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Sunday, May 31, 2020

NoBusiness Round-up

By Martin Schray

The releases from the Lithuanian NoBusiness label are often reviewed on our site. The reason is their reliable quality, the program of the label is varied, yet focused. Apart from new releases, they’ve been digging and reissuing old or previously unreleased music of the New York loft scene era in the 1970s (Sam Rivers, Ted Daniel, Melodic Art-tet etc.) as well as Japanese free jazz (Masahiko Satoh, Sabu Toyozumi; Kaoru Abe and many others). Regarding new releases, they’ve recently become interested in free jazz from Israel (Albert Beger and Shay Hazan). Over the years they’ve seemed to have developed a special liking for trios and some favourites artists have emerged - like Howard Riley, Bobby Bradford and Mats Gustafsson. Despite the consistent coverage of the label’s music it’s impossible to review all the albums, some just slip under the radar. While I’m writing this round-up I’ve just discovered that there will be new releases soon. Here’s a quick overview of some we’ve recently missed.

Bones - Reptiles (NoBusiness, 2019) ****

Bones is a trio that belongs to the above-mentioned Israeli scene. It consists of bass clarinetist Ziv Taubenfeld, bassist Shay Hazan and drummer Nir Sabag. Reptiles offers seven relatively freely improvised, yet well-structured tracks, which are dominated by the overall sombre tone of the instruments, especially Tauberfeld’s raw bass clarinet stands out. Whenever the music tends to become too melancholic and lyrical, Tauberfeld uses calculated subtle outbursts to put the improvisation back in its place. A good example of this is the first track of the album. “Moondoctor“ is constructed around a 10-note theme on the bass, which is surrounded by the bass clarinet, while the drums are just sparsely involved. Only after two minutes something like a groove is established. In the meantime, the bass has left the theme and concentrates on stoic riffs that work like an anchor. At the end of the piece the motif of the beginning is taken up again, it has secretly sneaked back into the improvisation before. The construction around fixed blocks characterizes the compositions on Reptiles. In the center there are three solo pieces, “Reptiles A“, “Reptiles B“ and “Reptiles C“. Ideas are created here, which are then developed further by the three musicians when they explore new territory. Doing this, Tauberfeld hardly uses overblown sounds, he sticks to the limited articulateness of his instrument (if you need a reference, Jimmy Giuffre comes to mind).

Reptiles is the trio’s third album, in 2016 and 2017 they released two albums on Leo Records. They’ve developed a very nice individual sound (I must admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for bass clarinets) with their supercool aesthetics and subdued intensity. A band to watch out for in the future.

Reptiles is available on vinyl (in a limited edition of 300) and as a download.

Bobby Bradford/Frode Gjerstad/Kent Carter/John Stevens - Blue Cat (NoBusiness, 2020) ***½

Bobby Bradford is one of the most featured musicians on NoBusiness, Blue Cat is already his sixth release on the label, among them such great albums as Kampen (2012) and The Delaware River (2014), both with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, who is with him here as well. Once again the US-American version of free jazz meets European improvised music, this time with Kent Kessler on bass and John Stevens on drums.

The music is like an integrated whole, because the Europeans enjoy to delve in traditional free jazz. The themes presented by the saxophone and cornet caress each other. Again and again melodies are only hinted, they serve as a springboard for improvisations removing very far from the starting point. Bradford, in particular, plays melody-saturated lines, often slow and rooted in the blues, which are picked up by Gjerstad in an abstract way. Kessler's bass, on the other hand, vacillates between space-creating textures, trenchant notes and precise swing, and John Stevens interestingly also gets into it. Stevens, the great abstractor, is perhaps the biggest surprise on this record, because he often remains very concrete, he swings and grooves extensively. The transitions between the solos are beautifully designed, since an instrument doesn’t just step out, but the sax and cornet become virtually one in a kind of cross-fade. In general, this is a very accessible record that is strongly rooted in jazz and only occasionally breaks out wildly.

My favourite piece is “Blue Cat Part II“, whose melody reminds me of “Lonely Woman“ at the beginning, but Stevens’s dark drums give the spiritual theme an uncanny touch. Bradford’s cornet is delicate, almost fragile here, which is encouraged by his fellow musicians acting very reservedly. The climax of the piece is the change in lead of the two winds after about three and a half minutes, which subtly shifts tempo and melody.

The question now is: Why only three and a half points? Unfortunately, there is something that noticeably clouds the listening pleasure. Over the course of the whole record the audience can be heard very loudly in the background, obviously the Albany, the London club in which the recording was made, has (or had) a bar. Especially in “Blue Cat Part III“ the conversations during a quiet duet of the reeds are extremely loud (basically in silent parts in general), the music actually fights against the chatter. If you know Peter Brötzmann’s Solo at Dobialab , you get an impression of how disturbing this is. The music is often spoiled by it. A pity. Then again, the album has my favorite cover of the year.

Blue Cat is available on vinyl (in a limited edition of 300) and as a download.

Juan Vinuesa Jazz Quartet - Blue Shots from Chicago (NoBusiness, 2019) ****

When we discuss albums on this website that feature saxophone, trumpet (or cornet), bass and drums, we often refer to Ornette Coleman's Ornette! Even if this is a commonplace, it makes sense for Blue Shots from Chicago, saxophonist Juan Vinuesa’s fourth album. In contrast to the Blue Cat, an album with the same line-up discussed above, this release rather refers to its great predecessor from 1962. Vinuesa's band includes cornetist Josh Berman, bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery, three musicians at the center of Chicago's vivid jazz scene.

Blue Shots from Chicago isn't as rough as Ornette!, the album is much more accessible, the heads are more melodic and mellow, the improvisations less overbearing. Vinuesa's sax is fierce and excited, and provided with a kind of epiphanic overtones, but then as well cool in the style of Lee Konitz. Roebke's bass is skillful as it is equipped with a tilting, creeping subtlety. Avery is a very reliable swinging drummer, but he can also play freely (e.g. in “In Paul's Mirror“). Josh Berman is the most seductive musician throughout, charmingly he adds short moments that could pass as swinging blues (especially in “Red Line Ballad“). He simply sounds wonderful here – contributing some heartbreaking moments. If you think this sounds cheesy, there are always enough skronks in between to avoid monotony or sentimentality. Tones are preserved, whether fragile or booming, before they are broken off at the edge of shrillness. Blue Shots from Chicago is another impressive record from musicians who know this racket exceptionally well. Of course, it doesn't match the boldness and shock value of Ornette! at the time, but it's not about tearing down old habits, but rather about exploring an already mapped territory in a more detailed way.

Juan Vinuesa has been living in some jazz hotspots in Europe, e.g. in the UK, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Moreover, he has spent two years in Chicago mixing with the city's cutting edge musicians and, judging by this recording, this must have been a very fruitful stay. His new recording displays a great band, hopefully there will be more of them in the future .

Blue Shots from Chicago is available as a CD. Watch a very nice video here.


You can listen to and buy all the music of this review on the label’s Bandcamp site:

If you’re from the US, Bruce Gallanter’s Downtown Music Gallery usually carries all the NoBusiness stuff:

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Desolate Universe of Jeremiah Cymerman

By Stef

New York clarinetist and sound artist Jeremiah Cymerman's musical universe is not one to cheer you up. It is desolate, filled with dread and the terror of being and the sorry fate of human existence. He brings us two new albums which could quite strongly represent our current corona virus environment - its fear, its isolation, its universal nature, its human fragility - but then neither of these albums have anything to do with it.

Jeremiah Cymerman - Systema Munditotius, Vol.1 (5049 Records, 2020) *****

Systema Munditotius refers to a mandala (see picture below) that was designed in 1916 by the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, and “it portrays the antinomies of the microcosm within the macrocosmic world and its antinomies", juxtaposing dark and light, death and life, birth and rebirth. Deep concepts that go to the heart of everything there is, large and small, concepts that connect us all, in our external and internal nature.

Jung never wanted his name to be associated with this drawing that eventually was published anonymously in 1955. Like the careful craft of Jung's design, Cymerman worked several years in composing this unique album which consists of the sounds of four clarinets, percussion and synth, with additional percussion by Brian Chase, with whom the clarinetist already collaborated for the brilliant "Pale Horse". This "composition" is the result of carefully combining spontaneous improvisations in post-production.

Cymerman's sound art explores human consciousness and collective subconsciousness, delving deep into timbres that touch a raw nerve, the pain of existence and the darkness of our feelings, reaching a sonic level of connectedness that transgresses time and space. His long stretched tones and circular breathing spells reverberate with angst and foreboding. He adds subtle layers of sound, but just sufficiently to generate the highest effect with the lowest amount of sound. It is an incredible exercise in abstraction and reduction of music to its pure essence.

The collage of additional clarinets and Chase's percussion add colour, density and dramatic effect. It is the feeling of one human being shared with all the rest of us. The loneliness of one individual as the loneliness of all humanity. This music goes very deep. It is relentless in its emotional power, but at the same time it is controlled by a high and singular aesthetic vision. And Cymerman is without compromise in both: he manages to reconcile beauty with terror, in a mysterious blending of attraction and rejection, of big emotions conjured up by minimal sonic elements.

Cymerman worked several years on this project, and the end result is phenomenal. He expands on his earlier work and takes it to the next level.

Don't miss it.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Jeremiah Cymerman - Cathedral (5049 Records, 2020) ****½

Systema Munditotius is released almost simultaneously with "Cathedral" a solo clarinet album, which I think makes this his fifth solo album (after In Memory of the Labyrinth System, Purification/Dissolution, Real Scars and Decay Of The Angel).

It was originally planned as a few digital bonus tracks linked to the purchase of Systema Munditotius, but the corona virus changed those plans, and it became a full-fledged project in itself, with both albums now available digitally. In this album his art gets even more perfected, with his solo instrument resonating in a large open space, as if playing in a cathedral (and in the ambient sounds on the first track actually come from recordings in the Notre Dame). And whether on Bb clarinet or bass clarinet, the sense of desolation and loneliness is complete. His instrument moans and laments in long plaintive cries of despair. It would be a crushing listening experience if it was not at the same time so intensely beautiful and pure. His tone is reverent and serene, slow, with minor tonal shifts changing the fragile atmosphere in its solemn monotony. And when his phrasing becomes more lyrical or even more light-hearted (still far away from anything joyful) - as in "Sterile Solitude"- the dark undertones of the synth send the signal that there is no place for anything more than portentous feelings.

As with the very best of art, it juxtaposes extreme counterparts and reconciles them into musical paradoxes, creating a tension between intimacy and space, between personal and universal feelings, between light tones and dark sentiments, about beauty and terror. To do all that with one instrument is a real feat.

Cathedral is less hypnotic and less complex than Systema Munditotius, and if the latter wins for its subtle and powerful arrangement, the former has a rare austere beauty.

This is music that hurts. This is music that soothes.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Haslam/Cohn/Kershaw – Ancient and Modern ( Slam Productions, 2019) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

Slam is another one of those off the radar labels that even though they produce a lot of recordings , the quality of them is always excellent. Watch out for the new batch of them, by the way, because there are some very good Greek improvisers involved.

Ancient and Modern was recorded at All Saints Church in rural Oxfordshire and is the burial place of George Orwell. Hence one of the tracks is called Orwell’s blues. The trio consists of George Haslam on baritone and alto saxes and tarogato, Steve Cohn on piano, shakuhachi shofar and hichiriki (all three of them wind instruments) and Steve Kershaw on double bass.

The instrumentation of this trio could easily, one might say, saturate this CD with the dominating presence of the wind instruments. But this isn’t the case in Ancient and Modern. Cohn's piano is a strong presence throughout the recording, many times in pretty enjoyable melodic duos with Haslam’s saxes or building up a backbone for all of the tracks along Kershaw’s bass.

Ancient and Modern seems knee deep in the jazz and blues tradition. In tracks like Orwell’s blues, Blue Monk (quite telling indeed) and Nostalgia in Times Square (a Mingus composition) there’s this feeling of nostalgia for times past going in parallel ways with the rural time-is-a-relative-term feel of the church and its surroundings.

The feeling that permeates throughout this recording is one of a bluesy relaxed atmosphere with a few discreet outburst like in the track 'Tarogato Fire'. The wind instruments of both Haslam and Cohn serve as the guidelines for the piano to paint clear and strong melodies throughout. Most of the tracks seem to have been built by the strong (and always fruitful) presence of the piano.

Ancient and Modern proves really true to its title. A very clear and true look on traditional, like the fine interpretation of Scarborough Fair, English music and a fresh approach on new (but at the same time “old” ) jazz and blues with a very interesting approach at some standards as well. Ancient and Modern managed to transport me to rural Oxfordshire which is a miracle by itself in these dystopian days. Thank you guys.


Thursday, May 28, 2020

Sumac and Keiji Haino - Even for just the briefest moment/Keep charging this “expiation”/Plug in to make it slightly better (Trost, 2019) ****1/2

By Nick Ostrum

NB: I have omitted track titles, many of them are exceptionally long.

Reviewing this album gave me a good excuse to pick up the first collaboration between metal/post-metal super-group Sumac and the incomparable Keiji Haino, as well. What a treat. Keep Facing Sideways, You're Too Hideous To Look At Face On was hard, fast, and harrowing. After the success of that album, they decided to do it again.

Even for just the briefest moment/Keep charging this “expiation”/Plug in to make it slightly better is the result of that second round of collaboration. Especially for crossovers like this, when the chemistry works so well the first time, there is always the hope that the momentum will accelerate into the next session, but the risk (and all too frequently, eventuality) that it will flop. The former, applies to these recordings. As this album makes clear, the musical worlds of Sumac and Haino are not all that disjointed. Both have an affinity for heavy, accelerated, dark blues-inflected rock. Both have clear love for the harsher side of improv. Sumac might be doomier and scripted, Haino more demented and free-wheeling. Their musical terrain overlap considerably. And it shows.

Haino, the lead in these sessions, is in fine form, maybe even more so than on the heavier Keep Facing Sideways. His guitar melds sometimes beautifully with the steady, prog backdrop laid by Sumac. Yet, for as well as this collaboration works, Haino stands out, as he always does. Whether he is playing his characteristically warped guitar and vocals or contributing surprisingly sprightly flute and Taepyeongso (a Korean double-reed instrument), as he does on the first track. The second track is a more grinding, sludgy piece characterized by a plodding doom-metal rhythm, dueling guitars, and Haino’s howling vocals just barley cutting through the morass, only to submerge as a shrieking guitar rises to replace them. Around nine-minutes in, the tempo picks up and the guitars turn to feedback and distorted angular riffing. Track three is more improvised than the previous ones. It starts slowly, with musicians trading sparse strings of notes. These exchanges gradually come together in sporadic gusts of sound laced together by feedback-heavy wandering guitars. As long improvised pieces tend to do, the intensity wells and dips over its 29 minutes. I found Sumac’s contributions to this piece particularly interesting, as I rarely hear even prog-metal and post-metal groups engage in such opened and balanced improvisation. Drummer Nick Yacyshyn holds the beat, but only some of the time and, even then, conspicuously unsteadily. Brian Cook’s bass rumbles in waves, rather than discrete notes. And, Haino and guitarist Aaron Turner shred through that drum-bass tapestry. The final track offers a similar dynamic, albeit with a steadier, more composed backbeat and overlain with Haino’s vocals as well as some scattered crackling and wailing guitars.

If you like Keiji Haino, this album is another fine addition to his already wide catalogue. Sumac showcases and, at times, restrains his wilder impulses ever so slightly. The fact that the band are metalheads experimenting with improv avoids the struggle for the limelight that can sometimes happen when free jazz titans collaborate and provides some dense and gloomy foundations on which Haino (and, for his part Turner) build and, to avoid tedium, through which he frequently tears. Sumac does their thing, Haino does his, and they meld wonderfully. I am less familiar with Sumac’s other work, but, at the risk of stepping out of my element, I would also recommend this album to fans of Sumac. Haino drives the band to new improvisatory heights, sometimes detectably outside of their comfort zones. Nevertheless, Sumac consistently rises to the occasion with aplomb. The result is exactly what one would hope for.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Two Chicago Drummers

Two drummers, two generations. Hamid Drake began recording with Fred Anderson’s quintet, as Hank Drake, at the Moers Festival of 1978. From that point he's been one of the preeminent free jazz percussionists on demand throughout the world. Tim Daisy's first recording was in 1999 with Triage, a trio with saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Jason Ajemian. Since then he has amassed an impressive body of work on his Relay Recordings label and elsewhere.

John Dikeman & Hamid Drake - Live in Chicago 2018 (Doek Raw, 2020) ***½

The first time I saw Peter Brötzmann perform, with Hamid Drake, I invited a contractor I worked with to go along. He had toured in one of Alice Cooper’s bands as his guitarist (I assumed it was true; he didn't seem like a liar and knew I could look it up) so I thought why not. Well he was confused, and not in a good way, by the saxophonist but was foaming at the mouth, in a good way, at Drake’s drumming; to the point where he called one of his buds in mid concert and said “you've gotta hear this guy”. He'd surely never seen a comparable economy of motion produce such intricately driving rhythms. So it was a successful evening. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the abundant appeal of Hamid even to listeners outside of the genre.

You don't like to pigeonhole someone who is masterful in a variety of settings but being paired with big tenor players accentuates the talent of Drake to listen to, anticipate and add to the musical pathways being explored in a uniquely propulsively insistent way. John Dikeman has recorded two prior releases with Hamid and William Parker so the need to start at square A1 and work from there was already overcome. John’s no stranger to the blog either so I was not surprised by anything that transpired other than Drake’s ability to reveal facets of the saxophonist I hadn't noticed as much previously. In this case it was playing soft long lines in the altissimo range of the horn while Drake played deft understated patterns with the brushes. Of course there are honking rhythmic grooves where Dikeman plays his unique motifs in the post Ayler tradition, but these being driven so adeptly by Drake put them in rarified air for the audience at Slate Arts. If you're looking for a good tenor and drums free jazz outing, this is it.

Vox Arcana - Live at WNUR Studios 1/10/2009 (Relay Live Series, 2020) ***½

Tim Daisy needs no introduction here; preparing this review I was heartened at the number of his recordings covered on the blog. Likewise for Vox Arcana, with James Falzone on clarinet and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and electronics, having received favorable mention before this masterful gem from 2015. The current recording precedes all of them and represents the group's initial need to stretch their wings beyond just rehearsals and play in a live setting, even within the confines of a radio studio, before an appearance at The Hungry Brain scheduled for the following night.

Three of the songs, “The Silver Fence”, “Falling” and “White Lines” were subsequently recorded a year later for the first recording here and it's interesting to discover what transpired in a year's time (an out of print limited release on Relay, Live at The Hideout Chicago recorded on 11/7/2009 has the first two songs mentioned and “Anketa” which features a brief electronics excursion by Lonberg-Holm) as the songs, although thoroughly composed, became something different through repeated play. For example in the WNUR performance of “Falling”, Daisy midway through plays an extended snare roll with faint gong sounds enhancing the effect; a year later it was replaced by a syncopated sharp strokes with Falzone and Lonberg-Holm adding unison accents. Interestingly enough Daisy, a superb sound colorist, has no marimba on any of these songs but it was featured in different songs on all further releases.

Although the playing is more polished in the later versions, particularly by the clarinet and cello, there's something rawly appealing about these initial jumps in the deep end of the pool as the group starts to forge an identity. Not surprisingly as the composer, with the exception of what was mentioned in “Falling”, Daisy's playing is mostly consistent between dates. While playing no marimba, on “White Lines" he adds to his sound palette by using metallic objects on the drum heads as well as held percussion objects.

This is an enjoyable document of the early days of a now established group. Since Tim is presently working on a new book of music for Vox 4, augmented with Macie Stewart on violin and cello, there might not be anything new by the core Vox Arcana trio for a while. After the acclaim that “Roman Poems" received, I don't think that's a problem.

Tongue Theory festival film

The Tongue Theory festival is available to stream online. Held over an early January 2020 weekend in Bristol, UK - Tongue Theory featured free improvisation, noise, free jazz & other musics from Bristol and beyond. Filmed, recorded & replayed for your viewing & listening pleasure, all from the comfort of your own home.

With sets from: Harpoon, Viridian Ensemble, Helsons Angels, ALT trio, Yungylek, Cooke/Lash duo, Euan Metz, Hokkett, Bristol Unit, Kar Pouz, Foster / Grigg / Hill / Lash / Papaioannou.

Artists featured: Paul Anstey, Esme Betamax, Caitlin Alais Callahan, Seth Cooke, Robin Foster, Matthew Grigg, Bob Helson, Tim Hill, Tina Hitchens, Joseph Kelly, Mark Langford, Dominic Lash, Yvonna Magda, Euan Metz, Helen Papaioannou, Laura Phillips, Dali de Saint Paul, Roger Skerman, Rebecca Sneddon, Roger Telford, Aron Ward.

Watch online here:

Watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Devin Gray - Socialytics (Rataplan Records, 2020) ****

By Paul Acquaro

A few weeks ago drummer/composer Devin Gray released the thoroughly engaging Socialytics. The 24 minute release is also a powerful one, driven by his trio with guitarist Ryan Ferreria and trumpeter David Ballou.

Long time associates of Grey, Ferreria is a nuanced sound explorer who notably worked with Tim Berne's Snakeoil on the 2015 release You've Been Watching Me, and the renowned Ballou has played in Dirigo Rataplan and incidentally released a new album on the same day (see: The MacroQuarktet - The Complete Night: Live at the Stone NYC). 

Just judging from the musicians involved should be enough to give you at least the idea that something special should be happening musically, but before I get into that, I'd like to start with album's cover image of a melting iceberg behind the ambiguous technical portmanteau of a title. Socialytics ... what to think? A comment on technology's incessant encroachment into our lives? The iceberg ... a reference to our seemingly inevitable ecological doom? Are we're standing on the melting ice, tweeting while the world burns? So many possibilities, but I should be careful, as it could also be just a neat picture, and here I am trying to guess Grey's impressions of the state of world.

However, what a state we are in! Most of emails lately begin with something like "I hope you are doing well despite the unusual circumstances" or whatever the acceptable Business English at the moment is, but like it or not, the Corona Crisis has wrought changes and accelerated previously creeping trends, exponentially. Digitization across every aspect of live: work (for those who can), schooling, concerts, and even social life, are all suddenly online. Pieces had been there before, but the tsunami came and now we're swimming in the pixels.

Ok, this was a digression, let's get to the music. 'Streambait' starts the album off with a threatening build up - the trumpet squeezes out a note that leads into a melody, which is shadowed by the guitar, then Gray adds a splash of percussive color, and were into this expectant, atmospheric space. Ferreria's tone is liquid, and his chords choices are open ended and the arpeggios don't easily resolve. 

To my ears, the tune 'Chatbot' seems to contain some of the systematic logic that can result in surreal conversational hiccups, like you may experience with a  actual chatbot while you try to resolve an issue with an online order. The tune begins with Ballou offering a clear melodic statement and Ferreria responding using some sort of ring-modulating effect, which in turns helps create (possible unwittingly) an allusion to AI chatting back. They are communicating, but on different wavelengths. The track also gets pretty intense, like the man and the machine are getting worked up.

It is possible to go on and on, but in the spirit of the album, which in a quick 24 minutes makes quite an impression, I'll come to a quick conclusion. The read on Socialytics is that Gray has pulled together another tight, imaginative trio able to help extrapolate and amplify his musical ideas. You can almost imagine this long EP length recording as a dashboard of indicators of a musician with a lot of intriguing thoughts - musical and otherwise - to share.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tim Berne & Nasheet Waits - The Coandă Effect (Relative Pitch Records, 2020) ****½

By Olle Lawson

“The Coandă Effect is the tendency of a stream of liquid – or air – to stay attached to a convex surface . The jet keeps the object some distance from the exhaust and gravity prevents it from being blown away.

Recorded live at the Sultan Room, Brooklyn, last autumn altoist Tim Berne offers us a complex duo slab of evolving sound, with an astounding contribution from drummer Nasheet Waits.

The album is spilt into two pieces of uneven length, the first – ‘Tensile’ – clocks in at a cool 39 minutes. I’d envisioned a slow building progression over a track of such duration but Berne is up to 10. within three mins of the opening note; blowing with sustained intense poise, but never empty abandonment. Floor toms cascade into flowing propulsive momentum, Waits lays forth a condensed textural palette – like the concept was to drum out the deeper tones of the kit. Tolling out and prodding the evolving base rhythm.

As in his epic performance on Rob Brown’s live album Unknown Skies (a bass-less trio) Waits plays with particular intelligence to cover the full tonal sound space, with emphasis on the kick drum and floor toms creating huge rolling presence. He deploys a lot of ‘Africa’ in his mode of playing in the first tom-heavy ‘solo’ – with a deep break that could be channelled direct for Ghana, or perhaps Nigeria. This is Waits in his Tamarindo-style of playing – but at faster tempo, matching Berne’s burn. Flowing. Pushing in flow.

As the saxophonist advances and expands into the half-way mark of ‘Tensile’ he plays with increasing conceptual repetitions and urban calculation, before slowing into a solo space – searching and questioning the emotional edges of some oblique city environment, yet here with more spontaneous urgency than his recent ECM work.

A second drum space works up a deep, revolving build and reaches an evocation of feeling through cymbals. The drum level perfectly balanced in the mix, the live recording mastered by David Torn.

As ‘Tensile’ enters its last passage, intense angled spirals of alto sear into the apex of the piece, circling into one another before settling into a perfect descent. With the duo appearing surprised that they have been creating at such a level for nearly forty minutes.

In its mere ten minutes, second track ‘5see’ unfolds amongst skitterish brushwork and a more abstract tonal tract before the drumming unrolls into itself until it sounds like it’s being played backwards. Berne tightens into a circular snake-horn call with Roscoe Mitchell Chant-like revolutions; cells of notes repeated over and over, introducing minute variations of enduring hypnotic spirals right into its pin-point resolution.

A wonderful set – and recording – capturing in its most concentrated form a duo of unique power and intent: overflowing with intricate ideas.

Recommended – at volume – from a balcony, or through headphones – out walking the deserted city.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Gordon Grdina Makes Music That Is Important for Humanity

The Canadian, Vancouver-based guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina knows that making art is a political act, especially in today’s world dominated by xenophobic and white supremacist leaders. This musical-political act becomes even more important when your art draws inspiration from one of the Muslim world and Middle-Eastern ancient musical traditions and asks to enrich jazz and free-improv musical universes with these legacies.

Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow - Safar-e-Daroon (Songlines, 2020) *****

Grdina imagines with The Marrow quintet - double bass player Mark Helias, cellist Hank Roberts, violinist Josh Zubot and percussionist Hamin Honari, a peaceful music universe where the Middle-Eastern ancient musical traditions - the Arabic - maqam- and the Persian - dastgah - modal systems, extend African folk music, Western chamber music, jazz, and free-improv ethos and legacy. Safar-e-Daroon (Inner Journey) is the sophomore album of The Marrow, following Ejdeha (Songlines, 2018), and is probably the most ambitious album of Grdina so far, defining a bold and organic aesthetics of a true, genre-bending band.

Safar-e-Daroon was recorded in Vancouver in October 2018 and features nine compositions, six are credited to Grdina and three for Helias. The album is structured like a sonic journey where the meticulously arranged compositions continue to add new meanings and insights to the musical adventure and sketch a compassionate, rich vision. The Marrow play like a mature, working band, with a great sense of passionate playfulness, fluidity and precision, and poetic elegance.
The opening, title-pieces already sets the musical territory, an Arabic maqam that developed naturally into an Iraqi folk georgina 10/16 rhythm, lead by Grdina who solely plays the oud on this album. Helias’ “El Baz” highlights The Marrow tight, intense but swinging dynamics. “Mini-con” was conceived after talks about fake messiahs and semi cults led by charlatans and “their ability to manipulate people is based on consistent cons that have some shred of truth to them. It’s like many little mini-cons leading to a big manipulation”. Here, as on “El Baz”, violinist Zubot takes the lead with Grdina and offers a fiery yet lyrical solo that navigates between colorful and imaginary, lost kingdoms, Eastern and Western ones. Helias “Calling on You” enables Grdina and Zubot to develop a new kind of interplay, raw, and free-improvised by Zubot, but more rhythmic and in the Middle-Eastern tradition by Grdina who recognizes Helias experience with famous Lebanese singer-oud player Marcel Khalife.

“Shamshir” stresses the crucial role of Iranian-Canadian percussionist Honari and cellist Roberts who weave together an engaging melody that unites Arabic percussive traditions with Indian-like raga cello solo. “Convergence” expands the musical journey to Africa where Grdina’s oud invokes an innocent and touching folk melody that pays tribute to the cyclical songs of Egyptian oud player Hamza El Din and Malian guitarist-singer-songwriter Boubacar Traoré. “Illumination” brings to the fore Honari who leads The Marrow while creating a sensual vibe with the daf, his Persian-Arabic with metal ringlets. Helias’ short “Outsize” challenges The Marrow with its focus on an open and free contrapuntal approach that injects an element of ambiguous tension. Safar-e-Daroon ends with the most beautiful, choral-like song of “Gabriel James”, based on a rhythmic riff that Grdina’s 4-years-old son strummed on the oud, now arranged as a dream-like, harmonious melody.

Gordon Grdina Septet - Resist (Irabagast Records, 2020) ***½

Resist unites Grdina with close comrades - his East Van Strings quartet’s violinist Jesse Zubot (the brother of Josh Zubot), violist Eyvind Kang, cellist Peggy Lee; drummer Kenton Loewen (his partner in the Peregrine Falls duo and the Grdina Trio), bass player Tommy Babin (who also played in the Grdina trio), and adds versatile sax player Jon Irabagon, who released the album on his label. The album was recorded in July 2017, a day after the sextet played its first and only performance at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

“It seemed like there was a huge change happening socially and politically,” Grdina says about Resist. “Xenophobia, homophobia, and racism were raising their heads again. I wanted to dedicate this music to everybody that’s fighting against these ideas all the time, whether they’re doing it as a defendant or just at the dinner table. Making art is a political act; it’s important for humanity, to make our lives better and to express our resistance to these hindrances”. The album cover reflects this notion and borrows Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting Christ’s Descent into Hell, created around 1550, and depicting Christ tearing through the gates of hell to save the souls that are wrongfully condemned there, as he falls upon a land of pure chaos and danger.

The 23-minutes ambitious title-piece suite radiates faithfully this melancholic spirit with its somber, chamber arrangement for string instruments. Grdina, who alternates between guitar and oud and appears only six minutes after its introduction, let the string instruments dominate this piece. But his evocative oud playing, as well as Irabagon urgent and intense cries, stress the even further the mournful atmosphere and the call for resistance. The following, shorter four pieces offer more optimist perspectives, beginning with the lyrical and emotional solo miniature “Seeds”; “Varscona”, titled after an iconic theater in Edmonton, Alberta, with Irabagon leading and the interlocking rhythmic games of Loewen and Babin, is a post-bop, playful celebration; “The Middle” finds a delicate balance between the intensity and powerful rhythmic patterns of Irabagon, Loewen, and Babin and the more abstract and associative improvisations of the string section, including Grdina himself; The last “Ever Onward” attempts to suggest a better future with a moving, engaging melodic theme based on Middle-Eastern scales, delivered by Grdina on the oud, and definitely adds “something beautiful into the world”, as he concludes.

Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio - Nomad (Skirl, 2020) ****

Grdina teams up with New York-based pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black and presents a new trio that recorded its debut album after a short Canadian tour. Grdina wrote six compositions with Mitchell and Black in mind, and in a way, this body of work reflects the seminal influence of one of his musical heroes, Tim Berne, a close collaborator of both Mitchell and Black.

Grdina’s compositions suggest episodic compositional themes that leave plenty of space and freedom for improvisation and personal contribution and transform each one into a challenging journey, a nomadic process. Grdina usually sketches snaky-labyrinthine, melodic lines on his electric guitar that call Mitchell and Black to inject more jazz-based harmonious and irregular rhythmic variations. This way, the trio builds its layered dynamics in an organic manner before it locks on a tight, irresistible groove.

The title-piece stresses the precise balance of this trio and its profound rhythmic sense. The subtle “Benbow” develops beautifully the delicate balance between the melodic core and the immediate and sudden improvisations as well between intimate introspection and the powerful stratospheric coda. Black takes the lead on “Thanksgiving” and the trio builds the groove from the bottom up, intensifying by the determined work of Black. Grdina plays the oud only on the last, lyrical “Lady Choral” where the trio goes into a seductive, nomadic journey, highly playful and exotic one.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Catching up with Gordon Grdina…again

By Nick Ostrum

Oudist and guitarist Gordon Grdina spanned the new year with three releases that caught my ear. So, here is a second compendium of Grdina’s recent work to complement Eyal’s from September 2018. Apparently, it is about time. (Editor's note: Eyal will be catching up again, tomorrow!)

Matthew Shipp, Mark Helias, and Gordon Grdina – Skin and Bones (Not Two, 2019) *****

I am sorry I missed this last year, because this would have hovered around the top of my year end list.

Skin and Bones is the first of two piano trios, consisting of the incomparable Matthew Shipp on keys and Mark Helias on bass. The title comes from a concert series dedicated to experimental music that has brought a slew of contemporary free jazz (and related music) luminairies to Canadan’s Okanagan. In 2018, trio consisting of Shipp, Helias, and British Columbia native Gordon Grdina were among them.

Inspired by their clear rapport, the trio decided to cut a studio album of completely improvised material, judging by the titles, apparently inspired by boxing. But, starting with the first track, it is clear they are doing much more than providing the soundtrack to some bout of fisticuffs. It begins with a starkly romantic run by Grdina that quickly gets swept up in a gust of piano and pizzicato bass. Over the course of the first track, “Bob and Weave,” the musicians seem to oscillate more with the vagaries of the weather than bob and weave with the determined pugnacity of a boxer. Indeed, there seems more surrender to melody and course, and some sort of naturalism, in this piece that may be absent the controlled and aggressive space.

And, it seems, the rest of the album follows with a series of boxing-themed titles that, if the listener were to embrace the music’s naturalism, relaxed flow, and titular double entendres (“Stick and Move,” “Feather Weight” [rather than featherweight]). Indeed, it is not until the stormy “The Onslaught” over 40 minutes into the album that I hear any real aggression. Tension and virtuosic rapidity, of course, pop in and out of previous tracks. Most, however, are slower, more contemplative and, even, listless (“Solitary Figure”), and lyrical. That is not to say that these traits are entirely absent from boxing; the most obvious example is Muhammed Ali’s marriage of verbal and physical poetry, and his vernal analogy of the boxer, the butterfly, and the bee. And, sure, we can trace this back through Hellenistic ideals of naturalistic male beauty and performance. I am cannot say the trio intended such a reading, but this album seems to draw similar connections between the humanly brutal and the deceptively whimsical natural realms. And beyond this album contains 72 minutes of absolutely engaging and absolutely stunning improv. Then again, from these three musicians, would one expect anything less?

Gordon Grdina Quartet – Cooper’s Park (Songlines, 2019) ***1/2

This quartet seems to be working its way into one of Grdina’s more stable working groups. Coming off their 2017 release Inroads, Cooper’s Park is a solid collection of five, primarily mainstream jazz pieces. Although the musicianship is impeccable and them music periodically breaks into stilted melodies and abstract group improvisations, this album shines less than the other two reviewed here. Drummer Satoshi Takieshi lays swinging grooves over which Oscar Noriega navigates his reeds and through which Ross Lossing weaves his keys (piano, Rhodes, and clavinet). For his part, Grdina gives a solid performance and shows that he can rein in his more exploratory impulses. Because of the music’s creative conventionality (neologism or nonsense?) and its gentle dynamism (especially the in tracks like “Seeds” and the titular “Cooper’s Park” the effort is much tighter than Grdina’s more freewheeling releases. And, Cooper’s Park does venture beyond the contemporary funk-laced jazz into prog rhythm and restrained free jazz discordance. At times, as in the enchantingly delicate ten-minute introduction to “Wayward”, first Grdina, then Lossing, followed by Noriega and Takieshi shine through an understated economy rather than forceful superfluity of melody and consonance. These excursions and extended blissful passages, however, remain the exception and the result somewhat less compelling than some of Grdina’s more out recordings.

Gordon Grdina’s Nomad Trio – Nomad (Skirl Records, 2020) ****½

Nomad is the newest of the bunch and the second piano trio. On this disc, Grdina is complemented by Matt Mitchell (who, especially as of late , has been showing himself to be one of the premier pianists in the scene) and Jim Black on drums.

Coming off listening to Skin and Bones, it is clear from the very first notes of the opener “Wildlife” that Nomad is a different beast. It has a more rhythmic, free rock vibe. It has more recognizable melodic progressions and harmonies. Some of this may be attributable to the fact that Grdina composed all tracks himself. That said, Nomad is still open and heavily improvisational. Grdina may set the direction, but Mitchell and Black help take us there. Take “Wildfire.” It begins with discordance. Grdina meanders around his electric guitar; Mitchell plods around a plucky series of chords and rhythms; Black fumbles around and crashes magnificently. It is difficult to hear what is composed apart from maybe the mood of the starting point, the basic trajectory of the piece, and a coda at the end. Then again, the piece is unified. Despite a lot of freedom to wander, the track moves to a singular effect. Most other tracks, including the eponymous “Nomad,” are of a similar ilk, even as their compositions come out more clearly in repeated melodies that lay the groundwork for the improvisational meat that follows. This is fusion, tending toward thick guitar lines and stilted, heavy melodicism, minus the soaring (and showy) flourishes that the latter label evokes. It is not that the band plays with Bauhaus/new objectivity instrumentality or shuns displays of virtuosity; rather, when they do embellish, they do so with purpose. The end-products are more meditations on converging styles or a mood than the start-stop melodic jumbling that a lot of composed guitar music of this type tends toward. The final cut, “Lady Choral,” is a seductive, Iberian outlier, wherein Grdina, unplugs and turns to the oud for an extended solo. The result is a sparser, but deeply emotive piece that seems to reference classical Arabic music even more than the heavier guitar music that drives the rest of the album. A moving and meditative departure, and perfect conclusion to a compelling excursion to the fault where hard(er) rock and free jazz merge (or deviate).

Friday, May 22, 2020

Threadbare - Silver Dollar (No Business, 2020) ****

By Sammy Stein

Threadbare are a trio of Chicago musicians comprising Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Ben Cruz on guitar and Emerson Hunton on drums. Stein has enjoyed a long career as an avant-bass clarinetist in Chicago, as well as a string of releases spread across different projects, including playing with Ivo Perelman on 'Spiritual Prayers'. He leads Locksmith Isidore and his own Quartet and co-leads Hearts and Minds and Nature Work.

Guitar player Ben Cruz is an Oberlin College graduate and a versatile guitarist. Drummer Emerson Hunton is also an Oberlin graduate and has both power in his rhythms and an understanding of when to cut, tinker and dive right back in. Both Cruz and Hunton play in indie band Moontype, and Hunton is a Modern Dance Accompanist at the Hyde Park School of Dance, and Music Program Manager at Logan Square's Comfort Station art space. They share composition of tracks on this CD.

The opening track, 'And When Circumstances Arise' is a great example of how a track is built around the musicians who are creating it. The opening is bass clarinet playing phrases of 4, 6 ,4,5, notes with the drum thudding at the end of each phrase before the rhythm changes very briefly to triads and the piece segues into a rock-leaning number - the guitar and drums continuing the rhythm whilst the bass clarinet follows and diverges away into patterns of its own. What is also very creative is the guitar in the background, which changes rhythm apace with the clarinet. By the halfway mark, Stein is travelling the full registers of the clarinet whilst the drums and guitar work around his lead, crafting supporting webs which lift and bounce the bass sounds aloft. The quieter final section is instigated by the drum dropping back and the bass clarinet soaring into upper registers and takes the listener by surprise in its gentleness.

'Threadbare' is calming, tentative almost at the start with extended, breathy bass clarinet notes and atmospheric cymbals and guitar. The introduced ascents developing in the bass clarinet lines stress the quietude - and the gaps between the notes also play their part. A track with changing rhythms, emphasis and a sense of building. After the five minute mark everyone is improvising along their line and it gets really interesting, with Stein way up on the register and then switching down with ease. The final two minutes are glorious.

'70 Degrees and Counting Down' is introduced by guitar, over which the clarinet sighs a gentle melody - for about 30 seconds before the drums introduce a heavier rhythm and the others respond. Then a sudden drop to a gentle interlude which in turn morphs again into a rocky, pounding section before bass clarinet solos. The guitar joins and there is a dialogue, into which the drum rudely wedges itself but proves worth the room as it leads the trio with the heavy, determined beat, to heady heights and Stein comes into his own - inspirational.

'24 Mesh Veils' sees the trio investigating varied patterns and the guitar is given space to solo, proving the choice of Cruz for the role an excellent one. Here Stein largely shows his supportive side as he now provides the steady underlying support over which the guitar sings. At times the huge, deep sound of the bass clarinet come across so clearly, it is as if there is a bass onside as well.

'Funny Thing Is' is snappy, riotous and light from all players initially before the natural progression to a deeper, more textured sound prevails and the rapid paced drums, steady guitar and slightly deranged speedy progressions and drops from Stein make this a delight to hear.

If 'Threadbare' is meant to show what the band Threadbare are about, it serves its purpose. In this track there is free flowing improvised music with Stein on stut notes and popping his wood, as well as more traditional leaning towards pop/ rock and ensemble playing. There is noise, there is travel through genres, there is space and delight in the beauty held within the notes.

'Silver Dollar' announces its intent with crashing drums, chords on guitar and loud belly rumbles from the clarinet. What strikes here is the vitality and importance of the tight support over which Stein rises, falls and rolls. Stein here is pretty amazing and he demonstrates nearly all that a bass clarinet can do. This track is full-on; it is huge; it is fiery, intense noise and it is musical. If you turn the headphones up it nearly takes your head off - wonderful music. The standout track on this album of beauties.

'Untitled' completes the album and this track is a contrast, with the first minute taken up by weird and wonderful guitar over which the sax offers breathy extended notes and later gentle phrases, delivered slow and then rapid-fire in upper register of the bass clarinet, creating at times an almost metallic purity. By the halfway point the track is heavier, developing layers, skins and texture and it is the drums again which largely emphasis the changes both in rhythms and pattern. Cruz is given space in which to solo, which he takes and produces a well structured delivery. An explorative track which highlights the importance of each musician.

Together Crus and Hunton provide a solid, bubbling rhythm section , tight against Stein's fluid and effervescent bass clarinet. They never overshadow the genius of Stein but they also know when to up the ante and become showy in their own right.

Throughout, the playing on all sides is excellent, both tasteful and forceful at once. Jason Stein demonstrates the exquisite possibilities of the bass clarinet and hearing Cruz and Stein trade off on this album is an absolute thrill. Yet the valuable presence of Hunton on drums and percussion cannot be underestimated. It is often the drums which direct, change the tempos and lead - subtly but with an authority not often seen in such a young player. this combination makes for an intelligent, well delivered and bloody marvelous listen.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Tatsuya Nakatani, John Edwards, Rafael Toral – Live in Lisbon (Noise Precision Library, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

Since seeing him live solo and with his gong orchestra in Columbus, OH, in 2017, I have wanted to review Tatsuya Nakatani.  I even picked up several albums that evening.  Some, however, were too old.  Others were good (and recommended) but did not come close enough to capturing what I experienced live.  His music is music you feel, literally, through vibrations.  The layers of sound gather in the eardrums and resound throughout the room and surround the audience.  (Yes, this is an unapologetic endorsement for seeing him live whenever you get the chance.)    It is just too difficult to capture on record what makes Nakatani so unique live.  

Technical limitations aside, Live in Lisbon does an admirable job of capturing some of that physicality.  And, much of that has to do with his bandmates Rafael Toral and John Edwards.  Edwards, of course, is a legend of the English free improv scene.  Toral, however, was unfamiliar to me when I first listened to this.  FJB has covered him before and, as it turns out, he actually has appeared on several Sei Miguel releases I own.  It seems Toral gets around the Lisbon scene.  This album showcases why.  He has big ideas, concerted restraint, and a lot of talent. 

Recorded live in Lisbon and Cascais (a little west of the capital) in 2009, Live in Lisbon is a metallic (not metal) soundscape aficionado’s dream.  The three tracks are live recordings, and they sound like live recordings.  And, between the scrapes, crashes, sawing, electronic flutterings, space sounds, ball-bearings rolls, and, yes, even some straightforward walking bass and set drumming, it works remarkably well.  This music does not sound muddled or muted, as some of these live sessions do.  Instead, it sounds full. 

The musicians give each other space, but not too much space, and the sounds frequently bleed into each other.  The bass at times sounds like muffled beeps from Toral, whose electronic scrapes converge with Nakatani’s acoustic ones.   At other times, all three musicians forage through a thick morass of low tones, only to break out in an inspired collective improvisation of a caliber that I have rarely found in such line-ups. Often, electronics simply fill the background or shatter the eardrums.  Not in this case.  All three musicians expertly oscillate between back- and foreground, between lead and arrhythmic rhythm. 

All three tracks are powerful and deploy a similar bag of tricks, albeit to subtly different effects.  The first and second tracks – Lisbon and Cascais I - are wide-ranging, exploring the gamut from minimalist sound-sculpturing to brief, but satisfying explosions of sound, to spacy harmonies of bass, electronic, and bowed gong drones that you can almost feel.  Those movements lead into an extended stream of classic free improv (with electronics) explorations based as much on subtle sonic textures and wending contours as on the driving rhythm section.  The third track, Cascais II, paves a similarly brooding but glistening path.  A real pleasure, through and through.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Few -Beauty at Low Temperatures (s/r 2019) ****½

The Few, a trio from Chicago, released Beauty at Low Temperatures last Autumn. The CD was swept atop my piles of music over the winter, where it stared it at me expectantly for months. Then, a rather random post on Facebook following the meme of "post the cover of an album each day that has influenced you ... " had me searching my other other piles of music for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's Karyobin. This elusive gem from 1968 (my version is the beautifully remastered one from 2017 from Emanem) featured the mouth-watering collective of John Stevens, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, and Dave Holland, fully engaged in a new, holistic approach to improvisation. It was a little later this same day, coincidentally, that I put on the album from The Few that had been patiently waiting on my desk. 

The Few is Macie Stewart, whose violin and voice often blend into a sound of its own; Charlie Kirchen, who is patient and expressive on the bass; and Steve Marquette whose approach to the guitar has absorbed the deconstruction of the aforementioned Bailey as well as American folk (among other influences). The group, which can be strikingly delicate, can also be delicately striking, mixing gossamer haze with confident pulsations. They have no problem generating a big sound, even as they embrace the acoustics of the their instruments to create music that celebrates the sounds of strings and wood, weaving the threads of improvised music together into their own wholly new approach.

The first track of Beauty at Low Temperatures is called "Hideout" and was recorded at the Hideout in Chicago in November 2018, while the other track, "May Chapel," was recorded just about a year earlier in December 2017 at Chicago's May Chapel. Between these two tracks, there are not so much 'stand out' moments as there is an aggregation of many smaller, absorbing ones, ideas that emanate from the musicians, manifest on one instrument and carry over to another. "Hideout" is dark, sometimes even a bit spooky. What begins with a strike of harmonics on the guitar and taught, edgy overtones from the strings (I assume the violin), evolves into an delicate dance as the three musicians play off of each other, building something together. The track's tempo picks up at times, especially when Kirchen's thrumming bass notes seem to be sloughing off the violin glissando. In "May Chapel" there is long evolving passage that taps into the collective Americana subconscious, which after long run, like a premonition of the current American unraveling, does the same.  

Finally, here is where my earlier thoughts come in: it feels like these three young musicians are quietly and confidently defining their own music, which a bit like SME, subsumes the individual and rewards deeply felt interactions. There are no solos, though there are passages where Stewart's violin and voice, or Kirchen's bass, present themselves solo; however, even when this happens, it serves to continue the collective's idea. Maybe I just primed myself by listening to the other album prior, but I'd like to think that even though the instrumentation is completely different, the players are from continents separated by an ocean, and the recordings were made over 50 years apart, that it is rather something about the deep connections and purposeful sounds that helped me draw a connection. Beauty at Low Temperatures is ephemeral, but solidly rooted, like the music that still intrigues from Karyobin. Drawing from a deep well of creativity and musical trust, the The Few has developed a timeless sound that they capture on this fantastic recording.