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Monday, April 30, 2018

The Heat Death - The Glenn Miller Sessions (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

The heat death of the universe is a possible ultimate end of the universe in which it has diminished to a state of no thermodynamic free energy and therefore can no longer sustain processes that increase entropy. Despite the name, the heat death of the universe isn't a fiery inferno. Instead, it's the death of all differences in heat. This may not sound particularly scary, but the heat death actually is. That's because nearly everything in everyday life requires some kind of temperature difference, either directly or indirectly. Once the universe reaches heat death, everything everywhere will be the same temperature. As a result every star will die, nearly all matter will decay, and eventually all that will be left is a sparse soup of particles and radiation. In this "Big Freeze", the universe ends up uniformly cold, dead and empty. However, related to The Glenn Miller Sessions, the band’s name seems to be pure irony because everything about The Heat Death’s music is immaculate, immediate energy.
The Glenn Miller Sessions is another gem released by Clean Feed Records, it’s a three CD set with more than three hours of marvelous music. The band members - a Swedish/Norwegian super group - are Kjetil Møster (tenor saxophone and clarinet), Martin Küchen (alto saxophone and flute), Mats Äleklint (trombone), Ola Høyer (double bass) and Dag Erik Knedal Andersen (drums).

The center of the album consists of four tracks called "Myriads of Space 1 - 4", extensive improvisations between 15 and 29 minutes long. In the first three parts you can see a main principle: The music isn’t mainly about different dynamics (although they exist, of course), the four tracks start rather restrained just to build up intensity quite quickly, and then the band puts the pedal to the metal, the rhythm section pushes the horns without ceasing, which spurs them to soar. Especially Mats Äleklint proves what an extraordinary soloist and team player he is (as in Angles 9 and in Paal Nilssen-Love's Large Unit). Variety is created by different sounds, for example when Küchen plays the flute or Møster changes to clarinet. The highlights of the album are the moments when one of the musicians decides to play a real riff, e.g. Ola Høyer around the 24-minute-mark of "Myriads of Space 1", when he focuses on a blues pattern and supported by a steady beat by Andersen it lets the others just shine. A similar passage can be found at the beginning of "Unservable Jazz Soup" or when Äleklint contributes a staccato riff in "Myriads of Space 3" around 9:20 min., which is foiled by Küchen’s furious alto cries and Møster’s elegiac tenor lines. These are wonderful references to the roots of free jazz, it’s spirituality, to the call-and-response tradition of the work songs and field hollers.

What’s so exciting about The Glenn Miller Sessions is the interwovenness of the individual voices, how they interlock and dance around each other, how they take each other by the hand (so to say). There is hardly any up and down, no big and small, instead all the notes are important, every little sound is precondition and consequence to the others. It’s perfect harmony although we’re talking about atonal music. Old school free jazz at its best, real fire music - and it has nothing to do with Glenn Miller.

The Glenn Miller Sessions is available as a triple CD.

You can buy it from the label and from

You can listen to the band here:

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Uchronia – Uchronia (Impakt, 2017) ***½

Uchronia is a Cologne based quartet of young musicans (born between 1986 and 1992). They all study at the „Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln“ (College or University for Music and Dance) and collaborate in different settings with each other.

The music on their debut album as Uchronia is based on compositions by Marlies Debacker (piano) and Salim Javaid (sax, clarinet). They are accompanied by Stefan Schönegg (double bass) and Dominik Mahnig (drums).

I want to start with the end. The last two or rather three tracks of the album. That is "Battle Deaths in Conflict 1989 – 2013" Part I and II and the last track called Ballade#1. With these tracks the quartet shows in detail what it is capable of. And it is a lot! "Battle Deaths in Conflict..." starts with some long tones. They establish the basis in a dark mood and sound. They take their time and that in a very concentrated manner. All of part I consists of these long tones moving alongside each other. Drums and piano are mere guests waving hello from time to time. The second part starts exactly with these two.

Compared to pop, rock etc the roles are changed though: Debracker lays the ground with a sort of ostinato motif moving over her claviatour. Reminding me in some aspect of the way Charlemagne Palestine plays the piano on From Etudes to Cataclysms. Mahnig's drums take over the leading role. They tell the story sing the song. Mahnig shows what he is capable of. He moves fast in between the silent and the intense, between the restrain and the unleashed, between the calmness before the storm and the storm itself.

At the end there is the "Ballade#1". As the title implies the last track is quiet. Within the quietness you can almost see the mature interaction of these four young musicians. They tell the story (Sorry, I know I used that picture before.) together. And it is an intense story of calm adventure. There is not a single tone too much. The base seems to be a piano line in the first half and later on a little melody on the clarinet with which the track ends (surprisingly abrupt).

I like that track and it is a very good ending for a good album. 

We listen to three young and promising talents in the field of improvised music. The last two tracks are outstanding in my opinion.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Ida Toninato & Jennifer Thiessen - The Space Between Us (Ambiances Magnétiques, 2017) ****

By Stef

Sometimes we may move towards the fringes of jazz or free improv. This beautiful album is more avant-garde classical, yet nevertheless of posssible interest to the readers of this blog. The musicians are Ida Toninato on baritone sax, hailing from Strasbourg in France, and Jennifer Thiessen, playing viola d'amore, and hailing from Manitoba in Canada. 

Thiessen is very active in modern classical music and in baroque music with the ensemble "Cénacle", she even if she took some steps into pop music with her band "Daily Alice". 

Toninato comes from a more experimental background, exploring reverberant spaces with uncommon acoustics, with her solo debut album "Strangeness Is Gratitude" as a wonderful example of that approach. She also works with Ana Dall'Ara-Majek as Jane/KIN, creating performances that mix spatialisation and improvisation. 

Their music is spacious, calm, intense, slowly and cautiously progressing, creating timbres and resonance and pursuing them further as they grow and change. In contrast to even modern classical music, there are no obvious patterns or melodies to discern, but a drone-like shimmering of solemn sounds that explore each other around a space of silence. Despite their differences in background and perspective, both musicians find each other perfectly in the deep and central register of their instruments, which are almost always played with a gentle traditional approach.

On the last track Toninato adds some wordless singing and even if I usually hate this, somehow it works here. 

It's great to hear two young musicians perform in a duo with unusual instruments and coming from different perspectives and continents, and find such a strong common ground and sound. The whole album is solid and with a clear central vision on their music: coherent, beautifully performed and with a unique sound. They find each other in the space between them, and they delight us. What more do you want? 

Microtub - Bite Of The Orange (Sofa, 2017) ***½

By Stef

Sometimes music can be unique and exceptional. The tuba is not the most common instrument in modern music, but on this album we get three tubas and nothing else. You know the instrument from brass bands, for funeral marches or wedding orchestras, but what you get here is totally unexpected. The musicians are Martin Taxt and Peder Simonsen from Norway and Robin Hayward hailing from the UK. All three play microtonal tubas, two tuned in C, one in F.

It's a short album, only 25 minutes, but what they do is fascinating. The concept is to play long, stretched and languid tones, with minimal shifts, and exploration of their microtonal harmonies. The overall result is majestic, solemn, grave and sober.

I can only refer to Eyal Haruveni's review of the same album for further information and appreciation.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Dan Weiss - Starebaby (Pi Recordings, 2018) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Starebaby was born from NYC drummer Dan Weiss' desire to play a bit harder than usual. Weiss's recent recordings include Sixteen: Drummer's Suite and Fourteen, both in the modern jazz vein. However, a fan of metal growing up, here Weiss explores a jazz aesthetic informed by heavy grooves, crunchy guitar, searing synthesizer, and a fine layer of electronics.

Joining Weiss is guitarist Ben Monder who contributes great rock infused lines that reminds me of moments from his mid-90s work Dust. On electric bass is Trevor Dunn, who has no trouble delivering on the metal side. The keyboard and piano work is handled by Matt Mitchell and Craig Taborn who are both known for their acoustic piano work along with more experimental electronics. So, with such a team, Weiss' music features both the heaviness he was seeking and the melodic inventiveness that one would expect from such heavy hitters.

The first track, 'A Punchers Chance', starts with the time honored traditions of a classical-like guitar intro that morphs quickly into a thick and throbbing groove. Each time I hear it, I think this could be from some ideal more nuanced version of King Crimson. The chords progressions play off dissonances, leading the listener through what amounts to a punchy fanfare. Next up, 'Depredation' begins with an insistent, but not straight forward, beat laced with atmospheric electronics. When Monder appears, his twisted arpeggios tear holes in the dark fabric and the two keyboards engage in a macabre dance. 'Annica' is a change of pace - it's a slow dirge that builds on menace as much as it slowly builds off a repeated refrain. About two-thirds in, the pieces seem to come together and the music becomes denser, though the actual melody stays oblique.

What began as strong album, ends even stronger. The quick four minute 'Veiled' begins with a convoluted electronic melody coupled with a sparse one from the piano. As the piece progresses guitar, piano, drums and electronics pass around deliberate phrases, which sets the mood for the final track. 'Episode 8' begins with a drum solo, leading to a passage featuring solid ring modulated electronic piano - surely a classic jazz-rock sound. Monder teases with a little Terje Rypdal-like 'over the fjords' soaring. Then, things get really heavy as Dunn's bass lines twist around the electronic keyboards and they all tumble into a prog metal epic. It pounds, it punches, it sounds dangerous, and its a hell of a lot of fun.

I know that many fans of experimental music began their journey far out on the metal/noise spectrum, this album just may be able to push some listeners the other direction.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Lisa Ullén – Piano Works (Disorder, 2018) ****

By Gustav Lindqvist

Composer and pianist Lisa Ullén is well known to a lot of FJB readers. Her work with Anna Högberg and with Nina de Heney and Charlotte Hug is among the most recent, and very celebrated, releases reviewed here. Her duo setting with Nina de Heney goes back to around 2008, and under the name Nuiversum – and in a trio setting with vocalist Mariam Wallentin – they earned themselves a five star review. Furthermore the first release from the quartet Festen is highly recommended. Lisa is also running her own label; Disorder as well as being a very vital part of the Swedish impro scene not only as an artist but also as a curator. All in all there’s a lot to listen to when it comes to Ullén.

Here we, finally, get to hear Ullén on solo piano and prepared piano! And it’s no less than three CD’s of solo piano. It’s a luxurious treat that spans over one hour and forty minutes. Ullén has created an intimate, introspective but also a curious journey and I find myself listening as mesmerized, especially during the last CD, in which the six tracks; Hollow 1 through 6, takes me further and further into the most inner space of Ulléns mind. There’s a delicate touch to every single note and I’m convinced that Ullén wants me to focus intensively on everything that’s happening from the moment the note is released until it reaches my brain.

I’m almost a bit surprised that I would get so lost in a peeled off solo piano album. 100 minutes just disappears and I kind of wonder what happened. But as I listen again and again, I also begin to hear how Ullén explores different emotions. There’s a humoresque touch in ‘the place’ and in ‘layer’ Ullén challenges me with a vibrating prepared piano in a 4-minute excursion far from what I’m used to hearing from a solo piano performance.

The ‘Hollow’ suite on the last CD is an absolute beauty which would stand up well on its own.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Latest Releases of Swedish Pianist Lisa Ullén

Swedish pianist-composer-free improviser Lisa Ullén has proven herself as an artist with a unique vision on every project that she is involved with - her long-standing duo with double bass player Nina de Heney, her collaborations with cellist Okkyung Lee or vocalist Mariam Wallentin, her own quartet or in Anna Högberg Attack. Her recent releases suggests that there is more, much more, that Ullén can offer.

Lisa Ullén - Piano Works (Disorder, 2018) *****

Piano Works is Ullén’s most ambitious work so far - a triple CD of 26 improvisations-compositions for solo piano and prepared piano that capture the breadth and depth of Ullén’s singular vision. These solo pieces, most of them short and concise, were recorded on January and September 2017 in Fylkingen, Stockholm.
Ullén calls these pieces as “anti-mood music”, even conceptualizes these pieces as sonic variants of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, referring by that to her determined refusal to dramatize anything beyond the organic unfolding of the music. These pieces sound as thoroughly composed and yet all are instantaneously sculpted. Often these pieces sound as intellectual-mathematical games created in the moments, but at the same time are carefully-developed textures that blur any distinction between free jazz or avant-garde improvisations and contemporary and experimental music. And all these pieces shine with their sense of precision and cleanliness, innocent of any sentimental articulation.
These unorthodox, unpredictable notions intensify even more when Ullén convey an astonishingly beautiful theme as on “Up North”, suggest a playful idea as on “Wood”, sketch a quiet, meditative narrative on “Needle” or explore the piano resonant, timbral range on “The gap one” and “Layer”, all on the first disc. The second disc emphasizes this approach even further. “Treble and bass”, keeps alternating between touching lightly a melodic-emotional themes and moving farther away from it while “Writhe” sound as a secular hymn. The brief “Chair Two” may represent best the emotionally detached Beckett-ian approach. This 55-second piece keeps asking if a fractured sequence of sounds can be transformed into a meaningful idea.

The longest pieces on the first two discs offer a deeper insight into Ullén highly personal language, sonic syntax and musical vision. The serene “Specter” from the first disc floats on the delicate, percussive and resonant sounds and overtones of the prepared piano, alternating between a study, meditation or simply an orchestration of a gamelan-sounding piano. “Yesterday” on the second disc follows this vein in a minimalist and enigmatic manner. Ullén draws here light strokes on a big canvas that eventually accumulate to a an impressive, still cryptic texture.

The third disc is a six-parts suite “Hollow Part” that can be experienced as a focused yet imaginative exploration of the timbral qualities of the prepared piano, whether Ullén plays its keyboard in a so-called orthodox manner or when she searches for new techniques that extend and expand its sonic range. On the extended “Hollow part 4” the prepared piano often sounds as a whole together new instrument that attempts to bridge the Western, scholastic approach of developing a musical idea with improvisation strategies for an exotic Far-Eastern stringed instruments.

Motståndsorkestern Version 1 - Sekvenser och lager (Disorder, 2018) ****

Motståndsorkestern (The Resistance Orchestra in Swedish) represent a total different side of Ullén. Motståndsorkestern, in its first version, is a nonet that features four double bass players - Joe Williamson, Elsa Bergman, Vilhelm Bromander and Emil Skogh, two drummers - Anna Lund and Christopher Cantillo, trumeter Henning Ullén ((her son), trombonist Mats Äleklint and Ullén herself on piano and prepared piano. Bergman and Lund plays with her in Anna Högberg Attack and Äleklint plays in her quartet.

The debut release of Motståndsorkestern, Sekvenser och lager (sequences and layers), is a 21-minutes EP. The two short pieces on the first ‘sequences’ side sketch the chaotic and volatile but highly restrained energy of Motståndsorkestern. This energy bubbles in the deep-toned swamps of the basses and rattling drums, but again and again a melodic theme shines out of these from dark whirlpools, mainly by Henning Ullén, Mats Äleklint and Ullén. The two pieces on the second ‘layers’ side releases Motståndsorkestern’s powerful undercurrents. These pieces erupt in magnificent waves, but, again, their arresting flow of seismic layers stresses a strong melodic sensibility that demands from all the nine musicians to add their own individual contributions.

This time the drummers Lund and Cantillo and Ullén color this flow in urgent, intense colors.

Listen to the album:

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Thibault Gomez - La Grande Reveuse (Parallel Records, 2018) ****

By Sammy Stein

If the name Thibault Gomez is unfamiliar to you keep an eye out. Thibault and his quintet won the tenth Keep an Eye International Jazz Award which is awarded to outstanding young vocalists and instrumentalists from the USA, Europe and the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Thibault began playing piano when he was just 7 years old and later enrolled in the jazz department of CRR de Chambery Annecy, later specialising in improvisation. He is active on the jazz scene, especially lately with his quintet. The quintet are: Robinson Khoury (Michel Becquet, Uptake, Francois Moutin, won the Jay Jay Johnson international prize for trombone and with his band won the Rezzo Focal Jazz a Vienne in 2014) on trombone, Pierre-Marie Lapprand (Live a la Source, MaDam RamDam, Mental Climbers), on saxophones Etienne Renard (Makafunk) on double bass and Benoit Joblot (Luise Volkmann) on drums.

La Grande Reveuse is released on the Parisienne label Parallel Records.

So to the CD – it is a journey of sound for sure. The first track ‘ Les Escargots n’ont pas d’orielle’ begins with trombone solo over percussion and gentle, so gentle piano. Slowly, creeping we go before the sax joins with some gorgeous cropped counter themes. The track builds around the slow, gentle melody yet the building consists of bricks of sound provided by the wood and brass, all while the piano continues its intricate gentleness. A lovely contrast of sounds and the piano strings are used effectively. Every so often the sax spits out an aside - sounding like a well-placed fart if there is such a thing but it keeps the ears engaged. The second half of the track is more thematic and the rhythm becomes established as a gentle almost calypso – but not quite. A fun opener and there is a lot going on.

‘Voyons Monsieur sortez de chez moi et rentrez chez vous’ ( Look Mister, get out of my house and back to your own) is next and this track is great improvisation, yet there is also a unity and coming together of the quintet on more than several occasions, slipping into thematic overtones with deep, resonant trombone accompaniment, seamless and offering an almost constant regular change of texture and rhythmic patterns, often to the slow, dominant theme which pervades the track. At times it feels the piano sets a theme, the others take it and work with it before one of them solos and changes the essence. Interesting and great development , the piano line being one to listen to throughout.

‘Rhinocerous Pirate’ is full throttle heavy on the improv and free playing music at its best, the quintet listening and reading each other like well worn books. At times it is heavy going and there is a tendency in this track to follow one line for just a tad too long but it is fine. The trombone is excellent in the solo, as is the sax. 'La montee des ballons' begins with a trombone solo which is rather lovely, and around the 2 minutes mark the band join with a slow swing rhythm which creates an atmosphere and the track swings very nicely thank you along and along, a beautiful sax solo, a gentle bass line and the piano occasionally letting loose. Very pleasant. La Grande Reveuse

Robinson Khoury : Trombone
Pierre-Marie Lapprand : saxophones
Etienne Renard : Contrebasse
Benoit Joblot : Batterie
Thibault Gomez : piano

Monday, April 23, 2018

Magda Mayas, Pierre-Yves Martel & Éric Normand - Boule-Spiel (Tour de Bras, 2017) ****

By Stef

Even if the trio is Magda Mayas on prepared piano, Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba, feedback, objects, and Eric Normand on electric bass, speakers and snare drum, the instruments don't really matter. The trio's focus is on improvised sounds, little sounds, little noises, creating sonic universes that shift between the calm and the eery, the contemplative and the outright frightening. It is sound lifted beyond music, as a wonderful texture of things falling, scraping, hitting and plucking or just resonating, marbles rolling over strings? an endless bow on one string? metal gliding over all piano strings? piercing feedback through the speakers? raindrops hitting wood? wind rushing through leaves? animals crying in the distance? rhythmic industrial activity? a far unoiled metal door opening?

The sonic universe evolves at its own pace, slowly, slowly building, and growing within its own logic, or even lack thereof, within its own organic nature.  Every sound has its own space, carefully positioned, cautiously placed, audaciously created, resulting in a exquisite and intense listening experience. There is an incredible beauty in it, defined by its own aesthetic. There are emotions too: shifting, and sometimes superimposed, like sadness and fear and resignation all at the same time, like joy and distress and surprise as one feeling. You can't put your finger on it. And that makes it so wonderfully enjoyable.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

John Butcher (Day 2 of 2)

Martin Blume, Wilbert De Joode, John Butcher - Low Yellow (Jazzwerkstatt, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

German drummer Martin Blume, Dutch bassist Wilbert De Joode and British saxophonist John Butcher have been playing together since 2004, so it’s surprising that Low Yellow is their first actual recording.

The title refers to music as color not applied too thickly but rather delicately, it’s one of the listening pleasures of this album to see how the musicians develop new sound aspects on the basis of finest repetitive improvisational patterns. A certain nuanced lyricism (especially in Martin Blume’s way to play the drums) is more important than energetic iconoclasm. The trio’s music is full of melodic, tonal and harmonic miniatures, contingent ideas that the trio merges into a fascinating mosaic of fragments.

“Flowers“, the 14-minute opening track, is a perfect example of excellent teamwork. The musicians constantly build new alliances, first De Joode is the counterpart to Blume’s percussive bustle and Butcher’s nervous notes. Then De Joode manages to win Butcher over to his side with a smooth walking bass, while the sax contributes elegant trills. In general, it’s Butcher with his guttural and creaky sounds, who’s torn between the bass and the drums. He uses Ben-Webster-tinged melodies as well as Evan-Parker-influenced lines to prevent the improvisation from falling apart. The piece itself is highly dynamic because of these various fields of power and the perpetual turns.

Martin Blume (dr), Wilbert De Joode (b), John Butcher (sax), W71, Weikersheim, 3/9/2018.
For all three musicians sound is the central compositional means. Wilbert De Joode, for example, digs into repetitive figures until a new door opens, so that he can enter a new space and the others can follow him. Therefore he uses a chamber bass, a unique instrument, only very few of them exist. He was looking for an instrument that develops its tonal quality slowly, something that floats into the room like lava. As for compositional means his bass offers a lot of possibilities: If you slap the gut strings harshly the sound is very immediate, it’s sharp as a knife. When you use the body of the bass, the sounds created are rich and voluptuous.

Martin Blume, who functions as a kind of antagonist to De Joode, adds his qualities as a sensitive, yet very busy drummer, someone who’s always there, even if you think you could not hear him, as German critic Markus Müller once put it. His style is finely balanced, he contributes to the atmosphere by subtly directing musical situations with his extended materials.

John Butcher though, who’s name has been connected with sound exploration for many years now, uses his expanded vocabulary for saxophone (multiphonics, overblowing, extremes of the dynamic range, twittering, mumbling, breathing, wind noises) to bring the two poles together.

Blume, De Joode and Butcher regard improvisation as the freedom to recognize and respect the uniqueness of each individual playing situation. On this album it’s obvious that this trio consists of three powerful and distinctive voices, their individual sounds are easily recognizable. They function as a compositional unit in which the improvisational means demand fast responses, while the instrumentation makes it possible for each member to adopt a clear role to generate an overall structure for their music. Or, as John Butcher put it: “All of this leads to the store of ideas and memories one draws upon, and anything that might prove workable in the longer term has usually accrued in small increments. Slowly, the pieces come together. Big ideas are of little value in improvisation.“

Low Yellow is available on CD. You can buy it here:

Watch a complete set of the trio at the Dom Cultural Center in Moscow from November 2016:

Saturday, April 21, 2018

John Butcher (Day 1 of 2)

John Butcher/ John Edwards/ Mark Sanders – Last Dream of the Morning (Relative Pitch, 2017)  *****

The Open Secret: John Butcher/ Gino Robair/ Dieb 13 – A Geography for Plays (Rastascan, 2018) *****

By Stuart Broomer

Each of these CDs presents saxophonist John Butcher as part of a trio. Each consists of close associates. Last Dream of the Morning is insistently acoustic, A Geography for Plays largely electronic. The musics, however, are defined by the aspect of familiarity, a kind of intimacy in sound, rather than by the distinction in material production. Similarly, distinctions between free jazz and improvised music fall away here. Kinships and antecedents extend from AMM to Sun Ra and they’re being consistently synthesized and extend into new terrains.

Bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders have become the defining “rhythm” pairing of English free jazz, working together for decades in groups with Evan Parker, Veryan Weston and many others. If this is a first meeting of a trio with Butcher, past associations range from the London Improvisers Orchestra to a quartet with Phil Minton and fine duo recordings with both Edwards (Optic, Emanem, 2003) and Sanders (Daylight, Emanem, 2012). That notion of a “rhythm section,” though, however wonderful Edwards and Sanders are at it, is hardly appropriate here: propulsive force, when it arises, is a function of the entire trio. Elsewhere the three are a union of sonic and temporal explorers: Sanders, who organized the session, is a particularly inventive drummer, and one of the few who can remain seated at a kit and create the kind of sonic richness and resonance more apt to be associated with working with a bass drum and independent sound sources.

The music is often a maelstrom of time: in the 14-minute “Gridlocks,” parts seem to be going forwards, backwards and standing still, all at once and with a kind of purposeful unity. Between Sander’s nest of metallic percussion sounds, Edwards’ pulsing undercurrent and Butcher’s industrial-strength tenor sound, the three resemble some of Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s more inspired adventures, an astonishing achievement for a trio. On the opening “Lucid,” Butcher extends a traditional tenor line, generating lines in which multiphonics suddenly inject themselves amid single notes.

The Open Secret, the trio of Butcher, Gino Robair on energized surfaces, piano and blippoo box (described by its inventor Rob Hordijk as “an audio sound generator that operates according to the principles of chaos theory”) and Dieb 13 on turntables and computer, is similarly built on long-term projects. Butcher and Robair have been a duo for over 20 years, previously expanding to a trio with several musicians, including Derek Bailey and John Edwards, while Dieb 13’s association with Butcher includes the eight-member John Butcher Group that produced somethingtobesaid in 2008.

It’s in the nature of Robair and Dieb 13’s contributions to inevitably blur, but sonic mystery is more than side-effect here, with the two contributing both great invention and refined subtlety. Before Butcher’s high-speed, pecking soprano enters the opening “The Lobbard Change Hisstops” (ambiguity is also a function of the titles), there’s a piping, flute-like sound that only occasionally seems to tip into oscillator. “Dart on Discourse” is an exercise in the beat patterns that arise amidst close frequencies, the result a kind of phantom band in which the trio create other voices. “Olecasandrum” sounds like radio signals in fluid, at times with hints of language just beyond comprehension, gradually moving through other zones, including a soprano saxophone that achieves the dense chirping of a flock of birds. “Last Morning of the Dream” (the connection of the CDs may be inevitable) is witty, bizarre and well nigh indescribable. “Tinflappant” foregrounds Butcher against almost acoustic percussion (an amplified snare?) and a scraping drone, resulting in a spectacular tenor oration that extends to driving, free jazz squall. “Giant Skull Gasp” is a click language, while “Pearlagraph, the Pearlagraph” is at times so subtle as to suggest patterned air with key clicks and feedback.

Friday, April 20, 2018

To Cecil Taylor (Part 3 of 3)

Our tribute to Cecil Taylor, who passed away on April 5th, through his discography concludes today with excellent contributions from Martin Schray and Colin Green. Thank you to all the writers who participated in this tribute, and of course, thank you Mr. Taylor for your incredible musical legacy.

Cecil Taylor Unit - Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Debut, 1963)

Live at the Cafe Montmartre is also known as Nefertiti, The Beautiful One Has Come, and it was the groundbreaker for all the music Taylor was to release in the future. Recorded at Copenhagen’s Cafe Montmartre in late 1962, the album presents the nucleus for his Unit and it shows him with Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, his constant musical partner until Lyons' untimely death in 1986, and Sunny Murray on drums. For the first time the main characteristics of Taylor’s music, the clustered chord repetitions, the arpeggiated figures and melodic fragments, shine in an early beauty. Taylor’s forceful lines set the pace in all the pieces, which leaves the drums the freedom to fill and counteract the rhythms. It’s the moment when Murray consequently started neglecting the drummer's traditional role as timekeeper in favor of textural playing and sound exploring. In retrospect Taylor said that he was “creating a language, a different American language“ and that he didn’t separate “between intellect and emotion“. He said that the great artists “had a structure, a technique, and the thing that made the technique and the structure move was their passion“. By freeing jazz from the of the chains of a beat, he developed a rhythmic concept that rather piled up shifting rhythms and released Lyons and Murray to pursue sophisticated and careful improvisations. Possibly not his best album, but one of his most important ones.

Cecil Taylor European Orchestra - Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) (FMP, 1989)

In 1988 Cecil Taylor was invited to West Berlin to lead several workshops, the whole project was planned to last one month. The idea was to bring Taylor together with the best and most famous European improvisors, which culminated in the European Orchestra. The result was a monster of monsters, Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) is as radical as a free jazz orchestra can be, brutal, overwhelming, all-consuming and of the utmost beauty. One reason was the extensive rehearsal time available. Taylor trusted his musicians completely and wanted them to feel responsible for the process of improving and developing the material, to realize that it was not his, but their orchestra. For the actual performance he provided the orchestra with notated material and nominated so-called "section leaders," sort of sub-conductors who were to determine when and how long the orchestra parts had to be played and - typically Taylor - he added material during the performance. As a result the music is a "mountain range of real invention that vindicated everybody’s faith in the idea, (…) a dream music for everyone who had followed the vicissitudes of transatlantic free jazz," as Steve Lake puts it in the liner notes. The music is full of cacophonies, fanfares and hymns with motives resonating through the sounding body of the orchestra. Alms/Tiergarten (Spree) was my initiation rite to free jazz, it’s my all-time-favorite album.

The Feel Trio - Looking (Berlin Version) (FMP, 1990)

The Feel Trio (with William Parker on bass and Tony Oxley on drums) was Cecil Taylor’s working group at the end of the 1980s, it was a microcosmos to try out new things. “The certain knowledge of what can be achieved together makes the unexpected a force to be reckoned with, and points the way to new horizons,“ as Bert Noglik says in the liner notes. The album starts with an ostinato figure of Taylor’s left hand, Parker picks it up and Oxley’s creates a different, radiating texture with the incredible paraphernalia of his drum kit. And then hell breaks loose. Looking (Berlin Version) is like the very essence of Taylor’s music. Everything is there: the energetic outbursts, the relentless tempo, the clusters, the echoes of blues and call-and-response, the octaves, scales and sustained chords that can be found in almost all his recordings. It’s music that tries to overcome conventions using conventional instruments and by creating a structure that is so tense that it could last for hours. Who says that free jazz can’t swing?

Jost Gebers recorded this performance on 11/2/1989, the cover shows two people looking over the Berlin Wall. One week later the wall fell.

- Martin Schray

Cecil Taylor ‎– Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (MPS, 1981)

The album title might sound like overstatement, but this is one of Cecil Taylor’s more subdued sessions, and a good place to start for those new to his music or who find his more epic excursions too taxing. It was his first solo album not taken from a live performance, recorded in Villingen in the Black Forest in September 1980 at the studio of MPS which had made piano recordings something of a speciality, using state-of-the-art recording equipment. Taylor practised for two days before recording on the third, and played his favourite instrument, a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, a piano with an extra nine keys in the bass register, providing a full eight octaves, and having a more burnished tone in comparison to the Steinway’s glassier sound. The pieces are relatively short, ranging from just under a minute (the first) to just over ten minutes (the last).

Taylor was notoriously unhelpful when talking about his own music, using metaphors or inspirational sources often difficult to interpret, such as the design of box-girder bridges, or just talking about something else altogether. This might have been one of the masks referred to by producer Joachim E. Berendt in his liner notes, designed to protect Taylor’s music, and himself. His music can be uncompromising, and yet in a number of respects it’s not quite as formidable as it might first seem, and there are a couple of general observations which might assist. First, and perhaps obviously, Taylor had an intensely physical relationship with the piano, to the extent that what we hear is not music played on a piano, but music generated by Taylor’s engagement and interaction with the instrument, and its potential. His playing seems to emanate from the piano’s very vibrations, how notes can be struck, and chords held, hairpin dynamics, cross-accented counterpoint and stratification across wide registers -- the dexterity and articulation particular to the keyboard. His pianism is utterly idiomatic to the instrument, exploiting its natural overtones (octaves, fourths and fifths) and distinctive timbres, such as pedalled washes, minor-second clusters, and pinpoint staccatos. But for Taylor, sound was never just sound. It had to have an emotive power capable of reflecting our own disparate characters and the complexity of the world about us, capturing the poetry of life.

Second, Taylor’s music embraces structure and freedom – both have an important role and one makes no sense without the other. Together, they achieve a dynamic balance which avoids stasis. There’s no real pre-existing plan to much of Taylor’s music, though later in life he would take what looked like charts or diagrams on stage, which he’d consult at various times. What he did use however, was a range of recognisable tropes, each with an idiosyncratic sonority and harmonic flavour: he said he conceived of the piano as an orchestra, with its own individual sections. Like many free jazz musicians, Taylor’s music was not so much atonal as polytonal, making use of the push and pull of different harmonic centres, set against genuinely atonal cascades and splashes.

There are no hard and fast rules here, but very often Taylor would open with a sort of exposition of these tropes – cells or motifs, they take many forms – frequently diverse or even conflicting in mood, tempo and behaviour, and then develop his material in a multidimensional fashion, like several trains of thought emerging and merging simultaneously. This is where Taylor’s greatness as an improvisor lay, which goes beyond his undoubted technical prowess: the endless permutation of his material, retaining distinctive shapes and colours, yet always searching for new configurations, connections and contrasts. There are times when the speed and switching of his musical brain seem to overload (though I suspect this never really happened) producing some of his most exhilarating playing – both sensuous and austere – and occasions when he’s deliberately disorientating, disrupting any recognisable pattern. His music is not goal-orientated yet always has a clarity of purpose, even at its most fragmented and seemingly chaotic.

During Taylor’s performances, different tropes would dominate, but one favourite, which came to have an almost talismanic significance, was a rapid figure produced with parallel hands, moving upwards or downwards, or quite often in contrary motion (left hand down, right up) creating a harmonic vacuum. As in Monk, an ambiguity that suggests different resolutions. It is introduced in miniature at the outset and permeates the whole album, which can be seen as an extended exercise in exploring the ramifications of one apparently simple musical idea – bounced between registers releasing bursts of energy in the extremities, slowed to a rocking motion and songful melody, reconstituted as scalar runs, splintered between pauses, and transposed into luminous chords. Clearly, Taylor must have felt a strong affinity between his protean material and the singular qualities of the Bösendorfer.

Originally, it was intended that the album cover would be a work produced by the artist Joan Miró created under the impression of Taylor’s music. It seems that something was produced by Miró at a Hamburg graphics studio, but it did not arrive in time, and when the album was released on CD in 2012 (now also available as an 88.2/24 hi-res download), the art could not be identified, so the original cover was used (see above). For the time being at least, we don’t have this tribute by one modern master to another.

Taylor, solo at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. The complete performance can be heard on Silent Tongues: Live at Montreux '74 (Arista, 1975), another good place to start with his music.

Cecil Taylor ‎– Student Studies (BYG, 1973)

Looking back, 1966 was a significant year for Taylor. In May and October, he and an expanded band recorded Unit Structures and Conquistador! for Blue Note, which represented the summit of his work thus far and due to major label release, have proved to be his best known and most influential albums. In October, the quartet of Taylor, Jimmy Lyons (alto saxophone), Alan Silva (double bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums), all of whom had taken part in the Blue Note sessions, played two sets in Stuttgart recorded by local radio, and later that month they began an extended visit to Paris where they rehearsed, gave some concerts and were filmed for a documentary series about contemporary music. This album is taken from a performance recorded by Radio France in the revealing acoustic of Studio 105 at Maison de l’ORTF towards the end of the stay (later also released as The Great Paris Concert (Freedom, 1977)).

The ensemble, which continued to play for the following two years, was one of the great quartets in the formation of free jazz, up there with those of Ornette, Coltrane, and Ayler with Don Cherry. They play free music executed with absolute precision – note the rapt concentration with which they listen to each other in the video extracts below – and each member has their part in what amounts to advanced group play: Lyons’ strongly lyrical lines, weaving through the group and expanding Taylor’s melodic nuggets, Silva’s deft pizzicato and spidery arco, and Cyrille’s pellucid patterns, never random.

What they play are open-ended compositions, foundation motifs and figures – like the units of Unit Structures -- which flourish and are referenced in determined and undetermined ways, a framework for improvisation Taylor was to use later on albums such as The Cecil Taylor Unit (New World, 1978) and 3 Phasis (New World, 1979) and in his large ensemble work, and which was surely an inspiration for Anthony Braxton. There are carefully sculpted peaks and troughs and space, and how it is filled, is of fundamental importance. In the title work, the opening alternates between Lyons’ ringing, single notes and a more urgent, almost boogie-woogie, refrain. Eventually, the music takes off with an extended duet between piano and drums, descending into a reprise of the saxophone’s repeated honks which provide a jumping-off point for a dense harmonic cloud, from which emerges a rich, impressionistic dialogue between Taylor and Silva on bowed bass. Lyons’ little motif is then worked up, urged on by dancing piano figures and tightly locked bass and drums, reaching a thunderous crescendo. The piece concludes with a more assertive, less questioning, restatement of the opening material in a kind of coda. Notwithstanding Taylor’s denials, his music was as informed by contemporary classical music, which he studied at the conservatoire, as it was by the jazz tradition and other cultures to which he was drawn, even though he always forged his own, unique path. He was one of music’s great absorbers.

‘Amplitude’, with its assorted percussion – gongs, timpani, cymbals small and large -- and Taylor’s focus on the piano’s internals, is a study in resonance and reverberation with Lyons’ keening saxophone giving it a ritualistic quality. ‘Niggle Feuigle’ (a version of ‘Steps’ from Unit Structures) has the band playing at full pelt, springing out of Taylor’s blues lick, but this is not the blues as we know it.

Below is the episode on Taylor from the French TV series, Les Grandes Répétitions (The Great Rehearsals) with fascinating footage of the quartet performing at the Place des Vosges in the aristocratic, Marais district of Paris, a few days after the ORFT concert.

Cecil Taylor & Tony Oxley ‎– Ailanthus / Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions of 2 Root Songs (Triple Point Records, 2010)

The duo of Taylor and Tony Oxley (drums, percussion) performed for over twenty years, off and on, but this is only the second official release after their first meeting at the legendary Taylor festival in Berlin in 1988: Leaf Palm Hand (FMP, 1989) (their pairing was an afterthought by the organisers, once the festival had begun). It’s also the last of Taylor’s performances to be released as an audio recording during his life, on limited edition vinyl, though hopefully one day it will be available as a download. The material was selected from two nights during their residency at the Village Vanguard in November 2008, home to so many classic recordings, and is divided into two parts: ‘Ailanthus’ (three tracks) on the first LP and ‘Altissima’ (four tracks) on the second. The Ailanthus tree, of the Altissima genus, is known as the “tree of heaven” and was celebrated by Betty Smith in her novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), which is where Taylor lived. This might be the species of tree he could see from his piano, from which he said he drew inspiration during his hours of practice.

The album’s subtitle holds a clue to those charts and Taylor’s playing in his later years, though it’s a continuation of much of what he’d done previously but on a more refined scale. There are two kinds of material which form the “root” of pretty much everything he plays or to which it’s a response. The first is heard in its simplest form at the opening of ‘Ailanthus 1’, picked out tentatively and with subtle shading. The melody has a jazz lilt and is transformed into the second root song, Taylor’s parallel hands trope, which by this stage had evolved into a rippling figure – contracting and expanding, inward and outward – able to incorporate arpeggios, delicate, trailing ornamentation, and cadential chords, each time he resolves the figuration slightly differently. The first song also has many guises: stepwise progressions. clangourous fortissimos and deep, spiky rhythms. Much of the music is taken up with these two “songs” which are almost always recognisable whatever form they take. They’re superimposed (as at the beginning of ‘Ailanthus 3’), assimilated, compared, adapted, elaborated, paraphrased, and dissolved, employing the full panoply of Taylor’s invention, the hard-earned skills of a true virtuoso, requiring musical intelligence of the highest order. Each of the nights provides a different “dimension” on the core material, as of course do the two players. Perhaps in Taylor’s mind the root songs represented that tree, fixed but always changing as it moved in the wind.

Oxley thought Taylor would benefit from a lighter, higher pitched percussionist, and with textures that ricochet round his cluster of cymbals, cow bells, wooden block and bongo drums (played with sticks) sonically, it’s more Varèse than a standard trap kit, a sound that cuts through Taylor’s choppy piano without smothering it. Although there are underscores and embellishments from Oxley, the pair tend to occupy different but complimentary spaces, with counter flow, collisions and transient configurations, swirling particles which never quite stabilise.

With age, the velocity of Taylor’s playing inevitably slowed, relatively speaking, and he mellowed, leaving more room for the lyrical and meditative. In ‘Altissima 2’ he opens more contemplative spaces, the fine recording capturing the sheen and varying decay rates of Oxley’s metalwork, providing an afterglow to Taylor’s polished tones. The closing passages of the album combine the passionate and elegiac, with the latter just prevailing. “My music is a celebration of vital forces” said Taylor, “an affirmation of life to the end.”

Of that initial generation of free jazz musicians, Taylor was the first, and last. His creative output was prodigious and it’s still taking us time to catch up with his oeuvre, single-minded and multi-faceted. It may be impossible to obtain the full measure of his achievements for a while yet, but his music will continue to prove some of the most demanding, and ultimately rewarding, there is.

Taylor and Oxley in Amsterdam during a 2009 European tour in celebration of Taylor’s 80th birthday. (There’s also beautifully filmed DVD of their performance in Strasbourg during the same tour: Quatre Fois Vingt Ans (Mezzo)).

- Colin Green

Thursday, April 19, 2018

To Cecil Taylor (Part 2 of 3)

Our tribute to Cecil Taylor, who passed away on April 5th, through his discography continues.

On Cecil Taylor Segments II (Orchestra of Two Continents)—Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) (Soul Note, 1985)

Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) is one of the central moments in my education in free jazz and improvised music. I was born in East Tennessee, lived in Nashville, and grew up on a steady diet of country music and cornpone humor. As a child, my parents took me to Shindigs where we saw all the big stars—Billy “Crash” Craddock, Little Jimmy Dickens, Kitty Wells, Don Gibson, Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, and “the Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis, whose curly mane the police physically removed from my mother’s hands. I went to school with kids whose parents were on Hee Haw. The mid-80s found me working at record stores in the mall when Punk and New Wave had begun its awkward creep into Music City. When the managers were away, I’d sneak some jazz on the turntable, much to the displeasure of shoppers. I listened to a lot of Miles Davis and Theolonius Monk. I studied the trajectory of Ornette Coleman. I read biographies of John Coltrane and devoted mystical attention to his records. My tastes grew increasingly avantgarde. When I started college, I expanded my palette between classes in the library listening room. Somehow, I got turned on to prepared piano and listened to all the Henry Cowell and John Cage records. And it was in that room that I first heard Cecil Taylor. Whatever prerequisites I was unconsciously trying to make up for didn’t prepare me for the onslaught of Cecil Taylor, yet somehow his sweeping swells of sound made perfect sense to me.

The Cecil Taylor album I have listened to most often in the last 30 years is Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants), performed by Cecil Taylor Segments II (Orchestra of Two Continents). This “orchestra” features a reed section composed of Jimmy Lyons, John Tchicai, Frank Wright, Gunter Hampel, and Karen Borca. Andre Martinez and Rashied Bakr play drums and percussion. Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stańko are on trumpets, and William Parker plays bass. The cover art by Claudio Rebaudo is 18 rows with 17 hand-drawn, variously colored and shaded squares each. They abut one another in what seems to be a visual representation of Taylor’s compositional strategies—a puzzle of “sliding quadrants.” These musicians maintain the power and compelling unity of a big band as they slide in and out of lines, patterns, and figures orchestrated beforehand by Taylor or suggested by him on the piano in the moment of playing. The percussionists keep even the most abstruse moments connected to the cascading slipstream of things. The terms “solo” and “group play” hardly seem to apply, or matter. What this album demonstrates is how virtuosity reveals itself in composed sections and in free improvisation. It’s like hearing everything all at once and discerning music in what might have once just sounded like noise. I will always be grateful for Cecil Taylor for teaching me how to listen and what to hear.

- Rick Joines

Cecil Taylor & Günter Sommer ‎– In East-Berlin (FMP, 1989)

I saw Cecil Taylor playing live only once. Taylor participated in a series of musical encounters titled From The Four Winds at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem on May 1987, playing solo and with drummer Andrew Cyrille. I still have the program that describes him as “the most gifted pianist among the jazz pianists of our times. He is as fast and quick as Art Tatum, strong as Bud Powell, and smart and devious as John Lewis”. The English version of the program called him the “Bartok of the jazz world”.

It was also the first time that I have listened, or more accurately experienced the Taylor phenomen. My musical experience until that time relied mostly on ECM albums (always available here) and some albums of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane.

The performance was a formative experience. Nothing made sense to me at first, the eccentric behavior, the dance steps, the poetry or the music itself - abstract, intense and often raging and wild. But soon enough I surrendered to this magical flow of sounds and his fascinating architecture of sonic textures. Taylor opened for me, as well as for many others at this performance, new means of listening, experiencing music as a powerful, liberating force.

Cyrille and Taylor did not speak at all on stage. Both came to the stage and left through different doors. Cyrille was no longer Taylor's drummer of choice, and at times both sounded as confronting each other with angry, brutal determination, but at other times with touching compassion. There were times that Taylor sounded as the percussionist and Cyrille as the melodic, lyrical player. I was transfixed to every movement and my ears and eyes swallowed every nuance of these great masters.

Since then, I explored many of Taylor albums but always liked his duets with drummers. Always thought that he had a secret language with drummers. I cherish most his albums for FMP with Han Bennink, Paul Lovens, Louis Moholo and Tony Oxley but return again and again to the duo with Günter ‘Baby’ Sommer (who plays on the second album of this double album). Maybe because both masters stress here a great sense of jazz-y playfulness, dancing around each other, with great passion and joy. Maybe because I got to know Sommer about twenty years later on, enjoyed talking to him and his passion to make our world a better place. It does not matter. Take your time and enjoy this great album. 

- Eyal Hareuveni

Cecil Taylor – Calling it the 8th (Hat Musics, 1983)

Many times it is difficult to speak of about a person who has just passed away, without having met him or her in person. But that’s what great about music, art in general: you get to know people, experience their feelings and opinions using this abstract, but usually so bold, language that we call music. And now I’m here trying to figure out what to say about one of the most important figures in jazz history.

I must admit that Cecil Taylor was the leading figure that persuaded me into accepting the piano as a key instrument in free thinking music. Before listening to his recordings and having spent a considerable amount of time listening to jazz standards where the pianist must do this and that and the other thing, the piano bored me. Yes, it did.

I came to listen to him through masterpieces of his art like Live At The Café Montmartre, Conquistador! and Unit Structures. So, when Paul Acquaro’s invitation came to write about a recording that made an impact on me came, the dilemma was big but pretty soon all was clear in my head.

Cecil Taylor was an innovator, a pioneer who took risks and fought his way when the music establishment was giving him shit. But you know all that and I'm not into repeating them. What really amazed me in his recordings was something else. It was his sensibility and flexibility, both two obvious qualities in 1983’s Calling it the 8th, that make for me this recording a landmark in his discography.

In addition to the above we must remember that Taylor, by 1983, had already a quarter of a century worth of a career behind him. He could easily stand and act as the big name, the leader of this LP. Not him. He is flexible enough and open minded to let time flow, make his presence as necessary as all the others (the great late Jimmy Lyons on sax, William Parker on double bass, and Rashid Bakr on drums), prepare himself to be the sticky tissue that united everything. You could say that when fine artists come together this can be too easy. Opposed to the latter argument I’d like to point out that even in collective improvisation big egos exist and they tend to suffocate each other.

Taylor, the great improviser, has the sensibility to lead each of these great artists into finding his own voice while, at the same time, helping out to produce a non-selfish language, a way to communicate their music all together. I don’t write these words to point out how great this quartet was. Not even how an important figure Taylor was among them. But merely to articulate just how he reacted to the other voices of his fellow musicians, the space they were allowed, the freedom they used to express themselves. Having been in the dirty music business far longer (only Lyons was also many years in the music business) that his three fellow travelers, Cecil Taylor seemed eager to react with them in an egalitarian, fruitful way. He was the driving force to combine talent and freedom, equality, personal expression and collective thinking.

That’s not just a great album but a lesson learned for life.

- Fotis Nikolakopoulos

I had some initial trepidation entering the world of Cecil Taylor. For a while, I didn't know much beyond the name, but a reflex purchase of Unit Structures and Conquistador! at a favorite shop of mine down the Jersey shore made for me that fateful leap. I was drawn to the intensity and clarity of his ideas, even if I didn't exactly understand them. Seeing the graphical scores at the sweeping Whitney Exhibition didn't help much either. Regardless, I was thrilled to have a chance to hear and see him in performance at the museum. Tipped off by a Facebook post, I found a ticket for the late added show and took in a performance that featured Taylor at the piano and reciting an epic poem (See Hank Shteamer’s excellent review of the show.)

Over time, I've found myself drawn to, and drawn back, to these albums:

Cecil Taylor ‎– One Too Many Salty Swift And Not Goodbye (Hat Hut, 1978)

One day, I accidentally discovered a record store in Wilmington, DE where it seemed that someone dumped a treasure trove of Taylor and AACM related musical items. I scooped up as many as I could, and the most important was this LP box set with a bizarre title. As Martin mentioned in his tribute, the album was a recording of a concert in Stuttgart in 1978 with his working unit at the time. Not permitted to use the concert piano, Taylor performed on a slightly out of tune piano. This insult was seemingly channeled into fierce energy and the result was a masterpiece. The re-release on CD and digital (this is an easy one to find on mp3) added some tracks and changed the titles. The opening 'Duet Jimmy Lyons/Raphe Malik' features a spirited exchange between saxophonist Lyons and trumpeter Malik. Then comes 'Duet Ramsey Ameen/Sirone' between violinist Smeen and bassist Sirone, followed by 'Solo Ronald Shannon Jackson' featuring the drummer. Finally the main course begins: a sprinkle of notes from the piano, a blast from the horns, and they begin the slow build - about 10 minutes in it's ablaze!

Oh, and it turned out that the copy of the LP I stumbled upon was signed by Taylor.

Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Tony Oxley - Nailed (FMP, 2000)

Colin, a colleague here on the blog, turned me on to Nailed. It’s a stunning recording, again I reference Hank Shteamer who wrote in reflective piece about the album a few years back, he writes "There is something so magical about the outpouring of energy in these moments. You can't get this anywhere else in life, this sort of incandescent freak-out. When it's musicians of this caliber doing the freaking out, and you get to pay witness, it's like seeing/hearing God.” There isn’t much more to say that can beat this description. I mean, look at that line up! Parker plays tenor sax on the album and while he drops out from time to time, his breath is fiery. Oxley is intense and his rapport with Guy is transcendental. The first moments of the 52 minute “First” sees Taylor jabbing notes in a lower register, while Guy bass rumbles along. Parker provides snippets of melody and Oxley at first restrains himself, but like the fraught moments of calm before the storm, something wicked (good) is brewing, and it hardly lets up for the duration. The group fragments at times, with intense duets/trios between the musicians but always comes together. One my favorite moments is about 16 minutes in on the second track “Last” where Parker is burning through the upper registers and Taylor is frenetically hammering at the keys, and Oxley is bashing away at the cymbals.

Cecil Taylor Feel Unit (w/Tony Oxley and William Parker) - 2Ts for a Lovely T (Codanza Records, 2002)

Again, I can exclaim “look at the line up” but that's already been played. Regardless, Oxley and Taylor’s musical relationship goes back to the late 1980s, when they met for Taylor's Berlin residency and made the recording Leaf Palm Hand (FMP, 1988), and Parker and Taylor have recordings going back to the early 1980s with Calling it the 8th (Hat Hut, 1986, recorded in 1981). So this set of recordings, released in 2002, documents the Feel Trio's run from August 27 through September 1, 1990 at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. It would seem at 10 CD's that all of the sets from the engagement are here, and what you hear is a fine tuned group, engaging with each other at highly sensitive and empathetic level. The sets arc similarly from loose to dense and intense and finally to release at the end. How often can they do this without repeating themselves? Well, at least 10 times! The music exudes from them without hesitancy and features each member equally - Oxley and Taylor have a rapport that would suggest they had played together for much more than two years, and Parker finds the exact right tension and propulsiveness to demonstrate why he was indispensable to the trio.

PS - you can get the MP3s on Amazon for $11.

- Paul Acquaro

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

To Cecil Taylor (Part 1 of 3)

Over the next three days the writers from the Free Jazz Blog will present a tribute to Cecil Taylor's music through his discography. The choices and reflections are personal. We welcome your thoughts as well. So, in no particular order ...

Cecil Taylor Jazz Advance (Blue Note, 1956)

Given Taylor’s sprawling, unbelievably prolific career output, it’s easy to lose sight of just how astonishing Jazz Advance was as a debut recording.  Who else could have made a piano trio album like this in the mid-50s, let alone do it as their first record?  Just as Ornette divided critics in 1958 with Something Else!, Taylor’s percussive flurries, bursts of atonality and rhythmic license were simply too much for many listeners to handle.  But they were certainly signs of a uniquely creative mind at work, and an invaluable early glimpse of Taylor’s genius.

Although it’s tempting merely to view this record as a foretaste of what was to come, approaching it as document unto itself allows for an appreciation of Taylor’s undeniably musical sensibility.  Yes, there are times when he seems to be leaving bassist Buell Neidlinger and drummer Dennis Charles behind due to the sheer abundance of his ideas (although it’s all the more incredible that they keep pace with him as well as they do).  But even more surprising are Taylor’s sympathetic tendencies: just listen to the way he comps behind Steve Lacy on “Charge ‘Em Blues” and “Song,” the two tracks on which Lacy appears.  It’s a perfect illustration of how thoroughly Taylor had imbibed and mastered the language of bop—crucial, of course, in allowing him the wherewithal to deconstruct it so thoroughly during his many decades as an artist.  And Taylor’s melodicism is also abundant here, albeit refracted through his uniquely off-kilter vision, as we hear on his sensitive treatment of Ellington’s “Azure” and his tour-de-force solo performance of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”

Although Taylor’s subsequent recordings will be more frequently cited as examples of his inimitable, path-breaking spirit, this is the album that started it all, and it easily stands on its own as one of the finest jazz recordings of the 1950s.

-Troy Dostert

Cecil Taylor – Spring of Two Blue J’s (Unit Core, 1974)

This recording on Taylor’s own Unit Core label features his greatest interpreter Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, along with bassist Sirone and drummer Andrew Cyrille, on the second part of a two-part composition.  Here Taylor relishes his role as accompanist as much as he enjoys sparring with Lyons on equal footing.  At points of convergence, the power of the group is overwhelming.

The first part is even better though – a lone Taylor speaking in tongues, the most advanced of musical minds performing at a primal level.  When he turns automatic composition into a call-and-response exercise, what emerges is an artist committed to the duality between instinct and organization – which is a commitment he kept until the very end.

Cecil Taylor – Looking Ahead!  (Contemporary, 1958)

“Luyah! The Glorious Step” opens with Taylor alone, very deliberately banging out discordant non-swing.  When bassist Buell Neidlinger and Earl “Mystery Man” Griffith (vibes) enter, so do the eighth-note bop conventions.  Welcome to late 50s Cecil Taylor.  Taylor is desperately trying to break free of the jazz tradition but has not yet acquired the means to do so (and neither has Ornette!).

Neidlinger and drummer Denis Charles would play into the early 60s with Taylor, providing conventional timekeeping roles underneath Cecil’s speedy accidentals and mathematical hopscotch.  They are an excellent band – even as Taylor removes himself (literally) from the rhythm section in the mix here, with Charles, Neidlinger and Griffith in one channel & Taylor in the other one.  No missing the point; Cecil Taylor is playing against the band.

Honestly though, there are three tracks – half the album! – where the group is more cohesive than Cecil would apparently like for us to believe.  The first, African Violets,” is the kind of late night noir tune that no one would think to associate with Mr. Taylor.  The other two are “Toll,” where Neidlinger slows down to whole notes, allowing room for a more relaxed approach to interplay, and the session’s centerpiece “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” on which Taylor’s chords push Griffith into unexpected melodic figures as the band pumps with singular purpose.

- Tom Burris

Cecil Taylor - Unit Structures (Blue Note, 1966)

Together with "Conquistador!", released on Blue Note the same year, Unit Structures is one the landmark albums for free jazz. In contrast to other artists such as Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, Taylor tried to incorporate the entire musical canon in his music, including the European avant-garde, using it to start delving deep into the soul of jazz, mixing the resulting sounds and techniques, and then liberating the outcome from clearly defined forms, including doing away with the traditional role of the various instruments. In his vision, all instruments are solo instruments and they collectively co-create a sound, improvising together as a "unit" around open-ended musical structures, or in Taylor's own words: "“The emphasis in each piece is on building a whole, totally integrated structure.”

The musicians are Jimmy Lyons on alto, Ken McIntyre on alto, oboe and bass clarinet, Eddie Gale Stevens on trumpet, Alan Silva and Henry Grimes on bass, Andrew Cyrille on drums and Taylor on piano and bells.

Taylor writes in the liner notes of Unit Structures: "The player advances to the area, an unknown totality, made whole through self analysis (improvisation), the conscious manipulation of known material; each piece is choice; architecture particular in grain, the specifics question-layers are disposed-deposits arrangements, group activity establishing the plain".

Listening to it now, and unlike the music of Ornette Coleman from that period, it still sounds very modern, with four lengthy pieces, defined by the energy and the freedom of its leader. It is glorious, pristine, as if after millenia of confinement, music itself was suddenly liberated from its prison and its chains, running outside, dancing and singing out of the pure joy of freedom. At the same time it is intelligent, carefully improvised, avoiding chaos. It generates music that is deeper, more authentic, more energetic.

"A tool of refinement,
An attempt to capture “dark” instinct. 

Cultivation of the acculturated
To learn one's nature in response to 

Group (society) first hearing “beat”
As it exists in each living organism".

Brilliant: a new language, a new listening experience, liberating music from its dusty confines.

Dark To Themselves (Enja, 1976)

Ten years later, the Cecil Taylor Unit releases in my opinion another iconic album, with the stellar band consisting of Jimmy Lyons on alto, David S. Ware on tenor, Raphé Malik on trumpet, and Marc Edwards on drums, the latter replacing Andrew Cyrille for the occasion. And indeed: two bass players on "Unit Structures", no bass player here.

The album has only one track, recorded live on 18 June 1976 at the 17th Yugoslavian Jazz Festival in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which was split in two parts on the original vinyl album and totalling only 49 minutes, so for once I can recommend readers to go for the CD version which has the full 61 minutes of the performance. Why is it iconic? First because the band itself, second because of the maturity of the interplay and the seamless collaboration and energetic drive of all the musicians. While Taylor and Edwards keep the momentum and the power going, first Malik, then Ware, then Lyons play as if their lives depend on it.  They give it all! For more than forty-five minutes. Relentlessly. Then after Lyons' ten minute solo, the horns give all the space to Taylor himself, who quietens things down, calming the storm for a more contemplative moment, a moment of nervous serenity, playing fast runs and slow chords and after ten minutes he increases the power and the speed and the energy, wonderfully backed by Edwards's heavy percussion work, inviting the other musicians back in for a spiritual finale. It is gorgeous. 

Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon & Tony Oxley (Victo, 2002)

Of a totally different nature is this trio album with Bill Dixon on trumpet and Tony Oxley on percussion. Taylor and Dixon had played together since the mid-sixties. Taylor and Oxley had performed together in the "Feel Trio", and in duo albums, with "Leaf Palm Hand" being the first. Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley also released the great "Papyrus" volumes on Soul Note a few years earlier.

It was almost inevitable that the three artists would meet and perform together, and it happened at the 19th Festival International de Musique Actuelle at Victoriaville, Canada in May 2002. Dixon's trumpet is linked to pedals and comes with echo and strong reverb which puts it in a more distant sonic space that appears to be different from Taylor's and Oxley's close intimate acoustic sounds.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, there is tension in the air, something unusual, both dark and agitated, ominous and alive, especially in the 45-minute long first track. It reflects the essence of Taylor's musical conception: that sound is energy, and that composition is the total of all the improvising soloists. But the overall nature of the music here is more cautious, less driven by the natural power of Taylor's other albums. It is more avant-garde and free improvisation than free jazz. All three musicians play at an equal level, with respect for each other but also with their own character and ideas showing through. At the time of its release, the album did not get much positive response, but now, looking back, it's still of a level that is well above the average. It shows a different facet of all three musicians, and it somehow stands on its own, and is as such pretty unique, showing an interesting new sonic perspective. I only wish the trio had more performances together.

And if you're curious about Taylor's own opinion, here are the liner notes:

- Stef Gjissels

The Gil Evans Orchestra - Into the Hot (Impulse!, 1962)

Incredible to think of these three essential Cecil Taylor cuts hiding behind Gil Evans’s name and image. Sorry, but no soft spot for Evans’s music—or that of John Carisi, who actually wrote the album’s three other tracks—can protect them from being blown out of the water by Taylor’s contributions to this 1962 “split.” Then again, what a way to find oneself introduced to Taylor’s music (I’m speaking from experience), the sucker punch fully intact. The pianist’s discography may be studded with more obvious gems, but “Pots,” “Bulbs,” and “Mixed” find Taylor—along with Jimmy Lyons, Archie Shepp, Henry Grimes, Sunny Murray, Ted Curson, and Roswell Rudd—at a thrilling moment, with one foot in breakneck bebop, spine-tingling harmonies, and stomping syncopations and the other in something else altogether. Into the Hot? Sounds about right.

- Eric McDowell

Air Above Mountains (Enja, 1978)

Moosham Castle in Langau, Austria. A Bösendorfer grand piano. And Cecil Taylor. Such a minimal setup for what is one of the most intense jazz sets I’ve listened to. During the 1976 performance, Taylor glides through the single long piece “Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)” without major pauses and with the aura of a man possessed. He plays hard notes that seem on the verge of imploding, he frolics through frenzied sections punctuated by repetitions, and he even finds elusive flashes of groove, steady rhythm, and melody—all the while exhausting and pushing himself to extremes. More than any other Cecil Taylor record, Air Above Mountains is the purest embodiment of his relentless approach and energy, a sublimation of a thought found in the liner notes: “Creating Music as sound within the whole body; which must be brought to level of total depersonalized realization.”

Conquistador! (Blue Note, 1967)

Unit Structures and Conquistador!, Cecil Taylor’s only two releases on Blue Note, had a transitional and defining role in his career. Brimming with potential of what was to come, they were firmly placed in the emerging and bristling free jazz scene, while showcasing a creative force and musical world that was unlike anything or anyone else. In that sense, Conquistador!, the second of the two, is an album that acts as an exclamation point to his output in the sixties. Working in the form of a sextet with two bassists, Henry Grimes and Alan Silva, trumpeter Bill Dixon, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, and drummer Andrew Cyrille, Taylor creates music with a fleeting duality. It contrasts a fervent rhythmic base, lead by his piano spurting notes like a machine grinding gears and Cyrille’s polyrhythmic, compact drumming, against Lyons’ and Dixon’s almost lyrical playing. It’s especially Dixon’s phrasing, with numerous drops into lower registers and gentle whispers, that’s fascinatingly calm and dark in face of the pandemonium around it. Even the few expansive sections on the two album cuts, “Conquistador” and “With (Exit),” appear as deceptively anxious. Simultaneously, the sextet sound is full of mercurial textures that shift and grow, disappear and reappear. This is music as cryptic and powerful as the mind behind it. A classic.

- Antonio Poscic