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Friday, May 31, 2019

Rhodri Davies & John Butcher ‎– Drunk On Dreams (Cejero, 2019) ****

By Stef

On their third duo recording, John Butcher (sax and feedback) and Rhodri Davies (concert and electric harp) take their musical journey a step further. This is music in which sounds have their own value and character. Tones happen, not in a premeditated and conceived way, but as an intuitive generation of sonic colors and timbres, coming from within the artist, or in dialogue with the other tones emanating from the other instrument. There is no hurry. Just slow sonic merging and embracing. Shimmering, oscillating, resonating, quivering vibrations of air waves, immaterial and ethereal, yet somehow touching a deep nerve. It is hard to understand how so much can be created with so few notes, and most miraculously, how disciplined the interaction is, maintaining the sparse but constantly evolving sounds within the same level of trembling fragility without disrupting it, and even if at times a voice is raised, it adds contrast rather than conflict.

The title of the second track, "Lithopanie" (sic), reflects the sound, as it is the word for very thin and translucent porcelain that is created as a kind of relief sculpture in three dimensions. You can only see the depicted image by shining a light through the porcelain. Literally it means 'light in stone'. And that's how the music is: paper-thin solidity, an apt paradox.

The explanation of the inexplainable sounds are to be found in the breaking of each instrument's boundaries, and literally physically interacting to create something new - 'merging their physical, acoustic and electrical possibilities. In places, the harp is played by air, the saxophone by physical impact; the harp acts as a resonator for saxophone controlled feedback; the saxophone acts as a filter of the embedded electric harp speaker.'

The recording was originally done for 'A l’Improviste' on Radio France, and broadcasted on the 8th June 2015. That by itself is amazing, that public radio has the level of culture to give airtime to these masters. And it is even better than we can all benefit from it now. The vinyl is pressed in only 300 copies, but it is also available digitally.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Ten years later Carliol, dissolved their instruments' boundaries - merging their physical, acoustic and electrical possibilities. In places, the harp is played by air, the saxophone by physical impact; the harp acts as a resonator for saxophone controlled feedback; the saxophone acts as a filter of the embedded electric harp speaker. Routing Lynn, from 2014, is a live duo performance interacting with 4 channel open air recordings made in Northumberland with Chris Watson.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Christine Abdelnour & Chris Corsano - Quand Fond La Neige, Où Va Le Blanc? (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****½

By Nick Metzger

This was another difficult release to write about because (again) it’s a departure from what I’ve come to expect from a sax/drums duo (though that is rapidly changing, much to my enjoyment). It’s much more readily comparable to another recent Relative Pitch release, the exceptional “Bind the Hand(s) That Feed ”, than it is to say “Interstellar Space”. Like the former release, the traditional mechanisms of saxophone and drums are abandoned for something weirder, less immediately identifiable and/or palatable, but a heck of a lot more interesting to listen to (for a 2019 release, and for my money). Franco-Lebanese alto saxophonist Christine Abdelnour (née Sehnaoui ) has been vocal about her love/hate relationship with her saxophone. Though her initial inspirations included the playing of John Butcher, Peter Brötzmann, and Evan Parker she’s stated that recently her playing is more inspired by electro-acoustic or purely electronic music (a trend I’ve noticed more and more within the free improvisation world), which rings true in her playing. It’s more about texture and dynamics than rhythm and melody, and more-so, in that it’s fairly far removed from the free jazz idiom (which is more in-line with true free improvisation as defined in Mr. Bailey’s book, in any case). She is mainly a solo performer and in that context you can truly hear her uncanny control over her breath and her instrument, as well as her acute awareness of how she’s interacting acoustically with the performance space. Lots of free saxophone players experiment with extended techniques with varying degrees of success, but she takes it to another level entirely. She credits much of her development to her time playing in workshops and orchestras organized by Instants Chavires in Paris. Since then she’s played with numerous artists such as guitarist Andy Moor, composer/multi-instrumentalist Michel Waisvisz , and pianist Magda Mayas to site a few diverse examples. Corsano, as our readers know, gets around . A savant in extended technique himself, this partnership with Abdelnour finds him particularly adventurous as he mixes in a healthy dose of his highly creative drumming with pure noise art, joining Abdelnour in producing several trebly, jagged sound sculptures.

The first piece is called “Opening Umbrellas Indoors” and finds the duo summoning all kinds of interesting sounds from their acoustic instruments. Some instances of subjective pareidolia I heard are wind-up toys, industrial steam lines, saliva expressions, grima, chimes, hissing, bowed metal, flute, rattles, creaks, pops, etc. The second piece, “Sparrow’s Tea” really works over the tweeters. Here we get high pitch bowed metal squeal from Corsano as Abdelnour subjugates the altissimo register with circular breathing and a fiery Zorn-like aggression. “Sitting Still While the House Next Door Burns” is more dynamically colorful. It traverses from a trembling drone on through a multiphonic phantasmagoria and into a rolling cascade of rhythm and squelch before again receding like an alien tide. In “Below the Hull” Corsano is back to his bowed cymbal dissonance while Abdelnour operates somewhere between breathy multiphonics and the kinds of sounds I make getting at the last drop of an overpriced drink in a restaurant with a no-free-refills policy. On “The Mended Lid” the pair carries on an extended conversation in a choppy Cetacean vernacular that is spry upfront, but slows to a leisurely pace. On “Sixth Hinge” Abedelnour honks and squeals around Corsanos resourceful, trundling aggregate. “Old Tales” is a prime example of the utility of Corsano’s drumming, finding him perfectly matching the seams of Abdelnour’s growling jigsaw puzzle piece with a heaping dose of bowed thrum and grit. On “Every Extra Thing” the duo opens up a bit and Corsano’s undulating and airy percussion is a welcome sound after the maelstrom of the preceding tracks. Abdelnour slashes at this soft bedding of rhythm with a complex timbre that growls and flutters. “Omit the Ninth Row” concludes the album with something that sounds like two mutant birds conversing at a railyard (again, a bit of subjectivity on my part). Minimal variation until the last couple of minutes, when it becomes even sparer, as if the birds have given up and patter away in grievant self-soliloquy.

All-in-all the concepts exhibited here are work well and I really enjoyed the record. It has to be stated though, that I enjoy this type of experimentation and challenging listening. If your ears can’t deal with, say Parker’s Monoceros (this album is not Monoceros but it wears similar pants), then you probably won’t find this any more charming. The thing I enjoyed the most was just the sheer timbral inventiveness of the duo. There are textures here that (again, if you’re into this sort of thing) are seriously satisfying to listen to. One critical note is that a few of the pieces are built off a single concept and vary slightly only in dynamics. They could’ve done with a bit more variety and/or been allowed to develop further. But since these are working musicians we’re talking about here (and professional free improvisers none-the-less) there were undoubtedly restrictions in time and circumstance at play. Let’s hope they continue this collaboration and perhaps pull even more like-minded musicians into the fracas.

Quand Fond La Neige, Où Va Le Blanc? preview on Youtube:

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Going Deep, Down with the Bass Players

Three solo albums of double bass players: American, Damon Smith; Danish, Nild Bo Daviden; and Greek, George Kokkinakis. All have distinct vision about their aesthetics, the importance of the art of the moment, its relations to other arts and the role of the artist in our times.

Damon Smith - Winter Solos for Robert Ryman (Balance Point Acoustics, 2019) ****

It was a snowy day when Smith was on his way to a concert at Cafe Fixe in Brookline, Massachusetts, and was thinking about minimalist, conceptual painter Robert Ryman, who has just passed away (February 8, 2019). Ryman intended to become a jazz saxophonist and even took lessons with Lennie Tristano before dedicating himself to painting. Smith read before the concert a catalogue on Ryman, aptly titled Variations + Improvisations, where Ryman talks about his music: "I wanted to compose: to compose with my instrument, to find all the things you can do with the instrument. In that respect it's related to painting."

Smith decided it was about time to find out all the things he can do with the double bass, “something definitive, an overview of my work as it stands.” Strangely enough, despite being an avid collection of most available solo bass recordings and having recorded duets with innovative, masters of the double bass as Bertram Turetzky and Peter Kowald plus a quartet with Joëlle Léandre, Smith had felt no urge to record a solo album. This solo recording - released on a cassette and lasting only 29 minutes long - his his debut solo project, “a good place to start” as he calls it.

Smith begins the set with powerful demonstration of his extended bowing techniques “Surface Veil”, offering nuanced layers of resonating tones and overtones. The following “Reference” changes the atmosphere completely to a contemplative exploration of the dark and deep tones of the bass. Smith lets these tones float in their own pace and weaves these effective voices into a suggestive, dramatic story. “Cord” emphasizes the richness of his vocabulary by just allowing the bass strings and its wooden body of the bass be and wander wherever they desire while flirting with impossible percussive architectures, nonsensical melodies but with painful memories. The last “Attendant” is the most emotional piece here, a surprisingly melodic love poem to the double bass, all double basses in all their shapes, sizes and characters, and especially for all solo double bass albums.

Nils Bo Davidsen - Hverdagsforvandling (Ilk Music, 2019) ****

Hverdagsforvandling (roughly translated from Danish as everyday transformation) is already the fourth solo album from Nils Bo Davidsen, one of the most experienced bass players of the Danish scene. However, unlike his previous solo double bass albums, this one focuses on the cello. But just like Smith, Davidsen aims at transforming the solo sonic experience into an expansive, multi-layered experience that corresponds with moving images, as suggested by the cover art of Marek Lubner.

Hverdagsforvandling is a collection of compositions and soundscapes that are based on improvised, random ideas that were recorded every day since 2015, later developed in a manner that Davidsen insists he could never composed “by sitting down with my pen and paper”. He structured out of these random, raw ideas solo fantasies, collages and elaborate, multi-layered soundscapes.

His tone of the cello - a lone cello or collage of few cellos - is quite close to the range of the double bass, very deep, dark and highly resonant. His layered soundscapes (sometimes with the addition of a piano) like “Yderdøre”, “Mørkhøj”, where four celli sounds as talking-singing to each other, the choir of 83 celli of “Bindevæv” or the more simple, the touching the hymn-like “I Solen Ved Kirken”sound as vivid and nuanced cinematic stories. Solo cello pieces like “I Forbifarten”, “Solæg” or “I Underfladen” radiate fragile, emotional messages.

Davidsen suggests that such repetitive, daily routines can be transformed our times “into a three-dimensional, colourful experience.” Sound advice.

George Kokkinaris - 8 improvised stories for solo double bass (s/r, 2019) ***1/2

Athens-based Kokkinakis studied the classical methods of playing the double bass but aims at exploring the instrument’s sonic range and unique qualities together with elements of speech, acting and movements, This is his debut solo album, spontaneously improvised in a three hours session from December 2017 that yielded 25 pieces. Later, eight of which were chosen, all with no overdubs, no amplification and no preparations.

Kokkinaris frames his aesthetics in political terms. His liner notes emphasizes the importance of risk-taking, especially in the current era that numbs all signs of individuality and creativity into superficial, collective thinking, often triggered by fear-mongering politics. These times require the emotional intelligence of artists that are gifted with direct contact with our world. Free improvisation is one of the best methods to foster such direct and creative relationship with our world, charging it with much needed, healthy doses of invigorating freedom.

Kokkinaris sees his improvisations as means of connecting with himself and others. Each of the eight pieces offers an insight into his own language, syntax and vocabulary of the bull fiddle and its countless stories. “Postponed Friendship” investigates the dark, highly resonating timbres of the bass with careful bow work. “Radio Reed Contact” sketches nervous, provocative noises with extended bowing techniques. The following “Nekiya” methodically structures rhythmic patterns from sparse sounds. The poetic “Fish Eating The Anchor” plays with delicate ripples of overtones while “Vain Quest Loop” suggests an enigmatic, cinematic narrative, spiced with exotic percussive sounds and tortured bowing. “Flies with Cinnamon” combines stream of consciousness chants, transformed into tense, repetitive acts of bowing. “Amber Formations” demonstrates the orchestral qualities of the bass, filling the room with its powerful, dramatic presence and deep voices. The last “Body & Mouth Pleasures” is the most playful and rhythmic piece here, summarizing all the pleasures the Kokkinaris produces from his beloved instrument.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Simon Rose & Steve Noble, Simon Rose & Philippe Lemoine

By Stef

Of all the leading saxophones of today's jazz, people will think naturally about Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson, but Simon Rose should be on this list too, not because of his influence or renown, but simply because of the quality of his playing. His baritone has this wonderful warm, round and deeply emotional sound, that is equally intense when playing with power or quietly. And apart from his tone, he is a true creative artist, a writer of sonic stories that capture the attention and don't let it go.

Both albums show a different face of Simon Rose and his art. The first one is epic and grand, the second is poetic and intimate, and both are of very high quality, and easy to recommend.

Simon Rose & Steve Noble - North Sea Night (Not Two, 2019) ****½

On North Sea Night, we get a duo performance with his compatriot Steve Noble, recorded in 2018 at the Jazz North East festival in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Both musicians have performed and released albums together over the years, in various line-ups, including in the trio Badlands with Simon Fell on bass, and their collaboration is almost symbiotic, to use a cliché.

The first track is half an hour long, and it is actually massive, even if performed by only two musicians. Some moments are full of thundering violence, with deep plaintive howls, alternated with more delicate and sensitive voices. Noble gets a long solo moment, and it's captivating, full of joy, both technically and musically. Then Rose gets his long solo moment, again it's raw, deeply emotional, strong and impressive. This is free improvisation at its best: in the moment, immediate, direct, rich and unpredictable, without fringes or needless embellishments. They manage to keep the intensity going, even in the quieter moments, and they manage to keep the inherent lyricism of their music, even in the most energetic moments. Strong!

This is a great performance, even grand, lifting music to a very high level. There is a level of purity and authenticity to it that resonates with your humble servant. We can thank Not Two to have released it, especially because both musicians are under-released. It's ferocious, sensitive and smart.

Don't miss it!

PS: Simon Rose now lives in Berlin. He's not the traveller like the other saxophonists mentioned in the first paragraph, so it may be worth a trip to Berlin to see and hear him perform.

Simon Rose & Philippe Lemoine ‎– Séance (Tour De Bras, 2018) ****

On "Séance", Simon Rose performs in a duo with French saxophonist Philippe Lemoine, the former on baritone, the latter on tenor, and also a resident of Berlin. Much like Rose, he is an explorer of sound, like Rose playing with resonance, timbre, pressure, force and speed.

In contrast to the duo with Noble, we get twelve relatively short pieces, each around three minute long - like hit singles - which each on their own develop a musical short story. In contrast with the live performance with Noble, the overall tone is calmer and more subdued, even if that does not result in less adventurous or intense music. Both saxes use all their repertoire of instrumental techniques, such as timbral innovations, circular breathing in combination with improvisational inventiveness to create a wonderful dialogue of intertwining sounds.

The overall tone is incredibly warm, and the listener gets engulfed by this beautiful and strange summer breeze. There is no violence or sense of urgency, just the quiet and gentle embrace between two flows of sound, circling, merging, touching, very focused on each other. It's a dialogue which the listener is somehow part of, a privileged onlooker and inactive participant.

The meeting is one of a merging of European cultures, its common history and topography, and the title itself refers to the different meanings of "scéance" in French and English: in French it's just a happening, in English getting in contact with the dead. According to Rose in the liner notes: "Seance signifies something otherworldly, extra-sensory and at the same time an everyday musical encounter".

Be part of it.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

PS. One last comment. It is telling that British and French creative musicians need music labels from Poland and Canada to publish their music.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Teruto Soejima – Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History (Public Bath Press, 2018) ****½

Part 3 of 3
By Colin Green

The 1970s produced some outstanding instances of work with larger ensembles, employing the resources of saxophonist and bandleader Toshiyuki Miyama and his New Herd Orchestra. Their Four Jazz Compositions - Based on Japanese Classical Themes (Toshiba, 1970) is a seamless blend of two musical cultures, masterfully orchestrated. Miyama invited pianist Masahiko Sato and percussionist Masahiko Togashi to work with the New Herd, producing two classic albums fashioned with a meticulous ear for distinctive combinations. Sato’s Canto of Libra (Columbia, 1970) and Togashi’s Canto of Aries (Columbia, 1971) mix the composed and improvised in fresh imaginings of single and massed instrumental voices, owing as much to the translucent textures of Debussy and Stravinsky’s orchestral works as they do to the vibrancy of big band jazz.

Togashi’s Spiritual Nature (East Wind, 1975) is a suite for nine musicians playing an array of instruments including cello, flutes, saxophones, piano, celeste, marimba and glockenspiel, creating a deliciously exotic, multi-coloured sound world, in the minds of some depicting Japanese landscapes. Just as original is Sato and the New Herd’s Nayutageno (Columbia, 1976), a mural of highly charged solo activity set against static blocks of orchestral sound. In some episodes they seem to exist in different timeframes. El Al (Union, 1979) was written for the New Herd by Takashi Kako, who had graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with the Prix de Composition in 1976, and features himself (piano), Akira Sakata (alto sax and clarinet) and Togashi amongst swirling woodwind and rasping horns.

At the end of the decade Togashi and his Improvisation Jazz Orchestra produced Al-Alaph (Paddle Wheel, 1980), conducted by Sato, who also plays piano and electric piano, and using three percussionists. It’s a 75-minute opus of contrasting sections unified by a theme that recurs in various guises, like an idée fixe – chanted by the musicians at the opening over an elaborate drum beat, hauntingly extended by the saxophones in ‘Winds’, sounded out over the hubbub of ‘Streets’, and forming a backdrop of shifting chords on ‘Lonely’. Elements of the theme are also used as the basis for improvised solos. The same forces subsequently recorded Follow the Dream (Paddle Wheel, 1985), this time with Masayuki Takayanagi on guitar, another diverse collection lasting almost 90 minutes, ranging from the exquisitely crafted to boisterous blowouts. All these albums stand comparison with Mingus, Gil Evans and the best of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and Globe Unity for their ingenious synthesis of scored and improvised music, rhythmic vitality and novel voicings.

Given how brightly the fires burned in the 1970s, inevitably, the temperature cooled somewhat in the 1980s and beyond. There was more concord than discord with the ambit of the music widening further as new forms and styles were incorporated. Some musicians simply moved beyond genre. As so often, much of this had been prefigured by Sato. He composed, conducted and arranged the album Amalgamation (Liberty, 1971). Part 1 crosscuts between a brass ensemble, string quartet, far-out rock band, funky Hammond organ and the voice of Adolf Hitler in a rudimentary collage that sounds somewhere between Frank Zappa and John Zorn. Part 2 seeks to integrate by layering traditional Japanese music with a free jazz dialogue between Mototeru Takagi (reeds) and Toyozumi Yoshisaburo (drums), chants and churchy organ, and ethereal, wordless vocals.

In a different direction, the piano duo album Exchange (Victor, 1979) by Haruna Miyake and Yosuke Yamashita is a prismatic display that comes directly from the sound of contemporary classical piano music; one of the tracks is even called ‘Schoenberg’. The piece “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony’ is an ambitious improvisation around the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the theme from the slow movement of the symphony, recast in continually changing contexts, with the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony thrown in for good measure. This is more than mere hybridisation however, and makes a surrealistic sense. Yamashita and Togashi, previously regarded as quite different strains of the free jazz scene, performed as a duo on Kizashi (Next Wave, 1980): a counterpoint of melodic lines on both drums and piano, now dancing rather than boxing. Yamashita gradually turned his virtuoso gifts to shedding new light on a broader repertoire and reimagining the history of jazz piano, with affection not irony, in combinations that in their own way are as creative as his earlier work. His Bolero (Enja, 1986) with Hozan Yamamoto, one of the leading figures in shakuhachi (bamboo flute) music, is another fascinating merger of East and West.

Togashi was also at home in contemporary music. The composer and pianist Yuji Takahashi had studied in Paris with Xenakis and recorded the complete Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage. In 1976 he and Togashi played together on the album Twilight (Denon, 1977) and later began to perform publicly as an improvising duo (Duo Live 1988 (Masahiko Togashi Archives, 2014)). They can also be heard on Hall Egg Farm (Egg Farm, 2009) with Steve Lacy. Increasing his musical horizons even further, in 1993 Sato took part in the celebrations of the 850th anniversary of the Buddhist teacher Kakuban at the Bodokan, performing and conducting his own composition for a small orchestra comprised mainly of free jazz musicians, augmented by a chorus of one thousand monks using random vocalisations and tunings. No recording was made of the microtonal monks, and probably none could do them justice.

The Eastasia Orchestra was a unit led by alto saxophonist Yoshiaki Fujikawa, a smorgasbord of Asian roots music – traditional Indian and Chinese melodies, gamelan rhythms, Japanese oiwake folk sounds – wrapped up in a bouncy big band with free jazz blowing. Conducted by Fujikawa, and full of surprises, he would pick out soloists, duos and trios on the spot to liven up the arrangements. Their 1984 tour of Europe was a huge success, culminating in a concert at the Volksbühne (“People’s Theatre”) in East Berlin before an audience of three thousand: Jazzbühne Berlin '84 (Repertoire, 1991). The following day, enthusiastic customs officials who’d heard the performance waived them through passport control without the need for a baggage check.

Such exercises in cross-pollination led Soejima to write, in 1990:
“Because jazz is a living thing, if you cram it into a jar and shut the lid, it dries up and dies. So waking up to other types of improvised music, combining them with jazz, genetically modifying them to become new types of music is a positive development…What is called “free jazz” may be thought of as something between death and reincarnation.”
Which might be as good a definition as you’ll find.

One particularly moving story is that of the double bass player Motoharu Yoshizawa, who was more interested in understanding himself and those about him than the technicalities of music making, playing solo but frequently with others for extra stimulus. Duo 1969.10.9 (PSF, 1994) with Mototeru Takagi, which contains an impassioned rendering of Ornette’s ‘Lonely Woman’, <Nord> Duo '75 (ALW, 1981) with Kaoru Abe, Two Chaps (Chap Chap, 2015) with Evan Parker, and Oh My, Those Boys! (NoBusiness, 2018) with fellow bassist Barre Phillips are all of the highest quality. Suffering from liver problems, in the last year of his life he collaborated with the Gyaatees, a group of monks with learning disabilities. As he told Soejima on the telephone:
“They are all really great. It may be hard to get them coordinated for sutra chanting, but each of them sings with an absolutely pure heart. This is real improvising.”
Knowing the end was near, Yoshizawa organised a “Memorial Service for the Living Motoharu Yoshizawa” to take place on September 15, 1998, to which the Gyaatees were invited. It was rumoured it would be his last performance, but he passed three days beforehand and the concert became a true memorial.

Soejima’s narrative ends as one century turns into the next, and the emergence of figures such as guitarist Otomo Yoshihide and pianist and band leader Satoko Fujii. The story of free jazz in Japan doesn’t end with the close of the twentieth century, but his book is a salutary reminder of why music matters and the importance it can have in the lives of performers and listeners alike. Free jazz is a universal language that has many dialects, some with roots in national cultures. Innovation and originality are attempts to find a vocabulary for a language yet to be formulated in musical experience. Bearing that in mind, there are certain characteristics and concerns within the music discussed over the last three days – by no means unique or generic, and which admit of degrees – which can be considered distinctive of the Japanese free jazz parlance developed during this period. They are features that range from tangible timbres (how stuff sounds) to more abstract considerations, alternative ways to experience and think about music.

A great deal of the music exhibits a sensitivity to space and proportion – what in Japan is called “ma” – a respect for the balancing attributes of positive and negative space, which can be found everywhere from woodprints and ink wash paintings to garden design and shakuhachi music. There’s a heightening of spatial depth and a feeling for the texture of time passing (in the West, something similar can be found in certain black and white photography and film). Sounds are given room to breathe according to their own distinct resonances, a peculiarly sensual engagement where the subject is sonority and how it can be handled according to an internal, self-engendered logic that has regard to the power of silence as well as the clashes that can activate that space. The result is musical development that is more environmental than structural, and where sound can have the presence of colour, an almost synesthesthetic experience. Writing about the “transcendental ambient creations” of Takayanagi’s solo Action Direct , Soejima says:
“Sound is supposed to be vibration, but when converted to particles and waves, tone changes to colour and a huge kaleidoscopic space is created. It changes into physical matter, each tone heavy and dense.”
The integration of traditional instruments and ancient ways of thinking are also relevant, perhaps echoing Japanese perspectives on our relationship to history – not reproducing the past but using it to liberate the present and produce something grounded but new, more concerned with cyclical continuity than an ascending line of progress that casts off what went before. On Essence by Togashi's Guild for Human Music (Denon, 1977) cello, flute and saxophones are delicately woven over traditional rhythmic patterns played on marimba and assorted percussion. Sato and the New Herd’s Yamataifu (Express, 1972) is an imaginatively scored portrait of the Yamataikoku legend, the land where Japan began, in which jazzy accents combine with folk-like tunes and avant-garde textures. Sato manipulates the sound of his piano using live electronics in a way that evokes antique instruments and yet at the same time sounds completely modern.

Buddhist thought provides the general framework for his three solo piano albums recorded in January, March and April 1976, considered by Soejima to be a pinnacle of 1970s free jazz in Japan: Multi-Spheroid, Yǔn (“Acceptance”) and Kwan-Ji-Zai, all on the Denon label – according to Soejima, “like a three-sided mirror reflecting Sato’s own consciousness”. The album Kwan-Ji-Zai, named after the Goddess of mercy, was improvised while Sato was looking at the art of calligrapher Katsuhiko Sato, playing “just in the same way as you cast your shadow”. At Moers in 1982, he performed with live calligraphy as inspiration and Japanese dancer Tadashi Endo responding to the music, released (audio only) as Apostrophe (Crown, 1993).

There are times when the pentatonic scales of Japanese music lend a distinctive flavour, something Soejima identifies as a distinguishing feature when comparing Yamashita’s playing with the more blues-based chords of Cecil Taylor. There can also be a noticeably different sense of rhythm and how it functions, possibly influenced by taiko drumming. Even when using a standard drumkit it’s a sound that can stress skin rather than stick, with equal weight given to strong and weak beats and less emphasis on rhythmic subdivisions. Pulse is a matter of pacing rather than metre. As Togashi said of his solo percussion recording, Rings (East Wind, 1976), divided into twelve parts corresponding to the months of the year and changes in the seasons, “It’s neither a metronome nor a jazz beat. There are more natural rhythms in the natural world”.

Soejima’s book is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in free jazz and provides a gateway to not only a body of work which is at risk of being forgotten but some of the most challenging and inventive music the medium has produced. A great deal deserves to be better known and there’s a danger it will be increasingly overlooked outside the low-profile world of free jazz, and within that realm, sunk under the tsunami of new releases. For many years the limited availability of these albums, even within Japan, high import costs, language barriers and the self-effacing nature of Japanese culture meant that only the most determined, and those with deep pockets, were able to access the recordings. That has changed as a result of the Internet. Many of the albums are available on Inconstant Sol, due to the sterling work of Nick, Ernst Nebhuth and others. (I’m grateful to Ernst for an illuminating exchange of emails while writing this review.) There’s also Different Perspectives in my Room..! , that specialises in quality vinyl rips, and YouTube which has a good selection of albums in acceptable sound. There are occasional new releases and re-releases. NoBusiness recently put out An Eternal Moment, a 1995 concert from Kang Tae Hwan and his favourite percussionist, Midori Takada, and Takayanagi’s April is the Cruellest Month has just been released for the first time on vinyl by the Blank Forms label.

Soejima passed on 12 July 2014 at the age of 83. At his funeral a recording was played, which he made shortly before his death: “Even standing before the ruler of hell, I expect to act as a free man. That is what life is all about.” Almost unheard of in Japan, the mourners applauded as one.

Kaoru Abe in 1977, the year before his death.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Teruto Soejima – Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History (Public Bath Press, 2018) ****½

Part 2 of 3
By Colin Green

Culturally, no country is an island, and it was not long before those outside Japan began to take notice and a series of international exchanges took place. In February 1971, the German All Stars visited Tokyo, and Manfred Schoof, Albert Mangelsdorff, Gerd Dudek, Michel Pilz and Wolfgang Dauner sat in with local musicians at New Jazz Hall, refusing to accept payment (Soejima suggested beers all round afterwards instead). Masahiko Sato and Dauner’s piano duo, Pianology (Express, 1971) is the only record of the first free jazz meeting between these nations, but Joachim E. Berendt, who co-produced the session, arranged for Sato’s trio to play at the Berlin Jazz Festival later that year. The piano was out of tune and their time had been reduced from 40 to 25 minutes. Sato refused to play, and Berendt took flowers to his hotel room to persuade him to go on. As can be heard on the recording, Penetration (Toshiba, 1972), Sato got his 40 minutes, but the piano is still lousy though heavily masked by extensive use of a ring modulator. Perhaps reflecting the importance of such exposure, it was initially released in Japan as a quadrophonic LP in a presentation box with obi-strip, the “sash” that fits over the spine of Japanese LPs and CDs. Sato was provided with better pianos in the recordings he made either side of his Berlin festival appearance, however: Trinity (Enja, 1971) a live studio date in Munich with Peter Warren (double bass) and Pierre Favre (drums) and Spontaneous (Enja, 1972) with Warren, Mangelsdorff (trombone) and Allen Blairman (drums), both highly successful collaborations.

Anthony Braxton visited Japan in 1973. His visa did not permit public performance, but there was a midnight recording session with Sato’s trio, which shows them completely at ease with his idiom and compositions, playing those tricky unison passages flawlessly. Four Compositions (1973) (Columbia, 1973) is one of Braxton’s best early albums, also notable for being one of the first ever digital recordings, made using experimental PCM technology with a now obsolete sampling frequency and bit rate, which might explain why, ironically, the album has never been released on CD. Double bassist Gary Peacock, who’d played with Ayler, Bill Evans and Paul Bley, had been living in Japan since 1969 and appeared on four significant trio albums with pianists Sato and Masabumi Kikuchi before his return to the US in 1972: Eastward (Sony CBS, 1970), Voices (Sony CBS, 1971),Poesy: The Man who Keeps Washing his Hands (Philips, 1971) and Samādhi (Express, 1972).

From 1973, some of the younger free jazz musicians began to visit Europe to do their “knight-errantry”, with Paris a focal spot. From the second half of the nineteenth century and the invention of “Japonisme”, there had been strong cultural ties between France and Japan and in the early 70s Paris had become something of a melting pot for free jazz with many expatriate musicians having taken up residence or working there for extended periods. Saxophonist Mototeru Takagi went for a year, picking up the nickname “monster” and recording Out from the Edge (Angelus, 1974) and Jazz a Maison de Japon, Paris (Nadja, 1974) with pianist Takashi Kako, who’d been turned on to free jazz while studying composition with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, and Americans Kent Carter (double bass) and Ron Pittner (drums). Soejima writes of the track ‘Sekibutsu’ (“Stone Buddha”), “Takagi’s slow, elegant phrasings scream as if melting forever into eternity”.

Trumpet player Itaru Oki made a more long-term commitment to France. Describing himself as creating abstract spaces from internal waves, his trio’s album, Satsujin Kyoshitsu (“School for Murder”) (1970) had been the sole release on the Jazz Creaters label, set up by Soejima while at New Jazz Hall. On ‘A Dialogue with Water – Aporia’, Oki plays while dipping his trumpet into a bowl of water, like an extended mute, and ‘Flight in Space – Papillion’ replicates the movement of a butterfly. Well established in Tokyo, and to the astonishment of many, Oki announced he would be moving to Paris permanently in order to find his own place in European free jazz. In April 1974 he went on a 33 date, “sayonara” tour of Japan with his quartet, produced by Soejima. The performances got better as the tour progressed and audiences were stunned by the group’s intensity, adding extra poignancy to Oki’s departure. The last night was released as Shirasagi (Nadja, 1974), a landscape that echoes with electronically enhanced trumpet and Shoji Ukaji’s growling baritone, followed by music of crumbling density, driven by the friction of forces and counterforces. Oki went to Paris, and stayed, though he returned to Japan on occasions as heard on the recently released, Kami Fusen (NoBusiness, 2017). Drummer Masahiko Togashi’s travels were limited due to his disability but in July 1979 he visited Paris leaving two records of his stay in the city of lights, consisting entirely of his own compositions: Song of Soil (Paddle Wheel, 1979) with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, and Colour of Dream (Paddle Wheel, 1980) with Kako, Albert Mangelsdorff and J.-F. Jenny-Clark (double bass), line-ups that give an indication of Togashi’s reputation, world-wide. As Cherry observed, “Togashi’s drumming is nothing like New York drumming. Togashi is Togashi”.

Akira Sakata arrived in Tokyo from Hiroshima in 1969, having agreed with his family that he would stay for three years to make it as a professional saxophone player, failing which he would return home. He worked as a driver and in a design studio and after work, absent the Williamsburg Bridge, would practice his alto in Yoyogi Park among the trees (subsequently, his jerky stage manner was attributed to stopping mosquitoes biting his legs). Travel further round the park and you could hear Shoji Ukaji practicing on his tenor. As an aside, parks and other unusual locations seem to have proved attractive. In the 1980s, the hardcore free jazz players, saxophonist Naoji Kondo and drummer Mitsumasa “Goku” Nonaka, nicknamed after a manga comic character (the importance of which in Japanese life should not be underestimated) performed in the corner of a park in Shinjuku, harassed by officials and police but supported by the local yakuza (mafia). Nonaka then raised his sights and played on top of Mount Fuji, no easy task given the difficult ascent, freezing temperature and reduced oxygen levels. In 1987 he decided to follow the route of the ancient Silk Road, across the Himalayas into India, then on to Western Asia and Istanbul, transporting 90kg of drum equipment to play solo shows wherever he stopped. His performance at a refugee camp in Afghanistan was welcomed by an overflowing crowd and his adventures are recorded in his book, Bachiatari (“Accursed”).

Returning to Sakata, his reputation grew. Kaoru Abe was an admirer but unlike Abe, Sakata was a team player, more interested in group performance. He appeared frequently with the Yosuke Yamashita trio and in late 1972 replaced Seiichi Nakamura on saxophone, introducing new energy levels. On Schoof’s recommendation, the trio were invited by Horst Weber to tour Europe in 1974 where they received an enthusiastic response, described in the press as “kamikaze jazz”, more diplomatically by Soejima as “the most powerful and exciting trio ever”. Over the next few years they proved more popular in Europe than Japan. Clay (Enja, 1974), recorded at the Moers International New Jazz Festival in Germany is a good example of their incendiary fervour and stamina, as is Montreux Afterglow (Frasco, 1976) with new drummer Shota Koyama, which contains a stonking version of Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’. A quartet with Schoof (trumpet, flugelhorn) in Stuttgart is also recommended: Distant Thunder (Enja, 1975).

Inevitably, America beckoned, primarily for more mainstream musicians but also for some who played free jazz. After Togashi’s paralysing accident, Takagi formed a duo with drummer Sabu Toyozumi, another of those powerful sax and drums combos, as can be heard on If Ocean is Broken (Qbico, 2009) recorded in April 1971. Not long after that date, Toyozumi went to Chicago to check out AACM, arriving unannounced but welcomed at concerts and sessions, and became the first non-American member of the Association. After six months he moved to Paris and played with Braxton. then back to Japan via Bali where he spent four months studying gamelan music. Later, he arranged for overseas musicians to play with him in an annual series of duos, including John Zorn (the first of many visits to Japan) trombonist Paul Rutherford – Fragrance (NOL, 2000) –.and Wadada Leo Smith. On Cosmos has Spirit (Scissors, 1992) Smith plays trumpet, a self-made bamboo flute and kalimba, and Toyozumi “non-tempered” percussion.

In 1974, saxophonist Kaazutoki Umezo went to New York for a year, hanging out in the loft scene and recording Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai (ALM, 1975) with William Parker and others. He played with percussionist Tatsuya Nakamura who was also in New York, astounding the locals with his home-made instruments including a “quarter drum”, thirty pieces of plastic plumbing pipe of differing diameters and lengths with drumheads attached. After hearing the collection of festival performances, Inspiration and Power 14 (Trio, 1973) Bernard Stollman of New York’s ESP Records expressed an interest in making a series of recordings of Japanese free jazz, an exciting prospect given the prestigious status of the label. It was decided that guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions Unit would be the first and recordings sessions were held in April and May 1975. Since it was a foreign release it was given the title April is the Cruellest Month, taken from the opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Soejima wrote the liner notes (“a sound like a raging sea…a blast of wind…a jet engine in flight”) and the master tape was sent to ESP, who assigned it a catalogue number. Nothing further was heard. ESP went bust, Takayanagi shrugged his shoulders, “these things happen”, and it was not until after his death that the album was released on CD using a copy master retained by the producer (April Disk, 1991).

From the late 70s Western and Japanese improvisors were brought together in Japan in events often organised by the musicians themselves, picking out combinations that would provide a new challenge. Trumpet player Toshinori Kondo invited Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra, joining in their onstage antics -- Japan Japon (ICP, 1982) – and later brought over Peter Brötzmann, Bill Laswell and Henry Kaiser: Tokyo Meeting 1984 (Dessert/Tojusha, 1985). The 1982 Panmusik Festival, sponsored by the Goethe Institute, was one of Soejima’s favourites, and produced Contrast (Paddle Wheel, 1983) a trio of Togashi, Lauren Newton (voice) and Peter Kowald (double bass, harmonica) in a potpourri of scat, Japanese idioms, reverberant bass scrapes and pattering percussion.  Kowald returned in 1986 and recorded Global Village Suite Improvised (FMP, 1988) with Danny Davis (alto saxophone, flute) and Takehisa Kosugi (violin), and the Japanese portion of Duos: Europa · America · Japan (FMP, 1991), his travelogue of improvised music.

Soejima was not the only person prominent in promoting and organising free jazz in Japan. There was also Akira Aida. Soejima and Aida had collaborated closely after the opening of New Jazz Hall but then fell out when the latter made a speech from the stage inciting the audience to attack the Pitt Inn, whose generosity had allowed the venue to operate. In consequence Takayanagi, who supported Aida’s right to make such statements, broke-off with Soejima. Having introduced Takayanagi and Abe, Aida was then the catalyst for the demise of the duo, telling them after one gig, “it’s still not right, not good enough”. Abe laughed but Takayanagi took umbrage, and that was the end of that. Takayanagi then made up with Soejima but Soejima was never reconciled with Aida – the soap opera that is musical life.

Aida had arranged for visits by Steve Lacy and Milford Graves to Japan and was the distributor for the FMP and Incus labels. He invited Derek Bailey to tour with a collection of leading free jazz musicians from his Hangesha collective – Abe, Kondo, Motoharu Yoshizawa (double bass) and Toshiyuki Tsuchitori (drums). Bailey described Aida as a kind of Svengali figure, but all went well with audiences of up to six or seven hundred each night, making Bailey enough money to buy a car on his return to London. In addition to playing solo – New Sights, Old Sounds/Solo Live (Morgue, 1979) – the performances adopted the permutation format he favoured, as heard on the live Aida's Call (Starlight Furniture Co, 1999) and studio albums, Duo & Trio Improvisation (Kitty, 1978) and The Music...Hardcore Jazz (Kitty, 2003). Bailey was impressed by the different approach to ensemble dynamics and visited Japan again, including Company weeks in 1981 and 1993, as well as playing with Japanese musicians in Europe and America. Aida died in December 1978 at the age of 32, three months after Abe, suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.

Soejima left Japan for the first time in 1977 and visited the Moers festival, one of the preeminent free jazz festivals in the world: “There my eyes were opened wide and every avant-garde cell in my bloodstream went raging through my body.” The following year, producer Burkhard Hennen asked him to recommend musicians for each year’s festival, the beginning of an artistically fruitful relationship, though not financially rewarding. Soejima received no payment for his work and elected to stand his own annual air fare out of respect for the festival. As a result, each year European audiences were treated to free jazz from Japan – in 1979 the F.M.T. trio (Yoshiaki Fujikawa, alto saxophone, Keiki Midorikawa, bass and cello, Sabu Toyozumi, drums), in 1980 Takayanagi’s New Direction (his only overseas appearance, due to increasingly debilitating hepatitis) issued as Live at Moers Festival (Three Blind Mice, 1980) and in 1981, multi-reedist, Keizo Inoue. Much older than the generation with whom he played, Inoue had given Sakata clarinet lessons in Hiroshima and taught himself free jazz by playing along with records before he broke into the Tokyo scene in his fifties. There was a strong theatrical element to his performances: at an outside festival at Ueno Park (those parks again) he stopped playing and dove headfirst into the Shinobazu Pond, followed by members of the audience to rescue him. There was nothing quite as dramatic at Moers where he played solo sets over three days on the special projects stage and sat in with English band Alterations and his former pupil’s trio. The LP In Moers '81 (Trio, 1981), recorded over two nights, has the elemental ‘Himmel’, ‘Wasser’ and ‘Feuer’, played solo on side 1 and on side 2, ‘Passionato’, a sequence of six flickering duos and trios with Paul Lovens (percussion) and Günther Christmann (trombone, double bass) – expanded to the full fifteen sections on the CD release of 2002 – an inspired and serendipitous meeting of like-minded improvisors.

In gratitude for Soejima’s work, early on Hennen gave him permission to film performances at Moers, and thus began his documentary movies, a new one for each festival. For ten years Soejima would travel all over Japan showing them in small coffee bars and the like, shot on 8mm film with sound added from cassette recordings, answering questions afterwards and acting as a proselytizer for progressive music to audiences outside the major centres. As Otomo Yoshihide writes in his introduction to the book, “Anthony Braxton, Han Bennink, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, all names we had only known from records and magazines, were there improvising right in front of us.” In the era of YouTube, we take much for granted.

Soejima was also responsible for promoting the Korean alto saxophonist Kan Tae Hwan. On first hearing his trio, Soejima noticed something different from anything in Europe or Japan and arranged for them to tour. In 1979, after the trio broke up, he organised a solo tour of Japan for Hwan alongside that year’s Moers documentary. His music was an absorbing blend of Asian folk music with textures and articulations associated with free jazz: circular breathing, layered multiphonics and extremes in register and dynamics. He played cross-legged and would use the floor as a resonant sounding board. The free jazz musicians of Japan were intrigued, hearing similarities with their own music but also a unique spirit. Hwan played with Sato and female percussionist Midori Takada at the Pitt Inn in 1990, a meeting of kindred spirits, as a result of which they formed the trio Ton-Klami (“Circle” in Korean). Their set at Moers in 1991 (In Moers (Ninety-One, 1993)) is striking, an imaginative use of quasi-minimalist processes with Hwan’s pulsating saxophone and the gamelan sonority of piano and marimba moving in and out of phase like superimposed waves of light, fading then forming into new patterns.

Particularly in his solo work, there’s a shamanistic quality to Hwan’s playing, slow accumulations that form part of a larger picture which unfolds gradually at a pace where conventional time seems to have stopped; spare, considered music in which each note and dynamic fluctuation are precisely weighted, every inflection carefully graded. There’s something of Abe’s sonic purity about him but projected from a place of internal balance. Two recent albums on the NoBusiness label are representative of his refinement and distillation: Prophecy of Nue with the Ton-Klami trio (2017) and the solo Live at Café Amores (2018), both taken from performances in 1995.

Yamashita in a reunion concert with those who made up the three versions of his classic trio, plus Naruyoshi Kikuchi (tenor) and Katsuo Kuninaka (bass guitar).

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Teruto Soejima – Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History (Public Bath Press, 2018) ****½

Part 1 of 3

By Colin Green 
Free Jazz in Japan: A Personal History is the long-awaited English translation, by Kato David Hopkins, of Teruto Soejima’s Nihon Furī Jazu-Shi (“The History of Japanese Free Jazz”) published in 2002. It’s available through the Public Bath Press website and from London’s Iklektic from where I got my copy. Other specialist venues and stores may also be stocking it.

The translator’s subtitle is significant. Free jazz in Japan is a truly vast subject, even for the limited period covered by Soejima. He doesn’t purport to deal with everything, just how he saw it and the part he played, with a liberal smattering of anecdotes some of which you really couldn’t make up. During this three-part review I’ll mention many albums that are invaluable documents from an era full of startling creativity and riches. Most are discussed by Soejima, but it’s not a definitive list and readers should feel free to add their own recommendations in the comments section after the third part of the review has been posted. I’ll be using the Western convention of family names last, which is how the musicians tend to be listed on Discogs and elsewhere. The book places family names first, in Japanese order.

Soejima was at the centre of free jazz during its formative years in Japan, acting as organiser, promoter, journalist, catalyser, confidant and peacemaker. In many respects it’s a familiar story – the more things change, the more they stay the same – mirroring the development of music, culture and politics at the time, both in Japan and internationally. There are formidable egos, fragile temperaments, fights over how to end numbers, petty feuds, cultural fusion, remarkable fortitude, high farce and tragic fatality, but above all a burning passion to create something immediate and new, a conviction that the world was changing, anything was possible, and free jazz was the medium in which to achieve it. In a way, Japan’s separation from the established centres of jazz, previously regarded as a shortcoming, became one of its principal advantages. As in Europe, the distance allowed a less self-conscious break with jazz traditions and a more ready adoption of other influences – domestic and foreign, contemporary and historic – combined with a rate of accelerated growth probably unmatched elsewhere. No doubt, much of the groundwork had already been done in America and Europe but the speed at which Japanese musicians absorbed and innovated is astounding.

The narrative opens fifty years ago in 1969, the year in which free jazz reached maturity in Japan, signalled by landmark performances and recordings from many of the musicians who were to dominate the scene in the following years. Soejima is attending a rehearsal in late August by guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions trio, held in a back room at Shinjuku’s Pitt Inn, Tokyo.
“A tremendous blast of sound seemed to blow the air out of the windowless chamber. It was, in fact, an intensely creative sound. Wrapped around the machine gun staccato of Yoshisaburo Toyozumi’s drumming, Motoharu Yoshizawa’s bowed bass raised its voice in a low moan. And slashing all around them was Masayuki Takayanagi’s guitar. This was free jazz”.
The trio were playing ‘Mass Projection’, one of Takayanagi’s signature pieces, rehearsing for their debut recording the next month, Independence: Tread on Sure Ground (Union, 1970). That number didn’t make it onto the album but can be heard on Live Independence (P.S.F, 1995) taken from performances in 1970 which give a good idea of the kinetic kick that floored Soejima. During the trio’s appearances at the run-down Nagisa jazz coffee shop the vibrational energy was so great that paint fell from the decrepit ceiling onto the audience, like flakes of snow. Takayanagi was the instigator of the Japanese school of guitar-shredding but was far more than a mere noise merchant, having the skill to trap, mould and release unruly swathes of sound, exercising judgment in deciding when to let loose and how to control. “I am not a noise artist,” he said, “I am making noisy music”, and more tellingly, “The goal has been finding concrete expression for the stillness and motion inherent in space”, an indication of a particularly Japanese aesthetic that was to pervade much of the music.

Earlier in 1969, a quintet led by drummer Masahiko Togashi and trombonist Hiroshi Suzuki recorded Variation (Takt, 1969). The title track opens out into variations of a very different kind to those usually expected and ‘Suzu No Uta’ (“Bell Song”) consists of an unbroken piano run against a background of glittering percussion; further signs of the emergence of a fresh conception of musical space. In May, Togashi, along with Takayanagi, Mototeru Takagi (tenor, cornpipe), and Motoharu Yoshizawa (double bass, cello) recorded We Now Create - Music for Strings, Winds and Percussion (Victor, 1969). Something quite new is going on here, from the opening screeching guitar and strangulated tenor of ‘Variations on a Theme of "Feed Back"’ to the flowing but incisive drums of ‘Artistry in Percussion’ and the concluding ‘Fantasy for Strings’, a textural melange of nervous acoustic guitar, plucked cello, twittering cornpipe and microscopic bursts of percussion. The album suggests many possible directions, which may be why it’s considered by some to be the start of the free jazz era in Japan, and shared joint honours as jazz record of the year. The other album was Palladium (Express, 1969) from a trio led by pianist Masahiko Sato (also spelt “Satoh”). Sato had returned to Japan in 1968, having completed his composition coursework at Berklee College of Music two years into the four-year course, when he was told there was nothing further they could teach him. In the following years he would exhibit a dazzling technical and imaginative versatility, producing innovative music in many fields, as pianist, collaborator, composer, arranger and conductor. The compositions of Messiaen were an early influence, as can be heard in the shimmering pianism of his solo, Holography (Columbia, 1970). Palladium featured Yasuo Arakawa on double bass, and Togashi on drums – he and Sato worked together closely – and includes a rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Michelle’ where the theme emerges from an impressionistic swirl, then floats slowly into abstraction.

Shortly thereafter, the trio recorded a performance given at the prestigious Sankei Hall, Deformation (Express, 1969) which lends weight to Soejima’s claim that Sato’s thinking was about ten years ahead of the rest. During the first half of the concert live electronic sounds are woven into the ensemble texture and in the second half the trio is accompanied at points by a pre-recorded orchestral score (presumably, composed by Sato) which is joined in the final stages by the drones and chants of a choir. During the intermission there was tape of an old woman singing a traditional folk song, retained on the album.

By this stage, Soejima was aware of something important in the air and had begun running a jazz magazine. He was invited to join the newly established (and short-lived) Japan Jazz Association, which in September 1969 put on “Concert in New Jazz” at Sankei Hall featuring Togashi’s ESSG (Experimental Sound Space Group) and pianist Yosuke Yamashita’s trio. Yamashita had started playing with the trio in March of that year, featuring Seiichi Nakamura on saxophones and Takeo Moriyama, drums, in high-octane energy music that swept all before it. They’d been invited to perform “behind the barricades ” in a basement during the student occupation of Waseda University in July, released as Dancing Kojiki (Maro, 1969). The opening track, ‘Agitation’, is a student announcement on megaphone, the remainder incandescent piano pounding, tumultuous drumming and a soprano saxophone that sounds on occasions like a wailing siren. An abridged version of the September Sankei Hall performance was released as Concert in New Jazz (Union, 1969) (the full version appeared on CD in 1991) and was followed swiftly by Mina’s Second Theme (Victor, 1969), named after one of the staples of the trio’s sets. This was music physical and direct, as Yamashita pronounced:
“Jazz is more like boxing or soccer, with sound…What the “player” should rightly be striving for is not “a work of art” in any sense, but the best possible kick he can make at that particular moment. That’s all.”
Fittingly, Yamashita wrote ‘Clay’ for the soundtrack of the film, April Fool: Coming Muhammad Ali (URC, 1972).

Taking a different path, in November a quartet comprising Togashi, Sato, Takagi and Yoshio Ikeda (double and electric bass) recorded Speed and Space – The Concept of Space in Music (Union, 1969), an exploration of Togashi’s notion of Jikanritsu (“Time Law”). The album can be seen as a study in how texture, rhythm and differing rates of change effect our perception of the passage of time in music – the superimposed layers of ‘Panorama’, the floating world of ‘Expectation’, fast-paced and expanding in ‘Speed and Space #1’, and the gaseous state of ‘#2’, the sound of air moving and slow-motion formations made up of cymbal whispers, drifting notes, chimes and rumbling piano. Reflecting the Japanese concern for sonic quality, the LP’s sleeve dealt with the disposition of musicians and microphones at the session and use of the then state-of-the art Neumann SX68 cutting lathe to produce the master lacquer.

It was also in November 1969 that Soejima opened New Jazz Hall. It was the same former instrument storage room at Pit Inn at which he’d heard Takayanagi’s trio rehearsing back in August, a “hall” only in the sense that no drinks were served. From Friday to Sunday it functioned as an experimental laboratory for the new music which continued to flourish. On 19 December, Togashi and Takagi went into the studio to record the soundtrack for Masao Adachi’s film, A.K.A. Serial Killer, concerning the recently convicted mass-murderer, Norio Nagayama, an instance of “landscape cinema” which forgoes actors or narrative in favour of scenes of places where Nagayama had lived or which he visited, with no audio apart from music and the occasional voice-over from the director. Takagi plays tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and cornpipe and Togashi a range of tuned and untuned percussion. The music is completely improvised and attempts to depict the psychological and emotional states of Nagayama during three phases of his life. Togashi tried to forget all his learnt techniques to achieve the right level of spontaneity and authenticity. “I think we pushed ourselves pretty close to the edge” he later observed.

This was the last performance Togashi would record with the use of his legs. Six weeks later he was involved in an accident that damaged his spinal cord leaving him paralysed from the waist down. During his convalesce after discharge from hospital, he edited the soundtrack to produce Isolation (Columbia, 1971), an album that ranks alongside other ground-breaking pairings of reeds and percussion – Coltrane and Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space, recorded in 1967 but not released until 1974, and New Acoustic Swing Duo by Willem Breuker and Han Bennink (ICP, 1967) – and is one of many outstanding recordings in the duo format from Japan. When the movie premiered a few years later members of the audience attended with tape recorders to capture the complete performance.

New Jazz Hall closed in May 1971 due to financial difficulties (its audiences had ranged from five to thirty on a good night) and relocated to the Pulcinella, a small puppet theatre, for ten days each month. One night, a knife-wielding chef from an adjoining restaurant burst in – he’d been putting up with this noise for three years and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Wisely, Soejima did not point out that it had been operating as a music venue for not nearly that long and had a soundproof steel door installed. It was one of a number of small clubs, cafes and bars which hosted free jazz that sprang up in Tokyo over the years; Soejima calls them “incubators”. There was Station ’70, with a mirrored ceiling and wall made up of TV screens, an expense that might explain why it only lasted until January 1971. More frugally, Shoji Aketagawa used the basement of a rice shop to open the imaginatively titled “A Shop Where Only My Uncompromising Jazz Performer Friends Can Appear”, seating twenty people. Later, there was the Om bar, holding a similar number who were encouraged to cheer on the musicians, described by Peter Brötzmann as the smallest jazz club in the world but having the hottest atmosphere. If the proprietor, Hiroshi Torii, thought a performer was flagging he’d jump on the bar, shouting, and splash them with water or drinks.

There were also bigger ventures. In 1973, Soejima was involved in organising the first major free jazz festival in Japan, Inspiration and Power 14, held over fourteen nights and featuring most of the leading musicians from the scene. Trio Records agreed to record the festival and put out a 2-LP set later that year, an album which showcases the variety of music being made, from solo bass to big band. Due to the number of performers, each extract is limited to about ten minutes, including the duo of Sato and Togashi, whose performance marked Togashi’s return to the public stage. After having suffered a disability that would have put an end to the working life of most drummers, Togashi had relearned how to play using a specially designed wheelchair and kit (his bass drum was mounted to one side). If anything, his percussive play was even more inventive, having a lighter tone and crisper edge. An expanded version of he and Sato’s excellent set from the festival was released as Sohsyoh (“Double Crystal”) (Trio, 1973) and complete as Kairos (PJL, 2003). Togashi, a percussionist and composer of immense subtlety and finesse, went on to produce many impressive albums in the ensuing years in groups of all sizes. His duo and trio recordings with Steve Lacy are particularly recommended.

One musician who did not appear at the festival, due to hospitalisation, was the saxophonist Kaoru Abe, a defining musician of the decade – brilliant, volatile and self-destructive, whose paint-stripping alto could also turn sweetly melodic. He first came to Soejima’s attention in February 1969, aged 19, when he saw him perform in a duo with drummer Hozumi Tanaka, and was impressed with his fiery energy, like throwing knives at the audience, two of whom were chatting until Abe stopped and shouted, “Hey you, shut the fuck up and listen”. Soejima invited him to perform at New Jazz Hall in a series of collaborations that were more often confrontations. He played with guitarist Takayanagi, one of the few musicians able to handle him, their first meeting lasting several hours with no breaks, until Abe went blue in the face. There was only one release from this short-lived duo during their lives, Deconstructive Empathy (Sound Creators, 1970), taken from their concert in June 1970, “Projection for the Annihilation of Jazz” – these guys didn’t mess about – an album which still sounds extraordinary: an expression of something primary, almost pre-human, in which stable musical space is replaced by a sound-world wrested from the release of psychic energy, yet avoids disintegrating into chaos (just). Two albums of their sets at Station '70 shortly thereafter were released by DIW in 2001: Mass Projection and Gradually Projection.

Abe was part of the Hangesha collective that recorded with Milford Graves ( Meditation Among Us (Kitty, 1977)) but on the subsequent tour he stood facing Graves, blasting until the drummer gave up. “Milford quit first, so he lost” Abe boasted on leaving the stage and was sacked for the remainder of the tour. He also seemed to occupy another world when not playing, explaining an absence as due to his involvement with a war in Argentina, and once arrived at the Gaya jazz club dressed and made up as a schoolgirl, complete with satchel. He would ring Soejima at 2.00 in the morning, asking if it was possible to kill a person with sound, conversations that would last until sunrise, and was addicted to sleeping tablets, then pain killers – 3 would be left in the morning out of a bottle of 100. They burnt a hole in his stomach, and he died at 7.35 on September 9, 1978 at the age of 29. The drummer Sabu Toyozumi, his duo partner for the previous eighteen months, carried his body back to his apartment. Abe’s wife, the writer Isumi Suzuki, took her own life eight years later.

There have been many posthumous albums of Abe’s music, mostly his sui generis solo concerts such as the various Live at Gaya and Live at Passe-Tamps CDs. The first release after his death was Overhang-Party - A Memorial to Kaoru Abe (ALM-Uranoia, 1979), two duo sets with Toyozumi from August 1978, and the most recent Mannyoka (NoBusiness, 2018) again, a pair of duo performances with Toyozumi from Abe’s final year. Soejima wrote his own eulogy in the liner notes to Overhang Party: “Hardly any other sax players in history have managed to get a tone that so matched their individuality”. Abe is a difficult musician to assess: as a listener you either go with him all the way or decide to do something else instead; like the man there are no half-measures. He’s challenging, compelling, utterly uncompromising, emotionally naked -- at its most potent, his playing has a purity of purpose that acts as a direct transmission of feelings without intervention – but also draining, erratic disturbing. At times it can be akin to witnessing an exorcism. Abe may have accepted all this, taking the view that for him there was no clear division between art and life, reaching for everything and falling short was preferable to accepting limitations, and that expressing the irreducible complexity of things cannot be achieved without risk and perturbation. In 1970, in answer to a survey question, “What are you trying to say?”, he responded:
“How to have a sound that stops all judgement. A sound that doesn’t disappear. A sound that weaves through all kinds of images. A sound that comes from both death and birth. A dying sound. A sound with presence. A sound that is forbidden forever. A sound that can’t be owned. The sound of going insane. A sound full of the cosmos. The sound of sound…”
A collection of scenes from Koji Wakamatsu’s 1995 biopic of Abe, Endless Waltz, based on Mayumi Inaba’s book of that name, accompanied by a searing account of ‘Lover, Come Back to Me’ by Abe and percussionist Yasukazu Sato, taken from a recording made in a classroom at Tohoku University in 1971: Akashia No Ame Ga Yamu Toki (“As Acadia Rain Stops”) (Wax, 1997).

Friday, May 24, 2019

Szilárd Mezei Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble - Citromfa (FMR, 2018) *****

By Nick Metzger

The Tiszán is a river that at one time flowed entirely within the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. It of course flows as it always has; only the immaterial boundaries of human dominion have changed. It passes to the east of the city of Senta, where composer Szilárd Mezei has lived all his life. From there it merges with the Danube (Europe’s second longest river, which passes to the south of Novi Sad, where Szilárd and many of his colleagues perform and where this album was recorded) in the very heart of the Vojvodina province, and then on some 1300 km to the Black Sea. Túl a Tiszán Innen roughly translates to English as Beyond the Tiszán from Here and is the name bestowed to Mezei’s ensemble dedicated to the union of Hungarian folk, jazz, and classical music. For their third release “Citromfa” or Lemon Tree, the 11 piece ensemble presents a 9 song, 2-disc set with a run time of just over two hours, every second of which is filled with intriguing, exotic, and beautiful music. Using the themes of traditional Vojvodinian folk songs as a foundation, Mezei extrapolates remarkable arrangements from the simple melodies that extend and supplement their underlying essence, elevating them to a higher level of sophisticated expression. This advancement is enriched by the implausibly brilliant musicians Mezei surrounds himself with. Joining Mezei on this release are his long time colleagues, drummer István Csík and double bassist Ervin Malina (who make up his trio), as well as the remainder of his Septet: Bogdan Rankovic on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and clarinet, Andrea Berendika on flute and alto flute, trombonist Branislav Aksin, and Ivan Burka on vibraphone and marimba. In addition the ensemble features Béla Burány on baritone and soprano saxophones, violinists Tijana Stankovic and Ákos Keszég, pianist Marina Marina Džukljev, and of course Mezei himself on viola. This album was released late last year and I’ve been under its spell since. The words have been slow to come to me, and so I do apologize for the tardiness of this review. I’ve used the English translation of all the song titles below with the intent of demystifying the content for our non-Hungarian speaking readers.

After a brief introductory passage, the first track "A Young Herdsman from Sándorházi" is centered on the sing-song melody of the original tune superimposed over a piano/double bass ostinato. Berindika's flute playing is beautiful here, fluttering over the surface like dragonflies darting over a pond. Just as striking is Džukljev's piano, which along with the rhythm section provides the beating heart of the piece. "Sour Cherry Grows on High Trees" begins with the main theme sketched out in various shades of contrasting timbre, the embellishments and counterpoint building as the song unfolds. The complex inter-ensemble playing is grounded by the hearty rhythm of the piece. The strings are more prominent here, as is Askin's trombone, and we get a tasty solo from Malina on the double bass towards the end. "Come with me to the Ball, My Sweet Darling" is a moody arrangement that begins with a captivating bit of orchestral-tinted potpourri. It plays out dramatically, with the soft, romantic passages erupting into swells of harmony and bouncing rhythm from the full ensemble. There is a particularly nice segment towards the middle where Rankovic's bass clarinet wraps ribbons of reedy color around Džukljev's velvety piano line. Burka's quavering vibraphone solo near the end is a gorgeous and subtle touch. "My Chestnut Horse's Been Lost" retains the orchestral feeling of the previous track, building up a forest of sound that is haunted by Berindika's flute and Mezei's viola. Dramatically rendered but much more somber than the previous track, it's perfectly placed in the album's track sequence. The last piece on the first disc is called "A Women-Ridiculing Song" and features a romping, ornery melody hovering on a post-bop rhythm which is pocked with piano stabs and soft marimba. Rankovic throttles his saxophone, yielding a fierce solo of fiery passion.

The second disc begins with "My Mother's Rose Tree" which is built around an uplifting, regal melody that’s almost anthemic in its rendering. Csík provides a rolling bed of uneven percussion for the folky strings and the sparse, complementary piano. The ensemble takes turns soloing over this foundation, where a single voice appears and is eventually overlapped and overtaken by the next soloist. The saccharine theme is repeated in intervals by the ensemble like a child returning to an unguarded cookie jar. There is a brief section of group improvisation towards the conclusion of the piece before the final statement of the main melody that imparts a sense of totality and closure. “While the Betyár is Drinking at the Bar, His Sweetheart is Crying in the Window” is a bellicose and animated beast that juxtaposes melodious strands of folk melody with volatile, aggressive playing from the ensemble. The piano passage is especially brooding, finding Džukljev utterly attacking the keys. Burány delivers a terrific solo on baritone sax, resplendent with assertive squelches and honks. The next piece is a medley of descants, "Gosh! What a Bad Place This World Is/When Sándor Rosza Gets on His Horse” and is my favorite piece of the collection. It’s cinematic in its advance, building from the gentle melancholy of flute, bass clarinet, and pizzicato string figures to several swelling crescendos of exquisite orchestral airs. The combination of bass clarinet, baritone sax, and trombone is a favorite of mine and provides a thick bed of roiling thunder for the gentle showers of flute, strings, and piano. Csík’s percussion is faultless and subtle; he illuminates the very edges of their swirling sonic world with light rolls and whispering cymbals. The solos on this piece are a particularly outstanding example of how in-sync the ensemble is with Mezei’s arrangements. The piece sounds like organic clockwork, the players in lockstep with the aspirations of the maestro. The final piece of the collection, the eponymous “All the Twigs and Leaves of the Lemon Tree” features another captivating piano ostinato as the root, at times highlighted with flute, soft reeds, and brass. Mezei and Csík summon beguiling solos that are both mellifluous and full of dynamism, after which the ensemble closes the set with a multifaceted flourish of symphonic verdigris.

Mezei’s sonic brew is intoxicating, and I haven’t been able to get enough of it. This third double disc collection from the Túl a Tiszán Innen Ensemble is a masterwork of infectious melody and intricate orchestration (if you haven’t heard them I warmly endorse the other two collections as well). This music is his own; it’s where he comes from and where he’s going. Certainly there are allusions to the music of Bartók, Mingus, Szabados (another artist underappreciated in the west), and Braxton but they are mostly peripheral. Mezei’s work is singular in its constitution. He’s a gifted artist, whose drive and passion is the equivalent of the aforementioned masters, but who has emerged at a time when much of the world’s cultural fixations have become moribund and oblivious. But like the Tiszán, Mezei’s course will flow as it always has, towards his muses and passions with determination and ambition; and for those so inclined, the juice is well worth the squeeze. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Solo Piano Research of Søren Kjærgaard

By Eyal Hareuveni 

Danish, Copenhagen-based pianist-composer Søren Kjærgaard researched the concept of Multi-layeredness in Solo Performance at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen in the years 2016-2018. During his research project he has performed solo piano recitals and given talks on his research in Tokyo, Oslo, San Francisco, Zürich and Copenhagen. This research yielded two distinct solo piano albums.

Kjærgaard is known from his trio with double bass player Ben Street and drummer Andrew Cyrille, which has recorded four albums, his work with Danish multi-disciplinary artist Torben Ulrich (father of Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich), which has born three albums, and his free-improvised performance with Fred Frith, Koichi Makigami and Jakob Bro.

Søren Kjærgaard - Concrescence (Ik Music, 2019) **** 

Concrescence was recorded at The Village studio, Copenhagen, on 14-15 July 2017, and offers 18 introspective, concentrated micro-cosmoses that unfold in a dialogue between composition and improvisation, between concept and the immediacy of the moment. 

The short pieces point to the rich language Kjærgaard has developed and the diverse influences that shape his aesthetics, ranging from the iconoclastic ideas of Morton Feldman’s evocative minimalism, to the dense chord clusters of Henry Cowell and the indeterminacy of John Cage, to the contemporary voices of improvising, classical pianist Cory Smythe and contemporary composer Nico Muhly, known for his collaborations with Björk, Grizzly Bear and Glen Hansard. 

Kjærgaard weaves these distinct attitudes into a rich and highly personal thesis about the multi-layered potential of the solo piano format. He employs conventional and extended techniques as a mean to suggest a provocative yet subtle interplay between movements, speeds, textures and dynamics, as well as between avant-garde, scholastic innovations and more song-like but still experimental textures. Piece like the minimalist and exotic “Precipitations”, the lyrical ballad “From Ornette To Sun Ra By Way Of Miss Ann South” or the emotional homage to Cowell, “Bells for Henry,” capture best Kjærgaard's idiosyncratic language. 


Søren Kjærgaard - Live at Freedom Music Festival (Ilk Music, 2019) ****½

Live At Freedom Music Festival captures Kjærgaard performing at KoncertKirken, Copenhagen, on September 1st, 2017. It focuses on six extended improvisations, linked as a five movements suite, that explores a more extroverted and contrast-full use of the piano. 

The live format enables Kjærgaard to explore his deep interest in the tension between different experimental approaches and techniques of playing the solo piano, free-improvisation, and modern jazz. The “First and Second Movement” investigates Feldman-esque expressive, ethereal, and almost silent minimalism. “Third Movement” dives first deeper into the indeterminate, chance-based compositional ideas of John Cage and David Tudor, but later sketches basic rhythmic patterns. On these cerebral pieces Kjærgaard investigates the sonic timbral qualities of the piano, attentive to the singing potential of each tone. 

The last shorter three movements - “Fourth” through “Sixth” - connect the contemporary, experimental approaches with a great lineage of revolutionary jazz pianists. The dense tone clusters of Henry Cowell sound as part of the poetic aesthetics of Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley. The last, most lyrical and emotional “Sixth Movement” converges best Kjærgaard’s imaginative, spontaneous ideas of rhythmic flexibility, abstract minimalism and cantabile melodicism. 

And a litte more here.