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Friday, August 31, 2018

The Dwarfs of East Agouza ‎– Rats Don't Eat Synthesizers (Annihaya Records, 2018) ****

By James Fleming

In the hinterland between West Africa and a New York loft, The Dwarfs Of East Agouza dwell. Forging their sound in the fires of psychedelia, free jazz/improv, and electronic music, their’s is a strange song. Dissonant synthesiser loops and stabbing free-guitar work clash on Rats Don’t Eat Synthesisers’s two book-length tracks. Two tracks that are as arresting and violent musically as the works of Burroughs are literarily.

The title track’s introductory groove, a loop of hand percussion and synthesisers, lays down the pathway for the snarling lead guitar to walk. Angry as a hornet-nest, the sound tears at the consciousness. Leaving claw marks and stings in its wake. The atonal clusters of notes sound akin to Robert Quine’s - of Richard Hell And The Voidoids - playing. And by coupling that most experimentally NYC of sounds with the Africa-tinged rhythm, The Dwarfs Of East Agouza have placed one foot in the New World and one in the cradle of evolution. The third foot stomps on the cosmos.

While the groove remains steady and constant, the lead guitar varies its cacophonous riffs at sonic-speed. Firing through them after only three or four repeats of each ostinato. Listening to the seemingly thoughtless spitting of notes feels like looking for patterns in a sandstorm. But by digging through the shifting dunes, a buried temple reveals itself. And inside are chambers upon chambers of musical knowledge to discover.

As the synthesised groove drops out, the guitar’s final flurries of riffs also give way to shots of sound: trebly clangs and electronic thumps against a descending bassline. And for the final five seconds there is only silence as the sandstorm’s dust settles down.

“Ringa Mask Koshari,” dominates Rats Don’t Eat Synthesisers’s run-time. Before the synth’s shimmering entrance, the nebulous guitar chords and noises set an ominous tone. As if a Lovecraftian monstrosity lurked in the shadows. To herald the beat the synthesiser takes on a harsher, more processed sound. With nothing organic or lifelike about it, it instead revels in its unidentifiable fakery. Rolling in the mud of its unknown alien world.

The beat moves from vicious to berserk, sitting at the crossroads of satanic invocation and brutalist dance music. After almost 15 minutes of battering-ram intensity, the beat recedes back into the chaotic waters it appeared from. Like Sun Ra at his most transcendent/inscrutable, Rats Don’t Eat Synthesisers ends at a high-noon apex. And The Dwarfs Of East Agouza stake a claim to their territory that is the newfound, unexplored hinterland.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blow Out Festival 2018

August 15 - 18, 2018. Oslo, Norway

Entering the courtyward, on the way to Cafe Mir
By Paul Acquaro

It was Saturday, the last of the Blow Out festival, when an opportunity arose to sit down with drummers and festival organizers Paal Nilssen-Love and Stale Liavik Solberg at a small trattoria in the hip Grünerløkka neighborhood of Oslo. I had my list of questions and my recorder ready.

We exchanged greetings and looked over the menu, debated current hunger levels, and assessed whether there was enough time to pick up some wine before the early cut off. Then, a group of men, seemingly direct from a sporting event, entered the restaurant. They took up the longest side of the small room, and any plans to record a proper interview drowned in the din.

Fortunately, it was impossible not to have an enjoyable and memorable time with Paal and Stale. Over the course of the meal, our conversation ranged from the history of the festival, to the attention to the artists needs that the organizers - who are artists as well - can provide, to the enthusiastic community that comes together for the festival every year.

Nilssen-Love and Solberg think about it all year, asking questions like who would they like to hear playing together? who could they put together and who can they not? who would come? For them, there are no minor details. The result is that they’ve created an intimate, adventurous, and energetic festival of improvised music with a line-up that simply invites wonder and envy. How often can you crowd into a small cafe and hear Karin Krog singing with a free-jazz bass and drum duo? The idea of the festival came about eight years ago as a reaction to the Oslo Jazz Festival, which they felt was not including enough of the local musicians who make the city's music scene so vibrant, and of the avant-garde which helps to keep the music moving forward.

Onsdag 15. August.

The festival's cozy festival venue, Cafe Mir, is located within the courtyard of a building of the Grünerløkka lufthavn cultural organization. It has a punky DIY aesthetic from the graffiti decorations, to the airliner seats lining the walls, to the rock-and-roll toilets. I realized after the first night, if I wanted to have enough space to sit, listen, and write, I’d have to get there an hour and a half early and stake out a spot. I spent the first night of aural wonder smashed up against the bar. Sure, it made ordering a beer easy, but honestly, all of that fell away as Nilssen-Love and Solberg came on stage, welcomed the audience, and introduced the formidable PAN-SCAN Ensemble.

PAN-SCAN Ensemble. By Dawid Laskowski.

The nine-piece PAN-SCAN Ensemble maxed out the stage space. Sharing it with two drummers (Nilssen-Love and Solberg) and a pianist (Sten Sandell), there wasn’t that much more room for three trumpeters (Thomas Johansson, Goran Kajfes, and Emil Strandberg) and three saxophonists (Lotte Anker, Signe Emmeluth, and Julie Kjær), but they made it work, and it worked well. The group got its start two years ago at the festival and subsequently released the excellent Time and Space last year. This time around, the freely improvising ensemble began with a small scatter of sounds - a sharp crack from a drum, blast from a trumpet, and a snarl from a sax followed by a gradual building intensity. The music is a study in contrasts, each instrument playing a slightly different role, finding ways to differentiate their sounds: high pitched chirps from the saxes collided with the piano, while the trumpets proved to be highly responsive, engaging in dialog with two drummers. Relaxed and ready, they reached a musical peak as individual voices rose above the core of Stendell, Nilssen-Love, and Solberg.

Hamid Drake with Sambou Jobarteh and Bjarne Larsen. By Kjetil Tangen
Somehow, Mir got even more crowded as the next group came on. DNA? AND?'s Soundcloud page describes them as "an Oslo-based improv-collective with alternating members and an abundance of chromosomes." Organized by multi-instrumentalist Harald Fetveit, the group features an evolving membership of young people with Down Syndrome. Invited guest, Chicago based drummer Hamid Drake sat in with the group, and later that evening gave a heartfelt thank you for the opportunity to play with the young musicians, remarking that "creativity is unlimited, it rolls and flows in many ways." The group's performance centered around Drake's hand drumming, and was augmented by bass, piano, vocals, and guitar, and a little later, bells and flute. The groups confidence grew as they performed, and by the end, they were solidly rocking along.

Trio Blurb: Mia Zabelka (violin), Maggie Nicols (vocal), John Russell (guitar)
Singer Maggie Nicols was front and center for Trio Blurb, situated between the sweeping violin work of Mia Zabelka and the fastidious work by guitarist John Russell. Nicol's vocals at times mimicked the violin's sweeping bowing and dramatic plucks, while Russell kept busy with a uninterrupted flow of notes and chord fragments. Nicols embodied the sound she made, outlining them with hand gestures and emotive expressions, while Russell, curled about his lovely hollow-body guitar, was a constant source of musical motion, hovering between dissonant and jarringly ear-pleasing tones. The trio, which has been playing together for several years, just put out a new recording, W (Live), which Russell dryly observed had showed up just in time for him to schlep to Oslo.

Kent Kessler, Hamid Drake, and Ken Vandermark, aka the DKV trio. By Dawid Laskowski.
It's been a long held dream of mine to hear the legendary DKV trio in concert. Saxophonist Ken Vandermark's oldest working group brings together drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Kent Kessler in a rather straightforward sax-bass-drum trio, which has released some stunning recorded work over the years (check out the incredible Sound-in-Motion box set from 2014 or last years' Latitude 41.88) and on this first night of the festival, my dream came, in vivid form, true. 

The trio wasted little time getting started as Vandermark kicked off with a quick and tight run of notes on his tenor sax. Drake rolled in on the drums and Kessler started with a strident walk. The stream of musical consciousness soon became mind-boggling. Vandermark's 'riffs' always find a groove, no matter how far out they go, and he expertly uses repetition as a device to move the music forward in an ever expanding spiral. It's like the golden ratio of music, the naturally occurring pattern of exponential growth that undergirds design, architecture, and nature. With Kessler there is no need for flashiness. His playing is supportive and solid, and gives the trio a firm grounding. As for Drake, there is little more that can be written about his open and encompassing approach. At once the driving pulse and the spiritual advisor, his playing guides the group along. Tonight, Vandermark switched between sax and clarinet, riding a crest between melodic invention and raw emotion. The group played with the dynamics, split into sub-units, and brought the forty five minute improvisation to a stunning conclusion. The following short encore featured a quiet like vesper from the clarinet. The bass and drum fleshed out with musical crosshatching as Vandermark expanded on his original melody with growing intensity.

It was, an invigorating night, and mere foreshadowing for the rest of the week.

Torsdag 16. August.

Sensing financial danger ... entering Råkk & Rålls
Thursday was the first day of sight seeing. The city, nestled between green mountains and the fjord affords many avenues for exploration. The Munch Museet, National Gallery, the Viking Ship Museum, botanical gardens, a hike in the hills, boat ride through the fjord, or a tour through the otherworldy Vigeland sculpture park awaited. Obviously, the record stores were visited first: Bare Jazz, a highly curated shop with excellent coffee, and Råkk & Rålls, a sea of treasures.

Sten Sandell playing from his “anti-fascistiska sångboken”. By Dawid Laskowski.
The night began with Sten Sandell playing a series of improvisations that he imbued with a spirit of protest against the current winds of fascism blowing across the once proud "free world" on the Clavichord. The use of the Renaissance era instrument was likely not without its own meaning, even if it was as simple as signal for an end to these current dark ages. At the keyboard, Stendell filled several 10 minute sessions of instant compositions full of tension and rapid arpeggios. Exploiting the percussive side of the instrument, the music at times took on grooves that would give King Crimson a run for its money.

Hamid Drake, Isabelle Duthoit, and Lene Grenager. By Dawid Laskowski.
A snappy rim shot, followed by a slow menacing creak from the cello, reset the mood. French vocalist and clarinetist Isabelle Duthoit proceeded to ramp up the menace with what I can only describe as a love song to a zombie - a gargling hiss and high pitched chatter that eventually became the sound of someone being consumed. Reacting to, and at times riling things up, drummer Hamid Drake and cellist Lene Grenager engaged Duthoit with zeal. The cellist sawed at the strings with purpose, often in sync with the vocals. Duthoit pulled off pieces of her clarinet and used them to modulate her voice, and then, when she played the reassembled instrument, the sound was a seamless segue to new textures over the sturm und drang of Drake of Grenager. The phantasmagorical soundscapes were an utterly unforgettable and somehow very satisfying start to the festivals most challenging night of music.

Paul Lytton, Maggie Nicols
Drummer Paul Lytton and singer Maggie Nicols' musical relationship has its roots in the free music scene in London in the 1960s, however, they also last performed as a duo in 1969, at Paal Nilssen-Love's father's jazz club in London (more on that soon). According to Nicols however, it only took a bit of reminiscing and warming up to rekindle the creative spark. Nicols, with tap shoes and a purple head wrap, was a steady stream of loosely connected thoughts wrapped up with a bit of physical drama and flair. Lytton seemed to focus intently on the snare drum, which he augmented with a range of percussive paraphernalia. "Rising up from the low," spoke Nicols suddenly, before falling into deep moans that mimicked Lytton's rubbing of the bass drum head with his finger tips. A small chuckle rose from the audience as he rhythmically bent a piece of sheet metal. Nicols told a story about drummer John Stevens (of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble) speaking of inner peace with revolutionary type with the punch line of "there is nothing like having inner peace to wage an external war."

Paul Lovens, Lotte Anker, Katt Hernandez, and Thomas Lehn 
Following a stuttering start, the group of Paul Lovens, Lotte Anker, Katt Hernandez, and Thomas Lehn got going. Analog synth player Lehn adopted a chirpy chime sound that seemed to resonate with saxophonist Anker and her straight alto sax. Lovens playing on a stripped down set was deeply involved with percussive elements and sound making, connected strongly with Hernandez and her violin. Together, the group concentrated on small sounds, dissonant lines, and unexpected but fitting combinations, often finding long droning tones that straddled dissonance. Approximately half way into their performance, Lehn's fingers were ablaze on his synth's input and Lovens relaxed into a tight groove. Anker took the opportunity to put a violin bow to her Baritone sax bell, of course. After a long search, the group seemed to find what they were collectively seeking and dug in. 

Fredag 17. August:

The day began with a trip to the Viking Ship museum, which was a quick boat ride (or could have been a slightly less exciting trolley ride) to the nearby Bygdøy peninsula, full of historic homes and other nautically inclined museums. Three ships in various states of completeness fill the halls of the museum, and bring to life the myths and legends of the Vikings.

Terry Nilssen-Love, Audun Vinger, and Paal Nilssen-Love
Friday's musical activities began with a discussion with Paal Nilssen Love and his father Terry Nilssen-Love, moderated by music journalist Audun Vinger. Terry Nilssen-Love came to Norway in 1974 and was an important figure in presenting free and experimental jazz. In the city of Stavanger, he ran a jazz club in the 1980s which proved to be seminal to young Paal in finding his passion for music and the drums. One point Terry discussed was how it was not always easy to find people interested in free jazz in Molde and Stavanger (where he had lived), which points to the importance of the network of support available today.

Paal Nilssen-Love, Ole Morten Vågan, Karin Krog
As she was receiving an honorary sun visor from Solberg (his trademark), an audience member described vocalist Karin Krog to me as jazz royalty in Norway. The eighty-one year singer was small but animated on the stage, and a true surprise. A restless experimenter in the late 1960s, she was at one point on the forefront of avant-garde around Oslo. She became famous for her signing and released many recordings ECM, and lately, has been working her husband and woodwindist John Surman. In the packed confines of Mir, she lit up the stage with her gentle mix of standards and gleefully employed voice modulator. While she was the 'star', the work of bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer PnL stole the show. Their expressive playing gave the sparse trio a nearly orchestral sound, with Vågan covering a huge swatch of rhythm and melody and PnL swinging pretty hard and filling the remaining gaps. A highlight was a rendition of 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', the deep bluesy melody was delivered lithely over the rhythm sections' lush support. The set ended with a gentle modal song about Molde, however the most effective element was that there were no egos on the stage, Krog gave her accompanists plenty of room to explore, and they gave back in multitudes.

SCATTER: Roger Turner, Dave Tucker, Phil Minton, Pat Thomas
Vocalist Phil Minton works on the outer edges of the sounds that humans can make. The band, Scatter, was a blast of energy and noise and gave Minton a great deal to work, especially between the interplay of guitarist Dave Tucker and drummer Roger Turner, and Pat Thomas' light electronics. Minton physically contorted into the sounds he was making, and the band responded musically. Switching between straight ahead pulse and scattered musical scraps, sharp plucks at the guitar stings and thick blocky, clunky power chords.

Paul Lytton, Kalle Moberg, Philipp Waschmann
The trio of drummer Paul Lytton, accordionist Kalle Moberg, and violinist Philipp Waschmann brought together two generations of improvisors for a successful set of improvisations. Waschmann and Lytton come from the first generation of British improvising musicians, and Moberg is a young Norwegian player currently in PnL’s Large Unit. They quickly proved to be a nice contrast to the density of the previous group, beginning softly, Lytton and Moberg playing almost without sound, while Waschmann drew long tones from the violin. Then, a burst of energy, Waschmann strumming the violin strings, followed again with scattershot of melodic and textual ideas and a game of connecting with small gestures and sounds, building to an ecstatic high. It will be interesting to see if this is a trio that re-convenes.

Trespass Trio + Susana Santos Silva
The Trespass Trio is saxophonist Martin Küchen, bassist Per Zanussi, and drummer Raymond Strid. They have several excellent albums available on Clean Feed records, the latest The Spirit of Pitesti. The trio, is a powerful and moving group in its own right, but adding trumpeter Susana Santos Silva is a stroke of genius as she added a whole other dimension to the music. Starting with the a lower bass rumple, Silva shadowed Küchen’s grave melody, which the group built up slowly to a tense apex. Later, Küchen switched to soprano sax and let out an explosion of notes while Zanussi alternated between languid lines and rapid walks, tugging at the pulse. Throughout the music began with stately songs heads, which seemed to be drawn from their latest album, provided a direction without instruction, and allowing the group to take the breathless audience on a journey.

Lørdag 18. August.

Ken Vadermark @ Cappelens Forslag
Saturday’s tourism activities were broken up by a wonderful mid-day show at the cozy Cappelens Forslag bookstore, a ‘hole in the wall’ so to speak, filled with charm and well curated display items. Here, tucked between the Pynchon and the Auster, Ken Vandermark delivered a strong, arcing, solo set on tenor sax and clarinet. This was followed by the trio of vocalist Phil Minton, bassist Nina deHeney, and guitarist Håvard Skaset. Space was tight in the steamy shop, but everyone poured out of it satisfied. Surrounding this event, a trip to the newly built Aker Brygge neighborhood and a mandatory pilgrimage to see “The Scream” at the National Gallerie.

Ståle Liavik Solberg, Tony Buck, Anja Lauvdal
The last night of the festival concert proper began with drummer Tony Buck on guitar (the Necks drummer has actually added guitar to their recordings and has the group Transmit in which he also plays the instrument), along with drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg and synth and piano player Anja Lauvdal. With an electric guitar on his lap, Buck went at the strings and fretboard with various tools and techniques, creating a tone palette for his bandmates to create music from and around. Lauvdal first concentrated on electronics, manipulating sound waves while Solberg at first laid back, only to start picking up the intensity. Buck responded by playing detuned chords and strumming up a whirl of sound with Laudval. Throughout Solberg kept it simple, sometimes playing just an egg shaker and the occasional cymbal, or a light pattern on the snare, while Laudval switched to piano and provided a more regular pattern. Buck remained the agitator, looping his guitar, adding new textures with different implements, and providing colorful dashes of skronk.

Phil Minton, Veryan Weston
Vocalist Phil Minton and painist Veryan Weston have a strong history of making music together going back to the 1980s. Tonight, they began with two songs from the Mike Westbrook’s “Gladday”, a musical setting of William Blakes poems. Their performance was riveting. Minton’s dramatic Baritone voice embodied the spirit of the songs, and Weston’s piano work straddled a line between a “musical” and classical approach. For a third piece, Weston began with a classical interlude but by when Minton joined they have moved entirely into making free associative connections.

Paul Lovens, Nina de Heney, Ken Vandermark
Swedish bassist Nina de Heney stood between drummer Paul Lovens and woodwind powerhouse Ken Vandermark for this ad-hoc trio's set. Switching between bowing and plucking, she rooted the group, offering both pulsating lines, strummed double stops, and swift kicks of energy. Lovens playing was both sensitive and illustrative, providing musical sketches and fills. Vandermark moved from sax to clarinet and back, each time changing the tone and timbre of the group. Their music worked so well, dynamic, melodic, energetic, it seemed like it almost had been written out and rehearsed rather than being the first time the group had played. Vandermark’s saxophone work was full of tension and over bubbling musical broth, their music built, built, built, until it finally boiled over. Seeing Vandermark later, I begged him to release the recording of this set, if there was one.

Oslo based trumpeter Goran Kajfes' Subtropic Arkestra was a perfect choice to cap off the festival. The large group provided some symmetry to the festival’s kick off with the large Pan Scan Ensemble (in which Kajfes plays), but instead of the open-ended exploratory music, the Arkestra is a focused on explosive fun. The group features the incredible line up of Kajfes, saxophonists Jonas Kullhammar and Per ‘Ruskträsk’ Johansson, pianist Jesper Nordenström, guitarist Reine Fiske, bassist Johan Berthling, and drummer Johan Holmegard. Taught and energetic, the group turns world music on it’s head, keeping the ethnic tinges while amping up the grooves.

Next year, the festival will return, at the same time as the Oslo Jazz Festival. However, it will have to be at a new venue as the buildings that house Mir and the arts organization are undergoing renovation. Solborg and Nilssen-Love have assured that while it may be in a slightly larger venue, no other attempts to 'professionalize' the festival were underway: the artist-curated, artist-run, and utterly fantastic Blow Out festival will continue to run on a shoestring and be a beacon for both the old-guard and the newcomers of improvisational music.

Søndag 19. August.

Time to brush off and head home, but not before an excursion to the delightfully perplexing Vigeland Sculpture Park ...

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vinny Golia, Henry Kaiser, Ra-Kalam Bob Moses, Damon Smith & Weasel Walter - Astral Plane Crash (Balance Point Acoustics, 2018) ****


By Eyal Hareuveni

Astral Plane Crash is an expanded version of the long-running, free-improv trio Plane Crash with master guitarist Henry Kaiser, double bass player Damon Smith and drummer Weasel Walter. Kaiser wanted to form such an outfit that is well-versed in different forms of free improvisation - AACM, the distinct European schools, Japanese, Art Rock, Karlheinz Stockhausen intuitive music, the free jazz of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra, and post-WWII modern music strategies of improvisation as suggested by composers like Cornelius Cardew, Terry Riley and Iannis Xenakis.

Kaiser chose Smith and Walter, commenting that both know that “music is created in dimensions far beyond melody, harmony, and rhythm”. The Plane Crash trio released two albums so far, Plane Crash (ugExplode, 2009) and Plane Crash Two (New Atlantis, 2015), The Astral Plane Crash quintet introduces two highly experienced improvisers - multi-reedist Vinny Golia and jazz drummer Ra-Kalam Bob Moses. Kaiser and Smith have collaborated before with Golia but it was their first musical meeting with Moses. Golia brought to the to Astral Plane Crash recording session - conducted on April, 2018, in Quincy, Massachusetts - a wide range of woodwind instruments, including an Egyptian flute - kawala,, multiplying the timbral variety of the core trio. Moses anchored the dynamic interplay of the quintet with great sensitivity and clear rhythmic patterns.

Astral Plane Crash offers two epic, collective improvisations. The first, 44-minutes of “Fountain of Dreams” begins like a fiery free jazz improvisation, with Moses suggesting a loose, rolling pulse while Golia articulates the dark atmospheres with his earthy baritone sax, but suddenly the original Plane Crash trio erupts and offers an alternative course, fast, thorny and restless that refuses to settle on any form, pulse or narrative. When these two contrasting courses merge all five musicians sketch an open, supportive interplay that swings between Golia’s dominant, singing tone and Kaiser’s challenging, sharp and dissonant attacks. Moses and Weasel attempt to balance these poles by weaving powerful rhythmic layers while Smith aligns with Kaiser and intensifies the tension with his bowed, amplified double bass. Kaiser introduces the second, 35-minutes of the aptly-titled “Mysterious Journey” with a contemplative, acoustic solo guitar that later interacts gently with Golia’s folk flute, innocent melodies and the light percussive contributions of Moses and Walter.

When Kaiser switches to the electric guitar and Golia takes the soprano sax the interplay becomes tougher and packed with nervous density, but soars fast into cosmic-psychedelic atmospheres and burns with the percolating pulses of Moses and Walter. Astral Plane Crash comes with a 12-page booklet featuring the artwork of Kaiser’s inspiring hero and artistic influence, San Francisco-based, artist-filmmaker Jordan Belson’ series “Death and Transfiguration” (2003), as a mystical visual counterpart to the cosmic mindscapes of this recording. Kaiser writes that Belson’s “films’ imagery was exactly like my dreams… only clouds of light and patterns in space. Synesthetically, I see this same sort of imagery when I listen to and when I play music”. And he adds: “playing music for me is largely an internally visual experience… I'm drifting through glowing clouds of light among coruscating fractal and geometric forms that shimmer in and out of existence… It's pretty much like I have a Jordan Belson movie running inside my head all the time”. No doubt, Astral Plane Crash is a pretty wild experience.

For sale from the label.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Salim Washington – Dogon Revisited (Passin’ Thru Records, 2018) ****½

Salim Washington has been around for some time, but, it seems has only recorded a handful of records. He used to play weekly gigs at St. Nick’s in Harlem, though the shuttering of that venue as well as Washington’s own relocation to South Africa to take up a teaching position at the University of KwaZulu-Natal put the kibosh on that. One particularly powerful performance was captured by CIMPoL a decade ago. Apart from that and a few other albums primarily as leader, Washington has been sparse in his recording output. That fact makes this album all the more impressive.

With an all-star rhythm section of Tyshawn Sorey and Hilliard Greene as well as the violist and vocalist Melanie Dyer (also featured on the CIMPoL release) on three tracks, Washington has produced a record of immense value. It harks back to the free bop of the 1970s. This may come as little surprise as the title is a take on Julius Hemphill’s 1972 classic Dogon A.D.. On the first track, “To Know Yahweh,” Washington plays a muscular sax over a swinging, hard-bop rhythm. The second track, “New Invasion of Africa,” involves soft, atmospheric mbira melodies that intermingle with Sorey’s intricate, jungle-styled drumming. On top of this, Dyer reads Amiri Baraka’s biting 2011 poem “New Invasion of Africa,” an unequivocal condemnation of neo-colonialism and military interventionism first and foremost in Libya. The shortest piece on the album, this track is key to unlocking the potency of Dogon Revisited. It is rooted in tradition but is also nuanced and new. It looks to the past, but to critique its legacies. Take it as an inspired musical homage or a charged political statement about the contemporary. Either way, it works.

Indeed, this is not a throwback album. It is a testament to continuity and the continued relevance of decades-old musical forms. The rest of the album elaborates this bent. Track three is a smoky, bluesy number. On the following track, Washington picks up his oboe for a three-way dialog that would have fit perfectly in a mid-1970’s loft in New York City, but is somehow still contemporary. The fifth song, “Jamila,” is one of the standouts. Washington’s flute fluctuates between spacious, modal improvisation and hard-bop groove. The ever-resourceful Sorey adopts a more abstract and active approach than on previous tracks. Greene’s playing, meanwhile, is variegated, vigorous, and utterly compelling. The next few cuts, including the simultaneously free and sultry “Self-Love_Revolutionary Ontology,” likewise have one foot in Hemphill’s 1970s and one in Washington’s 2018. “Dogon A.D.”, of course, is a case in point. It may not be surprising, but this track is a masterful rendition of Hemphill’s composition. All four musicians take part to create the tightest, most powerful piece on the album.

Dogon, Revisited is a surprisingly effective release. I say “surprisingly” not because of the artists who perform – all already incredibly accomplished musicians - but because I tend to reach for much older recordings when I search for this type of music. This album, however, strikes a fine balance between reverence and relevance. In a time when the post-Cold War order seems to be unraveling, Washington refers us back to a time when the post-Second World War order seemed to be imploding. He reminds us that the struggles of the past continue, as do the musical expressions of those struggles. And, he cautions that just as we periodically forget our past and are caught off-guard when its legacies confront us, the avant-garde – here, the American and Pan-African(?) avant-garde - periodically needs to revisit its predecessors lest it become too myopic, distant, and, ultimately, out of touch with the contemporary world. If that is indeed what Dyer, Greene, Sorey, and Washington are getting at, cheers to them. And if not, this is still an album well worth picking up.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Samara Lubelski & Bill Nace (Relative Pitch, 2018) ****

By Nick Metzger

Originally released in January of this year on Open Mouth, this untitled Relative Pitch reissue finds Nace in collaboration with New York polymath Samara Lubelski on violin. Apart from her solo work and recent duo efforts with guitarist Marcia Bassett, Lubelski is an established recording engineer and collaborator. Working with artists such as Thurston Moore, Jackie-O-Motherfucker, MV & EE, and Double Leopards she has been force in the experimental music scene of the Northeast US since the early 90’s.

In contrast to the turbulence of Live at Dreamland, this offering could be depicted as a pulsating mist of near static incandescent vapor. ‘Spiral Reflector’ starts things off with Lubelski’s briskly bowed violin drone taking the fore, backed by Nace’s subtle volume swells and amplifier manipulation. ‘Mazed’ finds the duo further probing at the veil. The modulated drones interweave in an unsteady interplay of dipping intonation that is both fascinating and disorienting. In ‘Re/Fract/Ed’ Nace provides a subtle underpinning of persistent tremolo to Lubelski’s gruff and swirling hum. Their interplay is intimate and understated; as if any distinct deviation might spook whatever specter they’ve conjured. ‘Sides’ is the longest track on the release and begins with Nace’s prickly guitar scrapings that quickly dim once the violin reemerges. The duo then tucks into a long sustained cloud of subdued and concentrated improvisation, their intertwined airs colliding and hissing moderated overtones. The last cut ‘Then/Then Not’ begins with a base of heavy guitar tremolo, over which Lubelski threads her wailing strings. It serves as a parting signal as the mist disappears over the horizon, leaving the listener bleary with a distinct mental residue.

Lubelski/Nace at Cold Spring Hollow Belchertown MA 7/24/16:

Schlippenbach and Schubert Duo @ Kunststation Kleinsassan 8-25-18

You really cannot ask for a more serene setting than the Kunststation Kleinsassan, a small art museum nestled in the Rhön mountains of central Germany. Against the setting sun outside the panoramic windows of the cafe, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and saxophonist Frank Paul Schubert performed two intimate sets of music to a captivated audience. 

The first set was mostly centered around the music of Thelonious Monk - one of Schlippenbach's specialties. Rarely stepping too far outside the lines, the duo followed the tunes' familiar contours and twisting passages. It was a nice warm up set demonstrating the great rapport between the musicians. The second set however began on a much different note - or rather a swift swat of the inside of the grand piano's strings, followed by a series of sustained multi-phonic tones from the sax. Free and floating, the duo stayed in the mode for 10 minutes before picking up the tempo and finding some new places to explore. Schlippenbach's dissonant tonal clusters rang out clear, crisp, while Schubert played up and down the octaves, often pushing at the edges of his soprano sax. The musicians stretched out and let go of the more obvious musical structures. Suggesting, mimicking, and prodding, the music ascended past the known, braving the thorns and thistles while still maintaining the warmth exuded in the first set. 

The concert was organized by the group Jazzfreunde of Fulda.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Cecil Taylor: Corona / Conversations with Tony Oxley

Cecil Taylor & Sunny Murray – Corona (FMP/Destination Out), 2018) ****

When Cecil Taylor shifted his musical focus to Europe in the late 1980s, one reason was to look for new drummers. For his month-long stay in Berlin in 1988, Taylor played duos with Han Bennink, Günter “Baby“ Sommer, Louis Moholo, Paul Lovens and Tony Oxley, a varied collection of percussionists, and with the exception of Moholo, very different to Taylor’s former drummers, Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille. Prior to this concert at the Total Music Meeting in Berlin in November 1996, Taylor had only played with Murray on a handful of occasions since 1964, most recently as part of Taylor’s trio in May that year, and this was to be their last performance together.

Taylor and Murray first met in a West Village coffee-house in the early 1960s. Both had the reputation of being musical mavericks. Taylor had already freed himself from harmonic restraints and Murray had been developing an open-ended drumming concept, a revolutionary approach to rhythm at that time. With him the drum kit started to be a collection of instruments, each having a different sound function. Murray’s aim was to free the soloist completely from the restriction of time and to this end he set up an unending hailstorm of percussion relying heavily on continuous ringing stick work on the edge of the cymbals, an irregular staccato barrage on the snare, spasmodic bass drum punctuations and constant, but not metronomic, use of the hi-hat, as Val Wilmer has noted in As Serious As Your Life. Murray was shifting pulses rather than specific rhythms. The effect was that he created a netting behind Taylor’s piano, enabling him to move wherever he wanted. Murray stated that his rhythmical role with Taylor accelerated the increasing comprehensibility of the pianist’s music, and he played with him in the years during which it reached maturity.

On Corona you can feel this connection again. The album is divided into three sectors, in the center there’s an almost 50-minute piece by Taylor on piano and voice and Murray on drums. “Sector 1“ and “Sector 3“ serve as initiation and coda (something Taylor was especially fond of at that time) with the help of the voices of Dominic Duval, Tristan Honsinger, Jeff Hoyer, Chris Jonas, Jackson Krall, Elliott Levin, Chris Matthay, and Harri Sjöström, based on Taylor’s enigmatic poetry. The whole performance is thus given a sort of ritualistic character. As to the central piece, the European influence on Taylor‘s playing is obvious. In general, the piece gets its charm from the clash of this “new“ Taylor with Murray’s traditional free jazz drumming. Taylor isn’t interested in finding some sort of synthesis here, but rather in sifting out conceptual and structural parallels. At the beginning he concentrates on staccato runs in the lower registers, like a predator circling his prey. Murray throws in a lot of his characteristic cymbal and snare work, the bass drum is restricted to abrupt interjections, leaving a lot of open space for the piano. Yet this is just a prelude for the second part, in which Taylor pulls out all the stops: lickety-split runs, highly energetic playing, the acceleration and retardation compressing and stretching time. Murray responds with a much greater focus on toms, bass drum and snare, with a more compelling drive. Both musicians create strong tension and motion, by giving the individual lines a certain independence and direction. The last part of the piece is like a trial of strength between the drums and the piano, with Murray increasing volume and stamina (which can be heard between the 28- and 33-minute-mark). Both combine, in the words of Ekkehard Jost: “…. the parameters of time, intensity and pitch, thereby creating a new musical quality, energy” (an aspect Colin also mentioned in yesterday’s review). Here energy is created by a constant change of the pulse, explosive outbursts, the shifting of accents, alternation between crescendos and decrescendos, and the intensification of tempos and volume. All in all, it’s a fascinating performance referencing Taylor’s and Murray’s roots but seeing them from a new perspective.

Listen to Corona on Bandcamp:

Cecil Taylor – Conversations with Tony Oxley (Jazzwerkstatt, 2018) ****½

Still, the more convincing of these two new releases is the concert with Tony Oxley. Taylor said that Oxley‘s playing excited him like no drummer since Sunny Murray, perhaps even more so. His shift to a more European sound first became evident in his choice of Oxley as his drummer for the Feel Trio. In the late 80s and early 90s he became Taylor’s preferred drummer and - after a break - this continued until his death. They performed in Taylor’s last official recording Ailanthus / Altissima: Bilateral Dimensions Of 2 Root Songs , and when he toured Europe, it was often with Oxley as a duo (I saw them twice, in Moers in 2008 and in Neuburg/Donau in 2011). This album was recorded at the Chamber Music Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic in February, 2008.

Taylor was attracted to Oxley’s playing because of his unique sound, centered on a selection of different cymbals. His more fine-grained approach combined with Taylor’s supersonic technique resembles a musical shower of shooting stars. Oxley uses a highly original drum set consisting of regular (but higher pitched) drums and cymbals to create “intricate soundscapes” giving the music more of a vertical than horizontal sound. Taylor’s choice of Oxley also tells us much about Taylor’s musical philosophy since 1988. Oxley’s aesthetic is based more on modernist classical timbres than Sunny Murray’s, whose style is - in spite of his free approach - still rooted in a jazz tradition. Oxley’s background puts him closer to the percussive works of Edgar Varèse, particularly with his complex and imaginative micro-divisions. Taylor’s playing has almost always had a strict on-the-spot, definite, forward-looking phrasing, and by choosing Oxley he became the connection between modern jazz/blues and European classical traditions.

All this can be heard on Conversations with Tony Oxley. Again, Taylor uses small riffs which he reconstructs and expands, processed in his runs and shifting them to different registers. In the second part of the piece there are many staccato chords, again the basis for the development of certain riffs, but now more aggressive, and as they escalate the typical clusters come into play. Taylor needs some time before he reaches full intensity but as soon as he’s there he’s able to keep the improvisation at an incredible level. Yet there’s also a softness, a more romantic side to his playing that became more pronounced since playing with Oxley, especially towards the end of his life. On this album Oxley foils Taylor’s runs and staccato chords with short drum rolls, but when it comes to dynamics he follows the pianist’s guidelines. Oxley dances around Taylor’s clusters tenderly and puts them even more to the center, cutting through them at once. Especially in the more intense parts of the piece, Oxley uses his whole lower array of plastic, woodblocks, mutant cowbells, little bongos, the snare drum and the hi-pitched toms, creating a metallic mist and symphony of crispy clicking, a poetic and subtle means of communication. As to volume, Oxley is a more subdued drummer when he plays with Taylor (unlike Murray), but his timing is excellent, knowing when to set priorities without pushing himself to the fore. In this performance as elsewhere they are complimentary, which is why their cooperation worked over so many years. Their music is about the exchange of cultural experiences and the sensitivity of sound – different musical languages, but mutually inspiring. Oxley often anticipates what Taylor plans (particularly as to dynamics) and is able to react immediately. Kaja Draksler has noted that Taylor’s “sensibility in terms of dynamics is an important aspect of his playing. By using its extremes within a split second, he is creating rhythmic illusions and simultaneously unfolding a vast color palette”. No other drummer except Tony Oxley was able to match that range in such a sympathetic way.

The album is available through

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Cecil Taylor ‎– Poschiavo (Black Sun, 2018) ****½

By Colin Green

Cecil Taylor began his solo piano concerts in 1967. In June that year he played ‘Carmen with Rings’ at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and a mesmerised Alexander von Schlippenbach was in the audience; “I could breathe air from another planet” Schlippenbach later observed, alluding to the soprano’s words in the last movement of Schönberg’s second string quartet (1908), announcing the dissolution of tonality. For him it was an event of similar magnitude, a point of no return, and he followed Taylor to the De Doelen Concert Hall in Rotterdam two days later where Taylor’s first solo recording – of the same piece – was made by Dutch radio, a continuous performance of just under an hour, unprecedented in the jazz world and an indication of what was to come. Praxis (Praxis, 1982) from Italy the following year is 75 minutes long. Taylor’s audacious displays of tigerish pianism eventually became the stuff of legend, all-engulfing feats of dexterity and stamina that left audience members open-mouthed, though for some more admired than liked. The critic Gary Giddins considered that Taylor had “reinvented the piano recital” and even his detractors showed begrudging respect, one grumbling that they should just give him a medal and send him home. This album is an uninterrupted performance of some 54 minutes from Poschiavo, Switzerland during the Uncool Festival in May 1999, captured in excellent sound by RSI Network Two. Taylor plays his favoured instrument, a Bösendorfer Imperial, a piano especially sensitive to key pressure with a wide dynamic range, and additional notes in the bass register, first encountered on Air Above Mountains <Buildings Within> (Enja, 1978) and featured in some of his finest recitals: Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! Fly! (MPS, 1981), Garden (Hat Hut, 1982), and For Olim (Soul Note, 1987).

Taylor never pretended his music was easy and expected audiences to prepare themselves in a similar fashion to himself: “I’m difficult because I don’t want anything else except absolute art”. Although his music comes from many places, transhistorical and cross-cultural, it can only really be appreciated on its own terms, and irrespective of familiarity, taking in the myriad levels of his mighty edifices remains a challenge. According to Giddins, negotiating the sheer length of Taylor’s performances is the most difficult Rubicon to cross. I’ve written previously about the common articulations, or tropes (an extension of the earlier “unit structures”) that characterise much of his music and furnished Taylor with a loose method for organising his thoughts, a collection of underlying archetypes that generate and give an inner coherence to his swirling configurations. The core harmonic elements were drawn from a repository of root chords and their inversions, some derived from alternative scales he’d been writing since the conservatoire. They were eventually set out in the charts that accompanied him onstage (possibly no more than an aide-mémoire): groups of notes in letter notation in which the horizontal and vertical axes correspond respectively to pitch and sequence, including lines of demarcation and connection, and some scribbled comments. These modules and intervallic relations, merged with Taylor’s rhythmic and textural formations, together provided his chords, cells, motifs, and characteristic dictions: the basic blocks from which he built, dismantled and reassembled during his improvisations, perhaps emulating the spacial dynamics of steel spans and the other architectural constructions which fascinated him. As Taylor put it to Giddins: “Notation can be used as a point of reference, but notation does not indicate music, it indicates a direction”.

And Taylor’s music is suffused with directed motion, reflecting his lifelong interest in dance. There are no straight correspondences between the movements of the body in space and Taylor’s vocabulary; it’s more about the patterns of tension and release that propel his music, figures and chords sprung across the keyboard which give it a singular potency, or swing, a quality Taylor regarded as fundamental to the jazz that originally inspired him even though the similarities to Ellington, Erroll Garner and Monk might seem only fleeting, such as his use of dotted rhythms and blues colourings. It went deeper than metre or mannerisms and was embodied in the flux and flow of different kinds of energy and the friction between them. Around the years of this performance there was a noticeable change in that energy as Taylor’s playing became less athletic, possibly due to age but also the sort of distilled focus which accrues over time. Rather than the accumulation of layers of increasing intensity, forward momentum is frequently checked by counterbalancing movement, there’s a reduced density so that his phrases have extra time to breathe with a more nuanced attention to internal rhythms and accent shifts, greater melodic richness, and a lighter touch that can spill over into impish humour. The refinement of Taylor’s “organisational palette” (his term) continued with his solo and duo work into the next century, such that by the time of his Kyoto Prize performances in 2013 the music had been released from the weight of gravity and become almost translucent, irradiated from within.

In this recital, as with his music generally, there is no all-embracing narrative, no destination to the journey, one of the reasons why coming to terms with the duration of Taylor’s performances can be problematic: listening for something which is absent. There is a different kind of continuity – one which Taylor shares with certain minimalist music, though in all other respects they couldn’t be more different – and as trumpeter Stephen Haynes, who worked in Taylor’s Orchestra Humane has said: “stories are being told”. Taylor unfolds a series of tableaux made up from his recurring rhetorical modes, a regenerative process in which a polytextural pool of ideas cross-fertilise, stretching and shrinking time according to some alternative metric. I’ve a feeling Japanese theatre and various ritual ceremonies, and the experience of time that goes with them may in part have been an inspiration – over the years Taylor absorbed a vast range of cultural influences in a variety of media in his search for traces of things ancient and universal.

A rippling, arpeggiated structure in triplets gradually became central to Taylor’s thinking, a pervasive presence frequently played with parallel hands sometimes in contrary motion. It forms a nucleus around which other musical elements revolve and can even be seen as shaped by his conception of primordial regions and their relationship to the keyboard. Almost always the motion starts in the middle register (what Taylor thought of as the earth) and often extends outwards, down into the three octaves below middle C (the abyss) or into the upper range (the astral), sometimes rounded off like a question or assertion, triggering what he described as a “plurality of exchange between different voices”, each occupying a distinct location with its own discrete inflection. The arpeggio can be razor-sharp, answered by stonking bass notes or glassy pecks in the treble, reduced to ascending and descending blocks of chords, or undulate across the keyboard like tendrils.

In Poschiavo the audience was treated to the whole panoply, by turns expansive, mercurial, grandiose, and graceful. Taylor opens by sounding out his instrument with broken, scampering runs setting the piano’s frame in motion as the ripples proliferate. He closes some 50 minutes later pulverising the keyboard with his palms, including what sounds like a forearm smash, and as the waves subside a final swell is picked out in glittering notes at the top end. If there is a unifying factor that runs through the performance and these sweeping ranges of timbre and dynamic, it is how Taylor’s discourse subtly balances and fuses apparent opposites: formal versus flexible, stylised but spontaneous, tactile and cerebral, a domain of constant transformation which is nevertheless cyclic. The arpeggiated figure is organic in shape and growth, swaying and swirling like a tree, but it’s recurrence is a stabilising force bearing a structural weight as a point of return, repose, and renewal. We hear a spectrum of textures, enriched by their mosaic-like juxtaposition – pulsating vibrancy cross-cut with hard-edge contours – yet also fine gradations and elegant shading. There are passages where Taylor floods musical space with billowing resonance and white-hot accelerations, savouring those extra keys on the Bösendorfer and creating an amorphous harmonic haze. Other times, he delivers lines of exquisite clarity having a firm tonal centre. There’s intense then rhapsodic as cascading cluster splashes evolve into song-like figurations, and back again. It might be said that Taylor’s music is inclusively inconclusive, wide-ranging but always provisional, consisting of dialogues between ultimately incommensurate voices, exchanges that cannot be fully concluded. For him, relations are never static or resolved; instead they are pregnant with endless, intoxicating possibilities. There is no purpose to be divined other than the process itself, and as listeners we’re asked to do something more than listen – to participate in a flourishing ecosystem that recreates in its own terms the passions, deliberations and precarious balances that make up the very substance of our lives and the world about us. And that takes time.

As often the case, at one point Taylor is moved to chant. These shamanesque incantations, usually brief, seem to spring from an impulse that he’s reached a point where he must call on spirits to guide him, and in context they sound convincing, as if his music is a vessel that gives voice to forces beyond, Taylor animating their emergence into his musical universe so that we can indeed breathe air from another planet.

There is of course, no one ‘correct’ way to listen to a concert such as this, or single key that will unlock what lies within – “I avoid the easy trap of definition” Taylor remarked – one of the reasons his music retains an essential sense of mystery and remains so compelling, elusive yet exuberantly full. Taylor himself must have been aware of just how much he packed into each performance, the consequence of rigorous practice and the unique geometry of his imagination, thinking and rethinking through not just his material but omnipresent currents that flow, divide and bind. “Once you get over the dynamism of his hands and fingers” wrote critic Alex Ross, “you feel the dynamism of his mind”. Hopefully, there will be more releases from Taylor’s final decades which so far have been sparsely documented, including his work with large ensembles that contain some of his most exhilarating music. Recommended, with a handshake.

Taylor in Kyoto from 2013:

Friday, August 24, 2018

Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi featuring Masahiko Satoh - Proton Pump (Family Vineyard, 2018) *****

For those living under a rock that are unfamiliar with Akira Sakata’s work (or any of the musicians involved in this recording for that matter), he is a product of Japan’s 1960’s jazz scene. Sakata has worked with just about everyone of consequence, including but not limited to: Brötzmann, McPhee, Zorn, Sharrock, Bennik, Schoof, Drake, Laswell, Gustafsson, Nilssen-Love, Vandermark, Yoshihide; the list really does go on. This album finds him working with the veteran rhythm section Chikamorachi, consisting of Darin Gray and Chris Corsano, as well as free pianist Masahiko Satoh. Darin Gray is one of the great under-appreciated and supple bassists in all of music. A longtime associate of Jim O’Rourke, he lends his talents to groups such as the Dazzling Killmen, You Fantastic!, and On Fillmore as well as his solo endeavors and recent work with Mars Williams and Tyler Damon. Chris Corsano, while not as seasoned as Sakata or Satoh, has been just about as prolific in his relatively short time on the scene. He is one of the most truly gifted and in-demand improvisers in music. A small subset of his collaborators includes Paul Flaherty, Joe McPhee, Bill Nace, Mette Rasmussen, Michael Flowers, Evan Parker, Nels Cline, and C. Spencer Yeh. Masahiko Satoh was also a denizen of the 60’s Tokyo scene, and has worked with many of the same people as Sakata, although oddly enough this is their first recorded collaboration, and what a standout piece of work it is.

‘Proton Pump’ starts off with a brief solo statement by Sakata after which the rest of the group simultaneously drops in. Corsano’s drums shuffle along with Gray’s pizzicato bass playing while Satoh delivers animated, bouncing chords. The quartet reaches a frantic crescendo around the 5 minute mark when suddenly everything drops out but the piano. Satoh and Corsano then get busy working percussive concepts; the rolling drums and clamoring piano dance and converge, simmering to a halt before Sakata reenters the dialogue. The piano and saxophone then engage in a highly detailed exchange. The playing is thrilling here as the intensity level rises and falls, finding the players manically weaving strands of melody into their dissonance. At around 12 minutes the rhythm section returns and the energy levels absolutely explode, yielding a powerful close to the track. ‘Bullet Apoptosis’ starts with high pitched clarinet notes rising over a sparkling piano figure and a bowed bass drone. The drums rattle to life as the performance coalesces into a steady stream of clairvoyant interaction. Sakata is both fierce and sentimental on the clarinet, floating abstractions on the rhythmic concoction provided by the remainder of the quartet. Sakata then withdraws and Chikamorachi and Satoh engage in an active improvisation that peaks over a several minutes with Sakata re-emerging to provide the spark that burns through to the conclusion.

The colorfully named ‘Chemiosmotic Coupling of Acorn’ is the real gem of this collection. Tinkling metallic noises and bowed cymbal set the track into motion, joined shortly by Satoh’s damped piano notes and Sakata’s wheezing vocalizations. As the track gradually increases in intensity so does Sakata’s dialog; growing more guttural and menacing, like an irate Oni charging from the demon gate. This section concludes with Sakata bursting into an almost scat-like articulation as the music plateaus. Around the 9-minute mark the rhythm section fades out, leaving Sakata and Satoh to dual in the empty space. The sax/piano dialogue blazes at a furious rate for several minutes at which point Chikamorachi rejoins. At this cue Sakata goes into frenzy, his sax wailing and screaming over the clamor. The intensity persists to the end of the track, the quartet now molten lava flowing down the volcano, unstoppable, destroying all in their path. It’s absolutely breathtaking. The final piece, ‘Voyage of Eukaryote’, is the most refined and cohesive of the collection. Sakata returns to his clarinet for a spirited spot of near conventional jazz expression with the quartet. The piece abstractedly hints at tinges of New Orleans street music, but played with such enthusiasm and intensity that it feels as if it may disintegrate at any moment. It’s a masterfully fitting end to a tremendous album.

As I sit here trying to collect my thoughts after experiencing this blast furnace of an album, I’m reminded of the words of poet W.H. Auden, “The most exciting rhythms seem unexpected and complex, the most beautiful melodies simple and inevitable.” The combination of these elements here makes this album a home run for this reviewer, as it is both structurally complex and viscerally thrilling. It’s rare that an album of this intensity is so thoroughly listenable and engaging. This is wonderful, rapturous music that expertly combines the controlled rhythmic explorations of contemporary free improvisation with the ecstatic lyricism and expression of 60’s and 70’s free jazz, very highly recommended.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Darren Johnston & Tim Daisy - Crossing Belmont (Relay Digital, 2017) ****

By Stef Gijssels

Sometimes it's hard to write about music, even if the music is great, and that's the case on this album. Trumpeter Darren Johnston and drummer Tim Daisy give us two long pieces to enjoy. The first clocks at twenty-five minutes, the second at almost ten. It does not seem as if anything has been agreed upon in advance, and it's this kind of jump and go attitude that creates a very fresh and authentic sound. The first five minutes give us a high energy interaction, with repeated phrases on the trumpet and power percussion, and suddenly the mood becomes calmer, with Daisy demonstrating his inventiveness by playing a slow solo, a kind of sphere-setting thing. Johnston's moaning sounds, electronically altered and muted, creates a deep heartfelt emotion before taking up renewed energy and intensity.

Both Johnston and Daisy are wonderful improvisers, who shift inside and outside the traditional use of their instruments, listening well to each other, and often taking the listener by surprise, while at the same time creating a story that unfolds before your ears, crisp, crackling and sparkling, and fun.

The performance was recorded live on April 23, 2017 at the Hungry Brain in Chicago, and is among the absolutely enjoyable ones in our long list of trumpet-piano duos.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Some Recent Recordings by d’incise and Cyril Bondi (and Magnus Granberg)

By Nick Ostrum

The Swiss musicians d’incise (Laurent Peter) and Cyril Bondi have a long history together.  Collaborators since 2004, they have supported each other in numerous bands (i.e. Diatribes, Karst, the Insub Meta Orchestra) and worked with countless other musicians in and beyond what is evidently a particularly vibrant scene in Geneva.  As if recording and performing relentlessly were not enough, they also run the prolific experimental netlabel/record label Insub. Both musicians have been particularly active over the last year.  (The pair, in fact, released yet another album with the same line-up as Es schwindelt mir on Edition Wandelweiser as I was composing this.)  Below are reviews of just a handful of albums they have released over the last 12 months.

Insub Meta Orchestra – Choices and Melodies (Insub, 2018) ****


Recorded in 2016, this album is formidable.  The musicians number 32.  The instrumentation ranges from reeds, strings (including hurdy-gurdy), winds, voice, and percussion, to laptops, melodicas, laptops, and electronics.  The composers and conductors are d’incise and Bondi, who likewise perform in the orchestra.  

The first composition, “Choices,” relies on musicians playing two notes each for five seconds in overlapping configurations.  It seems many instruments are played non-idiomatically and it is often difficult to distinguish which instruments are playing at a given time.  This, however, does not create a messy mass of noise, but a largely improvised, though structured wall of patient, contemplative, almost ambient noise.  At one moment one hears bubbling layered on hissing.  At another, churning on boiling on droning.  And so on, in seemingly endless combinations. Despite its quietude, the piece conveys a large, looming presence.  

The second composition, “Melodies,” is louder and more active than the first.  It nevertheless carries a similar unsettling tension.  Short melodies layer on top of each other.  Although the instruments are more discernible (yet still deeply entangled with each other), none steps to the fore.  The sound seems to engulf the listener from all sides.  In a sense, the effect can be compared to the surface of the ocean.  At first glance, it is monotonous.  Upon closer scrutiny, however, it is a richly textured and colorful collection of undulating ripples.  The music here is similarly subtle, but variegated.   Although I have not yet heard the ensemble’s recent release on Another Timbre, I have listened to its earlier recordings (FJB review of their first release available here).  This one is its most fully realized effort yet.

Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel, Christoph Schiller – Tse (Another Timbre, 2018) ****


This album places Bondi in a more intimate a context with the Quebecois Pierre-Yves Martel and the German Christoph Schiller.  The instrumentation on this album is notable in its own right.  All three musicians play early musical instruments: Bondi the harmonium and pitch pipes, Martel the viola da gamba and pitch pipes, and Schiller the spinet.   Most of the tracks on this disc are based around a framework of pre-selected pitches.  Others are freely improvised, though it is difficult to distinguish which these were.  The result is a series of intricately textured and meditative tracks.   In ways, this ensemble resembles a stripped-down IMO.

As Martel notes in an illuminative interview posted on the Another Timbre website, the title, “Tse,” is a Genevan word that simply means “here.”  He then explains that this may reflect the suddenness and happenstance of the meeting of these three musicians.  However, there seems to be more to it than that.  The tracks almost bleed into each other. Each has its nuances and unique beauty, but one must listen closely to find this repressed dynamism.  “Here” may also reflect the nuances of place and music.  The pieces resemble each other in their slow, subtle, droning beauty.  They also, however, represent discrete moments of musical inspiration and creation.  In that sense, they reflect the singularity of being present in any moment, setting, or piece.  The effect is entrancing and, at times, disconcerting.  “Tse” actually offers six “heres,” and shows that even the superficially mundane or old can be pregnant with new and provocative possibilities.

Cyril Bondi and Christoph Schiller – Nine Moments (Insub, 2018) ***


This is a slightly busier recording by Bondi and Schiller that seems a fitting companion to Tse.  The duo deploys a broader range of instruments and seem to have constructed these improvisations along similar short durations of pitch.  This release is an interesting listen.  However, it is missing the patience and delicacy that makes the Another Timbre so powerful and is therefore somewhat less effective.  It is worth adding, however, that this was recorded eight months before Tse and might have served as an early expression of ideas that were later refined.  Additionally, Nine Moments has been released online as a free download and is absolutely worth checking out.

Magnus Granberg – Es schwindelt mir, es brennt meine Eingeweide (Another Timbre, 2017) ****


The title of this album comes of the Goethe poem originally set to music by Franz Schubert.  In a poem about solitude and loneliness, the phrase means something like, “It unnerves me, it burns my viscera.”  Interestingly, Granberg interprets the phrase more colloquially as “I feel giddy, my vitals are inflamed.”  

This performance of Es schwindelt mir embodies the gravity of the first translation.  Using Schubert’s original as a deconstructed scalar and melodic basis for the piece, Granberg has created something utterly engrossing.  The six-person group includes Bondi (percussion), Schiller (spinet), d’incise (electronics and vibraphone), and Granberg himself (piano), as well as veterans of previous Granberg releases Anna-Kaisa Meklin (viola da gamba) and Anna Lindal (baroque violin).

The instrumentation reflects that of “Tse,” but to very different effect.  There is more space in this composition, as the instrumentalists oscillate around a baseline unnerving quiet with more individual expressiveness than the meditative droning and muted orchestration of the releases reviewed above.
This also applies to this next release:

Magnus Granberg – Nattens Skogar (version for four) (Insub, 2018) ****½ 


Originally composed for Granberg’s Skogen ensemble (FJB reviews here and here), Nattens Skogar is the Swedish title of Djuna Barens’ novel “Nightwood.”  I am unfamiliar with this book, though, at first online search, it looks quite interesting.  More helpful to me, however, is the fact that this composition is inspired by Erik Satie’s “Nocturnes” and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood.” Revisiting these works, one can really hear the sultry plodding of “Monk’s Mood” and the tranquil dynamism of “Nocturnes” deconstructed, augmented, and extended beyond metric time in this recording.

The personnel are the same as on Es schwindelt mir (Bondi, d’incise, Lindal, Granberg himself) minus Schiller and Meklin, though the instrumentation now includes harmonicas, prepared piano, violin, and various percussive objects.  The effect is also similar to that of the earlier release, though this recording emphasizes the textures and subtleties of the music even more strongly.  This is spacious, deeply textured music that, as the title appropriately indicates, evokes the calm and disconcertion of the wilderness at night.  

It is difficult to speak of the forest without invoking distinctions between the natural and the anthropic.  This recording quite fittingly blurs this boundary, enveloping the listener into a sound-world that is undeniably constructed electro-acoustic music, but evokes feelings of trudging along a darkened wooded path listening rather than seeing to find one’s way.  Whereto, however, seems to be the wrong question.  As with other Granberg works as well as those composed and improvised by Bondi and d’incise, the journey, the tapestry of sound is the focus.  Fittingly, this composition does not end in the sense of conclusion, but rather fades into the ambient space of the room beyond the recorded music.  That is, at least, where this transfixed reviewer’s ears led him.

These recordings are available in various formats on the Another Timbre and Insub websites.