Tuesday, June 30, 2020

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Øyvind Skarbø | Fredrik Ljungkvist | Kris Davis | Ole Morten Vågan - Inland Empire (Clean Feed Records, 2020) ****

By Cam Scott

Inland Empire finds a top group of Scandinavian players in collaboration with Canadian pianist Kris Davis, a staple of the New York jazz scene. Bassist Ole Morten Vågan may be familiar to listeners as the leader of Motif; an acoustic fusion outfit devoted to Vågan’s own songbook. Fellow Norwegian Øyvind Skarbø is the force behind the clamorously eclectic Skarbø Skulekorps, in which he both drums and sings. Finally, Swedish reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist has been one of the most confident voices in European jazz for decades; closely associated with the supergroup Atomic since 1999.

Strikingly then, Inland Empire gathers four accomplished bandleaders in a flexible collective. This common calibre accounts for the consistent texture of this recording, to which each player contributes original music. This spirit of equality is formalized in the presentation, as these pieces appear melded in sequence; a continuous suite of multiple sources. Solos and duos function intelligently as bridges throughout, formalizing the ethos of collective improvisation at the level of the setlist.

Only the title track is credited to the entire group; an opening invocation that develops in free time with little trepidation. As the performance swells, Ljungkvist splits off from the group with a repetitive, ascending figure; colliding Vågan’s tune, ‘Truffle Pigs and Katmandu Stray Dogs.’ Somewhere between the mutant blues of Monk, thickened by dissonance, and the Scandinavian legacy of Coleman’s harmolodics, the undulating head is gratifyingly familiar in its strangeness. Davis’ staccato chords make a plane in the center of the group’s stuttering interplay, which parts before a patter of notes in the bass clef. Vågan’s transitional solo is woody and cantankerous, ascending the neck only to plummet in percussive punctuation.

‘Jag Vet Inte,’ composed by Ljungkvist, approaches the cerebral airiness and instrumental palette of Jimmy Giuffre’s iconic second trio; not least for its feature of the clarinet, and the initial absence of the rhythm section. After two minutes of rapid conversation between Davis and Ljungkvist, the duo settle onto a simple unison theme; a melody of wide intervals, stated in single notes on the piano. Nearly three and a half minutes into the recording, the rhythm section arrives—a patter of brushes beneath a heavy walking bassline, and the piece concludes with a gorgeously restrained drum solo by Skarbø, in which one hears virtual cicadas.

‘Surf Curl,’ Davis’ composition, begins in hesitancy, as a scattering of short notes. Davis hammers single keys with two hands, as though handling mallets, while Skarbø bustles ahead. At the apex, Ljungkvist unleashes a barrage of rapidly tongued single notes above Davis’ heavy-handed octaves, which continue through a terminal diminuendo. Skarbø’s ‘Hindsight Bias’ is the ballad, if that honour may be assigned to one track on an album of contrasts; though its melancholy theme mounts to an agitated breakaway by Ljungkvist, whose piece, ‘Fighter,’ closes the album on a declarative note.

As a demonstration of dynamic range and group identity, Inland Empire is a wholly foreseeable success; far more unified and tonally consistent than most groups with four distinct composers. One can only hope that they convene again, and soon.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Will Guthrie - Nist-Nah (Black Truffle, 2020) ****½

By Nick Ostrum

I came to Will Guthrie through a back channel. I was reading the liner-notes to Rene Aquarius’ (of Dead Neanderthals fame) 2016 solo percussion release, Blight, wherein he thanks Guthrie for “for showing me what a solo drum record can be.” OK, I thought. That is endorsement enough. Let’s find this Will Guthrie.

Nist-Nah is, according to its liner-notes, a departure for Guthrie. Rather than meditating on what he did before, he has turned to using “metallaphones, hand drums and gongs of the Gamelan ensembles of Indonesia.” I will admit, Gamelan is far out of my wheelhouse. It is a word I recognize and associate with a few bands like Senyawa, but I am not exactly sure how. So, consider me a rather blank slate in that sense, but one who has much greater exposure to free jazz, EAI, and some other styles in which Guthrie has immersed himself.

Nist-Nah is entrancing. Pieces such as Catlike and Moi Moi pull the listener in through a simple, steady, repetitive rhythm that slowly opens into a wonderous soundworld of imbricating percussion and electric atmospherics. Bells turn into chimes and jangles of metal. Rhythms lose their sense of time and, in that become potentially timeless. Repetition begins to sound like variation and variations sound as if they were programmed from the very beginning. Lit 1+2 opens more suddenly with a crash, followed by Guthrie seemingly searching for a rhythmic spine to hold the piece together. In this case, the search and trial and error join into the vertebrate that unite the piece as a collection of associated by uniquely articulated sections. Elders involves a calmer, more gradual aggregation of sounds that hum like Nakamura’s bowed gongs, though backed by welling staticky tension and overlain with a sparse metallaphone melody. The opener, Nist-Nah is an energetic foray into a variety of percussive techniques and instruments and alternately seems the perfect, concise introduction to the album and contrasts starkly with pieces such as Elders and, the concluding 17-minute track Kebogiro Glendeng.

Kebogiro Glenden is the culmination of the other statements and experiments on Nist-Nah. It deploys the widest array of percussion. It has a steady 4:4 beat and a catchy interweave of melodies that invoke a procession. The tinny clangor and metallaphone give the impression of a ritual or invocation. In a more dramatic and definitive way than the shorter pieces that precede it, this achieves the most disorienting warping of time. Like the best loops, as it repeats, one hears new characteristics of the sounds, some of which surely were not present just a few measures earlier. Resonances extend and collide. Melodies linger long after the sounds fade from perception. Rhythms embrace and float, uncovering and occluding woody claps and metallic shutters. It is difficult to discern what is actually going on in Kebogiro Glenden, and things are likely better that way. It is a cacophonous stew of joy, or the announcement of some ghostly image arriving in indiscernible form. It is a sound Dionysian revelry, or an ode to the vagaries of the wind and weather. Or, maybe it is a piece of abstract expressionist art, wherein one can read rage or calmness, randomness or factory-efficiency, the artist’s inner turmoil externalized or one’s own subjective order into the same canvass. Either way, it is confounding and, in that, transcendent.

Nist-Nah is available on CD and vinyl, and as a digital download.

Simon H. Fell (1959-2020) - rest in peace

Simon H. Fell
photo © Christophe Pean 2010
By Stef Gijssels

Today, British bassist and composer, Simon H. Fell passed away at the age of 61. He was a prolific and versatile musician, a musical adventurer, composing in modern classical music and active in free improvisation. He also set up his own music label, "Bruce's Fingers" in 1983. He played in several ensembles, bands and orchestras over the years, with credits on no less than 285 albums according to Discogs.

His work for modern composition I am not familiar with, so it's hard to comment on this apart from leaving it to the reader's initiative to check them out. For him, both were equally important, and the intellectual play with form and structure in modern classical he considered a real need for him, next to the more immediate in-the-moment discovery and creation of new sonic expressions in free improvisation.

His legacy in that genre is quite impressive. He performed with Simon Rose and Mark Sanders in Badlands, with Carlos Zingaro, Marcio Mattos and Mark Sanders in ZFP and in SFQ, his own quartet with Alex Ward on reeds. He released several albums with IST, a string trio with Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell. He was also a member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, and he played in numerous ad hoc ensembles with like-minded musicians.

His solo output is also worth mentioning: "Frank & Max" (2011) - which I'm listening to now - a brilliant and intimate homage to other contemporary bass players, "Le Bruit De La Musique" (2016) and even a solo album for bass guitar in his earlier years.

British free improvisation has its very specific sound and exploratory approaches, combining in the moment improvisation with great musical ideas and technical prowess. Simon H. Fell was one of its most important participants and theorists.

The last albums that were released with his participation were "Virtual Company", released earlier this year on Confront, and "Reconstructed Fragments", a duo recording with drummer Paul Hession.

He became a bass player by chance: "I became a double bass player through a situation which recurs time and time again in schools world-wide (probably). Our school orchestra needed a double bass; the school had a double bass, but no-one was playing it. I was studying music, but did not play an instrument, so it was decided that I should play the double bass, and that was that". We can thank that specific context for the great work and music that he left us.

Our thoughts are with his family and friends.

British saxophonist Alex Ward wrote the following piece on Facebook, and we want to share his personal reaction (with his permission):

"Hard for me to fully express the importance that Simon Fell had in my life as a friend, colleague, mentor and general inspiration. If I say that the first word that comes to mind when trying to describe Simon's most distinctive qualities is "rigour", I mean that not in any drily academic sense but rather to suggest a total commitment to doing whatever was necessary to make things absolutely all that they could be - whether that was pushing himself past the limit of physical comfort in performance if the musical circumstances demanded, or gritting his teeth through the administrative slog and bureaucratic hoop-jumping necessary to ensure that all participants in even his most ambitious projects were treated and remunerated as well as he believed they deserved. This was all part and parcel of a level of intellectual honesty which is rare enough in itself, and even rarer when suffused as Simon's was with humour, generosity and joy - to spend an evening with Simon sharing real talk and good drink was to bathe in the energy that explodes from full engagement with ideas and the sweeping aside of the hypocrisy endemic to so much discourse.

The relationship between composition and improvisation in the UK still bears the marks of the antagonisms that accompanied the emergence of free improvisation as a distinct movement in the 1960s, and while no-one was more sensitive to these issues in all their complexity than Simon - his PHD thesis "A More Attractive Way Of Getting Things Done" is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in the subject - the aspect of his work which was concerned with the interpenetration of the two has perhaps not unrelatedly never really garnered the degree of respect or attention here that in my opinion it merited. It was my great honour and good fortune to be a member of Simon's ensembles for much of this work over the past 20 years, and suffice to say everything I have done subsequently in the field of composing for improvisers is directly indebted to what I was able to learn through these experiences.

I will miss Simon immensely, and the increasingly sporadic (due to our living in different countries) chances that we had to see or play with each other in recent years (the last time being nearly two and a half years ago) will seem even more precious and the length of the gaps between them even more depressing in retrospect. 


My thoughts are with every musician who will be feeling similarly bereft from his passing, but above all of course with his wife Jo. RIP."

British cellist, sound artist and Confront label manager, Mark Wastell wrote the following: 

"My Dearest Simon. 
Too soon and far too quickly. I blinked and you are gone. Leaving far too many loose ends and you would not have liked that. You were not a man who appreciated loose ends. Thorough and detailed, that was you. Today my heart aches. I am empty. Cold and numb. I can’t quite absorb the news. In the mid-1990s you took me under your wing. We met at a Hession/Wilkinson/Fell gig at Colchester Arts Centre. I told you I’d started improvising with the cello and you said that when I was ready I was to give you a call and we could do some playing together. Really? I couldn’t quite believe it. You were an established performer, I was a bedroom musician. I eventually made the call. Time after time you selflessly drove the 70 mile round trip from Haverhill in Suffolk to come and play with me. You took me out of the bedroom and into the public arena. My debut concert was a duo with you at the Club Room in Islington in January 1996. Our last concert together was also a duo, in March 2018, in part celebrating my 50th birthday. You dedicated a piece of music to me to me that evening, to mark the occasion. Our original duo quickly morphed into a trio with Rhodri, another unknown invitee that you had met in Huddersfield. The newly named IST made its first outing at Club Orange in April 1996. In the summer of that year, you invited both of us to join the Simon Fell 10tet for a concert at the Purcell Room as part of the Leo Records Festival. You had taken me from the bedroom, onto the London club scene and to the concert stage within months. You enabled me, trusted me, gave me confidence. In early 1997 you were offered a deal by Siwa Records from the States to make an album. Generously, you suggested IST. I was now a recording artist on an international label, all thanks to you. It was all so exciting. As well as improvising, you pushed us to play compositions. But I didn’t know a crochet from a quaver. No problem you said, we can work around that. And we did. I was nervous, out of my depth but you helped me to understand music in its written form - notated, graphic, instructional - and also encouraged me to put together my own pieces. Under your guidance, I was now a composer. We recorded these compositions for our second album Ghost Notes and arranged a UK tour. With you, I was now a proper touring musician. Your initiatives with Bruces Fingers were a direct influence on me forming my own record label. You appear on nine releases on Confront, five with IST, three alongside Derek Bailey and your own beautiful solo disc. In 2016, IST played at Confront’s 20th anniversary concert at the Hundred Years Gallery. That was the last time all three of us were together and what a happy day it was. Just a few short weeks ago, we were busy arranging a date for the 25th anniversary concert of IST in April of 2021. It breaks me in two to have to accept the fact that this will not happen. Never again will we make music together. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to kiss you goodbye. You were a dear friend, loyal and committed. I hope you know how much you mean to me. I shall never forget how deep our time together was and if you will allow, I make a lifelong dedication to you, to conduct myself in a way that would make you proud of the investment you made in me. 

Forever yours, Mark".



Sunday, June 28, 2020

Whit Dickey - Morph (ESP-Disk’ Records, 2020) ****½

By Olle Lawson

Whit Dickey – Drums
Matthew Shipp – Piano
Nate Wooley – Trumpet.

Masterful free-drummer Whit Dickey appears to in the middle of a purple patch.

It’s not like he’s been short of work over the last few years (check out his tenure with Ivo Perelman, alone, for visceral evidence of that) but since 2016’s tremendous Vessel In Orbit project it appears a switch has been thrown.

His trio with Rob Brown and Brandon Lopez (on Dickey’s new label Tao Forms) dropped just weeks ago and this release on ESP-Disk’ – released with minimal fanfare – is the second double album within a year.

Working here, first in duo then trio, we have the opportunity to really hear the distillation of an evolving art form reaching a heightened level of self-awareness. There have been rumours of repeated returns to the studio to achieve this, but it is clear that this was in no way due to lackluster performance or lack of focus – but in hearing a deeply personal, spiritual inner-sound and attaining its manifestation to be captured on record.

Dickey and Matt Shipp have a near 30 year history between them, going right back to the David S. Ware Quartet and to my knowledge this is the first time we get to hear them at length, on record as a duo. There is a formal perfection here. Before one even presses play, we know the level of experience brought to this stripped-back project. What I hadn’t anticipated was the depth of subtlety and vast openness created here. From elliptical semi-song form to free abstractions that sound as though they are painted in mist, this is an album that requires meditative listening to be really heard.

Blue Threads opens events with deceptive accessibility and surprises with its quiet joyful dance, full of revolving circular movement; a pastoral dance of sorts.

Reckoning takes us into moodier, sparser territory, plucked piano innards creating chambers of space filled with suspended notes as Dickey propels the sound with bass drum and intricate ride cymbal.

Dice which carries the same name as a Right Hemisphere tune – and may in fact be a distant cousin – has Shipp playing high-end spider steps on the keys, as Dickey rolls an oblique swing.

Thick is the first disc’s heaviest piece, with Shipp appearing to lead the charge of huge weighty chords, really drawing out the intensity of this concentrated set up. At one point we even get to hear piano and drums hit in time, actually hammering together on the beat.

The heart of the album goes to Helix, the longest piece. Opening into a melody of mournful simplicity, Whit shuffles and props amongst the plaintive piano before subtly shifting the underlying mosaic – the tonal placement and intermeshing here is extraordinary. Even at its most stripped back and concise, this masterly duo demonstrates how this music permeates and fills every part – in every direction – of one’s consciousness and intellect, simultaneously. Not out of synch, but out of time: where is that time-space? Because it is a place – that we are transported to. This is Freemusic at its most subtle and refined.

The wonderfully titled Steps winds up with a piano bass-line of a kind. A collection of ascending notes build and subside, differing in form and intensity before revealing a deserted beach of stacked-stone towers.

The title-track Morph feature’s Dickey’s signature floating high-hat, displacing time – suspending movement, holding it in an idiosyncratic holding space – that draws in, stealthily evolving, whilst transporting the listener.

Closing this first disc is Firmament, a slow build replete with type writer rhythm and a dark, bluesy low end piano.

On the second disk the duo becomes trio as they are augmented by Pacific Northwest-born trumpeter Nate Wooley, which utterly changes the dynamic. Morph’s second chapter is capped by a connected suite: Noir (1-4). Alternately tempestuous, turbulent, sparsely atmospheric, urban and yes, noirish.

Wooley has an impressive array of extended technique: spitting split tones, vocalisations, scratched alien noises and drone that colour and shade every piece here in unexpected directions; Take The Wild Train is particularly nodal and expressive. At other moments the trio shift into more narrative led sounds and things grow hugely filmic in their evocation of space and event (To Planet Earth).

For me the key piece here is Space Trance. Extremes of light/dark, peace and intensity, all conducted – stoked and tempered – from the drums, providing the perfect example of Whit Dickey’s art, circa 2020.

Morph is a significant statement, with two albums worth of diverse material to delve into, ranging from diaphanous detailed sound spaces to darkly epic monuments, providing hours of listening. Intrigued to know where he’ll explore next.


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Susana Santos Silva

By Lee Rice Epstein

Susana Santos Silva Impermanence - The Ocean Inside a Stone (Carimbo Porta-Jazz , 2020) *****

Susana Santos Silva - The Same Is Always Different (Self, 2020) *****

Of the many releases either teased or promised for 2020, very high on my list was Susana Santos Silva’s second album with her quintet Impermanence, featuring saxophonist João Pedro Brandão, pianist Hugo Raro, bassist Torbjörn Zetterberg, and drummer Marcos Cavaleiro. A glance at the lineup in the credits gives you a sense of some of the changes contained herein. The first album included trumpet, flugelhorn, alto sax, flute, piano double bass, and drums. On the new album, Santos Silva has added tin whistle and voice, Brandão adds piccolo and choir, Raro synthesizer and choir, and Zetterberg switches to electric bass and adds Moroccon qraqebs. In a manner of speaking, Impermanence has evolved its sound both vertically and horizontally. In a more straightforward reference to itself, the quintet has embraced its name and moved on. Where they’ve gone to, however, is quite a bit trickier to put into words. Santos Silva’s syntax is as varied and robust as any trumpeter on the scene.

The Ocean Inside a Stone wastes no time in going out there. “Expanded Life” opens the album with a dense Tortoise-y, post-rock feel, as Santos Silva and Brandão play the song’s angular melody, with octave-spiking long notes blown in precision parallel. On the follow-up, “Wanderhopes,” Santos Silva inverts this somewhat, with an echoing melody in the horns offset by a freely improvised rhythm section. Zetterberg’s electric bass may be most noticeable here, as its the likeliest song to have featured some of his fine arco. And yet, that’s barely missed, as he brings, I believe, qraqeb to the middle section, engaging in a dynamic conversation with Cavaleiro. The combined interlude “The Past Is Yet To Come” and Art Ensemble-like “The Drums Are Chanting, Or Is It the Trees? “ turn the album on its head, like Henry Threadgill sometimes does; it’s not too far off the last-minute left turn of “A Man Called Trinity Deliverance” from Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket. Although, there’s still one more track left on the album, “The Healer,” which strikes an appropriate hopeful chord in its voicing.

Meanwhile, just as the album was gaining traction, countries entered quarantine in response to the novel coronavirus. Santos Silva seemed to be quietly taking it in stride for a while, before a dramatic appearance online, as part of Experimental Sound Studio’s quarantine concerts.

Shortly after, she posted hints on Instagram that something new was coming soon, and The Same Is Always Different arrived on her Bandcamp account just a couple weeks later. (Interestingly, just like when I purchased The Ocean Inside a Stone, the full album arrived by email, and the Bandcamp download was only a partial album. I have some thoughts about why this might be, although I have not yet connected with her to follow up, so I’ll restrain from getting into them further. Suffice to say, I’ve had several conversations with musicians about some of the inherent structural weaknesses in Bandcamp.) And what, exactly, had arrived at that point? A radical alter-ego of her solo debut, All the Rivers, The Same Is Always Different reflects that first album from the vantage point of two very long years, and a global pandemic that’s barely let up. Where “All the Rivers” opened with majestic, echoy long tones, “The” is 20 minutes of extended brass drone, minutely shifting in subtle gradations, but meeting the listener with an almost confrontational tone, not unlike Roscoe Mitchell’s first solo version of “Nonaah,” from Willisau. But separating “The” from “Nonaah” is what feels like the intense strain of being alone. On the remaining tracks, “Same,” “Is,” “Always,” and “Different,” Santos Silva navigates pain, confusion, the infinite regression of isolation. What she produces, however, is an album full of wit and sustained reflection. Each track begins with an idea, which could easily fade or blossom into something new. But Santos Silva travels the path less taken, diving deeper into the explored sound, prodding it, manipulating it, like challenging herself with the question of, “What if this is all that remains?” The titles, derived of course from the album title, hint at a hopefulness that threads itself so delicately through the whole, it’s really only grasped with repeated listening, with the kind of immersive submission one rarely grants oneself. As the minutes stretch and bend, and time distorts with astonishing fluidity, she stitches together a narrative that reconstructs this moment for future audiences. It’s less of a snapshot, more of a wish. For, while I am merely a listener, used to hearing an album on my own terms, fairly commonly by myself, there is a lack in the life of a performing artist, a yawning gap where fellow musicians and audience members typically reside. What her isolation has loosed is a funneling of emotion into some of her most experimental, electro-acoustic work. I’m already jealous of anyone who gets to see her perform again, when the rest of the world figures out how to right itself and re-emerge properly.



Friday, June 26, 2020

Two From Emilio Gordoa & Michael Thieke

By Keith Prosk

Mexican-born, Berlin-based percussionist Emilio Gordoa, who readers might remember from The Balderin Sali Variations , kickstarted his label WildSonico this year. As of now, it’s a vessel to document his work with other musicians in and adjacent to the echtzeitmusik scene. It’s currently a digital-only label, though physical releases for some recordings seems likely in the future, based on comments from Gordoa. I review his two available recordings with clarinetist Michael Thieke but, at the time of this writing, he’s also released the promising Dislokal Harmonie with saxophonists Michel Doneda and Philippe Lemoine.

Michael Thieke & Emilio Gordoa - Warteland (WildSonico, 2020) ****


Warteland shares its title with the visual art installation of Lena Czerniawska, who provides the cover art for all three of WildSonico’s recordings (as well as The Balderin Sali Variations). The installation explicitly deals with the state and concept of waiting, including “the conducive feelings of confusion, repetition, reflection, focus, and introspection” that might occur while waiting. Gordoa and Thieke join Czerniawska for one evening of the installation in 2019 to record the music here, a 47-minute set divided into three tracks - labeled “start,” “middle,” and “end” - despite being sonically continuous.

As expected from this group of Berlin musicians, the music is a quiet, timbrally-rich soundscape created almost exclusively through extended techniques, with communication occurring less through rhythm, response, or counterpoint and more through volume, density, and pulse. The breathy beatings of a resonant clarinet might be met with an electronic oscillator, or an embouchure like a fluttering flame on a wood wick with a rolling and bouncing ball on the drumhead, or a howling wind with snare static, or percussive key clicks with drum and object accents. While similar sets flit around their sonic collage, this one does so at a quicker pace than usual, leading me to believe I’m hearing the music adapt to and communicate with the visual art occurring. A kind of dry-lipped, crackling smooching begins to sound like stippling, a harried tremolo like cross-hatching, a burst of bowed cymbal like drawing a bold curve, and stray snare hits and clarinet chirps like action painting. But maybe I’m only imposing this visualization on the music because I know visual art is present.

The audio-visual connection only gets stronger towards the end though, as Thieke drapes a nursery melody and train’s choo choo over Gordoa’s recording of pipe organ, creating a cinema-worthy cathartic moment by giving the listener something so familiar after so much unfamiliar. This fades to a field recording of birdsong, probably from a park, where you can also hear crunching leaves, car horns, and maybe the sound of running water, bringing to mind images of the riverlands that the title references. The tape warps away, and the clarinet ends with a sigh.

The audio of Warteland certainly creates a strong visual footprint; I can only imagine the visual art also creates an aural one. Maybe the imagination required to pull pictures from sound or sound from pictures is one of the very fruits of waiting that Czerniawska is getting at.

Wartleland is a digital-only release.

Dörner | Thieke | Vorfeld | Gordoa - Planos (WildSonico, 2020) ***½

Planos adds trumpeter Axel Dörner and percussionist Michael Vorfeld to the previous duo. This 2016 recording is the first release for the quartet, though Thieke has recorded with Dörner in Splitter Orchester and Vorfeld on Nashaz with Andrea Neumann and Sherif Sehnaoui. It’s one such WildSonico release that’s likely to get a physical copy in the future; the digital release is eight tracks across an hour, but the last two tracks are titled as bonus tracks, only visible when downloaded or in the bandcamp app after purchase, and removing them brings the runtime to a neat LP length of 44 minutes.

The music here is sonically not unlike Warteland but can be viewed as a double duo, with Dörner and Thieke’s approaches to their instruments often stripping away the usual delineations between horn and reed to simply become two breath-based players. However, Gordoa occasionally distinguishes himself from Vorfeld by incorporating some vibraphone. And perhaps there’s not the explicit audio-visual aspects of Warteland here, but there’s so many moments of striking clarity and cohesion that if they were repetitious they would surely rival the widespread acclaim of new film score laureates like Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow, Hans Zimmer, or Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Some such cinematic moments might come from the trumpet’s fever pitch wail undulating like a siren, with a squall of scalular air notes and Doppler effects from swinging the clarinet, and austere bass drum and gong, and vibraphone ringing like an alarm clock, all combining to create high-tension drama. Or staccato bowed metal with clarinet chirping, trumpet radio static, and percussion like inside-piano inducing suspense. Or each musician approaching resonance so that their individual waves come one after the other like swash on the beach. The first bonus track is at least as interesting as the rest, with purrs, spit play, jungle animal sounds, raspberries, and muted clarinet like sōzu that otherwise don’t appear in the record, and at one point it seems as if two instruments begin to resonate with each other before they’re interrupted by the other two.

I feel that Thieke gives a little too much space and volume to the other three musicians, but this is nitpicking. For fans of this kind of music, this is a recommended set showcasing a mastery of musical color.

Planos is a digital-only release.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Mike Lloyd, Peeter Uuskyla, Gunnar Backman, Anders Berg - Leavings (Simlas, 2020) ***½

By Nick Ostrum

I have a soft spot for Peter Uuskyla and his loose, deceptively clumsy style of drumming. Here, he is accompanied by Mike Lloyd on trumpet, Gunnar Backman on fretted and fretless virtual guitar (possibly the storied Yggdrasil) and live loops, and his long-time companion-at-arms Anders Berg on bass.

I am familiar with some of Uuskyla and Berg’s previous work. I am less familiar, however, with Lloyd and Backman. Both have appeared on previous Simlas releases, sometimes together and sometimes, in the case of Backman, with other configurations of an apparently tight circle of musicians featured on Simlas (run by guitarist Tellef Øgrim and Berg) and Backman’s own label, Brakophonic Records.

In other words, most of these musicians seem to play together frequently. (Lloyd may be an outlier in that respect when it comes to Uuskyla, but the claim certainly applies to the rest of combinations.) Although the music itself can hardly be called “tight,” that familiarity shows in the Leavings. As the cover art shows, each musician can be thought of one within an interlocking system of gears. When one gears turns, the others must as well. If one were to stop abruptly, the others would have to follow suit. Were one to malfunction, the entire apparatus would be rendered kaput. I do not want to make too much of this image. Gears, of course, have no volition and no recourse outside of their track. When working properly, they do not take detours or try new things. The whole image, of course, is too mechanical to be perfect. But, as free music lovers would likely agree, the pursuit is not reproducibility or mere function, but an unexpectedly moving whole.

And that is what Leavings achieves. Uuskyla sweeps one direction with his blustery rolls. Berg lays an unsteady beat that collides with Uuskyla’s bass drum. Lloyd offers muffled fanfares and restrained runs that reference electric Miles, though it shies from the intensity and funk that Miles so perfectly harnessed. And Lloyd, alternates between disrupted radio-wave atmospherics, feedback-laden background fidgeting, and straight-up shredding. This sounds psychedelic without the polish and pop. It sounds like a less manic Acid Mother’s Temple, before their morning cup of coffee (or, maybe, in the laggard after-hours of the night), fumbling in search of some indeterminate magical combination of sound. It is fusion played by free jazz musicians. Or, free jazz played by prog rockers who found that too restrictive and jam bands too long-winded. Or, something of the sort. I am not sure which direction these sessions went in. I can say, however, that this album rocks, through and through. This may not be music that blows you away, but it is music that, if you heard it at a friend’s house (were that still a thing in these times), you would likely say, “Wild stuff. Who is that?”

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Hedvig Mollestad - Ekhidna (Rune Grammofon, 2020) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

After six albums with her trio, Norwegian guitar hero Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen thought about a different kind of project that would push her boundaries as a composer and a bandleader and experiment with new, “dangerous” sonic territories. The prestigious Tinginsverket commission from the local VossaJazz festival came just at the right time and allowed her to present new work in the April 2019 edition of the festival. The festival performance was edited, sharpened, and recorded from scratch in the studio earlier this year.

Mollestad Thomassen had three initial thoughts about this new sextet project: she liked the sound of two Fender Rhodes electric pianos and other vintage, electric keyboards; no bass guitar; and one acoustic instrument “to maintain dynamics and avoid a six-member full blast unit”. She decided to call this project after the mighty and beautiful Greek goddess Ekhidna, a half-woman, half-snake creature, known as the mother of all monsters, and lover of the fearsome Typhoon. But Mollestad Thomassen insists that Ekhidna is not a concept album, but loosely tied themes about “human struggle and being a mother in times when our increasing inability to live in harmony with nature paints a bleak picture”.

The six musicians have never played together before but clearly clicked immediately into the Mollestad Thomassen universe. The two keyboards players are Marte Eberson, known from the art-rock band Highasakite, and Erlend Slettevoll (replacing Jon Balke who played in the live, festival version), known from the now-defunct band The Core, the Grand General group and his work with veteran drummer Espen Rud and more recently with sax player Jørgen Mathisen's Instant Light ‎(Mayhall's Object, Clean Feed, 2019). The main acoustic instrument is the trumpet, played by Portuguese Susana Santos Silva, who first collaborated with Mollestad Thomassen in Mats Gustafsson’s NU-Ensemble project Hidros 8 Heal! back in 2017. This sextet is rounded by two powerful drummers: Torstein Lofthus, known from the bands Elephant9 and Red Kite, and Ole Mofjell, known from the bands Emmeluth's Amoeba and The Big YES!.

Ekhidna is only forty minutes long but it offers rich, multifaceted, and distinct textures. In the brief, opening “No Friends But The Mountains” the subtle dialog of Mollestad Thomassen spacious guitar lines and Santos Silva lyrical trumpet charges this piece with a mysterious tension of an imaginary Nordic Western film. The following “A Stone’s Throw” is fueled by Mollestad Thomassen gifts as a superb riff meister, but she also knows how to expand beyond the heavy riffs and structure a complex piece that feels at home in prog-rock, fusion, and metal territories, but sounds fresh and totally her own. Mollestad Thomassen mathematical-like solos throughout “Antilone” embrace elements of King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention kicked into the 21st century. The gentle, melancholic, solo guitar ballad “Slightly Lighter” adopts open, atmospheric spaces that distill seminal influences of Bill Frisell work. On the title-piece, the whole sextet feeds the lost monster with patient tension, in a similar, improvised manner to the Hedvig Mollestad Trio, but the intense interplay of Mollestad Thomassen and the soaring trumpet of Santos Silva and the two drummers and keyboards players, injects broader palette of colors and percolating, irregular rhythmic dynamics missing from the Trio. The emotional “One Leaf Left” highlights, again, Mollestad Thomassen qualities as a clever riff meister, as this piece revolves around another intoxicating riff of hers, but enriched, deepened, and tamed by the emphatic and intelligent band, who takes the last ride with Greek goddess-monster.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Ted Byrnes - Tactility (ARKEEN, 2020) ****

By Cam Scott

Straddling harsh noise and free improvisation, Ted Byrnes’ solo percussion outings are a work-out even for the listener. Byrnes has amassed a significant discography already, collaborating far afield of his jazz training; with John Wiese’s grindcore outfit Sissy Spacek, or harsh noise mainstay The Rita, whose sputtering remix of Tactility is included as a bonus track in the digital version. But his reputation largely centers on a spate of exceptional solo recordings, in which the durational intensity and textural sensitivity of his playing are on full display.

In a word, Byrnes’ music is unremitting. Tempo is notably beside the point in the midst of this torrential freefall; a violent hailstorm on a tuned tin roof. The pieces are fast, with an insistently strong center, but this rapid barrage mimics the turbulence of electronic harsh noise, in which latent rhythms emerge from a wall of static distortion. In this, Byrnes’ acoustic reply to the noise genre upends its production values, starting with the discrete events comprising rhythm and compressing them into an ecstatic stasis. (Not to mention that the auto parts and metallic detritus that Byrnes creatively mishandles are nothing if not post-industrial themselves.)

Byrnes’ conceptualism originates in instrumental fluency, however, and this session is full of musical surprises. Swing is not a core value here, but Byrnes defies the rigidly alternating blastbeats characteristic of noisecore for a shifting, sifting, subdivisory shuffle, creating enough contrasting layers to sound like a one-person group improvisation. Whether approaching a standard kit with bare hands, or enrolling household bric-a-brac in an escalating din, there’s a material transparency to these recordings, as Byrnes affords each object its identity amidst the clamour.

A haptic racket and coordinated tumult, this short album starts and stays intense. But Byrnes forges peaks and valleys throughout; compare the frantic rustle of ‘Shells’ to the accented density of ‘Fix It,’ or the rotary patter of ‘Sap’ to the roiling fills of ‘JH Bonham.’ Intelligent and focused, just the right about of numbing, Tactility is a compact tour de force.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Freejazzblog on Air: Re-issues - Listen Now!



freejazzblog on air, featuring the Free Jazz Blog's Martin Schray and radio host Julia Neupert is now available to listen to online until 11 p.m. 6-27. (It was broadcasted on SWR2 in southern Germany at 11 p.m. CEDT  on 6/19) 

The show is about re-issues and will feature music from Rashied Ali / Frank Lowe, Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe, Alice Coltrane, and Albert Ayler.


Playlist for the episode:

Rashied Ali, Frank Lowe:
Exchange Part 1 (Movement 1)/CD: Duo Exchange (1973/2020)
Rashied Ali, Frank Lowe

Albert Ayler:
Vibrations/CD: Spirits To Ghosts Revisited
Albert Ayler Quartet 1964 (Albert Ayler - Saxofon, Don Cherry - Trompete, Gary Peacock Kontrabass, Sunny Murray - Schlagzeug)

Herbert Joos, Helmuth Zimmer, Wilfried Eichhorn, Claus Bühler, Rudolf Theilmann:
Unreleased Track Nr. 2/CD: Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe + Four Men Only - Complete Works
Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe

Wolfgang Fuchs:
Binaurality - Part 3/CD: Concert At Town Hall - Binaurality (2020)
King Übü Orchestrü

Alice Coltrane:
Africa/CD: Carnegie Hall ' 71
Alice Coltrane Nonet (Alice Coltrane - Piano, Harfe, Kumar Kramer - Harmonium, Cecil McBee, Jimmy Garrison - Kontrabass, Clofford Jarvis, Ed Blackwell - Schlagzeug, Tulsi - Tambora, Pharoah Sanders - Saxofon, Archie Shepp - Saxofon)

Masayukii Takayanagi:
What Have We Given?/CD: April is the crullest month
Masayuki Takayanagi New Direction Unit


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Alexander Hawkins & Tomeka Reid - Shards and Constellations (Intakt, 2020) ****(*)

By Stephen Griffith

One of the enduring appeals of this type of music is its ability to unexpectedly surprise the listener. The first time I listened to Shards and Constellations was late at night on headphones, maybe reading a book, while still processing initial impressions of this pairing of two blog favorites. My first encounter with Hawkins was here which was prominently mentioned in the Best of 2013 list; that got a lot of repeat plays. Then followed this and this so I'm a fan striving to be a completist (so much music, so little time...). Tomeka Reid was first encountered on the blog here and here before leading her own groups. I've seen her perform multiple times and have been increasingly impressed with each iteration.

So I was listening to it and enjoying the interplay in the jointly composed pieces for five cuts when something happened that made my eyes open wide; a lush and moving constellation of sounds that contrasted greatly to the sparse but engaging shards of notes that preceded it. I quickly looked on the excellent liner notes by Anthony Davis (more about them later) and saw that it was a Muhal Richard Abrams composition, “Peace on You”, from a 1975 solo piano release Afrisong on Trio Records. Although it adheres closely to the original, the addition of Reid’s cello augments the repeated melodic plaintive beauty in a way that transforms it into something exceeding the sum of the parts while still being respectful of the composer. It's a song that will stay in your head for days.

The only other previously released song is a version of Leroy Jenkins’s “Albert Ayler (His Life Was Too Short)” from the 1978 Black Saint release The Legend of Ai Glatson with Reid assuming the violinist’s voice. You might think with Tomeka’s long association with AACM musicians that she was the driving force behind these first generation adaptations except the Convergence Quartet featured this on their 2010 Clean Feed release, Song / Dance, with trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum playing Jenkins’s part and Andrew playing very closely to this version. So lacking information stating otherwise these were joint decisions by both participants executed movingly.

As for the joint compositions by Reid and Hawkins, bookending the album with “If Becomes Is” and “Is Becomes If" implies a coherent discrete musical statement in the era of streaming services and playlists. The latter cut is particularly moving as both musicians prepare their instruments effectively for extended voices, particularly Tomeka getting what the liners describe as a kalimba type sound but I thought of a more resonant steel drum hint. “Sung Together” features rapid fire skittering bow work underpinning piano meanderings with a persistent staccato high note sporadic pattern which ultimately resolves into something only hinted at previously in a marvelously developed piece.

Liner notes are a tricky thing. From a utilitarian standpoint they're part of the total work and ideally should provide information and insight without being overly fannish. Intakt, in Irene Schweizer’s rerelease of Wild Señoritas originally on FMP, featured an interview with the musician in which she reflected on the performance: “There is always the danger that one wants to consider older recordings as something unfinished, immature, and perhaps something not so very precise. When I listened again to the recording before this conversation, I was astonished at how I was able to very precisely get some things in a nutshell, and how close to me this music is. I also heard some musical patterns, themes, and quotes that I still touch on today - although in a completely different way. I was also surprised at how much I was playing on the strings then. At the time, I was fascinated with exploring the possibilities of inside-piano playing, and ignited fireworks of sound.” I thought that was a refreshingly honest and confident reflection by an accomplished musician on earlier work and have considered it the gold standard in liners. Maybe a new category should be established for other musicians describing a release because Anthony Davis enhances the work with a thoroughly engaging musical description of each cut while not confusing the non player. Unfortunately for the reviewer, they're so effectively descriptive they become hard to avoid repeating. Plus he gets bonus marks for modesty by not pointing out that he was the pianist on The Legend of Ai Glatson.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Berlin Art Quartet - Live At b-flat (uniSono Records, 2020) ****

By Martin Schray

Of course, it was the band’s name that attracted my interest. It’s obvious that the musical inspiration of the Berlin Art Quartet refers to the New York Art Quartet, a pioneering, albeit short-lived band in the mid-1960s*. They consisted of saxophonist John Tchicai, trombonist Roswell Rudd, percussionist Milford Graves and various bassists (among them Reggie Workman). At their time the New York Art Quartet presented a genre-defining vision of early free jazz, until today you can feel the electricity in the air from those days when you listen to their albums. In particular, their music included a melange of flavors: Ayler-esque howls, Dolphy’s cool abstractness, Ornette’s sublime melodies. The free-for-all spirit of those days gives their music a timeless quality. In its inconsistency, the New York Art Quartet has created some of the most powerful pieces of music from the free jazz underground of the early 1960s.

The Berlin Art Quartet offers the same instrumentation as the seminal New York combo. It’s Matthias Schubert on tenor saxophone, Matthias Müller on trombone, Matthias Bauer on bass and Reinhard Brüggemann on drums. The latter founded the band in 2013, then with Johannes Bauer on trombone. After Bauer’s untimely death in 2016, Matthias Müller replaced him (in my opinion a very wise decision). However, if you expect the Berlin band to be a mere retro copy of the New York Quartet, you’ll be disappointed. The band’s name is more like a tribute, a direct musical connection is not intended. On the other hand, of course, “we are all linked to tradition“, as Matthias Müller points out.

There are pieces on Live at b-flat that are clearly located in the here and now and which are more committed to a European improv tradition, e.g. “Bewegung/Motion“. In this piece all musicians experiment freely and try to use the extended sound possibilities of their instruments. In doing so, they smack, gurgle, whimper, whisper, rattle, bump and shuffle through the eerie soundscape they create. Even though a tighter structure appears in the second part of the piece - with the walking bass in particular being most likely rooted in the jazz tradition - one would hardly feel reminded of the New York Art Quartet if it wasn't for the name of the band. Then again, whether intentionally or not, there are some similarities. Brüggemann introduces pieces like “Entfaltung/Unfolding“ and “Gipfeltreffen/Summit“ with additional percussive equipment like rattles and bells, he focuses on the drums (cymbals are hardly used). This way he creates a darker environment, which is similar to Milford Graves’s style. The melodies and riffs are thrown back and forth between Schubert and Müller, the chemistry between the two guarantees a relaxed approach to the musical material. That is also reminiscent of Rudd and Tchicai. One of the album's touching moments is the use of abrupt silence when tenor saxophone and/or trombone step out of the wild chirping, for example when they just blow through their mouthpieces and turns violent excitement into controlled calm.

A further reminiscence to the past is the political dimension of the music, as claimed by Brüggemann. The drummer was socialized in the historical free jazz of the Sixties and believes that this music is urban and should express the individuality of a free city citizen. The music should therefore be anti-dictatorial and pro-democratic. "No dictatorship can get along with our music," he states in the liner notes. The New York Art Quartet also had a political dimension, however this was a more concrete one. Beat poet Amiri Baraka was considered the secret fifth member of the band and appeared on a single track on the group's first album. “Black Dada Nihilism“ is a poem that sparked instant political controversy for its violent imagery.

To sum up, what can actually be observed is the fact that the Berlin Art Quartet tries to present a state-of-the-art version of modern improv. From the nucleus of a movement, reactions emerge, creating a musical space of action in which the improvisations take surprising turns. The great quality of this music is that it embraces these twists and turns.

Live at b-flat is an excellent album.

* There was a short reunion for some concerts at the beginning of the 2000s, when they even opened for Sonic Youth.

Live at b-flat is available as a CD.

You can buy it from the label: https://shop.unisono-records.de/produkt/audio-cd-berlin-art-quartet-live-at-b-flat/

You can watch the band live here: 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Quin Kirchner – The Shadows & The Light (Astral Spirits, 2020) ****½

By Tom Burris

It was risky to release a two-album set as a debut. I really liked the first Quin Kirchner album a lot but I didn't think it held up completely throughout the entire four sides. It felt to me like the old “it would've been better had they chopped it down to a single disc” cliché was unfortunately correct in this case. Given that impression, I immediately had doubts upon seeing that the second release is a double album as well.

Thankfully, the joke's on my dumb ass because, based on the variety and high quality of music contained within the four sides of The Shadows & The Light, I'll bet Kirchner could've gone full Sandinista! on us and tagged on a third record and it would've worked out just as well. Whatever Astral Spirits spends at the pressing plant will all be recuperated quickly, right? This record is an extremely well presented & well executed cohesive work that is worth every penny that went into its production.

[I would like to state here that IN NO WAY should you consider not checking out Kirchner's first album, The Other Side of Time, released on Astral Spirits in 2018. That would be like saying “Nah, you should pass on those spotty double albums like Blonde on Blonde, The White Album, Exile On Main St., Second Edition/Metal Box, etc. They can't all be Trout Mask Replica or Harsh 70s Reality, now can they?” No one would say that. Even Twin Infinitives has an entire side that's marginal at best (Side 3) and I consider it to be my favorite record of an entire decade.]

I've nerded out too much. But not about The Shadows & The Light – and we're gonna fix that problem right now.

Y'know, there was a lot of awful crap on TV in the 70s. Stick with me. I swear this is going somewhere relevant. 1970s television: Mannix, The Rockford Files, Cannon, Barnaby Jones (which almost gets a pass because the protagonist was played by Uncle Jed)... Anyway, the television production companies back then still employed large bands to supply the soundtracks to those programs. They recorded the music that viewers ignored while they watched a car chase. Sometimes it just played quietly in the background while Telly Savalas sucked on a lollipop. At any rate, it wasn't great. ...Or was it? Percussionist Kirchner's band plays what sounds a bit like these TV soundtracks & the musicians are having an absolute ball with them. “At This Point In Time,” by Frank Foster, is so compelling I started daydreaming about outtakes of Mike Post sessions lying around in a warehouse somewhere in L.A. The track has a highly hummable theme played over a really nice groove by a large ensemble, followed by some wild freakouts initiated by the horn section. It's a novel approach that should not work in any conceivable way – and Kirchner and Co. knock it outta the park. When the musicians head back to the charts and move toward the fade-out, I swear it's sheer joy I feel. Seriously. The title track is also cut from this same cloth, but takes things one step further by augmenting the sound with an ECM vibe. The band is large and loose, but the sound is crystal clear and shimmering. It's conventionally beautiful, even as the chord progression takes multiple surprising turns, but has so many opposing styles happening it's a wonder it works at all. But here it stands, gorgeous, challenging, enthralling. After about seven minutes of the television soundtrack of my dreams, a piano solo begins. Block chord patterns set up the final section as Kirchner and bassist Matt Ulery enter. Then it's the mellow horns of a Gil Evans arrangement playing Steely Dan chord progressions. Wanna forget about what a shitty year 2020 has been? Right here is the place for me. Beautiful and smart with just the right amount of cheese? Yes, please.

High quality and variety, let's talk about that. On “Bata Chop” the sound of Rob Clearfield's Wurlitzer plays over a badass groove planting the listener squarely in a pot of bitches brew. “Shadow Intro” is a large percussion ensemble grooving away as Kirchner plays every instrument. The band covers Carla Bley's “King Korn,” where the main piano part is arranged for trombone, tenor sax, and bass clarinet (played by Nick Broste, Nate Lepine, and Jason Stein respectively). Stein takes a particularly blazing solo near the end of the track. Kirchner doesn't even play at all on “Star Cluster,” which is probably the most difficult listening piece on the album – and completely fascinating upon close inspection. The musicians take turns at playing a strong melody while the others play against each other. “Moon Vision” is a shorter stab at the 70s TV show thing, but more Quincy Jones than Mike Post this time. “Ecliptics” is a duo between Kirchner and Nick Broste that throws electronic washes over a killer groove cadence, highlighting Kirchner's masterful use of interesting textures. The entire band turns out for a reverential take on Sun Ra's “Planet Earth,” which manages to be both joyful and sobering in the great Ra tradition. This is followed by Kirchner's own “Jupiter Moon,” which features a lovely theme and ensemble presentation – and falls somewhere sonically between the Ra Arkestra and the 70s TV band arrangements. I enjoyed this so much that the first time through I collapsed into the sound like it was a pillow. The separation, the mixing, the textures of the instruments... It's impossible to imagine this being done any better.

The closer is a Mingus homage called “Lucid Dreams.” The head could actually be mistaken for Mingus himself, as it is so beautiful and calm, while remaining assured and confident. The song is old school without feeling old. An absolute stunner & a perfect closer to an album that I'm really still trying to absorb completely. I came SO close to giving this a full five-star rating – but I'm pretty sure we can save that for the triple album that will hopefully be Kirchner's next release.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

John Scofield Trio - Swallow Tales (ECM, 2020) ****




Guitarist John Scofield has long been tangentially associated with ECM records. His first appearance dates back to a Peter Warren release on the related JAPO label in 1982. Since then he has appeared on several recordings with bassist Marc Johnson's Bass Desires group, and with Trio Beyond, a take on Tony Williams' Emergency with organist Larry Goldings and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Swallow Tales, recorded with the album's namesake bassist and composer Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, is the first under his name for the label.

However, more important than the label is the guitarists long musical association with Swallow, which goes back to the early 1980s, when they were a trio recording for Arista and Enja. Stewart has also been a long time accomplice, having recorded in 1994 with Scofield, Swallow, and guitarist Pat Metheny on I Can See Your House from Here (Blue Note). They have also recorded as a trio on EnRoute: John Scofield Trio LIVE in 2004 (Blue Note) and then again a few years later with others on This Meets That (2007, Emarcy). So, all this is to say is that this recording is familiar territory for three excellent musicians.

The music on Swallow Tales is a tribute to the music of Steve Swallow - so even more familiar territory! The bassist has been composing since the mid-1960s and several of his early compositions, which debuted in vibraphonist Gary Burton's groups, appear here, including “Falling Grace,” “Portsmouth Figurations,” and “Eiderdown." The other tracks pull deeply from Swallow's discography, like the opening track "She Was Young", which appeared on the bassist's 1980 album Home and featured vocals. Here, the tune unfolds as a ballad that builds towards an energetic end, after a gentle start where Scofield seems to channel the soft touch of the late John Abercrombie.  The following "Falling Grace," goes back to the composer's early days with Gary Burton, as does the following "Portsmouth Figurations." The latter is a barn burner from Burton's seminal 1966 jazz-rock album Duster, on this album it cooks along as well. Scofield's fuzzy, crisp lead bounces about on Stewart and Swallow's taut rhythmic line. "Away" is a short, wistful and tender ballad and features not only Swallow's compositonal prowess but also his highly melodic approach to the bass guitar. Playing with a pick, Swallow's approach to his acoustic bass guitar is indeed more guitar-like, which gives the songs a rooted, but nimble feel. "Awful Coffee" features an angular guitar lead deftly intertwined with the bass line that is part support and part counter melody. The opening chords of the mid-tempo "Hullo Bolinas" are sumptuous and just peculiar enough to catch the ear, and then comes the tonal-cluster rich guitar lead that pulls the group along until Swallow's finger stretching solo. 
 
Swallow Tales is not free jazz, nor avant-garde, at the same time, it's not exactly straight ahead modern jazz, rather it is the unique combination of Swallow's enduring compositions, Scofields' earthy tone, and the long-time musical relationships between the three musicians. The recording sounds great, it's a lean guitar, bass-guitar, and drum trio, and it fits in well with some of recent guitar based recordings from ECM. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Whit Dickey Trio - Expanding Light (Tao Forms/AUM Fidelity, 2020) ****

By Martin Schray

Drummer Whit Dickey is one of those artists who deserve greater prominence in the minds of free music enthusiasts. Although he’s a highly accepted player, especially in the New York jazz scene, he seems to be a bit overlooked. Frankly, his refined style should establish him among the greats of his instrument. His new album Expanding Light shows him with one of his long-standing collaborators, saxophonist Rob Brown. The two are augmented by the young formidable bassist Brandon Lopez, whose growing list of collaborators include Dave Rempis, Weasel Walter and John Zorn, for example.

Whit Dickey himself describes the experience of recording Expanding Light with his new trio (in 1998 Dickey and Brown released another album, Transonic, with Chris Lightcap on bass) as “incessantly and mightily grabbing the dragon by the tail, and not caring.” In other words: This is the good old free jazz tradition exploring musical territory the ensemble hasn’t examined so far, wherever it may lead. The result is both abstract and concrete, an overall experience influenced “as much by Nirvana at their finest as by the holistic experimentation of Dickey's mentor, Professor Milford Graves“, as the liner notes put it. That’s why Dickey himself calls it "free grunge."

Yet, one should not expect obvious grunge references here. The music on Expanding Light is rather characterized by different structural features. In all pieces the improvisation threatens to trickle away at least once, it almost seems as if the musical means are exhausted (which isn’t meant in a negative way). What is more, all pieces contain very differently worked out duo passages, both in terms of length and musical conception. Sometimes they introduce a track (“The Outer Edge“ or “Desert Flower“), sometimes they dominate its center (“Expanding Light“). Finally, on closer listening it becomes clear that it’s Dickey who controls the directions of the improvisations with abrupt changes from the cymbals to the toms (or the other way round), while the saxophone oscillates between bumpy riffs and straightforward runs. Most of the time one instrument gives the interplay a certain stability, either it’s a walking bass or the long balladesque tones of the saxophone that push against the dislimitation of the others.

A good example of all this is the title track, in which the saxophone starts playing crystalline melodies, however they are dissolved immediately. While bass and drums energetically challenge the sax to accelerate the tempo, it finally does that, but then it slows down again, tries riffs, levers them out and even stops. The structural motif of trickling down is used here, too.

Still, there’s the exception to the rule and that’s “The Opening“, ironically the piece that closes the album. Brown’s extremely overblown saxophone is actually reminiscent of grunge, with its vibrato-drunk lines and extreme distortions that meet a drone-like bowed bass. “The Opening“ is more of a bouncer, an encore, which eventually also seeps away with a little drum solo.

All in all, a promising relaunch of Whit Dickey’s new trio. Expanding Light is a very recommendable album.

Expanding Light is available as a CD and a download. You can both listen to “The Outer Edge“ and buy the album on the label’s bandcamp site

You can also get it from www.downtownmusicgallery.com .

Monday, June 15, 2020

Keith Tippett (1947 -2020)

Keith Tippett. Photo by Richard Kaby(?)

By Martin Schray

Two years ago the Mulhouse Métèo Festival had announced Keith Tippett as the opening act of their festival. I was really excited and wanted to go and see him live for the first time. Unfortunately, he suffered a heart attack some weeks before the gig, followed by complications from pneumonia and was unable to work for the next few months. Now the seminal pianist, who was at home not only in free jazz but also in avant-garde and prog/art-rock, has passed away at the age of 72.

Tippett was born Keith Graham Tippetts in Bristol on August 25 in 1947. In the late 1960s he left for London, and started several projects with groups of various sizes like his sextet, and with fellow pianist Stan Tracey in the duo TNT, a 50-piece ensemble Centipede, and many other combinations. In the early 1970s he married Julie Driscoll, who was a famous singer with Brian Auger and the Trinity. From then on she collaborated with him using the name Julie Tippetts, adopting the original spelling of her husband's surname.

At a very early stage of his career Tippett was inspired by and closely associated with the Blue Notes - Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo - after they had eventually settled in London following their South African exile. Tippett kept up this connection to South Africa his whole musical life, e.g. with the Dedication Orchestra, which was founded to keep alive the South African legacy after all the Blue Notes musicians except Louis Moholo had passed away, and which released two recordings on the Ogun label: Spirits Rejoice and Ixesha (Time).

In the late 1960s and 1970 Tippett also moved easily between jazz and rock gaining some fame for playing with Soft Machine for a short period but mainly for his contributions to three early King Crimson LPs, In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands. King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp asked him to join the band as a full time member and even offered him making equal decision as to the musical direction, but Tippett rejected the offer: “I didn’t want to join King Crimson, not because I didn’t like King Crimson, I had great respect for the band, but I wanted to be doing other things, I didn’t want to just go out on the road for eighteen months. I had too much love for the sextet and it would have taken me away from the jazz scene.”

In this way, Tippett remained in the jazz scene and was able to establish himself as an outstanding band leader. Besides the sextet and Centipede there was Mujician, one of the most important free jazz ensembles on the British scene, actually an all-star group consisting of himself with Paul Dunmall (saxes), Paul Rogers (bass) and Tony Levin (drums). He also produced some notable music with the Tapestry Orchestra and his octet. What is more, Tippett was also a bridge-builder of European jazz playing with many greats of the free improv scene. He played with Peter Brötzmann, Willi Kellers and Hans Reichel and recorded for FMP.

However, in spite of his extensive discography with his many different groups, Tippett was mostly known for his solo works. By preparing his instrument he created very unconventional sound worlds, he used plastic detritus, pebbles, toys, woodblocks and other objects moving round inside the instrument atop the piano's strings, which enormously expanded the sound possibilities of the piano. The term “Mujician“, a blend of “magician“ and “musician“ coined by his daughter Inca, was not only given to his quartet but also to three FMP solo albums (and later a fourth one on Dark Companion).

Keith Tippett was an indispensable part of the free jazz scene, combining an astonishing technique, a deep understanding of the textural possibilities of the piano, and a genuine melodic touch. He released outstanding albums of free improvisation.You Are Here... I Am There with his first group (1970), Septober Energy (RCA, 1971) with Centipede (produced by Robert Fripp), Blueprint (RCA Victor, 1972) with his wife Julie on guitar and vocals, Roy Babbington on bass and Frank Perry and Keith Bailey on percussion, are wonderful examples of his early career. Tern (FMP, 1983) with Louis Moholo (drums) and Larry Stabbins (saxophones) and the solo albums Mujician I &II (FMP/SAJ, 1982 and 1987) are highlights of European free jazz. From his seven Mujician albums the first one, The Journey (Cuneiform, 1990), is a true gem. His piano duo with Howard Riley must be mentioned here, for exampleThe Bern Concert (FMR, 1994), as well as his octet recording The Nine Dances Of Patrick O’Gonogon (Discus, 2018). Personal favourites of mine are Twilight Etchings (FMP, 1996) with Julie Tippetts (voice) and Willy Kellers (drums) and The Making of Quiet Things (Slam Productions, 2006) under the moniker The Number with Gary Curson on sax and the rhythm twins John Edwards on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. Now his characteristic, grumbling, thundering piano cascades have faded away forever. The king of the lower registers is dead. Rest in peace, Keith Tippett.

Webber/Morris Big Band – Both Are True (Greenleaf Music, 2020) ****

By Nick Ostrum

It seems that more and more younger musicians have been experimenting with big bands lately. Anna Webber, who released the exquisitely realized Clockwise just last year, and Angela Morris, who recently performed on Jessica Pavone’s acclaimed Brick and Mortar, are among them. (For what it is worth, both albums were chosen for the FJB top 15 of 2019.)

In its conception, the Webber/Morris Big Band is distinctive. Webber and Morris share lead saxophone, compositional, and conducting duties. The band consists of 18 young New York-based musicians. The instrumentation is heavy on the horns (six saxophones [with all musicians doubling on flute or clarinet], four trumpets/flugelhorns, four trombones [including one bass trombone]). The rest of the ensemble is rounded out by a more conventional array of vibes, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. It should be unsurprising, then, that the brass and reeds drive the pieces on Both Are True.

The music nevertheless relies more on interweaving melodies and sonority than sheer force. In that. It reminds me a lot of Dave Holland’s big band works. Contemporary jazz grooves converge through frequent time and key changes. Complexes of wafting melodies intermingle with phased repetitions of eight-notes and slide into soft, stunted chords. Detours and flourishes abound, but never stray too far from the melodic/gravitational center. Some tracks, such as “Reverses”, include pulsing, looping ecologues of melody, heavily shaded with a distinctive romanticism. Others, especially the moving “Foggy Valley,” are more finely colored electroacoustic/experimental pieces.

In short, Both Are True is rich and deeply compelling. It is skillfully composed and beautifully rendered. At many points, it is even exceptional. Clearly, Webber and Morris can span the avant-garde and the mainstream. Though with feet on each side of this admittedly artificial spectrum (avant-garde cannot simply mean unpopular or unrecognized), Both Are True leans slightly toward the latter musical truth and, in its recorded form at least, is quite refined. Originally, I had written that as a critique. One fourth and fifth listen, however, I am not so sure that it is indeed a criticism so much as an observation. Take from that what you will.