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Saturday, June 30, 2018

This Is It! - 1538 (Libra, 2018) ****½

By Eric McDowell

Is it her long history of worldwide collaboration or the masterful range of her personal style that makes Satoko Fujii’s body of work so difficult to summarize? It doesn’t help that she’s always been prolific, too, putting out albums as a leader and as a contributor under a number of different names and with a number of different groups, from her intimate duos with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, to jazz trios with the likes of Mark Dresser and Jim Black, to international big bands like Orchestra New York, whose recent Fukushima is essential listening. And of course in 2018, the year of her 60th birthday, she’s upped the pace almost to Ivo Perelman levels, releasing one new album a month.

What are listeners to do? Take things one at a time, of course—the way they were created. No matter which Satoko Fujii you start by approaching, you’re bound to find traces of all the others emerging as the music unfolds. Libra’s June Fujii release, 1538 by the This Is It! trio—the pianist and Tamura with Takashi Itani on drums—is a perfect example.

The album begins where others might climax with an intensely focused and emotionally devastating nine-minute improvisation. But for this group, it’s merely a gathering of forces: Tamura’s strained, rasping trumpet; Itani’s clattering drum kit; Fujii’s turbulent low end somehow both spurring the tempest on and keeping it grounded. An all-out exercise in catharsis, “1538” is a bold opening move—but perhaps one befitting a trio called This Is It! Or maybe they’re just playing with our expectations, since the follow-up track, “Prime Number,” finds them in an altogether new mode, with Tamura leaving extended-technique textures behind for bright, stabbing notes that set the stage as Itani and Fujii join in with their own staccato stylings. Having not only this range but also this sensitivity in common is key in Fujii’s music, which asks its interpreters to be as able to lead a free improvisation as to follow a jagged ostinato, as the trio does partway through “Prime Number.”
Fujii’s music is also about making space for her collaborators. On “Climb the Rapids,” Tamura takes advantage of the spotlight to craft warm lines of round notes that roll together like marbles, while “Riding on the Clouds” shows a new, gentler side, Tamura drawing silver threads across Fujii’s delicate arpeggios. That same track shows Takashi’s facility with extended techniques as he bows his cymbals like the group’s missing bassist. And “Swoop” is nothing less than a true drum feature, with Takashi’s full range on display, from near-infrasonic mallet-playing to pitch-bending in the style of the great drummer-tricksters to grooving through stop-start trumpet-piano ostinatos.

The closing track runs back through all the group’s personas, starting once more with textural abstractions before pivoting into the realm of rhythm and melody. Perhaps this means “Yozora” might have made more sense at the beginning of the album, where it could have taught us how to listen to the rest. But that might have made us lazy or softened our ears. And this is music that deserves to be heard with full attention—with the understanding that no matter what we’re hearing, “this is it!”

Friday, June 29, 2018

Fujii/Fonda/Mimmo - Triad (Long Song Records, 2018) ****½

By Antonio Poscic

The precursor to Triad, Satoko Fujii and Joe Fonda’s dazzling Duet, was one of 2016’s most delightful records and the first encounter of these two greats. Arriving from opposite sides of the free jazz/improv spectrum—one from the forefront of avant-jazz and free improvisation that flirts with modern composition, the other from the fiery spheres of “traditional” free jazz—Fujii and Fonda immediately clicked, achieving a symbiosis of styles, and crafted an inspired piece of music. For their second album together, they’re joined by Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, a prolific, creative musician who runs Amirani Records and whose output should also be familiar to anyone following the label Setola Di Maiale.

Much like the whole record, Triad’s opening “Available Gravity” is an idiosyncratic improvised cut, uncharacteristic for its performers. It reads as an abstract retelling of haunting and haunted folklore delivered through the voices of Joe Fonda’s romantic wooden flute, the tinkling knocks of Satoko Fujii’s piano strings, and the grating flutter of Gianni Mimmo’s saxophone splurts. This beautifully subdued track, along with three other shorts “Accidental Partner”, “No More Bugs”, and “Joe Melts the Water Boiler”, serves as a comforting satellite for the forty minutes long centerpiece “Birthday Girl”. Performed and recorded in Milan on Satoko Fujji’s 59th birthday, “Birthday Girl” is Triad’s focal point, an enthralling, oft exhilarating tour de force and celebration of improvisation.

While the piece starts calmly, almost carelessly, it soon picks up pace as Fonda’s forceful and playful double bass plucks are accompanied by Fujii’s characteristic forte playing and incisiveness. In a space between them, Mimmo’s saxophone draws lyrical lines interrupted only by the occasional discordant, energetic blow. Throughout, the musicians play in unison rather than against each other, exchanging ideas, evolving them individually, and reconciling them collectively. There’s a wonderful recurring circularity in the way that Fonda, Fujii, and Mimmo fervently repeat notes, imparting more heaviness and resolve in each cycle, whilst also creating an overarching structure. Their individual styles remain recognizable, yet also strain and contort to accomodate this new and unexplored context.

Elsewhere in the track, the trio entertains an accelerating, rhythmical, and oriental-sounding passage that leads into the first of several Fujii’s explosive solos. The solo is disrupted when Mimmo starts screeching and spouting furious lines, betraying the lyricism that came before. Soon Fujii reaches for the insides of her (possibly prepared) piano and the improvisation morphs into a faux chamber piece. Along the way, as the trio shifts in and out of configurations, one of Mimmo’s solos is rendered especially compelling by a sustained tone that gets out of control, while during a charged and wild duet with Fujii, Fonda can be heard shouting out an impassioned “yeah”.

As the song comes to a close, the musicians find themselves in a delicate post-bop section, brimming with emotion, led by Fonda’s galloping bass, Fujii’s tasteful piano accents, and Mimmo’s elongated, tuneful sounds. The players’ approaches warp again as the album closes in a fervent crescendo with Fujii and Mimmo playing faster and harder yet remaining faithful to a certain intermittent musicality.

After the final notes of “Birthday Girl” fade, Fujii, Fonda, and Mimmo showcase three breezy self-contained miniatures. “Accidental Partner” provides some layered and calm respite focused on Fonda's bowed lines, “No More Bugs” rebukes with nervous and fragmented interplay of instruments dancing spasmodically, while “Joe Melts The Water Boiler” gives the already excellent Triad its exclamation point through a groovy collective improvisation.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Kira Kira - Bright Force (Libra Records, 2018) ****½

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Japanese verb Kira Kira (ぎらぎら) means to sparkle or twinkle, but is also used in relation to trendy baby names, as kira kira/shiny names. Kira Kira, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii’s new quartet, has a different concept of what might be trendy or a bright glittering. Something with the charm and brute force of an immense killer whale, moving towards you with full power, threatening to consume all on its way, but with bright, wicked smile. 

This collaborative quartet features Fujii’s partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, long-time associate, Australian Alister Spence on the Fender Rhodes plus pedal effects and treatments, and young Japanese drummer Ittetsu Takemura, known from the bands of Japanese pianist Fumio Itabashi and saxophonist Sadao Watanabe. Kira Kira recorded live at Knuttel House, Tokyo, on September 2017. The original version of this quartet featured The Necks’ drummer, Tony Buck, who could not attend the quartet performances in Japan.

Bright Force - the fourth release of Fujii’s Kanrkei - 60th birthday project - and the debut of Kira Kira begins with Spence’s “Because of the Sun”. Spence knows well Fujii and Tamura. He has worked with both of them in Scottish Scottish sax player Raymond MacDonald's International Big Band, later performed with Fujii as a duo and played with her orchestras in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kobe. On his piece, the four musicians coordinate their manic attacks like a group of hungry killer whales closing on its desperate prey. Fujii dense and urgent piano solo set the course for Tamura wild pyrotechnics and the towards cathartic climax. Tamura’s “Nat 4” maintains this reckless, explosive spirit, but spicing it with sudden, episodic blasts of eccentric-melodic motifs, as some kind of sinister maneuvers that may deceive the prey. Takemura plays the drums like he is possessed by a primal force, setting a rapid, uncompromising pulse, while the electric keyboards of Spence keep spiraling and clashing with Fujii’s piano. 

Fujii’s three-part suite “Luna Lionfish” (which opened this performance) has many characteristics of Fujii's epic compositions, including the blizzard of surreal juxtapositions, sharp contrasts and irregular meters; the organic, collective slow-burning kind of interplay that is often interrupted by powerful, individual solos; and a dramatic narrative that weaves the weird, shiny colors, nuanced textures and surprising, outrageous ideas in a manner only she can make sense of all of it. Her solo that connects the second and third part of the suite and Takemura ecstatic solo on the third part embody beautifully these qualities. This time Fujii leads her pack of killer whale with a more adventurous and playful strategy yet a patient and subtle one, needed to capture the  venomous, highly dangerous luna lionfish.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Satoko Fujii’s Orchestra Berlin - Ninety-Nine Years (Libra, 2018) ****½

By Stef

If anything, the music of Satoko Fujii remains totally unpredictable, which is possibly the only constant in her oeuvre. This album is a good example. For Orchestra Berlin's first album, released in 2015, Fujii asked German saxophonist Gebhard Ullmann to bring a band together for a new composition she wrote. Now we get almost the same band for the orchestra's sophomore album: Gebhard Ullmann and Matthias Schubert on tenor saxophone, Paulina Owczarek on baritone saxophone, Natsuki Tamura, Richard Koch and Lina Allemano on trumpet, Matthias Müller on trombone, Jan Roder on bass, Michael Griener and Peter Orins on drums, with Fujii herself on piano. Quite an interesting and original line-up.

And so is the music.

The album opens with "Unexpected Incident" (a Japanese government's euphemism for the Fukushima nuclear incident). It starts with tentative and increasingly dense percussive sounds, as an intro for improvised chaos by the horn section, which turns into a great rythmic unison theme full of drama and tragedy over which Ullmann's sax cries out in human misery about what's happening. Humanity and relentless violence and distress alternate giving the piece great depth and tension.

"Ninety-Nine Years", the title track, is dedicated to Fujii's late mother-in-law, and starts with a relatively long intro of lyrical solo bass lines by Jan Roder, joined by the drummers, and then by the baritone sax, for a spacious, quiet and equally restless improvisation. The rest of the band waits till ten minutes into the track to participate, with the horn section playing a slow ascending theme in contrast to the agitated baritone and drums. Conflicting emotions and contrasts again. Serenity and distress and sadness.

"On The Way", starts again with a single instrument, now with percussion for almost three minutes when the joyful and rhythmic contrapuntal theme by the horns adds volume, only to disappear again as rapidly, leaving the ground layer of odd percussion intact. Tamura joins on trumpet as only he can: with clamors and complaints shouted through his horn, squeezed and grumbling, a little crazy even. The rest of the band interrupts the madness without subduing it, even worse, they seem to become infected by it.

In contrast to the three previous tracks, "Oops" start with a mad theme played by the entire orchestra, full of power, energy and intensity, stopping for a wild sax solo by Schubert, whose howling gets comforting support from the slow rhythm section. Then the trumpet (Allemano?) gets the solo spot, bluesy and wild at the end, joined again by the mayhem horn section, which gets split in two groups: slow and superfast.

The last track, "Follow The Idea", starts with complete madness and orchestrated seconds of silence interspersing it. Weirdness ensues. What is this? Noise? Organic musings? Incantations? It sounds silly, with surprises, unexpected moments of composed arrangements, which last too little to be real. Manic intensity ends the album.

And Fujii? Not to be heard. At least not on piano. Yet her signature is all over the music. The composed improvisations, the sense of drama and contrast, the tension between clashing emotional power, between the human voice in a world of violence, the cinematic development, the sonic effects used to perfection to create a wonderful kaleidoscope of sounds unheard, the physicality of it, touching every nerve muscle sentiment in your body, keeping the listener as intensely involved as the musicians, to be surprised and to be moved and to be overjoyed by the next creative idea and novelty.

Fujii's music is unique. And the great thing is that she keeps inventing herself, with all her many bands playing totally different things, but all with the same underlying quality and recognisable vision.

Don't miss this one.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Kaze - Atody Man (Libra, 2018) ****

By Derek Stone

Of Satoko Fujii’s manifold projects and groups, Kaze is perhaps one of the more unique in terms of its make-up: with Fujii herself on piano, Peter Orins on drums, and Christian Pruvost/Natsuki Tamura providing a dual trumpet attack, it’s an idiosyncratic arrangement that offers up some of the finest, most powerful music in Fujii’s wide-ranging ouevre. The group has been active for eight years now, with previous recordings Rafale, Tornado, Uminari, and June (released by an expanded version of the group called Trouble Kaze) establishing them as a creative force to be reckoned with in the worlds of improvisational/experimental jazz. Many elements on Atody Man are immediately recognizable as belonging to Kaze’s singular approach: the patient unfolding of themes and moods, the explosive flurries, the melodies interlaced throughout that keep you invested. At the same time, Atody Man shows the group to be constantly in the process of tinkering with, honing, and adding new layers to their sound.

The first piece, “Hypnotique Sympathie,” begins subtly; Pruvost and Tamura make good on the name of the group, “kaze,” which is actually the Japanese word for “wind.” The trumpets release a series of extended cries, broken only by occasional moments of silence. As the cries stretch and grow longer, the tones themselves start to deterioriate - they wheez, croak, and crack, eventually giving way to brooding chords from Fujii. When the quartet eventually “gets going,” it’s not exactly straightforward. Pruvost and Tamura wring all manner of twisted, strangulated notes from their trumpets, Fujii moves from dramatic minor-chord variations to brief moments of tumult, and Orins undergirds it all with his busy and elusive drumwork. The track builds and builds, the pressure mounting, until a recognizable theme coalesces and takes things in a direction that seems more indebted to contemporary classical or post-rock than improvisational music; Fujii unleashes a measured and stirring melody that Pruvost and Tamura accompany in relatively “straight” fashion, while Orins provides a simple, steady 4/4 rhythm that, rather than detracting from the piece, helps to ratchet up the cinematic atmosphere.

“Moving,” the second piece, is also the longest and perhaps the most complex. It opens with a brief exploration from Orins, but Fujii is quick to join in with menacing and serpentine clusters of notes. Eventually, however, these clusters turn into a series of repeating chords over which Pruvost and Tamura lay out the main theme. A short stretch of silence, and the two return with more of their fascinating tonal mutations: it’s a conversation, but one in which both speakers’ mouths are stuffed with linen - they’ve got to snort, squawk, and squeak to get their ideas across. When Fujii comes in as the third voice, it’s almost as a translator - her lines, though obtuse and evasive, are at least interpretable. Eventually, though, she too succumbs to the warped logic guiding the colloquy, her lines veering off into splinters and shards. After a quiet break from the clamor, Fujii and the trumpets present a new theme: solemn and sparse, it marks a stark contrast with the foregoing babel. In the final minute, however, the theme collapses into disarray, and a wild closing melody springs up from the ashes.

“Méta-Blizzard” and “Morning Glow” are two shorter entry-points into the manifold styles and approaches that Kaze work with. The former is a varied piece that finds each player drawing out a range of tones, timbres, and textures from their respective instruments. As with many of the tracks on Atody Man, it resolves into a recognizable theme and melodic direction - only to explode itself within a few bars. “Morning Glow” reflects its title, at least at first. Fujii’s wistful, crystalline notes scatter across the silence, thoughtful and somewhat hesitant. As the pace picks up, Fujii’s scattered points of light fuse into the main melody, Pruvost and Tamura join in, and Orins provides a rousing backdrop. The piece undergoes several more interesting transformations over its runtime, but the lovely and serpentine theme always waits in the ranks for the players to take up again.

“Inspiration 2” is another long one. The first two minutes are taken up solely by a trumpet (whether Pruvost’s or Tamura’s, I can’t say). It’s an intriguing solo, one that largely stays away from the timbral/tonal experimentation of the previous pieces, opting instead to carve out a brisk, brash path through the silence that is, for the most part, rather straightforward. When the other players finally join in, they do so with the same sense of breathless abandon. As the piece develops, several ideas are explored: there’s a sputtering, acidic trumpet solo that more than makes up for the clarity and directness of the first, there’s simmering drama, and there’s a final burst of wild energy. “Atody Man” ends things on a rather trepidatious note, with Orins’ percussion seething quietly, Pruvost and Tamura proucing disquieting half-thoughts that seem to rise up from nowhere, and Fujii’s rumbling piano. As conclusions go, it’s certainly bleak; nevertheless, it leaves an impression, and it encourages the listener to go back to the beginning and take the whole, winding journey again.

Kaze have played to their strengths on Atody Man - the exquisitely dramatic melodicism, the bombast, the fearless experimentation. As a result, they’ve turned out one of the finest and most diverse albums of their eight-year tenure. Here’s to hoping they turn out many more!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Satoko Fujii - Solo (Libra, 2018) *****

Pianist and composer Satoko Fujii is celebrating her 60th birthday this year. In Japan, turning 60 is a milestone known as kanreki, and Fujii, instead of sticking to the tradition of looking back and reflecting on life so, is forging ahead by releasing an album a month with new projects. Starting in January with Satoko Fujii: Solo, the restless artist has kept to her promise, releasing so far six albums with groups big and small, like the long standing quartet KAZE and the expansive Berlin Orchestra, like clockwork. Starting today, the writers of the Free Jazz Blog will catch up with Fujii's birthday releases and more.

Satoko Fujii - Solo

By Lee Rice Epstein

In contrast with Satoko Fujii’s last solo recording, the double album Invisible Hand, this new one is a concise and stirring reflection. Befitting the straightforward title Solo, Fujii once again displays her command of the instrument. And again, as with Invisible Hand, this recording has come about because of the dedication of a fellow music lover. In this case, thanks are due to Mitsuru Itani, of Matsuyama City, who very much wanted to hear Fujii play a solo concert on a Steinway D274 and who successfully arranged the concert, even getting permission for Fujii to play inside the piano. He mentions, in his liner notes, that “[m]usic flowed unhurriedly from Fujii, who seemed a bit more relaxed than usual even as she maintained just the right tension, conveying the true magic of the piano.” Were it possible, I would end there, because it encapsulates much of what’s special about this album. Yet, there is even more to say, more praise to lavish.

Three songs are repeated from Invisible Hand to Solo: “Inori,” “Spring Storm,” and “Gen Himmel.” On the previous album, “Inori” served as a meditative break, like an actual spring shower, in the middle of the dense second disc. Here, as an opener, it’s more like the stirrings of a pond at first light. Fujii’s attack is slightly bolder, the melody ringing out with what sounds like a touch more sustain. This is followed by “Geradeaus,” an improvised piece that takes great advantage of the sonorities of the D274’s interior. Much like Myra Melford, extended solos from Fujii tend to draw out her deep knowledge and expertise of historical jazz styles. Throughout “Geradeaus,” blues, stride, and even a soulful gospel appear, as recurring rhythmic patterns give shape to the improvisation.

The centerpiece of the album is a trio of 10+ minute classics, “Ninepin,” “Spring Storm,” and “Gen Himmel.” Beginning on the strings inside the piano, Fujii turns “Ninepin,” a piece I’ve only heard her perform with a quartet, completely on its head, turning the piano metaphorically inside out. This 30-minute section that comprises the middle of the album is surely among her finest solo moments. There is patience, a careful and imaginative manipulation of the piano, harsh atonality and surprising pauses intertwined with gorgeous phrasing, and the crystal clarity of Fujii’s approach binding it all together. “Spring Storm” is, right up there with Melford’s “That the Peace,” among the finest piano compositions. Fujii’s compositional language comes through with a sharpness on “Spring Storm,” and her performance here is chillingly alive. It’s strange now to go back and listen to the 2:30 version of “Gen Himmel” from Fujii’s 2013 album, so different are the solo versions she’s released recently. Where the older version is all tension and dissonance, with the piano keys and strings in a duet, this newest version uses silence as a powerful third voice. Throughout the whole album, Fujii’s sense of the hall itself—the acoustics of the stage and airy, resonate quality of the D274—seem to embolden her to abruptly cut of phrases, to sustain chords longer, to play nothing at all for seconds at a time. Closing with a cover of “Moonlight,” by Jimmy Giuffre, Fujii turns the ballad into a reflective ode.

As she turns 60, releasing a dozen albums this year, perhaps something is changing in Satoko Fujii, perhaps her worldview, as evidenced on last year’s Fukushima, is becoming more deeply affected by things beyond her control, or perhaps she’s using her music more directly than before to communicate to us deep and necessary emotional truths. Or, perhaps, nothing at all is changing, and Fujii is simply playing the piano. But of course, she never plays the piano simply, or plainly, for that matter. In Fujii’s music, there is always something more, always another phrase, another pause, another scrape or crackle or minor to reveal itself, in due time.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dell Brecht Lillinger Westergaard (DBLW) - Boulez Materialism (Plaist/Soulfood, 2018) ****½

By Martin Schray

In 2017 German drummer Christian Lillinger was awarded was awarded the SWR jazz prize, an honor which has been connected with a laureate concert at the Enjoy Jazz Festival. Lillinger decided to play with both his spectacular septet GRUND and DLBW, his trio with Christopher Dell (vibes) and Jonas Westergaard (bass), which is augmented by Johannes Brecht on live electronics. Boulez Materialism is the live recording of this concert, the title referring to a quotation of a journalist who called the close interrelationship between sound, spatial structures and electronic processing, as well the combination of acoustic instruments and electronic soundscapes of this quartet “Boulez in real-time”. If you consider Pierre Boulez’s music as a permanent generation of musical energy which has to be explored and revised constantly, then the music of this project is quite close to it. In the liner notes Christopher Dell says:
DBLW summarize the crucial hinge between seriality and thematic work as the concept of relation. By reducing the process to the pure musical note, serialism sought to negate subjectivity. It insisted that the note itself could already be ideologically critical to the whole. In this respect DBLW describes relations, which have always been regarded as the epitome of the subjective aspect, as the basic material of music making, which pushes the subjective into the structure by which it lets itself be affected. In other words, the relational moment provokes the subject, which - and here is another connection to Boulez - is informed by the tension from composition and material. DLBW wants the compositional modes of seriality and motive-related work to become entangled in a fresh way and not stagnate in an alternative between the two. So the principal of the serial (of the fragment) has to be combined with that of the motive-thematic work (the relational moment).
Serialism is a compositional method which uses series of pitches, rhythms, dynamics, and other musical elements. The method goes back to Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique. Some types of serialism also work with sets, collections of objects, but not necessarily with fixed-order series, and extend the technique to other musical dimensions (often called “parameters“), such as duration, dynamics, and timbre. Here DBLW’s approach comes into play. Boulez Materialism is arranged in such sets, sound is created by structure.

In practice you can hear what this means around the three- and the six-minute-mark of “Materialism 1“, the first of two tracks, when Dell repeats a complex phrase several times, supported by a crassly booming bass, while Lillinger delivers off-the-wall rhythms. Brecht uses fragments of this material and adds the processed passages to the composition, kneading acoustic and electric components.
Actually, Boulez Materialism is the orchestration of sound movements, interconnecting the hybrid structure of acoustic music with live electronics resulting in an effect as if you were listening to a chamber orchestra. DBLW develop a huge construction with little basic material, based upon Boulez’s method of so-called “proliferation“. The band replaces musical themes with structural, relational cells. These cells are created through minimal parameters like intervals or rhythmic units, a reduction which allows a maximum of relatively complex relational processing. As a result of this kind of hyper-communication the music is permanently permeated and re-patterned, it’s a continual metamorphosis.

“Materialism 1“, for example, starts with warped and absorbing sounds, musical fade-ins. One gets the impression of huge mechanical doors being opened and closed. Tiny musical phrases are easily jotted down and picked up by the electronics, as if these phrases were tiptoeing through the engine room of a huge container ship. Johannes Brecht only processes music he’s given by the other musicians, there’s no preconceived material involved. This kind of high sensitivity permits a considerable increase as to a greater depth of focus. Even if Brecht is sometimes not audible, it does not mean he’s not participating, since he’s regulating the sound and the volume of the acoustic players. This way, the electronics don’t drown the other instruments but highlight their dialogue. In general, the music is a prime example of extremely dynamic, ultra-intensive playing, often pushed by Christopher Dell’s vibes, which becomes obvious in the repetitive parts at the end of "Materialism 1."

All in all, this might sound very intellectual and DLBW often prefer the more complicated way to the easy one (even the liner notes are a lesson in philosophy, they also explain what the music has to do with “materialism“). Then again, listening to this music is a real challenge, it won’t bore you.

Interestingly, everything on this album is completely improvised. However, the band has rehearsed a lot and they’ve discussed the music subsequently. What has come out is music at the interface of new classical music and free improvisation, it’s great fun to get exposed to such an experiment. After GRUND’s excellent album COR, this is Christian Lillinger’s second stroke of genius this year. What’s more, there will be an album by his new project Punkt.Vrt.Plastik at the end of this year (hopefully). At least the musical future is bright.

Boulez Materialism is available as a CD and on vinyl. I strongly recommend the vinyl version, it’s very beautifully designed and contains a booklet with wonderful pictures from the band’s performance on last year’s A’Larmé! festival.

You can order it from

Watch two short snippets here:

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Plan B (Joe McPhee / James Keepnews / David Berger) - From Outer Space (Roaratorio, 2018) ****

By Nicholas Metzger

‘My friends we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty, let us reward the innocent. My friends... can your heart stand, the shocking facts, about grave robbers from outer space?’Criswell Predicts (Intro to Plan 9 from Outer Space)

I hope I’m having as much fun when I’m 78 years old as Joe McPhee seems to be having on this recording. McPhee requires no introduction; he is a genius improviser and has delivered to the ravenous masses some of the canonical works of free jazz. Plan B finds him matched up with guitarist James Keepnews and percussionist David Berger. James Keepnews (who studied guitar under Robert Fripp via his Guitar Craft program in NY) is also a proficient improviser who has worked with the likes of George Lewis, William Parker, and Hamid Drake. On this recording he is featured on guitar and laptop and serves as the catalyst through which Plan B‘s astral projection unfurls. David Berger began his career with the New Orleans based riverboat band The Flying Neutrinos and is a former member of the National Jazz Ensemble. He brings swing and forward momentum to this record and without it I don’t know that it would render as well as it does.

‘Overture’ finds McPhee starting things off with an ascending theme over Keepnews’ ambient guitar wash; they keep it short and sweet. McPhee inaugurates ‘Space Travel’ with shapes that share a lineage with the previous track as the drums and guitar whirr underneath. Towards the end of the track the guitar shifts to a more processed sound, providing varied electronic sounds that transition nicely into ‘Arrival’. Here the alien sounds take over, with Berger driving the track forward with toms and snare over which McPhee shrieks and growls. Keepnews lurks just beneath the surface with guitar swells and feedback under heavy reverb. ‘A Peaceful Resolution’ originates with Keepnews’ processed piano samples, jazzy guitar chords, and a repeated sax motif from McPhee. Berger really makes this one swing, giving it a bit of a hard bop feel with the sax and piano. ‘Plea’ finds Keepnews providing bass notes and arpeggios for McPhee to converse with. The drums rustle underneath as McPhee squeaks and vocalizes while Keepnews delivers some woozy slide guitar to wind down the A side. Plan B fills the entirety of the reverse side with the terrific ‘Shadow of the Sun Suite’ dedicated to the unprecedented Sun Ra. Right out of the gate we are met again with otherworldly sounds. The guitar has a ring modulated tone under which the rolling drums of David Berger keep pace. Here McPhee’s pocket trumpet provides a squeaking, sputtering counterpoint to Berger’s scrupulous rolls and fills. This all plays out nicely over the increasingly abstract instrumentation employed by Keepnews. Through ‘Parts 1-4’ the track progressively increases and decreases in intensity, with the drums rising and falling in waves over which McPhee alternates sax skronk with trumpet spatter. The guitar changes voicing and texture frequently and unexpectedly which shades the empty spaces with aural bramble and eccentricity, all the while maintaining a jazzy responsiveness. ‘Part 5 (Aftermath)’ begins with a solemn sax melody over heavily reverberated guitar swells and cymbal rolls. This last part is especially beautiful and melodic with soaring guitar lines and bluesy sax passages that ooze a sense of resolution and bring the album to a close.

This LP is unlike anything that I’ve heard McPhee involved with and is a tribute to his artistic elasticity and adventurous spirit. While the cliché is that people tend towards homogeneity as they age, McPhee has shown the opposite, choosing collaborations that are challenging and/or unique. This is as entertaining and enjoyable an album as I’ve heard out of the idiom in quite some time. It’s bursting with action and color, emulating the brilliant Judith Lindbloom print that adorns its cover.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Ruokangas/Hako-Rita – Mono and Dialogues (Eclipse, 2018) ****

By Chris Haines

Having reviewed Heikki Ruokangas’ trio album last year, here’s another of his, this time an album of solo pieces and duos with fellow guitarist Henrik Hako-Rita. Compared to the trio album, this time out is a lot more freer and with more ‘out there’ playing than his previous outing. In some respects the pieces on this latest album are more honest and they get down and dig in the dirt, with raw emotional content never far away from the surface of the music, which makes it all the more compelling and interesting. Dissonant and chromatic playing frequently rubs shoulders with more traditionally structured and beautiful melodies, and harmonic structures do their best to contain the stream of conscious playing that spills over the edges of the musical vessels. The second track on the album, Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ is a great example of this, which after the initial statement the guitar takes a flight of fancy, not so much soaring into the stratosphere, but more unearthing and tearing holes in the fabric of the harmonic structure, before returning to a variation on the theme to end with an unresolved feel. ‘Warma’ is a solo acoustic piece, containing echoes of Derek Bailey, with it’s edgy and angular phrases and strong attacking of the strings, which the legendary Masayuki Takayanagi would have approved of, as he believed that the strength in which you plucked a guitar string was a good barometer of your inner strength as a person. All of this could also be applicable to ‘Mechanical Crow’, which if anything sounds even more indebted to Bailey’s improvisational gymnastics approach.

As mentioned previously there is also some wonderful melodic material on this album, something that made Ruokangas’ trio album stand out when I first heard it. ‘Ghost Waltz’ is a duo, with a haunting but beautiful melody simply underpinned by straightforward chordal arpeggios, allowing the shape of the melody to speak for itself, with clever use of volume swells and harmonics that become part of the melodic line and not just a superficial add-on which is so often the case. ‘Flamenco Of Rust’, seems to be an exercise in deconstruction, as is the cover of ‘Jos Lahdet Laila’ an old Finnish pop song, but the former also contains the alluring melodic material from which it is born and to which it returns, albeit too briefly in my humble opinion as I could quite easily have listened to some more of this splendid chord/melody playing. The final piece, ‘The Last Robot’ has a gorgeous melancholic ostinato that repeats throughout whilst the second guitar weaves in and out the line in a way that ranges from the subordinate to the most important element, providing interest and sustaining the idea for the duration of the piece.

An album full of contrast, particularly between dissonance/angularity and reflective/structured melodic material, but also stylistically with full-on free jazz blowing assaults, more mannered improvisational environments as in the European vein, blues influenced solos and standard song formats to the rockabilly/surf rock sound of ‘The Real Boy’ are visited across the ten tracks. It will be interesting to see where this upcoming artist will be heading next.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Spectral – Empty Castles (Aerophonic, 2018) ****

By Colin Green

Spectral -- Dave Rempis (alto and baritone saxophones), Darren Johnston (trumpet), and Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones) – is an intriguing ensemble. Formed in 2012, when Rempis visited San Francisco, it was his first opportunity to perform with Ochs, known principally for his work with the ROVA saxophone quartet. Rempis had already played with Johnston when the latter visited Chicago. The collaboration was an instant success, with the three having a preternatural sense of anticipation and response and an ability to construct short and long-range forms spontaneously, described by the trio as “invisible architecture”: discovered structures, rather than imposed designs. There have been two previous albums on Rempis’ Aerophonic label: Spectral (2014) – tight counterpoint, conversational and sparring, full of livid detail and lush resonances -- and Neural Nation (2016), architecturally, on a grander scale with two long improvisations recorded during their 2015 tour of North America, replete with the kind of interlaced musical connections and reconnections suggested by the title.

Empty Castles presents a new challenge and is another instance of how an acoustic can shape performance. It was recorded in Magazine A-168, a 12,000-square foot concrete shell at Mare Island in Vallejo, California, originally a naval munitions bunker dating back to WWII. The vast structure magnifies everything and produces a stark reverberation, an echo almost as palpable as the scaled-up instruments themselves, resulting in the anomaly of a large space sounding positively claustrophobic. As the liner notes succinctly put it: “There was nowhere to hide during this recording session, every note staring back at its creators with fearless eyes”. But if the prospect of three improvisors being scrutinised by their phantom reflections for just over fifty minutes sounds constricting, think again.

Musically speaking, for every loss there’s a gain. There isn’t room for some of the more intricate ensemble passages of previous albums as the resonance creates rich clouds of overtones and blurred edges – a sound world of a different amplitude, more akin to Rothko than Pollock. The trio exploit such diffuse outlines in the opening ‘Dirt Angels’ as long notes and abbreviated gestures seep into one another in a slow-moving procession, setting gritty baritone against vibrant tenor and pinched trumpet. In ‘Luminal’, figures converge and separate, emerging from and engulfed by the fog, calling and answering as from a distance.

Everything is writ large in the unforgiving acoustic, where even the smallest modulation takes on enormous significance. In ‘Protest Portal’ split notes don’t just fracture but bifurcate, with reeds and brass compressed in layers like geological strata. Trills are an important part of the group’s repertoire, moving beyond a merely ornamental function and providing a further textural resource. When sustained in quivering triplicate during ‘This Is Not Vermont’ they create pulsating oscillations, squeezing out condensed saxophone squawks and trumpet cries. Individual weight and density also play a more prominent role. In ‘Splash Zone’ we hear the baritone’s earthy intonations, silvery trumpet, sprays from a distorted tenor, groups of vaguely syncopated notes, ending with a sombre chord in unison, each sonority pushed to the fore. On the other hand, this is an auditory zone which conceals as much as it reveals – the silhouettes and shadows of ‘Little Hymn’ seem to hover on the indeterminate border between the material and immaterial.

Silence can take many forms, and with Spectral pauses and momentary lulls are frequent, acting like line endings or paragraph breaks. On ‘Gravity Corridor’ however, among the imitation echoes, staccato tonguing and breathy smears, some of those silences feel like gaping holes, tinged with the instruments’ fading ghostly contours, a reminder that all sound has a temporary status and inevitable demise. Undoubtedly, there’s a feeling of displacement about much of this music – ‘Bunker’ presents each instrument sealed in its own hermetic halo, touching only at the edges – and an uneasy sense that under the indifferent gaze of doppelgangers a gap has opened up, isolating the musicians, which cannot quite be bridged. Yet there’s also an imposing grandeur to these bold constructions, as the title implies: analogous to castle ruins devoid of human presence. Sometimes, absence means more than just not being there.

The album can be previewed and purchased here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lucas Niggli - Alchemia Garden (Intakt, 2018) ****

By Eric McDowell

Lucas Niggli is what you might call a drummers’ drummer—his mastery of his instrument takes him well beyond its conventional boundaries, opening up new sounds through tireless experimentation, invention, and refinement. Of course, the term “drummers’ drummer” implies that you need to be a drummer yourself to fully appreciate what he’s doing, and it’s no surprise that Niggli keeps company with other drummers, from his duo with Peter Conradin Zumthor to his Trio Klick to his Beat Bag Bohemia international drum quartet. But that’s not to say that nondrummers—whether or not they can explain exactly what he’s doing—don’t hear something special: It’s Niggli’s ability to plumb the depths of his technical and creative resources and return to the surface bearing undeniable treasure that has attracted collaborators associated with a whole range of traditions, sensibilities, and instrument families.

But on Alchemia Garden he’s all alone. His first solo album, released in the year of his 50th birthday by his longtime label, Intakt, it’s the perfect showcase for his unique skills—skills that in many ways do share something with both alchemy and gardening. There’s an undoubted magic, for example, in the way he transforms his tools into sounds. Coming to Alchemia Garden hoping to hear another Drums Unlimited is like coming to Eve Risser’s Des pas sur la neige hoping to hear another Koln Concert—you’re going to be disappointed. Better to take the album on its own terms, forgetting about the drum kit entirely.

Or almost entirely: Whether to misdirect us or offer something of a foothold, Niggli opens the album in relatively familiar territory with a six-minute trap-set exploration. True, he’s playing with his hands, but so did Jo Jones; gradually, though, he pulls back from those elemental sounds, complicating things with what sound like rattles and brushes until by the end he’s off the skins altogether. This departure carries through: From there, tracks two and three—the metal-scape “Flora Glow” and the clacking “Bakossa Dew”—are pure percussive abstractions best appreciated without the anxiety of pinpointing their sound sources. Don’t lose sight of the gold, that is, looking for the substance it came from. (That said, the experience of watching Niggli play some of this material live has a magic of its own.)

While most of us can hear the difference between a drum solo that plays on melodies or “tells a story” and one that’s loaded with superficial pyrotechnics, in the loose confines of jazz we don’t often get the opportunity Niggli gives us on Alchemia Garden: to hear a carefully structured solo drums album. In other words, the drummer’s achievement here goes well beyond creating a marvelous diversity of percussive life—he’s built a true sonic ecosystem whose parts rely on each other to fully function.

It’s a world of textural and technical contrasts. Compare the dry pops of “Go Goblin” to the glimmering cymbals of “Tuned Arrow,” or “Welwitschia” with its insectile chittering to “Ohia Lehua” with its unfathomably deep malleted rolls. Other pieces move from one mode to another. “Seeds N’ Roots” begins with the ominous sounds of rattling shells over a flogged gong only to develop into a showcase for Niggli’s brushwork. And where some tracks will catch drummers’ ears with their subtly masterful technical displays—the dancing ride on “Mimosa,” the relentless bass-drum ostinato on “Booloobali”—still others perplex and mesmerize. Niggli’s search for novel sounds even leads him, on “Pulsatilla,” to using the air itself as a playing surface. And on closer “Hydnora” we hear what sounds like water—a good reminder that Niggli’s virtuoso antics are more than that: They’re a strange but nourishing garden fastidiously cultivated over the course of a fascinating career.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Recent Releases of French clarinetist Xavier Charles

French clarinetist Xavier Charles is a true explorer. Musically speaking, his own music and his collaborative projects range from abstract, raw noise to electro-acoustic textures, sound poetry, free improvisation and even the anarchist-punk of the Dutch The Ex (he already joined The Ex gigs for more than 120 performances, including many with the late Ethiopian sax great, Gétatchèw Mèkurya). Geographically, he seems to be all over the globe, trotting from a recording session in Québec City, Canada to Canberra, Australia and sometimes in between even enjoys the Swedish woods with his Norwegian comrades of "Dans les Arbres" group.

Xavier Charles / Michel F Côté / Franz Hautzinger / Philippe Lauzier / Éric Normand - Torche ! (Tour de Bras, 2017) ****½

This free-improvised session was recorded on May 2016 at the Café-théâtre de Jonquière, Québec Cityduring the local Festival des Musiques de Création, at the end of a short Canadian tour that featured the five musicians playing in different formations. The quintet features three musicians from the local Tour de Bras experimental musicians collective: percussionist Michel F Côté, bass clarinet player Philippe Lauzier and electric bass player Éric Normand plus like-minded Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger and Charles himself.

This meeting of these five distinct improvisers - all are committed to an uncompromising search and research of pure sounds and the timbres of their respective instruments, all in their own personal manners and with their own sense of invention - proves that the language of free-improvisation is truly universal. You just need to have an attentive ears - elephantine ears - trust your comrades and your instincts, and then all sounds - raw, dissonant, distorted, acoustic or electric, melodic, breathy or noisy - find their place in the mysterious great scheme.

The eight improvisations tell different, strange, cryptic stories, with no apparent meanings, clear narratives or comforting conclusions. But all manage to draw the listener immediately into their rich, poetic universes, despite their contemplative, sometimes even austere tones. Nothing sounds radical in these improvisations, even though these musicians do produce some pretty weird sounds. Together, as a collective, they sound much larger, somehow more sensible than apart. You can hear that in the playful “Alaplasse”, where imaginative bird calls collide gently with noisy, electric sounds, in the almost psychedelic texture of multiphonics on “Boudboi” and in the extraterrestrial, minimalist-techno pulse of “Izatrape”. Brilliant.

Psithurism Trio with Xavier Charles - Lure (SoundOut Recordings, 2017) ****

The Australian Psithurism Trio is a collective of sax players - alto sax player Rhys Butler, soprano sax-bass clarinet-prepared drum player, label owner and SoundOut Festival organizer Richard Johnson, and tenor sax player John Porter - which began working in 2012, experimenting with minimalist and free-improvisation. This trio opts for an organic, inter-subjective developing of its music, evolving between the players as if it would have a life of its own. The Trio one-off collaboration with Charles was recorded live at 2017 edition of the SoundOut Festival in Canberra, Australia. This Trio has collaborated before with another innovative clarinetist, Canadian François Houle (Knots, SoundOut Recordings, 2017).

The three collaborative pieces on Lure are more structured, disciplined and patient than the ones of Torche!. The four musicians weave complex and multifaceted textures with an impressive restraint and control and a subtle sense of tension building. All focus on a collective, organic exploration of subtle, fleeting sonic articulations. Throughout these delicate improvisations the Trio plus Charles keep searching for new details and nuances in these polyphonic, microtonal multiphonics but always within a fragile sonic unity, where only Charles stands out with his distinct sound and urgent ideas. This collaboration is best realized on the 24-minutes of “Aebus Albopictus” that lures you -literally - into its enigmatic baths of sensual sonic spells.

Charles continues with two excellent, improvised solos “Multicellular” and “Ameboid”. On both pieces he uses his array of extended breathing techniques - resonant overtones, noisy and chirping multiphonics and raw breathes - to sketch engaging, chatty mini-suites.

Xavier Charles / Jacques Di Donato - ilex (Protagoniste, 2018) ****

Fellow French clarinetist Jacques Di Donato is considered as the most seminal educator of the clarinet in France, an improviser who plays jazz, contemporary music, folk songs and pop songs. He is a generation older than Charles but collaborated with him in the mid-nineties when the two recorded their debut duo album, Du Slavon Glagol (Khôkhôt, 1996). Both returned to perform as a duo in recent years. Ilex was recorded on May 2014 in the pastoral, countryside scenery of Mhère in eastern France, close to where the Roman god Mercury was worshiped.

The 14 improvised pieces stress the rich, playful and highly expressive spirit of this meeting. Di Donato is credited for playing a lawn mower, and Charles, adds a tiny helicopter to his clarinet. Both keep alternating roles and dynamics while employing an impressive range of extended techniques. They move freely between a serene, reserved articulation to an urgent, raw tone, between breathy sounds to gentle, percussive ones, between the playful and humorous to the spiritual and ritualistic, even mimicking the meditative tones of the Japanese flute Shakuhachi on “Bambou”, a busy birds talk on “Amère Coup de Vent”, or keep sketching a delicate, multi-layered texture as on the beautiful “Wisteria”.

It is impossible to know who is doing what since both sound as have developed such a precise and profound vocabulary of their own that extends and connects their ideas telepathically and organically. Di Donato and Charles simply keep fine-tuning their private language with new sounds, colors and dynamics, always with an eloquent elegance and great imagination. No doubt, Mercury would have loved this beautiful offering.

Listen to France Musique here and on Bandcamp.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Henry Threadgill - Double Up Plus and 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg

Double Up Plays Double Up Plus (Pi Recordings, 2018) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

Composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill's previous album, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, with the first incarnation of the Double Up ensemble, was dedicated to Lawrence "Butch" Morris' conduction method, and was given a thorough review by Lee Rice Epstein in 2016. Noting the reintroduction of the piano to Threadgill's compositions, as well as his non-performing role, Epstein wrote:
Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up debut is a thrilling shakeup of his compositional language, which has admittedly been in a state of near-constant evolution for decades. If it was strange to be missing Stomu Takeishi’s bass on last year’s Zooid double-album, it’s even stranger to have a new album without Threadgill’s flute or Liberty Ellman’s guitar ... Moran and Virelles, both with deep ties to Threadgill, bear a strangely heavy burden of reintroducing piano to Threadgill’s discography. And their solos throughout show a deep affinity for Threadgill’s tonal and rhythmic playgrounds.
A few weeks ago, the saxophonist and composer released two new recordings, one with the Double Up ensemble, where again he assumes the role of composer and conductor, and the other, where he is part of the group and re-engages with Ellman. However, on the Double Up ensemble here, Threadgill has doubled down on the pianos by adding a third. The group is David Bryant – piano, Luis Perdomo – piano, and David Virelles – piano and harmonium. Not on piano is Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone, Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute, Christopher Hoffman – cello, Jose Davila – tuba, and finally Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion.

The rich panoply of instruments gives Threadgill many choices to use in his compositions and he mixes the voices well, but this recording is really all about the piano - all three of them - and it is the first sound one hears on the album. On the opening "Game is Up," each piano introduce a distinct strand of  interlocking parts, as the other other musicians slowly filter in. The composition feels somewhat fragmentary and complex as seemingly incomplete melodic ideas appear and then move on, that is until Davila introduces a punchy bass line towards the final moments of the track. Then, a delicious interplay of strings and low brass ensues, and the kinetic crisscrossing strings are buoyed by the big brassy bass lines.

‘Clear and Distinct from the Other’ certainly starts differently than the previous tune. A snippet of sparse melody from a single piano is quickly overtaken by woodwind and cello. A slowly building but fractured melody emerges in their interweaving. The different snippets connect loosely until the brass again introduces a punchy theme, and the modern classical veers into lively modern jazz.

Double Up Plays Double Up Plus is a substantial album but in a very approachable way . It is both dedicated to Threadgill's own musical systems but also organic in its expression. As Virelles states, “it always feels like the blues, funky and soulful.”

14 or 15 Kestra: Agg - Dirt... And More Dirt (Pi Recordings, 2018) *****

On the twin release - fraternal, not identical in this case - Threadgill’s new 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg group's Dirt... And More Dirt, we find the composer also playing along with a large ensemble (14 or 15 musicians), which includes many of the his Zooid and Double Up compatriots like guitarist Liberty Ellman, keyboardist Virelles whose Harmonium playing is a defining sound, and saxophonist Roman Filiu (the whole list of musicians from each group is below). The sound, as you can imagine is full, varied, and truly exciting.

The recording was Inspired by the conceptual art installation “The New York Earth Room” by Walter de Maria at The Dia Art Foundation. Tucked into some prime NYC real estate, the 250 cubic yards of earth in a 3600 square foot space has been on view since 1980 in lower Manhattan. In addition, the osseous clay sculptures of Stephen De Staebler served as inspiration - and when listening to the music, it’s not hard to imagine digging through the ground and unearthing the things from the past, and re-casting them new. The music on Dirt and More Dirt carries that distinction of sounding both thoroughly forward thinking with its angular and twisting themes and complex harmonies, but at the same deeply rooted in musical tradition.

The first track, 'Dirt Part I' begins with Thomas Morgan’s bowed bass and some loosely related percussion. It’s a soft beginning, but as the bowing is replaced by deliberate plucking, the tempo picks up a bit and ground is laid for the entrance of the accordion like harmonium (pump organ), and when the tuba and guitar enter, the sound pallet begins opening up in a most welcoming - though unusual - manner. Ellman delivers a slightly jumpy intervallic solo over a swelling group sound. A series of tracks, parts II through VI follow, each with slightly different theme. 'Part II' is under a minute, and features the pianos of Bryan and Virelles, ‘Part III’ finds the saxophone front and center with the tuba/guitar/piano/drums playing a fine pulsating rhythm, rapidly turning up the heat and cooking up a fine modern jazz tune, only to change entirely by the time the avant-garde ‘Part IV’ rolls around.

“And More Dirt - Part I” kicks off the second suite of tracks. While not entirely different than the first suite, feels a bit more fluid - or rather in the dirt theme - like a fruit bearing potting soil, rich in nutrients and moist to the touch. Christopher Hoffman’s cello and at least one of the ace trombonists are featured in tandem, along with a solid piano driven back up. The suite ends on ‘Part IV’, which begins as a haunting duet between sax and piano, before the whole group enters with an orchestral flourish that simultaneous evokes a feeling of leaving and of something yet to come.

Both of these albums took me several listens to really hear. So, let the complex and unusual harmonies wash over you, be carried away on the eddying confluences of rhythm, and indulge in the piano interplay and the frolicking of the tuba and guitar. Threadgill, now in his mid-70s, has been delivering absolute masterworks, and it's nice to think of these these two as part of a continuing series.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus
  • Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
  • Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute
  • Christopher Hoffman – cello
  • Jose Davila – tuba
  • David Bryant – piano
  • Luis Perdomo – piano
  • David Virelles – piano, harmonium
  • Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion

Dirt... And More Dirt
  • Henry Threadgill – alto saxophone, flute, bass flute
  • Liberty Ellman – guitar
  • Christopher Hoffman – cello
  • Jose Davila – tuba
  • Jacob Garchik – trombone
  • Ben Gerstein – trombone
  • Jonathan Finlayson – Bb trumpet, F trumpet
  • Stephanie Richards – Bb trumpet
  • Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute
  • Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
  • David Bryant – piano
  • David Virelles – piano, harmonium
  • Thomas Morgan – bass
  • Elliott Humberto Kavee – drums, percussion
  • Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Jonas Cambien's Trios and Duos

Jonas Cambien Trio  - We Must Mustn’t We (Clean Feed, 2018) ****½

By Derek Stone

In 2016, the Jonas Cambien Trio released their debut recording, A Zoology of the Future. In my review of that album, I commented on the “junkyard of sound” that pianist/composer Cambien, drummer Andreas Wildhagen, and reedist André Roligheten had cobbled together; the pieces there always seemed to be hanging together by the thinnest piece of thread, and therein lied much of the album’s charm. The trio’s newest release, We Must Mustn’t We, moves away from the rickety deconstructionism of the debut and towards a more coherent and “tidy” mode of expression. That’s not to say that they’ve gotten boring or milquetoast; on the contrary, many of these tracks are forceful and dynamic in ways that the tracks on Zoology often weren’t.

In “Swear Like a Bear,” things kick off in a rather subdued and languorous fashion. The drums plod along, Roligheten teases out a repetitious string of notes from his bass clarinet, and Cambien is a man of few musical words. Eventually, however, the pace picks up; the plodding percussion becomes an unstoppable flood, Roligheten spirals off into a frenzy, and Cambien fuses a transfixing motorik rhythm and wild, feverish streams of notes. After that dizzying ride, “Long Long” almost comes as a shock. It’s a lush and romantic slice of easy listening, with Roligheten’s piercing bird-calls replaced by sensual and resonant tenor playing, and Cambien himself opting for lovely melodic phrasings that stray pretty far from the intensely percussive approach of the previous track. “Renaissance” is not nearly as conventional, but still gets your attention right away with its curious blend of musical elements: there’s a leaden, machine-like rhythm in the “verse” that gives way to Cambien and guest Torstein Lavik Larsen’s tuneful lines in the head. “I Must Musn’t I” recalls A Zoology of the Future with its fragmentary rhythms and jigsaw-like melodic constructions: things come together in odd ways at odd intervals, slow down, speed up, scatter apart, and then come scuttling back towards each other again.

Peppered throughout the album are pieces titled with the suffix “-ism” - these pieces are more sparse and elliptical in the ways that they unfold. As far as opening tracks go, “Creationism” is a rather unostentatious entry-point. Cambien’s prepared piano plinks and plunks through a whimsical progression, Wildhagen offers up clacks and taps that are sketch-like in their sparseness, and Roligheten’s soprano saxophone recalls the high-pitched squawk of some exotic bird. It’s intriguing, but is perhaps best thought of as a prelude to the track that follows (the rousing “Swear Like a Bear,” mentioned above). Like “Creationism,” the other “-isms” on We Must Mustn’t We are brief, skeletal and loose, with the various musical elements haphazardly knocking into each other like teeth in a sack. “Survivalism” is once again centered around Cambien’s prepared piano and Wildhagen’s laconic drumming. “Animalism” finds Cambien embracing a more stereotypically “pretty” style, with his sustain-laden notes twinkling dreamily over Roligheten’s delicate soprano cries.

One thing that immediately stood out for me on this recording was the improved clarity of sound. While Zoology sounded a bit diaphanous at times, as if the slightest breeze could send the structures flying away, We Must Mustn’t We is immediate and bracing; rather than simply witnessing the compositions unfold, you feel that you are right there in their midst. It’s a change that suits the Jonas Cambien Trio well, what with their constant emphasis on the manifold textures and timbres that can elevate a piece from “interesting” to downright fascinating.

Jonas Cambien & Adrian Myhr - Simiskina (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

While Cambien’s trio work often indulges in sounds that are raucous, percussive, and loose, it is on Simiskina, his duo recording with bassist Adrian Myhr, that he draws from a more subdued palette. In many of the pieces here, there is the impression that Cambien views the piano (and, particularly, the prepared piano) less as a way to construct textured melodies and more as a way to inject rhythms into certain textures. Myhr generally seems to take a more expressive approach, sometimes producing bulbous notes that act as a low-end bolster for Cambien’s clattering pulses, and sometimes employing arco as a means to “stretch out” and color the pieces in more traditionally melodic ways.

Opener “Hi” begins with hushed rustlings from Myhr and tentative melodic phrasings from Cambien. As the piece transitions more fully into wakefulness, Myhr bows out a series of tactile moans and Cambien grows increasingly restless. If “Hi” is the sonic equivalent of early-morning stretches, “Up” is the sound of the daily to-do list starting to unfurl in your brain - nervy, propulsive, and crowded. It’s a fascinating demonstration of the mastery the two have of textures; Cambien’s prepared piano rattles and bubbles, Myhr rumbles steadily underneath, and there is a distinct sense that the two are being carried along by the same roiling current. In a similar fashion, “On” is characterized by the relentlessness of the duo’s approach. Here, Cambien all but abandons considerations of key and tone, opting instead to hammer out sparse, low-range repetitions. When heard next to Cambien, Myhr’s subtle sound manipulations almost seem complex.

“Do” approximates the percussive quality that many of Cambien’s trio pieces have. Cambien’s lines are only vaguely melodic; more than anything, they seem to be vehicles for a clattering and mechanistic rhythm that is alluring in its simplicity. Meanwhile, Myhr fills out the empty spaces with sonorous notes that lend the piece a warmer glow. “Go” is similar, but Cambien also introduces some of the broken toy-box melodicism of his trio work. It’s a relatively light detour, but one that is very much welcome after the seething low-end excursions of the previous tracks. On the final piece, “Or,” the duo seem to be at their most “traditional” - Cambien’s notes are scant, but they carry a sense of wistful longing that, while not necessarily absent, is much less evident on the other pieces. When taken together with Myhr’s plaintive cries, “Or” is like an icy beam of sunlight that breaks through the tree canopy to reach the ground below. For a duo that often seem to place more emphasis on the way things sound rather than the way they make you feel, it’s a rare moment of vulnerability that, in some ways, allows you to see the pieces that came before in a different light.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton - Music for David Mossman (Intakt, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

In times of drastic reductions of state resources, especially pertaining to culture, creating performance possibilities like running a venue or a festival is often left to the personal commitment of enthusiastic individuals. Their work is of inestimable value for the artists. Some examples (among many others) are Alois Fischer, who has been organizing the Kaleidophon Ulrichsberg since 1978 (the festival itself has existed since 1973) and Hans Falb, who has started the seminal Konfrontationen in Nickelsdorf in 1980, as well as Norbert Bach, who has been running the W71 club in Weikersheim since the 1970s. And there is David Mossman, the man behind the Vortex, London’s number one platform for jazz, improvised and experimental music (together with Café Oto, which is actually just five minutes down the road). The club has existed without any core funding after its establishment over twenty-five years ago.

Saxophonist Evan Parker, who has had a monthly residency at the club for a number of years, says that the Vortex was "my haven from the demands of the road… (it) is for me a space to play 'free jazz'. I cannot imagine life without it". Parker is so grateful for the existence of the club that he’s organized a fundraiser (with Dave Holland) to give his support, since the club needs financial help to keep its operations going and to enable bands to start a career (prominent examples are Polar Bear and the Portico Quartet). What’s more, Parker and his long time collaborators Barry Guy (bass) and Paul Lytton (drums) have dedicated their new album to Mossman and the club.

Music for David Mossman starts with Guy presenting his famous gliding-into-the-notes technique, while Lytton surprises with a high-pitched drum set reminiscent of Tony Oxley, his playing being more muscular though. Guy strums thick chords and only after three and a half minutes Parker joins the duo with a surprisingly tonal, traditional melody which pays tribute to great jazz saxophonists like Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster, even a distant echo of John Coltrane is audible. However, he soon changes to his typical style using the well-known Evan-Parker-elements. The band picks up speed but it’s not the classic boisterous approach, it’s a rather subtle one. Soon they’re zigzagging some of their signature spontaneous routes, the tension rises and ebbs, opening a transition for circular breathing and circular bowing while Lytton supports Parker and Guy with finely chiseled clatter. The music sounds like someone’s rummaging around in a box of sounding metal.

This seems to be a typical album by the trio, providing free jazz on a top level, but nothing new either. Yet, the music offers some artful surprises. Especially the solos by Parker and Guy present an outstanding degree of concentration and resolve, their instruments serve as vessels for their elaborate use of extended techniques. In fact, there’s only one - rather short - Parker solo (when he uses his characteristic circular breathing). Still, there are two other passages when he takes off for a solo but Guy refuses to leave him soaring alone, he chooses to duplicate his sound with razor-sharp tremolos, overtones and harmonics. The same goes for Lytton, who propels an already cyberspeed Parker solo with cymbal barrage (in “Music for David Mossman III“). The result is music of an incredible density, music that varies harmonies and tempos constantly, music that changes its shape. Hardly ever have these excellent musicians shown such a disposition to integrate their individual sounds and typical patterns to an all-encompassing unity.

Or, as Evan Parker says in the liner notes: "Collective free improvisation is the utopian state arrived at in that other 'little life' as the late John Stevens called the mental space of music making that happens when musicians of a like mind play freely together." In the last track, "Music for David Mossman IV", this improvisation rumbles, squeals and seethes like on Tracks, the trio’s first recording from 1983. May this band and the Vortex live long!

Music for David Mossman is available as a CD and a download.

You can buy it from or from

You can listen to the album here:

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Three From Stephanie Richards (plus a live encounter)

By Lee Rice Epstein

I already had the album Fullmoon high on my list of anticipated releases, so when trumpeter Stephanie Richards announced the brief live tour for the album’s release would pass through LA, I was thrilled. I also had a chance to catch up with the album proper, as well as Richards’s two other new releases, Trio Music, with Vinny Golia and Bert Turetzky, and Thaw by Resonant Bodies, a duo with Andrew Drury.

Stephanie Richards - Fullmoon (Relative Pitch, 2018) *****

Fullmoon is remarkable, full stop. It’s a daring release for Richards to put out as her proper debut, and kudos to Relative Pitch for supporting her. Relative Pitch has done a remarkable job showcasing albums by women, most recently solo and duo albums from Catherine Sikora, Susan Alcorn, Ingrid Laubrock, Birgit Ulher, Jessica Pavone, and Magda Mayas. And their support of Richards once again shows how valuable a label they are, especially when it comes to free improvisation and experimentation. Over the course of half an hour, Richards, together with Dino J.A. Deane (maybe best known for his work with Lawrence “Butch Morris), charts a wide, deep sonicscape that invites you to plunge straight in. The album is divided into phases of the moon, “New,” “Half,” and “Full” parts 1 and 2. Separating each phase are tracks highlighting Richards’s interactions with a single percussion instrument: “Snare,” “Piano,” “Gong” parts 1 and 2, and “Timpani.” Throughout, Deane samples, processes, loops, and transforms Richards live, the two performing what sounds, initially, like an elaborate dance. But what really struck me was learning the album itself was 2 years in the making. Although recorded in a single day, Richards spent two years re-editing the album in the studio with her husband, Andrew Munsey, who co-produced and engineered the album. Knowing this, when you go back into Fullmoon, you can really hear how intricate and deliberate the entire album is, how purposefully the compositions move from one moment to the next. Look for it to reappear at year’s end.

Stephanie Richards, Bert Turetzky, and Vinny Golia - Trio Music (pfMENTUM, 2018) ****

This grouping, with the greats Vinny Golia and bassist Bert Turetzky, emphasizes the players’ fleetness and facility with a chamber-like setting. The album is a collection of improvisations, some nicely stretched out beyond the 5-minute mark. Golia and Turetzky have a rich history performing and recording together, and Richards folds into place easily. After the brief introductory statement “Solana,” Turetzky kicks off the lengthy “Proprioception,” a term that relates to the movement or position of a body in space. There’s a remarkable adaptive quality to each player’s approach that’s on display throughout the album. As the title of the finale, “The Duo That Became a Trio,” suggests, there’s hopefully more where this came from.


Resonant Bodies - Thaw (Different Track, 2018) ****

Richards has steadily established herself as one of the most engaging experimentalists, so a duo with Andrew Drury, equally adventurous and engaging, seems like a natural fit. Collaborating on a series of improvisations, constantly upend listeners’ expectations of how and when sounds will appear. For example, “Drangajökull” presents Richards playing long, somewhat percussive tones, as Drury complements her with equally brassy percussive notes. This sonorous tension is sustained throughout the album, broken up periodically by Drury’s dramatic cracks and rolls on either timpani or floor tom, as on “Snow Dome” and “Athabasca.” The seismic effects weren’t lost on the performers, who named the tracks after glaciers, having decided the “timbres suggested thawing glaciers to us—groaning, cracking, splitting, of large masses of ancient ice under extreme pressure, moving and melting.” The title, however, adds an additional elegiac layer, and the finale, “RETREAT,” sounds more like a plea than a coda.

Fullmoon album release tour, ArtShare LA, May 21, 2018

Before I pressed play on the album proper, I went to see Richards live on her brief album-release tour. The theater space at ArtShare LA sat about 10–15 of us, and Richards was joined onstage by Dino J.A. Deane, probably best known for his work with Lawrence “Butch” Morris. With Deane set up at a table stage right, the rest of the stage was open for Richards to move from center-stage microphone to playing directly into a snare drum, timpani, or piano, as she switched periodically between trumpet and flugelhorn, and rotated through a series of mutes. Her physical movements reflected both her wide-ranging experiments with sound and space, as well as giving us a visual representation of the track titles from Fullmoon—minus “Gong,” as there wasn’t one in the space. The performance, augmented by Cossa’s excellent visuals, lasted over an hour, and even more firmly established Richards in my mind as one of the leading trumpet players and improvisors. Deane’s in-the-moment sampling and processing of Richards made for some incredibly clever exchanges, and Richards left the stage area a couple of times to give him additional room to improvise. Richards has a way of universally expressing something that feels deeply personal and unique, even while the performance itself (say, a trumpet played against the strings of a piano) may appear radical and oblique.