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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Mark Lomax and the Urban Art Ensemble – The 400 Year Suite (CFG Media, 2019) ****

By Nick Ostrum

The first piece I wrote for FJB was a review of Ogún Meji Duo’s For Those Who Have Gone, But Still Remain . Having just moved to Columbus, OH, from Chicago, discovering Edwin Bayard and Mark Lomax was a godsend. The Ohio State University brought some acts through town (Steve Lehman, Mary Halvorson, many others), but there was something different about seeing a duo of locals who were playing a “traditional” free jazz inspired by Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray and Kidd Jordan. (NB: This is not just name-dropping. I have seen them play worthy homages to each of those figures). There was something special particularly about Mark Lomax’s playing, just enough in touch with the scenes that were taking the music to other dimensions and just distant enough from them to chart his own path with a stronger footing in the music’s blues roots. This is not to say that Lomax is looking backwards, but that he is focused on rhythm and its evolution.

And from those roots and that inspiration, Lomax has produced his opus in 400: An Afrikan Epic in honor of the 2019 400-year anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves in North America. A 12-album cycle, An Afrikan Epic is a big commitment. From the pieces I have heard, such as the absolutely mesmerizing solo twelfth disc Afrika United , it is formidable but absolutely worthwhile. Still, for those who want a satisfying taste of what the larger release has to offer, Lomax has released The 400 Years Suite, a 70-minute version of key studio and live tracks from each of the original 12 installments.

Lomax has an impeccable sense of rhythm, polyrhythm, and melody. At points he is joined by an array of musicians including his most frequent collaborator Bayard, and these tracks comprise some tight bluesy ballads (Birth of the Blues People, Lift Every Voice and Sing), bebop (Ancestral Walk, Nr. 1, Birth of the Blues People, Ancestral Walk, Nr. 3), post-bop chamber statements billowing into free blowing outbursts (Ancestral Walk, Nr. 2, Village Celebration), and the emotively devastating Middle Passage. Given the heavy reliance on strings and rhythm, many of the more soaring compositions such as Ancestral Walk, Nr. 3 touch on the Revolutionary Ensemble and Billy Bang, before returning to their percussive center. And that is really what distinguishes this collection and Lomax’s approach in general. Whether it is driving the rhythm or front and center, the drumbeat is the heart of this music. Everything, the violins, the piano, the sax and bass dance around it. In ways, it is as if Lomax is excavating a Black diasporic tradition wherein the West African pulse remained the defining feature of the music’s development. And despite his reverence for outre percussionists such as Murray, Lomax seems to be returning to that wandering but relentless percussive thud that much free jazz abandoned. In doing so, he is pushing the music not “out there” to the fringe, but rather forward.

The 400 Years Suite , admittedly just an overview of what the entire Afrikan Epic has to offer, is available directly from the artist in digital format, where you can also explore and pick up the larger song-cycle from which it is culled: https://marklomaxii.com/the-400-years-suite . And, for those music teachers out there, Lomax has recently published a companion curriculum for high school and college classrooms: https://marklomaxii.com/store.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Hugo Antunes with piano and drums

By Stef Gijssels

Our treat of today are two piano trios, two adventurous piano trios of equal quality but of a different nature. Portuguese double bass player Hugo Antunes is the common factor between both trios. Antunes started relatively late with his bass training, and as a result his musical output is limited, even if most of his albums have been reviewed on our blog, both as a leader or as a sideman with musicians such as Nate Wooley, John Dikeman, Paul Lovens, Rafael Toral. After his initial bass education in Lisbon, he completed his studies at the music conservatory in Amsterdam, and later at the music conservatory in Brussels, where he now resides. 

Hugo Antunes, Agustí Fernández & Roger Turner ‎– Perspectrum (JACC, 2020) ****


The first piano trio is performed by Agustí Fernández on piano and Roger Turner on drums and percussion. It was recorded at the Coimbra Jazz Festival in 2016, and we have one long improvisation of 44 minutes followed by an encore of 5 minutes. Originally, John Butcher should have joined them, but illness prevented him from flying over to Portugal. Unfortunately ... 

But as a trio they were equally inspired that day. Despite the length of the first piece, the attention never wanes, stuck to the ever changing sonic discoveries that the three musicians create. Fernández is using his full instrument, more with his hands on the strings than on the keyboard, and Turner rarely hits any of his toms. This results in a multitude of micro-sounds, undescribable sounds exploding from many preparations (with clamps, clips, strings, clothespins, screwdrivers, forks?) evolving in a granular flux, a flow of hard tones, hard to the touch but smooth like pebbles, fluid like a river of grains. 

This music is tense, full of anticipation and open to any development. It lasts about half an hour before Fernández actually starts hitting his keys, full of power and  relentless intensity, Turner actually drumming and Antunes plucking his bass. Jazz erupts out of sonic scrapings and how. And then all instruments become percussion again and then the quietness of silence, and the intensity of unfinished silence ... slowly picking up again in feverish interaction. 

The 'encore', called "Outro" is more subdued and calm, with piano and bass offering us their natural sounds, sparse and carefully positioned, full of disciplined beauty. 


Rodrigo Pinheiro, Hugo Antunes & Pedro Melo Alves - Cossoul (Self, 2020) ***½


In another trio, recorded in March of this year, we find Antunes back with two fellow Portuguese musicians: Rodrigo Pinheiro on piano and Pedro Melo Alves on drums. Pinheiro we know well from his acclaimed Red Trio and his collaborations with Ernesto Rodrigues, and Melo Alves was reviewed earlier this year for his "In Igma" album on Clean Feed. 

This album is part of Hugo Antunes' 'bootleg series', performances that are made available on his bandcamp page without too much post production. This is possibly the only downside of the album: the lack of balance between the instruments and the muffled sound of the piano, as if the mike is too far away to capture the clarity of the instrument's tone. One star less in the rating. 

Even if this trio is as exploratory and adventurous as the previous review, its sound is totally different. Pinheiro is a totally different kind of pianist than Fernández, and Melo Alves a completely different kind of drummer than Turner. Pinheiro is a fan of repetitive insistence, creating tension by repeated hammering on the same keys, building up the pressure in the hope of relief while maintaining a strong inherent sense of lyricism. Melo Alves creates sonic volume, clattering and banging agitatedly, nervously, complex. 

And Antunes is as happy in this environment as he is with the Spanish pianist, and as versatile too. Antunes can shape a piece, structuring it, giving direction, often setting the tone from the start. His style can be a parlando excursion of propulsing the others forward with steady rhythm. 

The trio keep the same unity of sound throughout, offering sufficient variation and intensity to make this a captivating and at moments even fascinating listening experience. Too bad for the sound quality. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp

Watch a snippet of the performance here: 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Thou Sonic Friend – Cinemateria (Barefoot Records, 2019) ***

By Guido Montegrandi

Cinematic: of, relating to, suggestive of, or suitable for motion pictures or the filming of motion pictures

Materia (prima): indeterminate matter viewed as the material cause of the universe

The first impression of this trio reminded me of the Canterbury school approach, particularly of some Henry Cow free improvisation. Going deeper ,the flavour remained but the sound of the trio follows its own path. In the balance of the ensemble (Carolyn Goodwin: clarinet, bass clarinet, voice, Birgitte Lyregaard: vocals, percussion, objects, and Peter Tinning: (guitar, effects)) the voice is prominent, fragments of stories often dissolving into pure sound are set in a clarinet and guitar and percussions and noises landscape. The dialogue between the voice and the clarinet opens different possibilities, the guitar like a continuo weaves a sparse carpet.

Faithfull to its title, Cinemateria's  music floats between suggestions for imaginary movies and an indeterminate quality of noise and words. Sometimes,  the story told both in words and music is catching, sometimes it leaves you floating.

There can be music (track 1) introduces a dialogue between noises, voices and instruments setting the starting point of the story on the platforms of Amsterdam Central Station,

Small blue box (track 2) an interesting noise electric variation of “recitar cantando,”

Syrinx Rhizome (Track 3) a modified subterranean sound stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes,

Ignorance is Gliss (track4) a chasing game among voice and instruments,

Le grand plaisir (track 5) the story goes on taking the listener to the land of Cinemateria guided by a sparse guitar and a distant clarinet in dialogue with the voice,

Indbagte Isbjorne (track 6) a twisted waltz in which the instruments drift away while the voice maintains its narrative mood,

Kari’s prayer (track7) an ascending voice over a quiet landscape of sounds until the voice starts fading joined by the clarinet,

Never signed a contract (track 8) voice and clarinet keep on their dialogue over a guitar continuo till they fade again into silence.

All in all, it’s an interesting work even though I felt the voice to be a bit too prevalent considering the fact that the texts are not always intelligible (at least to me). It is true that the voice often act as an instrument and so the text might not be so relevant but as these pieces seems structured as an evolving story it seems to me that something is missing.

The project is surely worth listening but I think the concept needs further developments to display its potential.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Stefan Keune/Dominic Lash / Steve Noble - And Now (FMR, 2020) ****½

By Martin Schray

What must one sacrifice to art? Not always and necessarily life, as Friedrich Schiller says in his drama “Wallenstein“ (“And if you do not commit to life / life will never be won“) and as it may have been true for some jazz musicians who literally played for their lives - like perhaps Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. In the 1960s and 70s people often looked down on musicians who were not exclusively dedicated to music and were therefore considered amateurs (e.g. the Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe), but today this is no longer an issue. An extraordinary musician like Stefan Keune also works as a librarian, which does not prevent him from regularly publishing excellent albums. His music burns at both ends, especially in his trio with Dominic Lash (bass) and Steve Noble (drums).

A few minutes on this recording - at the end of "Whatsoever", the second piece - sums up everything that makes And Now so beautiful: the breathtaking whirlpool that captures the listener, the bliss of a voice that energetically combines pain and elation; and the openness to dialogue with musical companions. In the first eight minutes of the first piece, “Well Then“, the trio explores the entire tonal spectrum they offer. The saxophone dominates with its squeaking and squeezing tones that shoot through the room like ricochets. The short runs are counteracted by percussion and bass, it sounds as if sandpaper is being pulled over metal. After this furious introduction, the music constantly alternates between very fast, wild passages and extremely slow and contemplative parts. In this way it’s strongly condensed one the one hand and on the other it’s opened wide, it purrs together and is then released again. In addition, it stumbles over uneven terrain and pants like a dog after an extensive hunt. Keune’s precision is razor sharp in contrast to his often washed-out tones. His saxophone, with its characteristic bird sounds (listen to the beginning of “Finally“), is reminiscent of the late, great Wolfgang Fuchs.

The music of this trio is consumed in the moment, in the longing for what is attainable. Everything is open and ambiguous, nervous and torn apart. Keune’s saxophone spits, stutters and flings out the riffs, it’s as if the torment of its creator becomes audible - fluid, transient and spontaneous. Underneath this rough surface, however, there’s also a beauty, but you have to expose it directly in the hustle and bustle and the excessiveness of the sounds, because at the moment of sounding it has already vanished again.

And Now is like a necessary (fantastic, absurd) corrective to reality. It’s the kind of improvisation of this trio that is able to temporarily suspend the existing order of things. Free improvisation: a rescue into the open. An exercise in freedom. Highly recommended.

And Now is available on CD.

You can buy it from www.downtownmusicgallery.com .

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.

Great!

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.

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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