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Thursday, February 28, 2019

Hard Rubber Orchestra - Kenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra featuring Norma Winstone (JTR, 2018) ***½

By Kian Banihashemi

Kenny Wheeler's output as an artist is one that should be greatly admired. He collaborated with nearly everyone; from members of the jazz avant-garde to artists like David Sylvian. He remained busy playing and composing until the last year of his life, and even then his legacy remains forever in works such as this. The Vancouver based Hard Rubber Orchestra is a jazz orchestra that mostly tours Canada, playing original compositions a few times per year. This recording from 2016 is material that Wheeler composed for the group along with singer, and longtime Wheeler collaborator, Norma Winstone. My experience with Wheeler's music has been mostly centered around his ECM recordings, a label in which his music has served to support and expand its aesthetic. The 1976 album Gnu High served as my entry point into the ECM and Wheeler catalogs; it's an important record that showcases Wheeler's improvisational ability in a small setting. When I got around to the nearly two hour long Music for Large & Small Ensembles, I was blown away by the sheer composing power and intimacy Wheeler was able to produce in a "big band" environment. I see that same composing capability on this album, performed by some of Canada's finest and most dedicated jazz musicians.

The suite is made up of five sections with three improvisational duos in between. Lasting for about half an hour, this album seems to go by in the blink of an eye. The whole recording has a rich bombastic sound that transports the listener to the the dynamic atmosphere of a concert. "Movement I" leads with a swaying saxophone that is eventually joined with the array of horns, piano, and drums. Norma Winstone joins the conversation; her wordless vocals stimulate a back-and-forth that the other musicians eagerly respond to. Winstone's airy siren song builds in intensity until broken by a soulful, moody saxophone. This theme continues until the high energy finally, finishing up the longest movement on the album. One could mistake this as the finale, but the following bass and trumpet improvisation helps trigger a mysterious and anxious setting. The next two movements breath even more life into the music, Winstone and the trumpet solo on "Movement II" seem to be reaching up into sky beyond this terrestrial performance. There's quite a bit of swing going on here especially throughout "Movement III", as the music takes on an almost prideful summer feel. Winstone basks in this warm sunshine and leads the orchestra to rejoice in this same aura and comfort.

By this point I felt thoroughly surprised and ecstatic about this suite as a whole. I expected this to be a horn or trumpet heavy album, but in reality it's quite well rounded and eclectic in soloing and style. While all three of the improvisation sections do contain a trumpet, the duos are diverse in their approach and form. My favorite of these has to be "Improvisation II", as the piano and trumpet players seem to be on two totally different streams of thought. Normally I wouldn't find this to be preferable, yet they both find common ground and finish off as almost one entity. In those three minutes, these two talented musicians provide a narrative that is cinematic and engaging. "Improvisation II" is representative of the whole suite; while this album may take uncertain twists and turns, it always reaches the ideal destination. "Movement IV" expands upon that idea with smooth horn sections leading directly to a lamenting piano and mournful trumpet. The rhythm section adapts well too, as they're not as limited as they initially appear from the first few movements. There's a deeper dynamic going on that isn't readily heard on the first listen. "Improvisation III" focuses more on the trumpet and is probably the closest this record gets to achieving the atmospheric mood of ECM. The last movement sums up the performance in a very fulfilling manner, making some connections to the first movement along the way. The ending moments are respectfully grand without being pushy or excessive.

In many ways I wish this record was longer and that even more dynamic experimentation was displayed. Yet the short length allows multiple, relaxed listening sessions within a manageable period of time. Even after all these listens the music remains fresh, as if just plucked ripe from the tree of Wheeler compositions. While there isn't a clear focus on any certain musician or section, my ears gravitate towards the trumpet solos and Norma Winstone's voice. I'm sure there's some bias in there, but I also believe that without the necessary reinforcement their efforts would not be successful as they are. Thankfully those elements are present and serve as an integral support system for the risks that Winstone and the soloists are allowed to take. With all these creative excursions, one also discovers the captivating melodies that pitch their tents in the listener's ears. I often found myself humming some of the themes and musical phrases days after listening to this, without any sort of prompting. This suite is an excellent culmination of Wheeler's musical experience throughout his life, resulting in music that is exploratory while appealing to a broad audience. I'm not a huge fan of "big band" or jazz orchestras, but I trusted Kenny Wheeler to deliver and he surely did. This is not niche music, it's music for those who love to feel and are willing to take some risks along the way. Wheeler's music deserves to be played by talented devotees who translate his ideas into every note they put out. Hard Rubber Orchestra does exactly that.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Way Ahead - Bells, Ghosts, and Other Saints (Clean Feed, 2019) ****½

By Derek Stone

The Way Ahead:
André Roligheten tenor saxophone and clarinet | Kristoffer Alberts alto and baritone saxophone | Niklas Barnö trumpet | Mats Äleklint trombone | Mattias Ståhl vibraphone | Ola Høyer double bass | Tollef Østvang drums

There has been no shortage of projects influenced either directly or indirectly by visionary saxophonist Albert Ayler; from guitarist Noël Akchoté’s spare, captivating interpretations to the raucous redesigns that Healing Force give to Ayler’s late period, such projects give testament to the immense power that pulses in every syllable of Ayler’s ecstatic musical language.

On Bells, Ghosts, and Other Saints, Scandinavian septet The Way Ahead draw on this language for inspiration; they borrow certain syntactical elements seen time and time again in Ayler’s music, “Aylerisms” if you will, but shape those elements into distinctly their own. One of the aforementioned Aylerisms that makes itself felt throughout the record is an exploration of melodies that, while compositionally quite simple, lurch to-and-fro with a barely-contained sense of exultation and frenzy. The closer “Bells, Ghosts and Other Saints” is perhaps most explicit in its homage to Ayler; its central theme swaggers by like a drunkard at a victory march, with all of the celebratory swaying and shouted hurrahs that entails.

In many of the compositions, there’s a sense of things hanging together by the merest of threads. Opener “Eclipse” illustrates this well: throughout the piece, each player seems to be locked into their own frenetic monologue - on first listen, it’s not entirely clear how the different voices relate to each other, or if they do at all. Nevertheless, close attention (and the the way that the composition itself stumbles into coherence) reveals the mad logic underlying everything; like a Cubist painting that’s been cut up into pieces, scattered about, and reconstituted from memory - there’s a structure here, but one would be hard-pressed to abstract from it an easily parsable blueprint.

Not all of the pieces are so hectic. “Lakenskrekk” moves at an unhurried pace, its central theme more romantic than rowdy. After evocative solos from tenor saxophonist Roligheten and bassist Høyer, trombonist Äleklint engages in a fluid, almost comic soliloquy that serves to undercut the otherwise somber atmosphere. “Tåkefyrste” is a brief foray into darkness, and is perhaps more downtrodden and sinister than anything Ayler ever recorded - nevertheless, it serves as a palette-cleanser, preparing the listener for the rollicking big-band explosion of “Skremmerud.” Here, after a recitation of the central melody, it’s off to the races - with Høyer and Østvang providing the foundation (which is probably better likened to a ship’s swaying deck), the players engage in feverish repartee.

Tributes to Ayler may be somewhat common, but ones that make an attempt to grapple with the underlying spirit of his music (while simultaneously saying something new) are not so easy to find. On Bells, Ghosts and Other Saints, the Way Ahead show that “tribute” need not be shorthand for rote repetition and a fixation on the monumental figures of the past - here, these seven formidable players from Norway and Sweden take Ayler’s unabashedly American music and imbue it with their own idiosyncratic touch, creating something fresh and incredibly enjoyable to listen to.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Jessica Pavone - In the Action (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****

In the Action is the third solo viola album of New York-based experimental composer-improviser Jessica Pavone following Knuckle Under (Taiga records, 2014) and Silent Spills (Relative Pitch, 2016). She is also known from her singer-songwriter duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson, her work with Anthony Braxton's Tri-Centric Orchestra, the art-rock group JOBS, and her own String Ensemble. 

Pavone describes her intimate relationship with the viola as "larger-than comfortable”, and indeed, this short album (only 27-minutes long) emphasizes her idiosyncratic aesthetics. You may find yourself drawn into a minimalist universe characterized by its very own senses of time, space - the tangible, physical space between Pavone and the viola - and her belief that cultivating a strong physical body is a core part of her creative process - as well as the space of the recording studio, and the strange but engaging sounds and noises.

Pavone composed four distinct pieces for In the Action, all employing extended bowing techniques, and focusing on in repetition, song form, and sympathetic vibration, with clever usage of effects. The first one "Oscillatory Salt Transport" suggests a series of gentle, resonating waves that somehow bridge between the strict, highly disciplined minimalism of New York and sensual, folk melodies of the British isles. This piece actually refers to the waves of the ocean and how they are essentially pushing salt around the world, as mirroring cycles that occur in nature. On "And Maybe in the End" Pavone morphs a series of chords produced by strumming the viola strings through a chain of effects, suggesting a delicate and quite emotional ripples of electronic haze.

"Look Out - Look Out - Look Out" changes the atmosphere drastically and the acoustic sounds of the viola are processed and mutated so heavily that only repetitive, buzzing patterns of beating industrial noises are left, but as a kind of hypnotic spells from a friendly planet. The last title-piece was performed in a single take and here the acoustic viola of Pavone corresponds with a prepared electronic drone, patiently disciplines the noisy drone into evocative, song-based texture.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Canadian Composers Series Part II (Another Timbre, 2018) *****

By Nick Ostrum
“Canada is so vast, with so much distance between cities, and it is so far from most other countries; we are largely unexamined by the world, for the most part, left alone to explore and experiment. Maybe it means we have a harder time having our work appear on the stages of Europe or the US, but I have a sense that I can work unfettered, without having to fit into any particular aesthetic frame.” – Linda Catlin Smith
With the Canadian Composers Series, Another Timbre has taken on a mammoth project: introducing the world (read: people such as myself) to a sophisticated and vibrant creative music scene that is consistently overshadowed by larger, more established (or maybe just more famous) ones in the United States, Britain, and continental Europe.

When one thinks of avant-garde music, one tends not to think of Canada first. This series challenges such biases. In fact, rather than taking Canada’s liminality as a weakness, these discs highlight how the resultant lack of a hegemonic national style - whether endogenous or exogenously imposed - is an important defining feature of contemporary Canadian composition. As Nick Storring’s illuminative liner notes point out, the power of Canada’s contemporary music scene resides in its positionality between Europe and the United States, alternately an affinity with and “sense of detachment from the competitive hubbub” of these poles. It is “stereotypically Canadian: peripheral and observational, with a tendency to quietly gather these various competing ideas and try to synthesize them.” It has “fortified the nation’s inward focus” and produced a unique “plurality of unconventional directions” both a part of and apart from the wider western musical world.

Indeed, this second installment of the Canadian Composers Series lends veracity to this assessment. Although there are personal ties and even stylistic similarities among some of these composers (Rudolf Komorous and Christopher Butterfield, neither of whom is featured on these releases, are noted mentors to the majority of the artists featured here), there is no “school” represented. But, there are trends. There is a tendency toward quiet and minimalism that reflects a vastness reminiscent of the mid-century New York School vanguard. There are echoes of Steve Reich-styled phasing and an insistent focus on the melodic and tonal fragments that ultimately and sometimes surreptitiously make up the whole. The music is unquestionably contemporary and avant-garde, but somehow less gratingly or intentionally so than some other contemporary music that seems to push boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries rather than in pursuit of a desired aesthetic effect.

Cassandra Miller – O Zomer! (Another Timbre, 2018)
Cassandra Miller – About Bach (Another Timbre, 2018)

Cassandra Miller offers two single-disc contributions (performed by Quatuor Bozzini , Apartment House, Mira Benjamin, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) to this collection which, in their diversity and overall effect, may serve as a case-in-point. The title piece to her first, “O Zomer!,” begins with a soft, simple, repeating series that fades in and out. As instruments slowly join over the next four minutes, a rhythm emerges. Then, at around 4 and a half minutes, cacophony breaks out and continues until a retreat to the pulsing of the first few minutes at the piece’s conclusion. The second track involves gradually developing melancholic piano and whistling. The third, an engrossing solo violin deconstruction and contorted reinterpretation of Kurt Cobain’s vocals on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The fourth, a forceful, but, again, phasing statement of cello and orchestral wandering and fanfare. Miller’s other contribution, Just So is performed by the chamber quartet Quatuor Bozzini and consists of similar types of explorations of incremental building and phased repetition. “Warblework,” one of the most impactful tracks on this disc, is a meandering exploration of ebbs and flows, upper and lower tonal registers, and (surprise, surprise) instrumental warbling. “About Bach,” another standout piece that is a rearrangement/reinterpretation of the chorale from JS Bach’s Chaconne, consists of a theremin-like whistling and repeating viola that builds a theme around which the rest of the quartet harmonizes and prances.

Linda Catlin Smith – Wanderer (Another Timbre, 2018)

Linda Catlin Smith’s recording, Wanderer, is similarly minimalist and entrancing. Compositions are performed by different configurations of the ensemble Apartment House. On tracks such as “Morning Glory,” one hears echoes of Philip Glass and Stravinsky. On others, such as the second, John Cage seems the clear inspiration. Common to these tracks are a tenderness and softness, sometimes broken by stunted piano chords or fanfare. Melodies often fall in and out of unison. Many display a meandering, Feldman-esque circuity. Pieces such as “Sarabande” make consist of an ethereal harpsicord around which the ensemble wends a billowing, eerie path. (This track in particular brings to mind Magnus Granberg’s work.) “Velvet” is a dramatic conversation of two pianos conducted through sweeping, spacious fragments of scalar melody. The final track, “Light and Water,” consists simply of percussion and cello, and, as the other pieces, derives its power and beauty from its simplicity and aesthetic wistfulness.

Alex Jang – momentary encounters (Another Timbre, 2018)

The youngest of the composers featured in this collection, Alex Jang contributes a selection of intriguingly bare pieces performed by Apartment House. The first, “Momentary Encounters,” consists of field recordings (presumably of a park) and a humming solo clarinet. As field recordings do at their aleatory best, the blare of a horn on a barge passing outside my window briefly merged into the recorded soundscape almost unnoticed before it blended into the song’s underlying ambiance and disappeared altogether. I like this piece, though, at 15 minutes, the recordings of muffled voices and other background sounds lose some of their effect. The next two pieces accompany each other well. The first, “any three players,” consists of melodica, vibraphone, and cello playing elongated tones. Between the notes and their resonance, this song evoked the slow mapping of the tortuous staircases of MC Escher or the blueprints of detritus in William Monghan canvas: it flows in untraceable patterns in all directions. The following piece, seems a stripped-down version of the previous, consisting of sparse short metallic bursts from a guitar and evoking Wandelweiser-style minimalissimus. The final track has the largest configuration of instruments (five!) and is the most active and melodic. It is reminiscent of the work of Smith and is no less effective.

Lance Austin Olsen – Dark Heart (Another Timbre, 2018)

Lance Austin Olsen is the only composer in this collection whom I had previously listened to. A visual artist first, over the last decade or so Olsen has come around to electro-acoustic composition and performance and has released numerous albums on Another Timbre, Caduc, Infrequency Editions, and Suppedaneum. A survey of recent composition, this stands beside his other work with aplomb. Olsen focuses on soundscapes. The first track, “Theseus’ Breath,” is an abstracted reinterpretation of the mythic founder of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur. Performed by Apartment House, it consists of rumbles, high buzzes, screeches, plucked strings, and, at times, violent grinding amidst an otherwise steadily burgeoning, ominous ambiance. Its subtleties are quiet and disorienting. The next track, “Dark Heart,” is a collaboration with Terje Paulsen that layers sounds of static, guitar, voices, and crackling circuitry accumulated over several decades. As with the previous track, this piece hints at a narrative that is alternately foreboding and inscrutable. The next piece is a second realization of “Theseus’ Breath” with less conventional instrumentation (Ryoko Akama on turntable and melodica, Patrick Farmer on paper and cards, Isaiah Ceccarelli on reed organ and percussion and Katelyn Clark on organetto). The driving drone is more pronounced than the various rumblings on the first realization. The pace is also quicker, adding a degree of levity that somehow retains the mystery of the piece, if not necessarily in its more portentous expression. The final track, a realization of a score by Gil Sansón, resembles “Dark Heart” in its abstract ambient textures. It is filled with ocean sounds, chimes, wind, and other augmented, distant clangor interwoven with strikingly elongated undulating guitar tones. The effect is an odd combination of disorientation and calm. In its abstraction and instrumentation, this disc stands out in the series. At the same time, in its relentless experimentation and its manipulation of sound dynamics, space, and scale, it is absolutely fitting.

NB: There is also a first installment to this collection from 2017 that is not reviewed here. It is, however, covered in a 113-page companion booklet. Although much of its contents are available on the Another Timbre website, it is well worth the expense to obtain the physical copy of the music and the booklet. The artwork, much of which by Lance Austin Olsen, is beautiful. The writing, engaging and informative. Cheers to Another Timbre as well as all the artists involved for pulling together such an aesthetically beautiful introduction to a hitherto underappreciated group of Canadian composers.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Solo percussion - Da Capo

By Martin Schray

2018 really was a year for solo percussions albums. Stef presented an extensive twelve-album-overview on Christmas, Eric reviewed Chad Taylor’s extraordinary Myths and Morals and Lucas Niggli’s Alchemia Garden . However, there was another important release in 2018 and there’s already another one in 2019, both representing two very different approaches.

Rudi Fischerlehner - 15 8 Slum (Not Applicable, 2019) ****

Rudi Fischerlehner’s first solo album is a solo drum album in the true sense of the word. It’s just the man and his kit. In general, Fischerlehner’s music covers avant-garde, improv and advanced post-rock, he’s able to improvise freely and to use preconceived ideas. Projects like his duo Xenofox , Willing Suspension of Disbelief (his collaboration with Frank Paul Schubert), and Gorilla Mask prove that he’s one of the most interesting drummers in the German-speaking area at the moment (he’s from Austria). Asked about his musical development to date, Fischerlehner says that at its core there’s hardly “a concrete style, but rather a certain sound aesthetic. Above all, it’s a certain way of finding one's own role in various projects and contexts. Ears open, hear the whole thing, listening to each other“. Fischerlehner considers playing solo as a big challenge, for him the music is differently coloured compared to playing with others, it’s more extreme. What is more, he’s always been a big fan of solo percussion, his interests range from Iannis Xenakis to Milford Graves to Terry Bozzio. On 15 8 Slum he excluded the use of mallets, because he thought that the focus on what timbre and rhythm can express might be interesting.

The album title refers to a note about a rhythm in 15/8 lying side by side with German dramatist René Pollesch´s book “www-slums“ next to Fischerlehner’s drum kit. On 15 8 Slums the drummer’s music is full of harsh contrasts: complex polyrhythmic, dark constructions on the one hand (like in “Stasia“), sound colours completely freed from time on the other hand, e.g. in “Semta“. The eponymous word of this track comes from a science fiction novel by German writer Dietmar Dath and means something like “pure possibility“ in the language of a completely different people (compared to people on earth). Fischerlehner compares this idea to Rashied Ali’s "multidirectional playing“, it’s like offering something that can be heard in different ways, a statement that opens up possibilities. And the track offers different directions indeed, as if there were two drummers at work. Cymbals and bass drum seem to drift apart, a very abstract “groove“ on the hi-hat tries to hold the piece together.

However, my favourite track is “Ghost“, a piece which suddenly mutates from a hypnotic jungle beat which is mercilessly propelled by dark rhythms on the toms and the bass drum to a hailstorm with whip-like blows on snare and cymbals.

15 8 Slum is a journey into sound. Highly enjoyable. Not only for drummers.

The album is available as a CD.

You can buy and listen to it here:

Eli Keszler - Stadium (Shelter Press, 2018) ****

Eli Keszler is one of the percussionists who have released solo albums from the very beginning of their career. Untitled and Tilt (both on R.E.L. records; 2006 and 2009) follow very different approaches. While Tilt concentrates on pure, acoustic percussion, Untitled also includes electric piano and guitars played by him. On his last two albums, Last Signs of Speed and Stadium, Keszler follows the philosophy of adding different instruments like Farfisa organ, mellotron and piano (among other stuff) to his drum set in order to find out what an album which is filed under solo drumming can be and how it should sound. For Last Signs of Speed he put together a whole collection of sounds - hits, taps, scratches, rattles, creaks, clinks, thuds - created by his drum kit and the result sounded like a weird mixture of electronic music, drum’n’bass and ambient. Purists however, would rightfully claim that this has neither to do with jazz nor with a real solo drummer album. Stadium continues the tradition of its predecessor, it’s an album that rather reminds me of the instrumental parts of Flying Lotus’s Until the Quiet Comes, especially the opening track “Measurement Doesn’t Change the System At All”, in which a cool breakbeat meets spherical soundscapes. Tracks like this contrast bumpier ones like “Lotus Awnings“ and “Flying for U.S. Airways“, which are more abstract and display complex shifts in structure and instrumentation. Especially the subtle hidden sounds in the background, the glockenspiel in the latter and the mellotron in the first, add a certain liveliness and tension to the pieces. The album’s biggest quality is its relaxed, yet dark nature and how all the tiny sound make up a greater whole. Especially the last track, “Bell Underpinnings”, in which vibraphones dance over a dark electronic bass beat, is spooky and beautiful at the same time.
Stadium is available on vinyl, CD and as a download.

You can order and listen to the album here:

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Joëlle Léandre ‎– Strings Garden (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2018) ****

By Colin Green

“Flowers are recognisably ourselves elsewhere” (Alice Oswald)

This 3-CD set is a collection of duos between double bassist Joëlle Léandre, an enthusiastic gardener, and other members of the string family. The recitals ascend through the registers and bear horticultural titles. She plays with Bernard Santacruz (double bass) on ‘Trees’, Gaspar Claus (cello) on ‘Leaves’ – performances from Paris and its environs in 2016 – and Théo Ceccaldi (viola and violin) on ‘Flowers’, from Warsaw in 2017. The duo is her favoured format, although she considers it the most demanding: like a mirror but also a duel, a place in which conversation finds its best balance and where the subtlest and richest relationships exist, yet always on hot coals. As with any drama, without conflict or variance, echo and opposition, there is no interest. For Léandre, live performance also matters, “The public is touched by this fragility, this energy, these bodies giving themselves to each other, this force.” The complex array of such risks and responses is heard right across these three encounters, criss-crossing the ambiguous line between divergence and shared expression, with each partnership inhabiting its own particular domain. All the performances are unamplified so that we hear the full range of natural timbres and overtones the instruments deliver.

The elegant cover design, typical of Fundacja Słuchaj! releases, merges the ƒ-hole of a string instrument with the stem of a budding plant, placed beside the names of the four musicians each above a string, four being the number on their respective fiddles of which there are four in kind. String instruments are made from trees and analogies with cultivation and the natural world – its abundant diversity, cycles of growth and decay, organic structures, etc. – are fruitful ways of considering the medium and processes of free improvisation, but it’s doubtful such thoughts were directly in the minds of the musicians while playing, and the improvisations on each date probably weren’t inspired by trees, leaves, then flowers. These are retrospective associations in respect of music which is essentially about itself, though potentially redolent of so much more as only something as abstract as music can be. Perhaps improvisation, when contemplated through the prism of nature, allows us to ruminate on things deep-rooted and eternal, free of artifice, like in a Zen Buddhist temple garden where the latent meanings of natural elements are disengaged and become reflections of ourselves. As Léandre has said, sometimes the music is stronger than the music.

On the first disc, a concert given at 22, rue Victor Massé, she and Bernard Santacruz survey the lowest registers of the string group. The double bass is the largest instrument and its deep resonances can be felt by player and audience alike, giving its assortment of slow-moving vibrations a very tactile appeal, the archetype of woody sound. This is why Charlie Haden played with his head next to the bass, so he could feel the instrument. And not just him: one night at the Five Spot, playing with Ornette, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins with his eyes closed, he opened them to see a man onstage crouching with his ear next to the ƒ-hole – “Ornette was like, “That’s Leonard Bernstein!” And I was like, “Okay . . .”

There are no audible signs of such audience participation here, but the air seems to move visibly with the weight of two double basses as the duo become acquainted in ‘Tree No. 1’ (Santacruz left, Léandre right) moving from open strings into a gritty dialogue. During the performance, Santacruz utilises vibrations of all degrees: picks, snaps, slaps, buzzing on the fingerboard, taps and knocks on the body. He plays primarily pizzicato while Léandre mostly bows, a sort of contrast and compare of the two principal ways the instrument can be sounded as well as intensifying individual character. During ‘No. 2’, they work in reciprocal motion as Santacruz assembles tight note clusters in relief while Léandre carves out edgy splinters, and on ‘No. 3’ her declamatory, recitative-like line is set against his prickly cross-rhythms, distinct but each reinforcing the other. The bass is not just a mighty cedar; it can be transformed into a something having the scale of a bonsai tree, as on ‘No. 5’, in which both commence by playing arco, exposing the multiple oscillations of bow hair drawn across tensile wire, before dividing and exploring a mysterious realm populated by insect murmurs and unstable rhythms. ‘No. 6’ leads with Léandre’s wandering tune, now languid, now agitated, shadowed by Santacruz’ solid, reverberant plucks; a duologue in two tongues.

The set with Gaspar Claus on cello was recorded at Le Triton in Les Lilas, whose website has a video of the performance. From that we can hear how the duo’s rapport became more adventurous as they progressed, beginning with pieces in empathetic twining that underline the kinship of their instruments. Interestingly, the sequencing differs on the album – for example: the second improvisation is moved to the penultimate position – a presentation of the duo’s relationships which is less a curve, more a series of balancing contrasts. (It’s a pity their final number has been omitted, that concludes with a dreamy, quasi-Baroque chaconne, impassioned then slowly ebbing away to the accompaniment of Léandre’s soft humming.) A number of the pieces are dominated by rolling, overlapping arpeggios and impasto chords, closely spaced layers thick with string sonority, from which there emerge snatches of Andalusian melody on the cello as if caught in the wind. Elsewhere, there are rustling creaks and twittering high notes, filmy textures and percussive exchanges as the pair jointly explore the available ground. Claus even resorts to playing the end pin of his cello.

At times, Léandre is inspired to sing while she plays. There’s something significant about the voice, which quite literally gives voice to something different in kind from the sound produced by external instruments. The human body, using its principal means of expression, is itself the instrument and that seems to give singing a special expressive status when it bursts forth above purely instrumental activity. With Léandre, it introduces a new emotional pitch and adds an extra dimension though quite often it’s not really singing, more chanting and incantations: words without meaning that make a different sort of sense, recited like spells, and moans and cries that have a theatrical presence as if the stage were converted into a ritual circle drawing on the magic of the spirit world. Part of its power is that it defies explanation, but we hear the effect in ‘Leaf No. 7’ as her whispers grow to throaty exhortations sounding out over the duo’s gutsy bowing, injecting a soulful urgency.

And so to the DZiK venue in Warsaw, where Léandre is joined by Théo Ceccaldi, switching between viola and violin, another step in their journey after the wonderful Elastic (Cipsela, 2016). With its use of folk-like material, this performance occupies a more homogenous world than the others in the set, having the warm intimacy of chamber music. The viola’s velvety tone has appealed to many, from Mozart to Mat Maneri, often in music of a melancholic nature. Certainly, some of these pieces sound as if they spring from a deep sense of mourning. Throbbing, melismatic figures on the bass are repeated without resolution or respite, a setting over which Ceccaldi unfurls dark lamentations, drawn out in long arcs, in a ceremony that seems to offer some solace. On ‘No. 5’, Léandre creates a tracery of harmonics and lightly grazed strings to support his sorrowful phrases, piercing more fiercely as they climb.

Such tracks are interspersed with different kinds of string work. ‘Flower No. 1’ is a web of shimmers and refractions; ‘No. 3’ an exercise in plucked cross-pollination; ‘No. 7’ consists of a patchwork of swelling notes, scuffles and taut staccato interjections; and in ‘No. 8’ the pair set up an antiphonal exchange of biting double stops, pushing at one another until they move into a region of quieter intensity. On the final track, Léandre’s bouncing, scratchy bow provides a rhythmic counterpoint to the violin’s serene melody, blooming and becoming more florid as it moves higher. The piece ends with a diminuendo in which the strings merge and gently dissolve into air – it might be said, like cherry blossom – in an amalgam of sound, sight and feeling. A poignant conclusion to this recital and the collection as a whole, deserving a place alongside the best of Léandre’s duo recordings

The set can be ordered, and is available as a download from Bandcamp.

Part of another performance by Léandre and Santacruz from Le Triton in September last year, presumably to mark the release of this album:

Friday, February 22, 2019

James Brandon Lewis - An Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

During Winter Jazz Fest 2018, I caught a whiff of saxophonist James Brandon Lewis' group that recorded An UnRuly Manifesto. At the time, I thought it was one of the best set that I caught at the festival and the recording does not dispel the notion.

Last year Lewis released a duo recording called 'Radiant Imprints' (see review below), that demonstrates his big, fiery, but never unruly, tenor sound with only the spare backing of Chad Lewis’ drums. On An UnRuly Manifesto he fronts a quintet, featuring his trio members (heard on No Filter from 2017) Luke Stewart on bass (check out Stewart’s own solo recording), Warren Trae Crudup III  on drums, and augmented by trumpeter Jaimie Branch and guitarist Anthony Pirog. In the spirit of the aforementioned recordings, the music here is a well considered blast of energy generously comprised of free, funk, and fact-finding parts.

The first track, "Year 59 Insurgent Imagination", really just an intro, begins the album with an appeggiated figure from the guitar and a slow melody from the two horns, it then settles into a deep ostinato, with a repetitive chord pattern and moving bass line on the title track. Branch delivers the first salvo here, a tuneful introduction of the melody, to which Lewis then replies. However, the restraint is palpable, and the first bit of tension is released when Lewis and Branch deliver a tandem melody. Finally, Lewis is let go. He begins building a ever fiercer solo statement over the rumble of Crudup's drumming and Stewart's bass. The 10 minute track is reminiscent of the modal 'spiritual' jazz, and is a wonderful gateway into the music of An UnRuly Manifesto

Following this is another short introductory track, "Pillar 1 A Joyful Acceptance", a melodically soothing ride on the Love Boat for a few seconds before "Sir Real Denard"'s. tight funk groove. Stewart gives an abstract electric bass solo, tweaked with effects, that segues into a sensory guitar solo, then into a squishy trumpet passage. However, the whole time the action is with the drummer whose taught pulse and precise hits and rolls, is in ... umm ... harmolodicism with the others. "The Eleventh Hour", a slow burner, provides, at first at least, some relief from the intensity of the previous track. However, by mid-point, concentric guitar and bass riffs, raise the pressure quite a bit, pushing and pulling and playing with dynamics, and giving Lewis the space to stretch out with one of his earthy, funky, and simultaneously out there excursions. Later, "Escape Nostalgic Prisons" is a fierce freely improvised piece where the group goes for broke, but something in the interactions still keeps it grounded. 

Perhaps that is what I like about this album the most - it stays rooted in fecund soil even as it stretches out, sprouting ideas and new lush greenery as it goes. The core trio of Lewis, Stewart, and Crudup, are pretty unbeatable team and adding the other instruments is a masterstroke. Pirog's guitar work is formidable but always serves to better the whole organism, Branch's trumpet work adds color and light. Final assessment: totally worth your precious pennies!

James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor - Radiant Imprints (Off Record Label, 2018) ****

Drummer Chad Taylor is no stranger to the duo format. As one half of the ever engagging Chicago Underground Duo with Rob Mazurek, he has perfected the art of making the drums sound like a whole band. Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis' playing has a similar impact. Thus, on the duo outing Radiant Imprints, there is hardly a moment where you notice that it's only two musicians. 

The album starts with the track "Twenty Four", where Taylor kicks off the track alone on the floor tom-toms. Then Lewis joins with an upbeat melody that had me thinking of his contemporary Jon Irabagon just a bit. Lewis delivers a seamless stream of musical thoughts and motives until he hands the spotlight over to Taylor who builds on the momentum further. The track "Loved One" follows with Lewis performing in the opening moments alone. The melody is defiant, but a little sad, which is to say there is a yearning embodies in its trip through the octaves. The track "Imprints" had me scrambling to see if it was an Impressions-period John Coltrane tune - it has a similar logic to it's construction, but at the same time is something all its own. Over Taylor's taught support, Lewis spirals outwards from this core, spinning a truly engaging and fiery tune. For a contrasting example, the Mbiri dominated "First Born" is an unusual and gentle duet - presumably lullaby - that exudes a different type of musical warmth.

Radiant Imprints is a fantastic and absorbing drum and sax duo that strikes a great balance between accessibility and adventurousness.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Evelyn Davis, Fred Frith, Phillip Greenlief – Lantskap Logic (Clean Feed, 2018) *****

By Nick Ostrum

I imagine guitarist Fred Frith needs little introduction on these pages. Pipe organist Evelyn Davis and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, however, may. At least, they were unfamiliar to me before I picked up this fine album. The result of this collaboration is grand and refined. It displays a patience, complexity, unity of purpose, and responsiveness that is quite impressive. And, it is deep. There are myriad threads and twists to follow, tangles to untie. If not careful or if otherwise preoccupied, it can be easy for the listener to get engrossed and lost in Lantskap Logic.

The first track, “Your ever loving arms,” begins with an organ, a swoosh, and a punctured saxophone drone. Greenlief weaves around the steady and welling low-tones as they repeatedly glissando and crescendo. The layers become denser and Davis’s organ comes to provide the steady, though subtly changing thread that provides the base around which Frith and Greenlief meander to powerful effect. Over the course of this track, it opens. The tones elevate. Rather than evoking gloom as some of the albums I recently reviewed have, this one evokes light and elevation. Rather than congestion, one feels space, motion, and, at the end, elation. Listening to this track is like travelling a path towards some abstract state of elation. The textures are deep, varied, and changing.

“With us or without us” begins with a gurgling and whistling, soon accompanied by a distant, repeating bass thump and augmented, metallic sounds. (I am not sure if Frith or Davis is responsible, but Davis is known for playing the interior of the organ as well as the keys.) Frith’s screeching guitar soon enters the picture as Greenlief’s saxophone settles into more idiomatic, elongated notes. These three musicians are conjuring something unique, here. This piece is heavier and more menacing than the first. The background bubbling and thudding lend a layer of portent to the otherwise industrial soundscape. About halfway through, the song approaches a brightness, but a persistent siren halts the progress. A droning hum and pulsing wisps and scrapes steer the track away from dawn, beyond twilight, and towards gloam. The sounds are still dense, however, and I wonder if I this is not also unsettling because of its luridness. This track in particular brings to mind a Utech records aesthetic, albeit not quite as metallic and despairing. Indeed, as the track turns with Frith’s broken trill and a Greenlief’s cavernous horn, Davis introduces a lighter progression of chords that, together, cut the tension. This track does not reach the level of ecstasy of “Your ever loving arms.” Still, it offers a glimmer of reconciliation, whether hope or acceptance, at its end. Absolutely stunning.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

New Monuments – New Earth (Pleasure Of The Text Records, 2018) ***½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Following you own path is, most probably, the shortest way to become unpopular. It happens in real life and also in the music business. The three musicians that have just released the fourth statement as The New Monuments (Don Dietrich on tenor sax and electronics, Ben Hall on drums and C. Spencer Yeh on violin and electronics) seem to achieve exactly the opposite: making a career by just following their path.

I first listened to Ben Hall through the small rotation of musicians then called The Graveyards. The Graveyards had their moments of brilliance but they seemed determined to record and put out trillions of CDRs, cassettes and some vinyl. I might be a bit picky here, but if only their discography had been minimized to a third or even half, we would now be talking about one of the most important groups in experimental music for the 00’s.

There isn’t much to say about Don Dietrich that hasn’t been said or written. Even though I’m not a big fan, Borbetomagus radicalized free jazz, combined elements of noise with jazz before even the former term existed musically. Altogether they broke all boundaries.

I really enjoy C. Spencer Yeh’s denial of letting himself being confined to one genre or sound. First listened to him through his work will the mighty Flaherty-Corsano duo, but since then he has easily defied any categorization. Call it noise, jazz, electronic experimentalism, whatever you want.

All the above have delved deep into the New Monuments’ all-is-possible sound approach. This time, through Nate Wooley’s Pleasure Of The Text label, they put their electronic side up front and leave not so much to all of us sax aficionados. Do not get me wrong though. New Earth is, first and foremost, a free jazz blowout of high energy and pathos. Ben Hall struggles to follow the pace of the other two. His work on the trap set seems amazing to my untrained ears, a barrage of polyrhythmic mayhem equal (and that is something) to the saxophone of Dietrich. Maybe judging more from my jazz perspective I enjoyed all his gestures. His playing is certainly jazzy but in the loose way the free jazz tradition managed to liberate all percussionists. It sometimes seemed that there wasn’t enough room for him to breathe musically, so he constantly tried to make something of his own.

Knowing that this is an antithesis to their collective playing, I must comment that Yeh and Dietrich seemed to be the leaders in New Earth. They tend to dominate the trio’s sound with great use of electronics, which, to be totally frank, is to me the only disadvantage of this excellent recording. Sometimes the sound of New Earth is all electronics and drums, losing the organic unity they have achieved in previous recordings. Maybe it’s a new path they try to experiment with. We’ll just have to wait and see. Until then I really enjoyed New Earth, especially the parts were they seem totally loose, free and aggressive with their instruments and less with electronics. The parts, like most of the sixteen minutes of the opening track Old Monuments (now that it think of it, is this track a way to wave goodbye to their old sound?), were Hall’s percussion is matched with Dietrich’s tenor sax and the struggling screeches and noises of Yeh’s violin, are utterly satisfying.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Don Cherry Trio - Studio 105, Paris 1967 (Hi Hat Records, 2018) ****

By Kat Whatley

I dare you to listen to this record and not smile at least once. This record is light, enjoyable and full of Don Cherry. Just like Cherry at his best, it is fun, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is wonderfully free.

This record showcases Cherry at a point of change. He’s transitioning from the US to Europe—from the free jazz element to something approximating free, improvised world music. Spiritual jazz as some people have called it. His cornet playing is spot on, but so are his other more eccentric musical instrument choices. (Though I’m always cautious of the gong, its use in 'Infant Happiness', followed by a killer coronet performance is spot on).

This record is a veritable time capsule. It’s Paris in 1967 and Cherry and his trio are performing on French radio. A young Karl Berger, who would later become well known for his role in starting the Creative Music Studio, is playing vibes, marimba among other percussion instruments. Drums are performed by Jacques Thollet, known more for his work with the Palm record label, based in France, founded by Jef Gilson and active in the 1970’s. They are all at the peak of their game, laying the groundwork for the spiritual, otherworldly jazz that is to come a few years later. The pieces sometimes have an unfinished feeling, probably because it is a radio recording, but also because this is just the start of the inventive music to come in the years to follow.

The record is classic Don Cherry—fast, eclectic, with hardly any moment of rest. This performance’s music is bright, vibrant and full of fast paced texture. Though at times the coronet provides moments of solemnity, it’s invariably followed by a joyful explosion of colorful sound. And if there’s anything to criticize about the music, it’s that. The record could have had a few more moments of silence, quiet in amidst the frantic rhythms. But perhaps that betrays the music’s origins as a radio broadcast; it might have been easier for audiences via radio to have listened to a fast-paced piece, instead of a more contemplative textural drone, as some of Cherry’s later music is. And, the performance is a laboratory of sorts—the musicians are trying to get out everything they can.

Though I normally only listen to music at home, this time I happened to start listening to this record while wandering around the city, taking the train and walking around. Without even noticing, I had a kind of bounce, a skip in my step. It was the perfect music for a bright and sunny day, full of potential. It’s enjoyable and approachable and doesn't take itself too seriously. A wonderfully Cherry album.

Don Cherry: Cornet, piano, bamboo flute, gong
Karl berger: Vibes, marimba, paiano, cleste, percussion
Jacques Thollet: drums, bell, timbales

Monday, February 18, 2019

Three (more) from Christopher Hoffman

By Keith Prosk

Christopher Hoffman had a productive 2018. The cellist recorded on Henry Threadgill’s Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus and Dirt… And More Dirt as well as his own Multifariam and Arrow Of Light and Josh Sinton’s making bones..., the latter three of which are covered here. He’s already back at it in 2019, appearing on Anna Webber’s Clockwise.

Christopher Hoffman - Multifariam (Asclepius Records, 2018) ***

Multifariam is 16 vignettes across 37 minutes featuring the large cast of Aaron Kruziki (flute, bass, clarinet, loops), Tony Malaby (tenor sax), Christina Courtin (voice, violin, loops), Michael Bailey (synths, loops), Michael Pitt (voice), Frank Locrasto (Rhodes, Juno, Arp, Panther), Jeremiah Cymerman (clarinet, loops), Ari Chersky (guitar, loops), Craig Weinrib (Drums), and Gerald Cleaver (drums) alongside Christopher Hoffman (cello, loops, bass, keys). Explicitly influenced by MF Doom, Miles Davis, Terry Riley, and John Carpenter, these electroacoustic sketches utilize loops and tone rows to approach a result that in turns resembles hip hop beat tapes and action film scores, or sometimes a jazz-rock that reminds me of Face Ditch and Caveman Shoestore. It’s a fun collage. But its glossy production aesthetic that sometimes sounds like bad blockbuster narratives read might be too cheesy for some listeners. I’m a sucker for the stereotypical cathartic end of films - that feel-good moment after the storm - and tracks like “A Ghost,” “Frontier Surgeon,” and “In Higher Frequencies,” with their delicate, lullaby-like melodies and minor-key drones and bowed strings, fit that mood perfectly. Another standout is “The Upper Chambers,” where a flute drowned in delay and chorus effects is met with Hoffman’s bowing, like an espionage flick in the near east. Given that Hoffman is an aspiring film-maker and making headway into the realm of film (touting relationships with Martin Scorsese and Michael Pitt, whose voice appears on “Quieting”), this is an interesting and worthwhile step towards what will undoubtedly be an increased emphasis on film scoring when he’s not playing premier jazz ensembles.

Multifariam is a digital-only release available here.

Christopher Hoffman - Arrow Of Light (Asclepius Records, 2018) ***

Arrow of Light is a short (4 tracks, 18 minutes) acoustic trio with Adam Hopkins (bass) and Craig Weinrib (drums) accompanying Hoffman (cello). It almost feels staid. Hoffman’s often soloing over a fairly static rhythm section. “The Purge” and “The Election” are nearly head-improvisation-head structures. And the latter is an improvisation on “Oh! Susanna” teetering on the edge of feeling like a sterile Ayler take. However, the recording is nearly all bowed cello - pretty satisfyingly emotive bowed cello at that - which is a treat considering Hoffman more often plucks the instrument on most other recordings. And, despite my reservations previously stated, I find myself enjoying the “The Election” and “The Purge” most. The latter begins with Hoffman and Hopkins plucking a harmony and then some almost-eastern cello soloing over the rhythm section before moving to Hoffman and Hopkins bowing a harmony that transitions to bowed counterpoint before closing out with the plucked head.

Arrow Of Light is a digital-only release available here. Purchasing Multifariam from Hoffman’s site gets you a free copy of Arrow Of Light.

Josh Sinton’s Predicate Trio - making bones... (Iluso Records, 2018) ****

Josh Sinton’s Predicate Trio features the multi-reedist (on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet here) alongside Hoffmann on cello and Tom Rainey on drums, and it debuts on making bones, taking draughts, bearing unstable millstones pridefully, idiotically, prosaically . It’s 47 minutes across 9 tracks, recorded in single takes on a single day at Buckminster Forest. Sinton and Hoffman have recorded together before, on at least Yoni Kretzmer’s Months, Weeks and Days and The Tri-Centric Orchestra’s Agora, Questions of Transfiguration, Vogelfrei, and the synergy shows, with Hoffman often complimenting Sinton’s space when he’s not harmonizing with him. That harmonizing, like on “bell-ell-ell-ell-ells,” “unreliable mirrors,” or “propulse,” recalls the way harmony was used in the music of Steve Lacy, of whom Sinton is a disciple, except it will fluidly transform from and to counterpoint. Though it often seems Hoffman is playing with Sinton more than Rainey, rhythmic interludes on “bell-ell-ell-ell-ells” and “propulse” cast away any doubt that Hoffman/Rainey are a powerful rhythmic unit by the time Sinton returns to the fold. But the stand-out moments, of which there are several, most often come when the trio is playing all together or alone. Like the syncopated sax, punctuating bass drum, and bowed cello vamp recalling “Dogon A.D.” on “taiga” and hissed air notes and gurgling, bass rumbling, and plucked cello sounding like an insect crawling on “unreliable mirrors.” Or the sultry, multiphonic Sinton solos bookending the album - “mersible” on clarinet and “plumbum” on sax - and the fragile, plucked Hoffman solo beginning “a dance.” And, though complex compositions and bravura are present, the emphasis is always on emotivity. A very solid recording for each musician and the trio. Here’s to hoping the collaboration continues.

making bones is available digitally and on CD.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Universal Eyes/Wolf Eyes – Two Civilized Centers (Lower Floor, 2018) ***½

By Nick Ostrum

What can one say about Nate Young and John Olson, the binding elements of this split recording? Readers of these pages might recognize their duo (formerly a trio with Aaron Dilloway) Wolf Eyes through their 2006 collaboration with Anthony Braxton Black Vomit or their devasting 2004 breakthrough Burned Mind. Others who are more hardcore or just more informed than I might even recognize Olson and Dilloway’s work with Gretchen Gonzales Davidson in Universal Indians from the late 1990s. Two Civilized Centers is less aggressive than those releases, but, I think, nearly as potent.

It begins with a steady pulsing beat. Electrified sax and synth effects slowly build around the baseline palpitations and gradually layer into a surprisingly rhythmic piece of music reminiscent of early Krautrock a la early Sprung aus den Wolken or, in the periodic muted vocals, some of the more minimalist Sonic Youth side-projects. As has been customary with more recent Wolf Eyes output, the tension bubbles just under the surface. The overall effect is entrancing, until it disintegrates into a demented circus of fragmented techno beats at its end. Solid, compelling Wolf Eyes all the way.

The other side to this cassette and digital release is occupied by Universal Eyes. Two parts Wolf Eyes (Young and Olson), one part Dilloway, and one part Davidson. One can hear the similarity between this configuration and Wolf Eyes. Indeed, both sound as if they are writing a soundtrack for some desolate, postindustrial landscape. That said, the aesthetic effect is quite different. The first Universal Eyes track, “Civilized Two,” has no traceable rhythm or recurring beat. Rather, the backbone of the piece is a stream of interlacing hums. Partial melodies, electronic hisses, pumping gears, and electro-metallic echoes fade in and out of perception. “Civilized Three” consists of similar elements and evokes similarly bleak environs. The music is somewhat softer, but just as disturbing. One hears howls and fog-horns, metal clanks and various other drips, hums, and clangor. It is difficult for the listener to find consistent threads to latch onto. But, maybe that is the purpose. One must wander in search of something familiar on which to fixate. In this soundscape, however, one only finds the whisper of a melody, the remnant or premature abandonment of a steady beat, and the ghosts of a freshly departed (or at least unrecognizable) civilization. Then again, one also gets the sense that all of this is also a celebration not necessarily of that barrenness, but of the those who stayed behind to revel in the newly open musical space. In other words, this is not just noise. It has real nuance and vision, as one might expect from this seasoned group of musicians.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Universal Eyes – Four Variations On Artificial Society (Lower Floor Music, 2018) ****

When you look up on discogs for Four Variations On Artificial Society, you find it categorized as noise, industrial, free improvisation, free jazz and ambient. By immediately discarding the latter two musical styles, you definitely get an idea of what you are about to listen.

A few months back I attended the three day Wolf Eyes/Universal Indians and friends residency at London’s Café Oto and I must remind to all of you (like me) suffering from reviews overdose, that most of it was a blast. The line-up of Nate Young, John Olson, Aaron Dilloway and Gretchen Gonzales-Davidson (the same on this recording as well) put on a performance of industrial beauty more than once. I found Young’s surrealistic poetry a key element to all this, an element truly missing from Four Variations On Artificial Society.

I have to be honest and admit that since I’m a fan of Eyes’ music, it’s difficult to make truly subjective thoughts about their music and its impact and aesthetics. But, by watching them live for the first time, I realized that their lyrics play an integral part to what they do, a part missing from this recording. So, in case you missed it, I was being ironic and skeptical when I mentioned, in the beginning of this piece, that the music on this recording can be easily categorized.

Thankfully it’s not that simple and this recording, after repeated listening, has a lot more to offer. The cd contains of five tracks (unlike vinyl which has four side-long tracks), all of them named after their length. The first track, the longest one, marks a lazy start for the album. Its noisy atmosphere sounds like an aggressive power electronics group trying to imitate the Wolf Eyes sound. Sixteen minutes of atmospheric murk made by all sorts of electronic devises. As the tracks progress, the quartet seems more focused and relaxed. John Olson’s sax presents itself as a key element of their current sound. I hear harmony and melody in reverse. Another attack on normality maybe or even on categorizations.

A lot of feedback consists their current mood, while rhythmic machinery constitutes one of their most industrial releases in their entire career. On track three reverb takes over to alienate the listener from the warmth (i must remind you that I’m a fan) of their music. On track four rhythms coming from the early days of industrial music dominate over some distant dystopian voices and a sax struggling to be heard. But on track five the saxophone takes over completely, followed by reminisces of their early cheap electronic equipment (and they sound it produced) days.

I started this review by implying that this album sounded like a summary of their sound. Those were my early thoughts when I first listened to it. I felt disappointed. By the time I started to listen over and over I found myself in a position of realizing that their vision has not yet waned. It has just simply mutated into something else, a new vocabulary that consists more aesthetic choices than noise even though back then noise was urgently needed. Just put on more Young’s cut-up like lyrics please guys.


Friday, February 15, 2019

Steph Richards – Take the Neon Lights (Birdwatcher Records, 2019) ****½

By Troy Dostert

Fullmoon , last year’s formidable debut release from trumpeter Steph Richards, turned a lot of heads with its audacious concept and Richards’s stunning technique. Though barely over 30 minutes in length, that album, which featured Dino J.A. Deane in electronic dialogue with Richards in making sonic landscapes both transfixing and forbidding, put Richards on the map alongside some of the superior trumpet innovators of our day—musicians like Susana Santos Silva, Peter Evans, and Nate Wooley.

As good as Fullmoon is, it is perhaps an easier album to respect and to appreciate than it is to love; it has a very experimental aspect, and although it’s well-crafted and impressive in its execution, and even offers some fleeting moments of beauty, the overall mood of the record is rather cold and austere. All of which makes Richards’s sophomore release, Take the Neon Lights, so astonishing. For this music exudes a warmth that makes it a much more inviting record, even on the first listen. But the fact that it’s a more accessible recording takes nothing away from Richard’s artistry; indeed, what’s notable about this album is the way in which her creativity and imagination as a composer complement her fearsome instrumental technique so effectively, making music that is both virtuosic and beautiful in equal measure.

Richards draws deeply from her love of poetry here, and she’s taken inspiration from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Allen Ginsberg among others for each of the album’s eight pieces. The title of the album and its opening track, for example, is taken from Langston Hughes’s “Juke Box Love Song.” Richards decided to use a quartet for this record, with conventional “jazz” instrumentation: pianist James Carney, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer Andrew Munsey. Although Carney uses a bit of prepared piano on a couple of the tracks and Richards employs a prepared trumpet on “Brooklyn Machine”—really effectively, I might add, as you will listen to this track at least two or three times in disbelief that there’s no overdubbing on it—that’s about the extent of the technical curveballs here. The bulk of the album is simply superb, top-shelf improvising around Richards’s fluid, open-ended compositions.

Some of the tracks jump right out at you: “Take the Neon Lights” and “Brooklyn Machine” at times possess an irresistible rhythmic momentum. But even these pieces don’t rest on melodic foundations as much as fragments and structures that can remain as malleable as possible: ostinato figures and thematic motifs come and go, rhythm and tempo contract and expand, and the result is music that is continually in motion, continually evolving. You won’t find yourself humming along to these pieces, but you will go back to them again and again to appreciate new dimensions of their engaging complexity.

Other tracks are just as riveting, albeit using a less direct approach to make their presence known. “Time and Grime” stays at a low simmer, with Minaie and Munsey keeping a loose pulse going as Richards and Carney exchange ideas back and forth, while the haunting “Rumor of War” is much more abstract, with Richards’s emotive trumpet floating ominously above the rest of the quartet’s elusive surface. But the lengthiest pieces, “Skull of Theatres” and “Stalked by Tall Buildings” are especially captivating, each at over ten minutes, giving the four musicians plenty of room to explore Richards’s capacious creations. They both have the feel of a long, winding journey, taking the listener through a range of emotional and rhythmic registers that never fail to sustain interest, and in which the four players work wonderfully together as a finely-honed unit.

Making quite clear that she is not merely to be regarded as an “experimental” musician, Richards’s Take the Neon Lights is sure to garner wider interest and visibility, and that’s all to the good, as her music has so much to offer.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

freejazzblog on air: One World, Many Visions. Jazz als Global Music

freejazzblog on air, the creation of Martin Schray and Julia Neupert is on air again - on SWR2 in southern Germany, broadcasting 11 p.m. CET on Friday the 15th, and online for the following week.

"One world, many visions. Jazz as global music". It includes music by Don Cherry, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joshua Abrams' Natural Information Society, Karkhana, Konstrukt, Gato Libre (feat. Satoko Fuji), Okkyung Lee and Switchback.

Listen now online here:

Heaven - IAPOE (Clean Feed, 2018) ***½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Heaven is the duo of Danish tenor sax player Henrik Pultz Melbye, known from the avant-rock group SVIN, his experimental solo projects, and his free jazz trio, and Norwegian powerhouse drummer Ole Mofjell, member of the Scandinavian supergroup The Big Yes and a collaborator of Danish pianist Jacob Anderskov, Dutch sax player Tobias Delius, American guitarist Thurston Moore and various projects of vocalist-partner Natalie Sandtorv.

Heaven's debut album, IAPOE, titled as an abbreviation of the first letters of the five pieces - Is-A-Place-On-Earth (a title that echoes Laurie Anderson’s opening lines of her iconic song “Language is a Virus”: Paradise / Is exactly like / Where you are right now / Only much much / Better”), was recorded in Copenhagen’s district Vanløse in September 2017. IAPOE presents the first phase of this working duo while the duo is preparing its next one, a Scandinavian tour with trumpeter Nate Wooley in the beginning of 2019.

Heaven's music, as you may expect, is fast, dense and super-energetic, rooted in old and newer schools of free-jazz and free-improv from both sides of the Atlantic. But Heaven adds an interesting twist to the sax-drums format, introducing a sensual, playful Ethiopian vein to its muscular and urgent interplay, and intertwines fierce, powerful attacks with melodic call-and-answer themes. This kind of Ethiopian singing vibe sneaks naturally into Heaven’s explosive energy and spin the restless, in-your-face Albert Ayler-ian love cries back to Eastern Africa and back again to Northern Europe.

Pultz Melbye sets the tone of all the pieces with an authoritative and articulate flow of ideas and gestures, while Mofjell plays all over, often sounding like he's tapping into the infinite energy fountain of fellow Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The two best pieces here are the quiet and lyrical “Place”, which sounds like a humble homage to to the irresistible, big and warm singing sound of late Ethiopian sax player Gétatchèw Mèkurya, and the 15-minutes free-jazz piece “On”. The latter piece has uncompromising Brötzmann-ian manic qualities, pushing tougher and wilder and then some, as this duo proves again and again that it is well-versed with the fast lane to the earthly heaven. 

And some more here.