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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Matthew Shipp - The Piano Equation (Tao Forms, 2020) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

It’s nearly impossible to write about pianist Matthew Shipp without at least nodding towards 2020 marking his sixtieth year (a milestone that properly arrives in December). Although not on the same scale as Satoko Fujii’s kanreki project, which saw her celebrate sixty years with twelve new albums, Shipp has planned a number of releases in 2020, including two for Whit Dickey’s Tao Forms label. The first is The Piano Equation, a solo album featuring eleven new improvisations. More numbers: it’s twenty-five years since Shipp went into the studio to record Symbol Systems, his first solo piano album. Some tracks on The Piano Equation are four minutes long, unless they’re three, five, or seven (four plus three). Yet, as soon as a numerological structure appears to reveal itself, it falls apart, clustered and dispersed, cyclical, until it isn’t. That’s the fragile, fractal beauty of Shipp’s music. Shipp has talked about the center of his music being life itself. Attempting to impose a cosmology onto his mode of improvisation isn’t beyond the pale, but what continues to mark him as one of the most fascinating artists is how he never stops reaching, not once in thirty years, no matter how far out of grasp answers may lie.

As a soloist, Shipp is undeniably remarkable. Free improvisation is sometimes dogged by its most famous practitioners (how many quasi-Ornettes and faux-Aylers have passed through these hallowed halls), yet Shipp has always seemed to exist within and alongside the main streams. On the opener, “Piano Equation,” the heart-stopping gorgeousness of some passages gives way to a curious, rhythmically constrained coda. “Swing Note From Deep Space” sets 100 years of jazz piano on fire, less effigy than passionate reconfiguration. Like Cecil Taylor, he draws on influences now 100 years old, inflecting his uniquely cellular playing with elements of stride and swing. Shipp’s musical language, however, is completely different from Taylor’s, even if they share some of the same alphabet. “Piano In Hyperspace” begins with moments of lightness and exploration, then subtly reflects back motifs from “Piano Equation,” and a cosmic order begins shifting into place.

Some of The Piano Equation’s finest moments come as a result of the closeness of the recording, which perfectly captures Shipp’s presence at the instrument. “Land of the Secrets,” for instance, offers listeners an open, warm-toned piano contrasted with angular pedalling. The details captured in the recording make for an inviting experience, one of Shipp’s finest solo albums, in a long line of very fine solo albums. Jim Clouse of Park West Studios has worked with Shipp for about 10 years, and he’s become an attentive collaborator. The range of dynamics and alternating silences of “Tone Pocket” settle into a passage of meditative sustained clusters, and Clouse captures all of it with care.

The final three tracks play out their own cosmic triptych. “Radio Signals Equation” is one of the more challenging performances from Shipp, daring listeners to keep track of its signal through the noise of competing arcs. “Emission” responds to itself with tight flocks of high notes, fluttering off the keyboard. Then, “Cosmic Juice” affords another glimpse of the whole, with its bold and striking opening and deep, bellow-like rumbling. Although there are no seemingly direct references or recurring motifs, the whole represents Shipp’s palindromic approach, like the universe itself: big bang to heat death, radio to gamma waves, cosmic to terrestrial.

Order direct from Tao Forms / Aum Fidelity

Or from your nearest brick and mortar shop.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Aly Keïta, Jan Galega Brönnimann, Lucas Niggli – Kalan Teban (Intakt, 2019) ****½

By Nick Ostrum

This album is a real treat. The second release by the trio of the Ivorian balafon and kalimba master Aly Keïta, the Swiss reedman Jan Galega Brönnimann, and the Swiss percussionist extraordinaire Lucas Niggli, Kalan Teban consists of twelve tracks of infectious Eurafrican polyrhythmic bliss. That may sound overstated and, admittedly, I have little exposure to African music apart from a few Ethiopiques collections, some Nigerian Afrobeat artists, and the South African expats in the Blue Notes and Brotherhood of Breath circles. Then again, why should one equate these provenances and styles with the creations of two Cameroonian-born Schweizer and a balafonist from Cote d’Ivoire simply because they might have shared, at times, a continent?

What, moreover, should one expect from this combination of talents? If you are familiar with Kalo Yele, the trio’s first release, you know what you are in for. For those who are not, Kalan Teban is an exploration of musical forms centered around complex drumming, dreamy clarinet melodies, and Keïta’s hypnotic, wending waltzes atop his keys. The song structures – melodic or vamped introduction, theme/refrain, improvisations around the theme, refrain…flourishing coda – harken to a jazz tradition. The rhythmicism, however, is presumably more rooted in a West African lineage. I am particularly struck by the balance between the unfamiliarity of sounds and phrases on the one hand and the familiarity of the structure. The latter gives me something to hold to ground myself. The former, elevates the music to a realm that is entrancing. This music really is mesmerizing, as the best percussion explorations are. And, it is elevated. Not just in terms of a refined art, which it surely is. This music is also elevated in the sense that it is uplifting and optimistic, even when it is at its most gentle and pensive.

Clearly I am fumbling over descriptors, here, so I will get to the point. I initially picked this album up because I was intrigued by the line-up of musicians and convinced that “world music” (a term I am desperately trying to avoid) on Intakt would be something special. I decided to review it not only because I was right (h/t to self), but because this is the type of album that I would normally not notice unless I was intently searching for something different from my normal fare or read about it on a trusted source. And, had I not given Kalan Teban a chance, I would have missed out on an album whose hopeful spirit and sheer colorful brilliance provide a pronounced contrast to the doldrums in which we have all lately been wading. A timely album, and one that rewards repeated listens.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Latest Releases from Peter Brötzmann

Peter Brötzmann. We do not say much more. 79 years old and still taking chances, looking for new challenges, and reaching an energy level that most other musicians only envy at.

Peter Brötzmann / Fred Lonberg-Holm - Memories of a Tunicate (Relative Pitch, 2020) ****

Memories of a Tunicate is the third duo album from Brötzmann and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (who also adds electronics here). The two began collaborating in Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet and later in the ADA Trio with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love.

This meeting, recorded in studio in June 2019, is a raw, muscular, and brutal one, a natural atmosphere for both Brötzmann and Lonberg-Holm, and the titles of the pieces, all named after obscure sea creatures, intensify this spirit. Brötzmann and Lonberg-Holm sound energetic, charged with a ton of fresh, urgent ideas and eager to comment on each other’s gestures. The dirty, distorted electronics effects and pedals of Lonberg-Holm, often sounding like a battered electric guitar or some out-of-tune industrial machine, with his aggressive cello playing fit perfectly the anguished wailing and shouts of Brötzmann. Lonberg-Holm knows how to avoid sliding into sentimentality when Brötzmann tries one of his angry, lyrical cries, especially on the last piece “Stolidobranchia”.

Brötzmann takes in this tough and rough meeting the role of the responsible adult, maintains a strong and clear voice, sometimes angry and sometimes gentle and openly emotional. Lonberg-Holm is the wild and anarchistic card here, injecting subversive noises, ironic tones of a haunted guitarist or simply enjoying the role of an experimental sound artist. But these contrasts and this kind of nervous tension generate the best out of Brötzmann and Lonberg-Holm, as both feed each other’s moves and ignite many intense, explosive moments.

Peter Brötzmann / Paul G. Smyth - Tongue in a Bell (Weekertoft, 2020) ****

Irish free-improvising pianist Paul G. Smyth has worked with some of the most daring sax players: Charles Gayle, Lol Coxhill, John Butcher, and Evan Parker alongside other idiosyncratic improvisers as Derek Bailey, Keiji Haino, Wadada Leo Smith, and Damo Suzuki. He managed to earn the respect of Brötzmann, who rarely records with pianists (Smyth is much younger than the pianists that Brötzmann has played with before - Belgian Fred Van Hove, German Alexander von Schlippenbach and Japanese Masahiko Satoh), and their first duo album Tongue in a Bell was recorded in Dublin in January 2015.

This meeting begins, typically, with a raw roar of Brötzmann and continues with a muscular and intense duet, with Smyth all over the piano. But later on this opening, 25-minutes of the title-piece and on the following shorter pieces, Smyth taps into the angry ballads that Brötzmann likes to explore in the last few years and he enriches the thorny-emotional side of Brötzmann with layered, lyrical colors. Then Brötzmann plays with a warm and reserved voice and in an exceptional stately elegance, reaching out to the seminal voices of the great tenor players of jazz. Throughout this meeting, Brötzmann and Smyth succeed to balance the raw with the emotional, the intensity with poetic, and the total spontaneous eruptions with the contemplative and lyrical.

Full Blast - Farewell Tonic (Trost, 2020) ****

Farewell Tonic is the official release of Brötzmann’s limited-edition, live bootleg documenting the last performance ever in the legendary New York club Tonic, captured on April 11, 2007. There was nothing more symbolic than closing this beloved club with a blast, a Full Blast, Brötzmann’s powerhouse trio with Swiss electric bass player Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller. The original recordings of Farewell Tonic were remastered by Martin Siewert and released as numbered, limited-edition of 500 vinyls plus a digital version.

Farewell Tonic is exactly what you can expect from an outfit by the name Full Blast, raw, fierce, loud, wild, and volatile, always on the verge of an apocalyptic meltdown, from the first second to the last one. The mix puts Pliakas’ effects-laden bass in the center and veils the great drum work of Wertmüller, and sometimes even the roars of Brötzmann himself (and it was not easy to do so in the small, steamy room of Tonic). There are some tactical detours where the massive sonic onslaught seems to have slowed down, especially on the introduction to the third piece, but only to realign its forces to another attack from another angle. You may think that Full Blast would exhaust its energy reservoirs after the first, 16-minutes nuclear attack, but Brötzmann promised the enthusiastic audience more fun in this sad evening, and you can count on him, he is a man of his word.

Peter Brötzmann, Maâlem Mokhtar Gania & Hamid Drake - The Catch of a Ghost (I Dischi di Angelica, 2020) ***½

Brötzmann introduces The Catch of a Ghost with an optimistic observation: “3 names, 3 cultures, 3 continents, 3 different concepts of time and timing – this is the essence of this trio. This is what we have to bring together”. This trio was recorded at the AngelicA, Festival Internazionale di Musica in Bologna, Italy, in May 2019 and features long-standing comrade, drummer Hamid Drake, who was part of Brötzmann’s Ayler-inspired Die Like a Dog quartet, and Morrocan, Essaouira-based, guembri (West-African bass instrument) player and vocalist Maâlem Mokhtar Gania, last representative of a legendary line of Gnawa master musicians. The brother of Gania, the late Maâlem Mahmoud Gania, has played before with Brötzmann and Drake (The “Wels” Concert, Okka Disk, 1997, and again in the Unlimited Festival in Wels, Austria, in a quartet with bill Laswell that was featured in the box-set Long Story Short, Trost, 2013).

The atmosphere of The Catch of a Ghost is much more reserved than the explosive one of The “Wels” Concert. At first, at the beginning of the extended title-piece, Brötzmann sounds as if he is in a world apart from the sensual-spiritual, call-and-response rhythmic patterns of Gania and Drake. But soon he adapts himself to the hypnotic, trance-like pulse, and his tenor sax wailing answers cleverly the vocal phrases of Gania and often pushes the interplay to intense, ecstatic terrains. Later, Brötzmann leads the trio into more open interplay that accommodates the hypnotic pulse of Gania and Drake to his energy level. The tension between Brötzmann’s spectrum of contemplative, sometimes even lyrical playing and his wild swings and the one-dimensional, repetitive and trance-like rhythm section continues to ignite the following “Almost with the Sun” and “Sound that Shimmers”. But on both pieces, the devotional singing of Gania and his rhythmic work with Drake are more effective and coherent than the brief attacks of Brötzmann. Only on the encore “Dip and Dive” the raw, physical energy of Brötzmann reaches a balanced coexistence with the cyclical, rhythmic loops of Gania and Drake.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Two from the Brandon Lopez Trio

By Keith Prosk

Since we’ve reviewed some of his solos and Whit Dickey Trio’s Expanding Light earlier in the year, the prolific bassist Brandon Lopez has continued to produce exciting material at a quick clip. The solos the sodom salt and STGM continue the expressive arco explorations of violent starts at the tongue andquoniam facta sum vilis. The solo what ends and the duo lopezlopez document forays into electric guitar. And then there’s the supergroup with Joe McPhee, Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid, and Paal Nilssen-Love making magic on Of Things Beyond Thule. But here I focus on two releases from the working group to which Lopez has decided to attach his name, with Gerald Cleaver on drums and Steve Baczkowski on winds. These are the first recordings from this configuration, despite playing together for a few years, though Lopez’ longstanding relationship with Cleaver can be heard on The Industry of Entropy and with Baczkowski on Old Smoke .

Brandon Lopez Trio - Triptych (self-released, 2020) ***½

Triptych is a breezy listen at 18 minutes across three tracks. The swaying, pointillistic free form that begins “SAMAEL” quickly locks in to a relaxed repetitive rhythm reminiscent of Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius’ OM, with fragile high-register plucking filling a deep bass metronome accompanied with cymbal splashes, overlaid by a tinny, almost electric shawm sound. The sound and mood paired with titles and cover art referencing religious iconography (common across many Lopez releases) places this in a similar camp as the eastern-tinged meditative psychedelia of the aforementioned OM and turn-of-the-millenium Roy Montgomery. “KALI” continues a feeling of rock meets jazz as Cleaver jackhammers his set like a black metal drummer before going free, while Lopez plucks a martial, galloping bassline and Baczkowski flits through a collage of motifs on his shawm in a kind of freakout. The feeling fades to a more jazzy tone on “DEATH,” with Baczkowski blowing hard on what is more obviously a (baritone?) saxophone, Cleaver creating a barrage of accents from every drum, and Lopez resorting to a common technique for him of hard plucking a couple notes followed by a falling flurry. The communication between Cleaver and Lopez is obvious, and the aesthetics of Baczkowski and Lopez are matched well. The building blocks for a distinctive music are here, but it’s in danger of becoming “traditional” free jazz. The rhythm section is exactly that, and often static for some time, and the winds can seem flighty and uncomfortable with empty space or low volume. Perhaps most disappointing of all is that Lopez cordons off so many of the techniques and timbral avenues explored in his solo work, often achieved through arco, deciding to play all plucked lines. And whereas the pizzicato in his solo work can be lyrical like a Barre Phillips or a Richard Davis, here he sticks to rhythmic utility. Still, this is a highly recommended free jazz recording not just for fans of the musicians involved, but also for those with an itch for the spirit of the previously mentioned rock bands and maybe someone like Arrington de Dionyso.

Triptych is a digital-only release.

Lopez 4tet - Diptych (self-released, 2020) ***½

Diptych is another short release, at 15 minutes across two tracks, with the trio joined by Cecilia Lopez on electronics. The music from the trio is expectedly similar to Triptych. The majority of “STEELY DAB” features a static rhythm section over which Baczkowski whines, whomps, and flutters in that tinny timbre, while Cecilia morphs bleeps and bloops (which seem unusually warm for electronics) to nearly mimic Baczkowski’s action. The track evolves to see Brandon move to a more lyrical, circular rather than linear bassline while Cleaver mixes in some hard-hitting snare, over which Baczkowski caws; unfortunately, as the trio gains some exciting momentum, they seem to drown out Cecilia’s offerings. The brief “JUDITH” continues the rock/metal mood of Triptych’s “SAMAEL” and “KALI,” featuring heavy distortion swashes from Cecilia and a heavy, plodding two notes from Brandon over which Baczkowski wails. It’s certainly a sister release to Triptych, and while I don’t feel the electronic contributions to “STEELY DAB” necessarily advance the group’s aesthetic, those on “JUDITH” certainly do, serving a similar purpose as a stoner or drone doom guitar.

Diptych is a digital-only release.

Despite my criticisms of these releases, they’re mining a fun, rich vein of modern jazz/rock psychedelia in which I hear not only OM, Roy Montgomery, or Arrington de Dionyso, but also maybe Ex Eye, Guardian Alien, and that video overlaying John Coltrane with Sunn O))) , and they’re refreshingly beginning at a jazz perspective rather than a rock one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Joe McPhee, Dave Rempis, Tomeka Reid, Brandon Lopez, Paal Nilssen-Love – Of Things Beyond Thule Vol. 2 (Aerophonic, 2020) *****

By Daniel Böker

What a quintet. I guess there is no need to introduce any of the involved musicians to the regular reader of this blog. Five strong voices in one “choir”. There was, as the title implies, a Vol. 1 to this record. Both were recorded on the same day. So I imagine this evening in Chicago must have been a blast with altogether over 90 minutes of improvised music by one of the finest living quintets. For all who couldn’t make it that late December evening in 2018 myself included there are the two documents of the concert. Eyal Hareuveni wrote about the first Vol. here.

So let’s start with Vol.2.

The quintet I am talking about is Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and tenor sax, Dave Rempis on tenor, alto and baritone sax, Tomeka Reid on cello, Brandon Lopez on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums.

I have to admit that I am writing this review as a fan. I try to follow Nilssen-Love at least with a lot (all is just too much to master) of the stuff he is recording. I came across Brandon Lopez for the first time on the knknighgh project by Nate Wolley (a great record!) I don’t know if it is helpful or necessary to keep writing about each of the voices in this choir. They are all in their own unique way worth to listen to and follow.

The album starts rather quiet. Nilssen-Love is laying a percussive background with the support of Lopez on the bass. Reid and Rempis are starting a dialog on cello and sax. Listening to each other and moving lightly (if I may say so) on that solid ground of bass and drums (percussion). After five minutes the trumpet of Joe McPhee comes in and Nilssen-Love raises the pace for a few moments. Just to get back to a slow and more silent (?), searching (?), tender movement.

I could go on like that forever, as the tension again increases later on. The combination of players respective instruments changes all the time. And I am still listening (for the… I don’t know time) to the first track. One more word to Nilssen-Love and Lopez, if you don’t mind: the first track is firmly based on the bass and the drums. (I don’t want to use the term rhythm section because the things they do are a lot more than that.) They switch between free sounds and movements and moments of strong and clear rhythms.

The second cut starts with a solo by Reid who is joined by Lopez after a few minutes. You should sit still and close your eyes for this part of the album it is amazing. Rempis is coming along with some melodic sax lines. I have to admit I get lost in the beauty of this improvised sounds. A warm melancholy shapes the sound of this track.

I could go on like that through all the tracks. But I think you should listen to it by yourself. Which you can do via bandcamp:

The third track might be all in all the most uptempo one. But still that doesn’t change my impression of that warm melancholy. (My brother once said about the music of the band Tindersticks which does not fit into the blog at all, that it is the sunny side of sadness. Maybe this album is the sunny side of sadness in the context of improvised music.)

One last word: I was pretty sure that this review would end with four and a half stars because I want to keep the five stars for the albums that really deserve it. But listening to it while I am writing this I realise that this album is exactly one I am keeping the five stars for.


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Gary Peacock Tribute

Bassist Gary Peacock passed away earlier this month, leaving behind a vast and varied discography. The Free Jazz Blog pays tribute to the great bassist with a selective and subjective look back on his some of the recordings that made their impressions personally and musically.

Albert Ayler Trio - Spiritual Unity (ESP-Disk, 1965)

By Nick Metzger

This album was my introduction to Gary Peacock’s playing and is among my (and countless others) all-time favorites. Of course, the thing that struck me on first listen was Ayler's playing, but much of what makes it work is in how the rhythm section reacted to it, and to each other. Peacock offers impudent and angular lines that complement the metallic spray of Murray's continual torrent and an unsteady, visceral support for Ayler's ecstatic manifestations as they expounded a new way forward. That Peacock played on this album in the same year he had a stint in Mile Davis’ quintet speaks to the instinctive plasticity at the bedrock of his musical concept as well as to the broad-mindedness of his nature. His playing always feels as though it might unravel at any moment, building up tension, tumbling, but always seemingly where it needed to be to buttress the strange and beautiful floodgates of expression that commenced on that July day in 1964. 


Lowell Davidson Trio - Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP, 1965)

By Martin Schray

Gary Peacock’s work with pianist Lowell Davidson and drummer Milford Graves was very different from what he did later with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. From today’s point of view it seems almost unbelievable that this album has remained Davidson’s only one (with the exception of a 1988 session with Richard Poole, which is available only digitally). From the first notes of the opening track “L“ you immediately realise that this is completely different from the trios of Bill Evans or Ahmad Jamal. Davidson, who has composed all the music, uses space and timbre in a singular way, his unheard-of, sudden changes of direction in terms of harmony and melody are especially striking. The same goes for Peacock, whose style is much rougher than later on, although there’s an inkling in “Stately 1“, especially at the beginning, that his playing has also a penchant for beauty and expanse. Even if Peacock almost has to fight against the percussive rumbling of his bandmates, he suddenly rises up from a virtual muffled silence for a solo passage. It’s like an echo of a forgotten pulse. In the other longer composition, “Ad Hoc“, the piano rushes recklessly and spreads into the universe, while Peacock contrasts this with a harsh solo. Surprisingly, even the sound of Keith Jarrett's trio is anticipated here and there - at least in the melodic moments.

Lowell Davidson Trio was included in The Wire’s “100 Records That Set The World On Fire (While No One Was Listening)“ list - when they expanded it with 30 additional albums. It was hardly known until 1988, when it was re-released as a CD. And even then it remained relatively obscure. For those who don’t know it yet, now's the time to discover.

Gary Peacock — Voices (CBS/Sony, 1971)

By Colin Green

Peacock shared a long friendship with pianist Masabumi Kikuchi with whom he collaborated on many occasions over his distinguished career. They played on several albums during his years in Japan, including Peacock’s debut as a leader—Eastwind (CBS/Sony, 1970)—also featuring drummer Hiroshi Murakami. On this session the same trio is joined by Masahiko Togashi on percussion (he and Murakami each sit out one number). The album consists entirely of compositions by Peacock, including the first appearance of two of his most memorable that were to be reinterpreted on later recordings.

This sometimes deeply reflective music suggests an absorption of Japanese culture, not just in the buzzing bass strings and pentatonic allusions of the opening ‘Ishi’, but also in Peacock’s use of a dynamic space where each note is weighed and phrase carefully articulated. There’s an architectural solidity which remained a core feature of his playing and provided the backbone for every ensemble in which he performed. Here, as on the brooding ‘Voice from the Past’, he is complimented perfectly by Kikuchi’s ink-wash shadings and the illusive way the pianist draws out melodies, half-veiled and half-revealed, set against Togashi’s filigree percussive curtain. ‘Requiem’ is a gentle lullaby, picked out by piano and bass over Murakami’s dusky brushwork. The album closes with the animated ‘Ae.Ay’, driven by propulsive bass and two distinct styles of drumming, jazz-inflected and indigenous, which eventually dissipate into a colourful free exchange with electric piano.

Peacock was to record further with Kikuchi, including six albums as the trio Tethered Moon with Paul Motian on drums, a venture that covered music by Hendrix, Kurt Weill, the songs of Édith Piaf, and adaptations from Puccini’s Tosca (discussed by Lee below). Even within his favoured format of the piano trio Peacock was a musician sensitive to many different voices. 

Ralph Towner - City of Eyes (ECM, 1989)

Ralph Towner's City of Eyes features the guitarist playing solo on several of tracks, and then with varying numbers of collaborators. It may have made more sense to recall Towner and Peacock's later duo albums on ECM in the 1990s, but this recording from 1989 has something special about it. In addition to working with Peacock, the album also features the guitarist's reunion with Oregon collaborator oboeist Paul McCandless, as well as trumpeter Markus Stockhausen and drummer Jerry Granelli. The album itself contains a wide range of styles and sometimes late 80's production values lend a certain timeliness to the album (i.e. 'Cascades'). However, Peacock's bass playing is as expansive and on close listen, quite riveting. The ballad 'Far Cry' contains a lovely solo that erupts from a low pedal tone into a tense melody that seems to slip a little out of 'tune', giving the gentle song some edge.  'Sustained Release' is an uptempo track that features Towner and Peacock in an intense dialog over Granelli's  electronic percussion. Finally, 'Les Douzilles' is a passionate tune, a true gem, driven by Towner's blue-flame energy, but in this case, more importantly, featuring Peacock's swift tandem lines and delicious melodic timing. 

Paul Bley & Gary Peacock — Partners (Owl Records, 1991)

By Colin Green

Paul Bley and Peacock had a lengthy and fruitful relationship, beginning with their early days in New York where they were at the centre of the “New Thing”, up to their final recordings with Paul Motian: Not Two, Not One (ECM, 1999) and When Will The Blues Leave (ECM, 2019). Described by Bley as “one of those rare players you could always count on as playing better than you”, rather than any of their trio recordings I’ve gone for this duo album set down in 1989 which seems to capture their special rapport. Like the subsequent Mindset (Soul Note, 1997) they play together and alone, and as pointed out by Francis Marmade in the liner notes this is music borne out of reciprocal listening and a respect for silence. A duo with the pair locked in tandem leads to ruminative solos which in turn are precursors to a duet of intimate exchanges, followed by further individual studies, an alternating pattern of contrast and balance repeated at different levels across the album.

Both are supremely melodic musicians, with a poetic understanding of how to work tunes, many of which give the impression of having been invented on the spot, often spawned from a simple figure, scale or combination of chords, true instant composing. When it came to playing free Peacock saw no meaningful distinction between composed and improvised material—it was more a state of mind than a method—and I suspect Bley felt the same. There’s an upbeat, homespun quality to the proceedings, drawing heavily on vernacular roots, and celebratory rather than melancholy (for that, look elsewhere in their catalogues).

Peacock had a way of combining a resonant, muscular tone with a fluid yet very precise diction, heard to good effect in the opening duo, ‘Again Anew’, that springs out of Bley’s deceptively simple but beautifully elaborated theme. After waiting to hear what his colleague has to say, ‘Hand in Hand’ display’s Peacock’s ability to weave a counter melody directly into the fabric of the music, always telling never ostentatious. Other highlights include an animated take on Ornette’s ‘Latin Genetics’, sprays of glittering bass harmonics (‘Gently, Gently’) and the miniature piano suite ‘Afternoon of a Dawn’, blues drenched with maybe a hint of Debussy in Bley’s arpeggios and subtle shifts in register, illuminated by a lovely sounding Steinway. The closing duo is ‘No Pun Intended’, a flickering dialogue between rattling bass and muted piano strings.

Gary Peacock and Bill Frisell - Just So Happens (Postcard Records, 1994)

I picked this album up as I was getting into Bill Frisell's guitar playing, so it must have been pretty much when the CD came out. I didn't really like it at the time, and put it back in the collection to age. And age it did, through my many purges of the collection (remember when you could sell back CDs for more than 25 cents?) and many moves. Years later, after a rediscovery listening, I realised that it was quite an intriguing recording with basically the ingredients for Frisell's next n recordings. There is the wiggly electronics, the spartan free playing, and the reverent reworking of American folk tunes. It is the latter that shows off the beauty of Peacock's bass playing.  

'Home on the Range, No. 1' and "Home on the Range, No. 2" are both attention grabbing. Of course, presenting a beloved melody is an obvious hook, but it's also the contrasting nature of the playing that is captivating. On No. 1, Peacock is all over the range. He shadows, he counter punches, he stretches melodic lines into light dissonance, and is all motion in contrast to Frisell's languid lines. Peacock kicks off No. 2 with a solo passage. Hints of the melody, shapes of the chords are hinted at, but it's a rather free moving run, until after a minute and a half Frisell comes in with the chord-melody. However, this is Peacock's take - he even gets a little rowdy at the 3:30 mark. This track is followed by a short improvised piece 'Through a Skylight' which is sort of refracted version of the previous tune, driven by Peacock's insistent bass, until Frisell's guitar explodes in a fractal of sounds.  However it's "Red River Valley" that really stands out. Peacock performs the well-worn tune unaccompanied. Glissandos between straight melodic phrases introduce implied counter melodies, and deep rumbles add heft and as many overtones as you can bear. A little latter, the duo slices open the standard 'Good Morning Heartache'. The two run in many directions - Peacock placing lovely fills between Frisell's well-planned plucks.   

Keith Jarrett - At The Blue Note (The Complete Recordings) (ECM, 1995)

By Martin Schray

Gary Peacock was famous for his work in piano trios, and the one with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette was simply outstanding. The group had already recorded eight albums with standards, when they performed three evenings at the New York jazz club Blue Note in June 1994. Producer Manfred Eicher decided to record the performances for a unique sound document from the first to the last note: on the six CDs that were produced in the process, the trio proved not only their own versatility, they also revealed the possibilities that these jazz standards offer. The repertoire included 32 different Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley pieces, jazz ballads, bebop and swing numbers, as well as seven original compositions by Jarrett, some of which were interspersed with the standards (for example the Charlie Parker number “Partners“). What Jarrett had previously celebrated in his legendary solo performances, he succeeded in doing here in collaboration with Peacock and DeJohnette. The improvisations, such as “Autumn Leaves“, turn into epic monumental pieces of almost half an hour’s length, revealing the trio’s full potential, its irrepressible wealth of ideas. The fact that this was possible was largely due to Gary Peacock. The way he slowly sneaks into “Desert Sun“ before his bass starts to roll after two minutes gives the piece the irresistible knock-on effect that turns it into a vortex. Peacock makes every new note sound like a discovery. There’s no question: three masters are at work here. Playing jazz standards was considered disreputable even for many jazz fans. This band freed it from boredom. In their live gigs Gary Peacock was standing in the middle of the bandstand and this was not only meaningful because most trios of this kind perform like this. This arrangement made sense when Keith Jarrett stripped down the musical framework of a composition in such a way that only a hunch remained: Then Peacock’s bass used this open space, created contexts one would never have thought of, became bold, adventurous and free without losing its pulse for even a moment. He dances with his fellow musicians, for example in “You Don’t Know What Love Is/Muezzin“. Or Peacock reduces his playing to very few notes, which he sets very precisely, like in the medley of “I Fall In Love Too Easily“ and “The Fire Within“. Every note is an anchor, a rescue station.

At the Blue Note - The Complete Recordings captures a unique moment in jazz history. One of the best bands at the zenith of its career. Content and creativity are preferred to habit and mechanical patterns, surprise to routine virtuosity. The recording proves how you can say more with less. It’s a mystery why this album trades under Keith Jarrett instead of Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette - like so many others. Without Gary Peacock the music of this band would not have been possible. These six CDs are among my all time favorites, few albums have I heard so often. A masterpiece.

Tethered Moon: Gary Peacock & Masabumi Kikuchi & Paul Motian

Play Kurt Weill (1995)
Plays Jimi Hendrix+ (1998)
Chansons d’Édith Piaf (1999)
Experiencing Tosca (2004)

By Lee Rice Epstein

Gary Peacock always seems comfortably at home in piano trios, to the extent that piano trio denotes a lineup more than a hierarchy of leadership. In the case of Tethered Moon, the collaborative trio with Masabumi Kikuchi and Paul Motian, there’s more than the usual dynamic improvisation, the three generated a complete universe unto themselves. Half of their discography, however, was given over to tributes. Tethered Moon, as a unit, wasn’t content with merely playing the hits, so to speak. Over the course of nine years, they bridged so-called high and low: opera, cabaret, and classic rock. Plays Jimi Hendrix+ in particular takes the guitarist’s work and completely transforms it. The thing to note here is there’s no preciousness, the group takes Hendrix as seriously as they do Puccini, Piaf as lightly as they do Weill. Peacock, Kikuchi, and Motian take each song as a jumping off point, turning songs inside-out, bringing lightness and humor to what, in other hands, might be fairly dry, humdrum homage. All this music is putty in their hands, and Peacock exemplified the openness and delight with which Tethered Moon approached all things. Peacock stood out as a bassist for his technical skills, surely, but it’s albums like these that really tell the story of his personality, his wit, and seemingly bottomless love of music.

Amaryllis - Marilyn Crispell / Gary Peacock / Paul Motian (ECM, 2001)

By Stephen Griffith

Before she recorded for ECM, Marilyn Crispell had been interested in exploring a more lyrical side of her musical personality instead of the energy laden approach that had predominated previously. According to Crispell's telling in this video, a friendship with Annette Peacock arose in Woodstock and Marilyn was interested in doing a project of her work, for which Annette immediately suggested Gary as an accompanist. Crispell added Paul Motian to form a piano trio, asked Annette to conduct since she was very particular about the dynamics of sections of her compositions, and the project was immediately accepted by Manfred Eicher. The resulting 2 disc set, Nothing Ever Was, Anyway. Music of Annette Peacock was a critical success featured on many best of lists.

But the recording didn't work for me as much as it did others. I needed more Crispell playing Crispell. So the trio reconvened in Oslo with compositions from each of the members, along with Manfred’s suggestion that they play free ballads. Surprisingly to me, this was a new concept for Crispell and in her words “a light went on” regarding how spontaneous reactions could produce a composed sounding result. Gary Peacock usually initiated things with a rich bass figure for which the others blended in and built something new, including the Amaryllis title cut. Placement of music is important both to Manfred and Crispell, and Peacock’s compositions set the tone with “Voice From The Past”, “Requiem” and “December Greenwings” interspersed in the first six cuts. Plus Peacock’s previous backing of Keith Jarrett’s gospel influenced improvisations was brought to play in Mitchell Weiss’s “Prayer”, which Crispell played in subsequent concert appearances. Peacock participated in the realization of a new facet of Marilyn Crispell’s music persona. Their relationship continued through subsequent releases, notably the duet recording Azure providing a listener friendly showcase for Gary's instrumental prowess and sensitivity. But after almost 20 years Amaryllis still draws me back.

Gary Peacock - Now This (ECM, 2015)

By Antonio Poscic

Looking back, Now This marked a significant milestone in the career of Gary Peacock. Recorded with his new but familiar collaborators, pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron, the album was released on his 80th birthday in 2015, right on the tail of Keith Jarrett’s disbandment of the cult Standards Trio. Featuring both reworkings of Peacock’s older compositions and fresh pieces, the music feels like acceptance—a soft transition and retrospection between phases of life, but fully embracing of the present. “He talked often of being in the moment, unconcerned with anything beyond what was right in front of him,” Copland muses in a recent tribute to his friend and colleague, while explaining the nature of the album’s title.

From the first noir moment of the opening “Gaia,” sprinkled with Copland’s pointillist touches, to the jubilant rendition of “Requiem” that closes proceedings on a high, Now This is predominantly sparse and solitary, inhabited by a sense of brooding lyricism anchored in somber bass tones. Throughout, both Baron’s and Copland’s playing remains subtle, often gently percussive. Their approach creates pockets of negative space for Peacock to sketch in tactile melodies with his double bass’s upper registers, gifting a pensive and introspective atmosphere to the music.

The record’s soft-spoken personality then lends further gravitas to those rare passages in which Peacock settles back into lower registers and locks into circular, ascending rhythms, releasing fleeting but freer, dissonant interplays between Copland’s scattered phrases and Baron’s bolder, signature rolls, which are so deeply felt on his collaborations with John Zorn. These segments complete and add just a bit of flourish to what is already a very pretty, silently dramatic album. A soundtrack for snowy winter days.

Gary Peacock Trio - Tangents (ECM, 2017)

By Martin Schray

When Gary Peacock recorded Tangents he was 82 years old and no longer had to prove himself to anyone. He had been in the business for 60 years and he was the formative bass player when it came to piano trios. Since 1983 he played together with Jack DeJohnette in Keith Jarrett’s Standard Trio, before that he played in the trios of Bill Evans, Paul Bley and Lowell Davidson, but also with Masahiko Satoh / Masahiko Togashi and Marylin Crispell / Paul Motian. Without any doubt he was one of the bassists who gave the instrument a new role as an independent melodic voice, mainly because he had always been a master of abstraction. And you can hear this on Tangents, the last album of his own trio with Marc Copland (piano) and Joey Baron (drums). Peacock seems to bring together all the experiences from the other trios here, as if he were taking musical stock. On the one hand he presents his own compositions like the dreamy “December Greenwings“ or those of his bandmates like the atonal “Cauldron“ (by Joey Baron) and on the other hand they include two famous standards: Besides the classic “Blue In Green“ by Miles Davis there’s also the melodic “Spartacus“ by Alex North, both clearly refer to Peacock’s work with Jarrett. When you think of typical (conservative) piano trio music this might be the sound you have in mind.

However, Peacock is much more present on this album than in his trios with the other pianists, one would almost be inclined to speak of a bass trio. This becomes clear right at the beginning because “Contact“, the opener, begins with a parading bass solo before Copland and Baron join in. Everything revolves around Peacock’s flowing bass lines, piano and drums only add single dots. “December Greenwings“ is particularly interesting on this album, as Peacock has recorded it several times before: in 1978 with Jan Garbarek for December Poems and then again in 2000 with Marilyn Crispell and Paul Motian for Amaryllis. Arranged differently and recorded with other musicians the piece shows a completely different quality, each recording takes a new look at the same territory. The title track concludes the album, and again Peacock reflects Marc Copland’s crystalline chords with very sparing, minimalist tones, short riffs and elegant runs. The gloomy mood and the frayed harmonies are rather reminiscent of Paul Bley than Keith Jarrett, whereby the music - quite typical for an ECM recording - remains very open and gets room to breathe.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Jeremy Cunningham - The Weather Up There (Northern Spy, 2020) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

On January 5, 2008, two men invaded a home in Cincinnati and shot and killed Andrew Cunningham, mistaking him for their intended target, his roommate Tyler. On October 29, 2019, a mass shooting occurred in Long Beach, when members from a local gang attacked a party they mistakenly thought was being hosted by a rival gang. In both cases, separated by ten years and 2,000 miles, the common element is not drugs, not gangs, not youth; no, the common element is guns. And around guns, a whole lexicon has emerged: officer-involved shooting, active shooter drills, school shooting, mass shooting, holiday shooting, weekend shooting, fatal shooting. Enter the word shooting into Google News and scroll through dozens of reports from the past 24 hours. This works any day of the week. Meanwhile, turn on most TV shows, movies, or video games and see how massive a space guns occupy in the collective mythology of heroism. Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Star Trek, Call of Duty, Fortnite, pick a franchise, pick a piece of popular entertainment, and there’s most likely a “good guy with a gun” or “biggest gun wins.” And politics, such as they are, inhabit a strangely indistinct space, where straightforward issues become frustratingly complex and twisted. And guns, as a monolithic political topic, an entity unto themselves, are like politics amplified. Complicated by complications, seemingly beyond discussion, separated from the real world by a factor of ten.

This is where music comes in. In addition to being a healing force, here it’s also the language for comprehending the violence, loss, and long, fraught path to reconciliation, after an act of gun violence. In reflecting on his brother’s death, drummer and composer Jeremy Cunningham has channeled the pain he and his family suffered and come out with a heavy-hearted, loving, and hopeful album. The Weather Up There fills the space around it, both sonically and emotionally, in ways few other recent albums have. “Sleep” opens with Cunningham’s mother recalling a dream she now interprets as Andrew saying goodbye. Gradually, altoist Josh Johnson fades to the foreground, and a lushly conducted horn and strings section fills in the surroundings, featuring Dustin Laurenzi and Tomeka Reid. It’s a bold opening, one that plunges a listener into icy cold water. This is real, this happened. Then, Cunningham floods the speakers with memories, taking the audience backward to “1985” in order to move ahead. A nostalgia-inducing Wurlitzer lays the foundation, while Paul Bryan leans his bass way back in the beat, emphasizing a looseness heard throughout Cunningham’s compositions.

“1985,” with its mid-tempo blues groove and Parker’s superb guitar lead, is a stellar introduction to both the core band and Cunningham’s compositional gifts. Similar to Mike Reed, Cunningham takes care to give each player a distinct role, and affords each the space to assert themselves. Johnson is part of Cunningham’s main group, which is rounded out by guitarist Jeff Parker and bassists Matt Ulery and Paul Bryan, who alternate throughout the album. Throughout the album, Johnson and Parker demonstrate their deep connection, previously heard on albums by Parker and Makaya McCraven. The outro features everyone in union, underscoring the group’s deep connection, with Parker grinding out one final solo.

As the final notes ring out, Cunningham’s father’s voice enters, recalling that night he received the phone call about Andrew’s death. “All I Know” features his brief anecdote plainly and clearly, segueing into a bold, passionate trumpet solo from Jaimie Branch. Has anyone demonstrated an ability to document and restate personal pain as well as Branch? Her empathy has been crucial to her Fly Or Die albums, once she’s heard, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else following Cunningham’s father. The whole is laid overtop a rumbling, crackling shuffle performed by the Chicago Drum Choir, a percussion quartet featuring Cunningham, Reed, McCraven, and Mikel Patrick Avery, a rotating member of the Natural Information Society.

“Elegy” faces the ripple effects of loss directly, cross-cutting between recorded interviews of different people in Cunningham’s life speaking starkly and openly about the people involved and who is to blame. Cunningham performs a touching cymbals-and-drums solo, a meditative duet with each person, as the topics shift from drug violence to AK-47s and gun ownership. Listeners learn the intended target was Tyler, Andrew’s roommate, who owed money to drug dealers. And they are reminded the ultimate power over gun rights does not rest in the hands of ordinary citizens. As a pained plea for empathy goes unanswered, the group fades into “Return These Tides,” an epic in two and a half minutes, with echoes of Rob Mazurek’s masterwork Return the Tides: Ascension Suite and Holy Ghost. Ben LaMar Gay lends his voice, and the lovingly rendered moment of Andrew’s death and ascension is heartbreaking.

The core group comes together, with Ulery now on bass, for the one-two coda “The Weather Up There” and “He Pushes Up.” Johnson plays a terse keyboard figure, while Parker performs a delicate, patient solo. Ulery winds his way through with a lovely bass line that leads the group into a double-time outro. He then steps to the fore in the introductory throat-clearing on “He Pushes Up.” In so many ways, the power of this album comes from its voicing, and Johnson makes another bold statement. His alto tone is warm and bright, more Cannonball than Ornette, and in this final statement, he leaps to some great heights. The group comes to rest on a unison pulse, and Cunningham again demonstrates how adept he is at crafting sounds. These layering effects, with everyone coalescing around a rhythm, shade the album different colors throughout.

Jazz, as a genre, has a rich tradition of social protest and engagement with the issues of the day. The Weather Up There fits alongside works by Geri Allen, not as pointedly political as Charles Mingus. Like Allen, Cunningham is as interested in life and in the unnameable forces that surround and penetrate us. Guns and their bullets rip and tear at our bodies, wrenching us from our terrestrial selves. However, on The Weather Up There, Cunningham and his group perform a kind of exorcism, releasing what tortures his family’s souls and guiding Andrew to, one hopes, a final ascent. When it finishes, there’s a real weight on listeners’ shoulders. Using all the skills and tools at hand, from audio clips and layered keyboards, to emotionally bared solos and spacious drumming, there’s only the single question that remains; no, it’s not how’d we let this happen, but how do we stop this from happening again? And again? And again?

Video preview


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Friday, September 18, 2020

Kaja Draksler Octet – Out for Stars (Clean Feed, 2020) *****

By Nick Ostrum

Kaja Draksler is at the forefront of the next wave of free jazz pianists. One can hear it in her previous recordings. The curious virtuosity. The unreconciled tension between radically deconstructive postmodernism and contemporary composition. The flights of melodies into solemn, brittle phrases.

Draksler’s Octet, however, is somewhat different than projects like Punkt.Vrt.Plastik or her collaborations with Eve Risser or Susann Santos Silva. It seems more fully realized, and acts as a space to pursue a clear love of poetry and the vanguard musical forms of the past. This means less noise and clatter, fewer mesmerizing disjointed spirals and more balladry and dramatic harmonies. It means more spacious starts and stops, a smoother blurring of stylistic modalities, and a greater focus on the potential of choreographed simplicity (with eight members, no less).

Based on works by Robert Frost (whose voice appears on the wistfully hopeful Away!) and compositions by Draklser (including a transcription of Handel’s Dixit Dominus), Out for Stars is simply stunning. Romantic melodicism gives way free jazz break-outs which open to baroque harmonics. Soft, haunting vocal chorales drift into sprightly, stilted reeds. Violins and humming winds wisp the voices away and brush the sax and clarinet to the background. The dynamics and dissonance are strong for such otherwise bucolic motifs and brings to mind a darkly transcendentalist take on Charles Ives. This is an album of lamentation and celebration, of oblations to nature and a humanity, of stunningly reconciled contradictions. At its ebullient peaks, one hears the wail of Ab Baars’ sax and Laura Polence and Björk Níelsdóttir’s spiraling polyphonic balladeering and Nordic harmonizing. At its troughs, one hears the hums of a sometimes glittery, sometimes desperate longing. For her part, Draksler is somewhat understated, especially considering the project bears her name. This, however, only means that when she does step to the front, her presence is felt that much more forcefully.

Take, for instance, The Last Mowing. It starts as a euphonic country/gospel vocal duo of the first stanza of the poem (There's a place called Far-away Meadow/We never shall mow in again,/Or such is the talk at the farmhouse:/ The meadow is finished with men.) With “men,” it falls into a heavy drum and bass groove -something akin to Archie Shepp’s “Down Home New York” - that turns the duet into something more powerful than its mellifluous tones in isolation had allowed. This is where both song and poem transition from a meditation on an abandoned farm - doubtlessly tragic for the previous toilers - into a defiant protest by nature’s most humble. The flora accepts its exposure to new threats, as Polence and Níelsdóttir repeat and contort the phrase, “Before trees, seeing the opening,/March into a shadowy claim.” In doing so, they cleverly impose an urban- and protest-rooted – and therefore, anthropocentric - musical format onto a song about nature basking in the retreat of a society.

The piece marches on through pastures of sax squeaks (right) and more linear blues lines and squonks (left). Draksler’s piano then steps forward to reconvene the lost voices and finish the poem. In another twist, several additional voices join the duo as they revisit the first two lines (“There’s a place called Far-away Meadow/We never shall mow in again”) which they transform into a mantra of escape and salvation.

There is something genteel about all of this, but there is also something jarring. It is dulcet, but unnervingly so. Some moments are painfully delicate, as in the series of string solos in the first half of Never Again Will the Bird’s Song Be the Same. Others are more forceful and open, as in the second half the Silken Tent, which playfully glides into the spiraling Handel piece. Or, in the euphoric procession that leads to Robert Frost’s appearance in Away!

If you have heard the Octet’s Gledalec , you likely will not be surprised by what you hear on Out for Stars. This album has a similar balance of traditional and contemporary musical elements, a similar wafting beauty that comforts with its familiarity but haunts with its eerie configurations, repetitions, and deviations. Nevertheless, Out for Stars stands on its own. Its musical inspiration seems somewhat more American and less old-world folk than Gledalec. And, its lyricism often reflects that of Frost, himself: deceptively simple and measured, vernacular but precise, and deeply embedded in both the present and the past that made it.

Kaja Draksler Octet is:

Laura Polence and Björk Níelsdóttir: voice; Ada Rave: tenor saxophone, clarinet, mouth organ; Ab Baars: clarinet, tenor saxophone, mouth organ, voice; George Dumitriu: violin, viola, mouth organ; Kaja Draksler: piano, kalimba, cowbells; Lennart Heyndels: double bass, voice; Onno Govaert: drums, percussion, mouth organ

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Two Lisbon Large Ensembles

By Stuart Broomer

Ernesto Rodrigues is apparently tireless, whether recording projects for his Creative Sources label, organizing a multitude of permutating large ensembles or presenting a broad spectrum of the Lisbon improvising community in groups of assorted sizes. His Creativefest takes place in November, and the most recent edition, XIII, ran for six days at the festival’s home base, O’Culto de Ajuda. The CDs here present two of Rodrigues’ on-going large ensembles, one recorded at XIII, the other from XII.

String Theory- Tin (Creative Sources) ****

String Theory, heard here in its 2019 performance, presents a single piece entitled Tin, consistent with Rodrigues thematic explorations of contemporary physics and the table of elements. The CD is a single piece, 34 minutes in length, in keeping with a consistent time restriction for the festival’s sets. What makes Rodrigues’ ensembles fascinating (something that extends to other large improvising ensembles‒a key to both their values and their value as contemporary social organisms) is the combination of restrained, disciplined, even selfless playing‒a genuine community orchestra‒and the combination of exceptional instrumentalists.

In what must be the most cellist-rich improvising community for a city of its size, Lisbon here offers Miguel Mira (notable for his membership in Rodrigo Amado Motion trio), Ulrich Mitzlaff (regular collaborator with the most eminent Carlos “Zingaro”) and Ricardo Jacinto (charter member of two brilliant trios, The Selva and Garden). The three create a ground for this music, a rich orchestral middle, thickened by two bassists, Sofia Queiroz Orê-ibir and Hernâni Faustino.

The high strings of Rodrigues’ viola and Maria do Mar’s violin are free to balance all this weight by living in their upper registers, where, of course, the others are free to join them. Beyond the usual category of the string ensemble, the tentet includes pianist Mariana Carvalho, who emphasizes plucked sustained strings, and guitarists Pedro Bicho, playing an acoustic, and Abdul Moimême, playing a horizontal 12-string. Together the ten create a web of whistling harmonics and sustained thrum that become a timeless and textured musical centre.

Isotope Ensemble- Radium (Creative Sources, 2020) ****½

If an ultimate test for any large improvising ensemble is to maintain movement and density at very low volumes, then Rodrigues’ Isotope Ensemble ranks very high. Radium is a single 27-minute piece from 2018 that spends much of its time at the level of a whisper, a hive of tiny sonic gestures in which even foregrounded events scrape silence. It’s a 22-member ensemble made up of diverse instruments, with only Rodrigues (this time on baroque violin), do Mar, Carvalho and Moimême appearing from the later String Theory line-up. The other bowed strings are down to two cellos and a bass, with three guitars present, including Luis Lopes on electric, and such traditional instruments as Brazilian zither and psaltery. That broader palette then includes three woodwinds, three brass, a fan organ (a small electric reed organ that seems to sound like an accordion at some points), and two people on electronics, Carla Santana and Carlos Santos, the last an essential figure in Lisbon music and the Creative Sources world, here responsible for mixing, mastering and graphic design as well.

Though the volume picks up briefly around the 23 minute mark, during which a tuba (I think, the other possibility, a euphonium is operating quietly in the background) sounds briefly obstreperous (it’s only “loud” in context), it ultimately reinforces the strange quietude here, as if the activities of a busy shopping mall were carried on under a vow of monastic silence: a wisp of string, a burble of keyboard, an unidentifiable tapping, a collective rustle. It’s beautiful and original, at once compelling and therapeutic.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Christopher Icasiano - Provinces (Origin Records, 2020) ****½

By Gregg Daniel Miller

I had to listen to this record for months before I could write about it. It’s that different. Percussion solo records are an interesting breed, and this one doesn’t remind me of anything.

Icasiano’s percussiveness is all about the pacing and grouping of the beats. Clusters, clusters, driving and then receding, with crisscross patterns emerging from the maelstrom. Psychedelic. Disorienting. There is no “one,” and while everything is on repeat, nothing is repeated.  There are footpedals or pads (sometimes with the reverse key down) which provide a counter-sonority to the stick work, so the patterned clusters weave in and out with looping drone tones and electronic effects, sometimes sampled found sounds. Icasiano hits you with repeating figures until you forget they are happening, and then under your nose they alter, changing the mood and feel, or abruptly stop, leaving you with what had been merely drifting, incidental noises as the principal song. Lost in the rhythm, you forget where you are.

The 5-movement “Provinces” opens with a hint of dark foreboding. Then 1000 relentless dry snare hits alternating with closed high-hat taps.  The foreboding returns like exhalations. Slight alterations (there’s a human there, this is not an algorithm, or rather, it is a body’s algorithm) of tempo and subtle dynamics. A pulsing thumping kicks in, and without realizing it, we’ve got embattled sonic textures with four overlapping tempos like a Steve Reich puzzle. The relentless snares withdraw leaving a cascade of shifting notes (Sigur Rós style), only to return as a dense, interactive accompaniment to the long tones. The piece moves into a free section with some backward pedal action, gentle, intentional cymbal work, and then the smoothest rolling from snare to toms to cymbals. Technique and taste and musicality. Now a kick drum under a trance beat, wind and hum providing the melody. It is the same and different, and somehow free-jazz to metal to trance to pop candy cavalcade makes musical sense, with each section providing commentary on the others.

The 3-movement “Taho” opens in a similar fashion as “Provinces.” Instead of the snare/cymbal cycle, here we get relentless toms/cymbal, again over shifting long tones, and almost inaudible field recordings gesturing outward from the hermetic sound field. At a certain point, under wind and weather, something—shakers, and then brushes on plastic sitting atop the snare maybe—takes center stage, then retreats behind oscillating scratches and noise. Brush bursts on snare take hold, again under wind and weather, which releases into that smoother than smooth round-the-horn tom-snare-rims-cymbal party. The energy reduces to a kick drum and toms motif which relaxes into the end of the recording, found sounds from the Philippines.

This record is a feast. And, it’s solo percussion!

I understand there is a limited print-run of vinyl, if you’re into that sort of thing. CDs and bandcamp downloads, too.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Agamemnon Moustakas, Perseas Rizos, Stephanos Chytiris – Tragelaphus (self-released,2020) ****½

By Fotis Nikolakopoulos

One of the key elements in Tragelaphus (which in Greek means crying and laughter at the same time) is the ferocity of the trio playing. I do not mean that in terms of sheer volume. It’s basically the inner intensity of the trio’s playing, the engagement and the pathos involved. If you want a point of reference, yes, the Schlippenbach Trio could be it, but by labeling the trio’s music I’m not being fair to them, because Tragelaphus stands on its own.

The CD lasts for over seventy minutes divided in five tracks. Moustakas plays the piano, Rizos is on the tenor sax and Chytiris on the drums. Unfortunately for the guys the CD came out during the Greek lockdown (in the meantime the imbeciles in power opened up the borders for tourists without any precautions, so things are worse), a situation that does not allow them to present this great CD live.

It would have been a blast if they could. The way they interact, the energy which is transmitted through it screams that this is something you should listen to live. Sometime, a year ago (maybe a bit more) I caught the trio live. In the meantime they really struggled, through rehearsing together, to form a sound of their own and Tragelaphus clearly states that.

There are no highs or lows on the CD, only a constant flow of energy and ideas. The final mix is also a very rewarding job from George Priniotakis. All the instruments are equally involved in the outcome of it, a fact that allows the listener to feel it like it’s a live recording. Moustakas playing is very vibrant. He moves through the keyboard in a percussive way, while his interaction with the tenor sax of Rizos makes you think they are playing together for years. Chytiris provides a solid backbone for the other two, while the rhythms he produces seem even flexible on their own.

The thing I didn’t realize from the beginning is the small dialogues that go on in duos or sometimes as a trio. This feels like they are in a constant dialogue between friends, a non linear discussion that evolves into track five which is called Part V. Clocking in 28 minutes, it seems like the centerpiece for Tragelaphus, while it consists all the aforementioned elements. A great piece of free improvisation even though not everything is spontaneous on Tragelaphus. There are ideas in there, ready to be discovered since you, as a listener, have only one obligation: to listen repeatedly with the same level of engagement they play.


Monday, September 14, 2020

Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze - unfurling (Another Timbre, 2020) ****

By Keith Prosk

Angharad Davies (violin), Klaus Lang (harmonium), and Anton Lukoszevieze (cello) play freely for one track lasting 53 minutes on unfurling, an enchanting, cyclical soundscape. Davies and Lukoszevieze are long-time collaborators in various new music performance groups, perhaps most famously on the first disc of Wandelweiser und so weiter and in Apartment House. This is the first time either played with Lang, though the harmony here would belie that, especially considering the trio spent just a few minutes discussing broad structural elements before playing.

Those structural elements separate unfurling into three recognizable ~15 minute sections that generally begin with a spacious, harsh, low-volume sound created by extended techniques and grow to a dense, mellifluous, booming music that is more familiar. The early parts of each section contain what I think is pumping but not playing the harmonium to create something that sounds like a glitched recording of someone shifting in a pew, creaking, chirping, squeaking, scraping, and whining from all three instruments, some light sawing that can almost mimic the undulating waves sometimes emitted by the harmonium, some plucked strings. Without too much notice, this gives way to the full warm throb of the organ flanked by see-saw strings, with descending glissandos met with ascending glissandos from the other, alternating, and deep dense woody bowing to more closely match the color of the organ. Or sometimes the strings might sync to create a siren. Or one might bow a melancholy melody. The total sections certainly play with extremes in volume, density, and timbre, while the latter parts of them tweak pulse and pitch to create a mood of serenity out of one that may otherwise be shocking in its contrasts. These are the broad strokes, but each section and their parts are distinct, with each seemingly becoming more emotive, cathartic, or film-soundtrackesque along the way.

Being able to evoke a range of responses in one piece by manipulating the basic components of music like volume, timbre, and density demonstrates a special mastery at work here. And, I think it’s hard not to enjoy the rich sound of organ and these strings.

unfurling is available digitally and on CD.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Makaya McCraven - Universal Beings E & F Sides (International Anthem, 2020) ****½

By Martin Schray

In two earlier reviews from this year (on two re-issues by drummer Rashied Ali ), I raised the question to what extent there can be new developments in jazz today, or whether many things are just a refinement of what is already musically known. Today, this discussion will be deepened with two further examples: Makaya McCraven’s new album is in the focus but there will also be some short references to Jeff Parker’s album Suite for Max Brown, which was reviewed by Lee yesterday.

Both Chicago-based drummer, pianist and composer Makaya McCraven and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Parker belong to a new musical world, which they seem to know like the back of their hands - but they still rediscover it again and again with the eyes of children. In this avant-garde, the established elements don’t create a cosmos we know.

Neither is its novelty pastiche or postmodernism; it’s a different way of baling, stretching, contracting and reading the time that has passed between free jazz or fire music than one might imagine when thinking in categories such as “reference“, “quotation“, “nostalgia“ or “revival“, as the German critic Diedrich Diederichsen has pointed out. What you recognise in this music are certain elements we might define as jazz - the swing, the blue notes, the rhythm, some typical sounds of the instruments.

At the moment you can listen to a lot of music, which is different, unheard, hip, contemporary “jazz“ and it often refers to the revolutionary freedom and soulfulness of the 1960s, but also to funk and hiphop. Some jazz artists and labels could even be called en vogue - at least for a certain in-crowd - and have played a central role in this “hype“ in the last years (just think of Matana Roberts’s ambitious Coin Coin project, of the prolific British scene around Shabaka Hutchings, of the way hiphop superstar Kendrick Lamar has integrated jazz sounds in his music). One of the spearheads of this new Black avant-garde is the International Anthem label - and Makaya McCraven and Jeff Parker are two of their most prominent representatives.

On his previous records the drummer was known more for mapping new worlds between fire music and wicked bass grooves. On his new album, an extension of his opus magnum Universal Beings, he continues to spin this wheel. Once again he uses classical jazz elements and enriches them with lots of funkiness, hiphop beats and drum’n’bass sounds. In this way, he brings the problem of jazz’s staleness to the point that historical consciousness must not stop at the adoration of the achievements of the forefathers (McCraven’s parents are both musicians), but can hit the nerve of a younger generation when viewed from the perspective of a newly added subjectivity. You don’t look at the historic fire music like an artefact in a museum (this would be the Marsalis approach), but at their novelty character, and thus it’s how it acquires a new social relevance.

Universal Beings was put together from recordings of four live shows at four different locations, each of which featured different musicians (again Jeff Parker among them). A short documentary film with interviews and studio scenes is now available. The soundtrack to this film is the present album Universal Beings E&F Sides, which works like a supplement to Universal Beings, however here McCraven manages to present relatively short miniatures of 1:27 to 4:36 minutes as a distillate of his music (Universal Beings also included some longer tracks). Based on polyrhythmic cells and melodic-harmonic motifs, these new or redesigned compositions also perfectly integrate the practices inherent in digital culture. Thus, the instruments of this ensemble reproduce the processes of filtering, looping, and remixing musical works, as is the case in hiphop or electronic music, with the difference that these processes are performed in real time by traditional instruments and by musicians experienced in jazz practice, who combine improvisation with excellent musicianship. This sometimes reminds me of A Tribe Called Quest’s hiphop masterpiece The Low End Theory, e.g. in “Everybody Cool“ with its repetitive vibraphone motif and dry bass lines. “The Hunt“ goes back to the deep triphop sounds of the 1990s, say early Massive Attack. “Half Steppin’“ delves into the breakbeat madness of Roni Size & Reprazent’s New Form. Jeff Parker’s approach on Suite for Max Brown is similar, when he uses samples like in the very short “C’Mon Now“ but also more jazzy, e.g. in “Fusion Girl“, a reminiscence to Herbie Hancock’s jazz/rock phase.

This style mix of samples and loops is an important characteristic of modern avant-garde jazz culture. On the one hand, McCraven integrates everything that is around him into his music, on the other hand he is deeply rooted in the musical tradition (with his Hungarian-Jewish mother he recorded Eastern European folk songs, his African-American father, also a drummer, introduced him to jazz at an early age). Jeff Parker goes even further: He covers John Coltrane’s “After the Rain“. In the film McCraven says that his band always starts jamming in a completely chaotic way and then creates something organized out of it. If you - seemingly out of nowhere - find the one moment when everything comes together, then you have to hold it and from that point on you have to develop something worth to be elaborated. In the new pieces, short, repetitive saxophone and guitar interjections meet complex rhythm and relaxed bass lines like in “Dadada’“, which reflects the sound of big cities in its hyper-nervousness. Everything flows into each other. “Kings and Queens“ could also be on a Sons of Komet album.

Some people might be disturbed by the fact that the new album, like many of McCraven’s productions, is a live recording reworked in the studio with cuts and repetition loops and therefore might ask whether he wants to create “organic“ music that re-imagines the spontaneously improvisational flow of a concert, or post-produce beats like a studio artist. The underlying accusation is whether this can work. Of course it can, and it’s a possibility how modern jazz can attract a new, young audience.

Universal Beings E&F Sides is available on vinyl (in September), as a CD and as a download.

Watch the documentary here: