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Thursday, August 29, 2019

A little break

Greetings readers, just a note to say we're taking a little break, a breather, going fishing, etc. etc. See you all in a couple of days.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Michel Doneda, Lê Quan Ninh - Thirty Ways to Avoid Talking (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

There are many working relationships lasting decades in this kind of music, but one that always springs to my mind is Michel Doneda (soprano saxophone) and Lê Quan Ninh (surrounded bass drum). They’ve recorded together for over three decades now, since the ‘80s, developed their deeply personal styles (often together) in the formative ‘90s, capstoned with two monumental solos in Ustensiles and Anatomie des clefs, and now it seems like everything the venerable duo touch, particularly together, is gold. Despite this perception of the duo, they’ve only recorded together alone on 2015’s Aplomb. Which is weird, considering some of Doneda’s other famous (though more recently founded) duos - with Pierre-Olivier Boulant, Jonas Kocher, Tetsu Saitoh, and Tatsuya Nakatani - are as well-recorded or more.

So this recording is a very welcome document of the duo. It follows Relative Pitch’s release of the solo Everybody Digs Michel Doneda in 2014. 49 minutes of live performance from 2017 are split across six tracks, but the last track was recorded separately from the rest and features Shunichiro Hisada (tzuzumi, voice), who’s recorded with Doneda on his Spring Road performances with Saitoh.

The sound is exactly what those familiar with the duo would expect. Lê works the drumhead with wood, metal, and flesh to evoke the wind and waves of a storm or bending and cracking wood or a warped brass orchestra and works the hoop and shell for skittering communicative pulses, with metallic chimes and clashes too, and sometimes big booming bass strikes, all of which can build into frenzies that sound impossible for two hands, or even 10 fingers, like the taiko-like climax of “The Smallest Sphenic Number.” Doneda draws attention to the saxophone as a vessel of air, with breathy, high-frequency whistles that give way to microtonal purrs and split tones, airy sine waves modulated by twisting with the saxophone or changing the speed of blowing. Sometimes there’s just breath. The saxophone never sounds like a saxophone, but more like a metallic shinobue or shawm. But Doneda is perhaps at his most lyrical here, on “Tricontagon” and the title track. And, though the duo is more comfortable with silence than most, there’s comparatively little silence here compared to some of their previous work. On the trio track, Shunichiro adds a taut-skinned pulse and “woos,” vocalizing the persona of the wooshing wind that Doneda harnesses and Lê at times mimics.

It’s exactly the scratch needed for a fan’s Doneda-Lê itch. As of now though, I don’t hear how this expands the vocabulary of or illuminates new pathways for the duo. An excellent record and an excellent companion to this year’s also excellent Doneda/percussion duo, A Peripheral Time, with
Mathieu Bec.

Thirty Ways to Avoid Talking is a CD-only release.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hermann Nitsch - Albertina Quartett (Trost, 2019) ****

Hermann Nitsch (born in 1938) is an Austrian, avant-garde multimedia artist, and known as the founder of the confrontational Viennese Actionism. His own total, large-scale and highly dramatic approach - encompassed as the Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries - developed since the late fifties and is performed in variations through today. These theatrical-archaic performances call for all our senses. Often Nitsch would begin with painting, but soon his work would involve pagan-like, ritualistic performances, sometimes even including a sacrifice of livestock and splattering its blood and intestines on the paintings as well as on the naked bodies of the participants in these performances, alongside music that he composed and often played on the organ, and conclude with a feast.

Albertina Quartett, the premiere of Nitsch’s String Quartet No. 2 (in 6 movements for 2 violins, viola and cello, performed by the Koehne Quartet) was recorded on May 29th, 2019 in the Viennese Albertina museum and coincided with Nitsch’s retrospective exhibition in Albertina, Spaces of Color. The exhibition showed Nitsch’s paintings, which conquered walls in an overall manner, and intervening in spaces in the form of comprehensive installations. Albertina Quartett is the fourth album of Nitsch’s music released by the Viennese Trost label, beginning with Musik der 25. Aktion (2016), a re-performance of Nitsch’s 25th Aktion from 1968, recorded in March 1982 at the gallery Pakesch in Vienna.

Nitsch does not compose his music in a conventional notation, but divides the movements of his compositions into 1-minute segments and defines the sonic events with great precision - the duration, dynamics, actions with words and symbols, tone clusters and noise. The performing Koehne Quartet is comprised by female expats in Vienna - first violinist Joanna Lewis, second violinist Anne Harvey-Nagl, violist Lena Fankhauser and cellist Mara Achleitner.

The 90-minutes of the String Quartet No. 2 are divided to six extended movements, all titles as ‘Satz’, lack the theatrical, ecstatic drama of Nitsch’s orgies, but offer a unique, minimalist. drone-like experience. These first two movements provide an out-of-time, hypnotic, unison kind of statsis, delivered with a sensual and highly expressive intensity. The third, shortest movement changes the course to more tense, confrontational dynamics but the fourth movements deepens again into the hypnotic, unison kind of lyrical, minimalist stasis. The fifth movement, “Sats (Krebs-Landler) 15’” is the most exceptional one. Nitsch mocks the legacy of Viennese dances and composes a cacophonous blend of twisted waltzes that sounds as imposing the dancers to keep bumping and colliding with each other, but with passionate doses of lust. This composition concludes majestically with another minimalist drone, beautiful and sensual and leaves you in an untimely dream state of mind.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Two from Daniel Studer

By Nick Ostrum

Daniel Studer – Extended For Strings & Piano (ezz-thetics, 2019) ****

I am a recent convert to Daniel Studer’s work. I actually gained my first exposure him only recently, in his Leo Records release with Gabriela Friedli and Dieter Ulrich (which, to correct the record, included tracks composed by Studer as well as Friedli). Since then, I have had the pleasure to work through two of his newest releases.

Extend For Strings and Piano consists of Harald Kimmig on violin, Frantz Loriot on viola, Alfred Zimmerlin on violoncello, Philip Zoubek on piano, and Studer himself on double bass and compositions. This is a moderately-sized ensemble working the full range of their instruments (read: extended techniques and percussive, grating strings) and with great discipline and restraint. Logical connections can be drawn to the Another Timbre and Creative Sources scenes. Nevertheless, Studer and co. take their amelodic, frequently minimalist tendencies in a somewhat different direction. Dynamics play a major role in this music, as scrapes, saws, and strikes arise almost organically out of silence, only to fade just as abruptly. The tracks cohere, but focus is placed on each piece as an atemporal, non-progressive whole, sans the slow welling and layering of sound that Rodrigues and his circles frequently explore. There is a fragility, subtlety, and deep pensiveness to the performances on this album. Brief successions of notes and resonances waft in and out of the three “Bagatelle” tracks in particular. In “motus,” the strings energize and stumble over each other evoking the more delicate tendencies of the horror vacuui school of contemporary composition.

Even so, this is not just heady, theoretical music. As Brian Morton point out in his liner notes, this is in part a return to the very roots of jazz, even before Sydney Bechet and others made it wind music: “The early ‘jazz’ groups were string ensembles, employed to entertain rich men but free after hours to explore their instruments, their tools, without restraint.” As long as we consider this “restraint” as externally imposed, rather than as self-control, self-restraint, and technique which exist dialectically with freedom and exploration (Morton’s notes invite this dialectic by invoking Marx), this point is quite apropos. This is not traditional jazz in any sense of the term. Yet, it harkens back to the curiosity that inspired those early experiments into the turn of the 19th century’s “new music,” the quest for novel sounds, timbres, and musical space. This string sextet is far from alone in this pursuit. That fact, however, makes the peculiarities of this album all the more important.

Kontrabassduo Studer-Frey with Jürg Frey and Alfred Zimmerlin – Zeit (Leo Records, 2019) ****½

Keith Prosk wrote an excellent review of another recent Studer release, Zeit, a few months ago and I have no intention to simply reiterate what he so keenly characterized as the wandering “bassscape(s)” and enthralling electro-acoustic “amassing” and release of tension. For what it is worth, however, I would like to posit this album as a point of comparison to better understand the course of Studer’s current musical thinking.

Zeit is a collection of recordings from 2004, 2007, and 2018 worked quite convincingly into a cohesive album. Unlike Extended recorded by one ensemble over the course of one day, therefore, Zeit is a document of extended process, practice and selection. It balances the acoustic – that early jazz rootedness - with the electro-acoustic; it contrasts and combines studies in bass sonorities and contending rhythms with more rounded explorations of quartet (bass-bass-violoncello-clarinet) dynamics absent even the possibility of interplay. (The four tracks including Jürg Frey and Zimmerlin required the participating musicians be isolated from each other for the duration of the performance.) The sound is more developed and refined than that on Extended and, conceptually, it might even more progressive. That said, the relative fullness of Zeit helped me better sense of the controlled sparseness and sharp discordance of Extended, and vice versa. In his liner notes, Giancarlo Schiaffini identifies a strand of “dynamic minimalism” that underlies Zeit. Similar impulses fuel Extended, which, with its experimental, almost Bauhaus-level functionalism seems an excavation of these same “dynamic minimalist” undercurrents. Extended takes the bare, acoustic, atavistic approach. Zeit meanwhile deploys a wider range of instruments, techniques, sonic manipulations, and conceptual deviations. It nevertheless pursues the same goal: excavating and mapping a small piece of the immense musical ground that has opened between the first improvisations of early jazz and the contemporary world of composition. It is a goal, of course, that can only ever be achieved in fragments. These albums show, however, the pursuit is nevertheless well worth the effort.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Ellen Arkbro - CHORDS (Subtext, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

Ellen Arkbro gifts two compositions lasting half an hour on CHORDS . Whereas the sublime For Organ and Brass featured the familiar trio of Elena Kakaliagou, Hilary Jeffery, and Robin Hayward alongside organist Johan Graden, Arkbro performs her own compositions here, alone, on organ and guitar. She continues to plumb the depths of tonal, timbral, and harmonic aspects of instruments - with jarring singularity - and an emphasis on space over time. The result can be surreal.

“CHORDS for organ” begins with a chord, on an organ. After some time, there’s another chord. And that’s it. Surficially. Focus reveals the many sonic lines comprising each chord. Held and allowed to decay, the lines pulse and throb like diffracted air in heat. The waves seem to resonate and harmonize with each other, creating new timbres. When another chord sounds, the waves also amplify and accelerate and the various lines at various pulses create a kind of polyrhythm. The glacial pace of sounding between chords eliminates any sense of forward movement, of musical time, and the track instead feels like a framed space. The effect is similar to watching fireworks in slow motion: a void illuminated by expanding spheres of color in fact composed of squiggling lines that blend with other bursting spheres of color, like Kandinsky’s Several Circles in three dimensions, briefly, before fading completely.

“CHORDS for guitar” contains a similar macrostructure but, whereas the tones of organ chords are pressed almost simultaneously, the tones of guitar chords are strummed more discretely, particularly at the pace of Arkbro’s performance. And whereas chords can sound simultaneously on an organ, the guitar is more limited. The identity of each chord is apparent when first strummed but disintegrates to its individual parts in time, and a kind of hyperawareness of sound waves sets in as high-frequency tones peel away and low-frequency tones hum along, creating a trancelike pulse through the track. Arkbro’s attack is often as consistent as a harpsichord but occasionally, subtly emphasizes the bass or the tenor ends. The timbre is reminiscent of This Heat’s spindly sound. The effect feels more linear, more austere, and perhaps less immediately appealing than “CHORDS for organ” but is cognitively pleasing as a kind of simultaneous foil and companion to it.

CHORDS revels in the details of timbre and is suggested for listeners that do the same. With a simple approach and a slow pace, Arkbro brings focus to intrainstrumental dynamics in a way that makes these chords scale within and beyond what they are. A kind of enlightened understanding of the forest gained from wandering among the trees.

CHORDS is available digitally, on CD, and on LP.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver – What Is To Be Done (Clean Feed, 2019) ***½

By Troy Dostert

When three high-caliber musicians meet for the first time as a trio—and they have resumes the likes of Larry Ochs, Nels Cline and Gerald Cleaver—there’s sure to be some avid interest, and in this case there’s added significance in that this release represents the 500th album brought forth by the venerable Clean Feed label. But as with all free-improvisational outings, sometimes the results aren’t quite sufficient to meet the lofty expectations. Even the record’s ambigauous title, What Is To Be Done, which could either be viewed as a declaration or an open-ended question, is a hint, perhaps, that the music here hasn’t quite found its purpose, despite the episodic moments of magic that do appear.

These guys aren’t strangers to one another. Cline brought his electric guitar wizardry to saxophonist Ochs’s magisterial Electric Ascension Live, a vital revisiting of Coltrane’s landmark Ascension recording, while Cleaver and Ochs recently teamed up on Songs of the Wild Cave (Rogue Art, 2018), a drums-sax duo album. Here the three come together for three improvisations: two lengthy ones at over twenty minutes each, with a shorter six-minute piece, “A Pause, a Rose” sandwiched in between.

It’s clear from the outset that the trio is on a mission to rock out. Anyone familiar with Cleaver’s output knows that he can bring the goods when it comes to a fearsome rocking intensity—witness the Black Host’s Life in the Sugar Candle Mines for evidence. But here it’s even more pronounced, with Cleaver offering a shifting series of steady, granite-solid rhythms designed to instigate and support the contributions of Cline and Ochs. From the opening moments of the first track, “Outcries Rousing,” one can appreciate Cleaver’s ability to establish a deep groove while Ochs joins in with some bluesy figures. Cline too offers chunky riffs to nice effect before dropping out to let Ochs and Cleaver do their thing for a while. And that’s all to the good, until Cline comes back in—and that might be the first sign of trouble, as Cline starts to bring a heavier, grittier sound from that point onward, and Ochs seems to start to lose his place in the conversation. Which is not to say that Cline is not terrific: the bag of tricks he’s able to bring to bear throughout the album is at times astonishing. His looping technique alone is a marvel, at times suggesting the presence of two different guitarists. But it’s not always commodious enough to make room for Ochs in the way that one would like, especially once Cleaver and Cline go into overdrive mode, as they frequently do on the record. Ochs, to his credit, does his best to find his footing, and he’s not shy about jumping into the fray. He offers plenty of feisty energy himself. But that isn’t quite enough to make the music a true three-way conversation.

Part of the problem lies in the mixing of the album. Rather than situate the three musicians in clear distinction across the listening field, Cline and Ochs are put together very closely in the center, with Cleaver spread out over the left, center and right channels. This blurs the differences between the players, making it even harder to hear the music as an exchange of ideas. Moreover, when Cline really brings the heat, as happens midway through “Outcries Rousing” and elsewhere, Ochs is in danger of being subsumed beneath Cline’s distorted onslaught. More openness and equity in the mix all around would have helped a great deal.

Ironically, it’s on the shortest track, “A Pause, a Rose,” where the potential of the trio is suggested most enticingly. As Cline begins with some entrancing figures that loop and wind around each other, Cleaver waits until just the right moment to enter with some delicate cymbal work, leading Ochs also to contribute with some felicitous flurries and cries. And when Cleaver does eventually find the groove that drives the rest of the track, the trio’s chemistry is enhanced rather than buried beneath the rhythm. There are other moments of a similar nature at various points on the album; for instance, the closing minutes of “Outcries” are riveting, as Ochs merges beautifully with Cline’s looping filigrees to create a captivating conclusion to the track. But nuances tend to be in short supply on the closer, “Shimmer Intend Spark Groove Defend,” where Cline’s outsized presence once again comes to dominate the proceedings, Ochs’s heroic efforts to keep up notwithstanding. Here too, a bit more subtlety and balance might have gone a long way.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Susan Alcorn, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark - Invitation To A Dream (Astral Spirits, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

Invitation To A Dream is the first recorded meeting of Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar), Joe McPhee (soprano saxophone and pocket trumpet), and Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone and clarinet) as a trio. Alcorn and McPhee recorded together on the masterstroke Concentration. And McPhee and Vandermark have recorded together frequently since the late ‘90s, perhaps most famously as part of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, and just recently with this year’s The Fire Each Time. But this is the first time Alcorn and Vandermark have recorded together. The results are almost as stirring as the three names on the marquee would have you believe.

This studio session, from September 2017, occurred the same week as the trio’s first live performance. The macrostructure of these seven tracks, which span 49 minutes, appears to reflect the scouting phase of their interplay. Four longer tracks explore the possible combinations between McPhee and Vandermark: (1) tenor/trumpet; (2) clarinet/soprano; (4) tenor/soprano; (5) clarinet/trumpet. Three shorter tracks explore the possible combinations of duos: (3) Alcorn/Vandermark; (6) Alcorn/McPhee; (7) McPhee/Vandermark. And these shorter tracks rotate through McPhee and Vandermark’s instruments as well: (3) pedal steel/tenor; (6) pedal steel/soprano; (7) clarinet/trumpet. Alcorn almost acts like an anchor in most tracks, with the most play time, as if McPhee and Vandermark give more ear than mouth to better incorporate the most unfamiliar member of the trio. All of this serves to create a feeling of deliberate development in the trio’s dialect.

But the familiar styles of these musicians is here. Vandermark’s tenor staccato stops, slaps, and clicks interspersed with resonant, sonorous swells; his nimble, pastoral clarinet. McPhee’s alternately gnarled, skronky or soulful and lyrical soprano; the Cherry flurries and breathy blusters of his pocket trumpet sowed with voicings like Michelangelo’s slaves writhing in pain as they’re entombed by the gorgon. Alcorn’s tones stretched like taffy and peppered with twinkling melodies, reverbed riffs, apocalyptic arpeggios, something that sounds like a tape machine. The pacing is often relaxed, with Vandermark and McPhee giving Alcorn and each other a lot of space, resulting in what can feel less like communication with each other than contribution to the atmosphere. The experience is dreamlike or collaged. Languorous until awakened, or realizing the dream is nightmarish.

It’s a strong trio performance with strong individual performances. I imagine I’ll be drawn to return to it for quite some time. But there is a feeling that each musician has ascended higher before. There’s aspects of these musician’s characteristic energy, soul, and cerebralness that feel incomplete here. I hope they continue to perform and record together, and I look forward to a less deliberate exploration of their dynamics and a more natural channeling of their growing relationship.

Invitation To A Dream is available digitally, on CD, and on LP.

Susan Alcorn, Joe McPhee, Ken Vandermark - Invitation To A Dream (Astral Spirits, 2019) *****

Clouded reflections
Broken dreams
Nightmare creatures
(First verse of Joe McPhee’s poem “Less Than Zero”)

Some matches are made in heaven and can be brought to a studio in Austin, Texas. Baltimore-based pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, Poughkeepsie-based sax and pocket trumpet player Joe McPhee, and Chicagoan reeds player Ken Vandermark player is, no doubt, one of these rare matches.

Alcorn and McPhee performed for the first time at the 2016 edition of the Cropped Out Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. A year later, both were invited by Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (who has collaborated many times before with McPhee, with The thing and in duo performances and recordings) to his Austin’s Sonic Transmission festival, but this time with Vandermark. McPhee and Vandermark have been collaborating together for more than twenty years now, since they recorded their first album together, A Meeting in Chicago (Okka Disk, 1998, with Kent Kessler) in February 1996, and most recently with the release of the box-set of the DKV trio with McPhee, The Fire Each Time (Not Two, 2019). The recording of Invitation To A Dream, which took place in September 2017, was the first time that Alcorn, McPhee and Vandermark played together as trio.

McPhee’s decision to bring to the recording session the soprano sax, instead of the often-used tenor sax, in addition to his pocket trumpet, set the chamber, poetic atmosphere of Invitation To A Dream. Vandermark left out his baritone sax and focused on the tenor sax and clarinet. Alcorn, McPhee and Vandermark created instantly a strong and coherent sound, dynamic, and identity for this trio. You can feel this kind of disarming magic already on opening, title-piece, the first piece that the trio played, with no warm up improvisations, no false starts, just the most profound, spiritual music.
You sense immediately that the trio hardly had to rely on rhythmic patterns at all and opted for reserved, abstract dynamics and not for dramatic, energetic ones (except on the short “Rise and Rise”). These kind of European, abstract, free-associative improvisations are based on deep listening and openly emotional and imaginative sculpting and shaping of sounds. Often, the conversational-contemplative interplay extends and expands on fleeting themes and ideas but refuses again and again to attach itself to any of them. It may sound like a recipe for a chaotic, off-balanced structural turmoil, but Alcorn, McPhee and Vandermark are experienced enough to allow this unpredictable tension and architecture feed and invigorate their music, letting these dreamy-cryptic events just happen and suggest their own inner logic and reasoning. The longer pieces as “Bing Says Ming” and “The Eyes of Memory” captures best the trio essence (and even their titles make perfect sense while listening to them).

How could this happen
What does it mean
Empty echoes
(Second verse of McPhee’s poem that accompanies this album)

One of the best albums of 2019, and happened to be the 100th release of the independent Astral Spirits label. You should get your own copy of the limited-edition vinyl with artwork by Bill Nace.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ben Bennett/Zach Darrup/Jack Wright – Never (Palliative records, 2019) *****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos 

Sometimes we need to make things clear from the beginning and state our point of view. This is an amazing recording from three fine improvisers. Nothing less than five stars and I mean it. You all know by now about the great musician and thinker Jack Wright. Wright, who on Never plays saxophone, is always the artist willing to collaborate on an equal basis with musicians of younger generations. Here he plays with two low key improvisers. Ben Bennett on the drums and percussion has not seen so much publicity around his name, even though he fully deserves it. He manages to be an artist in demand from many below the radar collaborations, like a duo we recently reviewed here with Arrington De Dionyso. Zach Darrup has played together with both of the aforementioned musicians in duos. These are some fine recordings as well, while I cannot say I’ve listened to anything else from him.

The fact that they know each other and have built a communicative language really shows on Never. Their interaction is impeccable. Especially since Wright’s work through the years isn’t one that needs categorization, but as a reference point here would be European improvisation of the freest form from the early 70’s. It is very rare that you come close to such a dedicated interaction between musicians. They seem willing and eager to leave any trace of ego or willing for a personal exploration through the journey to uncharted waters that is collective improvisation.

Darrup’s gentle plucking, fingering and use of electricity proves an adequate equivalent for the low volume sax attack of Wright’s phrases. It is very easy to get lost under the power of electricity when you mates are playing acoustically, but Darrup never ceases to amaze with the balance he finds. It might seem as an antithesis but many times I found myself considering Bennett’s percussion work along with Wright’s sax as a duo within this trio. They seem that they play in unison, one mind behind two instruments…

From the very beginning up to the last second, more than hour later, Never impresses. They never ran out of ideas, they keep the energy flow really high, they never bore you even if you have listened a billion of improvisational recordings. The five star rating is no exaggeration, so all of you reading the above lines, go buy it.


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Erlend Apneseth Trio with Frode Haltli – Salika, Molika (Hubro, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

This album is quite different from what I expected. Maybe I should have done some research before I pushed play. Then again, sometimes it is more rewarding to approach an album unprepared or simply ignorant.

Erlend Apneseth is a young master of the Hardanger fiddle player. From what I can deduce, he is the vanguard of the instrument and maybe even the chief proponent of marrying it with modern experimental music. Accompanying him are other practitioners of traditional instruments - Frode Haltli on accordion and Øyvind Hegg-Lunde on percussion – and the less traditional - Stephan Meidell on samples and electronics. Pull them together, and you have the rooted but foresighted foursome that recorded this curious album.

I use the word “curious” as a complement. The music on Salikda, Molikda is developed and clearly comes from somewhere, but I am not familiar with its immediate inspirations. It is eccentrically poppy but harkens back to Nordic folk melodicism and ambiance. As much folk music does, these songs involve simple melodic structures around which the Apneseth and company improvise within certain melodic and scalar parameters. Meidell’s percussion is heavy and entrancing. His interspersed atmospherics and backgrounded bells, clicks, and whistles add depth and a disorienting modernism. Haltli and Apneseth meanwhile produce the plucky melodies and the billowing improvisations that dance upon the platforms laid by Hegg-Lunde and Meidell. Tracks such as “Takle” are jaunty, clattering dance numbers. “Salika, Molika” sounds almost medieval, even with its ghostly overdubbed vocals and its disorienting flow. “Kirkus” sound like a Masada String Trio interpretation of the village fair scene at the beginning of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Other tracks, such as “Mor Song” with an overlaid monolog reminiscent of Philip Bimstein’s “Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica” and the pastoral “Solreven” (I can hear wisps of Danny Boy in this piece) are more pensive and mournful. The final track, “Kierkegangar,” is particularly emotive in its wafting harmonies and plodding drums that give way to a shimmering soundscape.

Much of this album brings to mind Sequentia’s recordings of early Nordic music, even if the pulsing drums – for the battle field, the communal hearth, the mead hall, or the disco – somewhat belie that comparison with modern, danceable rhythms. In other words, something quite different is going on with Salika, Molka. It wears its roots unapologetically, but also quite effectively blends them into a contemporary vernacular that is, well, curious. I can parse out many of the elements, some of which on their own might sound like mere novelties. But those elements compound. At a little over thirty minutes, this album is short, but it has held my attention and curiosity for a couple of weeks, now, and will keep me listening for many more.

I am hesitant to make too broad of statements about the uniqueness of the music. It is possible that there are other combinations exploring similar musical territory elsewhere in Scandinavia. If there is, however, I haven’t come across it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Joe McPhee, Piotr Michalowski & Andrew Drury - Live at Edgefest (2019) ***½

By Kian Banihashemi

Edgefest serves as one of the larger American Midwest's avant-garde jazz festivals. Since 1997, the Kerrytown Concert House has provided an up-close and personal listening experience through this now four-day long festival. Its popularity, support, and collaborations have continued to grow in recent years. In 2017, Joe McPhee, Andrew Drury, and Piotr Michalowski performed three improvisations that have finally met my ears nearly two years later. Joe McPhee is no stranger to me, and while I have not heard Drury's music, I know that the two have played with each other before. Michalowski resides in Ann Arbor and besides being a self-taught horn player, he teaches at the University of Michigan and writes for the Ann Arbor Observer. So this setting and player arrangement was all new to me, and I was determined to go in with little expectations and to really listen to the interactions the players had with each other.

"Improv 1" is the meat of the album, spanning eighteen minutes compared to the other tracks, which don't even equal that run time when combined. I found myself listening closely to every sound that was carefully made. Drury really uses his drum set like a canvas, painting beautiful strokes of different colors, but also able to ease into steady rhythms that push the other players to the forefront. Drury appears very confident in the space he inhabits and plays using a variety of techniques; going on textural excursions and then immediately after I hear him exploring different grooves that would fit perfectly on Sun Ra's Space Is the Place. Traversing through multiple routes within the jazz tradition, Michalowski is memorable and very often melodic. The first few minutes reminds me of McPhee's presence and reputation as a jazz giant. Through that pocket trumpet, he stretches out every sound that could possibly be made by such an unimposing and underutilized instrument. The breathy playing takes on a natural and abiotic component within the music, almost like the wind. The three players gracefully display their deep knowledge of jazz music and its ever-changing styles, while creating something completely new and engaging through pure improvisation.

"Improv 2" is perhaps a further exploration in that direction; the first two minutes being Drury developing a theme and then breaking it down, rebuilding it with different textures. The drums are busy and robust, barely allowing any room to squeeze the horn players in. When McPhee arrives, he blows his way through any preexisting barriers. I truly am a sucker for baritone saxophone and Michalowski scratches that itch of mine perfectly on this track. When he starts up after McPhee's frenzy, he decidedly takes the music to a cooler, ominous place. The drum patterns change, adjusting to this newly uncovered atmosphere. Right when it's about to come to a close, McPhee joins back in; the two voices increase their pitches, searching for some escape while the drums hold them back. Out of the three pieces, this seems to be the most "conventional" and accessible for listeners who may not be accustomed to this musical form. The third and final improvisation goes into more unexplored territory; more in tune with the musical styling of free improvisation players.

There are few sounds at first, but at about two minutes in I could feel something brewing. The horns are bubbling, shaping a stream of sound that is stopped by a squeaking dam. The light tapping from the drums signal a shift, as McPhee's pocket trumpet wails and allows a small voice to escape. Michalowski enters with an underlying, shaky melodic line that combines with Drury's pulsing rhythm; at times it sounds very Middle Eastern. In one terrific move, the music evolves dramatically into textures that sound unlike any instrument and played by none other than Joe McPhee. The trills are abrasive and tantalizing and I have absolutely no clue how he does it. While McPhee's playing is fairly subdued throughout this whole recording, this last minute takes me to the extremes he sometimes reaches. This release has stayed low-key and the audio quality somewhat shoddy, really requiring some good headphones to hear all the intricacies. Besides that, it's a sublime sliver that showcases these artists' talents and should be listened to with receptive ears and an open mind.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Maja S.K. Ratkje – Sult (Rune Grammofon, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Maja S.K. Ratkje is a vocalist, composer, and, more generally, noise artist form Norway. As might be expected, her catalogue of releases and collaborations is deep and varied ranging from collaborations with Paal Nilssen-Love and Lasse Marhaug (the stellar Slugfield and my first introduction to Ratkje) to numerous solo recordings to her most stable and prolific group, Spunk (reviews here and here ). On some level, Spunk, with their fine, spacious textures and Ratkje’s subtle vocal warps and wefts are the best point of comparison for this album.

Nevertheless, Sult is not what I expected from Ratkje. It is, at times, more mellifluous than her other recordings, even if eerily so. At others, it is pulsing and disorienting. Rarely, however, does it approach the expansive and cacophonous soundscapes of her previous work (at least that with which I am familiar).

Sult begins with long, drawn pump organ overtones and continues meandering along that path. The mic is close and one can hear the clicks of the keys, but it seems that is not the point here. What Ratkje plays is emotive and (this took me off guard) even relaxing. The next track continues along similar lines, adding a guitar and soft, beatific vocals. And the following one follows suite, albeit with a more dizzying array of looped and pulsing melodies (yes, Reich seems an influence) and rich, crunchy percussive jangle.

This description, of course, does not do justice to what is actually going on here. Ratkje is an autodidact on the pump organ, and I believe a recent one at that. Although this music was composed for a ballet - “Sult” (Hunger) based on a Knut Hamsun novel - it is largely improvised during performances and on this recording. What makes this album so interesting is not only the window it opens into the ever-curious mind of Ratkje herself, but also the glimpses it gives into the contemporary possibilities of the pump organ beyond the 19th century novels, churches and bourgeois parlors for which it so appropriate. (To qualify that statement, some of the progressions and flourishes on this album, particularly that found in the final track “Kristiania” would have likely blended seamlessly into the Belle Époque.) It also presents a different Ratkje as vocalist, one who can still skitter, scat, and shriek with the best of them even as she exchanges her primal growls and screams for, at times, Björk-like vocal spirals and, at others, operatic descants. This is indeed experimental, but oddly pleasant as well. It is unconventional, but less because Ratkje grinds against the boundaries between music and raw sound than because she embraces melody and sonority. And, I am enamored.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Michael Janisch - Worlds Collide (Whirlwind Recordings, 2019) ****

By Sammy Stein

Michael Janisch is known to many as a musician and the force behind one of the UK's biggest jazz labels with a focus on European recordings, Whirlwind Recordings. He has been nominated for a MOBO Award and covered extensively by Jazzwise, NPR, the Guardian, Downbeat, The Telegraph, Jazz FM, BBC 2,3, 6 Music and more. The new album is an exciting listen and an adventurous one, following Paradigm shift, his 2015 project, yet very different in its essence.' Worlds Collide' sees Michael combining contemporary jazz influenced by London/New York scenes alongside free improvisations and soaring melodies over multi-metered grooves paying homage to artists such as Feli Kuti & Afro-Beat and the electronic music pioneer Aphex Twin. The influences are international and the styles varied and experimental, reflecting music he has championed through Whirlwind Recordings for so long. The album features Michael on double and electric basses and post production percussion, Jason Palmer on trumpet, John O'Gallagher on alto saxophone, Rez Abbasi on guitar and Clarence Penn on drums with guests John Escreet on Keys, George Crowley on tenor saxophone and Andrew Bain on drums and percussion . It was recorded at Abbey road Studio 3 in London. Michael says of this project he sees it as a new era and a big transition. The six tracks were written over a period of time, resulting in each having its own identity due to different inspirations.

The CD opens with the rock influenced 'Another London' announced by a strong bass line over which arcing themes are introduced and some rich horns and a mesmeric saxophone solo from John O'Gallagher. It reflects Janisch's positive view of walking through London and the diversity he observes and right through has a walking gait underneath. With the changes in layers, the listener senses the different people and areas observed, from cool shaded avenues to fast moving, noisy areas and at times, short peaceful interludes and a sense of time slowing, particularly in the key-led middle section. Then we are off, strolling, looking, seeing and hearing, the sax solo taking us to secret places hitherto only dreamt of. In 'An Ode To A Norwegian Strobe' the music centres at the start around the guitar patterns set by Rez Abbasi and the track is uplifting, the melodic lines explored and changed as the tack moves, ever quick, ever stirred, ever moving apart from a couple of quieter interludes, forward with each musicians having a say in how it is done.

'The JJ Knew' - has a sense of questioning and has been developed from an improvised personal, family lament from Michael's previous album - the depth of the melody, which is laid back and thoughtful is interjected with racey, faster pieces, indicating positive thoughts. The trumpet solo is glorious, soaring, searching and explorative with a lengthy drum and horns inter-discussion in the latter stages.

'Frocklebot' is named after an imaginary toy resembling a giraffe with mechanical wings created by the bassist's daughter. The opening is fan-fared question and answers from brass, horns and strings and percussion before a whole band dialogue is set up before a conversation between trumpet and guitar work the remains of the first half well. The dialogue is then handed over to bass and sax just before the half way mark. The guitar at times has a Sonny Sharrock tone whilst the patterns could be lifted from Coleman or Cherry. The sax and bass portion is explorative, emotive and driven forward by percussive lines, reflected by both players with the diversity of the bass being shown and it includes a lovely short swing-leaning interlude towards the subtle yet powerful finish with the trumpet and guitar re-joining. The percussion on this track changes fluidly and is outstanding.
The four part mini-suite 'Pop' is introduced by a gorgeous alto sax solo. Short but sweet. 'Pop' itself is dedicated to Michael's wife and, set in a minor key, is evocative and draws on the heart strings from the get-go. It has a peace about it and also a reflectiveness, as though watching something beautiful yet not quite able to capture it. Over the slight melancholy imbued by the minor key are sets of short, uplifting, tempo changes and solos breakout and vanish again, like ripples on a serene surface. It is a beautiful piece with the deep, redolence of the bass lines contrasting wonderfully with the horns, brass and guitar lines. At around the 5 minute mark is a lovely interlude between sax and bass with the sax soaring away, held in check only by the slow tempo and fixed key of the bass line before the piece settles into a melodic section, guitar led and prettier, before melding into gentleness again. The switch in beat emphasis in the final section adds further interest and layers.

'Freak Out' develops a groove from the start and an almost orchestral arrangement before the guitar develops sheets and waves of sound, turning rocky and jazzy tricks, supported in full by the rest of the musicians as they take their turns. This track shows the band as solo players and yet gloriously together too.

This is a CD which at once is different yet stuffed full with many good things about improvised jazz music. Combining technical wizardry and tweaks with good, solid playing, the music does not so much cross boundaries but rather unites them. It is a creation of a different kind and reflects the continual wonder which Janisch so evidently finds in music of all kinds.

Worlds Collide is available Sept. 6th

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Matt Mitchell - Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi Recordings, 2019) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

I have listened to Phalanx Ambassadors, the latest from pianist Matt Mitchell, an absurd number of times for an album that’s only been out a few months. Featuring a newly recorded quintet—with guitarist Miles Okazaki, Patricia Brennan on vibes and marimba, Kim Cass on bass, and Kate Gentile on drums—Phalanx Ambassadors promises a lot from the get-go, and more than lives up to that promise.

Mitchell's vibrancy and dexterity remind me often of Don Pullen, who also displayed a thrilling and restless creative spirit. Ahead of the album’s release, he made a few enticing remarks on social media that prompted me to reach out for, well, something not exactly an interview or conversation, but we did exchange emails, where he gamely provided some extra-textual commentary. Rather than share it here in a standard Q&A format—which is not how it flows, anyway—I wanted to interpose some of Mitchell’s responses alongside my thoughts about the album.

When we started emailing, I had just seen Mitchell on tour with Okazaki and his Trickster band. As readers likely know, these are two impossibly talented and warm players. Kim Cass and Patricia Brennan both played on Mitchell’s previous album, A Pouting Grimace, and many of us really enjoyed Gentile’s debut, Mannequins, which Mitchell played on. As a quintet or sextet, they’ve all played together for a few years, occasionally as the rhythm-section-only Phalanx Trio, and collectively their connections extend backward for years. That’s critical to hearing the album, I think, as it flows brilliantly from track to track. Additionally, the album was produced by David Torn, who gives the album its particular brightness.

As a follow-up to A Pouting Grimace, I was already hyped to hear what the album sounded like, when Mitchell tweeted: “If A Pouting Grimace was more of a ‘recording project’, this is a band dissecting material, w studio spices… More ‘grooves’, overall aggression and drive, also more tonally skirting diatonic-ish realms, relatively speaking. Some overt ‘melodicism’.” I had seen the cover art, and (incorrectly, it turned out) assumed the two albums might share some sensibility, aside from the name on the cover.
Phalanx and Pouting aren’t related, other than the fact that they share the same composer and bandleader. I actually finished all the music for Phalanx before I even thought of Pouting in its most embryonic stages. I composed the Phalanx music between 2011–summer 2014 off and on, first gig in 2016. The initial single-bar seed of Pouting was composed in the fall of 2013 on an Amtrak train, and the bulk of the Pouting album was composed during a couple days in November 2014 and mostly January 2017.

So the projects are temporally distinct from each other in terms of when my mind was dealing with them. I waited to record the Phalanx music until December 2018, mostly because the music is the most demanding to play of all the music of mine I’ve attempted to date, technically, rhythmically, in terms of the individual parts and as far as the band as a whole is concerned.

That tweet I did describes the material of the compositions—the piece “stretch goal” was the first piece composed, and all the other pieces are derived from it. Actually, all the tunes had the working title of “stretch goal” 1, 2, 3, etc, for a long time.

While the music totally has lots of the musical characteristics of my other work, both recorded and not-yet-recorded, I see these pieces as containing more overt relationships to “tonality” in the pitch sense, and rhythmically there is a good amount of material relying on rhythmic cycles that result in grooves of a more “grooving” sort than earlier things I’ve done. Obviously there are points where the rhythm and the harmony go further out at times, but I feel like a sort of balance is maintained.
On the album, you can definitely hear how demanding the music would be, especially over the course of several close listens, but that belies how much fun the music is. Opener, and seed piece, “stretch goal” bursts with something like a thrash-funk undercurrent to its jazzier upper waters. Here, Gentile uses cymbals much like Tyshawn Sorey or Marcus Gilmore, filling out the percussion layer with a tonally rich mix. And again, Torn’s production does a wonderful job directing listeners’ attention.

The richness of the band and studio come to the fore in “phasic haze ramps,” where melodies and various motifs and references circle and recur, interposed with some excellent improvisation, over the course of a 15-minute, somewhat loose composition. The result brought to mind førage, Mitchell’s amazing album-length cover/collage of Tim Berne’s music. The collage-type work happening on Phalanx is wildly different, however, with scraps of motifs and rhythmic concepts recurring from song to song in ways that really highlight the genealogy in Mitchell’s compositions. And throughout the album, Mitchell plays with voicing and echoes across multiple planes—not that the music is stratified, per se, but if the planes represent various tonal areas, ideas reach from one to another, bleeding between implied boundaries. As mentioned, there are already 3 chromatic instruments in the core group, but the liner notes mentioned both mellotron and Prophet 6, which literally amplify this effect:
There was a mellotron in the studio. I play it on “taut pry,” “zoom romp,” the very ends of “phasic haze ramps” and “ssgg,” and a little bit during my piano solo on “mind aortal cicatrix” as sort of a doppelgänger solo. And “be irreparable” is the track with the prophet. Roughly the second half of the tune has Prophet 6 improvising in the background, starting with one and expanding to 4 simultaneous solos.
Digging into the album more deeply, I had the feeling there were fewer, not more, guardrails in place, as far as the composition was concerned. That’s partly due to an inherent (though possibly not intentional) deception in the music, which is that improvisation and soloing is often one component of several composed areas, all simultaneously bouncing off each other. Following “stretch goal,” “taut pry” and “zoom romp” take this to the extreme, compressing the band into sub-2 minute compositions. As he does later on, “mind aortal cicatrix,” Mitchell adds mellotron on both tracks, which lightly shades in some fusion aspects of the music. But that more or less falls away once “phasic haze ramps” gets started. The lengthy centerpiece of the album, it’s one of several that got me thinking of Mitchell as a kind of Oulipian composer. (For those unfamiliar, Oulipo is a school of thought that imposing restrictions consequently frees a writer to produce more inventive and experimental work (see: Queneau, Perec, Matthews, Calvino).) But that’s not exactly what’s at play here, although my questions about this opened Mitchell up to talk about the genealogy of the Phalanx book:
Often, but not always, when I’m writing music I’m writing a group of pieces for a particular ensemble. The Phalanx music actually didn’t start off that way, but the 7 pieces are all definitely united by a few characteristics, and they have inter-relations: if “stretch goal” is the seed, “taut” and “zoom” are one branch, “ssgg” begins another one that spawns “phasic” in one direction, and “irreparable” is another branch off of “ssgg” which then further generated “cicatrix.”

[C]omposing music in almost any genre is sort of Oulipan by definition: there are constraints across all parameters, pitch, rhythm, form, etc., that sort of pre-define the world a nascent composition will inhabit. And in a sense, my approach to composing is pretty normal by the standards of some schools of composing thought of the past 50–100 years: wringing a lot out of a little, basically. Probably what makes my stuff a little different is that I choose unusual starting points, perhaps—like the single bar of music that spawned A Pouting Grimace. Essentially, though, when I compose I’m improvising very slowly using pencil and paper, with the freedom to deviate from the path or eschew things as I see fit.

That said, I’m definitely attracted to generative music, something pretty common in modern electronic music. But I always like taking such approaches and throwing wrenches in the works, and/or subjecting them to unconscious or inexplicable whims - sometimes in the composing process, but for sure with improvising, too, which is part of why I like to operate within the “jazz”/“post jazz” umbrella, or maybe more broadly, that of “American black music”—or at least see how all these things collide.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Bertrand Denzler/ Ensemble CoÔ - Arc (Potlatch, 2019) *****

By Stuart Broomer

Swiss-born, Paris-resident Bertrand Denzler is best known as an intrepid explorer of improvised music and the saxophone’s sonic and expressive range, from free jazz to improvised music, including the extraordinary group Hubbub whose music may offer immediately the rewards of meditation. In recent years he has emerged as a composer, his works including the quartet pieces called Horns 1.2 and 2.1 and the orchestra piece Morph written for the Parisian group ONCEIM, l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales.

That compositional focus takes a further step here, to a piece for strings in which Denzler appears only as composer. Ensemble CoÔ is a septet organized by bassist Félicie Bazelaire, consisting of the bowed strings of ONCEIM: violinist Patricia Bosshard; violists Cyprien Busolini and Elodie Gaudet; cellist Anaïs Moreau; and the bassists Bazelaire, Benjamin Duboc and Frédéric Marty. Significantly, Arc doesn’t follow the monolithic scale of those previous compositions; however, it retains the fascinating exploration of pseudo-drones, music that is continuous in texture but consisting of shifting materials, doing it, though, at radically truncated lengths. Instead it’s divided into two parts, which are then further subdivided.

Arc 1.1 is 18 minutes long and includes numerous short segments of varying lengths, averaging under a minute and separated from one another by silences of (roughly) 14 seconds each. Each of the short segments is characterized by continuous bowing, in which the three basses invariably dominate the texture, dense, sometimes multiphonic industrial growls (achieved perhaps by bowing simultaneously with both the wood and hair of the bow, with a slack bow or with two bows) or hollow harmonics echoing through the vast interiors of the instruments. Through these dense undercurrents pass the eerie, reedy tones of violin or viola, sometimes sounding like radio signals from deep space.

The lack of conventional development within the individual pieces turns them into objects of contemplation, the individual bow strokes and sustained tones of the instruments functioning like layers of gauze, with the gauze itself the subject of one’s concentration, the combinations of gauzes creating different textures and (to sustain the metaphor) colors. Each segment is distinct but similar in its fabrication; each silence becomes itself a component of the work.

The longer Arc 2.1 (23 minutes) is divided into two parts. The textures are denser and more varied as well as sustained, but the sense of shifting overlays remains. The first segment (about 11 minutes) is almost a harbour symphony (fog horns aren’t far away) and there are more dramatic gestures, like slowly ascending glissandi among some of the strings, as if a ship were somehow achieving the doppler effect of an approaching airplane.

These larger movements may be more complex, but they’re ultimately one with the short segments of 1.1. The entire work is possessed of an extraordinary, measured calm, a tranquility in movement, a dialectic between the still and the moving that constitutes a fresh aesthetic gesture, a cinematic effect in sound. The cumulative effect of the work is sufficiently plural that it may well include the individual musicians’ input and decisions. Reflecting Denzler’s background, the music achieves a sense of internal order that feels at once improvised and composed. Arc is one of the most interesting pieces of the year.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Udo Schindler/Jaap Blonk – Hillside Talks (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****

Relative Pitch’s catalogue has been widely expanding and blossoming lately. Since 2011, when the label began, it has been one of the most important labels in the free jazz and improvised music world. But checking out the batch of the label’s latest releases, I think a shift towards a more experimental and less “jazz” aesthetic is very clear. All in all with an ever expanding roster of amazing musicians and a catalogue full of great albums Relative Pitch is a label to watch out for every new release.

Jaap Blonk is not a newcomer when it comes to adventurous music, or more accurately, sounds. Using his voice and more often lately electronics, after he quit playing the sax, he has never been afraid of experimenting. Exposing himself through his music has been the only constant in a discography full of experimentation, curiosities and a lack of fear for failure. Hillside Talks is his first for this label.

I wasn’t aware of Udo Schindler’s big discography, basically in the field of improvisation. I must blame myself for this, even though the excuse is always there and present. We are all, and me, saturated with information, that there’s no time (sometimes there’s no will also) to figure out what to keep and what to throw away. Hillside Talks is a keeper for sure.

From the beginning of the first track from this live recording, I think two facts are pretty clear. Fact number one, this is an ongoing relationship that builds up as the recording unfolds. The two of them seem in a constant dialogue that consists mainly from the horns of Schindler and the vocal experiments of Blonk. Fact number two is that they seem to follow the same trajectory, while they build their sound. What amazes me is that they seem pretty certain and willing not to conform into thinking of what to do next. They do not allow their selves the luxury of preparing. Even in the basics. I might be wrong here, but isn’t this what a live recording should be like?

In all ten tracks of Hillside Talks we listen to a confirmation of a dialogue. Using various techniques they seem to be in a dialogue. Like in seminal improvisational recordings of the past (for example Face To Face with John Stevens and Trevor Watts), they take up the roles of friend and try to conceptualize it. Hillside Talks is like a long friendly discussion. It might incorporate laughs, anger, love, aggression, irony, improvisation, small talk. Whatever is handy.

An attitude like this comes as an antithesis to the well defined world of “serious” music or “professionalism”. Do not get me wrong, they are really serious and passionate. It’s just that this dialogue contains the element of a game, even a child’s game. Have you ever tried to grab any toy from a child’s hand? This music is that serious in the sense that they do not take themselves seriously. In this capitalist corporate careerist world we live in, we should be desperate for all this.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Marshall Allen, Danny Ray Thompson, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Bálazs Pándi, Roswell Rudd ‎– Ceremonial Healing (RareNoise Records, 2019) ****½

By Nick Ostrum

It has been a while since I reviewed a straight-up free jazz recording. So, I thought Ceremonial Healing, a UK Record Store Day release and one of the late Roswell Rudd’s final recording sessions, was as good a place to start as any. My first exposure to Rudd was a duo performance in 2005 of him and Henry Grimes at the Stone. I attended for Grimes but was absolutely blown away by interplay between the two musicians, by their ability to explore the depths of both bass and trombone and hold my excitement of the course of the 45 minute or so set. This put me on the path to the New York Art Quartet and various other projects involving Rudd.

That said, Ceremonial Healing is hardly a Roswell Rudd record. In fact, he appears on only a few tracks. (Consider the above a belated and regrettably short encomium.) This is a group effort, and one of a super-group spanning generations, scenes, and styles. Marshall Allen and Danny Ray Thompson (saxes and, for Allen, EVI) are two of the longest serving members of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Since 1995, Allen has been its indefatigable leader. Jamie Saft (here featured on Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, organs, Mellotron) and Trevor Dunn (bass) are both prolific musicians deeply entrenched in the contemporary downtown scene. Bálazs Pándi is the Hungarian drummer who has played with everyone from Ivo Perleman to Wadada Leo Smith to Merzbow to, more recently, Jim Jarmusch. Then, of course, there is the legendary Rowell Rudd. Pándi, Rudd, Dunn and Saft have collaborated before, most notably on their 2016 Strength and Power. In a way, this is two musical worlds colliding – the Chicago/Philadelphia Sun Ra school of the 1960s and the downtown New York school of the 2000s.

This collision works impeccably. The center, somehow, holds. Just listen to the energetic opener “Ioa” or the glitchy astro-blues and incantatory “Spells” and you will get a sense of what I mean. The music is spacey, thanks in large part to Saft’s Ra-inspired keyboard runs and interstellar effects and Marshall’s EVI. It is also tangible and terrestrial (or maybe just planetary) as Thompson’s cavernous baritone and Pándi and Dunn’s rhythmic pulsings ground us in an unknown space (the cover art places us on an eerily jaundiced mountain top) that at times seems bucolic and at others cold and barren. Pándi and Dunn’s noise-rock proclivities serve this ambiguous grounding role particularly well and add some new textures to the polyrhythmic panoply that customarily accompany Allen and Thompson. The front figures, when they do emerge, are the dual saxes (interspersed with some sharp and airy flute) and, when he appears, Rudd. I have seen Allen and Thompson several times over the last few years and am always amazed by this septuagenarian and nonagenarian(!) can still blow fire, even if the years have tempered their conflagratory outbursts. These musicians, however, can also stretch out, settle in, hit strides, and build deeply soulful melodies when given the space.

For his part, Rudd seems more reserved in his playing. (Given his ailing health at the time of recording, this should not come as a surprise.) Still, he maws, moans, and fusillades on “The Summoning” and “Honoring the Heavenly Spirits” (disc 2) and “Rapid Transformation” (disc 3). These three tracks are some of the more traditional pieces on the recording and, in that, three of the most inspired and moving. One gets the sense of tribute (to Ra or Rudd?) as yearning and transformation as drawn-out confusion, of loss and longing as well as progress. “Sacred Authority” evokes seventies Coltrane with a soft, billowing melody. “Goma” is a wonky track with b-movie keyboard effects, pitter-patter percussion, palpitating bass, and sparse but integral horn fanfares of Thompson. Pándi, Saft, and Allen (on his EVI) shine on this track as they convey an anxiety and playfulness that reminds me of the original Lost in Space series. “Amulet” has a similar rhythmic feel but is more active as a collective group improvisation as Allen and Thompson entangle their runs and the rest of the band seethe and roil. A fitting end to a remarkable set of sessions. After all, three hours of introspective, energetic, psychedelic, and simply masterful free improv inspired by Sun Ra at his most out? What more could one ask for?

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Party Knüllers X Jaimie Branch – Live at the Casa (Self-released, 2019) ****

By Troy Dostert

In light of the accolades that were heaped upon her debut disc from 2017, Fly or Die, it’s perhaps understandable that a lot of listeners would first be drawn to Jaimie Branch’s name when encountering this rather oddly-titled release. But those who’ve been following the Party Knüllers for the past few years know that the duo, comprised of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, are not about to be overshadowed by anyone. Defining themselves as an “experimental garage jazz duo,” they make a hellacious racket, as documented on some fairly obscure releases like their self-titled debut (Pieces of Coal Music, 2014) and Gold (Hispid, 2015). They’ve also teamed up previously with keyboardist Jim Baker, on the memorably titled Four Images of Wank (Hispid, 2014). Irreverent to the core, they certainly share Branch’s defiant modus operandi, making this meet-up, a live recording from the Casa Del Popolo in Montreal in 2018, an eminently reasonable one.

Those expecting Branch to revisit the groove-centric spirit found in abundance on Fly or Die will be disappointed; the Party Knüllers are determined to pursue the limits of sound and texture rather than lock onto a fixed pulse or melodic thread, and Branch is more than willing to fall right in line. Her crystalline upper-register flurries are occasionally in evidence, reminding one of her fearsome chops; but she’s just as likely to attack her instrument with a ferocity that is more noise-driven than tuneful. Even in those moments where she’s digging into repeated riffs, as on the opening track, “Hello, We Are the Party Knüllers and This is Jaimie Branch,” Lonberg-Holm’s tectonic assault on his instrument—dredging up massive, lumbering sounds that defy description—soon nudges, or rather pushes, her into much more abstract territory. And Solberg too is much less interested in sticking with a fixed rhythmic scheme, as he is much more amenable to using all manner of percussive techniques to attack, prod and provoke his counterparts.

Moments of tranquility do emerge, episodically—witness the remarkably restrained exchange between Lonberg-Holm and Branch toward the end of “Hello,” where something approaching a reverie threatens to take hold—as Branch does have a lyrical touch that can’t be suppressed completely. There’s even a hint of jazz that appears fleetingly toward the end of “Nailed Ace,” the second track, where Branch explores a motif that Lonberg-Holm gracefully supports with one of his rare pizzicato moments on the album. But for the most part, this is music on a mission to unsettle and disturb, and so one should approach it in that frame of mind, with a willingness to let the trio find its comfort zone in the realm of the uncomfortable.

If there is one thing the album has in common with Fly or Die, it’s the exceedingly short run-time of just over 30 minutes. With two lengthy improvisations of almost 15 minutes each and a much shorter one added to the end, it’s tempting to call this an EP rather than a full-length release; some listeners might take that into account before buying it. But in any case, it’s another worthy entry in the Party Knüllers’ catalogue, and something that should tide over Branch’s fans until her next big project.

Live at the Casa is available digitally on Bandcamp.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Jazz em Agosto, Day 8

By Paul Acquaro

8/11/2019, Lisbon

The final day of Jazz em Agosto and I found myself on a plane at 6:40 a.m. heading towards Frankfurt. There was a family event to attend and so I bid my adieus the night before and lamented the fact that I'd be missing the closing shows. 

I was particularly interested in catching the trio of guitarists Han-earl Park, Nick Didkovsky and saxophonist Catherine Sikora, performing as ERIS 136199. Park comes from a post-Derek Bailey perspective, adding electronic mayhem to his guitar, Didikovsky has avant-rock in his musical veins, and Sikora straddles the melodic and experimental with a full bodied sound. The later show, Mary Halvorson's Code Girl hardly needs an introduction, and I'm sure was an intriguing performance capping the festival.

I did take the chance however, on the penultimate night, to sit down with festival director Rui Neves to talk a little about the festival and his work as artistic director. Sitting down at the outdoor patio that served as an after concert hang, Neves talked about how the Jazz em Agosto festival was started as an experiment by Dr. Maria Madalena da Silva Bagão Biscay, wife of the first Gulbenkian Foundation president José Azeredo Perdigão. Back in the early 1980s, Lisbon was not the tourist magnet it is today and in August the city would be nearly empty as people took to the beaches for holiday. The first event was four nights and featured Portugese musicians. was a prototype, a chance to see if they could create something interesting. The following year, they went much bigger, hosting the Sun Ra Arkestra, Dave Holland Quintet, and Terje Rypdal. The next year after that, Steve Lacy, Saheb Sarbib, Paul Motion, and Trevor Watt's Moire Music, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The festival is a part of the music department at Gulbenkian, which itself hosts a world class orchestra and choir, explained Neves, giving credit to his colleagues at the foundation, especially José Pinto (Deputy Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Music Department). He added that the music supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation is quite important in Europe and shares a large responsibility in maintaining the arts in Lisbon. As to directing the festival, the important piece, he said, is that he does not see the music as "avant garde" or "free jazz", rather, as "present music", which contains the past and future. In regards to the festival, they are very selective and "even chose the days on which the bands play, thinking about what may work better on a Thursday than on a Sunday." 

Neves is truly invested in the music and travels to shows and festivals, researching the musicians that are invited to Jazz em Agosto. "All of the musicians that played here surprised me at one time," he remarked. Reminiscing on what sparked his interest in festival programming, Neves told the story that as a young man in 1973 he attended his first festival and went on to list a mind-boggling set of musicians who appeared. My notes grew a bit hazy here, maybe due to the rain dripping down my back or the late night relaxed atmosphere, but I did note that one of the groups he mentioned was "The Trio" with John Surman, Stu Martin, and Barre Phillips. I can imagine that alone was enough to spark a lifetime of this work.

ERIS 136199 © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar 

Mary Halvorson's Code Girl © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar

Index of posts for Jazz em Agosto 2019:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:
Day 4:
Day 5:
Day 6:
Day 7:
Day 8:

Jazz em Agosto, Day 7

By Paul Acquaro

8/10/2019, Lisbon

Sometimes a little context can go a long way. On Friday afternoon, I took the 15 Tram to the neighborhood of Belem. Located about where the Tagus river (on which Lisbon sits) meets the Atlantic Ocean, it is home to several sights, including the 16th century river fortress Torre de Belem, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument dedicated to the 15th-century Portuguese explorers, the ornate and imposing Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, and the mid-century modern Gulbenkian Planetarium. These are all great sights worth the 1.5 Euro fare to get to.

Museu Coleção Berardo
However, my destination was the Museu Coleção Berardo, which has a unique collection of 20th century art, as well as changing current exhibitions. I paid my 5 Euro admission and made a bee-line to the permanent collection, after all, I had some concerts to attend to soon. 

The exhibit was excellent, from new-to-me Max Ernst's to Warhol's Brillo Boxes, it is a focused and unusual collection. However what I really enjoyed was the arrangement of the exhibition ... it was simple, straightforward, each hall of the exhibit exhibiting the art in the time-period/group in which it was created. A paragraph or two of description began each section with the main artists associated with the period (which went beyond the typical ones), what came before, and what developments it lead to. Not reverting to over the top contextualization and technical language, each picture and sculpture become so much more interesting. 

Zeena Parkins and Brian Chase © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar
Back at the festival, it was another quiet start to the evening's concerts, as drummer Brian Chase, solo, sitting front of the impressive, stately concert harp, took one of the drums out of his set and with one stick quietly hit the head as he modulated the sound with his free hand. He looked quite beatific as he lightly rapped and rubbed the drum. Later, he stood up, draped a vocal mic around his neck and proceed to work with the interplay of the sounds drawn from cymbal. Harpist Zeena Parkins' set was a one person dialog between the classical harp and her laptop. She began by striking at the strings which reverberated with a shower of space tones. Plucking in what seemed a somewhat random fashion, but most likely not, the hardware and the software interacted in unusual ways. Chase joined in about 10 minutes into Parkins' piece and introduced a supportive pulse. Parkin's arms were mirror images immersed in the exposed strings and Chase a hunched figure melding with his kit. Chase's approach was seemingly a near-time re-mix of what Parkins was playing. 

After the set, I had chance to have dinner with the fine folks of ERIS 136199. Acquaintances from New York City, I was happy to have a moment to talk with them about their music and maybe more importantly, the show we had just seen. When someone asked me what I thought of the show, I realized I wasn't ready yet to answer. I had seen Chase play one drum for about 20 minutes in a couple different ways, then Parkins extract otherworldly sounds from a huge classical harp, and finally Parkins rubbing the harp to produce different tones, and Chase inverting the drums in his set as he played.

Then someone else offered an opinion, "I think Brian is just amazing. He focuses on an idea, taking just one drum, and trusting the space, the room, the instrument just make sounds you didn't even know were there." I'm paraphrasing because I didn't take notes as I was shoving my dinner down, but with the simple explanation, it all snapped into place. Indeed, it was a really good, explorative show from two sympathetic and unshrinking musicians.

Ambrose Akinmusire Origami Harvest © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar
I came to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire Origami Harvest's show in the amphitheater without expectations and left running up the wet stairs to the merch table to make sure I could buy a CD before they sold out. Before the affirming moment when Akinmusire, noticing people starting to crowd under the heavy canopy of the trees towards the back of the stage, beckoned them to come under the cover the ample stage instead, I had been converted. However, the intimate circle of the audience around the musicians as they finished their inspired set, was itself inspiring. A fellow next to me said "Woodstock, 1969, Jazz em Agosto, 2019". A bit heavy handed, sure, but simple and true.

On stage to Akinmusire's left was drummer Justin Brown, rapper Kokayi, and the Mivos string quartet, to his right pianist and electronics manipulator Sam Harris (see below for the full list of names). Akinmusire has a warm tone, and he opened the show with gentle melody with minimal piano accompaniment. Soon the oscillator kicked in, creating a deep vibration and Koyaki began with a mix of rap and singing. He has a high voice which both stood out and melded with the band. Adding some gentle string accompaniment, the trumpeter had a lush bed of tones to lay his melodies upon.

This strong blend of musical elements, with enough time for each to showcase their strengths, gave the show variety and momentum. The texts poured forth in often urgent, rhythmic ways, with Kayoki playing with syllables and disconnected words. This was the point where I decided to buy the recording, I wanted to understand the words better, as they often went by quickly. However, the message was delivered strongly towards the end when Kayoki implored "say their names ... Treyvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner ..." Of course there was much more said, but the struggle of racism and injustice was clear. 

Musically, a piano solo about 1/2 through the set was in a way a microcosm of the entire show: inside/outside playing, by which I mean, subtle subversive dissonances and unexpected melodic twists, contrasted tastefully with the often more straight ahead presentation. The Mivos Quartet provided gentle underscoring and poignant segues, and excellent moments when Kokayi rapped with their playing. What I did think was missing was a real blend the two groups - the jazz band, the rapper, and the string quartet, in addition to the permutations and combinations that the piece currently uses. However, how it's used currently is quite effective.

The night came to a close, as mentioned, intimately, as the rain continued lightly through the evening.

The crowd joins the musicians on stage, escaping the rain © Jazz em Agosto / Petra Cvelbar

Origami Harvest:
Ambrose Akinmusire - Composition / Trumpet / Keyboards
Kokayi - Rap
Justin Brown - Drums
Sam Harris - Piano / Keyboards
Mivos Quartet:
Olivia de Prato - Violin
Maya Bennardo - Violin
Victor Lowrie Tafoya - Viola
Tyler J. Borden - Cello

Index of posts for Jazz em Agosto 2019:
Day 1:
Day 2:
Day 3:
Day 4:
Day 5:
Day 6:
Day 7:
Day 8: