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Sunday, September 30, 2018

Polyorchard, part II

Polyorchard - Red October (Out and Gone Music, 2017) ****

By Paul Acquaro

I swear I heard somewhere in the middle of 'I Would', the first track off of Polyorchard's Red October, a ring tone going off. As a live recording, it could be anyone’s phone ringing, but regardless, the sound fits. The track began scattered with Shawn Galvin’s percussion and friction from David Menestre’s bass. Brassy blasts and sonic smears come from Jeb Bishop's trombone, and then Laurent Estoppey’s saxophone playing appears, timidly at first, but it slowly gains prominence. The group quickly dove into the push and pull of deep improvisation, and amidst this serious exchange of ideas, the ring (or was it imagined?) reminds me that this is unfolding in real time, unplanned and unanticipated, and it’s fantastic.

The following track, “Like” begins more kinetically, the trombone front and center with groans from the bass, pointed rolls from the percussion, and squalls from the sax. It doesn't necessarily build to a climax, but rather advances along a continuum of give and take. The prominence of each player shifts, and in the middle, time stops completely, and a delicate dance ensues. Slowly, the musicians build back the energy from where they began. “To” features a majestic interplay between Menestres and Bishop. The melody could be described as soaring, and later it becomes reflective when Estoppey delivers a melancholic theme over Galvin’s textural and pulsating percussive work.

Side B – physically this is a tape release, but it’s also available digitally via Bandcamp – begins with “Have”. The self-reflective bass introduction leads to a duet with Bishop that continues the inward gazing, but also hints at the world outside. Together it feels like they are slowly emerging, and as they do, the track picks up in tempo and intensity. This leads to “Seen”, which is a barn-burner of sorts. Intense from the get-go, it only gets brighter and more intense, until the group finally reaches “Montana”. Starting with scrapes of bass (I think), and tempered bleats from the saxophone, the group collects small sounds until hitting a plateau of elongated tones and merging melodies.

So there you have it … the tracks spell out "I Would Like To Have Seen Montana” which may have been dying words in The Hunt for Red October, but for Polyorchard, they seem to be inspiration!

Also, check out:

Polyorchard - Color Theory in Black and White (Out and Gone Music, 2015) **** 

On this earlier release from Polyorchard, the recording is split between two trios, featuring Menestre in the middle. The first trio, called "Black" is Chris Eubank on cello, Dan Ruccia on viola, and Menestres on bass. The other trio is "White" and features the bassist with Jeb Bishop on trombone and Laurent Estoppey on saxophones. Recorded around the same time as Red October with some of the same member, the approach is much different. The string focused trio (Black) is explorative, generating evocative and unusual textures, often 'melody'-less, but still full of motion and ideas. The wind oriented trio (White), takes the same exploratory approach, but with Bishop and Estoppey trading sonic barbs and Menestres reacting with colorful musical swatches. The tracks can get pretty heated too!

See also, Polyorchard, Part I

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Polyorchard, part I

By Lee Rice Epstein

Around the time Polyorchard’s new album was announced, we realized we had never properly reviewed the North Carolina collective led by double-bassist and FJB reviewer David Menestres. We decided to take this opportunity to shine a light on one of the more interesting, and less discussed, regions of improvised music in the States. Following the review of Polyorchard’s latest is a brief conversation with David about his background, his music, and the North Carolina scene.

sextet | quintet (Out & Gone Music, 2018) ****

Over the course of three albums, Polyorchard has developed a dynamic and continuously evolving compositional language that inspires bold improvisation from all members. On the current album, sextet | quintet, Menestres presents two different groups recorded on two separate nights in early 2015. The sextet, from February, features Jeb Bishop on trombone, Bill McConaghy on trumpet, David Morris on tuba, Dan Ruccia on viola, and Chris Eubank on cello. From April, the quintet reunites Menestres, Bishop, Eubank, and Ruccia, adding Jacob Wick on trumpet. Each set runs about 30 minutes and highlights the players’ spirited, conversational improvisation. One of the thrilling elements of sextet | quintet is how, similar to some Ken Vandermark projects, there’s not always a noticeable center of gravity. Strings might skitter in horizontal movement, set against vertical brass lines. Or muted pops and slaps might speed across breath-like pauses. Occasionally, the tension of silence fuels the momentum that seems to drive each set forward.

Consider the mixed timbres of strings and brass, without the expected reed or percussion player. Towards the last statement of “1118,” Menestres plays a bowed line that could more typically fall to a tenor or alto saxophonist, while Eubank and Ruccia add a commentary that would be suited to a melodic player, such as Ches Smith or Chris Corsano. On the quintet set, Polyorchard seems to lean into the uncertainty of their sound world even harder, extended techniques and contrasting motion taking centerstage. Wick brings a fiery energy to the group. The result is a performance at least partially defined by its improvisation, by which voices are present when, by the room itself and the atmosphere of those present, but guided by Menestres’s deliberate attempts to push the limits of players’ boundaries.

I’ve enjoyed all of Polyorchard’s albums (as well as the periodic live show that’s appeared in the newsletter) partly because of the unknown factor: which band will I get this time. Again, think of Vandermark and his Stone sets or the Resonance box, with their rotating lineups of small groups. Menestres and his companions merge avant-garde with a kind of baroque (not in the historical sense) approach and performance. On past albums, they’ve presented various lineups and exciting, powerful shows. And on sextet | quintet, Polyorchard burns bright with possibility.


A conversation with David Menestres, with additional questions from Sammy Stein and Eyal Hareuveni

On Polyorchard’s sound world:
[It’s] definitely a mix between composed and structured music. Sometimes there is a basic structure, where I might hand out graphic scores with no introduction or explanation. Sometimes I like the bit of focus from a predetermined structure, which will kick you in a certain direction. That’s usually the goal for me, to arrive somewhere different, and this is part of having a larger group to pull from. It’s easy to be repetitive, even in free music.
A lot of the graphic scores I write, I write specifically to force myself to surprise myself. It’s a weird idea to intentionally try to confuse myself, [but] if you’re doing it properly, the ideal is you’re all composing on the spot, in the moment, and you’re responsible for yourself. In some ways, it’s the ideal form of anarchy: you’re working on your own individual level, on behalf of the group level. That level of freedom is terrifying to some people, especially if you want to do something that encompasses a lot of silence. It’s hard for me to sit there for 20 minutes.

On Polyorchard’s rotating lineup:
Some of it was just that I get bored easily. [Sometimes it’s] low strings and low clarinets, lots of really gorgeous wood, looking for a home. But we also did a set with Merzbow that was really loud and nasty. And I like that we can be all these different things. There’s a consistency to the level of music, even though the sound may differ from album to album.
And because life happens and none of this pays very well, part of the reason I set it up as a collective originally was practical reasons. If someone needs to drive like 150 miles roundtrip, well…

On Out & Gone Music:
Part of the reason we started Out & Gone is to help us pool resources. It was originally started by Dan Ruccia and Chris Robinson. And it widened out now, I’m in it, James Gilmore, Laurent Estoppey, and others. At the moment, we’re the only ones who have released albums, but there’s a wider group that’s involved.

On North Carolina and Dr. Eugene Chadbourne:
North Carolina’s always had a weird tradition of weirdness and outsider music, which can be traced back to bluegrass and piedmont blues. But for a while there’s been an experimental scene. There’s a nice undercurrent of things happen.

The real value of going to music school was meeting Eugene Chadbourne, because he was in Greensboro. He makes the music he wants to make, he has a good time doing it, all the things you’re not “allowed” to do. I would rather work a bullshit job and play the music I want to play. I make no money from making music, but at least it’s music that I want to play.

We were playing Sunday morning coffee shop gigs. And he came in, and I’d been hearing rumors of this guy who played guitar with a block of styrofoam. We would play Louis Armstrong songs, and he would sing as Louis Armstrong, as Bob Dylan. Then, we started playing gigs together. The first gig we played together was all Ornette and Monk tunes, and that was my real introduction to those guys. This was 2000 or 2001, because nobody really talks about Ornette Coleman in music school.

We’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years. I don’t know quite how that came to be, every time he asked I said yes. I started organizing gigs, and he liked that. His idea of acceptable repertory is huge. He does Bach violin partitas on banjo, he plays Waylon Jennings, Sun Ra, Ornette, his originals. It’s nice to have someone who is open to all of this.

[Note: In addition to their many live performances together, Menestres, Ruccia, Eubank, and Bishop appeared on Bugs (The Neptune's Parlour Series Volume One) from 2013.]

On the thing nobody wants to talk about—money:
Everything comes out of my pocket, it’s funded by my day job. So far, everything’s been recorded cheaply in nice spaces. [To book] studio space, I need to apply for grants to afford that. It would cost $500 a day, maybe $1,000 for a single album that won’t make back its money. Everyone in Polyorchard basically works for free. We split the door, and a good night is one where you can cover bar tabs.

On motivation:
It’s this weird compulsion that sometimes feels like a mental illness. It’s what I do at this point in my life, and I like it and I enjoy it. You live in a pretty fucked up world, any way you look at it. But I feel like this is a small thing we can control, and for a few minutes we can make ourselves happy by playing this music. And for the few people who show up, hopefully they’re happier too.
For a while, it was cold and raining and miserable for all the gigs. I still managed to slog through and go, because the gig is the 30 or 45 minutes of fun. I’m a big fan of these punk set times, like 20 minutes tops. There’s always that moment at the free improv shows where it’s like, do you want to do one more?

Now, read Polyorchard, part II.

Friday, September 28, 2018

A Short Introduction to Swiss Reedist Christoph Erb

By Martin Schray
45-year-old Lucerne-based saxophone and bass clarinet player Christopher Erb is an excellent musician. However, except for a short review of Sceneries and his collaboration with Frantz Loriot, we somehow haven’t had him on the screen so far. Erb is not only a prolific member of the busy Swiss scene, but in 2007 he also formed his own label, Veto Records. A formative moment in his musical life came in 2011 when he moved to Chicago for a four-month-long residency. Of course, the time he spent there wasn’t enough to explore all that the city has to offer, but he used it to create a network with many of Chicago’s improvisers and figure out who was most compatible with his egalitarian approach to total improvisation. During his stay he played with Fred Lonberg-Holm, Michael Zerang, Jason Adasciewicz, Tomeka Reid, Jim Baker, Frank Rosaly, and many others. These connections yielded releases like the Erb/Baker/Zerang trio’s self-titled album (2011), Erb/Lonberg-Holm/Roebke/Rosaly’s Sack (2011) and The Urge Trio’s Live at the Hungry Brain (2017) - all published on Veto.

In 2012 Erb received the Culture Award from the City of Lucerne. Apart from his releases on Veto Records there are recordings on Hatology and Creative Sources. We will have a look at three of his latest albums.

Christoph Erb / Michael Vatcher - Yellow Live (Veto Records, 2018) ****

Christoph Erb’s most recent album is a duo with American drummer Michael Vatcher, Erb is on tenor and soprano only, and he renounces playing the bass clarinet here. The album was recorded at Gelbes Haus in Erb’s hometown of Lucerne, which explains the title (“gelb“ is German for “yellow“). The titles for the single pieces, “Xanthophyll“, “Carotin“, “Lutein“ and “Zeaxanthin“, refer to pigments that occur widely in nature,  which happen to all be different shades of yellow. It’s Erb’s and Vatcher’s first collaboration.

Although a typical sax/drums duo, the two do not square off or just bat ideas back and forth, rather the conversation is organic and supportive, and the development of the pieces is quite linear (which is not meant in a negative way). The sax work, especially the beginning of “Carotin“, the first track, is reminiscent of Evan Parker’s reflexive style. Both musicians tenderly feel their way forward - Vatcher with chimes and then almost imperceptibly with sombre work on the toms the bass drum, Erb with multiphonics, key clapping and finger clicking, little riffs, whistles, overblown phrases, and tremolos. He swings his horn to and fro creating an echo effect. Both make small remarks, they only hint what they’re up to. Only after seven minutes the sax gets more muscular, Erb uses minimal phrases and repeats them. Vatcher’s drumming attaches importance to cohesiveness, momentum, and consistency. He displays an arc of development, it’s very clear where he starts, where he’s going, and how it might end. He explores his kit from the darker toms to the snare and the cymbals, using brushes in the transition, and when the piece is getting rougher, he delivers very unsteady, bumpy beats resulting in a monotonous “groove“.

Yellow Live convinces with its freshness, varying sounds, and the excellent timing of both the sax and drums. It’s an album in the best Chicago tradition, reminding me of Dave Rempis/Frank Rosaly or Jason Stein/Tim Daisy. Really recommended.

Christoph Erb / Jim Baker /Frank Rosaly - …. don’t buy him a parrot … (hatOLOGY, 2017) ****

…. don’t buy him a parrot … is the result of a large improvised session at Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio in 2014. Here Erb (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), Chicago legend Jim Baker (piano) and Frank Rosaly (drums) present their traditional side, rooted in the free jazz of the 1970s and 80s. The music develops very easily, it’s a rather colorful pattern of small motives and themes instead of a long, exuberant flow. You can hear subtle melodies (“Parrot, Figuring …“), which are torn apart by Rosaly’s drum work and Baker’s crystalline piano figures. There’s a soft abrasiveness to Erb’s saxophone, the beauty of the improvisation is full of edge and abyss. Yes, he can shred sounds, he gnarls, groans etc, but if you listen to a piece like “For Canaries, Career Opportunities In The Mining Industry“, which displays Erb’s marvelous tone on the bass clarinet, you hear the musical lineage that reaches back to Jimmy Giuffre. A true sensation is Jim Baker, who was for many years the house pianist at Fred Anderson’s Velvet Lounge. Here his style merges stride piano, Herbie Nichols, Monk, and Cecil’s arpeggios with his own, almost romantic, idiosyncratic approach.

As a free jazz fan you get it all here: agitated kinetic sax energy, rumbling bass clarinet gravitas, dramatic piano gestures in combination with quiet sound exploration, and the finely chiseled fiery sizzling of Frank Rosaly’s drumming.

Christoph Erb / Jim Baker /Frank Rosaly - Parrot’s Paradise (Veto Records, 2017) **** 


Parrot’s Paradise is the sister album to ... don’t buy him a parrot ..., it also goes back to the same May 2014 Chicago studio session. Again, all of the music is collectively improvised by Erb, Baker and Rosaly - but there’s a difference: Jim Baker plays ARP analog synthesizer exclusively instead of acoustic piano. However, Parrot’s Paradise is more like an ugly brother than a sister. Less beautiful, but more interesting and mysterious. Here Baker works with shimmering sound webs, noise-shaping motifs and coarse grained drone tracks á la Thomas Lehn, while Erb interacts and processes his material with gravelly and fluttering intonations. Rosaly uses pinball responses, discrete and fidgety at the same time, his percussion rattles and rumbles, constantly changing between wood, metal and drumhead. Erb on the other hand spits out high frequency waves, rough blurs, and distorted and vibrated splinters. In order to calm things down he uses long sustained notes, Rosaly contributes dark tom work in the style of Paul Lovens. In the end though, everything boils over in the most pleasant way. It was obviously an off-the-wall session that occasionally sounds like it’s going lot in angular, ricocheting dialogues. Rigo Dittmann, editor and publisher of Germany’s unique Bad Alchemy magazine, was reminded of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings and Gerhard Richter’s color captivations. A real recommendation for people who like Fire Room (Vandermark, Nilssen-Love, Marhaug)

You can buy Yellow Live and Parrot’s Paradise from Veto Records:

…. don’t buy him a parrot … is available from
and here:

Watch a set of Erb/Baker/Rosaly (with Baker on synth) from 2015:

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Spring Heel Jack and Wadada Leo Smith with Pat Thomas and Steve Noble - Hackney Road (Treader, 2018) ****½

By Keith Prosk

Facilitated by Thirsty Ear’s Matthew Shipp-directed Blue Series, Spring Heel Jack (John Coxon and Ashley Wales) transformed from a drum n bass duo to free improvisers in the early ‘00s and, together with the premier performers the series paired them with, produced some of the best recordings of the decade in Live, The Sweetness of the Water, and Songs & Themes. In 2004, Coxon established the Treader label, which serves as a platform for continued collaboration among the players on the Thirsty Ear recordings with some notable additions in the way of Alex Ward, Eddie Prevost, Pat Thomas, and others. The label maintains a steady output of three releases per year but has had quiet spells during 2010-2012 and 2016-2017, so this year’s three releases are welcome and include a reissue of Alexis Taylor’s Rubbed Out, a reissue of Evan Parker’s (previously incredibly difficult to find) Evan Parker with Birds, and the new material of Hackney Road.

The album is forty odd minutes across six discrete tracks, labeled “Scene I-VI,” but flows as well as if it was one set despite being recorded across eight months in 2016. Coxon (on electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, National Trojan, kalimba, harmonica, piano, percussion, and samples), Wales (on samples, loops, electronics, and percussion), and Thomas (on piano, synthesizer, and theremin) frequently take the role of creating an environment or setting that facilitates and interplays with the dialogue or monologues of Smith (trumpet) and Noble (drums, percussion). Like Spring Heel Jack’s last two Thirsty Ear recordings, these are highly edited, highly emotive, atmospheric pieces that develop highly cinematic passages: In “Scene II,” Wales loops a violin sample under Noble’s shimmering cymbals and Coxon’s lazy, twangy, bent notes while Smith soulfully solos, with the whole scene recalling “Dereks” from Songs & Themes; or, in “Scene VI,” a multi-layered drone syncs with a piano’s broken lullaby from Thomas while Smith plays a mournful tune, reminiscent of “Track One” from The Sweetness of the Water.

But this record is not a copy of previous efforts, though fans of the last two Thirsty Ear recordings will find a fix of similar quality. I don’t feel as if I’m getting tired of this sound. It doesn’t have the immediacy of the unedited Live, Live In Antwerp, Trio with Interludes, or Acoustic Trio, but is a distilled version of the Spring Heel Jack sound and much more dramatic for it.

Hackney Road is an LP-only release.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Jeb Bishop - Three Valentines & Goodbye (1980 Records, 2018) ****½

 By Nick Metzger

This fantastic release from 1980 Records pairs a Jeb Bishop solo performance at Café Fixe in Brookline, MA on February 14th, 2017 with a piece based on manipulated recordings of a 2015 solo date. The inexhaustible trombonist Jeb Bishop has etched himself into our collective memory with such groups and endeavors as the Flying Luttenbachers, the Vandermark 5, Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet, and his own trio with Kent Kessler and Tim Mulvenna. Here we are treated to an intimate yet animated set of solo improvisations finding Bishop in fine form, his delivery both passionate and inventive.

Bishop starts off 'Oxygenate' with measures of hiss and slide noise. Not your traditional trombone piece by a long shot, here Bishop utilizes extended techniques, mouth noises, pauses, and percussive clatter to conjure a din of sounds and rhythms that are at once jarring and trance inducing. At one point around the midpoint the playing seems to allude to the distant low flying planes from the cover photo (showing Bishop’s grandfather), at another instance you can hear subdued melodies chugging out through the clatter. There are no motifs, no obvious organization, nothing for the listeners to moor themselves to. There is only the persistent mumbling, percolating, fluttering, and growling sounds produced by Bishop in seemingly unlimited variations. Percussive popping and gurgling noises initiate 'Auscultate', which slowly unfolds into a buzzing, whooshing, and frayed confession. The title is fitting, as the playing itself feels internalized like someone talking to (or arguing with) themselves. While just as unconventional as the opening track this piece has a more measured, expressive feel to it. 'Bypass' greets us with growling, overdriven expressions and piercing amplifier feedback. The shortest piece in the collection, it spatters and groans like an ice cube thrown into a deep fryer. Bishop works himself into a frenzy, blasting and moaning into his instrument until you can hear its very core shudder. 'Downtown Crossing' is a piece that Bishop composed from live solo material. It’s an appealing five minute offering of electro-acoustic manipulation that pairs very well with the live performance and its inclusion adds some sonic variety and a dramatic close.

There is an intensity in the playing here that isn’t resolved through volume, but rather through invention and rigorous activity. Despite (or perhaps due to) its overall strangeness this collection is a remarkably enjoyable listen, especially after you’ve spun through it a couple of times. The recording quality is excellent, and other than glasses and tableware clinking on occasion, remarkably little audience noise is audible. 2018 has seen some fine solo outings thus far (Braxton’s Victoriaville and Fred Lonberg-Holms’ Bow Hard at the Frog among my favorites) and this comes as another tremendous addition to the set.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Anteloper - Kudu (International Anthem, 2018) ***½

By Stef Gijssels

Chicagoan trumpeter Jaimie Branch's "Fly Or Die" figured on many people's albums-of-the-year list in 2017, including mine. She did not appear totally out of nowhere, but the end result, the great music, and the quality of the album still came as a surprise. She continues to be in the spotlight, and deservedly so, albeit in a totally different context: in a duo setting with drummer Jason Nazary.

The duo performance was recorded live at the Carefree Studios in Brooklyn a year ago. This is not your traditional trumpet-percussion duo, as Branch plays keyboard and electronics too and Nazary adds electronics to the fun. The end result sounds like 'techno free jazz' if that word exists, with pumping rhythms, mad drumming, underpinned by looped phrases over which Branch's trumpet soars full of joy and pleasure, as on "Oryx", the opening track, or nervous as on "Fossil Record", or dark and ominous as on "Ohoneotree". Even if the musicianship is good, the focus of the improvisers is on the overall sound they generate, and it must be said that it works, it works well.

It's not at the same high level as "Fly Or Die", nor does it have the same ambition, but fans of electronic explorations in jazz will not be disappointed.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Latest Releases of Guitarist-Oud Player Gordon Grdina

Canadian, Vancouver-based guitarist Gordon Grdina began studying the oud well over 15 years ago, and these days he is playing the eastern instrument as much as the guitar, which is informed by his experience of playing the oud and vice versa. Accordingly, his jazz and rock oriented projects are colored by subtle colors of classical Arabic music. But Grdina’s rich experience as improviser and composer projects contributes to his strong personal voice as a oud player, different from other modern oud players who fuse the Middle-Eastern traditions with contemporary music or jazz like Anouar Brahem, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Rahim Alhaj or Dhafer Youssef. His recent releases reflect his elaborate, singular language as guitarist and oud player.

Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow - Ejdeha (Songlines, 2018) ****½

Ejdeha (the Farsi and Kurdish word for dragon) is the first album from Grdina where he focuses only on the oud. He is joined by a long-standing partners - double bass master Mark Helias, who has collaborated before with Acclaimed Lebanese singer and oud player Marcel Khalife, Canadian-Persian percussionist Hamin Honari, and cellist Hank Roberts. This chamber, acoustic quartet enables Grdina to refresh the Middle-Eastern musical traditions with his original ideas and to arrange his compositions in a way that incorporates both Middle-Eastern and Western sensibilities of all four musicians.

The Marrow began as a trio consisting of Grdina, Helias, and Roberts that was put together to perform at an oud summit in New York; however, it soon morphed into a quartet with the addition of Honari. Grdina's compositions are mostly based on classical Arabic and Persian modes - the maqam and dastgah - but challenge the traditional tonal, modal or rhythmic constraints and demand risk-taking improvisations from all four musicians. The spirit of these delicate pieces is dark and brooding, but occasionally the melancholic mood is propelled by some uplifting vamps.

The Marrow delivers Grdina’s intricate compositions with an organic fluidity, adapting superbly to the complex quarter-tones-based modes, or to the more ambitious and contrapuntally through-composed piece, “Wayward”, which relates to Grdina’s compositions for Inroads (reviewed below). Grdina leads the quartet with reserved yet assured playing, different from his urgent tone as a guitarist. His immediate, telepathic interplay with Honari dictates the suggestive pulse of his compositions. He improvises freely on the title piece between different maqams - Nava, Saba, Nahawand and Rast in a natural, poetic ease and irreverent approach that no traditional oud player will allow himself/herself. Some pieces like “Bordeaux Bender” suggest more open, exploratory improvisations while others as “Full Circle” offer conventional, more simple and melodic themes. Grdina concludes this impressive album with a beautiful, joyful tribute to the great Malian guitarist-singer-songwriter Boubacar Traoré, simply titled “Boubacar”. This time his oud spins the cyclical West-African lines through the hypnotic-rhythmic playing of Nubian-Sudanese late oud player Hamza El-Din.

Gordon Grdina Quartet - Inroads (Songlines, 2017) ****

This New York based quartet of Grdina's - him on electric guitar and oud, reeds player Oscar Noriega, pianist and Fender Rhodes player Russ Lossing and drummer Satoshi Takeishi - is centered around Lossing’s piano. Gridna wanted to challenge himself and explore more subtle and delicate voices in his own playing and realize more complex contrapuntal structures with this quartet. He said that his compositions for this quartet were inspired from the complexity of Béla Bartok, the freedom of Ornette Coleman, the energy and logical construction of ideas in Soundgarden, and the delicacy of Anton Webern.

The unique chemistry of these four strong-minded improvisers was solidified only after Grdina took the quartet for a short tour. The quartet found its own balance and logic within Grdina’s demanding compositions. The interplay of this quartet is more dense and intense than the one of The Marrow, and sounds as if Grdina wanted this time to experience his own Western and Eastern sensibilities as a clash of cultural ideologies that may introduce a new, common language.

“Fragments” offers an arresting dialog between the oud and the piano. Both Grdina and Lossing search for new timbrel possibilities, challenging each other throughout this improvised texture that moves fast from fragile, lyrical segments to fast, powerful ones. Grdina’s serpentine, electric guitar lines bend and ornament the chamber jazz improvisations of Lossing on “Not Sure”, like any oud player would have done but with much more power and energy. Patiently, he charges the quartet’s interplay on this piece with furious power, leading towards ecstatic eruptions. On “Apocalympics” he explores a playful and highly rhythmic, Mediternan, flamenco-like mode”, but spinned through an electrified, fusion prism.

Gordon Grdina - China Cloud (Madic Records, 2018) ***½

The China Cloud is Vancouver’s underground art space where Grdina has previously recorded a trio album with fellow-Canadians and close collaborators - clarinetist François Houle, and partner in the Peregrine Falls duo, drummer Kenton Loewen (Live at the China Cloud, 2017, available on Grdina’s bandcamp page). China Cloud is the debut solo album from Grdina after about two dozen collaborative projects, recorded over several intimate improvised solo performance at the same art space. This digital only album features Grdina playing on electric and acoustic guitars and the oud, experimenting with assorted effects, tape loops and obscure percussion.

Grdina concise improvisations are evocative and contemplative and it seems that he is experimenting/investigating new ideas and possibilities. These cinematic pieces reflect his rich, imaginative sonic palette and his boundaries-bending idiosyncratic language. “Desert Fiddle” and the miniature “Din” suggest subtle Middle-Eastern dreamscapes with effects-laden, atmospheric electric guitar. He distorts the clear, ringing-acoustic sound of the oud with industrial-sounding loops on the free-formed improvisation, “Compacted Dreams”. His oud playing on the lyrical-melancholic “The Waiting” sounds like he is paying respects to Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. “Blind Mice” “Closure” offer beautiful, touching melodies on the acoustic guitar. Grdina even sings with a smoky-folky vocals on the last “A Doll’s House”.

Listen on Spotify.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Miles Okazaki - Work (The complete compositions of Thelonious Monk) (2018) **** ½

By Alexander Dubovoy

Monk was a polisher. He was known to sit for hours at a time at the piano playing the same piece over and over again. As a result, his improvisations were not just based on “playing the changes” but rather “playing the tune”. He used the full gamut of materials from a composition, beyond simply its harmonic progressions, as fodder for expansion and play. To achieve a type of comfort with a composition that enables this sort of unforced creativity takes an immense amount of patience, discipline, and joy. What is so astonishing about guitarist Miles Okazaki’s new 6-volume compilation of solo Monk pieces is that he has gone through this process 70 times, assimilating each piece fully into his own vocabulary.

Take, for example, Okazaki’s version of one of my favorite Monk pieces, “Pannonica.” Throughout his rendition of the melody, he uses harmonics and muted strings, as well as perfect fourths. It is clear that he has listened to Monk’s excellent version of the song on Brilliant Corners, in which Monk actually plays celeste on the melody rather than piano. Vijay Iyer has likened Monk’s unique approach to upper harmonics to spectral composition. Okazaki beautifully translates these distinctive harmonies, based almost as much on register and articulation as on actual notes, to the guitar.

Playing Monk this way on guitar is a substantial challenge. Even playing some of these pieces on piano can be an exercise in dexterity, but to take them to an instrument that functions so differently requires no small amount of planning. Although Okazaki’s solutions to this problem are novel, they never feel inauthentic. On “Evidence”, for example, he invents an underlying rhythmic figure to highlight Monk’s off-kilter rhythms in the absence of a drummer. Okazaki doesn’t make an arranging decision just for the hell of it (and there are artists whom I would frankly criticize for doing so). Instead, he engages even more deeply with the source material whenever he faces a practical challenge in bringing this music to guitar. The result strikes a difficult balance between the personal and the reverential.

I must confess that I am still in the process of combing through this massive oeuvre and that I likely will still be for years. One of the joys of this compilation is that, between stellar versions of classics like “Crepuscule with Nellie” and “Little Rootie Tootie” lies a wealth of more obscure tunes. There’s even a Christmas song buried in there! I would be remiss if I did not mention fellow guitarist Steve Cardenas and trumpeter Don Sickler’s meticulously notated collection of Monk sheet music, the Thelonious Monk Fake Book. As a pianist myself, I’ve spent many hours combing through this book, so I was overjoyed to find that Okazaki used its scores as his source material. I get a similar sense when listening to Okazaki as when reading the Monk Fake Book of rediscovering details in familiar pieces and finding new songs altogether.

It is tempting to call this compilation a “tribute album”, but in a way I feel to do so would be a misnomer. Of course, it shares a lineage with other albums like Alexander von Schlippenbach’s Monk’s Casino and, perhaps even more directly, Wadada Leo Smith’s Solo: Meditations and Reflections on Monk. Work, however, is more a document of continued, concerted study, one which affords us new visions of Monk’s work and which feels beautifully inconclusive. It is full of brilliant corners.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Angelika Niescier - The Berlin Concert (Intakt, 2018) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

It’s hard to say which classic live albums Angelika Niescier’s The Berlin Concert most closely resembles, but I find myself slotting it alongside Ornette Coleman’s Town Hall 1962 andAt the “Golden Circle” sets, Anthony Braxton’s Montreux/Berlin and Dortmund (Quartet) sets, and Steve Lacy's Capers. Recorded live at the Berlin Jazzfest, where she was awarded the Albert-Mangelsdorff-Preis (German Jazz Award) , The Berlin Concert is a great snapshot of Niescier’s vivid creative voice. Balancing tenderness and vibrancy with ease, this live album underscores why she is one of the foremost players today.

Like her NYC Five album with Florian Weber and Ralph Alessi, this album features the rhythm section of Tyshawn Sorey and Christopher Tordini. Both are masterful players, adaptive and sensitive to the setting of each performance, and Tordini’s been at the heart of Sorey’s piano trio work for years. All three have played together for about a decade, and the ease with which they communicate is on full display.

“Kundry” features a brief melody that’s refracted and revisited over the course of the trio’s 15-minute performance. Niescier effortlessly guides the group through three areas of improvisation, each one highlighting a particular member of the group. It’s a nice introduction to the members of the trio, giving each an opportunity to shine in relation to each other. In the melody’s final recurrence, Sorey’s snare cracks inspire Niescier to lightly amend the line with a minor tonal shift. It’s a nimble, unexpected turn that highlights just how responsive these players are to one another.

“Like Sheep, Looking Up” opens with Niescier and Tordini duetting on sax and arco, setting the tone for an evocative meditation. Sorey ably carries the group into a somewhat melancholic section, where Tordini brings a Gary Peacock-like feel to the trio’s open improvisation. The overall effect is a group dance-like abstract expression. “5.8” showcases Niescier’s incredible range as both a composer and improviser. The melody combines hints of Lacy and Braxton, mixing rapidly moving lines with sudden leaps and pivots. Sorey lays down a bouncing rhythm that plays off Tordini’s restless bass. The trio slides into a jittery, rattling improvisation, as Sorey opens with a crashing section that drives Niescier to some fantastic runs. Their energy is wild, coalescing in a rapid restatement of the theme. All three plunge straight into “The Surge,” both the shortest and dizziest song on the album. Here, the trio is in nonstop motion, with Niescier laying everything on the line in a near-breathless performance. The track, and album, ends with a full minute of applause, the crowd’s hollers an outpouring of joy and excitement. The energy is infectious, even a full year later, where sitting in my living room, half a world away from the recording’s setting.

Available via Bandcamp:

Friday, September 21, 2018

25th annual Guelph Jazz Festival

By Connor Kurtz

For me, the 25th annual Guelph Jazz Festival opened with a solo set from Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández – a free set on the University of Guelph campus. His music was as elusive as the on-campus parking. Fernández's improvisation seemed much more interested in the physical properties of the piano than in the sounds that the keys can make (seen above is the performer rubbing plastic toys along the piano's strings while non-rhythmically tapping the piano's frame with his other hand). The small unamplified room seemed a perfect fit for Fernández's music – it was amazing how comfortably the creaking sounds of his stool merged into the sounds from the piano! Although I didn't think to ask Fernández this, it felt like the creaking sounds began as accidental but were soon accepted by the performer and audience alike and turned intentional. In a lot of ways, I think this single action is a perfect synecdoche for Fernández's music.

The biggest difference I've noticed between this year's festival and last's was the amount of free programming – despite having a media pass, it wasn't until my fifth show that I had to use it. Another difference I noticed was in creative director Scott Thomson, and the audience's reaction towards him. In last year's festival, his first as creative director, there always seemed to be some uncertainty in the air. Despite the amazing curation, including highlights of Peter Brötzmann, Matthew Shipp, John Butcher, and Tom and Gerry, the crowd often felt hesitant to accept his decisions, and Scott often came off as nervous or shy himself. In last week's festival it felt as if Scott had finally settled into his place – although his curation has become slightly more eccentric and obscure, he presented each show with wonderful confidence, and the crowd returned the favor with great excitement and chants of "We love Scott! We love Scott!" (That last bit may be a slight exaggeration)

 Returning to the music now – the second set I was able to attend was a solo performance by Montréal-based guitarist Bernard Falaise, who built off Agustí Fernández's notion of "talented performers playing their instruments incorrectly" in entirely new ways. Unlike Fernández, Falaise approached his abstractions from an electroacoustic standpoint – utilizing a huge and eccentric set of guitar pedals. Despite his guitar-playing typically looking relatively normal (the attached picture is actually an exception), the clean sound of a string being struck was seldom ever heard. Instead, we heard an array of clunky drones, chopped and mangled loops and pitched jabs of static noise all being beautifully mixed together in a live environment. Listening to, and watching, Falaise play is a real treat – it's incredibly exciting, and inspiring, to see a musician with such knowledge, mastery and comfortability in their own instrument and set-up.

Following up Bernard Falaise in this free afternoon double bill is the acclaimed international European trio Konk Pack – which consists of Tim Hodgkinson on guitar and clarinet, Thomas Lehn on analog synthesize and Roger Turner on drums. This trio has been playing and improvising together for over 20 years, and that's exactly what they sounded like – their comfortability with each other was astounding. Roger Turner created an outstanding world of sound which came off as everything except rhythmic. The rhythm role was occasionally filled by Thomas Lehn, who's performance was full of baffling synthesized loops and sequences primarily consisting of short tonal blips and jabs of white noise. Tim Hodgkinson's set, especially in the first half, couldn't resist a comparison to the music of Bernard Falaise. While Falaise created his abstractions through electroacoustic processes, Hodgkinson created the same level of abstraction by just playing his lapsteel guitar as is, relying much more on himself than his minimal electronic setup. It was when he brought out his clarinet that I began to realize that this was a musician who transcended simple comparison.

Along with vocalist Thanya Iyer, performers Darius Jones and Amirtha Kidambi spoke at a panel where they discussed the importance and the possibilities of the voice within music. Alongside reflections on the passing of Aretha Franklin and the importance of the voice in black music, the three speakers came to some general conclusions about the voice being capable to express emotions and language in ways which are simply not possible for other instruments. The duo set of saxophonists Darius Jones and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi was a clear extension of this thinking. The duo performed a (partially improvised?) composition by Jones, which primarily consisted of the performers sharing and exchanging tones while giving Kidambi moments to speak brief sentences. The performance was so different and enthralling that I forgot to take a picture.

Finally, we're at the first paid performance – a double bill which starts with the duo of pianist Agustí Fernández and Montréal-based alto saxophonist Yves Charuest. The show was, sadly, also not photographed. Fernández's performance was considerably different than his solo set – he primarily stuck to the piano's keys, and even played within certain free jazz idioms. That being said, his performance rarely rose above extreme dissonance. Charuest showed off an ambitious and original style, full of personality – his solo improvisation was a strong highlight of the set.

The second half of the concert consisted of a very exciting performance by Steve Swell's Soul Travelers – consisting of Steve Swell on trombone, Dave Burrell on piano, Jemeel Moondoc on alto saxophone, William Parker on double bass and Chad Taylor on drums. Their music, to nobody's surprise, was masterful. Steve Swell's compositions combined upbeat boppish melodies with contemporary abstractions, giving each of the five performers plenty of occasions to demonstrate their individual virtuosities. A highlight of the set was the piano-playing of Dave Burrell, who fans will recognize from jazz classics like Archie Shepp's Blasé, Sonny Sharrock's Black Woman, Alan Silva's Luna Surface, Patty Waters' College Tour or even his own Echo, which was nothing short of childish (in the best way possible) despite his old age. Burrell jabbed at the keys with index fingers like a toddler who's accidentally stumbled into perfect timing. On the other side of the coin we have the comparatively youthful playing of Chad Taylor, who, alongside the rather simplistic and soulful playing of William Parker, did fantastic work at holding the band together. All that combined with the powerful and imaginative soloing of Steve Swell and Jemeel Moondog made for one of the best performances of the festival.

At 10:30am on the next day, we were treated to a solo set by New York City native William Parker in the beautiful Royal City Church. Before his set he told the story of the dream which inspired the music we were about to here, which, not so surprisingly, featured the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King speaking of freedom – "the next step was to teach the people that everyone has freedom within themselves." William Parker's music feels just as spiritual as jazz legends like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, or more broadly, J.S. Bach – but more specifically, Parker's music pays tribute to African-American heroes and warriors for civil rights rather than any religious personalities. Towards the end of his set Parker begins to clumsily chant, "I'd rather be a human being than to be avant-garde, although the most avant-garde thing you can do is to be a human being". The crowd politely chuckles amongst themselves, surely the reaction that Parker was expecting, but the truth that both the audience and performer knows is that this music is very genuine and very moving in its modesty.

Onto our next double bill, we have the trio of Canadians Marielle Groven and Aaron Lumley alongside Dutch guitarist Jasper Stadhouders, who's music is predictably abstract. While Groven spends most of her time leaning over her piano and plucking at strings and Stadhouders rubs odd electronic devices over the back of his guitar, Lumley is left with the task of giving the crowd a relaxing center point through his soft and textural improvisation. When Marielle Groven decides to sit and play the keys her music is surprisingly gorgeous – largely consisting of brief melodies. Groven and Lumley play with great familiarity to each other, leaving Stadhouders as an awkward third wheel. While sounding uncomfortable at times, he does often provide an interesting counterpoint to the other two performers.

The other side of this double bill, coming from Tokyo, is Satoko Fujii's new trio of This Is It! This Is It! has come to plug their new CD titled 1538, one of the twelve CD's Fujii intends to release for her 60th birthday in 2018. At the end of the set, Fujii explained to the audience that she decided to title their CD after the boiling point of iron because she wanted to prove that the music was "hot", which I assume to be ironic because the music was anything but – This Is It! played some of the quietest and the coolest, and also some of the best, music of the festival. The trio played along to Fujii's open compositions, leaving plenty of open space to let the audience focus on the soft sounds. I think that what most will remember most about the set is the whimsical drumming of Takashi Itani, who Fujii commented was young enough to be her son. Itani performed his quiet experimentations with great humour, even getting occasional laughs from the audience. An example of this is when he was swinging his drumsticks through the air, pretending to drum but stopping right before hitting the drums. He acted nonchalantly and confidently, as if he was actually drumming, but the audience could only hear the sounds of drumsticks through the air. Another example is when he clumsily knocked metal plates off his drums and onto the floor, acting as if he accidentally bumped into them, although the truth was that he was only trying to create the sound of plates falling to the floor. The textural trumpet explorations of Natsuki Tamura were incredible in their own right – he'd cautiously drift back and forth between breath-based experimentations and gently playing along with Satoko Fujii's gorgeous minimal piano licks. Although I wouldn't call the music of This Is It! hot, I'd definitely call it some of the most interesting and unique music of the festival.

Up next we have a vocal jazz double bill, which I must admit is not at all my preference. Up first is Montréal-based saxophonist (have I mentioned that festival curator Scott Thomson is a Montréal native?) Jean Derome's ensemble along with vocalist Karen Young performing the songs of Steve Lacy. The songs are relatively traditional but made exciting through invigorating performances by the band and Karen Young's beautifully joyous vocals. Pianist Alexandre Grogg is a major stand-out from this set – he slaps the keys with open palms during his improvisations, playing with one of the widest smiles I've ever seen on a performer. It's rare to see so much joy emanating from a performance.

On the second half of the bill we have the American Darius Jones Quartet with French vocalist Emilie Lesbros, performing Jones' new suite Le bébé de Brigitte (Lost in Translation). The music here is, unsurprisingly, considerably more experimental than the first half of the concert. Jones' compositions are long and free-flowing, and Lesbros' lyrics combine French and English, calling back to the previous day's panel when Jones confessed his joy for having a singer who will write in a language which he can't understand. The band is excellent, consisting of Darius Jones on alto saxophone, Sean Conly on bass, John Excreet on piano and Rhodes and Ches Smith on drums. Emilie Lesbros sings with a charm that reeks of post-war Parisian coolness. Darius Jones plays in a much more "jazz" style than he did in his performance with Amirtha Kidambi, belting out some fantastically moving solos while also spending hefty amounts of time sitting down and watching his band play. To me, the highlight of the set was Ches Smith's drumming – with his minimal setup he created a seemingly massive world of sound, he sounded as if he was always experimenting and breaking new ground while managing to perfectly follow and capture the songs' rhythms.

The first half of the festival's final double bill opens with a set that Scott Thomson half-heartedly refers to as "a soft opening into your Sunday sound-world", surprisingly accurately referring to this beautifully droning set from the international trio of Hübsch Martel Zoubek, consisting of the German Carl Ludwig Hübsch on tuba, the Canadian Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba and harmonica and the Austrian Philip Zoubek on prepared piano. Except for a moment of Martel scratching metal along metal, the music of this trio is soft, beautiful and calm. They primarily play in long and soft tones, making harmonies which flow between awkward and gorgeous. Hübsch and Zoubek have both brought simple electronic setups with them which they use to generate soft tones which combine wonderfully with their instruments. The trio play off each other well, rarely hogging the spotlight and remembering their place as a third of the trio's soft timbral explorational sounds.

Finally, we have the Ontario-based duo of Marilyn Lerner and Nicole Rampersaud, which they've humorously titled Brass Knuckle Sandwich. There have been many talented pianists through the festival, but Marilyn Lerner quickly establishes herself as one of the best. Her music is soft but full, she plays out beautiful and calming melodies that sound as if they could be quotes from some of the most talented minimalist or impressionist composers. While listening to her play, it was such a relief to see a pianist who wouldn't stand up and start playing with the strings. That is to say, it was a relief until she started to do just that. Nicole Rampersaud's trumpet improvisations were wildly different. Her sounds were harsh and timbral, almost sounding like noise music played at a low volume. When listening to her, the reasoning for the band's name becomes obvious. Despite the vast differences in the performer's styles, they merge together well. Well, actually they don't merge together at all, but that's exactly why it works – it gives the audience an opportunity to focus on these two wonderful performers separately – it's like two great solo shows at once!

And that brings me to the end of my coverage of the 25th annual Guelph Jazz Festival. I'm stricken with the thought of how lucky I am to have such a wonderful festival nearby, in this small suburban university city. The music is wild and daring, but the audience is all incredibly kind. William Parker, who's played at the festival several times, put it best, which I'll misquote – "Everyone in Guelph is so nice. It feels like everyone here has a PhD." Even without a PhD, I always feel right at home in the Guelph Jazz Festival, and with such amazing music every year I can hardly wait for the 26th.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

William Parker - Lake Of Light (Gotta Let It Out, 2018) ****½

By Stef Gijssels

Truly great musicians refine their art over the years, and the truly creative ones reinvent themselves. William Parker falls in that category, and with "Lake Of Light", he surprises again, offering us a meditative, strange and beautiful type of music, performed by his Aquasonic waterphone quartet, consisting of Jeff Schlanger and Anne Humanfeld, both visual artists, and Estonian drummer Leonid Galaganov.

A waterphone is a peculiar instrument: "Waterphones are in fact stainless steel and bronze monolithic, one-of-a-kind, acoustic, tonal-friction instruments that utilize water in the interior of their resonators to bend tones and create water echos. In the world family of musical instruments, the Waterphone is between a Tibetian Water Drum, an African Kalimba (thumb piano) and a 16th century Peg or Nail Violin". I am not sure whether this is entirely accurate, but it gives an idea of the sonic possibilities of the instrument. 

The music is exceptional, in the sense that it falls totally beyond any known categories. The little percussive sounds resonate and reverberate in open space, colliding gently with each other in an uncanny rhythmic otherworldly dance, once in a while intense, often built around silence. Like with other endeavours by Parker, the sound is at once spiritual, soulful and deeply rooted in humanity. Eastern gamalan or even Zen music could be a reference, with an almost mystic search for unity and peace of mind, yet at the same time offering a tribal depth that goes back in the deepest origins of man. And then they take all this one gigantic leap further, into absolute modernity: it could equally be considered 'industrial', with metals scraping against each other, or the soundtrack for a 'horror' movie, with eery and ominous sounds projecting a feeling of dread and terror, or music from outer space, captured by as yet to be invented NASA technology. It is soothing and discomforting at the same time, familiar and strange.

This is as far away of Parker's Quartets or Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, or his duo recordings as you can imagine.

But one thing is sure: it is again an incredibly creative and fascinating listening experience. It makes you doubt, it makes you wonder, it makes you feel differently, it makes you listen differently. No doubt a strong contestant for the Happy New Ears Award.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Schnell - Live at Sowieso (Clean Feed, 2018) ****

By Martin Schray

“Schnell“ is the German word for “fast“ or “quick“ and in this case the band’s name says it all. According to the liner notes, Pierre Borel (saxophone), Antonio Borghini (bass) and Christian Lillinger (drums) use the “bebop tradition as a starting point to investigate speed, stasis, trance, intuition and limits“. The music of the trio resorts to masterpieces of the bebop era such as Charlie Parker’s “Anthropology“, Art Pepper’s “Susie The Poodle“, Sonny Rollins’ “B. Quick“, and Stan Getz/Dizzy Gillespie/Sonny Stitt’s “Be-Bop“, being a resource or a prototype which is newly interpreted with today’s musical possibilities. With speed as the basic principle, the music is always in danger of being a simple means to an end. Here however, the players explore the limits of playability of motives and the structure of the classic bebop form by inventing new patterns, including abrupt harmonic changes and studies of over-revving.

“Schnell I“ can be used as evidence for this thesis. In the first three minutes a motif is repeated almost 70 (!) times, the band introduces, modulates and extends it constantly. This saxophone head lasts just one second at the beginning, at the end of the introduction it’s expanded to three seconds. While the sax remains relatively static, bass and drums offer more variations. Lillinger plays time, and especially in the first minute, he just adds fuel to the fire on his cymbals. Like Borel, he makes slight changes, but when he does, it’s like a real break, for example when snare rolls replace the cymbals before a strict snare timing takes over. Borghini’s bass follows a similar pattern but goes astray much faster, swaying to and fro between alternated riffs, staccato notes and free passages. So much as to “speed investigation“. In the following swing part, Borel quotes jazz classics galore, everything’s still hurled out at sonic speed, as if you played a 33 record at 45 rpm. On the one hand the trio retains that energy, on the other hand they don’t fall prey to the frenzy of speed either. They take care of breathers in a clever and elegant way. In the middle of the piece Borel drops out and Borghini bows his bass, gliding into ultra high notes, while Lillinger whirls on his cymbals. Tension is created and finally relieved by a new saxophone riff (reminding me of Katchaturian’s “Sabre Dance“), again repeated several times. During the whole piece, various heads are constantly introduced and dumped, the trio swings almost traditionally, gets lost, changes dynamics, and starts from the beginning again. Usually, the heads in traditional jazz are used as anchors, as safe havens during the improvisational process. In Schnell’s approach you’re never safe, the riffs ricochet through the room unpredictably. Even Billy Strayhorn’s beautiful “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing“ is transformed to a spooky ballad, rather reminiscent of a weird version of John Coltrane’s “Alabama“ or Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit“.

In the end, the music shows how you can present outstanding musicianship without getting boring or showing off. Bebop has sometimes been accused of being too self-sufficient and aesthetically stale with the improvisational process becoming less soulful. For Schnell improvisation is still the fundament, they play it on the edge of breathlessness, ultra-fast, with intuition and feeling as core essentials.

Watch a part of an earlier gig at the same venue:

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Fish-Scale Sunrise - No Queen Rises (Relative Pitch Records, 2018) ****½

“Melodious skeletons, for all of last night's music / Today is today and the dancing is done"

This short poem of Wallace Stevens, “A Fish-Scale Sunrise”, captures the spirit of Dutch reeds master Ab Baars' new trio. Baars titled his new trio after Stevens’ poem, and like the poem, it features some melodious skeletons, nocturnal themes and a few beautiful dances. Fish-Scale Sunrise began working in 2015 and is now releasing its debut album No Queen Rises, recorded in November 2017.

“Dew lies on the instruments of straw that you were playing, / The ruts in your empty road are red”

Fish-Scale sunrise signals for Baars a broadening spectrum of possibilities for compositions and improvisations. Baars wanted to explore new timbre, dynamics and sounds. He employs for the first time in his ensembles a pianist - Slovenian, Amsterdam-based pianist Kaja Draksler, who collaborated before with Baars in her Octet - introducing a new weight of nuances of timbre and dynamics as well as new harmonic horizons. Canadian, Stockholm-based double bass player Joe Williamson completes this drummer-less format and positions the bass with a unique role. Baars wrote seven compositions and the other two are free-improvisations

“You Jim and you Margaret and you singer of La Paloma, / he cocks are crowing and crowing loud”

These experienced musicians know how to weave a complex, captivating stories with few strokes of imaginative sounds, austere yet elegant, subtle but full of nuances. “Endless” visits Far-Eastern, terrains, flows in a balladic narrative and matures in a touching, playful dance of court and spark between Baars, playing the clarinet, and Draksler. “For Toby” suggests a complete different dialog between Baars and Draksler. He sings gently with his tenor sax while she pounds the piano keys in a hyper-dramatic manner while Williamson bowed bass stands in the middle. Baars and Draksler return to the minimalist dance mode on the lyrical, emotional “Now”.

“And although my mind perceives the force behind the moment, / The mind is smaller than the eye”

“Catch the Moon” is a joyful, melodious game between Draksler, Williamson and Baars, all chasing the reflection of the moon, mirrored in their playful, concise gestures. The trio paints the sparse, free-improvised “Receding Mountains” with gentle, subtle touches of rich colors, allowing this free-form texture to remain mysterious. The austere, minimalist atmosphere of the last pieces, “The First Sea” and “There” tells volumes despite its haiku-like profound restraint. No Queen Rises has powerful, suggestive impact. It challenges, teases, and occasionally comforts the listener, but always compensates with masterful performances and inspiring music.

“The sun rises green and blue in the fields and in the heavens. / The clouds foretell a swampy rain”.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Clarice Jensen - For This From That Will Be Filled (Miasmah, 2018) ****

By Stef Gijssels

It's amazing that musicians release solo albums as their first album ever. A daring undertaking, but Clarice Jensen wouldn't be the first one. It's a courageous adventure: you're on your own. Any comment or criticism touches you, and you only. There is no escape behind an ensemble or behind others.

Clarice Jensen is a classically trained cellist from the Juilliard School, and artistic director of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME). She is equally comfortable playing Bach's cello suites as recording and performing with pop idols such as Paul McCartney, Nick Cave or The Arcade Fire.

On this album, she does something else entirely, using effects and loops which hide the performance of the single instrument in long, almost ambient and drone-like developments.

The first track was co-composed with the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, and offers slow, almost meditative cello sounds, to which additional layers are added, some higher, some lower, creating a very spacious atmosphere. The second track, "Cello Constellations", blends no less than 25 multi-tracked cellos intersecting computer-generated sine waves, yet despite this, there is no wall of sound, but rather a fragile fabric of gliding tones, that slowly, very slowly develops and gets more momentum and power. The last two tracks, "For This From That Will Be Filled", are again carefully construed, with sounds that swell and subside like waves, mimicking the deep resonance of a pipe organ, majestic and massive, with repetitive cello phrases piercing through the backdrop, meditative and insistent, shifting into again a multi-layered foundation for its second part, intense and dark, slow and majestic, and out of this dense mesh, for the first time on the album a single cello improvisation can be heard, discernible and pure, accompanied by announcements from New York's Grand Central terminal.

Even if it's not remotely related to jazz, Jensen's musical vision, and her deliberate intent to create some new listening experience, will probably also please quite a number of our readers. It is meditative at times, and clearly inspired by composers such as Bach and Glass at moments, as well as modern ambient and electronics.

Worth listening to, alone, on a quiet evening.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Chad Taylor - Myths and Morals (eyes&ears Records, 2018) ****

By Eric McDowell

Better than perhaps any other instrument, the drums embody tension—not the physical tension necessary for the production of sound but the push and pull between extremes: rhythm and melody, fragmentation and unity, ancient tradition and the cutting edge. And in this context, few drummers are better prepared to balance—and exploit—these tensions than Chad Taylor, whose talents have supported a catalogue of collaborators too long and wide-ranging to summarize here.

In a recent interview , Taylor discusses the title of his debut solo album, a reference to Joseph Campbell’s observation that “a myth is what we call someone else’s religion,” even though morals are more or less universal. “Instead of focusing on what unites us,” Taylor says, “we focus on what is different.” But the issue doesn’t quite accommodate a simple either/or: it’s about understanding how each myth shapes and is shaped by its believers and, at the same time, how they fit together (or reduce down) into a single, beautifully complex whole.

Call it polyphony—or better yet, polyrhythm. On Myths and Morals, these techniques are as much a matter of Taylor’s limb independence as they are his aesthetic approach, which gathers together heavy grooves, free improvisation, mbira melodicism, and electronic manipulation. To say these elements are in simultaneous suspension requires viewing the album as a whole; moment to moment, Taylor’s focus more often than not is on exploring individual details.

This exploration starts with the cymbal, as “Abtu and Anet” makes clear. The album opener showcases Taylor’s cymbal work from a number of angles—bombastic crashes, slinky patterns, and—for most of the track—spare articulations that draw out myriad shades of resonance and decay. “Carnation” and “Arcadia” take this work further with the help of the bow, the latter track croaking and wheezing to life before handing things over to another piece of metal percussion key to Taylor’s sound on Myths and Morals—the mbira. With the benefit of years of study, Taylor’s command of the complex thumb piano manifests in a range of sounds, from the tonal depths of “Arcadia” to the dessicated etchings of “Gum Tree.”

“The Fall of Babel,” halfway through the album, marks a transition from metals to skins as it moves gradually from delicate cymbal play to a no less nuanced tour of the kit—to a two-foot Latin ostinato over which Taylor pounds his well-tuned toms. Similarly, “Phoenix” shows the drummer building and dissolving an irresistible groove, oscillating between firm footing and uncertainty.

Where it all arguably comes together is the album’s centerpiece, “Island of the Blessed.” Starting with a mesmerizing mbira pattern and developing into a breakneck odd-meter workout, the nine-minute track highlights one other element of Taylor’s sound, electronic manipulation. Here we see Taylor’s ability not only to conceive a richly layered soundscape but also to go outside the boundaries of what we traditionally think of as percussion to bridge the gap between his varied musical inclinations. As the piece develops, giving Myths and Morals its center of gravity, boundaries between rhythm and noise, the organic and the synthetic, one Taylor and another dissolve into a single seamless whole.