Monday, November 30, 2020
Rich Halley, Matthew Shipp, Michael Bisio, Newman Taylor Baker - The Shape of Things (Pine Eagle, 2020) ****½
Sunday, November 29, 2020
“Cinematic”...okay, got that out of the way.
My Holy Trinity of Pedal Steel players are as follows: Bruce Kaphan, Hop Wilson, and Susan Alcorn. The pedal steel guitar in music other than Country & Western starts out like the elephant in the room, and then it becomes what it is music, be it “ambient,” “blues” or “jazz,” respectively. So now that fussy categorization is out of the way. Really it just gave me a chance to name check Bruce Kaphan and especially Hop Wilson.
Jazz may stress the collective in Alcorn’s case as opposed to the individual in the examples of Kaphan and Wilson but what ultimately matters is now what they play, but how they play it. Pedernal’s appeal is its serious playfulness. These aren’t heavy-handed artists making something for what it can be; they play see we can hear what is. As Alcorn is quoted in the press release, “I view the...pedal steel guitar, not as an object to be mastered but as a partner with which we share with the listener a meaning, depth and hopefully a profound awareness of each unique moment we’re together.”
Joining Alcorn on pedal steel we hear and enjoy Michael Formanek on bass, Ryan Sawyer on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Mark Feldman on violin. Though there are larger and smaller groups than a quintet, five musicians can make a dense sound. However, Alcorn utilizes dyads and triads in deft arrangements so each musician gets an opportunity to contribute, shine and move the music. It unfolds and progresses sometimes languidly, sometimes scaling heights, but it is never encumbered by theory. The separation of the production also allows each voice to have their distinct place from which to play along or contrapuntally.
"Pedernal," Spanish for “flint hill,” is a narrow mesa that lies on the north flank of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico. It sets a conceptual and musical theme for the recording as well. Alcorn open appropriately as the heat shimmers and rises, any fata morgana dwarfed by the impressive mountains. Alcorn contrasts the solid contrasted with the ethereal throughout the album. The group is unified until the temp changes and we’re off to dyads and triads, loping and Frisellesque noodling as the tune allows all the players to settle in before concluding as it opens, with Alcorn’s doleful, sweeping pedal steel playing.
'Circular Ruins' was inspired by the Anasazi dwellings in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, between Cortez, Colorado and Blanding, Utah on the Cajon Mesa of the Great Sage Plain. Percussive rumbles open the tune then Alcorn and Feldman join sonic forces to ascend and Halvorson enters to counter Feldman’s mournful playing. Here, too is where a lot of the sound, though separated sonically, blends into a visual impression. Formanek takes a solo like a horn’s deep bellow. Alcorn again utilizes the dyads and triads effectively. The trio of Sawyer, Formanek and Feldman halfway through the piece allows your imagination to run wild.
'R.U.R', inspired by the science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots) and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction in 1921. It’s a fun track, with an almost bop opening before the strings splay it and the rhythm section urges them on into a free-form languid jam with echoes of Americana taking it out.
'A Night in Gdansk' is pensive, languid, piquant but can take flight at any moment. There is a contemporary despair to the tune, that feeling of misplacement across land and time zones. Yet at the 5’30” mark there's a sense of spiritual unity when the instruments and musicians find a common tonal ground. At the 8’30” mark we hear Alcorn's pedal steel not so much as the centerpiece of this album but more of the recording touchstone, its unique aural qualities defining the session’s “esprit de corps.” That the track sustains this over 13 minutes illustrates how time can get in the way of our perception.
'Northeast Rising Sun', influenced by road signs along I-95 in her native Baltimore is a joyous, playful, and soulful conclusion. After some open mic lessons from the band on how to count it off, which gives the track a loose, end of session vibe, Sawyer rolls in and fun commences. There’s a mini-orchestra tone to my ear as Alcorn again uses duos and trios, shifting dynamics and interplay and Formanek plays a nice solo. Blues cry with a classical pitch.
Susan Alcorn Quintet is composed of talented artists who use their skills and musical reference points not to reinvent the wheel or polishing the mirror. Under her aegis they simply and masterfully create a recording of grace, subtlety, unity, and compelling musicianship that balances and investigates the modern and the ancient.
Saturday, November 28, 2020
Bill Orcutt’s contribution to what we could call adventurous music of the past three decades is surely underrated. Starting with the amazing Harry Pussy, a trio which deconstructed and reassembled rock –one of the last to do that during the 90’s – leaving a great legacy after their demise. Following his long hiatus, he has been back with us for just over a decade now. During this second period of his career, playing solo or collaborating (like his mesmerizing duo with another great, Chris Corsano) he has been constantly shedding traditions and genre boundaries. His music is bluesy, freeform, and sometimes closer to an idiomatic view of rock, others his own take on free jazz. Many times his guitar (electric or acoustic) seems like his best friend, an instrument that is pushing him to the outer limits of personal expression. Like the devil.
His musical trajectory moves quite easily between humor, self-irony, rage and hope. But not rage against the machine, if you know what I mean. This release for Endless Happiness is a surprise. It shouldn’t have been considering that on this small and very interesting label there have been echoes of the electricity madness coming from the outskirts of free rock (do check Thurston Moore’s collaboration with Adam Golebiewski on the label). But Warzawa finds Orcutt alone with his electric guitar presenting two untitled tracks for this cassette.
Both tracks clock at around sixteen minutes and if you think that you want more (Orcutt’s music is never enough, I know), you should listen to its raw bluesy music coming straight out of Orcutt’s never ending personal vaults. He approaches the instrument with less appetite for experimentation but full of hope of catharsis. The chords of the guitar seem ever flexible, bending under expressionistic pressure fully taking advantage of the ritualistic nature of electricity on the blues-rock tradition. Electricity rains all over this cassette. For good.
The sardonic nature of Orcutt’s choices in music and how to present his stuff, often hide his knowledge of the transcendence he tries to bring out of his guitar. When I started writing this piece –listening to Warzawa at the same time-, my rating was four stars. It has ascended to four and a half stars; a well needed sentimental ascension during dystopian times. Go get the cassette before it sells out.
Friday, November 27, 2020
Stringers and Struts presents an ad hoc quartet of Chicago regulars and returnees. Saxophonist Dave Rempis had been playing in a duo with drummer Jeremy Cunningham, a strong post-bop drummer who plays regularly with Marquis Hill, and saw upcoming visits by two long-term associates, guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, as an opportunity to expand the project. The group played a late-night after-session at Elastic Arts during the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival, and this CD presents the results.
Rempis is a free jazz master, able to launch an extended improvisaton with a few fragments of melody and an underlying rhythmic force, and he’s in pretty much ideal company here, creating music with consistent drive and invention. There are three pieces here, two long and one short, with Rempis devoting one each to his tenor, alto and baritone saxophones.
“Cutwater” begins as a bittersweet tenor ballad gradually pulled together in the responsive lines of Parker’s guitar. A few unusual interval choices, sudden digressions and skewed runs gradually suggest the potential scale of its inner complexities, until Flaten and Cunningham pick up the pieces and set the ground for the coming maelstrom, a quicksilver dialogue to which every member contributes, until the bent metallic guitar chords, hortatory saxophone, dramatic drum rolls and extended strummed bass chords break up, giving ground to a Parker interlude. The guitarist builds his own strong music out of electronic flutters, colliding chords and eerie, fragmented fluttering runs, Flaten’s eventual bowed support creating strange string allegiances before Rempis’s incantatory, keening tenor and Cunningham’s own abstractions return. A four-way search for solid ground turns into an extended meditation that leads to an ultimate and powerful symmetry.
Apart from the fact that its form is spontaneous, the 25-minute “Harmany” has numerous touchstones, from a sweetly intense alto sound that can stretch from the fullness of Cannonball Adderley bop to the tartly inflected pitches of Jimmy Lyons, and a stylistic range that touches on up-tempo bop to blues and ballad and Latin jazz, including, early on, more than an “acknowledgement” of John Coltrane’s opening theme for A Love Supreme, initiated by Rempis and happily reworked by all concerned. “Harmany” is an occasion that each band member will rise to, whether it’s Parker’s glittering lyricism and hand-in-glove counter-melodies, Flaten’s rapid up-takes, making spontaneous shifts sound perfectly natural or Cunningham’s explosive and liberated hard-bop energies.
There’s more of that spontaneous composition on the brief concluding “Caviste,” made even more remarkable for its concision. It begins in an assembling of noises, baritone saxophone flutters and whispers, wayward guitar harmonics and a struck cymbal, only to assemble into the gentlest of spontaneous tunes from Remplis, with Parker gradually adding a counter line and Flaten and Cunningham putting together a dancing rhythmic undercurrent. The voices gather momentum, the groove strengthens until it’s a carnival explosion that disappears just as it arrived, a sweet evanescent melodic event.
Thursday, November 26, 2020
The End comprise Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (Fire!, The Thing), Norwegian saxophonist Kjetil Møster (Møster!, Zanussi 5), Ethiopian-born vocalist Sofia Jernberg (Fire! Orchestra, PAAVO), Norwegian guitarist Anders Hana (MoHa!, Ultralyd), and Norwegian drummer Børge Fjordheim (Cloroform). This release, the title of which translates roughly to 'All Is Nothingness' is their second. Anyone familiar with these boundary-pushing musicians will know their capacity for throttling ferocity and their ability to stretch music into brutal extremes with focused intensity. This was evidenced in The End’s 2018 debut, Svarmod Och Vemod Är Värdesinnen which featured Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier in lieu of Fjordheim. That album was recorded after only three gigs together but since then, the musicians of The End have come to understand each other and, as Moster says, 'play more as a single entity'.
In this release their continued exploration becomes apparent as they strike a balance between incandescent maelstroms and a more densely layered and haunting beauty.
“Everything really came together on this record,” Gustafsson says. “It’s still rough and dark, but I think we deal with the lyricism on a totally different level. The band consists of a very interesting mix of people, and the mix of brutal riffs and free jazz melodic material is, for me, a dream come true. I like simple, Neanderthal music too, but this has so many complex layers.”
The opening track 'It Hurts Me Too' is a version of the traditional blues song by Tampa Red and made famous by Elmore James . Karen Dalton's pared back arrangement requires a vocalist with pinpoint accuracy and emotive delivery. Sofia Jernberg is perfect for it and delivers in a style which becomes almost a harrowing cry - heartfelt and stirring. The emotive undertone is emphasised by Anders Hana's langeleik - a Norwegian zither. The song was a favourite of Gustafsson’s mentor in both music, life and literature, the late Harald Hult, who Gustafsson met whilst rehearing with the Aaly trio. Hult owned Stockholm’s renowned record store Andra Jazz and founded the Blue Tower Records label. The pair become firm friends and Hult taught Gustafsson to listen to music blindfolded - an experience which he feels gave him an immense insight into how to hear music, to find new layers and depths with each listen. He played this song often and Gustafsson played it at his funeral. The song is delivered with power yet an exquisite longing pervades.
Gustafsson's 'Dark Wish' is dedicated to Per Henrik Wallin, a pioneering jazz pianist who was influential in Europe and successfully spanned generations and styles in the Swedish jazz scene. He facilitated early opportunities for Gustafsson and his experimental cohort. Gustafsson comments, “Per Henrik basically came from Monk and that tradition. His friends and colleagues thought he was crazy to connect with me and drummer Kjell Nordeson, these young free-form dudes, but he heard something in us that he liked. He really taught me how to interact, how to trust your fellow musicians and learn to listen to signals. He looked at life in a pretty dark way, but had a great sense of humour so this is an attempt to celebrate his legacy.” Gustafsson charges through the track, introducing his energy-laden crescendos and rises which are such an integral part of his playing. It ricochets and rises until the surprising vocal entry, which is almost prog-rock and filled with spiritual menace. The forcing of the voice towards the reaches of its range is echoed by the sax and this threat-laden number is darkly beautiful, particularly when both saxes of Gustafsson and Moster and the searing vocals interact in the final section before a solo voice asks, 'why do I hide my wish?' several times to close. This track is a true revelation of Gustafsson's compositional and arranging skills.
Moster's composition, 'Intention and Release' is relentless, rhythmically intricate and uses repetitive rhythms subtly tweaked into different forms. These are echoed in the vocals as an almost lyrical intonation yet a darker sense is carried within, so it feels like a relentless walk towards the final end of death. Dark scratches, deep, loosely tongued sax notes and some male vocals which sound like torture add to the sense of a lurching, undeniable progression over which there is little control. The tongued sax outre is interesting. Even Gustafsson says this was one of the weirdest pieces he ever played. According to Moster it is about how the same thing can mean different things to different people -hence the echoed rhythms and alterations held within. He says, "I’ve been fooling around with rhythmic ideas for as long as I can remember, and this one is orchestrated to be really hard – not so dynamic, more static and driving like a slave march among the Egyptian pyramids. It was a struggle to record and I was getting more and more sweaty and stressed out until it suddenly fell into place. It often takes an effort to break through something challenging, but if you try long enough and really want something to work it usually works in the end.”
Hana's 'Allt Ar Intet' is fugue-like at its outset and works into a surreal and esoteric work of sheer beauty with strange vocalisations over gentle harmonics to start before it develops into a rhythmic, intrinsically detailed rocky number with inserted vocals, screams and ethereal voices over the never ceasing solid rhythms. The drums lead where the others follow. Gustafsson provided the lyrics for the number, which takes its name from the icon-inspired cover artwork provided by Gustafsson’s lifelong friend, artist Edward Jarvis. “Anders comes up with the best riffs and grooves,” Gustafsson says. “His background is in grindcore and metal music, but he’s also deeply into Scandinavian folk music. So he adds to the group a mixture of the raw brutality of grindcore but also a kind of melodic fragility.” A turbulent, brilliant track.
Hana delivers again with his composition ' Rorde Sig Aldrig Mer ( which translates oddly into ' Crow. Never Moved again' and is a tip of the hat to British poet Ted Hughes and his revered collection Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. The track begins with paired saxes and heavy drums, delirious vocals which sounds like someone being forcibly delivered to an asylum. A huge track, big sounds, extended harmonies and mad-cap phrasing. Absolutely outstanding but not at all relaxing. The bass and percussion lines in the central section sound Black Sabbath-like with wonderful guitar work, until the saxes work their way over the top delivering a contrasting maelstrom of blistering cacophony - very pleasing to the ears.
The final track is a cover of Dewey Redman's 'Imani'. The track seems to morph out of some primordial mist, as a swirling cacophony of vocal chirps, growls and grunts together with breathy rasps and fluttering flute. The vocals swing from rasping to delicate and tentative and the whole track flows from ecllectic couplings to a serene and powerful delivery of the original tune. Gustafsson holds Redman in high regard, saying, “Dewey is so deep and was a great composer as well. He deserves much more recognition, so I felt it was important to bring his legacy to people’s attention.”
In this album, it almost feels like a melding of people who should be in that place, that time and playing together. A strong connection between the musicians, an understanding and a hark back to the original free playing cohort makes this feel a comfortable place for Gustafsson in particular and this is felt in the relaxed yet boundary pushing manner of his playing which, more than ever continues to explore the length, breadth and depths of his instrument. Finding this sublime mix of fellow musicians has brought out the best in all of them and the vocalist is a revelation.
The album is tight, intense and shows a remarkable development of the musicians as an entity. Moster comments, “We all have varied and polarized tastes and quite inverted sides, Mats can play extremely subtle and articulated, but he can also be a storm. Sofia has an incredible soul and presence but also can generate these wild sounds" Of Jenberg, Gustafsson comments, " She is amazing and this is the most intense recording she has ever made, I really believe so'. The past year has been a roller coaster of emotions for some of the members of The End and the music reflects this, as well as the ever challenging , novel routes they choose to take to explore their music. An excellent recording.
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
There is something to be said for patience, for allowing an artist’s work to blossom, not necessarily because the music “grows on you.” It’s more apt to say, with some albums it’s the listener growing into the music. When it comes to cellist Okkyung Lee—much like, say, harpist Zeena Parkins or trumpeter Peter Evans—there is an initial thrill upon hearing a new recording, followed by hours delightfully replaying, picking apart, and surrendering to it. In what ways joy and reckoning manifest largely depend on the album in question. Much like Parkins and Evans, Lee is a superlative musician, whose solo albums present myriad views of the player and her instrument and whose ensembles seem to have, over the years, ignited a renewable passion for reflection and redefinition. For, as light and airy an impression Yeo-Neun presents at first listen, there’s a heaviness to Lee’s newest album, as much an object to explore as it is a sonic work of art to surrender to.
The space within and around Yeo-Neun’s book owes much to the ensemble line up of Lee, Maeve Gilchrist on harp, Jacob Sacks on piano, and Eivind Opsvik on bass. The overlapping timbres of harp, piano, cello, and bass generate some plainly beautiful structures, suck as on the opening sequences in “Another Old Story (옛날이야기)” with Lee placing the quartet first in call-and-response duos, then stacking the voices, guiding them into a four-part improvisation. The stark melodies and timbral harmonics showcase Lee’s celebrated compositional gifts. Gilchrist, a Scottish musician who plays Celtic (or lever) harp, is a superb fit for Lee, who draws inspiration from Korean folk and pop, melding these musics with Western compositional tropes and free improvisation. With her wide-ranging work in Celtic, classical, soundtrack, pop, and folk music, Gilchrist’s harp provides Lee with a new sonic palette to draw from. On “Uiro (Up and Up and Up),” four lines move in counterpoint, with harp and cello knocking up against bass and piano. The fullness of Opsvik’s bass centers the album, especially when he’s paired with Sacks. Their duet on “The Longest Morning,” in which they are eventually joined by Gilchrist, is sublime. If there could be a standout on such a well-conceived album, it might be this one, which, like “In Stardust (for Kang Kyung-Ok),” contrasts a traditional Western melodiousness with a so-called avant-garde solo section. It’s not only that the contrasts exist but how they are connected that make these tracks particularly special.
What may be thought of as an inherent clashing of ideals is resolved by their mutual embrace, forcing a reframing of assumptions. It’s a space where Lee and Opsvik both have spent a lot of time, and the foregrounding of both cello and bass in the mix is viscerally thrilling. Yeo-Neun is, perhaps, Lee’s finest ensemble statement to date, and this quartet provides one of the best transitions between her extensive solo catalog and ensemble recordings. For all the reflective, autobiographical passages throughout her discography, the emotional openness presented here is powerful. And set to a music that subtly unpicks all the assumptions about what’s melody or harmony, what timbres are traditional or acceptable, what’s directed and what’s democratic or cooperative. These are the ways in which a listener gradually crawls further and further into the music, exploring the unanswered questions posed by this album. In all its 40 minutes, there are few moments as affecting as the final 10 seconds of “Then, There (그때 그자리),” the near-silence of the instruments fading away, the notes balanced as on a harmonic seesaw—precise, yet precarious.
Digital and limited-run vinyl available direct via Bandcamp:
Or, order through your preferred brick-and-mortar shop.
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
33 RPM is his debut solo album, and the title refers, obviously, to the vinyl format and its two distinct sides, and to the 33 years between the oldest and the newest contemporary compositions performed on the album. Deutsch explains that he wanted to counterpoint these compositions with the aesthetic, instrumental, and idiomatic change that has taken place in New Art Music for electric guitar. Deutsch also mentions his ongoing interest in nostalgia, “here taking shape in the presence of harmonies which could roughly be categorized as tonal or modal… On one hand, contemporary by the recontextualization of such material while at the same time nostalgic by its offering of a familiar cradling musical sensation from the past”.
Side A addresses solo pieces with accompaniment and begins with American minimalist composer Steve Reich’s already iconic “Electric Counterpoint (for electric guitar and processed tape)”, commissioned in 1987 by the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival for guitarist Pat Metheny (and recorded in Reich’s Different Trains, Nonesuch, 1989), who soloed over a pre-recordings of himself playing multiple guitars, later sampled by The Orb, and more recently performed by Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Deutsch’s version of this three-parts composition(Fats-Slow-Fast) sounds more urgent, spiky, and stressing its hypnotic, highly resonant, orchestral qualities, delivered with an impressive sense of precision and poetic touch.
The second piece on this slide is by Italian composer Marco Momi, “Quattro Nudi (for electric guitar and electronics)” (2014), described by the composer as a “brief exploration of the solitude of an instrument with its player… 'Quattro Nudi (for electric guitar and electronics)' are four pictures on the act of discovering the instrument, testing the song attitudes, the metal's virtuoso technique, and the object itself. The electric guitar becomes the toy to play with and the electronics is the mental room in which the first tests are done”. Deutsch turns this composition into a haunting, contemplative journey into different sonic universes of the electric guitar, moving from enigmatic, cinematic ones to distorted and noisy ones and concluding in a mysterious drone.
Side B is rougher, stripped in nature, and suggests a live-in-the-studio atmosphere. It begins with the composition of French Tristan Murail, once a student of Olivier Messiaen, “Vampyr! For electric guitar solo”(1984). Deutsch goes to a wild ride that incorporates powerful, effects-laden rhythmic riffs that sound as paying homage to Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, or Thurston Moore, but somehow disciplined into a super-intense, nuanced narrative that demands a unique kind of possessed abandon.
The last composition is by German colleague Clemens Gadenstätter, “Studies for a Portrait for electric guitar solo”, 12 etudes for electric guitar, written on the invitation of Deutsch as part of the Darmstadt Summer Course 2018 guitar studio project, where Deutch is a tutor, This composition is for a guitarist that is not only well-versed in the contemporary music written for the electric guitar but relies also on the sonic explorations of free-improvisers as Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Orcutt, Joe Morris or Keiji Haino, weaved into a highly volatile but also a poetic texture.
An excellent album with an imaginative sonic horizon.
Monday, November 23, 2020
By Nick Metzger
SBATAX is the second album from the French duo of saxophonist Bertrand Denzler and percussionist Antonin Gerbal , their first being 2015's Heretofore also on Umlaut. Both are members of the French new music ensemble ONCEIM and the pair has worked and recorded together pretty extensively in their various endeavours. A couple of their more recent ventures include a (really good) piece with Axel Dörner called Le Ring and their part (as members of ONCEIM) in the realization of Elaine Radique's unfathomably good Occam Ocean 2 . As both men are known for splitting their time between diverse projects it isn't surprising that this most recent addition to their discography draws quite the contrast with their debut. While on Heretofore the duo explored the textural possibilities inherent to the sax/drums format, SBATAX refocuses their efforts on speed, interaction, patterns, and intensity. Developed over a single long track the results are mesmerizing and powerful, with the overarching feel of the album being just as visceral as it is contemplative.
The release captures a performance by the duo at Berlin’s Au Topsi Pohl back in October of 2019. Gerbal is the engine driving the piece, there's no doubt about that. His crisp, shifting rhythms maintain the steady forward momentum of the track from start to finish in impressive fashion. He spools up over the first minute or so before Denzler engages, bellowing out husky utilitarian patterns and phrases. Adding. Subtracting. Inverting. Twisting lines. Modulating speed, intensity, and timbre as he reacts to the rhythmic onslaught. At about the midpoint Denzler briefly drops out and Gerbal pushes the energy further into the red. Over the latter half of the track the duo throttle their impassioned play, maintaining the sonic density equivalent of a much larger group. Near the end Denzler locks into a jagged phrase, each repetition more forceful than the last, driving Gerbal into violent spasms of percussion and eliciting cries of appreciation from the audience.
SBATAX is as solid a sax/drums duo recording as you're likely to hear in 2020. These men have their chops well in order and deliver a prompt, telegraphed arse-kicker of a performance that ranks among my favorite releases this year. I played it twice in a row (easily) on first listen and have returned to it many, many times since. The duration is perfect for the level of intensity, and the recording quality and mastering are likewise terrific. Denzler and Gerbal continue to impress with their versatility, as both musicians are consistently creating music in the free improvisation idiom that rivals their exceptional work in composed music. Currently this isn’t available from Umlaut’s Bandcamp site as a download, but there are physical copies for sale on their main page. Don't wait.
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Cath Roberts & Benedict Taylor - Duo Set At The Horse Improv Club,
September 2018 (Self, 2020) ***
Cath Roberts & Corey Mwamba & Olie Brice - Trio Set At Lume, April
2016 (Self, 2020) ***½
Cath Roberts & Seth Bennett - Duo Set At V22 Louise House, August 2016
(Self, 2020) *** ½
Cath Roberts & Johnny Hunter - Duo set at BRÅK, November 2019
(Self, 2020) ****
By Nick Ostrum
Cath Roberts is a British baritone saxophonist who has been at it for nearly a decade, now. Over the course of here career, she has performed with many of the next emerging scene coming out of London, including more widely known figures such as Colin Webster and Alan Wilkinson as well as many I have not yet encountered, such as the musicians featured on these recordings. Covid, it seems, has given Roberts the chance (or maybe simply forced her) to step away from a busy performing schedule and curate a series of live recordings from the last five years, slowly rolling out the results on her Bandcamp site.
When I encounter a live recording that looks somewhat intriguing, my mind often runs the gamut from questioning why we need another live recording from what is likely a fine but hardly singular night, to acknowledging that modern recording and distribution technologies render such judgements irrelevant, to finally settling in to listen to the album I had already tried to dismiss. By now, of course, I have come to terms with the proliferation of live recordings and, indeed, review them with some frequency. I hardly need to work through this cycle every time. But, sometimes, I feel it puts me in the right headspace. I am listening to something new and minimally produced. I am ready for what it has to offer but am not expecting my mind to be blown.
And that is where these Cath Roberts and co. recordings come in. On first listen, they are quite enjoyable. Roberts has a thick, bluesy style that works with the instrument, rather than against it in a Mats Gustafsson fashion. She can clearly hold her own on it and improvise beyond basic jazz scales. She rarely goes out and she experiments with dynamics, though rarely extreme. Indeed, in her 2016 duo with bassist Seth Bennet, Duo Set at V22 Louise House, August 2016, she and Bennet volley walking lines and more rapid but restrained squawks and vamps. The two have collaborated for years, and it shows, in the ways melodies waft and entangle. Something similar can be said of her 2018 duo with violaist Benedict Taylor, Duo Set at The Horse Improv Club, September 2018. Somehow, however, Taylor’s pizzicato and dizzying glissando pull Roberts further out of the jazz and deeper into the free improv tradition. She clucks more and plays abandons the smoky, comfortable registers of the baritone for the more tentative explorations of the higher pitches and accidental noises. Here, it seems she and Taylor are drawing on a wider range of forebearers, and this release is that much more inspired because it.
Trio Set at Lume, April 2016 might be my favorite of the three. Consisting of Corey Mwamba on vibes and small instruments, Olie Brice on bass, and Roberts on her baritone, it seems the most fully formed. She is not playing quite to the level she is on Duo at the Horse, but she pushes further into that territory than on her duo with Bennet. This may be because the duo can be more challenging than the trio and she may have simply been filling the empty space with long tones in the latter. Then again, there is plenty of that here, as well, where at times she seems inspired to follow Coltrane, Noah Howard, or Sonny Simmons, albeit with less abandon than all three. For their parts, Brice tends to hold a steady bass, though he escapes at time into some more interesting territory Mwamba lays some nice licks on his vibes without falling into the fluffy ambient trap. All in all, the performance flows nicely and has just enough dissonance and, for Roberts, muscularity to keep it interesting and likely just enough sonority and swing to appeal to less adventurous listeners. It is a fine line, they walk.
These releases are just a smattering of Roberts’ Covid releases. And, they are quite good, especially when taken together. Alone, they sound, well, like live recordings (there is a hollowness and flatness to all three) of talented musicians stumbling onto something, but still feeling out what that something is, or where they should take it. Together, however, the releases give a fuller picture of artists, and Roberts in particular, in development, tentatively toying with some ideas early on and really leaning into the less straightforward possibilities of her instrument later on. Especially as we cannot go out every month or week and watch this process live on the bandstand, it is particularly interesting to be able to hear it unfold on headphones, and revisit some of the more compelling moments when Roberts and her bandmates hit their stride.
If one even needs to justify live recordings such as this – and likely the numerous Roberts has released since – in our current situation, I guess that is one way to go about doing it.
PS: After finishing this review, I decided to put my theory to the test. Her Duo set at BRÅK, November 2019 with Johnny Hunter on drums seems a big step in Roberts’ development, even just from her 2018 recording. Hunter is an interesting and resourceful percussionist. Roberts, however, drives that much harder, shows more dynamism, and more confidently explores the freer realms.
All four albums are available pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp.
Saturday, November 21, 2020
I never had the opportunity to meet Simon Fell or catch him live. Being a long term fan of the label he run, Bruce’s Fingers, from the 80’s, I was lucky enough to exchange some emails with him. Our brief discussions revealed a humorous, warm human being, full of empathy for this world and its creatures. This piece is dedicated to his memory.
The trio of Simon H. Fell, Paul Hession and Alan Wilkinson played an integral part in the revitalization of free jazz since the beginning of the 1990’s. Their recordings, truly extraordinary all of them, were fierce reworkings of the radical messages of 1960’s free jazz but stood on their own and, especially, were not meant to be eulogies of the past. As in all great musics, they were speaking for the current situation.
After being partners for a long time, Paul Hession and Simon Fell developed an interaction well worth listening I believe. On this duo, which is by no means a continuation of the trio’s sound but without reeds, the bond they have developed shows. The title, Reconstructed Fragments, is a hint on the small story behind the double-bass Fell played here: an almost broken instrument from central Europe that was slowly reconstructed by Hession. The cd is comprised by, adding to the fragmental nature of the recording, 7 “pieces” as they call them.
Apart from the aforementioned interaction, throughout the 44 minutes duration of the cd what is apparent is the collective skills those two have developed by playing together for a long time. Instead of a slower, maybe more down to Earth, approach that the two instruments (especially the double-bass) might allow, the duo’s flexibility and ability to change directions is refreshingly astonishing. Having a lack of technical knowledge for the double-bass, I found myself wondering if Fell was bending, twisting, even contorting the instrument into something far lighter and easier to handle. Hession, while being a drummer who can really play with fierce intensity, follows the same path, without any reluctance.
They exchange phrases and ideas all the time, improvising on the spot like two friends sitting close to each other and discussing, small talking or laughing. They make improvisational music –and how good that music is- with an ease, but not the one of the highly skilled musician, even though they are. This ease derives from their approach which is love, camaraderie and an urgent need for freedom and self expression. Do not miss out on this cd.
Friday, November 20, 2020
Jean-Marc Foussat/ Daunik Lazro/ EvanParker Café OTO 2020 (Fou Records, 2020) ****½
Jean-Marc Foussat is a recording engineer responsible for many great tapes of improvised music, stretching back some forty years. Some have appeared on Potlatch and other labels, and many have appeared on his own, Fou. Foussat is also a genuinely exploratory player of old analogue synths, creating fascinating extended improvisations sometimes in conjunction with his electronically manipulated voice. This two-CD set documents a performance at London’s Café Oto from January 22, 2020.
Disc One, Inventing Chimaeras, is a solo set, a half-hour long piece which becomes increasingly involving as it goes along, Foussat building complex rhythmic dialogues within an expanding range of electronic sounds, while simultaneously developing vocal parts, multiplying his rich, repeating melodic fragments into complex, haunting music.
Disc Two, the 45-minute Présent Manifeste, adds two of Foussat’s
closest long-term associates to the mix, Daunik Lazro on tenor and baritone
saxophones and Evan Parker, sticking to his soprano here. Foussat works
with similar electronic materials (if anything they grow denser), while his
partners expand the material tremendously. Lazro’s baritone is often a
thick, whirling, charging sound, summoning up primeval beasts, twisting the
sound of the entire trio into a maelstrom, while Parker creates long
melodic lines that float through the hive of charging lower saxophone,
dense electronics and multiplied voices. The music doesn’t particularly
evolve, but it doesn’t need to: it has a tremendously dark, almost infernal
power of its own, that one should experience.
Jubileum Quartet - A UIŠ? (Not Two Records, 2020) *****
It’s hard to argue with an insistent combination of experience, expertise
and fierce commitment, and that’s exactly what happens with this quartet
recorded live at the Cerkno Jazz Festival in Slovenia in May of 2018. I
have to assume that readers of this site are familiar with bassist Joëlle
Léandre, saxophonist Evan Parker, pianist Agustí Fernández and
percussionist, Zlatko Kaučič and know that of which they’re capable. In
terms of previous encounters, the group take up the final two discs of
Léandre’s eight-disc A Woman’s Work (Not Two, 2015), one disc a
quartet, the other duets with Léandre. There’s a consistent joy here,
sometimes for extended stays, sometimes in rapid exchanges, a constant give
and take in which each musician comes to the fore and in which every
permutation of the group seems to arise. But it’s the sense of an animating
expressive passion that give this its richness, power and meaning. There’s
also a fineness of detail here, a mix of precision and exactitude of
response from each musician that raises this to a different level. They
aren’t planning or playing to do the same thing over again, and that’s not
the saving grace of these senior improvisers’ music, it’s the exalting
Alipio Carvalho Neto/ Zlatko Kaučič/ Gal Furlan Bora: Blasts of Chance (IZK, 2020) ****½
Zlatko Kaučič is the connecting link here, adding a large electric zither to his instrumental voices and in so doing adding to his range many of the effects possible on a harp or the amplified interior of a piano, He also finds many echoing effects along with evocative runs across chromatic scales or plucked clusters that sing across the music. The Brazil-born, Italy-resident Alipio Carvalho Neto plays several saxophones here, with tenor, alto and soprano evident, though there are moments when it sounds like there might be a tarogato or stritch set loose as well. He’s a powerful musician who provides an elemental focus to this very intense work, whatever the pitch-range on which he’s focussed. The third member of the trio is percussionist Gal Furlan, contributing substantially to this forceful music. The music begins with a dense, concentrated, yet quiet momentum that sustains a gritty, almost hollow-sounding tenor exposition; gradual evolutions arrive at a weirdly muffled, sometimes ululating soprano saxophone cast against the drama of the roaring zither and raging cymbals. At one point, Neto plays a superb unaccompanied tenor solo, full of subtle mutations of pitch and timbre, eventually with what sounds like a vernacular flute joining in, sounding like the morning of the world. At another point, the music turns into a detailed seascape. This is constantly shifting, often surprising work: it’s always focused and definitely has a vision of its own.
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Sax player James Allsop and drummer Will Glaser have released New River Ramble. Recorded in London in August it is improvised music of three tracks. 'The Cosmic Serpent', 'Wet Weather Special' and 'Paul and The Second City Streamer', the last track a dedication to sax player Paul Dunmall and drummer Tony Levin.
'Cosmic Serpent' is beautifully atmospheric , introduced by brief cymbal, the succession of cyclical sax phrases, each a variation and each beautifully rounded is underpinned by drums which increase in complexity as the track progresses. The sax responds and we are fairly rapidly engaged in a to and fro between the instruments with the eclectic rhythmic patterns of the drums providing the perfect antidote to the standardised rhythms but varied phonics of the sax. There is such a connection in this piece, the drums almost seeming to listen to the sax as the phrasing is shortened, lengthened and the patterns built. There is complexity on both sides, yet it comes across as such a simple thing because of the deeply connected links which both players spin from. Around half way the sax veers into tuneful diversions which the drums follows, changing patterns and sound levels to match the flowing mood in another example, if any were needed of the almost subliminal connection. The quietude of the stopped sax is interrupted by the drums first slowly and then rapidly picking up the rhythms, pounding out their own deliberate pace before the sax, still quiet and slow, enters again to form a contrasting and mellifluous section. Then the rapid complex final section , echoed in the rhythm changes of the drums and we are done, finished and wrung. An interesting and rather lovely piece.
'Wet Weather Special' is introduced with some long, extended notes, reminiscent of a fog warning from the sax and the intermittent break-ups of the latter ones makes it feel like an electrical disturbance. However, a sense of comfort is introduced as the sax finds ever more intricate combinations of notes, interspersed with helpful lingering on key notes to create an underlying sense of order, a reminder we are in key. The swinging rhythms of the middle section has an almost Eastern tone to it and this is well worked by the drums too with syncopation under the constantly travelling sax line. It seems, the wet weather is gone and replaced by a lighter tone, redolent of the aftermath of a dull, wet weather front and now we are bathed in sun in the calm which follows. A very different essence than the first track but hugely enjoyable.
'Paul and The Second City Steamer' is a track with almost everything. It has rhythm, it has that wonderful touch of loose embouchure which gives sax music a certain additional quality and takes a long time to master and it has again a connection between two musicians which makes good music sound like so many more musicians are inputting. The sax cries from the heart as the drums ease and comfort, the rhythms offset and creating a calming envelope into which the sax eases and journeys. This track builds and builds and just when you think two musicians can't offer more - they do. Glorious.
This is a great listen and serves an intense, engaged , attention full listen or as an accompaniment to tasks which offer little in the way of intrigue but the guarantee is you will find your mind constantly switching back to the music. This is very simply a great recording.
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
By Stef Gijssels
Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura are both very eclectic musicians, aggregators of existing genres and creators of new ones. They play in a dozen or even more self-created ensembles releasing prolifically and performing on more than 100 albums so far.
As husband and wife, their most special format is the piano and trumpet duo. The current corona crisis forced them into lockdown in Japan, and resulted in a few more duo releases this year, the first ones since "Kisaragi" in 2017. Luckily for fans they also recorded several confinement concerts in their music room at home, available for viewing on Facebook (including a fun moment when they change instruments ... and luckily only for ten seconds).
Both also released solo albums. More on those later.
Natsuki Tamura & Satoko Fujii - Midsummer (Self, 2020) ****
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
By Keith Prosk
Sainkho Namtchylak (voice), Ned Rothenberg (clarinet, alto saxophone, shakuhachi), and Dieb13 (turntables) play freely for two tracks across 52 minutes on the live recording, Antiphonen. Namtchylak and Rothenberg have a rich history together, first recorded on 1996’s Amulet and accelerating in recent years with the formation of SainkhoKosmos, which can be heard on Cafe Oto’s 6.8.17 and Echo of the Ancestors. This is the first time Dieb13 performed with Namtchylak and Rothenberg but the electronics musician - perhaps best known for his compelling collaborations with Burkhard Stangl, Mats Gustaffson, and eRikm, or his contributions to this year’s massive Soigne Ta Droite - elevates the long-time duo to heights unseen since their first meetings.
Antiphonen ’s two tracks appear to be a set and an encore, with “Shave and a Haircut” taking up the first forty-or-so minutes. As expected with a freely-improvised set, it meanders and flows, without much structure but making sense from moment to moment. Each musician provides an impressive range for their chosen instrumentation. Dieb13 produces a collage of vinyl crackle, bowed strings, ringing gongs, squirrely squeaks, tea kettle whistles, bass throbs and drops, foghorns, and much more. Rothenberg freely transitions between saxophone, shakuhachi, and clarinet, between noirish lines, snaking, circular whirls, and austere, breathy, ghostly flute punctuations. Namtchylak has eight octaves to choose from and a small menagerie of extended techniques, from her native Tuvan throat singing to scat-like skittering with some light cheek- and breath-play. They communicate not just through response but also mimickry, with Namtchylak crackling her voice like vinyl or Dieb13 producing something like altosax overtones and tongue slaps (at times it seems he was sampling Rothenberg live). Rothenberg’s sometimes Klezmer-inflected contributions, a music meant to imitate the voice, fits perfectly with Namtchylak’s wails, cries, and distorted laughs; similarly, Namtchylak’s occasional overtone-producing throat singing fits perfectly with Rothenberg’s often multiphonic approach to his reed’s harmonics. Rothenberg and Dieb13 are particularly locked-in for most of the set, producing an entrancing foundation upon which Namtchylak builds and which would be an interesting listening by itself. The set ends climactically, with a meditative sung drone, winding sax lines, and deep bass steppes. “Two Bits” is a digest of the set, beginning quietly but quickly building to commanding bass electronics, freewheeling reeds, and howls. Whereas Namtchylak’s voice often felt draped over the other musicians’ inputs on “Shave and a Haircut,” “Two Bits” presents a more unified trio.
Some of Rothenberg and Namtchylak’s collaborations tread the laid-back feeling of lounge rock and trip hop with their glossy production, like Stepmother City or Echo of the Ancestors. There’s a greater energy and immediacy in their live performances together, captured on Amulet, 6.8.17, and here. Amulet succeeds not just because of a complimentary approach to folk musics or overtones, but Namtchylak’s emotional rawness. On Antiphonen, her contributions are more restrained, significantly less guttural, less visceral. The effect is a confusing emotivity without the cathartic payoff; her sighs, wails, and cries carry the emotional baggage of human communication but seem uninvested in it. Surely a challenge for many vocalists. Still, this is a worthwhile snapshot of this famous duo - the best since Amulet, I think - with an intriguing addition in Dieb13, who serves as a kind of medium for both Rothenberg’s electroacoustic collaborations and Namtchylak’s more produced efforts but with a vitality greater than each.
Antiphonen is a CD-only release.
Monday, November 16, 2020
By Paul Acquaro and Stef Gijssels
As Covid has continued to wreak havoc on the lives of musicians (yes, actually that could be expanded to the the world, but that's for another day) some have sought other ways to express themselves, make some income, or work on something that that has been in the "if I just had time to..." category. Here are just a few that have caught our ears recently.
John Butcher - Stuck (Takuroku, 2020)
Listen and download from the label.
John Edwards & Caroline Kraabel - Sequestered (Self, 2020) & John Edwards & Caroline Kraabel – Adventures In The Front Room (Self, 2020)
Gianni Gebbia - Augmenta Vol.3 Early Music (Self, 2020)
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Luciano Margorani & Fabrizio Spera - Not The Usual Improvised Music (Self, 2020)
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Maja S.K. Ratkje - Corona Lockdown Concert For TUSK Festival 2020 (Self, 2020)
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
PEK Solo - For Alto (Evil Clown, 2020)
On this album he primarily performs on alto saxophone only, with the occasional use of tenor & bass ocarinas and some digital delay technology.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Jan Klare - B. C. (Umland Records, 2020)
Patrick Brennan - Ways and Sounds (the book) Audio Edition
NYC based saxophonist Patrick Brennan finally found the time during these past months to collect his writings, which he has been developing since 2011, into a book. Releasing it on Bandcamp as an audio book that he also narrates, the chapters have been unfolding over the past five or six weeks in regular intervals. As described on his Bandcamp site "Ways & Sounds is an inquiry into the nature & condition of music from within the process of doing it. Throughout this book, there’s a reach toward reinventing a language for thinking & talking about music." So, what we have here is a rumination on the construction of music, what it is, what it means, how it's made, how one interacts with it either from the perspective of a listener, musician, and composer. In small audio bites, from a little more than a minute to a little under 10 minutes, Brennan clearly and precisely articulates his thoughts on the topic. Be warned, these are not breezy aphorisms, Brennan has thought deeply about the topics, has done his research, deftly quotes what prominent voices have said in the past, and explains his thinking behind what music is and means. There is a lot to take in and think about, from the personal meaning of music to the invisible dynamics of what drives attitudes to music.
Ben Goldberg - NOVEMBER 10 2020 - DEDICATION TO KASEY KNUDSEN from PLAGUE DIARY
Back in June, Stef first wrote about clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg's Plague Diaries project. At that point, Goldberg, not touring or performing had been making solo recordings and releasing them on his Bandcamp page almost daily. As of June 6th, when the post went up, Goldberg was at 76 recordings. Now, in mid-November, he is at number 183, and the track "NOVEMBER 10 2020 - DEDICATION TO KASEY KNUDSEN" (a saxophonist and colleague of Goldberg's in the Bay Area) is a neat mix of Goldberg's gentle reed playing mixed with some looping and synthesizer work. As Goldberg wrote on his Bandcamp back in August, he felt he was getting comfortable with the technology. This track is certainly evidence of that!
Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey - Stir Crazy Episode 34
Like Goldberg, the saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey have been using the unexpected lull in their typically hectic schedules to make the world a little better by recording and releasing their music as a duo on their Bandcamp site. Recorded using a small Zoom digital recorder in the middle of their practice room in their apartment, the duo have been developing ideas and working off excess creative energy, and making these low-fi technically / high-fi musically tracks.The latest, #34, released just a day ago, also shows a sort of evolution. Having worked through many of their own ideas, they have started to take the music of their friends and peers and working them into into their improvisations. This one contains music from Tim Berne, Henry Threadgill, and Tomeka Reid, as well as Laubrock's own music.