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Friday, January 31, 2020

Kuzu - Purple Dark Opal (Aerophonic, 2020) *****

By Taylor McDowell

Kuzu hit the road in the fall of 2018 following the release of their debut album, Hiljaisuus (Astral Spirits, 2018). The refreshing and exhilarating sounds pressed into that initial recording were like a fanfare for one of the more exciting new groups of today. But, if we know anything about these three musicians, rather than resting on their laurels, they instead rolled up their sleeves and got to work. On Purple Dark Opal, we find them on day 15 of a 20-date tour - taken from a performance at Milwaukee’s The Sugar Maple in October 2018 (recorded just four days after Lift to Drag ).

For those of you who don’t know, Kuzu is Dave Rempis (saxophones), Tashi Dorji (guitar) and Tyler Damon (drums). They are the kind of group that refuses definition and shrugs off categories (understandable if you consider the breadth of their individual backgrounds). I can picture an iTunes algorithm crashing while trying to sort them into a genre (good thing Aerophonic doesn’t distribute through iTunes, or Amazon for that matter). They are a chameleonic creature: loud and messy, nimble and thorny, melancholic or ecstatic. Despite their disparate backgrounds, individual personalities, or unruly tendencies, they evidently filter it all through a singular concept to achieve that “Kuzu sound”. Purple is the result after putting that concept on the bandstand for 15 nights.

Purple consists of a single track, “To The Quick,” that sprawls for nearly an hour. It all begins in earnest with Damon’s solo percussion before Rempis and Dorji join the fray. As might be expected from an extended performance, the trio navigates a series of valleys and peaks and explores different configurations as if to turn over every stone along the journey. It doesn’t take much to get this group fired up. Rempis has a knack for motivic development as he manipulates creative rhythmic/melodic structures overtop Damon’s inventive stickwork and Dorji’s jagged attacks. He often trades fleet and blistering lines for gut-punched cries, or vibrato-laden hymns that carry severe emotional weight. As they dial up the heat, Rempis’s playing becomes an impassioned frenzy. During these heated moments, Dorji, the trickster that he is, uses mimicry as a tool and picks up on one of Rempis’s scalding rhythmic phrases to add to the chaos. Throughout all of this, Damon is the tenacious force that keeps the band boiling with his everywhere-at-once presence and impressive stamina. He also has a way of injecting a tight swing or quick-witted groove in the middle of a firestorm that leaves listeners tapping their toes or shaking their heads like, “how did he do that?” Surely the outpouring of his rhythmic ideas inspires his fellow bandmates into action.

Energetic peaks are followed by cooler, probing sections or a chance to experiment in a duo configuration. One such example forms 16-minutes in when Rempis drops out. Damon and Dorji exhibit an intricate level of interplay as they tap and clatter around each other in kinetic harmony. Dorji has an eclectic bag of tricks that he uses to manipulate a variety of clicks, scrapes, twangs, and booms from his guitar. He frequently employs pulsating drones that emulate summer-night cicadas or a mechanical cadence that become denser with the use of a looping pedal. While intensity is a mainstay for this band, they seem quite at home navigating through the more introspective sections - whether it’s a slow-burning dirge, a meditative calm of bells and breathy whispers, or a nervous rhythmic breakdown. They achieve an overall sense of momentum by the way they pass around rhythmic ideas: collectively running with some, using others to contrast the narrative. Do this almost intuitively at breakneck speeds and you can begin to understand how they achieve such an exceptionally tight sound.

So what is Purple Dark Opal? It is the sound of an extraordinary working band really hitting their stride. As a listener, we get the sense that these three have become intimately familiar with each other since Hiljaisuus. Like three old friends playing a high-stakes game of poker, they are embroiled in musical gamble that could derail in an instance of hesitation or failed bluff. But for all the runs, flushes and an all-in mentality, there is not a wasted minute where we catch them floundering. For existing fans or newcomers to Kuzu’s music, Purple Dark Opal is an essential recording that showcases this group’s prowess when left to their own devices. We should also tip our hats to recording wizard Dave Zuchowski for his brilliant work on both Purple and Hiljaisuus, among countless other albums. A live performance this good deserves to be heard in the highest of fidelity, and Dave delivers.

Purple Dark Opal is available as a CD from Aerophonic Records, and as a digital download from Bandcamp.

You can catch Kuzu on tour this March.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Petter Eldh - Presents Koma Saxo (We Jazz, 2019) ****

By Martin Schray

Up to now Petter Eldh has mainly been known as a sideman in projects like Christian Lillinger’s Open Form For Society and Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity or he has played as one among equals in ensembles like Amok Amor and Punkt.Vrt.Plastik (just to name a few). Koma Saxo, however, is his own project. It showcases a musician who displays a pronounced sense of style, a focused composer and band leader obsessed with a true sense for hook-lines and crazy rhythms. But when the band throws the rhythmic and harmonic framework to the wind, you can feel their energy in your bones. Rooted in postmodern hipster jazz, in the music of the New York downtown scene (e.g. the first Lounge Lizards album), and Berlin’s current musical multiculturalism Koma Saxo is pure fun. The music of the band oscillates between virtuoso art punk, acoustic drum'n'bass, funk, free improvisation and new music. And yet it’s always clearly a jazz album.

“Koma Tema“ echoes 1990s drum’n’bass, “Slakten Makten Takten“ quotes hiphop, “Kali Koma“ has a pure funk riff at its core. On “Ostron Koma“ the three horns create a theme reminiscent of the fusion albums of the 1970s (say Mahavishnu Orchestra or Billy Cobham), which Eldh foils in the lower registers while the drums manage to find a whole universe in between. Consequently the band covers a piece of that era, Matti Oiling’s “Cyclops Dance“. However, they convert the pinball monotony of the original into an organic free bop stomper. The track is a perfect example of the fact that the heat of Koma Saxo’s music doesn’t come from mechanical loops, but from the possibility to do whatever they want whenever they like: groove and improv flow into each other, sometimes a brusque gap separates them.

At the eye of the storm Eldh’s hard, crushing bass always provides orientation. The fact that this music blazes so brightly is mainly the merit of excellent musicians. Otis Sandsjö paints textures and spreads overtones with his circular breathing on the tenor saxophone. He’s augmented by Jonas Kulhammar and Mikki Innanen, both also on saxophones. With Christian Lillinger, Eldh has today’s most exciting German musician on drums, even if calling him a “hand grenade with the safety off" in an interview might be a bit misleading. Lillinger is rather interested in clear lines and sounds, whereby he always puts himself at the service of the whole. After his many projects of the last year in which he was the leader, he said that he simply enjoys “just“ being a sideman. Apart from that, Lillinger often plays his drums with stopped sounds, fast, light as a feather, hectic, but always with a nervous swing to it.

Finally, Koma Saxo attach great importance to a transparent production, the way it is in hiphop. Eldh cut live recordings of the band from Helsinki into pieces, linked drum sounds to studio effects, and went back into the studio with the band. The pulse seeks the edge, the urban coolness remains perceptible in a structured chaos. Awesome album!

Koma Saxo is available on LP (in a red and a black vinyl edition), as a CD and a download.

Petter Eldh – Presents Koma Saxo (We Jazz, 2019) ****

Swedish, Berlin-based double bass player-composer-producer Petter Eldh, known from the trio of British pianist Django Bates and Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen’s Acoustic Unity, has an original vision how futurist, free jazz can and should sound. His potent, new working quintet Koma Saxo – featuring fellow-Swedish tenor sax players Otis Sandsjö (witb whom Eldh collaborated recently in the recording of vocalist Lucia Cadotsh’s Speak Low Renditions, Yellowbird, 2017), Jonas Kullhammar, Finnish alto, baritone sax player Mikko Innanen, and German drummer and long-term comrade Christian Lillinger (Eldh played in the drummer’s Open Form for Society, Plaist, 2019, and both recorded with the Slovenian pianist Kaja Draksler the album Punkt Vrt. Plastik, Intakt, 2018) – was recorded live during the quintet's debut performance in December 2018 at We Jazz Festival in Helsinki and a day later at Finnvox Studios, Helsinki. In the post-production phase, Eldh edited and mixed the raw live and studio material with additional recordings of himself in at the Galatea Studios, Berlin into a jam packed 36 minutes.

Koma Saxo has indeed a unique, surprising sound of its own, far from the purist-acoustic versions of free jazz ensembles. We Jazz describes this sound as “a tightly-knitted posse of jazz assassins on the run. At times, the pieces fall gloriously apart, just enough in order to be ripe to put back together again.” Another valid description: imagine two restless groups, each with five charismatic leaders but with a very limited attention span, keep colliding with each other, but with a distinct, subversive sense of driving swing. O.K. Maybe, swing on steroids.

This kind of sonic vision could lead to a total chaos or manic freak-out. But the musical imagination of all the five musicians, their fine conceptions of free music, risk-taking and anarchistic humor, as well as their deep knowledge of the legacy of free jazz, and especially the Nordic one, and the inventive production skills of Eldh guarantee a joyful and invigorating listening experience. Eldh and Lillinger form a powerful and sharp rhythm section who move the music with elegant, authoritative fluidity. The front line of the sax player charges the aggressive rhythmic pulse with delicious melodic ideas and and emphatic, cleverly layered interplay.

Koma Saxo bursts with the brief, schizophrenia of “Kali Koma” that sounds as a compact version of post-bop hip-hop. "Ostron Koma" injects some fast, soulful blows to the dense formula. But the real revelation are the inspired adaptations of seventies classic pieces by legendary Finnish drummer -“Cyclope Dance” by Matti Oiling and the majestic “Byågz” by Edward Vesala. The driving force of Eldh is captured best on “Koma Tema” and spices “Koma Sport” with Middle-Eastern” themes. Lillinger contributes his challenging compositional ideas to “Blumer” while Kullhammar enjoys experiencing the hyper-swing on his “Fanfarum For Komarum II” and Innanen insists on exploring unison, melodic lines by the saxists frontine on his “LH 440”. This album ends with exceptional, moving cover of Swedish composer-songwriter Olle Adolphson “Så Rinner Tiden Bor” (The Time is Running in Swedish).

Listen to the future. It sounds promising.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Latest Releases from Paal Nilssen-Love

Norwegian drummer-bandleader-label owner Paal Nilssen-Love needs no introduction. He is still one of the busiest musicians on the planet, and these five new releases of him offer only a glimpse of his many projects and hyperactive schedule.

Large Unit & Fendika - EthioBraz (PNL, 2019) *****

The last album of Large Unit promised more fun (More Fun Please, PNL, 2018) and its performance in the 2018 edition of the Norwegian Molde Jazz Festival was a good opportunity to deliver even more fun. The Large Unit met with the Ethiopian dance-music ensemble Fendika and special guest guitarist Terrie Ex plus two Brazilian percussionists, Paulinho Bicolor and Celio de Carvalho, who already joined its performances in the past. This one-off summit brought together two relatively new yet formative influences on Nilssen-Love - the Ethiopian music scene, since his first trip to Ethiopia was with The Ex in December 2009, and the Brazilian music, since his first trip to Brazil in June 2013. The music he created for the Large Unit was heavily informed by these trips and he fused beautifully these foreign sensibilities to the powerful and driving Large Unit sound.

EthioBraz celebrates Large Unit five years of work with 22 musicians and dancers on stage. This performance may be the most accessible in Nilssen-Love’s extensive discography, and, no doubt, the first one that ordinary people can dance with it all the way through. The spirit is openly emotional and sensual, cemented in the innocent vocals of Nardos Tesfaye, layers of driving, upbeat Brazilian-African-free jazz rhythmic patterns and many burning-singing solos of the Large Unit musicians. You may some of the classic Ethiopian songs as “Anbessa”. “Gue” , “Shellele” and “Tezeta” from The Ex collaborations with late Ethiopian sax legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya and Fendika, but I can guarantee that it would not stop you from joining the addictive call-and-answer choruses, or from attempting to mimic some of song lyrics and dance as if there is no tomorrow. Nilssen-Love plans to take this crazy, joyful celebration on the road in the summer of 2020. You should perfect your dance moves by then.

Mats Äleklint / Per-Åke Holmlander / Paal Nilssen-Love - Fish & Steel (PNL, 2019) ****

Swedish trombonist Mats Äleklint and tuba player Per-Åke Holmlander serve as the natural choice of trombone and tuba players choice in few leading Scandinavian bands as Angles 9 and 10 or Fire! Orchestra, and also play together in the Large Unit. But their Fish & Steel trio suggests an unusual and fresh Scandinavian take on nowadays free music, avoiding the cliches of free jazz outfits with reeds or double bass. The debut album of this trio was recorded live in concert as part of the Blow Out concert series at Kafé Hærverk, Oslo, and at Sångbolaget, Stockholm, during a short tour in the fall of 2018.

The intimate setting allows these heavy-weight, highly versatile improvisers to take more risks and experience new, free-improvised dynamics, all in a very playful manner with surprising, eccentric sense of humor. The low-end range of the tuba and trombone offers endless opportunities for Äleklint and Holmlander to dive in and out of dark and abstract drone seas, maybe in an endless search for big, bass-sounding fish, but also to explore gentle, lyrical sides. Both of them trust the sharp, kind of steel energy of Nilssen-Love that will eventually gravitate this trio into solid ground, crisscrossing many fascinating courses with his powerful, driving drumming. The first piece “Blow Out” constantly shifts its dynamics but the second one “Sångbolaget” launches with a ballistic, free jazz, spiritual force, with Äleklint’s trumpet-like blows, Holmlander twisted bass role and Nilssen-Love as a nuclear, rhythmic dynamo, and just keeps intensifying its mad, playful power.

Joe McPhee & Paal Nilssen-Love - Song for the Big Chief (PNL, 2019) ****½

Legendary sax and pocket trumpet player Joe McPhee first teamed up with Nilssen-Love on The Thing’s She Knows (Crazy Wisdom, 2001) and since then they both have collaborated in numerous constellations and outfits, including as a duo that released the eponymous 7-discs box-set Candy (PNL, 2015), that documented the duo development between the years 2007 and 2014. Song for the Big Chief was recorded on December 9, 2017 at Cafe OTO, London, a day after the drummer Sunny Murray passed away. Murray had been a huge influence and inspiration for both McPhee and Nilssen-Love, and the album is dedicated to “the memory of one of the great giants of free music”. The artwork of this recording references Murray’s classic Big Chief (Pathé, 1969, re-released by Eremite, 2009).

Obviously, the spirit of this performance was emotional and elegiac. McPhee begins with one of his beloved covers, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein’s “Old Man River”, already performed by his Trio X and more recently by the DKV Trio with McPhee, now titled as “Song for the Big Chief”. He sings-cries the simple melody through his tenor sax with moving poetic power. Nilssen-Love joins him after five minutes and intensifies the emotional drama with dense and muscular polyrhythmic textures, but knows when to leave McPhee alone to recite-reflect on this memorable melody and when to take the lead and resonate McPhee’s reflections with imaginative percussive ideas that incorporate Brazilian touches. The second piece is McPhee “Knox”, first performed on his classic Tenor (HatHut, 1977) and later on other recordings (Ken Vandermark's Topology Nonet with McPhee, Impressions Of PO Music, Okka disk, 2013; McPhee’s solo Flowers, Cipsela, 2016; and DKV Trio & Joe McPhee, The Fire Each Time, Not Two, 2019), where McPhee and Nilssen-Love create a playful, upbeat and conversational interplay around this beautiful theme. Nilssen-Love introduces the last, short “A Fantasy for Lester” with low and quiet scratching sounds on the skins and metal surfaces of his srt, answered with unworldly, meditative trumpet voicing by McPhee, before both gravitate for a brief playful interplay. Fantastic, indeed.

Of Things Beyond Thule - Volume 1 (Aerophonic, 2020) ****½

Thule is the farthest north location mentioned in the Greek and Roman literature. Of Things Beyond Thule is a collaborative, free-improvising quintet featuring McPhee, Nilssen-Love, Chicagoan sax player Dave Rempis (who plays with Nilssen-Love in the Ballister trio), cellist Tomeka Reid (who plays with Rempis in a trio with bass player Joshua Abrams) and double bass player Brandon Lopez (who plays with Rempis in a trio with percussionist Ryan Packard), captured live (second set of the quintet) at Chicago’s Hungry Brain club in December 2018. Volume 1 is released on Rempis’ label as limited-edition of 330 vinyls (with no digital downloads, discs, cassettes or re-pressings), with a psychedelic color gradient design by Johnathan Crawford.

McPhee is the natural leader Of Things Beyond Thule, with his warm, dark tone on the pocket trumpet and tenor sax. Nilssen-Love and Lopez act here as an inventive rhythm section that hold back its endless energy and supports cleverly McPhee’s beautiful melodies. Rempis adds lush and rich harmonies while Reid deepens the intimate atmosphere of this set and drives the music forward with subtle contributions. The two parts of the free-improvised piece, titled as “Qaanaaq”, after one of the northernmost towns on Earth, the main town in northwestern Greenland, known also as Thule. The first part develops patiently its hot, slow-burning spirit and its joyful groove. The second part shifts gently between lyrical, chamber jazz to intense and passionate free jazz improvisation, with poetic solos of McPhee on the tenor sax. Hopefully this will not be a one-of-a-kind gathering and we can expect more volumes from this quintet.

Peter Brötzmann Trio - Philosophy of Sound (Soul Silver, 2019) ***½

This one-off trio of German sax titan Peter Brötzmann was recorded during a short tour in Japan that he undertook with Nilssen-Love and Japanese legendary electric trumpet player Toshinori Kondo. Brötzmann and Kondo collaborated before on many occasions, most noteworthy on the Die Like A Dog quartet (with the rhythm section of William Parker and Hamid Drake) but also on the Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet. Nilssen-Love joined forces before with Brötzmann and Kondo in the Hairy Bones quartet (with Zu’s bass player Massimo Pupillo).

The Brötzmann Trio was recorded live at the private Senshu University in central Tokyo in April 2017. Nilssen-Love was seated at the center of the stage with Brötzmann on his left and Kondo on his right for this 57-minutes performance. Nilssen-Love is indeed the focal point of this trio, fueling and balancing the stormy attacks of Brötzmann and Kondo with enough energy to light all of the Tokyo metropolis. Brötzmann and Kondo trade solos, leaving each other enough space to fly over Nilssen-Love massive kind of drumming (but also the time to take some necessary breaths while the other is soloing), often enriching each other ideas with more reflexive, lyrical ideas. Brötzmann is in fine shape and often tends to be more brutal and uncompromising with the tenor sax and more melancholic and openly vulnerable on the tarogato, but has a strong, down-to-earth tone on both instruments. Kondo has a more ethereal and atmospheric sound but sometimes his playing is talkative as if he is telling a nuanced story, with effects and pedals that cover the range of a human voice and an electric guitar. Both Brötzmann and Kondo have already developed such a strong and totally organic understanding that Nilssen-Love only needs to keep them on course and set the fuse towards the uncompromising, explosive coda.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Anna Höstman and Cheryl Duvall – Harbour (Redshift Records, 2020) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Anna Höstman (compositions) and Cheryl Duvall (piano) are two key members of Canada’s new music scene that was so wonderfully though necessarily incompletely documented in Another Timbre’s Canadian Composer’s Series. Unsurprisingly, this album could have fit seamlessly into that catalog. (NB: Höstman did received an honorable mention in the liner notes to that series.)
Harbour is an album of sparse and pensively meandering solo piano. Pieces tend to fall in and out of sprightly sprigs of melody and distorted tempos that convey a deep longing. And, as much as parallels can be drawn with the usual new music pantheon, these compositions invariably the billowy sometimes nervous romantic piano-landscapes of Leo Ornstein, as well. Take, the first track, the eponymous “Harbour (2015). This piece is particularly dynamic as it mixes dramatic overtones with stilted rhythms, and a dreamy whirlwind of scales over spins atop a grounding of overlapping resonances. Unique and beautiful in its own right, this music resides somewhere between “Suicide on an Airplane” and “Morning in the Woods” in its restive and melancholic melodicism, even if it is more pared down. Other tracks tread a similar line between hypnotic simplicity and slowly billowing loops on the one hand and jagged, brooding melodic cascades on the other.

In Harbour, Höstman and Duvall have produced an absolutely compelling album. It is patient and deliberate, eerily emotive. It is winsome, but dissonant. And as much as it reminds me of Ornstein in its flourishes, it is hardly derivative. Or, rather, it derives inspiration from numerous corners of the classical avant-garde and refracts them into something both rooted and contemporary. The result resembles a sleepy harbor at dusk. A few ships slowly drift in and out of view. The viewer’s mind wanders, half-disconsolately, half-ponderously, as his eyes fix upon seemingly arbitrary, but somehow alluring points along the horizon. The waves lap gently ashore. And then the wind picks up briefly and introduces new colors and sounds and temperatures that settle seamlessly into the environs, now slightly, and only slightly, transformed.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Balderin Sali - Variations (Leo Records, 2019) *****

By Stuart Broomer

The Balderin Sali refers to the Helsinki venue for the latest staging of an on-going festival of improvised music. The Soundscapes Concert Series was founded by saxophonist Harri Sjöström as a meeting ground for Finnish and Berlin-based musicians in Berlin in 2013. Next was a 2016 follow-up in Helsinki with this third iteration, chronicled over a two-CD set occurring over two nights in September 2018. There are 11 musicians present here, spanning generations of improvisers, many of them operating on the Helsinki-Berlin connection that Sjöström defines.

The senior participants here are Finnish bassist Teppo Hauta-aho, German drummer Paul Lovens, English violinist (and electronic musician) Phillip Wachsmann and saxophonist Evan Parker; a slightly younger generation is represented by Sjöström, Italian trombonist Sebi Tramontana and German bassist Matthias Bauer, with younger generations represented by Finnish quarter-tone accordionist Veli Kujala, Italian pianist Libero Mureddo, Mexican vibraphonist/percussionist Emilio Gordoa and Norwegian drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen.

Look a little closer though and it’s a more intimate gathering than all those nationalities might suggest. There’s a Berlin quintet called Up and Out that includes Sjöström, Wachsmann, Bauer, Gordoa and Narvesen: the group, sans Wachsmann, turns up among the sub-groups here, while in another configuration the quintet appears with Parker in place of Gordoa. Mureddo and Kujala are both associated with Helsinki’s Sibelius Institute, leaving only the well-traveled Parker and Tramontana as relative outsiders. The result, then, is at once a celebration of the international language of free improvisation and the very special relationships that exist between Sjöström’s multiple musical communities.

Though drawn from concerts spread over two days, the two CDs have a forceful beginning and an equally powerful conclusion, each an extended orchestral segment including the full complement, with 11 segments in between that range from duos to quintets. It’s unnecessary at this point to sing the praises of many of these musicians, who together embody much of the collective genius of international improvised music.

Suffice to say, the known figures here (consider just Sjöström’s extended collaboration with Cecil Taylor) have set standards for a music that is consistently empathic and intrepid, acutely aware of nuance and gesture while evolving and redefining macro- and micro forms. The larger ensemble dialogues here reach back five decades to the Globe Unity Orchestra (including its microcosm, the Schlippenbach trio, with two of its members present here).

The music is also as alive as the last and next five minutes. The sequencing creates fine contrasts, setting an almost electronic-sounding abstraction of Gordoa, Hauta-aho, Narvesen and Parker before a blustering salvo from Tramontana, Lovens and Mureddu. The second track on disc 1 is a duet of Sjöström and Kujala, the third track on disc two a duet of Parker and Kujala, and one has to ask: what was this music before the quarter-tone accordion, a question that had already occurred during that first opening orchestral swarm when sudden flashes of microtonal keyboard reeds lit up the ensemble in an utterly fresh way. The duets announce the arrival of a significant new musician bearing an instrument equally unknown. Veli Kujala not only provides a novel field and foil for those master saxophonists, he also contributes brilliantly to other sub-groups, including a lightly busy trio with Lovens and Hauta-aho and a quartet that adds Mureddu’s comparable keyboard vision. I’m left looking forward to the possible keyboard trio of Kujala, Mureddu and Gordoa, three musicians to whom I was introduced on these CDs

The collected proceedings are frequently surprising, testifying to the vigor and range of contemporary improvised music, an inclusivist vision in which genre and tonal identities are old floor markings increasingly worn away in the persistent joy of the dance.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Bohren & Der Club Of Gore - Patchouli Blue (Play It Again Sam, 2020) ****½

By Martin Schray

Imagine you are at the edge of the world listening to a radio program you don’t know. The radio DJ puts on Patchouli Blue without announcing the band. Within a split second you’ll immediately know that you’re listening to a Bohren & Der Club Of Gore album. The band has developed a really distinctive and unmistakable signature sound like - say - Keith Jarrett, B.B. King, Peter Brötzmann and Chet Baker. Some people call this Doom (or Dark) Ambient Jazz.

Almost six years have passed since their latest release Piano Nights, even for a band that considers slowness as a key element of their artistic approach this is a relatively long break. Every now and then during their more than 25-year-long career the trio of Morten Gass (organ, fender rhodes, baritone guitar, piano), Christoph Clöser (piano, saxes, vibraphone), and Robin Rodenberg (double bass) has surprised us, e.g. on Geisterfaust (Wonder, 2005) when they omitted Clöser’s saxophone or on their mini album Beileid (PIAS, 2011) when they integrated Mike Patton’s vocals on their version of Warlock’s “Catch My Heart“. Basically, once they reach a certain level, they try to maintain it without repeating themselves, which is a difficult thing to do. In the excellent press release to the album Ulrich Kriest explains how they manage to do this: “The solution is attitude and means work. Work in the studio. Perseverance. (…) Working on subtleties. precision. Careful arranging.“

Indeed, Patchouli Blue actually does come up with some changes. First of all, the cover of the new album is amazingly colourful, it reminds me of a Baroque still life. Then there are eleven tracks, more than any album before. Moreover, there’s a title track for the first time. Finally, they elaborate unusual aspects in their compositions. The opener “Total Falsch“ starts with an Angelo-Badalamenti-guitar - before an organ simply kills you, and the saxophone then directs you to a Twin Peaks moment, in which an encounter with special agent Dale Cooper seems very possible. Never before have there been such clear jazz references as in “Sollen es doch alle wissen“ or in “Deine Kusine“, highlighted by an acoustic piano, a double bass and a vibraphone. Or, right after that, “Vergessen & Vorbei“, which sounds like an instrumental Tindersticks ballad with its rhythm machine and analog synthesizer.

But in general Bohren have remained Bohren. Their music is still sublimely slow, which is why it can unfold its full beauty. The band continues building complex, dense atmospheres and moods around their noir jazz fundament, their sonic portraits leave room for the listener’s mind to fill in the gaps. The slightly altered nuances contribute to the expansion of a still unheard sound cosmos, in which stylistic will, defiance, deceleration and stamina have their firm place. Unique!

Patchouli Blue is available on double vinyl and as a CD.

Listen to some sound snippets here.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Deathprod - OCCULTING DISK (Smalltown Supersound, 2019) *****

By Spencer Friedman

At once gorgeous and punishing, Occulting Disk, the new record from Deathprod is nothing short of astounding. It's been quite a number of years since the Norwegian electronic musician Helge Sten -- the man behind Deathprod, and core member of Supersilent -- graced us with a set of his otherworldly sounds. And here it is; we sit and listen, in awe.

Otherworldly is in fact somewhat misleading, however. Sten's electronics, a collection of many elements which he refers to as "Audio Virus," possess simultaneously a synthetic sheen and an organic soul. This is music from and for the heart, indisputably. It's no wonder that this particular project originates from a personal, existential place for Sten, encircling questions regarding a politically and spiritually destitute modern world. Specifically, Sten describes Occulting Disk as an "anti-fascist ritual." To my ears, I can interpret this is two ways. For one, the music itself has a message. It is searing, purposeful and triumphant. There is obviously no text, but in this music I hear defiance and resistance, and I also hear real love. It feels like quite a feet to impart, with clarity, messages and pointed meaning within obtuse, experimental, instrumental music, but Sten achieves this. 

A second reading though, is that this is music to inspire resistance, standing-up, humanity, compassion and love. And I think it succeeds in doing this in a number of ways. Sten's musical worlds are emotionally stirring, with two clear modes of evocation. On one side, there are tracks like "OCCULTATION 3" and "OCCULTATION 7" that float through, hovering around a central drone or harmonic space, nearly quiet. These are pensive, deeply thoughtful moments. Places to ruminate. Moments to consider what's around you and within you. To inspire introspection and meditation -- active though, definitely not passive.

This contemplative space is facilitated by the unique durational quality to Sten's compositions (just one of the several "atypical" qualities of his music). Sometimes pieces go on longer than you'd think, sometimes they end sooner. Sometimes you think a piece is over but it's not quite. Other times a piece ends, only to start up again somewhere very similar with the next track. Often tracks start with a period of real quiet that makes you wonder if your stereo has turned off. They are expertly crafted liminal environments. Don't check your watch while you listen, it's a much more rewarding experience to not know where you are. All of this amounts to a pull or strain at the otherwise space of serenity-- this, of course, feels like what truth is. 

Then, unmistakably, there are tracks like opener "DISAPPEARANCE/REAPPEARANCE." If we're breaking the music on this record into two camps of existential inspiration, this song is firmly of the flip side of things that inspires strong, assertive action! This one sounds like unknown nation's lost anthem. It's screaming, crying and speaking directly at someone or some-thing. The piece is a confounding marvel. It's made up of, essentially, two elements, each of which take their turns stabbing through the mix. It all plays out like a strange conversation, with prodigious space between strong, forceful utterances. For a little over two minutes, it's a monologue of sorts -- "speaker one" casting out a cavernous belly squall, flanked by breaths of silence. Eventually, speaker one is answered by "speaker two" -- a far away yet right in front of you foghorn. which sounds of course like a foghorn yet like no other foghorn I've heard. These two talk for about five more minutes, eventually collapsing atop one another. It's quite something to be a spectator here. It feels like a private world you've just secretly happened upon...

And that's another thing about OCCULTING DISK. This music feels at the same time familiar, yet like nothing you've ever heard. The aforementioned feeling of happening upon a private world pervades the entire record. These pieces feel like perfect, ready-made universes, as if they always existed, or that Deathprod summoned them out of our collective consciousness into physical, aural existence.

I realize I've not actually talked much about specifics musically, but in a way that makes sense because it's hard to put into words. A few more thoughts though: witness the peak of it all with the terrifying "BLACK TRANSIT OF JUPITER'S THIRD SATELLITE," one of only two tracks not entitled in the numerical "OCCULTATION" series. This is over twelve minutes of body shaking horror, surely in the more confrontation oriented type of music on the record (see "DISAPPEARANCE/REAPPEARANCE" as previously described, or "OCCULTATION 6"). Elsewhere, hear the wailing bliss on "OCCULTATION 1," a robust yet gentle anthem in it's own right. This one sets the tone for the rest of the numbered pieces that follow. "OCCULTATION 2" feels like a ringing out of any detritus built up from what preceded, while "OCCULTATION 3" feels like the needed comedown/calm before the next storm. I could go on -- just listen to it.

This is a monumental work (it would have been atop my year end list had I gotten to it before January 1) that I worry will go woefully under-listened to. It's speaking truth to power, for one, and on top of that it's hard to classify. It sits between improvisation, avant-garde, electronic music, etc, in a way that may prove hard for some to dive into. I fear that not only might this not find enough listeners from folks with ears accustomed to challenging music, but by those with fully different musical taste. Though alienating and harsh sounding (at first glance), its my belief that there's an access point in this music for anyone. It's a vital document of and for this moment in time -- subversive and confrontational, but with a mind for resilience and unity, and a vision for a world beyond the one we know.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Rafael Toral, Mars Williams, Tim Daisy - Elevation (Relay Records, 2019) ****½

By Gregg Daniel Miller

Clicks, bird calls and chirps, toms and brushes, slow and then hastening, a subdued anxiety leading to a throatier sax and growled trills over snare rolls spilling out round the edges. That Rafael Toral
plays “feedback, modified amplifiers and electric oscillator” gives his dialogue with Mars Williams’ saxophone an electric edge that toys with the notions of sound, tonality, and lead instrument. In addition to “saxophones,” Williams is on “toys & busted-up autoharp.” They make a whole lot of something from nothing, grabbing sounds from the detritus of noise making; not turning it into monument – more like the feeling of the air in a room turning into weather, or a quick-sketch of some delectable with sprinkles slowly turning edible

Throughout these three long-form pieces, Tim Daisy’s percussiveness allows the other two musicians a rhythmic floor over which they can work, but if your ears shift focus (especially on the first two tracks), the percussion becomes the all, and the richer noises turn out to simply ornament the drier pulses of the drum kit. At times we’ve got for the most part three percussionists playing at different registers with different toys. The third track becomes almost a lullaby, like those urban night noises over tinnitus that keep you awake at the edge of sleep slowing coalescing into morning birds and car alarms when you realize you’ve finally slept. Incidental music for the free noise fan.

Portugal-based Rafael Toral, whose aesthetic this record most embodies, explains his approach as heavily influenced by Zen, trumpeter Sei Miguel and John Cage, identifying the “defining features in [his] practice and thinking [. . .] as space, silence, unpredictability, agency, responsibility and acceptance . . . .” I prefer Elevation to Toral’s Live in Boston (with Chris Corsano) which as a more stripped down version (drums & feedback noises) has less sonic surprise built in.

Tim Daisy owns and operates Relay Records and is an important player in Chicago’s free-improv scene. My colleague Tom Burris (in his review of Daisy’s 2014 very excellent, but more “free jazz” record, October Music Vol. 1: 7 Compositions for Duet) calls Daisy “Chicago’s most imaginative drummer.” Daisy’s work on Elevation underscores the deep continuity that underlies free improvisation using traditional jazz instrumentation and what we find here, noise electronics with saxophone & other percussion subordinated to that concept.

Mars Williams has performed with Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and various rock bands. With Paal Nilssen-Love’s trio, Boneshaker on Thinking out Loud or Fake Music, Mars Williams’ playing is a mix of fiery and meditative. Here on Elevation, Williams uses his saxophone less as an expressive extension of intention, and more as another miscellaneous toy adding playful, inventive, thoughtful incursions into the feedbacks and silences.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Search Versus Re-Search: Stephen Haynes, Damon Smith, Matt Crane, Jeff Platz

Search Versus Re-Search (Setola Di Maiale, 2019) ****
Theory of Colors (Umland, 2019) ****

By Dan Sorrells

The group now known as Search Versus Re-Search is evidence of just how formidable a working band can become when improvisational energies rightly align. With membership drawn from across New England, the quartet of guitarist Jeff Platz (Boston), bassist Damon Smith (until recently Boston), cornetist Stephen Haynes (Hartford), and drummer Matt Crane (Providence) is a union of four highly sensitive and generous players. The band underwent a flurry of activity in 2018 and 2019, playing a number of shows throughout the Northeast and quickly recording two albums.

Theirs is music full of fine detail and supporting gestures, centered on convergence rather than confrontation. In the liner notes to Theory of Colors, Joe Morris aptly notes the group’s “mastery in the improvisation of form” and throughout both albums, the band tends to favor framing and occupying spaces and moods over counterpoint or trading lines. Despite the short time between records ( Search Versus Re-Search was released on CD in January 2019, followed by Theory of Colors in September), in some respects Theory of Colors already sounds more assured, and it moves away from the longer improvisations of Search in favor of a handful of shorter statements, some as brief as one minute.

Smith’s rich bass tone emerges as something of a centering force across both albums, melding his arco rasp with Haynes’ low sighs on “Bonshō,” or flirting with a swinging groove as he strides along Crane’s ride cymbal on the jazz-inflected “This All Is Everything.” Haynes, focused for many years now on cornet, continues to develop his masterful use of mutes, voicing smeary strokes and brassy textures that erase the idea of—or really, the need for—discrete notes. He whispers and wheezes before more enthusiastically joining an excellent colloquy between Platz and Smith in the unhurried “Midnight and Noon,” the conversation selflessly highlighted by Crane’s careful brushwork. Platz in particular is fascinating in this context, which is unbounded in a way not found in his previous work. Here, and on tracks like “Elevational View” and the title track from Theory of Colors, he dips into curious pedal effects that highlight new aspects of his playing.

There’s something else important that this group touches upon through its allusions to Josef Albers, its fixation on color, and its eventual incorporation into Crane’s visiting artist residency at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine: improvisation as an educating force. If there’s a unifying thread running through this group’s work, it’s the idea that, for musicians and listeners alike, improvisation is both a searching working-through and a broader means for reflection and instruction. Through sound, the quartet embodies Albers’ lesson to “note that balance, proportion, harmony, [and] coordination are tasks of our daily life, as are also activity, intensity, economy and unity.” In each meeting, Platz, Haynes, Smith and Crane commit to an ongoing educational practice in which they not only learn the changing contours of how to create music together, but in doing so, teach the rest of us about music in dialogue with the other arts, about the spaces we listen within and the communities we inhabit, and ultimately, something about our own expectations and sensitivities.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Aki Takase and Rudi Mahall – Fifty Fifty (Trouble in the East, 2019) ***½

By Nick Ostrum

The most recent duo recording of pianist Aki Takase and bass clarinetist Rudi Mahall, Fifty Fifty begins with a playful toy-piano-driven jaunt written by Takase titled “Toolbox.” The next track, another Takase composition, consists of a short, repeated tangling groove. The third, Mahall’s first contribution, “Ein Loch ist ein Eimer” (“A Hole is a Bucket”) begins with some abstract riffing, then falls into a melody not unlike that on the previous track. And, except for a few tracks like the wistfully beautiful “Rest Area” (another Takase piece), the album hops along winsomely like this for the rest of its 30 minutes.

In full disclosure, I was fortunate enough to catch this duo playing music from this album at the release show last summer at Sowieso. I have wanted to review it since. The record almost never lives up to the performance, and that rule holds true here. That said, this album does capture a lot of that parlor intimacy. Think a stripped-down version of Die Enttäuschung (another Mahall project) with the same level of ludicity (in terms of both play and skill), quirky melodicism, and intricacy. Think a much more adventurous Vince Guaraldi or Monk without the underlying solemnity. This album is quick. It is idiosyncratic. It has no pretenses to gravity and few to seriousness. That said it is also clear that these two stalwarts of the Berlin free jazz scene and long-time collaborators have a deep connection and some interesting ideas to play with. And, they seem to derive an immense joy from jamming together. One sees it when they play live and one hears it on Fifty Fifty. Is this the most inventive or intricate music that these musicians have composed and performed? No. Rather, it is a light-hearted and engaging stroll through a quirky, 1950s jazz inspired landscape. This is good music.

This is fun music. And, it is a welcome respite from the alternately irreverently harsh and heady ernste Musik I usually spin.

Fifty Fifty is available as a limited-edition LP from Trouble in the East Records and through Bandcamp.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Big Bad Brötzmann Quintet - Karacho! (Euphorium) ****½

By Martin Schray

15 years ago, in 2004, Oliver Schwerdt and Christian Lillinger met for the first time and Schwerdt had the plan to spark off a band that was supposed to play classic free jazz of the 1960s and 70s. The two invited East German free jazz icon Luten Petrowsky to join on saxophone and clarinet and finally played their first concert in 2006. In 2008 they recorded White Power Blues (Euphorium Records) and expanded the trio to a quintet with Robert Landferman and John Edwards on the basses - the wonderful New Old Luten Project. The focus here was clearly on Petrowsky, even if the whole band was an extraordinary powerhouse. Petrowsky incorporated the golden age of free jazz, his powerful style being the icing on the cake of outstanding group improvisations. After eight recordings altogether (if you count the trios and septets as well), the project had to come to an end due to Petrowsky’s poor health. Nevertheless, Oliver Schwerdt wanted to continue the project and who else would be more perfect than Petrowsky’s West German equivalent Peter Brötzmann (how he did that you can read in the extensive liner notes if you read German).

In 2017 the new band with Schwerdt (piano, percussion, little instruments), Brötzmann (saxes, clarinet, tárogató), Lillinger (drums, percussion), Edwards (bass) and John Eckardt (bass) - the latter has replaced Robert Landfermann - came together at the old spot, where they recorded the New Old Luten Quintet CDs: the naTo club in Leipzig. From the very beginning the band was playing at a very high energy level, which is mainly due to Brötzmann’s incredible volume (Schwerdt mentions how surprised he was about that). Brötzmann, who has discovered his soft side with some of his recent releases (see Colin’s great review on his latest solo album here ) and even admitted a certain fancy for songs, seemed to swim in a fountain of youth that evening. Very often his trio with Fred Van Hove and Han Bennink comes to mind (listen to the music around the 8:30 mark), now the energy of the New Old Luten band is propelled further by the two basses, which provide extra driving force and texture. Once again Brötzmann uses his familiar riffs but he does that with a surprising brutality that is reminiscent of the old fire-breather of the 1970s. An example of this is the end of the set when Brötzmann throws in his almost famous Master-Of-A-Small-House theme, but it’s crassly overblown, distorted, torn to pieces. For fans of Brötzmann’s FMP period this might be worth the purchase of this CD alone.

However, the real sensation of this recording is Oliver Schwerdt. He has really grown as a pianist, his performance here should establish him among the top German free jazz pianists. His playing brings together influences of Alexander von Schlippenbach, Fred Van Hove, and even Cecil Taylor. For this concert he soon realized that it wasn’t possible to use highly differentiated chords, they would have drowned in the vortex of the sound of the others. Even clusters were difficult, Schwerdt says in the liner notes, which is why he decided to use cluster tremolos, a real machine gun fire of notes. This really seemed to push Brötzmann, who delivered one of the best performances I’ve heard from him in the last five years. Schwerdt’s project really succeeds in creating a modern version of 1970s free jazz, and for fans of old-school-fire-music this recording is an obvious must.

Karacho! is available as a CD. You can buy it directly from Oliver Schwerdt here.

Ask if you can also get the mini CD of the intro performance of the Schwerdt/Lillinger/Brötzmann trio, which opened the evening and which is equally great.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Félicia Atkinson – The Flower and the Vessel (Shelter Press, 2019) ****

By Kian Banihashemi

Félicia Atkinson is a multifaceted French artist who I have just recently discovered last year with the release of her collaborative album with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, titled Limpid as the Solitudes. That album quickly warranted many listens and became one of my favorite musical experiences of 2018. This year Atkinson returns on Shelter Press with a solo release that spans seventy minutes. Without looking deeply into the context of this album, there are some influences that stand out. The cover displays the Japanese art of arranging flowers known as Ikebana, and I believe there is no other visual depiction to more accurately describe the music on this album. Using human constructs and designs to represent the natural world in a different, but just as delightful manner. This introspective record is a product of Atkinson's more recent experiences, and one of her outlets used to connect to the natural world around her. The influences on her music aren't direct or derivative, in fact they're almost hidden. Morphed, underlying, and abstracted; they are presented through Atkinson's own personal perception. And the result is always as beautiful and natural as the source material.

Many different techniques are applied in the making of this album, with a prominent one being Atkinson's ASMR whispering. While ASMR has become more popular during recent years, Atkinson's application of this unique sensation never appears to be kitschy or tacky. The ASMR is not overdone, and in fact adds to the sometimes disorienting and intimate atmosphere that this album provides. This is mostly due to the variety of vocals that Atkinson implements into her soundscapes. For example, the muddled fluid speaking on "Shirley to Shirley" comes in pulsating waves that are reminiscent of the tides. While on the subsequent track, "Un Ovale Vert", there is much more space for the vocals to open up, as chimes indicate the presence of a soft breeze, with delicate vibrations surrounding you. The smallest sounds come echoing back, supplying an entrancing experience that requires your full attention. The song "You Have to Have Eyes" is the best example of this immersion and serves as a very profound listening adventure. The intense buzzing drone contrasted with the slowly pouring poetry creates a moment that transcends time; you can live in this space.

"Linguistics of Atoms" is a stark and bleak break in the album, taking you right to the gateway of "Lush" and "Joan" which draws you into a dense, forested world where life is found everywhere. Behind this, some brooding and contemplative keys are sure to warn the listener of a darker unknown lying hidden in the shadows. "Open / Ouvre" and "L'Enfant et le Poulpe" are more curious explorations with tones and note placement, as well as the close-to-the-ear whispers. And while perhaps both of these tracks are explorations concerning some of the same aspects, they are not much alike. Sometimes it may seem that certain sounds are misplaced or obtrusive, but deeper repeated listens can show you the contrasts and complements which these sounds hold, and their more sublime presentation compared to previous songs on the album. The closer, "Des Pierres" is the only track recorded in an actual studio setting as Atkinson creates an alien surrounding while Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O'Malley shapes crushing drones that have the ability to move mountains. At twenty minutes long, "Des Pierres" is a monolith of a piece while never in the slightest appearing to be repetitive or drawn out. In many ways, it is a summary and bookend of this project and the mindset behind it. Implementing many of the techniques prior, to create art that is vital and lasting. Throughout this album I listened to the words being spoken, the poetry that is so personally orated, but kept getting caught on one word here and there. It is a difficult to task, trying to mentally transcribe it all but perhaps the beauty lies in its mystery. From here I can only guess where Atkinson will go next, but I have no doubt that it will be a product of her creativity and educated understanding of the oneness that encompasses our underappreciated planet. The Flower and the Vessel is not limited in how it may impact you, this project touches upon more than just the sense of hearing. A whole spectrum of sensations is available to explore, and it's surreal to know that we have such easy access to it all.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Here to Play - Here to Play (s/r, 2019) ****½

By Gregg Daniel Miller

Like a sonic kitchen-garden, “Here to Play” is a bit messy, homegrown
yet welcoming.

Neil Welch (tenor sax + effects), Kelsey Mines (bass), and Gregg Keplinger (percussion) have put together an engaging array of free play sounds. It’s best on big speakers–to capture the range of that double bass. This grouping is not quite a sax trio, because the relationship between the three instruments is much more egalitarian. Generationally apart, these 3 musicians have been important players in the current renaissance of creative music in Seattle, and this is their first release as a trio.

Neil Welch (the sax half of Bad Luck) can make his tenor sound like pitched air around a windbreak. He has full control of multiphonics, flutter and mouth noise effects, electronic pedals. Plus, he can create instantly engaging melodic lines–and then throw them away at will.

Kelsey Mines’ throbbing bass and bowing brings to mind the heavyweight (sadly departed) Dominic Duval–his sure, resonant sound; Mines’ is somewhere between Duval’s work with Joe McPhee on Trio X and his CT String Quartet. Mines’ interesting other project (Earthtoneskytone) with guitarist Carlos Snaider is a smoother affair, featuring angular compositions and abstract lyrics, strongest when they both sing. Here to Play is looser, less about prepared precision and more about communicating free expression as such.

My first exposure to the playing of percussionist Gregg Keplinger was on disk 1 of the unbelievably great Not Out for Anywhere on Sol Disk (2004), with Reuben Radding (bass) and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter – one of Carter’s very best outings, by the way. Keplinger can play the hits like he means them. His drumming smacks of Elvin Jones for whom he manufactured drums, once upon a time, but then he played a month or so ago at Café Racer in Seattle in a percussion duo (with Jen Gilleran) without any proper drum kit—all miscellany, cymbals and sticks and resonate objects (including, from Gilleran, metal gingerbread music boxes with turn-the-crank random). There was space and sensitivity, playfulness and glee. All that abundance shows up on Here to Play.

“Arwen’s Dance” is perhaps the strongest straight-ahead statement with multiphonic overblowing as the hymn, and free soloing all 3 at once. This tune rocks out, as does “King Kep.” There are moments in “Arwen’s Dance” where the whole band simply flies.

“Storyteller” parts 1 and 2 and “Sonic Wind” are open-form, searching numbers, the former featuring arco bass over miscellaneous crash percussion, the latter led by long-held multiphonic notes singing– like where the wild things are for real, and gentler than you’d have thought.

Adorno wrote of radical music that it should be a “herald of the threateningly eruptive, the ungrasped.” Here to Play is in that tradition—though as a tradition, a style, an approach to sound-making and collective improvisation, with a history, NAMES, forms and instrumentation, we have to take up the question of what this music means today for us. Maybe it is something less (radical), now, and all the greater for that, as it develops and matures. The roots are there. Now come the flowers and the fruits.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Tomas Fujiwara - 7 Poets Trio (RogueArt, 2019) ****½

By Olle Lawson

Tomas Fujiwara – Drums/compositions.
Patricia Brennan – Vibraphone.
Tomeka Reid – Cello.

I’d like to tell you as little as possible about this music...”  (Fujiwara, liner notes)

Tomas Fujiwara knows how name his bands – The Hook Up, Triple Double and now we have the wonderfully titled 7 Poets Trio, another unique release from Parisian label RogueArt.

Opening with a rainfall of brushes, 'Blend' meticulously builds and blossoms as we try to place which instrument in the trio could be producing the sound of resonating water glasses.

The gracing beauty of Tomeka Reid’s cello draws out contextual atmosphere and a beckoning narrative but hold on – is that an electric piano now?

As the piece develops over its 18 minutes and segues into KP Mexican musician Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone becomes fully discernable in its acoustic rendering. Fujiwara’s patterns of evolving drumming slowly move to the fore – ever present, yet so subtle in their evocation – a whirring sewing machine of meshed, percussive complexity suspending the trio’s living tapestry of sound. As bowed cello moves to pizzicato – and with surprising bounce – Tomeka takes a solo of sorts as her lines cross-weave the intricate interlocking vibe-chimes and revolving drum shapes. These pieces were specifically conceived with the trio’s sound-personalities very much in mind.

'A Realm Distorted/Questions' leaps into action with a stop/start rhythm full of two-note stops, imbuing a kind of oblique chamber funk. Ms Reid stealth-walks her bass line then moves into a free-cello squall before the trio descend into full chiming breakdown, to near silence, finally arriving at an almost nursery rhyme-like theme – Ms Brennan vocalizing along as she explores her full tonal palette – before Tomeka closes the piece by artfully drawing melodies in the air.

Fujiwara opens 'Cruisin’ With Spencer' with a carefully constructed solo drum foundation, effortlessly mapping out a rolling sound web for Brennan to adorn with a shimmering of clear vibraphonic tones.

Fujiwara’s deceptively simple Brooklyn street walking beat carries Spencer with a tip-toeing urban swing that features some of Ms Reid’s most accomplished cello ‘bass’ playing committed to disc, thus far.

'Gentle Soul' begins as a more abstract affair – a trio improvised opening of drum skin, rustled papers, bowed strings and digital vibes. Pulling free of this textural mesh is a plaintive cello refrain of such warmth that it almost becomes a hook – one could dance or cry to this music.

At six minutes – and replete with a false-stop – Ms Brennan tumbles back in with a now distorted sound, turning her vibraphone into a 70s electric organ or flanged electric guitar (maybe even a touch of wah pedal in there) before a short coda ties up the last threads of this moving tapestry.

It is no surprise that every piece here is a dedication and Fujiwara has succeeded in creating a uniquely orchestrated sound for this clearly personal project. There is such generosity, restraint and warmth in both the writing and drumming that lucidly showcases such a diverse array of sounds from the other musicians – at times there could be 7 Poets at play – but always held tightly together with Fujiwara’s subtle percussive interlacing.

Intriguing music.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Elliot Galvin - Live In Paris, At Fondation Louis Vuitton (Edition, 2020) *****

By Sammy Stein

Live In Paris At Fondation Louis Vuitton ​is a solo release from Elliot Galvin. Galvin has prodigious talent which early in his career maybe lacked direction but not now. His confidence and experience have grown to such an extent that he sets his own path and it is for others to follow if they are able. Galvin plays entirely improvised, an aspect which in itself displays the confident place from which he is now playing. His quick thinking and understanding of two part arrangements, whether in harmony or as a counter-intuitive but musically linked exploration shows his musicality and ability to think in the moment. He has built himself a reputation as one of the rising stars of European jazz and improvised music. He plays solo and in trio, and is a key member of Mercury Music Prize nominated band Dinosaur, and a free jazz duo with saxophonist Binker Golding. This album assures him of his place not as a rising star but as one who is set for the long haul.

For four albums Galvin’s critically acclaimed trio with bassist Tom McCredie and drummer Corrie Dick has been the main focus and they have achieved many great things. Elliot has proved he has quite the gift of keyboards, along with an extensive arsenal of electronic and extended acoustic sounds.

On this recording, we hear Elliot Galvin just on piano - no electronics, no echoes, no tinkering - and it is a revelation in every sense of the word. Stripped back, laid bare, the talent before the listener is personal, and nothing short of brilliant in its creativity, lyrical story-telling and musicianship.
The iconic Fondation Louis Vuitton building is a new cultural centre designed by American architect Frank Ghery adjacent to the Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne of the 16th arrondissement. Ghery’s extraordinary glass sails float above the surrounding parkland. This live recorded concert was described as being completely spontaneous, free improvisation, an approach that matches the free-flowing lines of Ghery’s architecture. That Galvin's strengths have moved beyond arrangement and keyboard exercises is now crystal clear. Each of the tracks demonstrates Elliot Galvin's ability to improvise to a very high level, and to express his musical ideas into compelling and moving forms in the instant.

I asked Galvin about his feelings recording the album and he told me, " I didn't expect this concert to become an album. I always wanted to make a solo piano album, but it never quite felt like the right time. After I finished this concert and listened back to the recordings it just felt right, everything fell in the right place and I wanted to share it with people because it sounded like me. Solo, improvised piano is where I feel most at home, it's where I started when I was 6, just making things up and seeing what I could create. In many ways it feels exactly the same now."

After initial applause from the audience 'As Above' begins suddenly and without fanfare as Galvin launches into a thunderous opening run, followed by series of gentler 4s over chords and a beautiful openness comes into the music, the notes clear with definitive space between them, each placed with the exactitude of an expert. It is beautiful, it is changing and it is definitely challenging for the player. Galvin makes good use of the entire keyboard and offers changes in rhythm and tempo yet there is a linkage throughout the entire piece. The quietude of the middle section contrasts with the opening and ending. What comes across in complete clarity is the quality of the piano which Galvin is playing. Apparently this is a Steinway of considerable age and quality, here possibly having one of the greatest workouts of its life and the tone is wonderful. The thundering section which follows the central respite is followed by another change, this time open strings and echoing pedalled notes. It is a beautiful way to open the CD.

'Time and Everything' begins as a quieter study with the (just in tune) top notes of the piano being worked effectively over reverberating low notes before there is a single repeated note which heralds the onset of a more melodic line. This evolves into almost classical progressions and a diversion of right and left hand which is staggering in its complexity, yet delivered with the practiced ease of a master. The second half of this track is pure beauty.

'Coda' is short, sharp and rather sweet as Galvin thumps out chords in logical sequences on the piano with extended and shortened related gaps, showing his timing as well as his playing is well honed. There is that touch of madrigal style which is often part of Galvin's style inserted again as well.
'For J.S.' is fun, lively and enjoyable. Galvin uses the spaces in this piece almost as much as the notes which are played, creating an effective and enjoyable effect. There is a lovely section where both hands are running up and down scales in almost perfect opposition so they come together, then veer apart yet it is all somehow connected. In the middle section there is a clever run with the right hand taking a break-neck speed down the keys, to be taken up seamlessly by the left hand so the full extent of the keys are covered as a single run. The final section is darker, heavier and atmospheric.
'Broken Windows' is eerily charged at the beginning with slow, gentle higher end notes which are put together in pairs and triplets to impart a sense of relaxed playing before the piece develops, and the sharps give it that sense of glass broken, pieces falling and shattering, out of the solid frame and onto the ground, drifts into minor keys adding to the effect. A clever and well delivered piece with great atmosphere and nuance.

'So Below' is simply a clever, dexterous delivery of great improvised music. It swings from light to heavy, offers thunderous lower notes with trinkling lighter upper octaves and numerous bangs, plucks and slides over the keys at different points. A highlight of the album - but not the only one.
This entire album is another revelation from Elliot Galvin - this time not only of a great pianist but also of a natural improviser, weaving patterns, creating different landscapes and taking the listener with him on the lyrical journeys he creates and travels through as he plays. What is striking is the silence of the audience and the sheer business of the piano as almost without knowing it the ears are assailed first with lightness and joy and next minute by tumultuous hefty chord lines of volume and strength. Listening to this musician you are taken someplace else, lifted and driven - which is what great music does.

If all this was not enough this was not enough, I was trying to think what was so different about this recording and it hit me - Galvin has introduced an element of emotion and feeling- he includes soul, almost pathos. The recording has caught a moment in time when Galvin was at his improvising best, and he shared this with the listener - and it is a good thing.

This CD is impressive; it shows the maturity of this young musician who feels as if he has been on the scene for a long time but is still relatively young. The sense here is that Galvin is a musician who will enjoy a long career in jazz, the only barrier to this is being if he himself decides not to. Enjoyable, hugely engaging and such an impressive performance. Elliot Galvin, in his quote to me said this sounded like him. Well, I am glad he has done this solo recording and revealed just part of the potential he has. For once, words fail to express the wonder felt at this music.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Year of Insubordination

By Dan Sorrells

Insub—previously known as Insubordinations Netlabel—is a label run by long-time creative partners Cyril Bondi and d’incise (who sometimes work as the duo Diatribes). Over the years, the label has released music from their many multifaceted projects, as well as from other like-minded musicians. The four albums released in 2019 spanned the spectrum of experimental music, from one-man studio experiments to lengthy, orchestra-sized engagements.

Michael Pisaro/Insub Meta Orchestra – Achilles, Socrates, Diotima (The Poem of Names, No. 2) (Insub, 2019) ***½

Magnus Granberg/Insub Meta Orchestra – Als alle Vögel sangen mein Sehnen und Verlangen (Insub, 2019) ****

These two long commissions highlight the considerable aesthetic space that’s still available within the narrow ambit of minimalist, indeterminate music. Michael Pisaro is a longtime Wandelweiser member, and while the collective’s label has released work by Bondi and d’incise in recent years, I’m not sure they’ve directly engaged with Pisaro’s music before now. Magnus Granberg has an established working relationship with the pair, and all three have performed each others’ work across several releases on labels like Insub, Another Timbre, and Edition Wandelweiser.

The Pisaro piece shuffles awake with almost incidental sounds, the 28-strong Insub Meta Orchestra trying their best to sound a fraction of their size. As the piece approaches its second half, some more-or-less conventional orchestral swells appear, which gradually splinter into shimmering spectral shards as the music becomes more dense and ominous. It’s tempting to try to chase down the significance of the names in the title or the relationship between this piece and “The Poem of Names” (the third movement of 2018’s Shades of Eternal Night), but I suspect these are fool’s errands. Knowledge of the process doesn’t necessarily elucidate Pisaro’s work; how much of this is a result of specific instruction or improvisation spurred by broad compositional suggestions changes little for the listener. I get the sense that the genesis of much of Pisaro’s music lies in the tension between arranging some deeply private elements with others meant to invite interpretation. Still, it’s not hard to hear in those opening moments the same weather captured in the field recordings from Syros that were used in last year’s piece: gusts of wind, or the surf rolling onto the shoreline. As with past engagements with Pisaro’s work, I’m always compelled to listen, but often leave feeling there’s an unbridged gap. There’s something inscrutable in his music that I’m desperate—and always feel I’m failing—to understand.

In contrast, the Granberg commission felt easier to engage with and ultimately to digest. It’s often quite beautiful music, but didn’t lodge in my mind the way Pisaro’s does. The instruments are more individuated in Granberg’s piece, which is moody but also brightly highlights the variety within the ensemble. Diffuse shapes and hues phase in and out as activity is passed between subsets of musicians. The silences and gaps serve a structural, framing function, implying a ghostly pulse that keeps a feeling of forward momentum. It’s a comfortable piece of music that can surprise in its fine details, but in marked contrast to Pisaro’s unsettled spaces, lacks the dangerous undercurrent of uncertainty. The Granberg is walking a forest path in the long rays of the late afternoon sun; the Pisaro is trying to make your way out in the dark as the rain sets in. Pisaro once said in an interview that he was “deeply challenged by the idea of silence,” which had “come to mean contingency” to him. How far to open that door to contingency is a question to which both of these commissions offer distinctive answers.

A Spirale & Chris Cogburn – Autocannibalism (Insub, 2019) ***½

A brief, precarious set crafted almost entirely from guitar and saxophone feedback (the Italian duo of Maurizio Argenziano and Mario Gabola), subtly—even imperceptibly—bolstered by Cogburn’s percussion and electronics. “Autocannibalism” is an apt and slightly humorous description for this medium, which is always at risk of running away from its creators and consuming these fragile improvisations. The group’s approach is interesting, in that they don’t create the expected long-form drones of beating sine waves, but instead work in smaller gestures, relying on volume control and proximity to ease short tones in and out of existence. I imagine simply maintaining control of the feedback partly necessitates this approach, and the result is more often a call-and-response dialogue that juxtaposes tones of varying grit and clarity rather than a sustained effort at timbre-building or teasing out harmonics. These snippets culled from basement recording sessions are probably the only way this music can come to life, but they’re of interest nonetheless.

d’incise – Assemblée, Relâche, Réjouissance, Parade (Insub, 2019) ***

The four short “L’Angland de St-Donat” pieces that beginAssemblée, Relâche, Réjouissance, Parade are studio assemblées of “bowed metallic objects,” electric organ, harmonium, banjo and bass, and are softer, more elastic explorations of the lodes d’incise has mined more energetically in groups like La Tène. Each presents a ritualized constellation of small sounds around reedy harmonium and organ drones. The longer “Le désir” pieces are stranger, but more effective. In these works, resonating metal sticks are bowed over a background of detuned organ recordings. The repeating three-note motifs that undergird “Le désir certain” are deceiving, set against a pedal drone that makes them sound slightly out-of-tune, creating a dizzying, destabilizing effect despite their lockstep rhythm. And this is before you add in the skittering bowed-stick improvisations, which sound a bit like uncooperative, spacetime-warping violins. It certainly occupies a novel space, although at 15 minutes, it slightly overstays. “Le désir serein” relies on overlapping sustained organ drones, creating weird, psychedelic pockets of dissonance. Throughout, a steady repeating note sounds out, a guiding light providing bearings in the dark. Of the two, it’s the easiest to become immersed in, and is a pleasantly disorienting experience.