, on occasions having a nursery-rhyme simplicity but sharing the harmonic and rhythmic equilibrium which Lacy admired in Monk’s designs. ‘Barbie’’s wide intervals and shifts in note values never allow it to settle, enhanced by Romano’s accelerations and decelerations on brushes, and Carter alternating between moulded plucking and scratchy bowing. Some notes form the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next, a common Lacy ambiguity, increasing the possibilities. ‘Chary’ is more an idea than a composition, and as the name suggests, doubts and hesitations can form the proper subject of music; in fact, musical process can be as interesting as the result. An identifiable melody only emerges out of vague tones and suggestions from Lacy, and not all at once, accompanied by disconnected meanderings on bass and drums. ‘M’s Transport’ unfolds languidly, with sly harmonic changes suggesting paths not taken, and on ‘There We Were’, soprano seems to merge and separate with bass in ethereal combinations of harmonics, rolling chords, and spicatto and sul ponticello squeaks.

Lacy had also played with Carla Bley in the Composers Guild Band in New York, and Disposability concludes with her ‘Generous 1’, which highlights the deliberately disjunctive facets of much of the album. Lacy unpacks the sprightly tune against Carter’s ominous fumbling in the lower register, while Romano strikes up a nervous tattoo, which doesn’t quite synchronise.

The Disposability trio toured Europe as three-fifths of Carla Bley and Mike Mantler’s Jazz Realities quintet, which recorded in Holland in early 1966 (Fontana, 1966). A month later, the trio taped Sortie (GTA Records, 1966) in Milan with the addition of a young Enrico Rava on trumpet. All four had formed part of Giorgio Gaslin’s Ensemble – which included two bass players and two drummers – for his Nuovi Sentimenti (New Feelings) Suite (La Voce Del Padrone, 1966) session a few days earlier in the same city, and. Sortie is energised with the same experimental drive. All titles are credited to Lacy but it’s clear that free-flowing improvisation is the governing impulse. Included in the package are Victor Schonfield’s insightful sleeve notes for the Polydor reissue of the LP in the same year, in which he states that “there are no themes” but as Davidson suggests, some of Lacy’s melodic weavings are composed elements set against a shifting backdrop. While embracing free form, Lacy was mindful of structural markers to achieve the kind of contrast and balance he was looking for. Few of his albums are entirely free, as reflected in the title to this collection. Defined melodies clearly open each of the pieces on Sortie, which are gradually disassembled in little voyages of discovery, the components of which form the basis for a series of associative developments, often short, by Lacy and Rava, each with their own inner logic -- Lacy’s lucid lines and Rava’s dots and daubs intertwine as fugitive shapes appear and disappear. The initial idea is reintroduced by Lacy from time to time, wholly or partially, as a reminder or fresh jumping-off point. It’s a continuation of his previous concerns: working material in a variety of ways, taking even the smallest feature or allusion and giving them an independent and often unexpected, life. It’s possible that these mosaic-like permutations were also influenced by Lacy’s study of the music of Webern, which he played alone.

The longest piece, with the heterographic title ‘Fork New York’ (think, Brooklyn accent), is a good example of what’s going on. It opens with Lacy playing a see-saw figure, almost scalar, shadowed by bass at a slower pace. The music moves with varying degrees of animation, Lacy using the motif in a springboard, so that it never appears quite the same way twice – played much faster, than slower, then speeded up again, ascending to the highest registers so it becomes blurred, emphasising the opening and drawing out the closing notes, playing it lyrically, adding weight to its blues tinges, trying out different rhythmic inflections yet retaining its distinctive shape. Admittedly, this is not thematic development in its usual sense, but it does provide a measure of continuity among the variegated textures.

In the absence of a fixed tempo, bass and drums are not so much supportive as parallel streams of thought. Carter’s bass often acts as a slow-moving counterbalance, fleshing out, and as noted by Sconfield, Romano is neither a metronomic drummer nor a player who produces unbroken waves of sound, like Sunny Murray. His erratic, staccato salvos, reinforced by the dry acoustic, punctuate the texture, suggesting alternative patters and adding to the kaleidoscopic feel of the whole.

The remaining material in this 2-CD set is released for the first time. In 1966, Lacy took a trip to Argentina with Rava and others, including Irene Aebi, a Swiss-born vocalist and string player whom Lacy had met in Rome in May that year; they would marry and subsequently settle in Paris. The visit to Argentina is documented on The Forest and the Zoo (ESP Disk, 1967) – two 20-minute improvisations before a mystified audience. The visit was extended until sufficient funds could be found to leave the country, and in 1967 Lacy returned to New York for a period before heading back to Rome the following year. While in New York his quintet with Rava, Carter, Karl Berger (vibraphone, piano) and Paul Motian (drums) was asked to provide music for a movie that was never released a parachute-sabotage murder entitled “Free Fall”. The project required music for specific sequences of set durations so there was limited space for improvisation, but this provided Lacy with the opportunity to restrict scope and possibilities in a way that would later have increasing importance in his music. Without any knowledge of what was being accompanied, beyond the titles, it’s difficult to hear these pieces as anything other than self-contained works, some of the shortest having the quality of epigrams. As such, they work well, with individual instruments tending to dominate each section: quivering trumpet, glistening vibes (with different sticks), closely imitative piano, sax and trumpet. The longest piece is ‘Jump Montage’ a sequence of melees for the whole ensemble separated by virtuosic trumpet breaks. There are some lovely combinations, such as a duet between vibes and trumpet and vibes and drums, and suitably mournful saxophone and trumpet in ‘Death Scene’. It’s a pity we don’t have anything more substantial from this quintet.

Finally, there are two pieces recorded in Paris in 1972, by the quintet of Lacy, Carter, Steve Potts (alto saxophone), Aebi (cello) and Noel McGhie (drums). Lacy and Aebi had moved to Paris in 1970, drawn by the number of leading musicians, many American, then working in the city, and some of the collective improvisations which Lacy had witnessed and taken part in – liberating experiences and the kind of thing that was documented on the French BYG label at the time. A number of those recordings sound like a group of people who each have a great deal to say, but aren’t necessarily listening to each other, where standardised gestures have replaced genuine interaction. Lacy may have eventually felt the same, and a method of working emerged that was to dominate his subsequent music, which he called “post-free”. He put it the following way in a 1974 interview with Davidson:
“I find that the more pinned down you are, the more free you are in a way - that the freedom can come out within limits. Then you are really free. Whereas when you are completely free, after a while it dries up, it turns into the same thing all the time - it winds up to be an act, and that’s why that ended… And what interests me mostly is the coherence and the variety possible between the numbers. In other words, this tune has one type of play and another one has another type of play. It’s a way of extracting the most variety out of what you have.”
Both ‘The Rush’ and ‘The Thing’ might be considered more free than “post” and are pervaded by that slightly frantic mood of some of the free music of the time. The theme in ‘The Rush’ is played by Lacy and Potts in unison, and as they frequently did, a tone or semitone apart so that the instruments seem to merge, but not quite. They settle on a single overlapping note which forms the basis of their oscillating solos at the top of their respective registers until the theme is restated. ‘The Thing’ is divided into two parts. ‘Part 1’ makes use of a short figure as the root for improvisations, sometimes in the loosest fashion, and mainly consisting of undulating waves, most notably on arco bass and cello, ended with a “ssshhhh”. ‘Part II’ is in a similar vein, with a fast-moving exchange between Lacy and Potts based on the same figure, before the rest of the band join in. After a drum solo, probably better seen than heard, the piece ends as ‘Part 1’ began, with intermingled cello and bass before Lacy makes the announcements and thanks the audience.

Lacy’s music continued to develop, but this collection provides a fascinating look at his trajectory over a decisive seven years.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Uwe Oberg, Rudi Mahall and Michael Griener – Lacy Pool 2 (Leo, 2017) ****

By Troy Dostert

Back in 2009, pianist Uwe Oberg joined up with drummer Michael Griener and trombonist Christof Thewes to record Lacy Pool, a thoughtful and spirited treatment of a good portion of the Steve Lacy canon. By using a trombone player instead of a soprano saxophonist, Oberg made a deliberate decision to avoid the pitfall of sounding too derivative of the master, and the results struck just the right balance between homage and reinvention. For this iteration of the project, Oberg and Griener are teamed with bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall: a bit more Lacy-like, perhaps, in going with a straight horn (or at least a semi-straight one); but even so, once again Oberg and his partners have produced music that re-imagines Lacy’s pieces with creativity and poise.

All but two of the nine tracks are from the Lacy songbook. Well-known tunes like “Clichés,” “Troubles,” and “Trickles” contain all the quirky angularity and playful devices Lacy’s compositions are known for. Recurring motifs are featured prominently, along with ample opportunities for the musicians to move beyond the confines of the melodies. But there’s never a sense of complete abandon; as with Lacy’s own music, the melodic foundation of the songs is always implied. Indeed, so thoroughly do the musicians inhabit Lacy’s ethos that even their own pieces seem inspired by his muse: “Field (Spring)” generates a low-level intensity through a repeated phrase that Mahall develops through subtle re-workings before the group engages in a more fluid exchange of ideas, eventually to return to the central melody; and “Jazz ab 40” draws from Lacy’s love of Monk for a composition with an oblique melodic structure, with all three musicians hitting a creative peak in their tempestuous, wide-ranging improvisation.

The record’s appealing mixture of composed and semi-free aspects is definitely one of its charms. So are the players’ distinctive attributes. Griener is capable of stretching beyond the constraints of strict time, but there’s still a strong rhythmic core animating his contributions. Oberg also never ventures too far out, even during the music’s most unstructured moments; his sensitive, careful touch is central to his playing. And of course, as the horn player on the record Mahall is crucial: he consistently embodies the sing-song quality of Lacy’s music, but not without putting his own stamp on these pieces. He likes to stay in the upper register of his instrument, although when it’s needed he can harness the full range of the instrument as well as anyone. Listening to his beautiful take on “Blues for Aida” is proof enough of his and his partners’ skill in interpreting this very deep reservoir of music. It’s certainly enough to tide us over until the third volume of Lacy Pool; hopefully we won’t have to wait as long for that one.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Carate Urio Orchestra - Garlic & Jazz (KLEIN records, 2017) ***

By Daniel Böker

The medium is the message, McLuhan once said. With music it might be a little bit different but the change of the medium effects the way we receive music. This goes way back to the invention of the magnetic tape. Today there is still a discussion going on about the best medium for music: Vinyl, CD, or download (though I would suggest it's the concert!), and there is a discussion about the usage of streaming services and so on. Especially the latterchange the way we listen to music. It is easily accessible and that means a lot. There is so much music that you have to hurry through the things you listen to, to get to the next new thing. There are a lot of things to think about. I use all different ways of listening to music. But it still makes a difference in a peculiar way, if I listen to an LP or an album via any streaming service.

I listened to the new album of the Carate Urio Orchestra Garlic & Jazz via a downloaded file. This file though was divided like a vinyl album with side A and side B. And it makes so much sense.

The two sides of this album are very different.

A few words on the Carate Urio Orchestra before I return to Side A and Side B.

Carate Urio Orchestra was founded by Joachim Badenhorst. Badenhorst is a reeds-player and composer, bandleader from Belgium. A lot of his work was reviewed here on this blog so there is no need for a lot of background.

Carate Urio is his largest ensemble as far as I know and on the record Garlic & Jazz, they all take part: Eirikur Orri Olafsson, Frantz Loriot, Pascal Niggenkemper, Sean Carpio, Brice Soniano and Nico Roig.

Garlic & Jazz
is not just the title of the new record it is also a little festival with food (garlic) and Jazz (jazz). This takes place every other year and is curated by Joachim Badenhorst.

Side A

This album Garlic & Jazz is published on vinyl. Side A is one piece of 16 minutes of music: "Mosselman/The Salt of Deformation"

Four minutes into the track a trumpet states a nice little melody. It is, though the picture might be a bit overused, a flower in a concrete desert. I have to add that I like concrete deserts.

The Carate Urio Orchestra is building a so called wall of sound. No not actually a wall, it's more a path or a landscape. A wall holds people away from something. A wall is built to scare someone off. Here I feel invited to walk this path or landscape. I hear some kind of reeds, bass, guitar and other sounds that are not so easy to decipher. And it is a real pleasure to stumble upon the trumpet. Later there is a viola inviting the listener to follow her to a human voice. The band lets the intensity grow slowly until in the end there is a huge hill in the landscape. And we are left with the drums in the end.

"Mosselman/The Salt of Deformation" could also be a track on an album published on the label constellation. I think it is not necessary to put names to music but if I had to it wasn't "jazz" but some kind of post-post-rock or something.

Side B

This side is even less 'jazzy' than side A. The first track "Portsmouth, 1783" sounds like a song by Jackie O' Motherfucker (try out "In the Willows" from the album Earth Sound System). There is an acoustic guitar and a deep mellow voice. An electric guitar adds some feedback sounds. After five minutes there comes in a flute, a clarinet, a bass and a little percussion.

I was extremly surprised by this song, because it is nice, catchy, a choir comes in in the end and that all misses out on disturbing sounds or outbursts you might wait for.

The second track "On est Un" also wakes associations with post-rock. The Carate Urio Orchestra plays the music they want to and they do not seem to care a lot about names, labels, or borders between different music genres. That is what I like about them.

After their last album Lubljana, it was a little surprising listening to Garlic & Jazz because it took a great step away from jazz in a more classical sense. This record sounds as if it came the other way around: I started listening to music with real interest in the 90s with grunge and alternative rock. From there is a way into noise and improvised music and jazz and freejazz. Garlic & Jazz sounds like an attempt to create music from that angle and leaving the well-known structures (of rock) behind.

It is a nice album though I think next time there could be more surprises or stones in the landscape the listener stumbles upon. On both sides.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Chet Doxas - Rich in Symbols (Ropeadope, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Chet Doxas' Rich in Symbols has just been placed into my guilty pleasures playlist - but it's not one to feel guilty about at all, it's just so rich and flavorful that there is no way it can be good for me.

Brooklyn based Doxas works often with trumpeter David Douglas (who has a guest turn) and plays saxophone and synthesizer - the latter of which plays an important role on this album. Helping to bring Doxas' vision to life is Matthew Stevens on guitar, Zack Lover on bass, and Eric Doob on drums.

For Rich in Symbols, Doxas draws inspiration from the art scene centered around the Lower East Side / East Village in the early 1980s. Close your eyes and imagine works by Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Fab Five Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Robert Longo as the uplifting opener plays.

The straight ahead beat, pulsating rhythm, and anthemic melody of  'While You Were Sleeping' is set to bring you back to a time that perhaps only exists in hazy retrospect, but still captures the zeitgeist of a scene in its prime and not yet beset by death and gentrification. The following track, 'Starcrossings' (see video below) is another example of synthesizer flair, a firm modern jazz/rock melody and a deliciously spiky guitar solo from Stevens.

Doxas' musical aesthetic is fairly well set, all tracks feature excellent and well thought out playing, but they also tread a similar sonic landscape: lots of open spaces and elongated melodic lines. However, this is also not entirely true, as for example, 'Hot Ones' is an exciting departure with some driving rhythms and a bright quick theme. Finally, the closing track 'We Made a Lie Together', features one of Doxas' most vibrant solos.

Rich in Symbols is a fun album and interesting musical tribute to a period of creativity that seems to be coming more and more into focus.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Middle East Is Calling

These four recent recording may just offer new, challenging perspectives on the Middle East. The Middle East as a vibrant, urgent scene for some highly imaginative and creative improvisers, working in Istanbul, Beirut and Cairo, challenging our concepts about free jazz, free improvisation and experimental music.  

Thurston Moore & Umut Çağlar - Dunia (Astral Spirits, 2017) ****

Dunia - دُنْيا - is originally an Arabic word that travelled and has incorporated into many other languages such as the Turkish, Hindi, Javanese, Swahili and even the modern Greek and Bosnian. It refers to the temporal world and its earthly concerns and possessions. Dunia is a perfect title for the duo album of American guitarist Thurston Moore, ex-Sonic Youth, and Turkish guitarist Umut Çağlar. It captures the essence of their first ever session. This limited-edition of 500 vinyls - the first vinyl release of the Astral Spirits label - and offers three improvised pieces, recorded on June 2016 at the Hayyam Stüdyoları in Istanbul, totaling in a dense and busy 32 minutes.

Dunia can be experienced as an immediate, emotional response of these gifted improvisers on the current state of our world, especially in America and Turkey. Moore and Çağlar begin with “Kensaku”, a pastoral cacophony of ringing, thorny and jangled electric strings that slowly gets more messy, tense and intense. Moore and Çağlar navigate this free-improvisation straight into the eye of a fiery, electric storm, but conclude with a few twisted-distorted bluesy lines. The second side begins with “The Red Sun”, a deafening meltdown of feedbacks, distortion and massive walls of noises. This metallic storm keeps sending more and even more extreme tsunami waves, eventually leaving you breathless and exhausted after only 15 minutes. Fortunately, Moore and Çağlar choose to end this excruciating, highly gratifying experience with the brief, rhythmic outro “Echo”, leaving some signs of hope for our shared, endangered Dunia.

Konstrukt feat. Alexander Hawkins, Alan Wilkinson & Daniel Spicer ‎–L.O.T.U.S. (Omlott/OTOroku, 2017) ****

The Turkish group Konstrukt likes to expand its sonic palette with guest musicians. Since its foundation about ten years ago, Konstrukt has collaborated with some of the most seminal improvisers - sax players Marshall Allen, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Joe McPhee and Akira Sakata, double bass player William Parker and guitarists Eugene Chadbourne and Thurston Moore. Konstrukt - reeds player Korhan Futaci, guitarist-multi-instrumentalist Çaglar, bassist Barlas Tan Özemek and drummer Ediz Hafızoğlu, first met British pianist Alexander Hawkins and reeds player Alan Wilkinson at the 2013 edition of the Austrian Konfrontationen Festival in Nickelsdorf. Two years later the quartet met again with Hawkins and recorded their live performance at London’s Café OTO (released on OTORoku/Holiday Records, 2016).

The next meeting, captured on L.O.T.U.S., happened after Konstrukt was invited to in the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival on September 2016. Hawkins joined Konstrukt in the Brighton and on the following performance at Café OTO reeds Wilkinson and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Spicer (the director of the Brighton festival, who is also a writer and critic, broadcaster and a poet) also joined. These British improvisers share Konstrukt passion to blend free jazz with cosmic chaos tinged with exotic folk themes. Hawkins played with South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and Ethiopian percussionist Mulatu Astatke and Evan Parker; Wilkinson worked with diverse free-improvisers such as Derek Bailey, Brötzmann, Chris Corsano and Thurston Moore; Spicer also worked with Moore.  

L.O.T.U.S., the twentieth release of Konstrukt, is another limited-edition of 300 double-vinyls plus download option. Its high-energy, urgent spirit is infectious. It is a free-flowing, spiritual celebration of all kinds and modes of music, past, futuristic, western and eastern ones. The seven-piece ensemble sound as a close unit that has developed an organic and open interplay, shifting and morphing the sonic palette instantly and constantly, recalling ideas from the sixties cosmic and fiery-free jazz, the seventies psychedelic electric-funky-fusion bands with sudden bursts of enchanting and exotic sounds, including some fleeting Brazilian rhythms, even flirting with modern day dance vibes.

Karkhana - For Seun Matta (Holiday, 2017) ****½

Karkhana twists Konstrukt's cosmic chaotic concept with more Middle-Eastern flavors. This supergroup, bringing together improvisers from Turkey, Çağlar who plays here on exotic reeds, Lebanese guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj (who also drew the cover) and bassist Tony Elieh, Egyptian guitarist and oud player Sam Shalabi and keyboards player Maurice Louca, plus Chicagoan drummer Michael Zerang, who is a first-generation American of Assyrian descent. Karkhana - after the Turkish word كرخانة that alludes to the selling of taboo, often prostitution, but today is often used to describe wild parties - convened for the first time in Beirut in 2014. For Seun Matta is its third album and the first one to be recorded in the studio, released on a limited-edition of 500 copies (another album of Karkhana, Al Dar al Hamra, is already in the pipeline, again, as a limited-edition vinyl in 150 copies).

Seun Matta is a mysterious character. He was called as a substitute for Elieh and Zerang during the 2017 edition of the Konfrontationen Festival, but none of Karkhana members remember much about him, if anything at all. This recording captures faithfully the powerful transcendental atmosphere of Karhana's live shows. “The Seventh Seun” that opens side A offers an hypnotic trance of surfing guitars and oud, eastern folk reeds and driving rhythms. “Pony Ride” is an hyperactive mix of thorny, krautrock-tinged guitars, exotic, funny noises, Sun-Ra-like cosmic-spacey keyboards flights and reeds that sound like erupting from ancient Master Musicians of Jajouka album, all colored by Zerang's arresting drumming. “Gavur” is an enigmatic-dreamy oriental dance that seduces the listener even deeper into the untimely sonic universe of Karhana. Shalabi leads the last piece, “Nafas Kahrouba'i”, opening with a rhythmic oud solo, then accompanied with psychedelic-bluesy guitars but later all surrender surrender to the hallucinogenic, repetitive techno-like pulse.   

Oiseaux-Tempête - AL-'AN ! الآن (And your night is your shadow — a fairy-tale piece of land to make our dreams) (Sub Rosa, 2017)

Oiseaux-Tempête is the French experimental-post-rock-noise duo of multi-instrumentalists Frédéric D. Oberland and Stéphane Pigneul. The duo’s third album was partly recorded in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, “during the year of chaos 2016”. AL-'AN ! الآن - now in Arabic - radiates the eager, urgent atmosphere of the Lebanese capital, and a fairy-tale piece of land to make our dreams is an extract from the anti-colonialist poem “The Speech of the Red Indian” by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who has lived in Beirut.

Oiseaux-Tempête ('storm birds' in French) hosts on every project guest musicians, and on AL-'AN ! الآن  they have ex-The Ex vocalist G.S. Wok, Lebanese vocalists Tamer Abu Ghazaleh and Youmna Saba, who plays here on the oud, fellow Lebanese guitarists Sharif Sehnaoui and Charbel Haber and French-Lebanese sax player Stéphane Rives. Adding to the local sessions from Beirut many field recordings and electronica layers, courtesy of Mondkopf (aka Paul Régimbeau).

AL-'AN ! الآن  offers a series of dense, labyrinthine soundscapes that capture Beirut state-of mind, a city that seizes the day, knowing that tomorrow all may collapse. These suggestive, intense soundscapes may sound at first as a Middle-Eastern, electronics-colored variations of the massive sonic blows of the Swans. But deeper listenings will highlight the hidden layers and nuances, especially in the most open and risk-taking moments. The most moving pieces are the ones when Oiseaux-Tempête add vocalists to their detailed soundscapes. Like the innocent plea of Tamer Abu Ghazale on “I Don’t Know, What or Why” or the quote of the great Lebanese singer Fairouz singing “Ya Habibi” on “Carnaval”. But it is the charismatic delivery of Darwish, reading - in Arabic - from his poem “The Strangest Creature on Earth” on “The Offering” and the like-minded delivery of G.S Wok reading - in English - excerpts from Darwish’s The Speech of the Red Indian”, that keeps lingering in your mind. Both Darwish and G.W. Sok recite these poetic texts with great conviction but also in a surprising reserved manner, that only emphasizes the painful message: 
Once a people, / now we'd rather flock to the land of birds. / We'll take a peek at our homeland through stones, / glimpse it through openings in clouds, / through the speech of stars, / through the air suspended above lakes, / between soft tassel fringes in ears of corn.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Wadada Leo Smith - Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (TUM Records, 2017) *****

By Nicola Negri

In a career spanning almost five decades, Wadada Leo Smith has explored every possible ensemble combination, from solo to orchestra and everything in between. Of all these performative dimensions, the unaccompanied solo is especially important. Smith’s first album as a leader, Creative Music–1, released on his own Kabell label in 1971, was indeed a solitary endeavor, and found the musician already working on what would become Ankhrasmation, a music theory and notation system that provides compositional accuracy while leaving ample room for spontaneous creativity. The solo dimension allowed Smith to investigate the boundaries of composition and improvisation without the external constraints inevitably present in an ensemble setting, in search of his own identity as a performer/composer.

Solo: Reflections And Meditations On Monk continues Smith’s personal exploration of the solo performance, but is also, in many respects, a real surprise. A multi-faceted reflection on Thelonious Monk’s music and personality, the record comprises four original compositions by Smith and four titles taken from Monk’s extensive catalog: Ruby, My Dear, Reflections, Crepuscule with Nellie and ’Round Midnight.

Even if always aware of the jazz tradition, and often referencing past masters in the titles of his pieces, Smith has usually focused on his own compositional work and has never recorded such well-known standards before. Moreover, as the trumpeter himself points out in the liner notes, Monk is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking about him. And yet, not only Monk has been an early model for Smith, the perfect example of the performer/composer he aspired to be, but many aspects of Monk’s distinctive style may be seen as the stepping stones over which Smith has built his own vision. An idiosyncratic view of rhythm organization, and the crucial importance of silence in shaping the musical discourse, are elements common to both, as is a certain attitude towards improvisation, where the tension between structural integrity and creative freedom makes for a constantly fresh and unpredictable musical experience. On a more immediate level, for both of them, there’s an instrumental voice so peculiar and unique that can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Smith performs the four Monk’s compositions on this record with affectionate respect, presenting the themes in a simple, straightforward manner, while the following developments mark the distance between Smith’s inventive interpretations and any traditional jazz treatment. There are oblique references to the underlying harmonic structures and melodic contours, but the compositions are somehow observed from a distance, caressed and reconsidered, playing with a certain mood inherent in the pieces, while reaching a subterranean dimension that illuminates them from within. The results are breathtaking. Smith shows with disarming simplicity how every little sound, every subtle inflection can alter the perception of otherwise familiar compositions; how creative music can combine composition and improvisation in a seamless musical expression, free of technical or stylistic constraints.

The four original compositions that complete the album maintain the same feeling, and are among the best penned by Smith in recent years – and that is saying a lot, given the constantly excellent level of his writing. Inspired by films and images of Monk – the ring on his finger, the quirky dancing on stage – these pieces manage to evoke his music without openly referencing it, fully preserving Smith’s personality and compositional style.

More than a tribute to a beloved musician, this album is a profound, poignant meditation on the mysterious affinities between two masters of Afro-American music, and a refreshing reminder of how Avant-garde and tradition are indeed complementary aspects of the same musical substance.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Noël Akchoté - All I Have To (Solo Series) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

All I Have To Say (s/r, 2017)
All I Should’ve Said (s/r, 2017)
All I Forgot To Say (s/r, 2017)

Earlier this year, guitarist Noël Akchoté released a solo triptych, All I Have To Say, All I Should’ve Said, and All I Forgot To Say, recorded in March, April, and May, respectively, of this year. For an artist with so many hundreds of albums to his name, both as leader and as supporting member, it’s near impossible to describe something as a must-own or some kind of definitive statement. And while these aren’t necessarily the latter, this triptych does feel like a major statement and sincere attempt to speak, via guitar, as directly and plainly as possible.

The layering of blues, jazz, free improvisation, and rock are all filtered through Akchoté’s singular guitar playing. The overall shape and movement of the three albums takes you through long sections of Akchoté’s catalog, before giving over to his interpretations of a wide array of jazz classics, including Ornette, Haden, and Motian, each of whom he’s previously recorded tributes to. Then, there are the takes on mid-to-late 20th century American classics. His take on “Bird On a Wire” is ridiculously sublime. Restrained and heartfelt, it’s an absolutely gorgeous reading of Leonard Cohen’s classic, made all the more effective as Akchoté finishes this by tearing into Keith Jarrett and Sam Brown’s “Take Me Back.” Later on All I Have To Say, he reprises this moment with a brief reading of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” but instead follows it with Ornette’s “Sadness.” An interesting thing about Akchoté and Mary Halvorson’s continued collaboration is that each can record a solo take on the same track and have such diverse interpretations. (Halvorson also recorded Akchoté’s “Chesire Hotel” on her solo album, Meltframe). The effect is recreated again on All I Should’ve Said when he takes on John Coltrane’s “Cherryco,” which is followed by Ornette’s “Law Years.”

Because I’m not a guitar player myself, I often find it difficult to explain what’s special about a particular musician. But there is something so uniquely unquantifiable about Akchoté, both as a composer and a performer. In a brief interview, Halvorson describes his openness and wide range of music knowledge, and I’m most struck by the remarkable manner in which he synthesizes all this into his expressive style. In that sense, this All I… series is absolutely a must-own and very much a statement release, allowing a listener to home in on Akchoté, very much exposed in this solo setting, and take him at his word.

Available on Bandcamp

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Noël Akchoté - Complete Recordings (Plays Anthony Braxton) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

As far as I’m aware, the only other large-scale interpretations of Anthony Braxton’s music have been the two sets of his notated piano music, by Hildegard Kleeb and Geneviève Foccroulle. Here, however, guitarist Noël Akchoté tackles roughly 40 years of Braxton’s evolution, chronologically tracing a line from 1967’s “Composition 6C” to the final Ghost Trance Music composition, “Composition 360,” one of Braxton’s accelerator whip pieces (most of which, though not this one, appeared on the landmark 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006).

Starting with the obvious, there are no straight covers.. Everything is filtered through Akchoté’s rich, delicate playing, whether on acoustic or electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer. The full 4 hours and 30 minutes were recorded over a 6-day recording session, 14–20 May 2016, in Paris. Even with the wealth of material one could spend decades listening to, I’m still curious if there are alt. takes or false starts to hear, so deep is Akchoté’s dedication to de- and re-constructing Braxton’s mammoth discography.

One excellent place to start is “Composition 255,” which is performed on guitar synthesizer. The multiphonics allow Akchoté to truly explore the different, sometimes contrary, directions Braxton might go in. In the span of “Part 3,” for example, there’s the clear line of a GTM composition, but it's at odds with a contemporaneous improvisation. In the span of 2 minutes and 20 seconds, Akchoté lays bare much of what makes Braxton unique, that is the many ways his compositions balance these varied lines and spontaneous improvs into a cohesive whole. And Akchoté does this over and over again, most often in the span of a minute.

Some of the more recognizable, “classic” Braxton compositions fall into the areas 6, 23, 40, and 69. On many of these, Akchoté plays acoustic guitar, which gives the readings a playful edge, as with “69 A,” where fingerings and fret buzz fill in the space surrounding the melody. “6 I” is incredibly layered, with Akchoté multi-tracking his acoustic guitar and exposing a bluesy side to the notably jaunty melody.

I feel like it’s too easy for me to fall back on noting what an incredible accomplishment this is, purely from a programming perspective, and it certainly is one. But it wouldn’t be as remarkable a collection without Akchoté’s superb performances. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Akchoté, Braxton, or guitar, in general.

The complete recordings are available on Akchoté’s Bandcamp in individual releases:
Or as a single release from various big box digital retailers.

Monday, October 16, 2017

James Blood Ulmer & The Thing – Baby Talk (Trost Records) ****½

By Gustav Lindqvist

This is not a James Blood Ulmer album. This is not a The Thing Album. If that’s only what you’re after I can highly recommend the magnificent Blood’ album ‘Tales of Captain Black’ from 1979, or The Thing’s ‘BOOT! from 2013.

Furthermore, one simply cannot say what James Blood Ulmer is, as far as genres go. Is he jazz? Is he funk? Is he rock or blues? Is he ‘someone-who-took-Jimi-Hendrix-playing-to-the-next-level’?
I’m just going to leave it at this: he’s James Blood Ulmer. He’s a living legend as far as breaking boundaries in cross-genre guitar playing goes.

And what’s The Thing? In short – as I’m sure you all know them; it’s a tour de force jazz mulisha at its very finest, never afraid – always ready to throw bold ideas in the mix, run it over a couple of times, and spit it out. Composed by a trio musicians who’s played with everyone everywhere. Reading their individual discography is exhausting. With reedist Mats Gustafsson, (Fire! Orchestra, and releasing albums with everyone on the free jazz scene, it feels like), bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (Atomic, Fredrik Nordström Quintet, Townhouse Orchestra and many, many others) and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (Atomic, Frode Gjerstad Trio, The Peter Brötzmann Chicago tentet just to mention a few) – The Thing is …The Thing.

But it is also a band which happens to often meet with their heroes, live and on tape. We, fans of The Thing, have been blessed with great releases such as Immediate Sound (2001, with Ken Vandermark), Collider (2016, with DKV Trio) and Metal (2012, with Barry Guy), just to mention a few. In that aspect it’s not that surprising to see James Blood Ulmer taking the stage with The Thing during the 2015 Molde International Jazz Festival.

Before listening to this album I sat for a while just staring at the cover. What was this going to be like? I was starting to feel afraid that on this album I would hear The Thing either eat Ulmer alive, especially live, with Mats Gustafsson leading the way like a rabid dog. Or that The Thing would fall flat, not knowing how to see eye to eye with the legendary Ulmer. But all these feelings are of course silly, knowing what these people are capable of, on their own – or with others. What was there to worry about?

On this album I hear nothing else than the greatest of respect to what James Blood Ulmer is, whatever that is, and also with the soul, passion and force that is The Thing, intact.

The 4 original Ulmer compositions are all treated with great care albeit twisted, turned and re-invented.

It starts off with Interview. Ulmer introduces the theme which is a dissonant run of notes which Ingebrigt Håker Flaten follows just behind, like a chase. It’s very elegant. We’re not left with who’s winning though, Flaten leaves Ulmer for another direction and changes the pace. He’s inviting the others to the party. Nilssen-Love and Gustafsson jumps straight in. The elegant chase is transformed into an intense dance. Ulmer’s not late to join The Thing in their typical way of playing while still keeping his distinct and personal tone.

Second song High Yellow is also introduced by Ulmer, however this time there’s less patience shown before The Thing picks up the pace to start twisting the song around. Nilsson-Love can really be heard like the master he is in this song. He’s got such a big sound, yet I love how he’s a participator and a creative force throughout the album. However Ulmer’s never left alone, and is never drowned. Mats joins and immediately brings his best lyrical playing to the table. They all bring on the full intensity for a couple of minutes, making sure they’ve explored every corner of the song, before eventually they start to stumble, almost like rolling an uneven stone down a hill, towards those last notes. Ulmer closes the song and I wonder where this is going.

I couldn’t have expected what was to come. Ulmer introduces a kind of naïve tune, or something from a children’s songbook – Baby Talk is the name of the third song. The Thing accepts the challenge and starts the adventure with changing around the tune in different directions. You can always here Ulmer right there, he never misses a note, even when Gustafsson brings on his best (worst?) nightmare. Eventually we’re brought back to the original theme and it’s over.

The last song Proof is one scary yet fantastic piece of music.

It’s lyrical, simple, bluesy, dark, sad and absolutely brilliant. I sat like on needles waiting for Mats to join in. He does, but perhaps not like you’d think. Not together with Flaten and Nilsson-Love, not like a speeding train, and not alone like a whirling dervish in some manic mental state of mind. The Thing waits patiently while Ulmer sets the stage before Mats edgy baryton starts to sing together with Ulmer; moaning & calling. Ingebrigt’s bass is heard surrounding them like someone walking right beside them. Is he a friend or a foe? Mats pleading and calling builds up with increasing intensity while Ulmer keeps playing the theme repeatedly, with small varations. About half-way through the song, scene changes. The tension that has been built up must be released. There’s no other solution than to ask for help. Nilsson-Love to the rescue. He’s leading the way, guiding Ulmer, Gustafsson and Flaten back to safety. We’re left with that great feeling you get after hearing something very special. If only there was more songs. 33 minutes is not enough. I’m not sure there will be that many opportunities to hear James Blood Ulmer & The Thing together again, if ever.
Having said that, I highly recommend that you pick this one up.