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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Meet the Israeli Expats

By Eyal Hareuveni

Four new releases from Israeli expats, all recorded outside of Israel and far away from the tiny and too familiar local scene of free music, All new releases - of drummer Ehran Elisha, guitarist Eyal Maoz and drummer Asaf Sirkis, viola player-vocalist Maya Felixbrodt and bass clarinet player Ziv Taubenfeld and double-bass player-vocalist Shaya Feldman - offers its own distinct, experimental and risk-taking perspective of free and improvised music.

Haim Elisha / Daniel Carter / Jeremy Harlos / Ehran Elisha - Before or After (EYEtone Music, 2018) ***½

Before or After brings together an ad-hoc quartet of New York-based improvising musicians from different aesthetics and artistic convictions -  father and son, classically-trained, composer-conductor-painter pianist Haim Elisha, who also painted the cover, and free-jazz drummer-educator Ehran Elisha, a disciple of legendary drummers Max Roach, Ed Blackwell and  Milford Graves, who initiated this quartet; a frequent collaborator of Ehran Elisha, reeds and trumpet player Daniel Carter, who has played before with Elisha in a trio with bass players Drew Gress and Wilbur Morris, and known for legendary Downtown ensembles Other Dimensions in Music and Test outfits; and bass player Jeremy Harlos, known from trumpeter Arthur Brooks's Ensemble V and and ensembles with guitarist Alec Julien.

The quartet recorded a one-off studio free-improv session in March 2014 in Brooklyn.  Before or After uses key improvised gestures as its main compositional elements. Haim Elisha sets the lyrical, melancholic atmosphere of this session. Ehran Elisha colors his ideas and Harlos solidifies the open pulse, but it is Carter who charges this session with rare poetic beauty. His concise interventions are delivered with a great sense of timing and idiosyncratic, singing phrasing - on the flute and trumpet - and channel and focus the open-form, title-piece  into deeper , emotional statements. Carter moves to the center and takes the lead on the three-parts, free jazz suite “Atlantis”, and his articulate, gentle sax solos discipline the restless drumming of Ehran Elisha and the contemplative flights of Haim Elisha. His beautiful comments on Harlos arco solos on the lyrical “Vermont: Winter” are the highlight of this short piece. The quartet reaches a balanced interplay on the last “After of Before” where, again, Carter steers the free-improvised, muscular commotion into a peaceful, emotional one, with brief, yet clear and warm trumpet solos.    

Listen and download from Bandcamp

The Lie Detectors - Part III: Secret Unit (Chant, 2018) ***½

The Lie Detectors is the duo of New York-based guitarist Eyal Maoz, known for his new Jewish music outfits Edom and Abraxas and from his early collaboration with trumpeter Avishai Cohen in the Lemon Juice Quartet, and London-based drummers Asaf Sirkis, leader of the IQ quartet with Polish vocalist Sylwia Bialas and his own trio. Maoz and Sirkis are close friends and have been playing together since growing up together in the town of Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv. Their new incarnation as the top secret unit, The Lie Detectors mocks the Israeli ultra-militarist discourse, but their unit already released two albums before, the debut Freedom Has Its Own Taste (Self Produced, 1998) and the follow-up Elementary Dialogues (Ayler, 2006).

Part III: Secret Unit was recorded at Cowshed Studios, London, in unspecified date, and highlights the telepathic connection between Maoz and Sirkis. Maoz, who composed all the pieces except one by Sirkis, enjoys the freedom of any binding genre conventions and let his imagination run wild without telling where he will go next time, trusting the deep, immediate interplay with Sirkis. The Lie Detectors jumps from the explosive metal attack of “Rice” to the folky “Closer”, back to the muscular, math-rock of “Here and There” and to the acrobatic fusion of “Flying Horse” and “Zoo”, experiments punkish interplay on “Green Shirt” and don’t shy of being emotionally naked on Sirkis’ “Trees” and Maoz’ “Quiet ME”. This secret unit reminds us that Maoz is still criminally unappreciated guitar hero and how potent drummer Sirkis is.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Zyft - Midnight Tea Suite (Creative Sources, 2019) ***½

Zyft is an Arabic word for bad or poor quality, often used also in Hebrew and Yiddish slang. Zyft is also the Amsterdam-based, free-improv, chamber trio of veteran Dutch guitarist Henk Zwerver, bass clarinet player Ziv Taubenfeld, known from the Bones trio, who has played on previous albums of the Zwerv outfit led by Zwerver, and viola player Maya Felixbrodt, who also plays in the art-rock trio Sex Baby Kitten. Midnight Tea Suite is the debut album from the trio, which has been working for four years already, recorded in Amsterdam in May 2018.

There is nothing bad or poor in the six improvisations of Zyft, just eccentric and adventurous sense of breaking rules and taking risk. The free-associative interplay of Zyft investigates briefly ideas, timbres and sudden and nervous dynamics but most of the time with no attempt to focus or attach itself to any of it. Zwerver explores abstract ideas and exotic Eastern sonorities with fractured guitar lines. Taubenfeld takes the role of the responsible adult and goes deep down into more jazz-ier and coherent realms with the bass clarinet, especially on “And The Curtain Opens”. Felixbrodt is the wild card of this trio. She plays with total abandon and arresting senses of imagination and humor, pushing constantly to wilder and more volatile terrains. Just check her tour-de-force solo on “Sip, Sip, Sip” to understand her uncompromising power.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Zvov - Babel (Self Produced, 2018) ***½

Zvov (fly in Hebrew) is the dadaist-cabaret trio of Netherland-based, Spanish cellist-vocalist Clara Riviere and double bass player-vocalist Shaya Feldman and viola player-vocalist Felixbrodt. This classical string trio gone awkwards declares that “in a world based on logical separations and putting people in boxes, we say: No More! No more order, this leads nowhere! We want chaos!” and promises that its debut EP, Babel, is “shelter of nonsense”.

But the whimsy-clumsy-theatrical spirit of Zvov has much more to offer than pure nonsense and provocative dadaist gibberish. The interpretations of the Israeli poems - Yona Wallach’s “Yonatan” and Hezi Leskli’s “Paris”, as well as the mournful “The state of the injured”, reflect a growing revulsion from the Israeli hyper-militant reality of occupation, bloodshed and futile wars. “Oktava” and “ Leßbitim”, on the other hand, offer an amused look on the uniformed, dead-serious and dignified world of classical music and the psychedelic “Asçarê” mocks titles and phrases from Japanese movies, including their over-dramatic soundtracks.

The physical release of Babel comes in a large match box with a USB flash drive with all the music and booklet with unique graphic designs made specially for each song.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Wadada Leo Smith & Sabu Toyozumi - Burning Meditation (No Business, 2018) ****

By Stef

In 1992, Wadada Leo Smith and Sabu Toyozumi released "Cosmos Has Spirit" on the unknown and small Japanese Scissors label. Fans will absolutely love this album too, a concert recorded live on March 22, 1994 in Japan.

Toyozumi's Japanese output has been brought back under the attention in the last year by NoBusiness Records and by Chap Chap Records, releasing other performances dating from the 90s. We can only applaud both labels for doing so.

The American trumpeter has recorded with frequent intervals in a duo format with a drummer. Like on "Kulture Jazz" or "Compassion" with Adam Rudolph, or "The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer" with Ed Blackwell , "Wisdom In Time" with Günter Baby Sommer, "America" with Jack DeJohnette, or "Ancestors" with Louis Moholo-Moholo, Smith's playing holds the middle between deep blues and spiritual meditation. Even if all these albums are really different in nature, they come highly recommended. In the last years Smith has sharpened his compositional skills and released albums with more serious weight and ambition, some of which are truly excellent, on other ones overplaying his hand a little, but that's how it should be. You don't get anywhere without taking risks and moving boundaries.

This performance of twenty-five years ago brings the direct artistic authenticity of his other duo albums, with long clear-toned trumpet improvisations, alternated with bluesy singing and playing of the bamboo flute or koto, the Japanese string instrument, or also kalimba and harmonica. Toyozumi is a perfect companion for Smith on this journey, hitting hard when needed, uninhibited, but equally modest enough to leave the stage to Smith on the quieter pieces.

The quality of the recording is excellent, with both instruments receiving the right balance and power: it's almost as if they're performing right next to you.

Even if some pieces get attribution of composition to either Smith or Toyozumi, it is clear that most are completely improvised. Fans of Smith will recognise the the jubilant tones of "Uprising", known from the last track on "Kulture Jazz" or the first track on "The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer".

Through their music, both musicians explore the joy and sorrow of life, of what it means to be human, trying to transcend our fate by connecting to something grander and more simple. As mentioned in earlier reviews: music with deep roots and branches that reach to the sky.

It's another great addition to Smith's already rich and diverse catalogue. We can also thank the label for its effort to release it on both CD and vinyl, with the fromer being obviously longer with additional tracks, and in a different order. 

Fans of Wadada Leo Smith or Sabu Toyozumi should not miss this! 

Friday, March 29, 2019

Hatcher / Maunu / Kirshner – The Raven & the Dove (JAKI, 2018) ****½

By Tom Burris

The musicians that comprise Chicago's best new free trio (this side of Kuzu) aren't the kind of players that seem to relish the spotlight much. These guys are Serious Band Musicians, one and all. Gerrit Hatcher (tenor sax) and Julian Kirshner (percussion) are both young enough that you'd be willing to forgive any showboating (which they could easily do) – but ya see, they're smart enough to know that playing for the music itself reaps the highest reward. I doubt they came upon this wisdom from their elder Peter Maunu (guitar) directly – not because he isn't wise, but because Hatcher and Kirshner are sharp as shit – especially where creativity is concerned. It's one reason why the trio works so well as a unit: the two young guys are up to Maunu's level as musicians and intuitive creative collaborators.

A minute and a half into “Cold Seeps” the broken stops-and-starts become agitated and build into a ranting Ayler dust storm, threatening to fly off into a variety of directions. Hatcher's tone is hard and he plays mainly in short phrases, even when blowing overtones. His style is direct and often conversational - but authoritative. Maunu quickly leaps from distorted mud to simple water droplet slide-guitar pings, always appropriate & precise. Kirshner is a meditation master at his drum throne – the guiding light that sees all, gently noting each change and reacting accordingly. Maunu brings out his violin at the nine-minute mark, adding new textures to the creation-in-action. Although not credited on the sleeve, Maunu plays a plastic bird whistle on “Terns” as Hatcher plays avian runs, often flying into Kirshner's chimes and pie pans.

Careful plodding from Kirshner motivates Hatcher to play some smart melodic lines on “Honey Is Flowering In All Directions” as Maunu wraps elliptical guitar lines around the music, which gets especially heated around the five-minute mark when Maunu alternates between jazz-tone Montgomery-isms, Quine scrape-jabs, and Sharrock rust-smears. (No Wave fans, Maunu's your man!) The pensive bit that follows is unexpected with Hatcher & Kirshner going wherever the Impulse! leads. Maunu enters again, distorted power chords, lifting the music upward toward an eventual plane of spiritual beauty (of the Coltrane persuasion, yes). Then Maunu rips to the finish line with finesse. Brilliant.

“Plaice” features Maunu (on violin) and Hatcher pushing each other into harmonic challenges while Kirshner casually supports both while elevating the music with authority and purpose. “Nature Near” closes the disc with a long, strange sunrise. Lovely lines from Hatcher, contemplative sonics from Kirshner, and a guitar tone from Maunu that sounds like an accordion(!) continue on the Coltrane path that appeared earlier. Kirshner nonchalantly pushes just enough for Hatcher's gradually elongating phrases to flower, while Maunu lifts the sun. Then a curtain is pulled back farther to show Maunu playing celestial pinball while Kirshner & Hatcher pan for gold in the desert. You figure it out.

All ridiculous superlatives aside, this disc is an extremely satisfying listen. It remained in my car for months – long enough for me to feel that I wouldn't even be able to hear it with fresh ears again. Thankfully, this music contains so many layers that it surprises continually.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Pak Yan Lau & Lionel Malric - Duo Pour 454 Chordes (El Negocito, 2018) *****

By Stef

Truth be told, I think I'm getting addicted to this wonderful album. And it is even more amazing because it's performed by two musicians whom I'd never heard of before. Pak Yan Lau is 'part of the Brussels underground crowd' and Lionel Malric is a French keyboardist 'working in many contemporary rock, fusion and folk genres'. 

The two pianists met in June 2014, without any plans or specific goals other than to create music together. They put the two pianos (one 1/2 queue Erard 121 from 1903, and one from 1908), face to face, put some mikes in the right places, made the necessary preparations on the strings, and then this fabulous album ended up as the result. I guess the two of them realised that they had something of true musical value. 

Their approach is totally open, yet extremely tight in terms of interaction. Sometimes AMM comes to mind when the sound is minimalist, sometimes Eve Risser when it turns hypnotic, but these are just references for a music that defies semantics and categories. Both pianists are great sonic sculptors, producing strange and intense and dramatic sounds on the first track, menacing scrapings on the thirty-second long second track, both acting as a suite-like introduction to the long "Mount Tune", which creates an intense but subdued rhythm with chime-like sounds and sparse keyboard notes that gradually evolve into a rich, dense and dark mystery, full of deep rumblings, industrial pounding, dramatic emphasis and maddening repetitiveness on one single high-pitched tone. The next track, "Lhotse, Nuptse ou Lhaotse" is slow and enigmatic, with almost flutelike sounds shimmering over a light and sparkling background.

The B-side starts with the dark "Angel's Hair To Pull", with muted notes played over a non-descript eery groundtone, evolving suite-like into the clarity of the next track - "Shredded Tears Make Misty Clouds" - which is built around two single notes functioning like chords, and which invite other sounds to accompany them, gradually expanding into a tapestry of intense harmonic beauty. The album ends with the mysterious "Le Baleines Du Negoyou", again a piece full of question marks but with a resonating beauty that is equalled or created by its strangeness.

The amazing thing about the performance is its inherent lyricism and harmonic beauty, even if most of the times it's even hard to grasp that the sounds are produced by pianos, and then by how many. Despite its exploratory nature, the music's emotional power is direct and intense. It's a wonderful illustration of visionary music that leaves all concepts behind to go to a new place, as yet unheard. And that place is incredibly fascinating and attractive.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Anna Webber - Clockwise (Pi Recordings, 2019) ****½

By Nick Ostrum 

This was a pleasant surprise for me. I had read about Anna Webber, the saxophonist and composer, before, but I had not yet listened to her music. Clearly, I have been missing out.

This album consists of Anna Webber on tenor saxophone and various flutes, Jeremy Viner on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Chris Tordini on bass, Ches Smith on drums, vibes, and timpani, and Matt Mitchell on piano. The band functions impressively as a unit. Still, this album is Webber’s lead, and she shines through her instrumental virtuosity and her impressive creativity over a range of pieces.

Her compositions are stilted. Some, such as “Kore II,” sound like less bop- and more march-oriented Eric Dolphy. Still others, such as “Idiom II” and “King of Denmark I/Loper”, are reminiscent of contemporary Dave Holland compositions, even if they are more willing to explore asymmetry. “Clockwise,” the title track, is more reserved but no less exploratory, coupling a slow, lumbering bass, murmuring clarinet, and whispering flute with cascading piano runs and a well-placed percussive burst of activity to an altogether entrancing effect. “Array” seems based around an angular, deconstructed funk beat and repeatedly referenced but never fully articulated melody. “Hologram Best” is a short meditation on a frenetic but catchy theme, that stands in contrast to the layered bass rumblings of “King of Denmark III” which follows (and, which, itself, contrasts starkly to the jaunty “King of Denmark I/Loper” and the disorienting battlefield, lull-before-the-storm soundscape of “King of Denmark II.”) “Kore I” concludes the album and is rooted in a series of steady bass plucks that are similar in concept to those that drive “Kore II” but create a strikingly different effect, particularly when coupled with the brief melodic interludes practiced between Mitchell’s piano and Smith’s percussion.

The tracks on here vary in mood, tempo, and feel, but nevertheless cohere in their shared zeal for off-kilter exploration. Some pieces are playful; others, more somber and contemplative; others, restive and sinister. This album, in other words, runs a gamut of forms in a manner that compounds into a surprisingly impactful whole. I know we are just finally getting to 2019 releases. Nevertheless, this is one of the best I have heard so far.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Carla Bley / Steve Swallow / Andy Sheppard @ the Jazz Standard on March 20, 2019

By Eric Stern

From start to finish this show gave me a great deal of pleasure. It felt like a welcome antidote to our present era. The trio started almost exactly on time and performed a short but near perfect set. The room was packed. The compositions, all from Bley, included “Bananas 3," “Wildlife” and the opener, “Copy Cat.” “Copy Cat,” a new composition that the group would be recording in a few weeks, was so good that I am already looking forward to its release. At 82 years of age, Bley is still composing wonderful music. Thankfully, this band’s reason for being was clear throughout the performance: they exist to put emphasis on the work of one of our greatest composers.

The performance was as comfortable as lounging in a warm pool. The comfortable feeling is probably because this is trio of such long standing. Swallow and Bley have been married since 1991. The trios players have been together in different combinations, including under the name The Lost Chords, since at least 1987. Andy Sheppard is a saxophonist of great nuance. Each note he plays is expresses of the composition’s intent. His soprano sax work reminds me of the master, Steve Lacy, who was able to get inside a tune both emotionally and cerebrally. The same could be said for all three players tonight. Few bass players invest their performances with as much content as Steve Swallow. The evening ended with the group performing the only cover of the night, Monk’s Mysterioso. Knowing that composition well I could more easily see the flow of the music between the players. It was a storybook ending for such a night – and the kind of performance that earns the panegyrics that have followed Carla Bley since the 1960s.

A word about the room, The Jazz Standard is a great Jazz venue with clear sound and mostly good sight-lines. The food is good, something you rarely find in jazz clubs. This club actually adds something positive to the listening experience.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Keeping Up with Paal Nilssen-Love

First three releases 2019 from the hardest working man in the business, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Two more are to be released soon, one with the trio Arashi and the other with close comrade Ken Vandermark.

Paal Nilssen- Love - New Japanese Noise (PNL Records, 2019) ****

The 2018 edition of the Danish Roskilde Festival challenged Nilssen-Love to put together two special groups. The first one was an ad-hoc, Japan-Noise oriented one, captured live on July 4th, 2018, and bringing together musicians from three continents. Three legendary Japanese artists - reeds hero Akira Sakata, who plays with Nilssen-Love in the Arashi trio, and two noise pioneers - Kōhei Gomi, known from the early nineties influential Pain Jerk project and one of the leading figures of the so-called dynamic style of Japanese noise, and Toshiji Mikawa, leader of the seminal pure noise project Incapacitants and member of the noise trio Hijokaidan, plus Brazilian Kiko Dinucci, leader and songwriter of the group Metá Metá, and Nilssen-Love on drums.

If you think that you are already familiar with, or have adapted yourself to, the uncompromising levels of density and intensity of Nilssen-Love’ playing, as experience in his other projects - The Thing, in duo with Peter Brötzmann, or his collaborations with fellow-Norwegian noisemeister Lasse Marhaug and electronics player Maja Ratkje, think again! This group begins its performance with super-sonic, Shinkansen-like speed and tsunami-like power and just keeps accelerating its tectonic drive. There are brief passages where Sakata and Dinucci alter course into more lyrical terrains, even surprisingly playful, free jazz ones like on “Eats, Shites and Leaves”, where Nilssen-Love spices the minimalist yet vivid noises with delicate cymbal work, before the group dives head on into another noisy storm. They reach their climax on “The Bone People” where Sakata takes the lead with a stream-of-consciousness angry speech than only him can deliver. Nilssen-Love and his noisy comrades punctuate masterfully his speedy diatribe, actually orchestrate it, attentive to every nuance in Sakata inventive and highly rhythmic usage of Japanese onomatopoeia.

Beware: this New Japanese Noise is going to pierce your eardrums - literally - then spread its noisy gospel all over your cortex until your whole skull will blink brightly, just as the shiny neon lights in Shinjuku.

Paal Nilssen-Love - New Brazilian Funk (PNL Records, 2019) ****½

The next night Nilssen-Love presented his second group, the New Brazilian Funk, which had already become a working group after its joyful debut performance in Roskilde Festival. Nilssen-Love has been performing regularly in Brazil in the last decade, and has recorded there with local musicians, including with experimental singer-songwriter Arto Lindsay. New Brazilian Funk brings together bass player Felipe Zenicola, known from the free-improv Chinese Cookie Poets trio, who has recorded before with Nilssen-Love (Bota Fogo, Bocian/QTV, 2014), guitarist Dinucci, who played the night before with the New Japanes Noise, cuica (friction drum) master and vocalist Paulinho Bicolor, who has collaborated before with Nilssen-Love’s Large Unit (Ana, PNL, 2016), and legendary Norwegian free-improv reeds player Frode Gjerstad, with whom Nilssen-Love has played with since he was sixteen and over the last three decades, often in Gjerstad Trio or as a duo.

Calling this group New Brazilian Funk may be read as tongue-in-cheek description but the combination of rough and tough free jazz on top of sensual, tropical grooves work beautifully. Nilssen-Love and Gjerstad are at the gravitational center of this group but both offer plenty of room for their Brazilian comrades to to alter the commotion and introduce new colors and sounds. Zenicola, Dinucci and especially Bicolor, who already established a telepathic lingo with Nilssen-Love, don’t waste their time. From the first second of the opening piece, “Biggles and the Gun-Runners”, and further on the Brazilian musicians take Nilssen-Love and Gjerstad to some raw and wild samba dances, demonstrating how rhythm and most important, funky rhythm, is a vivi and quite capricious entity, built with countless layers and has many emotions and conflicting needs. Gjerstad is on top shape and sounds fantastic here - sharp and fierce, spirals into the stratosphere but integrates naturally his free-improv alto sax singing voice into the rhythmic celebration, Him and Nilssen-Love know how to navigate the massive waves of joyful, energetic vibes that reaches its climax on the last pieces “Fruit of the Lemon” and “Pick a Time”.

New Brazilian Funk feels totally free, organic and full of positive and uplifting energy that will force even the most casual listener to stretch his limbs and experiment his best and most advanced Brazilian dance moves. Please, keep this funky thing coming.

Boneshaker - Fake Music (Soul What Music, 2019) ****

Boneshaker, the free jazz trio of Chicagoan reeds player Mars Williams, double bass player Kent Kessler, and Nilssen-Love, was established eight years ago, after the three musicians who all played in the Peter Brötzmann´s Chicago Tentet since 2002, wished to do something together.

Fake Music is a live recording from Elastic Arts, Chicago, captured in January 2017 and is the fourth album from Boneshaker. The sarcastic title suggests that this trio joins the fight against global stupidity - as close comrade of Nilssen-Love, Mats Gustafsson, always emphasizes (and even led a trio called Fake the Facts), but it also holds some truth about Boneshaker aesthetics. Boneshaker was never the typical power-free-jazz trio aiming to crunch your bones and explode in your ears. Sure, this trio can give any listener a deep sonic massage that would remind her or him to the most elastic qualities of the bones structure, but it will also seduce this kind of listener with soulful and delicate grooves. Boneshaker is a more than that. A tight unit that likes to investigate the outer fringes of music, explore ancient traditions and best of all, works perfectly when all influences are let loose.

The three pieces highlight the elastic, open-minded spirit of Boneshaker. The first one, ”Miakoda”, begins rooted deeply in the fiery free jazz legacy, propelled by Nilssen-Love merciless drive, but mid-piece Williams transforms it into a lyrical and touching ballad. Then Nilssen-Love and Kessler introduce a ceremonial pulse that morphs into a gentle and quiet, African, kalimba-based song. The following “Lovin' The Buzz” toys with playful bird calls from Williams, answered by the hard-rolling rhythm section, but also visits, in its fast ride, colorful Ethio-jazz and funky territories. Here, a bass solo from Kessler changes the spirit of this piece into a soulful one, but a potent soul mixed with free jazz. The last piece, “Echo Clang”, morphs from a mysterious and exotic ritual, possibly intended to exorcise fake facts and fake music from our world, into a cathartic celebration of real, bone-shaking music, totally free from any fake bones, music or facts.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Tim Berne and Matt Mitchell – Angel Dusk (Screwgun, 2018) ****

By  Nick Ostrum

Tim Berne (saxophone) and Matt Mitchell (piano) are two stalwarts of the New York scene who have collaborated for nearly a decade in Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. Although Mitchell has recorded a solo album of Berne compositions (FJB review here), this is their first proper recording as a duo. And, it is an impressive one.  Most notable about this CD is the lack of a leader.  Berne and Mitchell approach these compositions as equals. (No writing credits are given, further indicating a deeply collaborative and balanced effort.) There are a few stand-out tracks, as all follow similar themes of shared lead, catchy and deconstructed melodies, homophony, blurred consonance and dissonance, and modulating scales that evoke Coleman’s harmolodics. This speaks to the power of each piece and the cohesiveness of the album as a whole, rather than any sort of stale repetition. Tracks tend to be short for the genre, making them pithy, pointed, and effective explorations of harmonic communication. If you are already a Berne or Mitchell fan, you probably already know the technical and emotive qualities to expect. If you are not familiar with the duo, this intimate recording is a great introduction to two accomplished and forward-thinking musicians, deeply rooted in the free jazz tradition yet still fresh and inspired. 

Beyond those brief notes, I will let the album speak for itself.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

New Sounds from Sweden

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Swedish label of reeds player Jonas Kullhammar documents the most exciting musicians in the Swedish scene for almost twenty years. The latest three releases of this label are no exception.

Per Texas Johansson / Torbjörn Zetterberg / Konrad Agnas - Orakel (Moserobie, 2018) ****½

Orakel is one of the albums that you fall in love with already in the first listening and fully understand why. It brings together three Swedish musicians - Per Texas Johansson on the tenor sax and clarinet, double bass player Torbjörn Zetterberg - both have been playing together since the mid-nineties and until Johansson retired to pursue a career as anesthetic nurse more than a decade ago, plus young drummer Konrad Agnas, with whom Johansson played in recent albums of pianist Johan Graden (Bakgrundsmusik, Bakgrundsmusik Records, 2016, and Olägenheter, Moserobie, 2018).

The trio of Johansson, Zetterberg and Agnas swings so naturally, but it has its own kind of swing, free, sharp and seductive and full of clever games. Just listen to the gentle and nuanced conversation of the trio on the opening piece, “Blodspredikan” (In Swedish: blood prophecy), to understand the profound, intimate and immediate connection of these musicians - thicker than blood - that keeps nourishing the powerful and emotional interplay.

You may trace references to John Coltrane melodic phrases in the warm voice of Johansson, the the rich, singing bass of Charlie Haden in Zetterberg playing or enjoy the open senses of time and space in Agnas drumming, but Johansson, Zetterberg and Agnas have their own strong and personal voice as a trio. There is a strong feeling of easiness and balance in the loose flow of this trio, like surfing beautifully between high and spectacular waves but keeping a delicate equilibrium, even when all three stretch their muscles and ride a bit faster on “Var Är Storken” or singing an infectious melody on “Oraklet på Ringvägen”. “Torbjörn Monk” is the piece with the most intriguing title and uses some Monk-ish angular phrases but its peaceful spirit may also reminisces the time that Zetterberg spent in a Buddhist Temple about ten years ago. And only that last, folky “Vintertid” introduces some Nordic melancholia.

Joakim Milder / Fredrik Ljungkvist / Mathias Landæus / Filip Augustson / Fredrik Rundqvist - The Music of Anders Garsted (Moserobie, 2018) ****

Swedish trumpeter Anders Garstedt died of cancer on April 2000, only 31 years old. The head of Swedish label Moserobie, reeds player Jonas Kullhammar, who had played with Garstedt in the band of drummer Fredrik Norén, dedicated the first release of his label and the first album of his own Quartet to Super G - Garstedt (Slaut, Moserobie, 2000). Kullhammar asked the original members of Garstedt’s quintet - sax player Joakim Milder, Atomic’s reeds player Fredrik Ljungkvist who subbed Milder in the quintet, pianist Mathias Landæus, double bass player Filip Augustsson and drummer Fredrik Rundqvist - to reconvene and record seven compositions of Garstedt.

These five musicians do justice to the music of Garstedt whose work was not properly documented during his lifetime. The front line of Milder and Ljungkvist, who have since recording this album recorded another album together (Trädet, El Dingo Records, 2018), is one of the most articulate one that you can find in the Nordic regions or anywhere else on this planet. Milder - on tenor sax- and Ljungkvist - on tenor and soprano saxes and clarinet - work as one, expanding the playful-melodic lines of Garstedt’s compositions with great imagination, touching empathy and engaging games, especially on the beautiful ballad “F Minor”. Landæus, Augustsson and Rundqvist form a driving rhythm section, and often it is Rundqvist who navigates this quintet dynamics with modest, wise gestures. The liner notes of Kullhammar and sax player Karl-Martin Almqvist - in Swedish - shed more light about the the life - too short ones - of Garstedt. “Gone for good” is one of Garstedt’s compositions covered here, but this album insists: not so fast.

Magnus Broo Trio - Rules (Moserobie, 2018) ***½

Trumpeter Magnus Broo has not been very productive in releasing recordings under his own name, so far, so it's good to see a new addition with Rules. In addition to his work with the Atomic quintet, he plays in Martin Küchen’s Angles group, the I.P.A. quintet, and recently collaborated with Norwegian sax player Hanna Paulsberg Concept. Drawing on these collaborations, Broo employs I.P.A. rhythm section - Atomic’s double bass player Håker Flaten and fellow-Norwegian drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen, who also played in Broo’s last solo album, Swedish Wood (Moserbie, 2010) - for this new trio.

Rules offers Broo’s soulful interpretations for seven standards about love. Broo does not attempt to bend any rules or suggest a radical perspective of the Great American Songbook, just to add his personal touch and sound, well-versed with the rich legacy of jazz trumpeters. You can hear his distinct sound in his ironic, urgent version of Gershwin's “Summertime”, the restless, searching tone on “You’ve Changed” and the way his sings “Don’t Explain”, the song that was written by Billie Holiday and Andy Herzog Jr. Broo encapsulates the emotional drama and sober realization of a wounded relationship in few modest, touching statements that linger in your mind long after the song ended.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Michael Hoppe - Put a Filter to Your Ears and Just Smile Through It (Get On! Records, 2018) ****

By Nick Metzger

We all come into new musical experiences with our own mental databases populated with what we know (or think we know), based on what we've previously heard. As music writers, we utilize our own familiarities and appeal to those of the reader, trying to find some common datum from which to launch our descriptions and sentiments. Listening to this record made my mind race trying to find some psychological mooring to tie off to. It's not unique in this regard, but it does seem to be a rarer occurrence in these days of capitalism-driven homogeneity. Berlin-based composer Michael Hoppe's solo debut, the terrifically titled Put a Filter to Your Ear and Just Smile Through It was made over the course of three years and features no fewer than 50 musicians and colleagues, both professional and amateur, across its 9 tracks. Hoppe then inventively arranged these disparate sources into something morbid, pressing, and animate. Knowing this, you can imagine that it makes for a compelling and wide-ranging listen. The legendary French group ZNR comes to mind, however this is more in-line with Igor Wakhevitch's eclectic masterpiece “Docteur Faust” with a free jazz chip on its shoulder. But where those albums could be thoughtfully considered quasi ‘variety shows’ for the respective artists’ assorted ideas and influences, this record comes off as more cohesive to these ears. To put it another way, rather than a tray of hors d'oeuvres neatly arranged in discrete rows to compliment and contrast each other, Michael Hoppe has taken his ideas and influences through the sausage grinder, giving us a steaming helping of the best of his wurst (I cringed as I wrote that, but fuck it, I'm leaving it in).

The album is a murky undertaking, but not in a sense of muddied production. The mixing and mastering are extremely good and all of the elements are easily discernable, if not necessarily easily identified. The murk I’m referring to is a persistent gloom underlying the album. It carries a bleak tone that I’d attach to existential dread, perhaps topped off with a bit of the theatre of the absurd. The promotional materials seem to indicate this as well; there are no platitudes contained within, only a defiant smirk. The range of sounds utilized on this record is vast. There’s plenty of your typical horn fare scattered about, as well as piano, vibes, flute, guitar, etc. The expressive free jazz drumming is really the glue that holds this brute together, but what makes the biggest impression are the electronic effects. The synths are menacing throughout, sounding at times like wind ripping through the dead branches of some ancient Bavarian forest. There is almost no attack to be heard from the electric bass and this elevates it to a physical presence, rather than a mere rhythm instrument. There are a few brief interludes between the longer pieces, but even these don’t offer much respite, only more grotesque experimentation. Then there are the vocals/voices. Some menacingly Attila-Csihar-like as on “Tastes Better Than I Expected”, others shouted and angry, exemplified by the track “Step Aside, Please.” Of all the pieces in the collection, “Have You Ever Heard of Indonesia” best sums up the aesthetic, if you can call it that. The menacing arco contrabass sets up a heavy, heady delirium that features the best orchestration on the record in my opinion.

Put a Filter to Your Ears and Just Smile Through It is an extraordinary record that has stood out to me for several reasons that are obvious once you’ve given it a spin. However, getting back to the sausage metaphor the record could’ve used a few more shades of black, namely in pacing and dynamics. But that’s just my taste and it may not be a concern for others. In the album’s promotional material Hoppe rightly notes that if you search his name on the internet you’re more likely to find info on the Grammy-nominated new age pianist than our hero. And I can’t help but snigger thinking that some poor enthusiast from the Age of Aquarius might unwittingly stumble upon this incubus. For some free jazz connoisseurs albums like this will never be taken seriously, mainly because it doesn't take itself too seriously. This is a pity; as listeners of the avant-garde I think it's imperative to maintain an open mind. So, even if my tired descriptors haven't sold you on it, I'd recommend you have a listen anyway if/when you're feeling adventurous. You can preview the album in its entirety via Bandcamp. Music will continue to evolve regardless of our wants or needs, just as it always has. As Seneca the Younger put it (though in a different context), “Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt.”

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

David Sewelson -Music for a Free World (FMR, 2018) ****

By Paul Acquaro

It's feeling a bit urgent, isn't it? Autocracy and corruption, intolerance and extremism, hash-tag wisdom and anti-critical thinking all seem to be in high fashion. So, a good dose of free thinking music is, to my ears, a welcome respite from this unthinkable Zeitgeist. Microscopic Sextet founding member, and long-time member of NYC downtown music scene, saxophonist David Sewelson's first release under his name since 1979's Synchro‐incity, Music for a Free World, fits the prescription perfectly.

Sewelson's group consists of bassist and downtown scene cornerstone William Parker, the fantastic trombonist Steve Swell, and drummer Marvin Bugalu Smith, who has an impressive CV that includes study with Max Roach an Elvin Jones, and work with Archie Shepp and Sun-Ra. It seems that this seasoned group brought everything to the studio when it laid down the music here, from the spiritual to the fiery, with hints of reflection and moments of focused exploration throughout. 

The opening title track apparently reprises a theme that Sewelson has been carrying with him over the years, while the rest are full band improvisations. The tune has elements of folk - I hear echos of Dylan 'Master of War', as well a yearning howl that invokes thoughts of Albert Ayler. These are indeed some heavy names to invoke, but the tune does just that - touching musically on the urgency of the times, and not just working themselves into a fury, the musicians take a measured approach and deliver some outstanding work. So, after the kick-off with tandem melodies from the horns that seem ready to rip at the seams, underscored by vertigo from Parkers bass, the group splinters into simultaneous improvised melodies that reprise moments of the melody, while ever enlarging their range. Parker delivers the first solo, pulling back the energy and then diving deep into a narrow passage. Swell follows, tepidly at first, then gaining momentum, until his instrument is soaring over a tight rhythmic figure. When Sewelson takes over, he's breathing fire, over blowing the sax and taking along Smith and Parker for an energetic stretch. 

'Tensiana' follows, and here is where we are in purely free improvisation territory. At 21 minutes, the track really is a standout on the album. It begins with Parker developing an idea solo, then Sewelson and Swell enter at about the same time with contrasting, but still complementary, ideas. Listening closely, but heeding their own inclinations, the two interweave lines expertly, delivering the type of musical synergy that is pretty impossible to preconceive. The group proceeds with a push and pull of tension that keeps the long improvisation breathing free. Around the half-way mark, they slow down and start to explore the space. Swell takes a prominent position while Smith provides an askew groove that is both reassuring and a bit unsettling. The group come out of the tune with syncopated call and response between the horns. 

What follows is just as intriguing - 'TB' starts off with a disjointed groove and 'Well' is a exploratory piece that is built from sound fragments. 'Calm Pose' opens with a group caterwaul and then is anything but calm (measured, yes, calm, no). Both Sewelson and Swell deliver enthusiastic solos, and the track offers a penultimate jolt before the emotional eulogy 'Bill', dedicated to guitarist Bill Horvitz who passed away around the time of the recording in 2017. 

Music for a Free World is a welcome recording from a downtown master who needs to be heard - and now seems as good as time as any to listen!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Alex Cline, Dan Clucas, Peter Kuhn, Dave Sewelson, Scott Walton– Dependent Origination (Dependent Origination Music, 2018) ***½

By Nick Ostrum

"Dependent origination” is a Buddhist concept defining the existential linkages between and, therefore, interdependency of separate phenomena or dharmas. Very simply put, it speaks to the interconnectedness of being (and occurrences) and the potentiality of reemergence. For reedist Peter Kuhn, Dependent Origination – the album and group – embody this concept of linked actions and rebirth in a literal, as well as ethereal, sense. This group marks his return to music after nearly three decades of musical silence. Formed in 2013 with slightly different membership, Dependent Origination now consists of Alex Cline on percussion, Dan Clucas on trumpet, Dave Sewelson on baritone saxophone, Scott Walton on bass, and Kuhn on reeds. All of the music on this album was recorded live on November 6, 2016 at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock, CA. In a nod to the contingent implications of the title, all the music is also improvised.

The first track, “Aspiration,” begins as a convocation. A bell chimes. A mournful saxophone follows. The rest of the band fades in, slowly building the song into a free blowing tempest churning atop Cline’s restive percussion. At nine minutes, the song transitions from heavy sound to spacious, intermittent, and resonant colloquy. As through the rest of the album, Cline is the binding force over which the horns and bass riff. More than anyone else, he turns the collection of abstract shouts into a conversation, then a dance, then a meditation. That said, beyond the rhythm – which Walton, whose bass is often muffled behind the other instruments, admirably pushes as well – this is a balanced effort that lacks a discernible leader. In line with the title, it seems more focused on organic, interconnected development than discrete, individual expression. At times, the music is serious. At others, around the 20-minute mark, more ludic, as Cline and Walton briefly intertwine and Sewelson ebbs in and out playfully. Even here, there is no competition for control but balanced negotiation. The more compact “The Nibbler” follows a similar trajectory and is based on a similar tender rapport rather than predetermined theme. Needless to say, such an approach takes skill, patience, listening, and practice. It does not always feel as natural as it does here. Track three, “The Way Out (Is In),” begins with an extended dialog between Sewelson and Clucas. Almost three minutes in, the band joins and falls into a walking groove that, as one might anticipate, builds once more in to a hard-blowing, discordant finale.

Had I seen the performance live, I imagine I would have been blown away. Much of that spirit and immediacy is lost on this recording. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that this is a document of a one night of expertly practiced collective improvisation, rather than a singular epic recording. Another performance on another night would charted its own path. The unique causal chain of dependent origination (if that is a thing) would have laid different elements, both internal and external to the group, in a different configuration. This night, in other words, was worth documenting. And for those of us (reviewer absolutely included) still fascinated by unscripted, soulful free jazz bent on exploring the innumerable potentialities of unscripted moments, this release is worth the listen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Ken Ikeda & Eddie Prévost - The Whole Moon Rests in a Dewdrop on the Grass (Matchless, 2018) ****

The Whole Moon Rests in a Dewdrop on the Grass presents another fantastic duo release from Eddie Prévost on his Matchless label, this time with composer, video artist, and electronics wizard Ken Ikeda performing live at London's Cafe Oto in January of last year. Prévost we all know and love from his numerous collaborations through the years and as the bedrock of the legendary group AMM. For those not already familiar with Ken Akida, he has recorded for Touch Records, composed for director David Lynch, and recorded in collaborated with David Toop, Tetuzi Akiyama, and Edward Lucas to name a few. Ikeda last recorded with Prévost in a trio with guitarist John Russell on 2016’s excellent but all-too-brief digital release In Search of Wasabi on Weekertoft Records. Here Prévost and Ikeda spin a woozy phantasmagoria of electronics and bowed metal on a single long track of cerebral and well paced free improvisation.

The piece is a decidedly subtle affair, which Prévost sets into motion with cymbal shimmer and harmonic overtones coaxed from the aether via rosined hair. Ikeda's offerings twinkle to the fore like dim stars at twilight, barely there but spectacular and essential. Ikeda often utilizes a ribbon controller, allowing him to be much more expressive than your general abstract electronics practitioner. An accomplished improviser, he also provides plenty of room for Prévost’s contributions, rather than dominating the proceedings as electronics can sometimes do. Prévost alternates irregularly between soft, slowly building resonance and sharply pulled scrapes and unsettling grima. Ikeda's electronics at times sound like the pings of some alien satellite, at moments sharp with a quick decay and just as often with the addition of delay, where Ikeda modulates the feedback in a way that recalls some of King Tubby or Scratch Perry's production sensibilities. The superposition of the duo's sound worlds is certainly compelling and works equally well when listened to actively or passively.

This is a very enjoyable release and a nice change-up to the sort of fare we free jazz heads usually revel in. I've been favoring restraint to full-on assault when it comes to music here lately, so this release was a welcome addition to my listening queue and I've found myself returning to it frequently. I'm a fan of anything Prévost is involved in, but have a particular affinity for his ability to provide contrast and dynamics on subtle pieces such as this. Likewise, Ken Ikeda’s style is very expressive throughout and he does a tremendous job of finding spaces within the sound field from which to provide subtle responses and/or warbling ambience.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Zach Rowden, Jarrett Gilgore & Ian McColm - First Lapse (Raw Tonk Records, 2019) ****

Raw Tonk’s releases offer a hard to beat two-way deal: the recycled cardboard card-pak cases are aesthetically flawless while the music (from a catalogue of around forty releases) offers some of the most passionate, energized free jazz and improvisational recordings of this decade closing to its end. While the latter is the core of everything of course, the former offer to all of us fetishists more reasons to buy the CDs (and LP’s lately) and support this totally independent label.

First Lapse presents us a trio of young musicians who have already been grinding their teeth among some of the greats like, among others, Paul Flaherty, Tony Malaby, Tyshawn Shorey and Tashi Dorji. Here they present themselves in the classic jazz trio line-up with Zach Rowden on double bass, Jarrett Gilgore on alto saxophone and Ian McColm on drums and percussion. Raw Tonk has created an international circle of likeminded improvisers but, correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first release by musicians exclusively from the US. This circle, seems to me, is constantly growing only to include more and more artists eager to explore.

This ethos directly goes back to the early days of European improvisation (the label still holds London as its center point) with legendary labels like ICP, Incus and FMP. It’s not like they are creating something that has never been achieved before. Raw Tonk’s multinational rotation of musicians encapsulates the simple basic need of people getting together, forming bonds and expressing themselves freely without mediators.

Certainly the way the three musicians battle with their instruments is atypical of the standard drums-sax-bass trio. Thankfully I would comment. First Lapse is not a free jazz album, but more of non idiomatic improvisational recording, if you want to pin down the music. I really really enjoyed their lack of egos and the way they play more as a trio and less as individuals. First Lapse gives me the chance to believe that the three of them have left, already, the free jazz blow outs (now a tradition for jazz coming from the States) behind them for a more organic, focused egalitarian sound.

I think the key word here is focus. At any point they seem to have ears only for their fellow musicians so to act and react accordingly but without preconceived ideas. The three instruments seem so intensely close to each other that you could say all were performed from the same person. Their level of interaction kept me to my toes (as they were if I should make a guess) throughout the thirty minute something duration of the CD. Less is more seems to be the way they deal with their need to express themselves.

Raw Tonk’s catalogue is growing not so fast, but that’s not the issue. There’s not even one release below a certain standard (always considering our personal tastes), which makes it one of the leading labels in the free jazz and improvised world at the moment.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Anthony Braxton - GTM (Syntax) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2019) ***** (Part III)

Part III of III - Third Species: Accelerator Class 

By Keith Prosk

To quickly reiterate, the accelerator class of the third species sees the primary melody disintegrating and reforming. To use Kitamura’s words from the liner notes, “Eighth, sixteenth, thirty-second, and sixty-fourth notes are combined and subdivided into ratios such as 9:2, 11:2, and 13:2.” The effect is a complex polyrhythm. The last three compositions of GTM (Syntax) 2017 are accelerator class.

Composition No. 339 (+171) (dedicated to The Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation (before the merger)) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Syntax) 2003 and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*.
The increased notational complexity of this species is immediately apparent to the ear. Pitches are sung just out of phase to create a multiphonic effect and slightly shifted by each group to create polyrhythms. It sounds like a rapid ebb and flow, like a wormhole. Space is significantly more filled out. The tertiary material chosen for this performance is one of Braxton’s early mapping pieces (171), which sees investigative reporters questioning forest ranger Crumpton on ethical inconsistencies in his parks department. As if to mimic the pretzel-twisted time and space of the composition, certain sections of the narrative see multiple questions from reporters and multiple answers from Crumpton overlapping. Splotches of color include angry Daffy Duck sounds, blood-curdling screams, hissing as if in morse code, and exaggerated tongue rolling (“rrr”).

Composition No. 340 (+6c, 142, 364a, 364g, 365f, 365g, 366b, 366d, 367b, 367d, 367g, 367h, 368d) (dedicated to the contrabassist/improvisor Joelle Leandre)

Previously recorded on Quartet (GTM) 2006, Duets (Pittsburgh) 2008, GTM (Syntax) 2003, Sextet (Philadelphia) 2005, and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*.
On the last day of recording, the twelve members of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble no longer divided into four groups of three, and there were no sections or section leaders. Each member was free to conduct, follow, or be on one’s own. The tertiary material chosen for this performance is all instrumental and includes the graphic scores of Falling River Music along with the two older pieces. Like 339, there’s a great blurring or phasing effect. Space is so filled and time so fast here that the ensemble cannot use complex syllables or words, and instead sing letters, numbers, oohs, and ahhs. There’s not enough time to physically perform more complex extended techniques, and most odd effects are created by the group rather than individuals. A primary melody is completely indistinguishable. If you don’t feel the wormhole-like ebb and flow in 339 or 340, I suggest you listen to 119 and then come back. The physiological and/or psychological effect of rapidly ramping up the action makes ten minutes in 340 feel like three times that. I suggested this was the most musical starting point for listeners, but I suppose I meant it’s the best starting point for those with a bias against voice, because it’s non-narrative and the performance is so fast and complex that you might forget you’re hearing singing.

Composition No. 341 (+76, 40F, 237, 380) (dedicated to the journalist/scholar Francesco Martinelli)

Previously recorded on Quartet (GTM) 2006, Sextet (Piacenza) 2007, and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012*.

Again, no designated sections or section leaders. Choruses that phase into polyrhythms - different voices might begin a syllable at the same time but modulate at different times. The tertiary material includes the instrumental 76 and 40 (a favorite of the Crispell/Dresser/Hemingway quartet) and the narrative 237 (Trillium E) and 380 (Trillium J, which we’ve visited before in 219). The extreme effect of 340 is applied to the narrative, creating the personification of Babel. The phrases “hear our words and hear it now” (or, “here are words and hear it now”) and “it could be you” are sung with some performers starting on the same syllable or words and modulating differently while other performers begin on a different word or syllable, with not more than two or three performers landing on the same syllable at the same time while pitches from different syllables might match up for a brief moment. It’s like the cacophony of the “bike tour” in 221 except taken to the extreme because the performers have a full sentence to work with rather than two words. This Babel is eventually met with the heartbeat of an “mm mm, mm mm” before all performers simultaneously sing a short melody before ending the performance.

* as tertiary material

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Anthony Braxton - GTM (Syntax) 2017 (New Braxton House, 2019) ***** (Part II)

Part II of III - 2nd Species

By Lee Rice Epstein
Composition No. 239 (+108b, 169) (dedicated to the multi-instrumentalist/composer Taylor Ho Bynum)

Previously recorded on 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material).
As Keith described yesterday, Braxton’s musics encompass decades of evolution, with perhaps a dozen different musical languages spinning out from the big bang of 1968’s 3 Compositions of New Jazz. The early number 6 compositions are described as “circus piece,” “fast pulse relationships,” and “series of repetitive structures,” all phrases that could be used in 2019 to describe latter-day elements of Syntactical Ghost Trance Music, even as the musics themselves are remarkably different in intent. In the intervening 50 years, Braxton’s developed a philosophy of music as a trigger for dynamic, interpersonal experiences, and a means of creating various mind states to inhabit fantasy environments and process real-world conflicts.

Composition No. 254 (+126, 307) (dedicated to the vocalist/composer Kyoko Kitamura) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Iridium) 2007.
The seeming familiarity of Braxton’s eighth-note melodic sequences for GTM is completely upended in the voices of the Tri-Centric Vocal Ensemble, featuring Roland Burks, Tomas Cruz, Lucy Dhegrae, Chris DiMeglio, Kristin Fung, Nick Hallett, Michael Douglas Jones, Kyoko Kitamura, Adam Matlock, Anne Rhodes, Kamala Sankaram, and Elizabeth Saunders. Longtime listeners may know several of these performers from previous trio and duo projects. On GTM (Syntax) 2017, however, the layering of voices immediately calls to mind Trillium operas. Unlike the operas, SGTM isn’t necessarily organized by particular storylines or environments. Instead, Braxton uses SGTM to explore the human voice, above all things.

Composition No. 255 (+46, 134) (dedicated to pianist/composer Neely Bruce) 

Previously Recorded on GTM (Outpost) 2003, GTM (Iridium) 2007, 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material), and Noël Akchoté’s Composition 255 (Plays Anthony Braxton).
Within SGTM, the signature eighth-note melody is typically represented by single-letter or number repetition, a ceremonial incantation opening the pathway further into the music. From there, vocalists begin using signal phrases to conduct changes and improvisations in the music. Typically, GTM ensembles split into small groups, trios, and duos that form clusters within the larger ensemble, and such is the case in SGTM, as well. At times, vocalists spin off into small groups singing familiar melodies and lyrics from popular culture or strings of words composed by Braxton, syllables echoing the impact of punchy trumpet and saxophone lines. And then there are the non-syllabic vocalized sounds, growls and snarls extend the range of the ensemble.

Composition No. 256 (+173) (dedicated to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir)

Previously recorded on Six Compositions (Ghost Trance Music) 2001 (as tertiary material), Ensemble (Pittsburgh) 2008, and Syntactical GTM Choir (NYC) 2011.
At a certain point, anyone confronting Braxton is forced to contend with his dense philosophic writings, which can appear arcane and esoteric on its surface. As with his music, however, when taken on word or phrase at a time, moving forward step by step, a listener can easily trace a pathway. The opening melody may require a bit of patience, but as I mentioned, in the context of SGTM it’s an entirely different experience. A listener can choose to let the melody itself take center stage in one’s mind or telescope into the words, numbers, and sounds performed by the vocalists. There’s obvious fun in identifying the scraps of known lyrics and sometimes hilarious interpolations of noises and utterances. The humor and joy invoked by the group brings out a humane side of Braxton that’s too often set aside when writing or speaking out him and his music. As he noted in a recent New York Times article , “It involves people suddenly coming together in communities. The art of the relationship. How to deal with each other.” And the empathy baked into the performance of SGTM, where vocalists need to be attuned to what each other vocalist is doing so they can react to signals and cues accordingly, or trigger others by performing their own signal or cue. In these ways, Braxton creates connections that transcend the music, reminding us that we are alive, living this life, hearing these breaths on an album recorded by other living people, struggling at times in their own lives, celebrating during others, and each one of us tenuously connects to every other one. It’s utopia thinking, sure, and Braxton asserts in the liner notes, “Tri-Centric is not a religion.” But it is a mode of generating empathy, much like Roger Ebert once said of film: “For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. If it’s a great movie, it lets you understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be a different gender, a different race, a different age, a different economic class, a different nationality, a different profession, different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” This is true also of SGTM, especially upon a close listen, focusing in on the words and phrases turning over themselves. One may not understand why a particular phrase is being used, but one can think of the voice, the breath, the intonation, everything about the actual person performing. One can hum along while listening or repeat bits of lyrics, as I’ve started to do, letting the music become a part of one’s daily life.

Composition No. 265 (+10, 16) (dedicated to the Reverend C.L. Franklin) 

Previously recorded on GTM (Outpost) 2003 and 12 Duets (DCWM) 2012 (as tertiary material).
One could easily spend hours, days, even weeks teasing out the notated and improvised references within Braxton musics, especially a language as highly interdependent as SGTM. In this category, I think about the work of academics annotating and uncovering references in books like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and J R, James Joyce’sUlysses and Finnegans Wake, or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves. There does seem to be a similar strain of modernism woven through Braxton’s aesthetic, with his encyclopedic wit and interest in cultures high, low, and in-between. Of course, the undeniably baroque taxonomies and interrelationships invite a certain kind of experience, one that not every listener is interested in. This is where the “friendly experiencer” moniker enters, one I’ve mentioned elsewhere and that I happily and openly embrace. One has to be ready for a music that’s larger than you, that does in fact ask you to actively engage, and most importantly that asks you to take it seriously, but not too seriously. That would mean missing the liveliness of the music and the spirit in which it’s performed. Take works like Morton Feldman’s String Quartet II” or Tyshawn Sorey’s recent Pillars , music that invites listeners in and submerges them into a deeply thoughtful listening experience. SGTM, like GTM, is superb music for reflection, allowing Braxton to work his magic on you.