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Friday, August 7, 2020

Interview with William Hooker

William Hooker (c) Peter Gannushkin

By Cam Scott

William Hooker is a consummate jazz musician, an honorific that fully encompasses his roving, multivalent output as a composer and improviser over the last forty-five years. His poetic approach to the drumkit, and his musical approach to the raw material of language, propels an immense discography, including last year’s Symphonie of Flowers—a multi-part tour de force that attests to the ongoing event of his creativity.

On July 9th 2020, during the fifth month of mandated social distancing, we sat down in different cities for a conversation about collaboration, composition, and the vertiginous times that we’re all living through.

CAM SCOTT : These are strange times to be talking about live music, but knowing that it persists in all kinds of ways in our daily lives, I thought I’d ask to start, how are you finding space for music in the time of corona?

WILLIAM HOOKER : Luckily enough I’m in a suburban place. I go back and forth between the city and the suburbs, and I have a drum set here. Which is really good, because when the spirit hits me, if it hits me, I can go and play. And I’m thinking of different ideas, things I want to do around this time, and what these times mean. Not only what they mean in terms of COVID, but also what they mean in terms of Black Lives Matter. Because I’m seeing that this is it, and trying to figure out ways to put that into a creative event. I don’t have communication with many musicians right now, which is fine because I know that everyone is under the gun with this thing. And that’s about it. To tell you the truth, it occupies a good space in my head. I don’t feel frustrated or like I’m going crazy if I don’t play with other individuals right now. So that’s where I’m at.

CS : As you say, there have been huge demonstrations, here in Winnipeg too, but in the United States especially. We’re in the midst of one of the largest uprisings in the ongoing history of the civil rights movement.

WH : And in the history of the United States, that’s what I just read.

CS : Where there’s a huge repository of politically emancipatory jazz music, including your own. I’ve been listening to Symphonie of Flowers , and the first section immediately summons the history of resistance to enslavement and oppression; ‘Chain Gangs’ is named for the travesty of forced labor, and ‘Freedom Riders’ for activists who protested segregation; and I feel like the music is buoyed by their struggle. And I think about your piece The Great Migration , which is a large scale work containing history. So I wanted to talk about two related matters, about the relationship of jazz and political movement, but also about jazz as a narrative art.

WH : I would say for myself that I’m always aware of the inspiration for certain compositions. So there’s always a connection between myself and something else, it doesn’t necessarily have to be freedom. It could be something cosmological. Some of the films I’ve dealt with, the silent films, it hits you over the head, like when you see Body and Soul by Oscar Micheaux. I know there’s a message and the message will come across. In most cases my audience is pretty intelligent, they really are, because they seek inspiration in art and music and film, in spoken word and poetry. So that automatically happens.

But jazz can talk about history because jazz itself is history. It’s the history of our people. It’s the history of this country. It’s the history of you and I together. It’s the history of everything that our being here is about. And if one just looks at it, and you don’t have to look at it that deeply, one can see this by the players, by what the players call their songs, what the players are doing, how they’re doing it, what kind of forms they’re using, because in many cases they’re using blues forms, or call and response forms. The form of jazz bears witness to history, to the players, to those who preceded us, and it bears witness to the times that we’re in; either the events that are happening right now, or events that we foresee happening. Jazz players are not only thinking about the present. Many, as you know, are thinking about the future … We can go deeper, but I don’t want to go deeper. I don’t want to confuse matters, I want people to realize that it’s easily accessible, all you have to do is be open. It’s likeable, it’s not something that’s scary. It’s not scary at all, I think it’s pretty inviting.

CS : You’re a poet as well as a musician, though perhaps the two are closer than I make them out to be. I feel like your drumming is remarkably close to the cadence of the voice, and highly phrasal even when you’re not accompanying speech, so I thought I’d ask how you see the relationship between poetry and music in your own practice.

WH : In many cases, I try to use sounds and letters and words in the same way that I use tones in music. Because of that I can weave them in and out of each other if I choose to, or I can use them separately, or in a run-on sentence. Because if you were improvising, you would do a run-on improvisation, it just goes on and on and on, for hours or minutes or whatever. So that essentially is the way I look at it, on a good day … Because I know that sound, abstract as it is, welcomes words. It welcomes the sound of the voice, and in many cases, it welcomes logic. Logic being the sentence, starting with a capital, ending with a period. Or if I don’t feel like doing that, it welcomes the Joycean creation of a new language. That’s the way I see the relationship of those two. I feel as though they’re very interactive, they’re very kind to each other. And for me it’s a very joyful experience, to be able to interject sound in music. Grunts, yells, and in the end there’s a period.

CS : This is a good moment to ask about your compositional approach, which seems to be based in a deep intuition and trust of your collaborators.

WH : True. And you saw that as well. I trust them, that’s why they were there. A lot of people aren’t witness to that, so they ask, where did he get this person? But you saw the relationship so that’s good. But go on.

CS : Symphonie of Flowers feels absolutely cohesive and there are clear movements. But within that structure you conduct breakaway duos and trios, it’s an archipelagic approach to composition. I wonder how you came to this way of thinking about form, and if you find players with the piece in mind, or if the piece is for the player, and the order of operations there.

WH : That’s a good question. But this question, Cam, is rooted in history. Because many of the songs that we play were written some time ago, they’re not new. I may have a library of songs. So I’ll put seven pieces of paper, which are the songs, into this folder, and after doing that I’ll figure out who should be playing what in each one of these. So automatically, just because this particular event is going to have different people playing on it, I’ve already got new timbres, new sounds, because I don’t use the same people and the same instrumentation. Which means that you could have the same piece in both sets, but if this part was done by a bass clarinet and this was done by a piano, it would sound completely different. Which leaves me with a lot of freedom, because obviously if I was playing with a person with a bass clarinet in this situation, or with a piano in this situation, I’d have to improvise in a different way. Then I can write new things, new passages, new interludes, new introductions and endings, new ways for one instrument to interact with another, and those aren’t in the composition itself. But they do make the event.

So it’s a balancing act, of trying to deal with the composition and the sound, and also deal with the open-endedness that’s created by the fact that I have different musicians doing different things. In an event like the one that you saw, we know the music, number one; the musicians know the relationship of one to the other, number two; and then I can guide it from the drums as opposed to standing in from with a baton, bringing people together. That can throw a person off sometimes, if they’re a little bit frightened by me taking them to another level, where I want to throw them out into space. So it’s not just a matter of writing a composition per se, and playing that composition. It’s a matter of really seeing and being visible and intuitive enough to understand that these musical instruments and these sounds have relationships that are opening the musicians and myself up to a trip, so that the entire thing, be it a piece or a multi-disciplinary event, all of those things can work together to make a cohesiveness.

CS : Let’s talk about the music as a social constellation. This interview is daunting for a few reasons, not least of all because you are a great interviewer yourself. Your podcast, The Lost Generation: Outside the Mainstream , is a wonderful resource, collecting conversations with so many great, and sometimes unheralded, musicians. So I thought I could ask you a question about asking questions. People often speak of jazz as a dialogue, but how do you think your own playing informs those conversations?

WH : First of all, I know the people I’m talking to. I like the people I’m talking to, that helps. And I think that all of us have a feeling about the story that we’re telling, and we also have a deep desire to tell the story, because we know it’s important. We know that this is part of the history that not many people have wanted to deal with. So that’s an easy one, because for me, it’s providing an outlet, just like you’re providing me with an outlet now. We’re just telling our stories, and all I have to do is keep it a little on point, let people go where they want to go, but also be cognizant of the fact that I want to find out about people’s music in this case, not about their personalities, what they’re like as people, if you like them or don’t like them, that’s a narrowing space for me. I’m just speaking for myself, somebody else might find that interesting. That’s just what I want to do. And everybody’s on board already, so it’s just a matter of getting everyone in one space, and the energy takes it to a good place, usually.

But basically, once the camera starts rolling, the train has left the station, and as long as I can keep it on track, it’s an exciting thing that happens. To tell you the truth, it’s one of the only times I feel that I really get the opportunity to talk to other musicians about their music and how they look at other people’s music. Because usually we see each other, we embrace, and we don’t see each for three months. So this gives us an opportunity to talk about how, wow, that person plays such and such, I really wonder what was going on, and then another person gets the opportunity to ask the same question. So the platform is there. I have certain questions, just like you do, that I ask. I have certain people I want to bring up that I think are important. That’s the format, and I’m sticking to that. And it’s worked so far. It’s just a matter of getting the idea out there as much as possible, so people know that it’s happening. And that these musicians existed, that they were even on the planet, that’s what the story’s about. So it fulfills itself.

CS : When you’re presenting works live, you give such magnanimous remarks about the individual players, I appreciate that. And you play with a huge range of musicians, from rock, electronic music, new music, and jazz. You’ve spoken about the history and form that inheres in the music, but there’s another question about the interrelationships of these genres. Do you hear it as idiomatically undifferentiated Music writ large or are you looking for discrete genres to stitch together?

WH : Both. Both. Because if I look for both, in that case it makes it easier for me to find the platform for the people that I’m working with, because I know that some people have chops in one direction, and some people have chops in another direction, and they may not even know each other. So that’s another thing. You have to recognize the fact that in many cases, they have to respect each other as well, in addition to my respecting them. I’m trying to figure out something that works together, so there’s not a clash of habits. Different people come with different chops, and sometimes they’re aware of it and can really transcend it, but in some cases I’m dealing with habitual behaviour, really. I’m listening to people that have played a certain way and they’re going to bring that regardless. They’re going to bring the volume, the feel, whatever it is about that genre that they’re really good in. And that’s why I call them, because they’re really good at what they do, and I want to add that to the sauce, right?

CS : This is another interesting layer to the question, because I was asking about the relationship of genres, but it sounds like from a certain standpoint, people and players are genres in themselves.

WH : In a sense. And it’s almost how the mind works, because sometimes you associate someone with something. I don’t know if that’s correct. Like if I said to you, Blue Cheer, you know what that sounds like.

CS : I do!

WH : So if I said that to you, automatically you would know what that is, and I know that you know what that is, so I don’t have to go through this whole thing with you. So I can choose that, it’s almost like making a salad. Some people are into what they’re into, and that’s cool. So it’s both for me, genre and transcending the genre, to make a hybrid music. I think that’s what comes out of it if I’m successful, a quality hybrid of all of these genres and personalities and different ways of looking at musical sound and form. That’s why I say it’s both. And that’s the reason why, back to this Lost Generation thing, I like talking to different people, because I find perspective on how to create this hybridity. Because they might not even know what they’re contributing when that happens, but through talking to them a little bit more, I find out what they’re about. So before we even make music together I have a sense of where I’m going with this.

CS : I think that accounts for the higher-level synthesis that comes across in the music.

WH : I try for that, I really do.

CS : You get there!

WH : Well, you saw it. Because I was dealing with electronic instruments, I was dealing with acoustic instruments. And in many cases I’m asking myself, how does this work? What kind of a synth is this? And thinking how to put it together with an acoustic instrument, and saying respectfully how this should work together, in my own way, without being dictatorial about it. Just out of respect.

CS : Your trajectory includes this almost Promethean moment when you move from traditional jazz to free music. As someone who for a long time has been committed to this music as a total ethic, both a way of life and listening, I was wondering if you could speak a little about that discovery, and what renews your commitment to the music.

WH : I’ll take this onto a little bit more of a cosmic level. What renews this, Cam, for me is number one that I think it’s very important that this happens. I’m very honoured to be a part of a tradition of drumming as well as music and artistry that makes me feel that this a significant contribution to humanity at large. And I will say that in many cases I really do believe that music has the power to change things. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of these people who says that if I play a certain tone all of a sudden there’s going to be food for those who are starving, I’m not one of those. But I think that in many cases, on a very subtle and unseen level, there’s change. Even if we think about the way the molecules change. So I feel that it’s a worthwhile thing to do. And if I felt as if there wasn’t going to be change, I wouldn’t do it. I’d become an accountant. Maybe that would work better.

But that’s the way I look at it, trying to find activities that are wholesome for me and wholesome for other people, trying to find opportunities for those are out there, and for those that are new to it as well. Because I know that everybody didn’t just wake up one day knowing the whole history of jazz. But it’s like Black Lives Matter. Everybody there, they don’t necessarily know who W.E.B. Dubois is. They don’t necessarily know who Frantz Fanon is. But they do know that there’s a time for change, and they do know that they want to contribute to that change. That’s kind of how I look at it. I’m trying to be present as much as possible. I hope that answers your question. I don’t want to look back. In a time of pandemic, how far can I look? So I won’t take you into any particular era, because they all change, and I’m very happy that they have changed. And I’m happy that I can talk to you about Blue Cheer and about Morricone in the same breath. That’s where I’m coming from.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Scene Spotlight: Sidebar (New Orleans, LA)

Andy Durta, booking manager for the
New Orleans club 
Sidebar with Ken Vandermark

By Nick Ostrum

I first dropped the idea of an interview to Andy Durta, booking manager for the New Orleans club Sidebar, at the end of 2019. I had envisioned a quick discussion about the New Orleans improv scene and Sidebar’s unique place within it. Coming around the 3 rd anniversary of the Scatterjazz music series at venue and just before the venue, bar included, celebrates its 5th anniversary this August, I had originally thought the discussion would be somewhat more triumphant than what transpired when Andy and I finally got to sit down on Zoom on May 30. By then, we (New Orleans) had been under quarantine for two months. Andy and Sidebar mastermind Keith Magruder had meanwhile converted all of Sidebar’s programming first to audience-less performances in the venue itself, then to DIY live streams from people’s living rooms and attics. In true New Orleans fashion, these shows broadcast for free with an encouraged donation to the artists and venue.

Many of you may have visited New Orleans in the past. If you were really committed, you might have spent some time searching the free papers or online for non-traditional venues and acts with the hopes of eschewing the throngs of Frenchman Street. And, if the stars aligned, you might have come across shows with the likes of Jeff Albert, Tristan Gianola and Jason Mingledorf (three local jazzers) or Gordon Grdina (Vancouver) with Simon Berz (Switzerland) and Cyrus Nabipoor (New Orleans) or Tim Berne (New York), James Singleton and Aurora Nealand (both of New Orleans). Add another Gordon Grdina night and a trio with local lap-guitar wizard Dave Easley, and these are the first shows I attended at Sidebar. And this spread of musicians was hardly a fluke. Instead, it is emblematic of what the venue has so effectively offered. A local club, most of its shows consist of New Orleans-based musicians, many of whom have made their name in other musical circles but have meanwhile maintained a deep interest in experimental music. Think: Nealand and Albert, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Nicholas Payton, and, of course, the incomparable Kidd Jordan. Often enough, Andy is also able to get national and international musicians – ranging from Berne and Grdina to Frank Gratkowski, Ingrid Laubrock, and the Humanization 4tet – to join these locals and create some pretty magical evenings.

Alright. This is too quickly turning into a love letter to a club and a time temporarily past, so I will get to the point. I am not exaggerating when I say that in just five years, Sidebar has become the epicenter of free jazz in New Orleans and Andy Durta has been central to that process. The interview above is somewhat sprawling. It starts with a recent show by Swedish concert-hall trombonist Elias Faingersh and wends into stories about years of concert organizing, gratifying passages of name-dropping, and an interesting claim about how many of the most exciting shows that Andy has organized have simply “fallen into (his) lap.” More seriously, the interview also digs into some of the real challenges and frustrations of organizing shows both before and during Covid, and the merits of the struggle to keep improvised music live and accessible. And, if you bear with us for the entire hour, you will hear some colorful stories about Andy and Louis Moholo as they raced to the Yells at Eels show that Ayler Records would later release as Cape of Storms, as well as some beautiful final thoughts.

NB: This interview was recorded at the end of May. The references to upcoming events are therefore outdated. However, I just got word that the Sidebar is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a Webathon of performances from some local jazz and blues musicians (including the local legend Walter “Wolfman” Washington) and sprinkling of more progressive players such as Isabelle Duthoit & Franz Hautzinger, both of whom are featured in the interview. Shows will run August 7-9. Afterwards, the venue will go quiet for a few weeks as Keith and Andy take a well-deserved break. Here’s hoping the hiatus does not last too long.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Miracle –s/t (Mr. Nakayasi Records, 2020) ****

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

If I had to put a subtitle to this recording in one word, it would be flexibility or mobility. The three musicians that make The Miracle move easily between genres (call it jazz, rock, funk) and seem ready and able to exchange ideas on the spot. Giotis Damianidis’ fluid bass works tremendously well with Joao Lobo’s free drumming. They leave enough room for the soulful sounds of Giovanni Di Domenico’s Hohner Pianet. The Pianet, a risky choice by itself, is a type of electro-mechanical piano, an instrument that produces a mix (to my unskilled ears at least) of jazzy and funk melodies at the same time.

The two side-long tracks that comprise this vinyl, Eulogia which means blessing in greek and Aforismos which means expulsion from the church literally, follow a basic trajectory. Both, in their more than 20 minutes durations, evolve slowly incorporating on the spot interaction from the three musicians. At first you can’t avoid the remark that the pianet seems to dominate in both tracks.

But as you devote more time to The Miracle, you realize how disciplined is Di Domenico’s playing when it comes to do exactly the opposite: to allow time and space for the rhythm section to evolve and get involved in lengthy dialogues. Those dialogues are so joyous and energetic that you never want them to end. All this energetic joy, these good vibrations so evident throughout the 43 minutes of The Miracle, comes in a crossover package that defies categorization. Is it a jazz record? Certainly it is. How funky it is? Too funky I’d say and that’s a big advantage in my agenda.

All three of them can really make you move, while you listen to The Miracle. They swing in the good old-fashioned way. I have commented before for this blog, that sometimes improvisational recordings have the tendency to be really dry and unplayful. While free jazz, even at its peak in the 60’s and 70’s, incorporated the element of playfulness and joy. All this mobility that I initially wrote will make you move your ass in an improvisational way.


Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Kahil El'Zabar - Spirit Groove (Spiritmuse Records, 2020) ****

By Stef Gijssels

No need to introduce Kahil El'Zabar's percussive and musical power to you, nor to introduce tenor saxophonist David Murray either.  El'Zabar and Murray have collaborated on previous albums, "Golden Sea" (1989), "One World Family" (2000), "Love Outside Of Dreams" (2003), "We Is - Live At The Bop Shop" (2004), mostly for duo performances and once with Fred Hopkins on bass. This is the first time that they play in a quartet with a harmonic instrument. They are joined by Justin Dillard on keyboards and Emma Dayhuff on double bass.

Fans of the master percussionist will enjoy this fully and "Spirit Groove" is possibly the most aptly chosen title possible. There are no real surprises musically, because the band stays within the sonic language that El'Zabar has developed and been perfecting over the years, with trance-inducing never-ending repetitive rhythms and vocals sung like incantations. No surprise either with the strong and authentic emotional and spiritual feel of the music. There's no surprise either about the strong musicianship and the great interplay.

The real surprise is that after all these decades, the music has not lost anything of its infectious nature. This is not free jazz, but jazz that reaches back to many roots: blues, jazz, African music, but it is brought with a freedom of structure and freedom of harmonic development that makes anything possible. This is, as El'Zabar says himself, music that "intends to move you nakedly with a deep sense of dance on a Mind/Body/Spirit level".

The power of the music is its intimate connectedness with the audience, even for the parts that were not recorded live. This is music that wants the listener to join in, to dance along and sing along and play along.


Listen and download from Bandcamp. Also available as a double vinyl LP.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Jazz 2020, Lisbon, Portugal. Part II

© Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

By Paul Acquaro

I'm very thankful for the excellent condition of my rented mountain bike's brakes at the moment. Since picking it up from a shop near the river, I had been riding up, up the Avenue de Liberdade, past the tourist shops with cork hats and colorful tiles, past the many restaurants and upscale shops, past the tree lined pedestrian strips, up into Parque Eduardo VII, and beyond. Now, I am headed quickly down a winding street, the ancient Roman aqueduct towering on my left, as well as large panel truck. I finally get to an underpass that takes me to the other side of the highway where I pick up what seems to be a newly created bike lane, which winds it way back up to my destination, the Parque Florestal de Monsanto. 

At the top of the hill is a transmission tower and what seems to be an old listening station, a modern ruin serving as an observation deck, but currently closed due to COVID. Regardless, the sculpted hiking and biking trails offer plenty of other views, old ruins, and opportunity to get lost among the trees. Then, it is time to go down again, and I praise my brakes once more as I descend towards the Tower of Belem, by the riverside. Back at the aptly named Lisbon Bike Rentals, the fellow running the store tells me that he likes to get his morning biking-laps done up on the mountain, and I cannot think of a better way to begin a day myself.

So, yes I'm a bit tired by the time the concert starts in the evening, but it's a good tired, and I'm ready for the transcendent experience that trumpeter Susana Santos Silva's Impermanence band delivers.

Night 2, Aug 1: Susana Santos Silva's Impermanence
Susana Santos Silva's Impermanence 
© Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva has been beguiling avant-garde and improvised music fans for a number of years already. In fact, if you were looking for an international star in these concerts, it is likely her. From early works like 2011's Oneiros to haunting solo works like 2018's All the Rivers – Live at Panteão Nacionalboth on Clean Feed, to 2020's The Ocean Inside a Stone on Porta-Jazz, with several in between (read an interview from 2015 with Silva here.)

My colleague Lee Rice Epstein gave Impermanence's new recording Ocean Inside a Stone a rave review, writing:
"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."

For a little background, the band Impermanence, I believe, first appeared on the album Impermanence from 2015. The line-up is Silva on Trumpet, João Pedro Brandão on saxophone and flute, Hugo Raro on piano and synthesizer, Torbjörn Zetterberg on electric bass and Marcos Cavaleiro on drums, so some intersection with the group Coreto from the previous evening, and the chemistry of the tight-woven Porta jazz scene is apparent from the moment they hit their first note.

They begin with a punchy rock inflected drum beat over an elastic bass line. The trumpet and sax join with an octave jumping, fractious melody creating friction with the atmospheric bass line. Maybe that is giving too much credit to the bass alone, as the synthesizer adds a great deal of depth and ambiance. The overall effect however casts a slightly melancholic parlor over powerful psychedelic rock. The solos in general are not vehicles to impress, but rather channels that enhance the moods of the pieces. Mood is what this music seems to be about, the music invites - or rather demands - the listener to hear visually. Images that come to my mind are natural, organic, flowing. As the pieces morph from hard charging rockers to ambient rolling movements the crashing waves become eddying streams. Rivers run through this visceral music, you feel the pulse even when you cannot discern a structure.

Free improvised passages merge into bifurcated solos. Silva and Brandão play off, around, and with each others lines. Brandão's switching between sax, alto clarinet, and flute adds new tonalities, as does the shifting sounds of the synthesizer and piano. A captivating passage begins with a Hammond organ patch on the synth that quickly adopts a circus-like cadence, which is then matched with an appropriately off-kilter melody. The mental images switch from the flowing waters to gracefully arching trapeze artists and then to clowns riding elephants. However, even this seemingly joyful moment is underscored with a bit of a brooding, unidentified menace. An explosive bass solo, full of distortion and feedback, ends this spectacular old-time reverie, and ushers the group into a unique vision of sludgy stoner rock. A later highlight is a duo exchange from Silva and Brandão, unfettered and free, it is an exciting duet before a drum solo that becomes a world-music piece as the horn players exchange their typical instruments for penny flutes.

The constant, uninterrupted shifts of tones, timbres, and tempos keeps the music flowing, and it's focused and precise nature makes it an utterly compelling listening experience. The set was just over an hour, but the distance traveled was immense.

Night 3, Aug 2: Angélica Salvi and The Selva

It's windy this evening, colder as well. The day was brilliant however, as I walked through some new neighborhoods from the Gulbenkian grounds where I had been sitting to finish up the previous nights write up (and ate a Pastel de nata from the cafeteria) to the ruins of the Moorish Castelo de São Jorge,  perched high above the river front. With few tourists, it was a pleasure to take in the views and walk over antiquity.

Angélica Salvi 
© Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

Spanish born, but a long time Porto resident, harpist Angélica Salvi is a wispy presence on the stage. She quickly slides behind the imposing and beautiful concert harp, all but disappearing. From my vantage point, she is essentially just two arms with hands gently curled around the vertical strings. To her left is a set up of electronics that she uses to enhance and loop her primarily acoustic sound. She begins with a delicate thrum of the strings, then proceeding to pluck out an emergent tune through richly amplified tones. The songs have a folk-like feel to them, though presented in a proper classical manner. The mixture works remarkably well.

The second song is enhanced by the electronics, the melodic arpeggios are captured, reversed, and returned, providing a shadow of accompaniment. Salvi uses this combination of acoustic and electronics to weave a hypnotic sonic web, building up to gentle cascading crescendos, and dissolving into barely perceptible whispers. The last song breaks this silky sound tapestry with its purposefully struck deep melodic tones. The phrases themselves move mysteriously, drawing on Middle Eastern modalities. The song is also the fiercest, as Salvi begins to duet with her effects, her sound splitting into a swarm of insects. 

It's a brief but mesmerizing show. My only other introduction to Salvi was through he absolutely stunning 2015 duo album Concentric Rinds with guitarist Marcelo Dos Reis from Cipsela, and I will be searching out more.

The Selva © Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

After a brief pause, the three members of The Selva silently approach the stage: Ricardo Jacinto on cello, Gonçalo Almeida on double bass, and Nuno Morão on drums, a small group that generates an otherworldly sound.

They begin with the rumble of the bass and scraping overtones from the cello. Almeida proceeds to use mallets on his basses body, turning it into another drum. Supported by the 'real' drums, the band starts to hum, creating a dark, trepid thrum of sound. Jacinto tosses in a haunting theme to top it off. Then, the drums begin playing with a free-jazz style pulse, over the basses texture. The stage, suffused in red light, charges the ampitheater with a pregnant sinister atmosphere.

The Selva have two recordings out on Clean Feed, the self-titled 2017 debut and last years Canícula Rosa. They are described in various ways: minimalist, abstract, textural, and post-rock. Suffice to say, this is all true, and more. Emerging from the dark place that the trio just musically achieved, there is a repeated, simple figure from the cello and a groove amplified by the drums, making it safe to add 'prog-rock' to the list of descriptors. This movement, or section, builds in intensity and heft. Interestingly, it is only the drums that is offering any sense of melodic movement at the moment, the others are building layers of sound. This eventually dissolves, and the the bass takes over with a clean rhythmic figure, as the cello begins a new Gamelan-like phrase. The two begin stacking sounds anew, with moments of interlocking rhythms and textures. The final movement features Almeida and Jacinto bowing, the sound is awash in overtones while Morão finds an asymmetrical groove to ratchet up the energy. Settling into long, static lines, the drama increases until the gut wrenching tension breaks. 

The next piece (after this 25 minute epic, the pieces get shorter in duration, but even more intense) begins with some playful mayhem, which leads to some intense sawing at the strings. Then, a classical-tinged melody appears. The following piece begins with some feedback from the cello - it's not entirely possible to tell if it's intentional or not, but the bassist picks up on it and begins an insistent line. The drums then clicks into a minimalist groove and the bass line transfers to the cello, and the trio begins spinning a captivating sonic net.

As the following piece begins, a group of people leave the amphitheater. Astounding. The music isn't of course traditional jazz, nor is it gentle, rather it is texture, tension, and time, spinning around in the air before you. This is musical energy, and the group is now playing with space, the bass going deep, offering deep oscillating tones (there are electronics being used as well) as the cello delivers a mournful droning melody. Single pizzicato notes carry the listeners across the chasm. I found it hard to leave, even after the music was over.

Jazz 2020 continues next weekend. More info here.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Jazz 2020, Lisbon, Portugal. Part I

© Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

July 31, 2020


It is quiet in Lisbon, relatively speaking. The same streets that were teeming with tourists this time last year, even impassable at times, now allow for wide berth. Even the precipitous, winding streets of Barrio Alto, with its (at best) foot wide sidewalks, seem spacious.

The seats of the Gulbenkian amphitheater, a mid-century modern theater, which sits on a carp pond ensconced by trees and surrounded by lush garden, are also more spaced out this year. One seat open, two seats taped off. Reducing capacity by two thirds is a big deal, but the Gulbenkian Foundation has taken recent health measures seriously, from social distancing to requiring masks for the entire time anyone is in the theater. However, they feel it is worth it to continue the tradition of the Jazz em Agosto in light of the global pandemic that has impacted just about every aspect of public life this past year. It is also worth noting that Jazz em Agosto is not necessarily happening this year either ... rather Jazz 2020 is a modified, re-thought festival, both more local and more spread out than Jazz em Agosto, with a solid roster of Portuguese musicians and groups peppered over two weekends in Lisbon and the cities of Porto and Coimbra.

It is around 6 p.m. on the first night of shows (like Jazz em Agosto, there are shows Friday - Sunday on two consecutive weekends) and the evening big-band, Coreto, from Porto, is sound-checking. It's exciting to hear some live music - even if it's just snippets - in the air.  

"The musicians haven't really had work in 3 or 4 months," says Jazz em Agosto musical director Rui Neves, "it's really important to do this."

The Jazz em Agosto concerts have been going on for 36 editions, and number 37 was ready to go. "We were going to announce the line-up," says Neves, "but it became obvious that it couldn't happen as planned, so we decided to do something different."

At the at the start of the pandemic, the Gulbenkian Foundation put together funding to support artists, José Pinto, Deputy Director, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Music Department, adds. Then, re-thinking the festival concept, they began to work in cooperation with the Jazz ao Centro Clube (JACC) in Coimbra and Porto Jazz in Porto, two groups that support musicians and create opportunities in their respective regions of the country, and organized Jazz 2020, featuring more local talent. 

The local focus is nothing to sniff at says Neves. In fact, readers of this publication will have no trouble identifying albums and musicians that support this sentiment. Especially in regards to labels like Lisbon's own Clean Feed, Creative Sources, and Coimbra's Cipsela, to just name a few, the impact of the region on improvised and avant-garde jazz has been astounding. Ironically, the organizers note that if that there is one good thing from this situation, is that it is nice to have a chance show off these musicians.

The band finishes up their soundcheck and the bits and pieces of sound wafting over the empty seats subsides. Soon enough, those seats will be full, as the weekend's concerts are already sold out.

Night 1: Coreto

Coreto © Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

The day was cooling off, the breeze was picking up. The sky a deep purple and a few bats flittering in the air above the stage reflect from the lights below. The amphitheater has a calming atmosphere, the trees towering over and the orange glow on the stage makes it feels cozy. The band emerges from a stair well that pops out of the lawn behind the stage and take to their instruments. Coreto is a 12-piece band led by saxophonist/flutist and composer João Pedro Brandão. The players arrange themselves in two layers: a semi circle of wind instruments: alto sax, two tenor sax, baritone sax, two trumpets, and two trombones, and in front, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. It is a big group with a lot of musical possibilities, of which Brandão's compositions and arrangements makes expert use. 

The group opens with a repeated arpeggiated figure played by the guitar. This is overlaid with a somber melodic line from the horns, chord tones shift a bit and then the ostinato moves to the piano and the group kicks in with a graceful lumbering melody. The first solo passage is from trumpeter Ricardo Formoso, who introduces flowing lines over the undulating rhythm. The next piece begins with an austere bass figure, which is soon joined by a languid, full-bodied melody. The tune could almost be described as smooth, except there is some rhythmic mischief happening. Ripples of polyrhythms bubble up under the smooth surface. These figures grow stronger, a more forceful presence measure-by-measure. When trumpeter Susana Silva Santos takes over the solo line, she overlays elongated tones with touches of dissonance. The accompaniment reduces to the front-line, which helps the trumpeter outline the unseen edges of the music. A promising start, by all means. 

The next tune began in the free jazz tradition with blips and whooshes, percussive taps, and spluttering horns. Soon solidified by a bass and drum pattern, the reeds take over with an interval leaping melody. Guitarist AP takes the first solo, playing with an effected modern jazz guitar tone, he builds slowly and without flash, slowly picking up tempo and playing denser and denser lines until reaching a solid peak. Then, there is a contrast for Andrea Santos' trombone solo, which she plays over a much starker accompaniment. 

The fourth tune was perhaps a centerpiece, not just in the timing of the generous hour and a half show, but also from the recording that most of the songs of the evening's show were sourced. Analog, from 2017, and out on the Porta Jazz label, is built around Brandão's music. The songs are detailed, and robust combinations of styles and approaches, appropriating a lot from traditional big band voicings and tropes, but interjecting unusual transitions, unexpected twists, and shifting time signatures that keep the listener hooked. There is plenty of room for improvisation, which all of the players use to breath even more life into the songs. However, back to the fourth tune, 'Analog II: SOS,' begins with a series of 'bits' of morse-code, overlaid with a recorded voice over saying "rhythm is the key to good sending. If your code is to mean anything to others over the radio-net, then you have got to sent rhythmically." A bit tongue-in-cheek, but also seemingly a mission statement for the group.

The band has the potential for creating a powerful sound, but this is approached with discretion. Precision, smart arrangements, and a mindfulness of tradition, and of each other, helps craft their use use of volume and balance. No one voice dominates, though there are some stand-out moments. For example, on a later piece pianist Hugo Raro's near solo interlude is one. With his hands in seeming disagreement, he developed an off-kilter and delicate melody leading back to the powerful entry of Rui Teixeria on baritone sax. To interject one criticism, there were also moments of near kitsch, purposely so, but after stronger moments like the aforementioned one, the lightness of these moments seemed perhaps a bit too light. Coreto wrapped up with a tune that featured a powerful, edge trombone solo from Diniel Dias and an engaging moment with Brandão on flute and the other horns providing squiggling accompaniment.

So, perhaps the concert could be seen as a wonderful re-entry to live music for many in attendance. Set in the amphitheater against the lush gardens, with generous musical arrangements from the stage, and a socially distanced audience ready for the experience, there was little more to hope for - except for maybe no global pandemic.

Listen to Coreto's "Analog" here: 

Coreto © Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian – Vera Marmelo

The band:
João Pedro Brandão Alto saxophone / Flute
José Pedro Coelho Tenor saxophone
Hugo Ciríaco Tenor saxophone
Rui Teixeira Baritone saxophone
Ricardo Formoso Trumpet
Susana Santos Silva Trumpet
Daniel Dias Trombone
Andreia Santos Trombone
AP Electric guitar
Hugo Raro Piano
José Carlos Barbosa Doublebass
José Marrucho Drums

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Sam Eastmond: Spike Orchestra and Gulgoleth

Spike Orchestra - Splintered Stories (Tzadik, 2020) ****
Sam Eastmond - Gulgoleth (Chant Records, 2019) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

In the years since Sam Eastmond and his big band joined the Tzadik roster, Spike Orchestra has recorded John Zorn’s Masada books Book of Angels and The Book Beri’ah. Now, on their fourth proper album, Eastmond and co. return with all originals, composed with all the layered, allusive density that’s become a hallmark of Eastmond’s other bands. As before, Spike Orchestra features Noel Langley, George Hogg, and Yazz Ahmed on trumpet; Mike Wilkins, Damon Oliver, Josephine Davies, and Gemma Moore on saxes and assorted winds; Harry Brown and Tim Smart on trombone; Jeff Miller on tuba; and a rhythm section of pianist Olly Chalk, guitarist Moss Freed, bassist Otto Willberg, and drummer Will Glaser.

The album cover, a photo featuring books by George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Charles Bukowski, Lenny Bruce, Ian Fleming, Margaret Atwood, and others, hints at the depth of references, as well as the compositions’ wry wit and sustained drama. Opener “The Pink Shagpile Carpet Story, aka The King of Spank,” kicks off with four minutes of call and response between brassy explosions commingled with the rhythm section and teasing invocations from the woodwinds. When the melody drops into place, trumpets swing at multiple octaves above the saxophones, creating a thrilling vertical space—it’s an excitingly Thad Jones/Mel Lewis-inspired moment that shows off the tremendous skills of Spike Orchestra’s lineup. Propelled by Freed’s Morricone-esque commentary, the orchestra shifts into a lengthy, hard-charging finale that positively jumps and shouts—in another, better time, you and a club of patrons would not be able to sit still for this one (n.b., my family’s been up and dancing about the living room to this album several times already). I’ve written about Eastmond’s Ellingtonian flourishes in the past, but the penchant for orchestral movements comes to the fore on Splintered Stories. “Here & Now” probes some deeply conspiratorial territory (echoes of Darcy James Argue from across the pond and amped by several more years of dread and disappointment), with a “Peter Gunn”-quoting churn, driven by Chalk, Freed, Willberg, and Glaser’s unrelenting funk undercurrent. Midway, a duo of trumpet and sax solos crisscrosses several countermelodies, disrupting the aged spy motif with the chaos of the present. We often use words like “elegiac” to describe something soft or plaintive in music. But Wilkins’s clarinet solo sounds closer to a true elegy, a reflection on what’s lost when the spy fantasies of our youth ripen to the tangled, sickening truth of the current moment. Though, perhaps, we can invert that interpretation, and hear this as a lament for what we’ve gained. That, like Odin, we sacrifice willingly, losing not our literal eye but our metaphoric vision of the world as it was. Heady stuff, for sure, but that doesn’t undercut the amount of plain old fun to be had with Splintered Stories. For readers who haven’t heard them yet, Spike Orchestra is a kindred spirit of our beloved Angles, whose biting wit and superb musicianship can be heard on songs like “Let’s Speak About the Weather (And Not About the War).” Like Martin Küchen, Eastmond is a master composer and arranger, and he and his band have delivered one of the most dangerously delirious albums of the year.

In the US, order direct from Downtown Music Gallery

In the UK or EU, order direct from Rough Trade.

Earlier this year, Eastmond debuted a new set of compositions, Gulgoleth, featuring his standing rhythm section of Freed, Willberg, and Glaser, joined by pianist Elliot Galvin. The album includes a version of “Standing On the Shoulders of Giantslayers” that’s markedly more nimble than the Spike Orchestra version from Splintered Stories. In place of the tapestry of horns, the quartet’s performance is buffeted by Glaser’s outstanding drumming set against Galvin and Freed’s rich, flowing performance. From the jump, the music is angular, raw, and driving. I don’t think Freed is as well known on this side of the Atlantic, which is something worth remedying. He has an especially playful approach, pivoting from echoey space-age chords to thrashing jazz metal riffs. Similarly, Galvin’s piano playing encompasses the wide range of styles on display here—the 10-minute “In the Grip of the Lobster” is one standout song that really highlights Galvin’s mutability. On a recent episode of Huw Williams’s podcast, Galvin talked about the influence Craig Taborn has on his piano playing. Throughout Gulgoleth, that’s more apparent than ever, I think, in part because you can hear how adeptly he moves from supporting player to lead, and how expertly he responds to Eastmond’s blend of abstract concepts and genre motifs. And then there are Willberg and Glaser, who form the dark heart of this music, driving both groups forward with great skill and a sense of humor that nicely complements Eastmond’s.

Of note, during the pandemic, Eastmond started working with arrangements of the Gulgoleth book for solo performers. The first is Brice Catherin on solo cello and electric cello.

Order Gulgoleth from Bandcamp

Order Gulgoleth: Solo Works from Bandcamp