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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Szilárd Mezei - Sleeping Time/Before Noon (Klopotec, 2019) ****½

Part 1 of 2


By Nick Metzger

Szilárd Mezei's double album "Sleeping Time/Before Noon" compiles its material from several live solo performances given by the multi-instrumentalist and composer, with the dates on “Sleeping Time” set between 2010 to 2017 and the entirety of “Before Noon” arising from a recital in Novi Sad in 2014. The extended time period over which the collection spans serves as an integral of his methods and techniques, revealing an artist as intent on pushing the limits of his instruments as he is in reveling in their roots and traditional characteristics. His playing throughout is completely free and provides a stark contrast to the more composed work for ensembles that we’ve covered on the blog recently.

"Sleeping Time (West)" and "Sleeping Time (North)" both begin abruptly with intense, high velocity bowing that for me conjure thoughts of Braxton's "For Composer John Cage" with its gruff and inarticulate fever. Both quickly settle into more lamentive, lyrical playing. The recording of "Sleeping Time (West)" in particular does a nice job capturing the ambience of the concert, with Mezei even receiving some brief canine accompaniment. The tracks continue with fluid, melodious passages that are interspersed with broad dynamics. Lines of wiry multiphonic scrape are inundated with short, tasteful pizzicato flourishes and deft runs. "Eppen akkor" and "Eppen az" both find Mezei commanding the double bass to great effect, as the sequencing provides a good contrast with the viola pieces. These tracks range from pointillistic, dance-like pizzicato to a rough arco that rumbles and groans like the hull of some great wooden ship. On "Olany" Mezei returns to his viola with a more varied approach. There are longer strokes of melodious playing infused with muted string pops and jagged, hissing bow work.

The second half of the album is initiated with the expressionist stylings of "Delelott" on which Mezei plays heavily with timbre, dynamics, and rhythm. In contrast "Kikerics" is shorter and more linear, finding Mezei pulling off gorgeous runs of melody in concise, effective lines. "Fecskek voltak" elaborates on this lyricality while also delving into sweeter territory, finding Mezei lengthening his stroke and broadening his vibrato. His use of chords and drones are employed to great effect. On "(rajz - letra)" Mezei pulls sharp pointillistic textures from his viola, the softness of the dynamics belies the intensity of his playing. "(rajz - maszk1)" is a roughly 30 second statement that runs directly into its sister piece "(rajz - maszk2)", both are brisk and to the point, with Mezei ripping thin jagged figures from his viola before returning to the bass fiddle for the last quarter of the album. On "Walking Bus", he stows abstract rhythms beneath thumping, percussive lines and concludes the piece with an expressive arco. "Auto Moto" dispenses a variety of cadenced lines, some of which parallel traditional jazz basslines. On "Ami titok" his bow work is broad and expressive, using beautiful airs and tonal contrasts to hypnotize the listener. "Ima" is colored by its dynamics, ranging from silence (or near-silence) to haughty pulls of low register groans, closing as a whimper. On the final piece "(rajz - 3alak)" the bass is worked over in a manner similar to the viola tracks sharing it's surname, closing the album in shades of frost and bramble.

Buy from Klopotec:
https://www.klopotec.si/klopotecglasba/cd_szilardmezei

Friday, February 28, 2020

Grünen - Disenjambement (Trokaan Records, 2020) ****½


By Martin Schray

Grünen first performed in April 2009 when Robert Landfermann (bass) invited Achim Kaufmann (piano) and Christian Lillinger (drums) to participate in his ongoing concert series “Not without Robert“ at the Loft in Cologne. Their first encounter was immediately recorded and released by Clean Feed Records (read Stef’s review here). While the first recording was completely improvised, the trio has combined pure improv with preconceived material on their second album (Pith & Twig, also on Clean Feed) in order to take “new turns with written material, some of it rhythmically quite intricate and/or evoking images of surrealistic jazz and song“, as they put it. For their new album Disenjambement the band recorded at the Loft again - as part of a four-day-residency in June 2017. During the day they rehearsed and in the evening they played live and processed the developed material. They played two sets each evening and in the second sets the trio was mostly supported by musicians like Frank Gratkowski, Thomas Lehn, Carl-Ludwig Hübsch and Elisabeth Coudoux.

As on their second album there are improvised parts and notated elements on Disenjambement (here exclusively by Achim Kaufmann). However, Kaufmann isn’t the leader of the band, the trio is actually a real collective. There’s no hierarchy, there’s no distinction between solo artist and rhythm section, instead there’s a constant shifting of functions. “Mondegreen“, the opener, begins with Kaufmann playing weird Monk chords paired with a small, romantic, but rhythmically broken melody, which then shines through again and again in the composition. But the actual theme only emerges when Lillinger and Landfermann enter the piece and reflect it in a variety of ways. This predetermined statement is followed by improvisations on a rhythmic structure based on the theme, which is almost chopped up by Lillinger when he briefly intersperses quite monotonous, but loud rimshots in the style of a clockwork. Kaufmann's piano literally sparkles in front of Lillinger's nervous beats and Landfermann's independent, self-confident runs. Eventually, the head is taken up in the final part again. The piece is a perfect example of the trio's music, which attempts to combine the piano trio tradition with contemporary jazz and modern classical music by initially providing different material for all three players, which can then be varied and improvised with.

Another characteristic piece is “Fsinah“, a composition the trio also recorded for Pith & Twig, which consists of different thematic variations, which are initially interrupted by improvised and even contrasting intermediate parts. The central improvisational part is based on a rhythmic structure of only one bar. There are several formal parts in the piece, in this case a larger A/B form with a main part and an extended coda like on “Mondegreen“. The trio improvises with both parts, creating a constant up and down of emotions and surprising drop outs of bass and drums, yet everything is held together by the rhythmic structure that opens up and contracts all the time. The result is a tense and lyrical modern jazz piece with relaxed and funky beats, deconstructed parts, e.g. when Kaufmann makes use of the two pianos provided by the Loft, so that he could use a regular and a prepared one, which creates new and interesting polyphonic dimensions (something which becomes even more obvious in “Mierenneuker/Quincunx“).

Yet, my favorite piece is “Lost Gesture/Green Istria“, a composition consisting of a two-bar polyrhythmic structure in which the individual players selected different levels, which then alternate and overlap. Here Kaufmann’s idea of the music becomes obvious: creating some kind of meta-version of different musical genres like bebop, modal jazz, even 1970s new wave, without quoting it in a postmodern way. The piece develops a strong, dark groove with Kaufmann’s left hand and Landfermann’s bass exploring the low registers of their instruments before it dissolves in pure sound excursions.

Asked about his influences Kaufmann says that this was hard to define. He states that he found it interesting to think about what already existed and to do something new with it, to find a new level. This goes far beyond pure piano trios, he’s rather interested in larger contexts, in whatever kind of trios. That includes non-piano formations like the ones by Steve Lacy and Jimi Hendrix. And indeed, if you know this, you can find abstractions of rock, free jazz, classical music and even the above-mentioned new wave. The more intense you listen to the album, the more interesting details are revealed. This is what the future of piano trio music could sound like.

Disenjambement is available as a CD.



Watch the band live here:

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Brian Groder Trio - Luminous Arcs (Latham, 2019) ****½

By Stef

This is the third album by the trio of Brian Groder on trumpet & flugelhorn, Michael Bisio on double-bass, and Jay Rosen on drums. Their previous albums "Reflexology" and "R Train On The D Line" date from 2014 and 2016 respectively. With three musicians of this caliber, nothing much can go wrong, and that seems to be the starting point of a wonderful exploration of blues and deep roots of jazz, all performed without explicit real themes or structure, an approach which offers the three artists free reign to listen hard to each other and to go well beyond the use of their automatic pilot.

On the previous albums, easy anchor points could be found, agreed concepts, themes, melodic lines. Now, all that seems to be thrown overboard for a deeper dive into the essence of music.

In a way, they revive old concepts and revel in it. By analogy, in the liner notes Groder mentions the importance of older forms of (Scottish) words that are now rarely used anymore, but which are still very evokative and used as inspiration and titles for the improvisations: visions of the universe, the sky, of the seasons, of nature, whether the visual or its underlying physics. The deep roots of the music and the endless sky meet in the past, with a vision to the future, a rare combination which seems to work well musically.

The album alternates melancholy and meditative moments with lightly boppish uptempto improvisation, such as "Spanglin", "Sundog" - with a key role for Jay Rosen's energetic playing - and "Crystal Lattice". On the slow pieces, Groder's warm and clear tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn match perfectly with Bisio's authentic, intimate and human sound - listen to "Far Between" - supported by Rosen's sensitive implicit percussive support.

The sound is traditional in essence - and without extended techniques - but free in its delivery, while at times breaking through the conventions and exploding, as in "Smoored" (which means suffocating - a word no longer used in English, but which still exists in Dutch), led by Bisio's powerful arco.

Overall, the trio manage to create a great listening experience, full of variation, balance and intensity, and I'm sure that the album's combination of accessibility, deeply felt emotions and free form, as well as the stellar interplay will please many listeners. I can only hope it doesn't take another three years before we hear of their next album.


Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Infrequency Editions

By Nick Ostrum

Founded in 2001, Infrequency Editions is dedicated to cinematic electro-acoustic soundworlds. It documents the work of its founders – Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen – and collaborations with like-minded innovators ranging from Johnny Chang to Matthieu Ruhlmann (of Caduc) to Tim Clément. This relatively narrow focus means the label releases just a handful of meticulously constructed digital releases each year. Here is a review of just three from the end of 2019.

Lance Austin Olsen - Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You (Infrequency Editions, 2019) ****


This is somewhat of a departure for Olsen. Rather than primarily compiling found sounds and electronics, on this release Olsen is joined by Debora Alanna on piano and organ and Erin Cunes and John Luna on vocals, while Olsen plays voice, guitar, and amplified objects. An expansion of the 2017 release Craig’s Stroke and based off of many of the same images and writings that comprised his 2012 book of the same name, Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You is Olsen’s attempt to enter the stroke inflicted mind of a friend through revisiting his (Olsen’s) old notebooks of sketches, lists, and partially formed ideas and editing them as into score. The intentionality, in other words, came at the end of the compositional process, rather than the beginning. This compiling of unrelated (both to each other and to the event being recounted) scraps of memory and jots of creativity already sets Look At The Mouth on a unique course.

Twenty-five of these notebook pages were set in an order determined by Olsen and used as the score. The first piece, “The Event,” begins with a creaky field recording and soon fades into a nostalgic, almost sweet piano melody laid atop menacing undertones. Then the organ kicks in, and the wisps of electronic wind, the buzz saw-whispered vocals almost inscrutable, and the layers of captured and recontextualized sounds.

The phrase “mind, deck, sim, raw” repeats at different cadences and configurations throughout the first track. Buzzing and muffled funereal chanting interweaves with the sibilant, sparingly dark ambience. Staticky vocals offer muted narration, presumably a window into the mind of Craig. The second track, “The Descent,” flows seamlessly from the first and deploys similar motifs. Its crux, however, comes halfway through, when a lone voice shouts “Hello” and explores the contours of the cavernous environment through the solitary call and response of echoes. The stroke has set and a monologue, seemingly from an outsider (a doctor, a friend) takes over, ending with a striking phrase, “Just watch the mouth.” The track then retreats to the injured mind. The third piece, “Lost,” departs from the struggle conveyed in “The Descent.” After a brief jaunt into muffled circus music, this piece shifts into moods of resignation and peacefulness until it ends in literal huffs of exhaustion.

What one gets over the course of this three-part work is a non-linear narrative, if not showing multiple perspectives, then at least articulated through multiple mouths. When approaching this recording, however, it is important to keep in mind that all of the scores, music, words, and sounds are necessarily external to the victim. This is Olsen’s interpretation of his own experience with Craig and his imagination of Craig’s state of mind. This is not Craig’s own reporting. This portrayal is therefore all the more accessible to the listener, who likewise sits on this side of consciousness. And this immediacy and universality of access is what makes this suite so moving. They are immediate because they play into our own tendencies to project and empathize, even as we necessarily stand abstracted from the first-hand experience of the event. The keys (especially the organ) and chants convey lamentation and at times a hallowed elevation, whereas the crackling, staticky voices feign to bring us into the head of the victim (or maybe the stroke itself), but really take us more deeply into Olsen’s quest to make sense of this tragedy. And what is more human than that: taking something terrible and trying to make sense of it, in the process converting it into a work of disquieting and perplexing beauty?

Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You is available in digital format and comes with a 14 page booklet including an interview and photos of the recording process as well as several sheets from the score.



Tim Clément and Lance Austin Olsen – Dark Night on the Black Dog Highway (Infrequency Editions, 2019) ****


The warrior rode upon the steed of light
into the ruins of his mind,
seeking solace from the world.
There the broken timbres of his life lay bare,
as ghostly mortals danced their shadow song.
– Jō Mon Kō Jun (Olsen)

It begins with field recordings of a busy road and a dog barking. Incrementally a steady clang introduces a metronymic rhythm and a twinkling triplet of eighth notes open the soundscape to the sound of a windshield being smashed, fluttering ambient keyboard, flashes of brightness, and other light and dark dreamy textures. Inscrutable voices break through the field recording and transport the listener (or warrior) in a brief section that calls to mind the library scene in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, wherein the viewer is privy to the cacophony of human concerns and petitions that the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) hears. This seems the boundary between the literal, tangible street and the fantasy that Tim Clément and Olsen construct in this, their first collaboration. This theme of voices, synthesized or recorded, repeats periodically, as does the windshield crash.

Collaborations via file-sharing is becoming more and more common. Although I am sometimes skeptical of such depersonalized interaction, its potential is worth investigating especially for experimental electronic sound-sculpting. And, Dark Night is testament to that. These two tracks, “Dark Night on the Black Dog Highway” and “Memory Lost, Memory Found” are densely layered and meticulously composed pieces that create their own distinct sonic landscapes. The first third of “Dark Night” is ethereal, even if crashes periodically break the vision. The second third of the piece is filled with static and other rough textures and hollow extended tones, lending to its nervousness. The third includes discernible voices for the first time excerpted from an old radio play, introducing the motif of a lost person and adding a brief glimpse of language to this otherwise non-verbal narrative. Thereafter voices bob in and out of perception, further adding to the mystery of the piece rather than clarifying anything other than its cryptically umbrous mood. The piece ends with electronic trickles, crackling radio voices and synthesized chants.

“Memory Lost” features a similar instrumental array, but is driven by a stream of ambient, augmented hums (Cait McWhir), while the snippets of voice (Olsen) and other acoustic ambience assume a supportive role. The tones waft and pulse throughout the piece but, as much as there are subtle variations and glacial transformations, I found this piece less engrossing than the first. That is, until I reached the chanting of Francesca Genco. I would be curious to hear how this composition would have turned out had the vocals played a more central role throughout. Even with their limited use, they lend the piece much needed depth and purpose. As Olsen has stated and the poem above attests, these pieces are a “journey of the mind,” pieces that chart the boundary between dream and consciousness, shadow and light, the body and the spirit. And, they do so quite grippingly.



Jamie Drouin – Ridge (Infrequency Editions, 2019) ***½

A ridge made by folding,
incising, and from the passing of shadow.
A ridge made by the absence of something else.
- Jamie Drouin

I am surprised that this poem is not the score. Instead, according to Jamie Drouin, it is a “response to what I saw as the latent forms in the resulting album…the intimate, and physically tactile way in which events and patterns proposed themselves, much like a surface of paper that has traces of folded/crumpled lines.” Fair enough. It certainly frames the music precisely. And, it helped me consider the piece beyond the usual directional narrative I tend to impose and to focus on its textural subtleties and intimacy. Excuse the axiom, but, when mapping a journey, you start at the beginning and conclude at the end. When mapping a folded piece of paper as in the poem and cover art, however, all start- and endpoints are arbitrary.

Strewn with ligneous creaks and crackles, manipulated field recordings of rain and light breezes, ominous overlain and quivering tones, and unidentifiable ambient sounds, Ridge tells the story of reconnoitering a folded, craggy terrain. The effect is disorienting, but, in the tradition of Infrequency releases, directive. Using a toolbox of electronic devices, (amplified objects, sine wave generator, and a Buchla modular synthesizer) Drouin traces the contours of a winding, (synthetically?) wooded, and treacherous range. The journey follows the scarps and vales, alternately densely and loosely packed. The end is lighter than the heavy, though placid beginning. But there is also an inherent danger to reaching the lightness and elevated openness at the end of the road. Beauty can be disorienting and dark. Its pursuit is also necessarily laden with all the experiences, struggles, and failures accrued throughout the journey. Ridge is a sonic meditation of that ambivalence, and, as the final line of the poem implies, an examination of what is not there but could be, as much as any tangible actuality. That is, beyond the compounded sounds themselves.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Latest New York-Toronto Collaborations

Rob Clutton and Tony Malaby – Offering (Snailbongbong Records, 2019) ***½

By Nick Ostrum

Between numerous releases on Clean Feed, No Business, and other labels, Tony Malaby has been measuredly prolific the last few years, including a fruitful string of collaborations with Kris Davis and Nick Fraser. Bassist Rob Clutton, it seems, has been, too. Most notably, he has served as the leader of his quartet The Cluttertones but he has also worked with everyone from Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton to fellow Torontonian classic-jazz devotee Steve Koven to Jandek and, yes, Nick Fraser.

Malaby, of course, is familiar. He is a mainstay of the downtown music scene. I have several of his releases and have seen him perform numerous times. Toronto-based Clutton, however, was unfamiliar to me before this release.

The music on Offering is refreshingly tender. It is not that it lacks it flourishes, clanks, or shrieks, but the focus lies more in the interaction of bluesy sax melodies and delicate, mournful bass lines that, at their best, bring to mind a Haden-esque dynamism between the soft (and sometimes too saccharine) to the angular and deeply percussive. Tracks on Offering run the gamut from the melodious (especially “Offering,” “Latitude” and Nick Fraser’s “Sketch #11”) to the clunky and freeer (“Twig,” “Swerve” (Malaby really shines on this one), “Triology”) to the soulfully downtown (“Polar”). There is something for nearly everyone on this album, whether the adventurous listener (at moments) or those who favor more lustrous contemporary jazz improvisation. Although tracks tend to be short vignettes and to vary stylistically, however, this album has a cohesion and completeness that is often missing from these types of duo recordings. An enjoyable listen, through and through.




Nick Fraser, Kris Davis, Tony Malaby with Ingrid Laubrock and Lina Allemano - Zoning (Astral Spirits, 2019) ****

By Taylor McDowell

Zoning is sophomore recording from the Fraser/Davis/Malaby trio following their 2015 release on CleanFeed Records. The trio is augmented here by Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone) and Lina Allemano (trumpet) on half the album - logical choices if you consider the fruitful network between these players. Fraser is a mainstay of fellow Torontonian Allemano’s groups - the Lina Allemano Four and Titanium Riot. Davis and Laubrock have a rich shared history, working together on projects such as Laubrock’s Contemporary Chaos Practices, Davis’s Capricorn Climber, and Paradoxical Frog with Tyshawn Sorey. Whatever Fraser’s reasoning for inviting these two to the session, it was a brilliant decision.

Fraser clearly takes advantage of the additional voices in his writing. Perhaps the fact that he penned all three of the quintet pieces suggests that he had something in mind for the expanded roster. Fraser’s compositions play with counterpoint and juxtapose notation against freedom. The rollicking title track demonstrates these tactics, where different voices are employed in layering melody atop melody, or melody atop improvisation. Notably, composed elements contrast against free sections at different scales - like macro and microstructures within an improvised setting. “Wells Tower,” for example, is a swinging affair with horns playing in unison before the structure crumbles into rowdy group improvisation. Even as the quintet kicks aside their music stands, Fraser and Davis wittingly interject a swinging drive and familiar ostinato that gives a sense of cohesion even in the more rambunctious moments. The group blends the transitions between structure and freedom in such a way that it feels so natural and seamless (listen to the gradual construction in “Sketch 46” for proof). I suspect outstanding penmanship and musicianship are both due credit for this feat.

The trio pieces are equally rewarding listens. “Events,” written by Davis, is a blustering workout with a brief theme that gives way to a muscular free-for-all, ending in a slow-burning coda. “Charismatics,” credited to Malaby is a freewheeling event during which both Malaby and Davis interrupt the heated interplay with a quick staccato theme - more like a randomly recurring thought than an actual melody. The album closes with a brief improvisation which, after the preceding tracks, feels like a gentle sobering from the rush. Zoning is a thrilling listen that demonstrates how intelligent composition, combined with prodigious musicianship and individualism, can feel so wonderfully free.


Sunday, February 23, 2020

Two Solos from Brandon Lopez

By Keith Prosk

2019 was quite a year for solo contrabass, and here’s two more from Brandon Lopez. Lopez quickly established himself as one of the most exciting voices on the instrument in just the last few years, particularly through fruitful relationships with Gerald Cleaver, e.g. The Industry of Entropy , and Chris Corsano, e.g. Old Smoke . His approach conjures up descriptions of physicality, violence, sinisterness, aggression and recalls the styles of Peter Kowald and Peter Jaquemyn. This is particularly present in his solo work, which represents a sizeable thread of his recordings to date. The two solo releases below are follow-ups to the phenomenal solo quoniam facta sum vilis .

violent starts at the tongue (self-released, 2019) ***½


violent starts at the tongue is 34 minutes across eight tracks of improvisations in the studio. Except for the shorter opener, “Nihilismus,” the tracks are all about five minutes and nearly alternate between a focus on bowing and plucking. Lopez shines on the arco tracks, which display the ferocity for which he’s famous: a kind of flaying bowing, slashing through silence, with the cadence of a crime of passion (“Nihilismus”); balloons rubbing together, punctuated by a chromatic slow bow containing a haunting melody (“I”); whining eddies building to an earthmoving, sonorous charybdis (“III”); a reptilian roar, high tension wires snapping (“IIIIII”). The expressiveness of his bowing techniques might not be paralleled. But the plucked tracks are less impressive. The strings ring against the neck after they’re slapped, there’s a kind of lurching, beastly simplicity to Lopez’ movement, and a grunted humming accompanying the tunes that continues the darkly romantic feeling of his bowing, but the plucked playing here is not lyrical or melodic or very rhythmic, instead often falling to a simple beat from two or three notes. And the structure of these tracks often falls into alternating silence and chaotic attack (compare “II” and “IIIIIII”). There’s just a sense that the plucked approach might be as emotive as the bowed approach if there was greater variation. Still, violent starts at the tongue is an impressive statement from an expressive instrumentalist that showcases a dark world which isn’t often indulged in ensemble and listeners haven’t been immersed in since quoniam facta sum vilis.

violent starts at the tongue is a digital-only release.




Live in Zurich (self-released, 2019) ***


Live in Zurich is a single track lasting 31 minutes of live improvisations. Audience applause is left in, with some zipping, breathing, throat clearing. There’s pauses, as improvised flights run their course, or Lopez calls time before continuing for a little longer. Much of it is his awesome arco techniques. Multiphonic metallic groans from hair and wood through which sonorous swells and a sort of high-pitched Scottish highlands tune leak and drip. There’s some plucking, which is entirely built around the same three notes in “IIII” from violent starts at the tongue. And the encore is all a spidery, wooden roulette of tapping the strings, neck, and body, exploring rhythms, recalling Guy. Diverse, timbrally and technically, and surely a satisfying live performance, but it feels a little aimless and raw for a recorded statement. Which probably says more about expectations than the music itself. Recommended for those who already admire.

Live in Zurich is a digital-only release.



2019 was not just quite a year for solo contrabass but also Lopez himself, who, beyond Old Smoke and these solos, also played on the excellent Early Bird Gets, 12 Episodes , and several other fine recordings. Definitely a musician to stay abreast of.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

1201 Alarm - Hello World (s/r, 2020) ****½

By Sammy Stein

What happens when a musician with a scientific bent and the understanding of how new technology can be applied to creativity decides to create something quite different? Hello World from 1201 Alarm shows us the answer. It is intriguing, different, unclassifiable and somehow compelling.

1201_ Alarm were named after an incident during the Apollo 11 Moon landing. They are led by Steve Thompson who has worked with Nigel Kennedy, Lisa Stansfield, Billy Bragg, Robert Smith ( The Cure) Eric Idle, Prof Brian Cox and D:Ream, Alison Moyet, Chris Hadfield (of the international Space Station), Tony Hadley, Rusty Schweikart (of the Apollo Missions), Madness, Jamie Cullum and many more. Steve was also one of only two people (to his knowledge) to play live at the opening and closing of the London 2012 Olympics , the other being Emeli Sande.

1201_Alarm create music inspired by science, technology, innovation and endeavour and their first album is called Hello_World.

Steve told me," the music on this album explores the gentrification of technology since the Apollo era and how we have welcomed and encouraged science into our daily lives over the last 50 years and importantly, what that has done to us positively and negatively".

In preparation for writing the album Steve spoke with prominent scientists and critical thinkers from around the world. They recorded interviews and each person they interviewed inspired a track on the album. The band has musicians with huge presence, including Tamar Osborne on sax and flutes - she has worked with Jools Holland, Dele Sosimi Afrobeat, Akram Khan and has her own successful project called ' Collocutor', Titch ( Alastair) Walker on trumpet - he has played with Paul Weller, Bellowhead (and happens to be Leo Sayer's nephew), Emma Bassett on trombone - she has played with major orchestras and toured with Adele and Tim Minchin and Ben Handysides on drums - he has played on TV and radio alongside many other musicians.

'Prologue' opens the CD with a soft, atmospheric sax riff ( based on a guitar riff from the Eddie Harris track 'Silver Cycles' from the album of the same name ( Atlantic 1968), before a fugue-like entry, beginning with the trombone, then the rest of the band so the music builds and crescendos into a full-on wall of sound. Heavy bass and drum lines emphasise the change to a weightier atmosphere whilst the trumpet soars above. That trumpet emerges to give a beautiful solo, underpinned by a 4 note repeat from the bass which is then left alone to finish the track. 'Hello World' was so named because the first computer program a new programmer writes is almost always a ‘Hello World’ program. The track also represents people interacting with technology for the first time and stepping into a bigger world. The track creates an incredible mix of live instruments with electronically-produced sounds which are used not to overwhelm but rather create a new chimera of complete beauty, energy, textures and deep, rich layers. Half way through the music stops indicating technology 'breaking' and there is a stupendous free flowing sax interlude and an unusual 7/8 section redolent of the Ozric Tentacles (an English prog rock band).

'Flim Flam' begins with bird song, buzzing sounds, bells, creating a pastoral atmosphere before it ascends a thematic musical stairway up towards the developing orchestral landscapes over decisive percussion from Ben Handysides. This track was inspired by an interview with author James Randi and uses voice recordings from an interview with Alek Krotoski (a Polish-American broadcaster, journalist and social psychologist, resident of the United Kingdom who writes about technology and interactivity).

'Bubbles' is an underwater adventure, inspired by the science of Dr Helen Czerski. (A British physicist, oceanographer and TV presenter). It sounds like arcade video music in some places and uses the rare and rather gorgeous tenori-on which ( as Steve Thompson explained) is a hand held screen in which a sixteen-by-sixteen grid of LED switches are held within a magnesium plastic frame. Any of these switches may be activated in a number of different ways to create sounds. Two built-in speakers are located on the top of the frame, as well as a dial and buttons that control the type of sound and beats per minute produced. The resulting sound is like a mixture of Hot Butter's 1971 track, 'Popcorn' and arcade music. However, this is soon ameliorated by the live instruments, bass, drums, trombone, sax and trumpet, which infuse reality into the music and develop a theme, something which the popping, jumpy little tenori-on finds difficult. Again, there is a fusion of electronica and traditional live instruments and it works.

'Surely You're Joking' was inspired by the Nobel prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman Amongst the science community, Feynman was up there with Einstein. A colourful character, he broke the stereotype of a stuffy scientist. He was a keen bongo drummer and Steve Thompson secured permission from his estate to use rare archive recordings of him on this track. Many contemporary scientists (who are also musicians) joined 1201_Alarm on the track. Physicist Jim Al Khalili plays guitar, Helen Czerski plays Theremin, Libby Jackson of the UK Space agency plays Oboe, materials scientist Anna Ploszajski plays trumpet, as does mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. Journalist Gemma Church also joined them on percussion, and Steve Pretty of the Hackney Colliery Band is on trumpet. There is a distinct throwback to Feynman’s heyday of the 1970s with a 'Two Ronnie's' feel but it is enjoyable. There are lovely bongo sections - all added by Feynman himself- a real tribute to someone Steve Thompson admired. And who knew so many eminent scientists played instruments so well?

'Qbit' was inspired by an interview with quantum physicist Prof. Winfried Hensinger who is building a massive quantum computer. For this track Steve Thompson used an actual quantum computer (in New York) to generate some of the music. It also uses the Audio Illusion discovered by Diana Deutsch in 1973. Oddly enough, if you listen to the track using headphones you should be able to hear words that are not actually being spoken. Yet another quirky little something in this album. It is highly electronic, popping and sparky at the beginning over an annoyingly repetitive monotonous 'flik flak' voice, which thankfully changes into another voice making 'doo' noises' but this too gets irksome. Then the flik flak voice comes back again and I was on the point of panic.

'Stuxnet' was inspired by a deadly computer virus and uses a 400,000v Tesla coil which shoots out arcs of lightning. The track is spacey, atmospheric and uses repeated 8 staccato notes which fade in and out. A theme emerges - which has 10 notes in the first half and 11 in the second and then the track gets seriously full of noise, heavy and energetic before the theme returns, both in electronic and real formats. Gorgeously challenging.

'Pripyat' is a thoughtful musical interlude, a questioning track about what happens if science goes wrong? Pripyat is the ghost town just outside Chernobyl which was abandoned after the disaster in 1986. Now, this almost forgotten town has its own tribute track and the poignancy is enhanced by the instrumentation and Slovak-inspired rhythms included . Guest artist Adrian ‘Woody’ Woodward of the Globe Theatre plays the hang drum on the track.

'ToastWife' is written as a symbolic call for help to bring technology and humanity together and make sense of everything. It was inspired by an interview with Dr Aleks Krotoski again and is about people wanting to be heard in a noisy world of social media. There are short motifs - not unlike 'Tweets' played and imitated by each instrument. After the 40 second mark, with the entry of different instruments, the track builds into something far more layered, deeply textured and with several distinct changes in rhythm over the set tempo. The sax soaring over the top is lovely. A great number.

'SkyLife' is a cover of the Turtle Island String Quartet number. It is a great interpretation and represents ( according to Steve Thompson) how great things could be if we work with technology and science. There is an anthemic quality to the piece and the arrangement around the brass is lifting and genial. The keyboard solo sits well in this arrangement and works with the theme.

'Flow ' was inspired by the interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognised and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity). Interestingly, for this track, the band were not given any music, just a graphic score, and had never heard the track before. They were given just one take each - the idea being to induce a state of ‘flow’ in each member of the band. The result is a challenging and experimental piece, began with words from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi himself. It feels its way, each instrument finding different levels and lines as the piece progresses.

'Cycles' is a modified version of the opening track but with changes in tempo and a uniting of the electronics and acoustic instruments. There is a lovely harmonised section between trumpet and sax before the brass sections before the trumpet explodes over the top in a glorious, uplifting dialogue. The middle section of the piece was composed by a Raspberry Pi computer pet. Steve Thomas uses a laser harp - which incidentally uses a 5 watt laser, capable of projecting a beam over 5 miles. This track makes a lovely ending to the CD.

What makes this album work so well - and it really does - is not only the fusion of electronics and instruments but the arrangements. They are solid, often themed, and allow the musicians to interact and solo. Steve Thompson is using stellar musicians here and it would seem a shame not to use them fully - so he does. Many themes develop and these are given weight, life and depths by the musicians. If I am honest, I never expected to like this music half as much as I do but it is absolutely wonderful, beautiful and well worked in every sense. The science theme lends itself well to offering variety and thematic works and, whilst the input is heavy from electronica, there is also a satisfying portion of real - life, tactile, living, breathing instruments. The vinyl version has a unique double groove on side 4, which means you hear either one of the two tracks depending where the needle lands. The music is neither over heavy on the scientific or electro-music or artificially enhanced live music but an oddly beautiful and characterful mix of the two. Engaging, endearing listening.

More info: 1201-alarm.com


Friday, February 21, 2020

Josh Sinton - Stone Cold Classics of 21st-Century Sax Repertory

Here is an interesting, evolving project from Brooklyn based woodwind player Josh Sinton. After a recent break from music, Sinton has returned with a series of very nicely produced videos on YouTube highlighting the work of musicians who have been influential to him. The list is extensive and will include Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill, Tim Berne, Hilmar Jensson and compositions by Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, David Lang and more. Sinton is performing all of these solo on the baritone sax.

Sinton began releasing the videos in late January with a post of Morton Feldman's 'Projection 1 - Realization 5', and he has been releasing a new video every Monday since. The project is planned as on going until April 20th. We just caught wind of it, and enjoyed Anthony Braxton's 'Composition 26F', be sure to check in at https://www.youtube.com/user/sinzheimers, or for audio-only versions at https://soundcloud.com/sinsheimer.


- Paul Acquaro

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fred Van Hove - Fred Van Hove at 80 (Dropa Disc 2019) ****½

By Hinrich Julius

In 2017 the 80th birthday of Fred Van Hove, one of the founders of European Free Jazz was celebrated in Belgium. Solo concerts on piano and organ took place in Mechelen and Brussels. In February, a two-day festival happened in Antwerp, his hometown. It was not the typical celebration, as a look back at many of the important groups Van Hove participated in did not take place. Fred Van Hove wanted to take the opportunity to look forward. The two musicians he probably is associated most were missing – in the highly influential trio with Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink of the 70’s he had the role of calming down the two wild ones. Alone looking at his performances make me wanting to having attended ( a full line-up is available here ):
  • one concert with his current band Quat (Fred Van Hove (piano), Paul Lovens (drums, percussion), Els Vandeweyer (vibraphone), Martin Blume (drums), percussion); (compare a review of the older recording “ Live at Hasselt ”),
  • a tribute to the piano player Eddy Loozen (Walter Hus, Christian Leroy, Fred Van Hove, all piano)
  • Niels Van Heertum (euphonium), Ernst Reijseger (cello), Fred Van Hove (piano)
  • Evan Parker (sax), Hamid Drake (percussion), Fred Van Hove (piano)

The last trio and the two solo concerts are now available as a little book with three CDs – 80 pages for the 80th birthday. The book contains a short introduction by Joachim Keulemans, a long essay by Hugo de Craen plus pictures from the festival and from notebooks of Fred Van Hove. The essay was written for the festival, short excerpts are available online . The essay is highly enjoyable and informative, once expectations of the usual retrospective articles are set aside. Hugo de Craen was given access to the notebooks of Fred Van Hove (seemingly he noted permanently and quite a lot) and combines own text with quotes from these notebooks. This patchwork gives insights in the different aspects of the musician’s life: the relationship to his father (he debuted in a trio with his father); different groups under names starting with Musica Libera (e.g. Antverpia, Belgiae, Flandriae); the Working Group for Improvising Musicians (WIM) to support improvised music in Antwerp; travelling as a musician; home in a second home south of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Fred Van Hove’s quotes are thought provoking:
“In November 1989, Nozati and I left Berlin for a duet in West Germany on the night train. The Berlin Wall had just fallen. The German from the East were leaving en masse. They received money when they arrived in a city in the West. The train was packed. On the platform Annick had clung to my arm, “don’t lose me”. The hallways and toilets were full of people standing. They sang all night long. Annick said to me, “you know, it’s the same song that the Germans sang while taking Paris in the forties”. We were scared. We thought we were in a train full of refugees or deportees.”
Pictures of the festival concerts round this very carefully produced book – alone already very much worth the publication.

The first CD is the trio of Van Hove / Parker / Drake – a trio of big names, but with no experience working together. Fred Van Hove did work with Evan Parker way back in the late 60s. Both musicians were members of the Peter Brötzmann Group (“Machine Gun”, recorded 1968 FMP; “Nipples”, 1969 Calig; also “Fuck de Boere”, 1968 / 70 Atavistic), supported Manfred Schoof (“European Echoes”) and continued to work in a bigger grouping (“The Wuppertal Workshop Ensemble – Family”, 1980 FMP). But it is surprising to see that these two giants of modern European Impro never recorded together in a smaller group setting. But they must have stayed in close contact as Evan Parker produced a solo piano CD of Fred Van Hove on his psi label (“Journey”, 2007). Fred Van Hove and Hamid Drake never recorded together. It even is surprising that he was chosen as partner as Hamid Drake rather represents the groove-oriented side of free-drumming, something not associated with Fred Van Hove in his later works. Evan Parker and Hamid Drake did work together before (Sant'Anna Arresi Quintet “Filu 'E Ferru”). The combination works very well. Drums start, saxophone throws out deep tones, piano enters with the typical shimmering – close notes played fast that produce a sound encompassing the individually played note. All three are careful, listen closely to each other and act, react and counteract. You can get into a trance while listening. You can enjoy following the interaction intellectually. Drake grounds the two birds that tend to fly away. Overall, it has long quiet passages, playing few notes and sustaining the atmosphere. In the end, there are passages when Parker gets into his typical circular breathing producing a gentle curtain of sounds supported by piano and percussion. All three play as one would expect it from knowing them and that could possibly be the only criticism one could express: they fit so well that no one is forced to produce something completely new.

The second CD is Van Hove solo piano. If I counted correct, it is the 11 th mainly solo piano record, the last being the already mentioned “Journey” on Evan Parker’s psi label with recordings from 2007. It starts very mellow, with Van Hove rambling imagined chords and letting his fingers glide around the tones. For a while, the left hand rather provides a basis and lets the right dance around, and then both hands interact. Quiet and not too fast. This time more continuous sound. The last solo CD “Journey” also offered one continuous piece, but used many smaller ideas to construct it. In a direct comparison, I had the impression that 10 years earlier Van Hove patched many little ideas together to create the sound, while here he relied more on the evolvement of the sound. Beautiful music to listen to, easy to enjoy (if used to free piano playing) and complex enough to listen closely.

The third CD offers at least for me the most difficult music. It was recorded in the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles (BOZAR). Only three months before the recording the historical organ (1930) of the cultural center in Brussels was reopened after a long renovation. It must have been a privilege to play there as part of the rejuvenation of this instrument. Van Hove looks back on a long history of working with organs. He recorded a first organ solo LP back in 1979 (“Church Organ”, FMP) and continued to use this instrument in duo (“Improvisations” with Etienne Brunet) and trio (“Pijp”with Konrad and Johannes Bauer) settings. I have to admit that I always had difficulties with this part of his work, the early “Church Organ” being a record which I of bought since it comes from one of the labels that only produced “must-have” records. I however probably only listened to it once, if at all. Here I still had the same reservations. At first listening, I did not really get it. With repeated listening I still have difficulties with the faster parts as there is the danger of all notes being blended without it necessary sounding as if this was intended. Repeated listening helped. Especially the parts where the sounds are clearer, do offer nice soundscapes; one can follow the ideas and jump into the music.

Summing it up, it is a beautifully produced little book, great music by a new trio that creates a very satisfying disc of free improv jazz – one has the impression that this trio has been playing many years together, a pleasing and satisfying piano solo recording and a partly challenging listening to a solo church organ. These three concerts were chosen to represent Van Hove’s work at 80. I would have liked to listen to more –that probably is the best one can achieve with a selection. Highly recommended.


Fred Van Hove - Fred Van Hove at 80 (Dropa Disc, 2019) ****½


By Nick Metzger

Fred Van Hove at 80 is comprised of an 80 page book along with three CDs of new music by the Belgian pianist (one of them in trio with Hamid Drake and Parker, the other two solo affairs). Most readers of the blog know Van Hove from his groundbreaking work with Peter Brotzmann & Han Bennink (who were frequently joined by trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff) in the 60's and 70's, most notably 1968's "Machine Gun", 1969's "Nipples", the subsequent "More Nipples" from the same sessions, as well as the 1970 trio album "Balls". But that really only begins to scratch the surface of what this magnificent musician has accomplished in his career. The book includes wonderfully rendered photography and informative essays in a very concise and robust package that is a treat to hold and look at. It's a limited edition release so get at it while you can.

As stated previously the first disc finds Parker and Hamid Drake accompanying Van Hove at deSingel in Antwerp in February of 2017 is fantastic. I'm a big fan of Drake as well and his playing here provides a powerful, shuffling, and poignant counterpoint to Van Hove. Parker chisels away at the ether, spinning turbulent shapes, breathing them to life, and sending them adrift to mingle with the vibrations stirred by his fellows. Van Hove issues jagged stabs of notes interspersed with sustain-heavy passages, building up great billowing clouds of discordant overtones that he just as quickly disperses, like a genie being drawn back into the lamp. The 45+ minutes go by very quickly, but in a grandiose manner, lots of peaks and valleys, players drop out and reappear within the logic of the moment, each contributing to something greater than the sum of its parts. Fantastic.

The second disc captures a Van Hove piano solo at the Nona Arts Center in Brussels in April of 2017. The improvisation covers a range of tempos and atmospheres, displaying fully the pianist's concepts and technical prowess. Sometimes meditative and insular and at others multi-directional and dense, Van Hove chases down his muses and wanders through extended musical landscapes unhindered by parapets of time, wearing proudly his fealty to instant composition. On the third disc Van Hove commands the massive pipe organ at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels in a solo piece that is both meditative and riveting. The piece is extremely dynamic and multi-faceted and you're unlikely to hear much, if any, pipe organ music quite like it (perhaps with the exception of Van Hove’s 1981 FMP release “ Church Organ ”). The sounds are both melodious and atonal, and at times almost aquatic. The organ had been out of commission for 60 years before being restored and updated, and was re-inaugurated in September 2017, only a couple of months before this performance. Of the updates made, one was to add touch sensitivity to the keys which allows for a much more nuanced performance and which suits Van Hove's style very well.

Bandcamp: https://dropadisc.bandcamp.com/album/fred-van-hove-at-80

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Deconstructed Guitars of Burkhard Stangl


Viennese guitarist-composer Burkhard Stangl has played in a variety of musical contexts, from modern, chamber jazz projects (check his work with trumpeter Franz Koglmann), to collective, free-improvised outfits that explored noisy spectrums as the Polwechsel quartet, efzeg quintet, Schnee duo (with Christof Kurmann) and Chesterfield duo (with partner Angélica Castelló) to writing contemporary music for various ensembles and solo guitar works. His new releases finds him collaborating with two distinct sound artists, exploring old and new technologies. 

Burkhard Stangl & dieb13 -Jardin Des Bruits (Mikroton, 2019) ****½


Burkhard  Stangl and fellow-Viennese turntables wizard-sound artist dieb13 (aka Dieter Kovačič), known from his work with Mats Gustafsson in (Fake) The Facts and Swedish Azz), released their first duo album Eh almost twenty years ago (erstwhile, 2002), parallel to their work with the efzeg quintet. Jardin Des Bruits (Garden Of Noises in French) is an excellent title for Stangl and dieb13's continuous exploration of the sonic interactions and possibilities between guitars and record players, acoustic and electric, old and new. The album was recorded at Instants Chavires and the streets and metro trains of Paris and Montreuil in May 2019, and later mixed by the artists. The artwork is by French, fellow sound artist Julien Ottav, founder and artistic programmer of the experimental music organisation APO33.

Stangl once said that he allows himself to play his special, so-called eh tuning only in his duo with dieb13, because of its high emotional tension verging on nostalgia. And indeed Jardin Des Bruits investigates the tension between innocent, fragile and transparent sounds, often played by Stangl and distorted, dirty and noisy ones, most of the time played by dieb13 on acoustic and electronic gramophones and electronics. Together they create a kind of a suite-story comprised of twenty, minimalist segments, some are only a few seconds long, but all suggest alluring, seductive images, even when both dive head on into abstract yet strangely lyrical, white noises as on “Noisy Track”. Stangl and dieb13 pay a symbolic debt to pioneer electroacoustic works on “Sortie de Secours d'IRCAM” (ICRAM is the French Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique where Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez began their sonic experiments). Both enjoy the playfulness irony of “Kabuki”, the cinematic tension of “Godzilla”and the witty “Symphonie für einen Staubsauger” (Symphony for a vacuum cleaner). The emotional version of “eh² live” is a beautiful conclusion of this fascinating journey.

In a way, Jardin Des Bruits is a poetic, sonic reflection of our daily soundtracks, where our most inner and private thoughts are constantly targeted and polluted by random noises and greedy, capitalist corporations and state agencies. Somehow, Stangl and dieb13 offer a clever and balanced perspective that allows us to employ and exploit these disturbing noises to our benefit and cultivate our very own gardens of sounds and noises.


Joanna John / Burkhard Stangl - Lynx (Interstellar Records, 2019) ****


The collaboration between Stangl and Polish-born, Norway-based audio-visual artist Joanna John (she designed the artwork for his recent Zwölf album, Bocian, 2018, as well as for Lynx) explores electroacoustic, textual soundscapes. John plays the acoustic guitar in a very slow and quiet manner, and adds processed layers of Stangl’s deconstructed electric guitar that dissolves and echoes her own playing, subverting and contrasting her soft and warm tones with its intensity and dark spirit. This way of constructing the eight soundscapes is compared to “an excursion into the wilderness, or an encounter with the eponymous lynx”.

These intimate, dream-state soundscapes succeed to radiate simultaneously a strong emotional atmosphere and often even a tempting, sensual dimension but also a disturbing, threatening tone. You can feel it in the chilly “November Air” or “From The Distance” with their gentle waves of resonating acoustic guitar lines being washed away by a threatening, darker undercurrent. Later, “Taming a Deer” takes these complimenting courses and develops a surprising psychedelic texture. Only on “Her Presence And Tides” John and Stangl sound as courting and sparking each other in a delicate, somehow erotic dance. The dark undercurrent is intensified on the noisy drone of “Gravity” but the last “X” finds a peaceful common ground between the psychedelic tones of John and the suggestive guitar lines of Stangl.




Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Simon Nabatov Quintet - Last Minute Theory (Clean Feed, 2019) ****


By Stephen Griffith

It doesn't take a huge leap of faith to assume that fans of this genre of music have mental lists of favorite musicians who've never received acclaim commensurate with what they perceive to be their talents. The Russian born pianist Simon Nabatov is at the top of my list. Sure his releases receive positive, often glowing, reviews and I've never encountered anyone even slightly dismissive of his technically intricate while still melodically welcoming playing. But I just don't think he's gotten the push his talents merit and he doesn't get mentioned as often in discussions as Schweizer, Crispell or Shipp for example.
The first Simon Nabatov Quintet release was the delightful 2001 collection of pieces inspired by sections of the underground Stalin era Russian novel "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov, a tour de force of literary interpretation. The intervening 18 years have featured mostly smaller groups, primarily on Leo, including other Soviet era literary interpretations, as well as less programmatic undertakings. The current release marks his Clean Feed debut with a different New York centric group of saxophonist Tony Malaby, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

If being on the new label exposes him to new listeners, this would serve as a good introduction to his playing and compositions. The opening cut, Old Fashioned, starts off with a bouncy bop-ish melody after which the piano bass and drums start stretching the boundaries before Seabrook's guitar adds some scratchy discordant figures to produce some tension. Then Malaby's tenor enters with a Charlie Rouse type solo adhering closely to the melody which frees the piano and guitar to chatter at each other. They briefly restate the melody in unison at the 5:30 mark followed by a controlled chaos winding down to a quiet conclusion. Two of the songs seem titled based on Cleaver's drumming: Rickety begins with a clattering rapid stop and go rhythm around which the song is built and Marching Right Along starts with a martial cadence which reoccurs throughout the song alternating with more understated and subdued tempos. Malaby has some fine soprano features in Slow Move and Marching Right Along and Formanek is responsible in Afterwards for getting things moving again after everyone else dropped out. Seabrook's guitar is the wild card in the mix by lobbing electric darts and bombs to keep things from getting too relaxed and serving as a good foil for Nabatov's lyricism. But the leader is in fine form here as well. If his playing isn't as out front as in some of his trio dates (Tough Customer is a particular favorite) he is constantly interesting within the quintet format.
So maybe this will raise Simon's critical exposure. Or maybe it was a misapprehension on my part of how he is thought of. I was heartened to see the late Eric Stern included Last Minute Theory in his Best of 2019 list and that he was instrumental in helping Nabatov meet musicians when he first came to New York. I thought of that quite a bit while listening to this.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Benjamin Piekut – Henry Cow: The World is a Problem (Duke University Press, 2019) *****

By Phil Stringer

A problem that all writing about music presents is analogous to Alfred Korzybski’s dictum, ‘A map is not the territory’. Self-evidently, reading about music is not the same as listening to it. Some writers resolve this by a companion recording. Benjamin Piekut doesn’t do this but he presents a convincingly thorough account of the territory to which Henry Cow’s music was a response. And, at numerous points in my reading, I paused to marvel that the response to the tensions, conflict and chaos Piekut documents, was remarkable music.

Piekut, an Associate Professor of Music at Cornell University brings both integrity as an academic researcher and theoretician and also, a necessary outsider perspective. There are eight chapters following the chronology of Henry Cow, bookended by two chapters that are addressed primarily to the ‘scholarly reader’. The chapters about the band draw heavily on interviews with group members and contemporaneous music journalism, to produce what Piekut describes (p.xiii) as an ‘unusual hybrid form combining collective biography and argument-driven cultural history’. Rather than the slightly apologetic tone here, I think it a cause for celebration that form clearly and appropriately serves function. A major clue lies in the book’s subtitle, ‘The World is a Problem’. It is important not to underestimate Piekut’s task and his achievement in writing a fascinating and immensely readable account.

At the Café Oto, London, launch in October 2019, Piekut, with Henry Cow members, Georgie Born, Christ Cutler and Tim Hodgkinson, spoke about one of his aims. To use the band in effect as a case study (my interpretation) to investigate the wider socio-cultural context of a decade from 1968 to 1978. Arguably, in meeting his aim he has written about the problem of memory and the construction of a meta-narrative that attempts to balance multiple perspectives that, in themselves, will always be contested. This was quite apparent at the book launch with some tensions over memory unsurprisingly, unresolved. Inevitably, personal memories and perspectives are just that, personal.

As a case study, Henry Cow provides insights into the multiple interacting factors that affect a group of people as they endeavor to understand, respond to and manage a series of problems. The account of recording their first album, ‘Legend’ or in the book, ‘Leg End’, highlights and sets the tone for many of the problems the band were grappling with then and as the book elaborates, continued to. In the main, this was because they were problems that were difficult if not impossible to resolve due to inherent contradictions. If a group of people set out with an espoused theory demanding potentially exceptional moral and political commitment, then the practice of that theory will almost inevitably create a contradiction between the purity of the vison, the pragmatism required by everyday living, and the personal qualities of individual actors. So, the language of liberation (say in relation to gender politics and equalities) used by some may be experienced by others through everyday practices as the language of oppression. In Henry Cow, it appears that the women were generally marginalised and one of the ways in which this surfaced, for instance, occurred as the band toured more, and more frequently in Europe, where gender inequalities were exposed especially concerning childcare.

That first album though, highlighted the problems of finding an audience and recording. The group ended up signing to Virgin and were immediately thrown into the contradictions of capitalism’s demands for the commodification of their music, hardly compatible with socialist if not Marxist ideals. They were also confronted with trying to reconcile the noble aims of non-hierarchical music making and collective composition, with the engineering demands of recording music and human auditory perception. Additionally, they were working out what kind of music they were making and the tensions between free improvisation and tightly written frameworks. Increasingly, we read of the unresolved struggle to balance communal living, and the problem of the extent to which Henry Cow was a closed or open system and, therefore, the extent to which personal identity was subsumed by group identity. Oh, and somewhere in all of this, there was the matter of getting enough income to pay bills, fix the tour bus, pay rent, buy food.

In this world of problems, if there is a problem for a reader, certainly one is to hold in mind is that at the time, the individual group members were relatively young and like many twenty-year-olds then and now, grappling with figuring stuff out. Another is to reconcile all that Piekut reveals about the tensions and conflicts of human relationships with the music that emerges. My listening again, in light of reading, was enriched and I ended up thinking that in general their music stands the test of time and remains as relevant as it did in the 1970s, not least given the current social and political climate in the UK.

There are two additions that would help a reader. First, an appendix listing the chronology of the band and when members joined, left, rejoined, and who played what and, second a discography.

Why would this book appeal to anyone had never heard of Henry Cow? Well, I think that anyone that is interested in the development of British underground or counter-cultural music through the late sixties and seventies will find this book fascinating. As will anyone that is interested in the working out of a musical response to prevailing sociopolitical circumstances. And, as much as anything, it provides universal insights into a group of people and managing complex relationships where, at times, it seems that what would help most would be a psychological understanding of intergroup processes.

The great appeal of the book for me, though, is that Henry Cow is one of a number of groups and musicians holding a formative place in my listening through the late 60s and into the 70s. Henry Cow were making music that then, as now, was alive with possibilities for experimentation, blurred idioms, improvisation, and creative conflict. Ah, creative conflict. Quite easily, Benjamin Piekut has produced an account that conjures up Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and, “I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star. I tell you: you still have chaos in yourselves.” The attempt at collective music making that was Henry Cow, gave birth to many dancing stars.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Evan Parker Roundup, Part 2 of 2

Evan Parker Photo © Caroline Forbes

By Nick Metzger

“You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
- Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

Listening to and reviewing all of these Evan Parker related albums has been a privilege and a learning experience for me. I’d already been doing some deep listening after the release of the “Topographie Parisienne” set, I mean I obviously re-listened to “Topography of the Lungs” to see how the sound of the trio changed between recordings and that set me onto re-listening to the Parker solo albums I owned (and caused me to buy a couple that I’d been holding off on to fill in the gaps). Then I dipped into the numerous group recordings (again with Colin pointing out some real gems I hadn’t listened to), terrific one-offs, and his long running groups (with the Schlippenbach Trio/Quartet, with Guy and Lytton, with Bailey and Stevens, with SME, with the Global Unity Orchestra, with variants of the Electro-Acoustic groups, etc, etc, etc).

It’s really incredible how evolved his playing has become, even if the underlying notion seems to have been there since the beginning. There really are no albums of him playing in a different style; he always plays in his style. I think of the early work of someone like Jackson Pollock and how it’s pretty far removed from his famous drip paintings, but that doesn’t appear to be the case with Parker. There aren’t any recordings of him playing like Coltrane, even though he’s a devotee, or any of his other known influences. I wouldn’t call anything he’s done “skronk” or “fire music”, it’s too sophisticated and carefully controlled, yet anyone who’s listened to his solo material knows that it is challenging to listen to, and I myself have to be in the right frame of mind to properly enjoy it. Anyway, I’ve ended up with more questions than answers, and I think that’s a signpost of genius and we’re all fortunate that the well has turned out to be so deep. The only metaphor I can offer is that I’ve found his playing to be like river rocks. Early on it was coarse and craggy, but over time the currents of his music (insert eye-rolls here) seem to have eroded the sharp edges somewhat, even as the original shapes remain intact. So here’s to whatever Mr. Parker comes up with next, I’ll be looking forward to it, whatever the shape, and I know I’m not alone.

Evan Parker, Lotte Anker, & Torben Snekkestad - Inferences (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2019) ****

On “Inferences” Parker collaborates in a trio with fellow saxophonists Lotte Anker and Torben Snekkestad for a 2016 performance in Copenhagen at the KorcertKirken Blågårds Plads. On this release Parker plays soprano saxophone, Anker plays soprano and tenor saxophones and Snekkestad plays soprano saxophone and trumpet. These three musicians complement each other’s playing very nicely and have a natural rapport with which they produce two very impressive improvisations.

The trio builds up a lot of texture on the first piece, with Anker's tenor providing a foundation for the sopranos over the first half. Layered split notes, growl, tongue slapping, and trills are the order of the day. The Parker/Snekkestad interactions are beautiful, very playful and communicative, and they become something else entirely when Anker switches to soprano. At about the halfway point the three are engrossed in a beautiful and harmonically rich engagement that sings and howls. At about ⅔ of the track duration Snekkestad starts making some really intriguing noises on the trumpet, a most interesting and welcome extended technique that is excellent and complementary to the swirling sound of the sopranos. The trio rounds out this first track with an extremely busy and piercing interchange, quenching the last couple of minutes with reed pop and hiss.

The playing on "Kairos" is more open and less textural than the previous track. It feels as if there is a drama that unfolds within the piece and the players are very attentive in their interactions, at least it seems that way to me. The track gives a classical music impression in the way it develops from slight probing on through more complex passages, and on to resolution(?). I may be making this all up as well, reading into it too much as one searching for words sometimes does. But it's an excellent piece nevertheless, and the contrast with the intensity of the first track is appreciated. Fantastic music.




Evan Parker, Joe McPhee, Lol Coxhill, Chris Corsano - Tree Dancing (OTOROKU, 2019) ****


This unexpected but essential release recorded at Cafe Oto in 2010 captures the one-time-only pairing of Joe McPhee and the late Lol Coxhill joined here by Chris Corsano and Evan Parker for a great set of improvised music. All of these musicians are legendary figures in free jazz circles so I won't go into their respective backgrounds, but wanted to just briefly remark on what a fantastic project Cafe Oto has been for this music, both as a venue (so I've heard anyway) and now as a digital distributor for many of our favorite record labels. Check out their online store and empty your wallets, tell your significant other that you had my permission, I'm sure that will go over well. Anyway, I'll get on with it.

This concert took place during McPhee's residency at Cafe Oto in 2010, and he begins "First Dance" by thanking the participants and guests for their support, as well as commenting that the day before was Ornette Coleman's birthday (80th). McPhee then unleashes a solo of otherworldly, soulful beauty in his singular fashion. An extraordinarily touching bit of playing that envelopes the listener in a swath of damp-eyed mists before they are abruptly swatted away by Corsano who ushers in a quickening of tempo. McPhee abides and the duel ensues. Corsano is vivid here, producing roiled waves of sound for McPhee to skirt over with his full throated articulations, alternating between bluesy ruminations and screeching blow-out. On "Second Dance" Parker's familiar swelling tenor growl appears from the silence, joined in short order by Coxhill and McPhee on soprano emitting shrieks and short darting figures. The three converse masterfully in their reed-speak, and I find it remarkable how clearly you can discern their distinct voices. The recording is a little lacking on this one, specifically in the left channel there is some clipping, but that's of very minor significance. Brilliant and satisfying trio interplay.

"Dance 3" builds more gradually and is initially less dense than the previous track, more exploratory, Parker briefly twisting breathless circular sound knots below the sorano chatter. Corsano is reserved across the first half, pattering around in the margins, sensitively exploring his kit. The quartet picks up some momentum over the latter half as they start to warm to each other and their surroundings. On "Dance 4" individual solos evolve into a group interplay, with an honest-to-goodness near-freakout occuring in the last minute. McPhee starts the track off on alto, followed by Coxhill, both taking extended, bluesy solos that accelerate as Corsano puts stick to skin.

The "Fifth Dance" begins with a better than two minute solo/wind-up of percussion, after which the trio digs in with McPhee on pocket trumpet. The exploratory vibe of the previous track rides here, with give-and-take being the order of the day. The "Sixth Dance" is a quickie of crackling percussion and a bit of mottled sax trill from McPhee and Corsano that, lasting only a few minutes, hits like a splash of cold water on a hot day. Finally, the "Last Dance", which begins with Corsano wrecking his skins accompanied by the tremendous bassist John Edwards, whose presence sends the group into fits, exploding with energy, wringing the wet rag completely dry. I'm not sure that you could top such a denouement if you tried.

Available from Café Oto.

Setola Di Maiale Unit & Evan Parker - Live At Angelica 2018 (Setola Di Maiale, 2019) ****½


This remarkable recording was made during the 2018 AngelicA International Festival of Music, and to mark the occasion of the Setola di Maiale (Pig Bristle in English) record label's 25th anniversary. The Setoladimaiale Unit is features many of the label's most prominent artists including label head Stefano Giust on percussion, as well as composer Philip Corner, and dancer Phoebe Neville (the latter two play the gong intro). The rest of the unit includes Marco Colonna on clarinets, Michele Anelli on contrabass, Alberto Novello on electronics, Martin Mayes plays the Alphorn (a horn used from the 17th century as a form of communication in the mountainous regions of Europe), Giorgio Pacorig on piano, Patrizia Oliva provides voice and electronics, and our Mr. Parker plays both the tenor and soprano saxophone.

"Intro" draws up the curtain on this collection with a duo of gongs slowly developing from silence, hardly played, just tappings and hints of rhythm that segue directly to the first piece. Squeaks of electronics and snatches of wordless vocals complement the dramatic and turbulent forming. Parker doesn't take over the piece, but neither is his presence subdued. He's consumed by the group and their communion, emitting traces of his distinct cadence in the sophisticated concoction. "Second" is all the more mysterious and entrancing, with water noise, clarinet, and electronics swirling in a heady dance with the vocals, horns, and piano. The percussion really begins to wallop at around the midpoint, causing the group to roil and the clarinet to sear. Parker lays out his rough eddies over otherworldly vocals and warm percussion as the track fades. Very nice indeed.

On "Third" bass clarinet wrestles with the trombone's forlorn wails and moans, underpinned by a surreal bed of vocals, chimes, and strings. In time the horns, piano, and electronics encroach, ushering buried words within a busy percussive field. "Fourth" carries in on prickly piano and electronics, the trombone wheezing and hissing like the winds of an alien planet. Briefly the horns raise a flag before slipping back below the surface and a wooden flute takes the fore, then the trombone, buried beneath layers of wool which dampen its screams. Malleted cymbal rolls elicit the return to a busier soundscape, subtle and a little strange but more than inviting. The final piece "Fifth" serves as a culmination as well as a crest, the ensemble simmers with all manner of delicious little noises as the instrumentalists trade sentiments. The electronically manipulated vocals add a hallucinatory sense and the crowding of the aural field adds a tinge of anxiety, driving the listener to the edge of some unseen abyss before rolling back from the precipice and vaporizing. A remarkable piece, it's as enchanting as it is thrilling.

Evan Parker & Matthew Wright Trance Map - Crepuscule in Nickelsdorf (Intakt, 2019) *****


Finally, we have this wonderful album that serves to tie together (either directly or indirectly) some of Parker's most interesting work in the field of electro-acoustic music. The Trance Map+ quintet is a descendant of Parker's partnership with Matthew Wright, with whom he released the original "Trance Map" album on his own psi imprint back in 2011.The other three members of the quintet all have histories working in Parker's electronics projects, Adam Linson plays bass with the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, and John Coxon and Ashley Wales (better known as Spring Heel Jack) worked with Parker on 2004's tribute to Steve Lacy "Evan Parker with Birds". It's also significant that the quintet was assembled for the 2017 Hull UK City of Culture festival "Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story" which celebrated the renowned composer with whom Parker and Derek Bailey among others worked with on his 1971 album "World within Worlds". In many ways that album was a pre-cursor to Parker's more electronics oriented material, and is one of the first of its kind to blend electro-acoustic experimentation with live free improvisation.


On the first track the listener is met with quite literal birdsong, digitally manipulated it hiccups and echoes across the stereo field. Parker's soprano provides a moor in the disorienting flutter of the comings and goings as he starts out to meet and engage with the wild soundscape. Snatches of his own playing are caught in the snare of the samplers, broken down into granules and globules, and released back into the open for him to engage with. The second track gets on noisily, further breakdowns in linearity clouding perception and making it impossible to tell where one sound ends and another begins, let alone what the source is. Parker sounds absolutely organic next to the trickles of static and malfunction. He appears briefly with a fluid call and is responded to by the mimicry of the machines doused in the slurry of their logic.

The third piece bristles with movement, blowing wildly like a vortex of sound fragments, xylophone, perhaps some double bass groan, organic yet pixelated and becoming more and more so as the track progresses. Parker's playing is fantastic here and is backed by electronic crackle and some non-standard, rhythmic samples. The fourth movement blossoms in hiss and noises flickering with modulation. An undercurrent of hum commingles with the lysergic insect noises whilst Parker goes into his act, setting up a sequence of notes which is sampled and then laying out a counter motif on top. The fifth section crackles effervescently like a paresthesia of the middle ear. In addition to the thin ribbons of circular breathing Parker adds staccato squawking that is subsequently sampled and remade into 16 bit video game noises. The double bass groans with the grainy sounds of long, slow bow pulls.

The sixth and l section is only a few minutes long, and begins with Parker alone briefly before the cosmic fizz again foams up and overtakes him with its odd loops and primordial jelly. The final track, lucky number seven, continues the leitmotif, gurbling and blurping noises hugging the symmetry of the structure's pointillism. The sounds the group conjures are insanely delectable, a highly successful fusion of noise, live sampling, synthesis, and free improvisation.




To offer a final thought, all of these albums are worth a listen for fans of Parker's music. And while I've scored them all differently, it's really based on my own tastes (and in the moment at that, they often shift dramatically from day to day) and so I would encourage you not to read too much into the ratings as I'm not a real critic, just a fan, and you know what you like better than I do.